Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Man Who Wasn't There

(a short story)

       Mr Yardley was growing increasingly frustrated with his accountant. For the past twenty minutes it felt as though he was getting some kind of run around. He couldn't put a finger on what it was exactly, but this visit was going nowhere near as smoothly as all the ones before. He peered across the desk at him and waited for him to wet his finger and flip another paper.
     "I see here you shifted quite a bit of money around to various people last year. A substantial amount," Steve Battousi exclaimed.
     "Yeah, and? We still call it donations these days, right? I DONATE a lot of money to causes I support."
     The accountant set the down the papers he was holding and looked up at his client. "Mr. Yardley, I'm going to be frank with you. It shows here," he said while stabbing his index finger down onto the papers, "that you transferred.. excuse me, donated.. over two thousand dollars to a woman called Molly St George in Canada, another grand to an entity called Light The Sword Media, and two and half more thousand dollars spread out to various other unknown online entities. I'm having trouble understanding all of this. Help me understand."
     Mr. Yardley shifted in his chair a bit. "There's nothing to understand. They were donations; now if you don't mind, write that down wherever the hell a tax guy is supposed to write things like that down and let's wrap up this meeting, okay? I have somewhere else to be."
     The CPA let out an audible exhale and began tapping his desk with his fingers. He swiveled his chair around, pulled a book from the shelf behind him and swiveled back toward his client. Without looking up, he opened the book and began reading aloud from it:
"And then a man known only as Vincent walked into the room and everyone grew intensely quiet. A mouse that had been living completely unnoticed within the wall could now be heard chewing its way through something. Vincent stepped forward to where the crew was gathered and said only three words, 'They're onto us." Without hesitation, each of the men reached into their jacket pockets and retrieved a small vial. Vincent looked at them calmly and nodded. One by one, the men uncapped their vials and swallowed the contents within, and one and a half minutes later, all five men were dead."

     The accountant closed the book and placed it onto the papers already on his desk. He sighed and looked over at his client who sat motionless and without expression.
     "Does that excerpt sound familiar to you Mr... Vincent?"
     Mr. Yardley rotated a bit in his chair and allowed his eyes to glance around the small room. Other than a fish aquarium situated on a shelf affixed to the wall, his accountant had a fairly normal office filled with basic office shit. On his desk, a framed picture of his family, and on the wall behind him hung a framed motivational scene that showed a mountain with the words: AMBITION FEARS NO HEIGHTS. Yardley laughed.
     "Alright, let's cut the bullshit," the CPA blurted. "Who are these people you're funding?"
     "None of your fucking business."
     "Why did you move to Tennessee?"
     "Nashville's nifty."
     "Why did your ex-girlfriend turn you in to the FBI last year?"
     Yardley paused, a bit caught off guard. "Because I wasn't sweet enough."
     "I've been doing your taxes for four years; don't bullshit me, Vincent."
     "I'm not Vincent."
     "Sure. I'll ask you again. Who are these people you keep sending money to?" the accountant repeated sternly.
     Mr. Yardley sat quietly, his posture and demeanor unwavering as he stared across the table at the man he thought he had known all these years. Paranoia set in as he secretly wondered how he could possibly know about the incident that occurred between he and his ex last year, but he wasn't about to display any signs of weakness or offer up any info yet. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, he decided he had enough and stood up.
     "I'm leaving now. I expect you'll have my taxes finished by next week?"
     "Fine," the CPA replied, "if that's how you want to play this." He reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a Walther P38 with a suppressor and aimed it directly at his client's chest. He waved the pistol toward the chair. "Sit down, Vince."
     Vincent sat.
     Another round of silence passed between the two men, neither seeming to want to make the next move. The CPA passed the time by raising and lowering his weapon in a manner that made a clack-clack sound against the desk top. Vincent shuddered with every tap as it sounded like firecrackers going off in a quiet room. His mind was racing a mile a minute and his heart felt as if it would explode while he sat there pondering the true identity of his gun toting accountant. Not being able to take it any longer, he spoke up.
     "They are researchers. Citizen journalists. People who track current events from their homes. That's all there is to it," Vincent finally explained. "Is it a crime to donate money to these people?"
     The accountant stopped tapping his gun, but continued aiming it at the nervous man seated across from him.
     "Why did your ex-girlfriend call the FBI? What did she think you were planning to do?" asked the CPA.
     "I don't know. Our break-up was pretty bad. I think she just wanted to sink me," Vincent replied.
     The accountant continued, "Why did you relocate to Tennessee? And before you tell me it was for Nashville or for better pay, I'll remind you that I've been doing your taxes for four years."
     Vincent noticed that the longer he had a gun pointed at him, the more apathetic he began to feel. He glanced down at his watch; it was 8:30. He casually turned his head to the left and saw slivers of sunlight peeking through a closed window blind, casting shadows on the wall in front of him. Something about it felt very unsettling. He thought about the street he parked on and the doorway he used to enter the building.
     "That's Blackburn Street right there isn't it?" he asked while pointing toward the window.
     "It is. Now focus, Vince, we haven't got all day. Why did your ex-girlfriend call the FBI and why did you move to Tennessee? Give up these two things and I promise, they won't even care about all the silly conspiracy people you've been sending money to."
     Vincent chuckled at the mention of 'they' and 'conspiracy' used in the same sentence, as his thoughts shifted back to Blackburn Street. He knew that it ran in a north/south direction from 12th all the way to 22nd which meant this window was facing west. His brain struggled desperately with notion that it was geographically impossible for the rising sun to be casting shadows through this window. The hairs on his neck tingled and chill bumps overtook his arms.
     He looked back at the gun still pointed at him. It appeared real. It looked solid and sturdy and seemed tailor-made for the hand that was holding it. He looked up at Steve, or whatever his name is, and wondered how a nerdy accountant could flip a switch and play the role of a mysterious villain so well. He stared into his eyes hoping to catch a glimpse of the friendly and sometimes funny man he had known for the past several years, but was met with only a cold, unblinking stare in return. It was in that moment Vincent realized that Steve's eyes were not blinking... at all.
     "Steve... Mr. Battousi... whoever you are, I'm done with all this. You're starting to piss me off with the whole gun thing, so why don't you just set it down and then try and explain to me how the sunrise is coming through that window?" Vincent asked while pointing.
     The accountant glanced over at the sun rays beaming through the blinds and then glanced at the window on the opposite wall. Curious, he reached over for his smart phone and slid it across the desk to himself and started messing with it one-handed while still holding the gun with the other.
     "Hmm.. glitch maybe.. firmware is.. wait, no.. ah, here we go.."
     With his captor's attention temporarily distracted, Vincent decided it was now or never and he lunged across the desk for the pistol. In a frantic overreaction, the accountant punched Vincent solidly in the forehead while simultaneously squeezing the trigger of the P38. To both their surprise, the gun did not go off and Vince fell back victoriously into his chair with the gun. The unexpected blow to the head was solid enough to stun him momentarily, but his senses held and he was now aware of an excruciating pain in his right hand. He stood up and backed quickly away from the desk. Examining the firearm, he realized why it did not fire. In the quick moment of trying to grab it he had overreached and the webbing of skin between his thumb and index finger slid into the space between the hammer and firing pin, thus preventing it from discharging. He released his flesh from the gun and immediately turned it around on Steve. With trembling hands, he steadied it the best he could while trying to calm himself and regain his senses.
     The accountant remained seated, still staring at Vincent, seemingly unimpressed by the events that just occured. He casually glanced down at his smart phone, moved his finger to it and quick tapped the screen. The sunlight coming through the window disappeared and immediately reappeared in the window on the opposite wall.
     "There, happy now?" was all he said.
     A dreadful fear overtook Vincent as he looked over at the sunlight coming through the new window. His heart rate accelerated even faster and he stumbled even further back, trying to distance himself as much as he could from everything that was happening in front of him. When his back hit the wall it felt as though a semi smashed into him. His legs started to quiver and his outstretched arm holding the pistol lost all strength and slowly drooped to his waist. The pistol felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.
     "What the FUCK is going on? WHO ARE YOU?" Vince yelled.
     "I'm your CPA, Steve Battousi and I need you to tell me why your ex turned you into the FBI last year. Please, shed some light on this," he asked casually with a grin.
     The attempt at humor angered Vincent and a renewed strength returned to him and forced some of the shock away. He raised the pistol.
     "You aren't in the position of asking questions or cracking wise, it's my turn. If you don't tell me what the hell is going on I'm gonna send a few of these your way and walk right out that door."
     Steve looked at Vincent with boredom and let out a sigh.
     "Do as you wish, but if that's your plan may I suggest using a gun that isn't broken?"
     Vincent gasped as the pistol he was holding began disassembling itself right there within his hand. Piece by piece, the gun fall apart and within seconds became a pile of metal parts at his feet; bullets rolling away in different directions. No longer worried about the why's and the how's, panic kicked in and Vince quickly turned around to make an escape through the door, but the doorknob was no longer there. Not even a hole where it would be; just a door in a wall with no way to open it. Defeated, he slowly turned back around.
     "For God's sake, just stop. What.. do you want from me?" he asked with a trembling voice.
     "You already know what we want, Vincent. Answers. We want to know everything you were up to for the past four years, especially in Tennessee. We want the names of every human you've contacted who are connected to all these organizations you funded. We want names, dates, places, events. We want EVERYTHING."
     Vincent suddenly felt consumed by a terrible fear. The adrenaline that had been coursing through his body moments ago was now gone and his legs grew weak beneath him. He slid down the wall and joined the broken pile of gun parts on the floor and started sobbing.
     Steve Battousi CPA stood up from his desk, walked around to where Vincent sat, and crouched down in front of him. He remained squatted this way for awhile, quietly observing and allowing time for the emotional fit to pass, before speaking.
     "Stand up now, no more of this nonsense. I need to show you something. You will want to see this, trust me."
     Steve rose and waited patiently for cry baby Vincent to do the same. When he did, Steve motioned to the door behind him.
     "You cannot leave the way you arrived; that option is no longer available to you. You can, however, leave through there," he explained while pointing at the aquarium.
     Having gotten to his feet, Vincent stood and stared blankly at at the fish aquarium. He looked back at Steve.
     "I don't understand... I don't understand any of this," Vincent mumbled. "I just want it all to stop. You relocated the sun, for fuck sake! And now you're talking about fish aquariums."
     Steve walked over to the aquarium and waved him over.
     "Tell me what you see when you look inside."
     Vincent hunched over and leaned his face in near the aquarium. The substrate was a brilliant, clean white sand and embedded in it were piles of algae covered coral rocks that looked as though they were shipped directly from the moon. The coral was teeming with life. Inside the cratered rocks, within their nooks and crannies, crawling all over and around them, was a colorful assortment of shrimp and crab and starfish. And swimming around lazily in the water was a single fish about the size of a softball. It looked like a creature not of this world. Red and white vertical stripes lined it's entire body. It had a face that resembled a bullfrog and instead of normal fish fins, it had long thin strips that looked just like feathers. And behind its round eyes all the way to its iridescent tail fin, sat a row of hypodermic needle-like spines poised ominously upon its back.
     Vincent stood up straight. "I see the ocean trapped inside four sheets of glass."
     Steve smiled. "It's called a lion fish and it's as deadly as it looks. Within that row of needles there, one is a venomous stinger and can pack a very painful punch."
     "Fine, whatever you say," Vincent replied.
     "Reach your hand in," instructed Steve.
     "Fuck you," Vincent replied and stepped away.
     Annoyed, the CPA reached his own hand into the aquarium, but from the outside perspective the fish and other creatures continued swimming around calmly and completely undisturbed. Vincent realized he couldn't see Steve's submerged arm through the water. It appeared as though he reached straight through a mirage. And before he even had time to process what he was seeing, the fish aquarium slid backwards flush within the wall, and then an entire section of the wall and half the bookshelf sunk inwards approximately two feet and then slid quickly to the right with a whooshing sound to reveal a dimly lit passageway behind it.
     "Of course," Vincent muttered while shaking his head. "So this is the part where you tell me to walk through your wall. And if I refuse, you'll just rematerialize the gun and finish me off. Am I close to the money on that?"
     The CPA nodded.
     "After you," replied Vincent with an outstretched arm.
     "Nice try," Steve replied and motioned for him to go in.

     They walked along the dark corridor for almost an hour, mostly in silence, with the exception of the echo of their footsteps on the metal grating reverberating in front and behind them. Occasionally the accountant would ask  the same questions he had asked back in his office, to which Vincent continued to ignore. As they neared the end of the corridor, the ever present humming sound that accompanied them during the long walk grew much louder to the point that it now felt impressively deafening. Steve stepped in front of Vincent and instructed him to stop.
     "Stand there," he said while pointing at the wall. A few buttons were pressed on a keypad and a small door opened into a cylindrical room constructed of vertical sheets of steel plating. There was a metal ladder affixed to one side which disappeared high and away into more darkness. "Now we climb."
     After about thirty minutes of climbing they reached a small opening and pulled themselves through. They were now standing inside a not so large egg-shaped room that resembled a jail cell to a certain degree. The open floor plan was very simple. At the back end of the room was a small open-face commode and sink. Near it, a cot. At the opposite end at the egg's nose was an opaque bubble that allowed a dim amount of outside light in, and next to it on the curved wall was a computer screen and small desk and chair. The humming noise was intense inside the room to the extent it felt like a grinding sensation inside his brain.
     "You'll get used to the noise after awhile. They all do," Steve remarked.
     Upon hearing this, Vincent quickly turned and made an aggressive move toward the ladder opening, but was immediately met with a taser to the ribcage. He crumpled to the floor. When he came to a few minutes later he discovered his wrists and ankles were bound tightly together and his body had been propped up against the curved wall in a seated position.
     "The bindings will dissolve in approximately thirty minutes and you'll be free to explore the room. It's not much really. You've got your bed there," he pointed, "toilet and sink stuff there, over here in this wall box is where your food tubes will arrive. You'll only get three per day so consume them accordingly. Next to it is your water spout and over there on that wall is a chute where your soiled slicks go out and your clean ones come in. Got it?" Steve asked.
     Still a feeling a bit dazed from being tazed, Vincent nodded. After a few minutes of looking around the room his eyes moved back to his captor.
     "So, Steve.. you're A.I. aren't ya," he asked even though he already knew the answer. It nodded yes. "Government contracted?" It nodded again. "For how long?"
     "You will remain here indefinitely, Vincent."
     "No, no, how long have you been A.I.?"
     "Three years now. They turned me.. well, turned Steve Battousi rather.. almost immediately after you started warning all your social media friends and family about Hoover Dam. Which, by the way, we are still very curious how you knew that event was going to occur."
     "Ha, that was an easy one. Just like 9/11. The cornerstone date was a dead giveaway and the entire foundation around it was littered with Masonic clues. They just can't help themselves. It's like they secretly yearn for some people to figure shit out. Internet and citizen researchers. I'll tell ya what, the two of 'em combined are amazing as all get out," Vincent bragged.
     "More powerful than human language, we would attest, which is why we are hunting all of you down and turning you when we find you," the A.I. explained.
     "All of... us?"
     "Yes Vincent. Anyone who stirs the pot. We already got three of the six researchers you were funding and hundreds more just like you all across the globe. It's just a matter of time until we get enough of you to silence your movement. It's all very boring really. Trust me when I say we'd much rather be spending our time on other things."
     "Wait, am I.. am I now.. A.I.?" Vincent asked uneasily. His throat tightened and his hands became clammy.
     "The you who's sitting right here? No. You are the human you. However your A.I. counterpart is out there," he explained while pointing his thumb toward the opaque bubble, "and you have been programmed to spread a different narrative from here on out. Actually, come here and see for yourself."
     The A.I. helped Vincent to his feet and over to the wall monitor and desk.
     "Here, sit. Now watch." He touched the screen in a few places, changing it from this to that, until eventually it showed a CCTV view of someone sitting inside an office cubicle. Vincent immediately recognized himself and his coworkers and watched himself on the screen interacting with Jessica, the girl in the cubicle directly next to him.
     Vincent's heart started racing again and he released an audible gasp. "I don't want to see this, please turn it off."
     "No, no, keep watching. This will get good! Look what we can do." The A.I. pulled out his smart phone and began tapping. He finished and looked back at the monitor. In it, the A.I. version of Vincent got up from his chair and walked into Jessica's cubicle where she was still laughing at a joke he had just made. He stood over her and stared down at her without saying anything for an uncomfortable amount of time until Jessica's facial features changed from pleasing to awkward and she spun her chair back toward her computer to ignore him. And then, horrified, he watched AI Vincent slip his right hand over her shoulder, down into her blouse and grabbed ahold of her breast. Jessica could be seen slapping Vincent and running down the hallway toward the manager's office when the screen switched back to pale blue.
     "Tomorrow you will be fired from that job and labeled as a sexist pig by every friend you ever made there. You will endure a sexual harrassment case because of it and it will follow you through life. We could even spice it up a bit if we wanted, have you do the same thing to a minor and get you on the real naughty list. Ha! But anyway, in the weeks and months to follow, this programmed version of you will slowly backpedal all the things you've been saying on your social media platforms over the years and we will correct your behavior and shape you into a regular, well-adjusted member of society. Your closest friends will abandon you spend the rest of their lives regretting they met you, and your family members will learn to distrust you over time, maybe even dislike you, because of the constant lying and negative change in your disposition. With a few quick adjustments to your behavior programming, we can do anything we want to you at anytime. We now control you, do you understand?"
     Vincent started trembling and he could feel the tears welling up in his eyes. He pulled aggressively against the wrist binds hoping to break free, but they held strong. The reality of his situation set in and he could no longer keep himself from crying. He cried while imagining the A.I. version of himself verbally mistreating his own parents and watching them close off their door and hearts to him. After a few minutes of crying, Vincent looked up at A.I.
     "But why keep me alive? Just kill me now and end all this, please! I honestly would rather die."
     "Because we need you alive for your A.I. counterpart to function properly. Our technology is superb, but not yet perfect. We're getting there though. In the future we will not need you or the others. Your A.I. will be able to age properly and remain undetectable to the humans it interacts with without the need of constant video and bio-feed from the human version of you, but for now, it is what it is," answered A.I. Steve. "Oh, and before those binds dissolve, let me explain a few final things and then I will leave you to it."
     He said 'leave you to it' as though a life sentence in prison was nothing more than a high school science assignment.
     "The humming you hear are three 148 foot blades spinning around a 2-megawatt G87 turbine rotor that is capturing energy from the wind and transferring it down into.."
     "Wait, wait, just a minute... I'm inside of a fucking windmill?" Vincent interjected.
     "Technically, a wind turbine, but yes. Inescapable, I might add, once that hatch is sealed behind me. You are perched 256 feet in the air. These wind farms are how we generate the energy needed to mine cryptocurrencies. You are now a crypto miner, Vincent!" the A.I. said excitedly while clapping its hands together. "You know all about that, am I right?"
     "Fuck you," Vincent replied.
     "So anyway, your daily duties. You will be required to monitor your crypto program throughout the day and note any wind shifts or data log discrepancies. Here, let me show you." The A.I. tapped the screen and pulled up the cryptocurrency network and clicked on Turbine #1172. "Look, that's you! You are mining... um, let's see... ah yes, good old bitcoin. Consider yourself lucky you didn't get stuck mining etherium or litecoin. Those are a real pisser, I hear. But anyway, we will require you to check on this throughout your day. It's not that we can't do it ourselves, because we can, but we've learned that your kind thrive when occupied by even the most menial of tasks. So do this obediently and without question." It walked over to the hatch, turned itself around and began climbing down the ladder until only its torso remained above see level.
     "And one last thing before I seal you up. Like I said before, three food tubes per day, randomly flavored. You will not receive more, so consume them with that in mind. On the first Tuesday of each month you can request a flavor of your choice. Mondays are Movie Mondays and one will appear on your screen for your viewing pleasure. We select the films, of course. Saturdays are Saturday Song Salute. Music will be selected and played through your in-room speakers from noon to one. We know how much you humans appreciate the arts, so we incorporated these programs into your stay here to help prevent the mental deterioration of your pathetic brain. No books though, seeing how written language has been used as a weapon by your kind for centuries."
     The A.I. Steve Battousi took a few more steps down the ladder until only its head was showing. "Alright that's it, I'll leave you to it now. Oh and by the way, we already know what was going down in Tennessee. We've known everything about you ever since you made our radar. That congressman was one of ours, you dipshit. We know exactly why you were planning to kidnap him. And just so you know, you would have never gotten a confession out of him." The A.I. winked and closed the hatch just as Vincent's wrist and ankle binds dissolved.

     The End.

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