Pando

FICTION: The Devil You Know

By David Holmes , written on August 3, 2015

From The Fiction Desk

Samantha Rix could feel the heat generated by the loud, whirring machines as they processed billions of computations a second.

The system’s numerical outputs, compiled at the speed of light by sub-atomic entities and manipulated as if by black magic into impossible physical states, began to flicker on a giant screen that nearly covered the 10-foot by 10-foot stone wall. Engraved on the other three walls of the crypt were distended, grotesque visages inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. The screen and its projector were the only sources of light in the dimly-lit secret room, save for the flames emanating from two dozen seventeenth century candlesticks - the kind of anachronism Samantha would have considered creepy earlier in the night, but which now seemed almost comical, given the cosmic gravity of the situation.

A primitive and Biblical evil was about to be unleashed into the world, and it was all technology’s fault. And Samantha had unknowingly helped bring it to life.

She steeled herself to take a glance at Ellis Moore's face, unsettlingly calm amid the cyber-gothic chaos and emblazoned with a furious torrent of 0s and 1s from the projector. The CEO’s unblinking eyes, situated above an almost-gentle half-smile, were locked onto Samantha's. She held his gaze for only a second before looking away with a shudder.

But as she stared back at the numerical abyss on the screen, Samantha began to realize what the demonic stream of outputs conveyed. Since arriving earlier that evening at Moore's estate nestled deep in the woods of Upstate New York, she had dreaded this moment -- the moment when the evil that had been slowly building around her finally dared to show its face. But now Samantha realized the awful truth: that the evil taking shape before her had been there in plain sight all evening, and everyday since she first accepted a job from Ellis Moore.

SIX MONTHS EARLIER:

There's no place on Earth more excruciating to go through a breakup than New Brooklyn.

The borough is immense, sprawled across two-thirds of the turd-shaped landmass known as Long Island, following exurban vectors to the South and the East from what used to be LaGuardia Airport. It covered so much space that Samantha and her ex-boyfriend Wes could both remain in the city they called home without ever running into one another.

But the vast physical dimensions of New Brooklyn belied a hyper-connected, digital mirror of the unofficial neo-city - a secondhand reality, reflected back to residents through computers, phones, wristwatches, and headsets. The borough's most affluent and digitally-addicted tenants (mostly artists and media kids pushed out of Brooklyn proper by the tentacles of tech and banking) were so immersed in social media that it made the community feel like a small town -- or a sitcom -- where everybody knew everybody else's names and secrets.

And so whenever Samantha initiated even the simplest action on her phone -- like ordering food or matching with other singles she would never meet -- she couldn't escape Wes' bearded, shaggy-haired, avatar, which moved around her screen like a geolocated hipster bed bug. Nor could she escape the avatars of his friends and his other exes -- and Jessica from his work whom he used to speak of just a bit too fondly -- leaving behind digital breadcrumbs as they ate and moved and fucked around the city. That’s how she found out Wes had been cheating on her.

Maybe even worse for Samantha was the knowledge that Wes could also see her avatar -- with its dark eyes, soft and radiant facial features, and blonde-dyed locks that had since surrendered to black roots -- as she traveled the edges of an imperceptibly small triangle between her bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. At least her porn history was still private.

It would be far easier, Samantha concluded, to see Wes around her neighborhood in the flesh, where his pithy tweets and weekend rendezvous' could not hide the sadness he and every other digitally-damaged soul wore stamped on their faces. It's little wonder, considering this generation’s capacity for building online identities that bore only fleeting resemblances to their real selves, that the new breed of digital natives had lost all ability to conjure the now-outdated concept Secretary of State Gaga once referred to as a “poker face.”

After only a month, during which she never lasted more than forty-five seconds without spying on Wes through the window of her phone, Samantha went looking for a new scene. And she found the blissful anonymity and ignorance she seeked in the cold, grey shadows of Manhattan's skyscrapers.

Samantha's new apartment was a fifth-story walk up in the East Village, but it was on the 19th floor of a granite box on Broadway and 23rd where she spent most of her hours in scenester exile. The building belonged to EndTech, the proprietors of a massive advertising platform whose users were still naive enough to refer to it as a "social network."

Samantha asked Ryan Kinkaid, her oldest friend in New York and the manager of an ad-tech team at EndTech, if the firm had any openings.

"Sorry Sam, but we already have more than enough post-modern watercolorists on the payroll," Ryan answered, dryly.

"But," she replied, "how many of those post-modern watercolorists have a comp-sci degree from MIT?"

Although this was news to Ryan, Samantha never kept her original career ambitions a secret from him, Nor did she hide it from her coterie of artist friends, few of whom had attracted critical acclaim -- and, even fewer, cash -- from New York's cultural elite. Samantha's work attracted neither. According to the few critics -- mostly neighborhood bloggers and journalism students,all failed artists themselves -- who bothered to review her work, Samantha's surreal and grotesque portraiture style was said to sit uncomfortably between the old European masters and the new scuzz-punk experimentalists: too formal and disconnected from the 21st century, and yet too self-aware and gratuitous in its emphasis on sex and violence. These modern trappings, they wrote, felt "tacked-on" and "cliched."

Regrettably, Samantha bought into this criticism as fully as she bought into the polite encouragement she received early on from peers. Her career was over before it even began.

Contrary to her anxieties over having been away from coding for so long, Samantha's outsider status landed her on a team at EndTech tasked with building a highly experimental algorithm, shrouded in both secrecy and buzzwords like "gamechanger." In fact, that was the name it was given internally: “Gamechanger.”

"Really?" she thought to herself. "Gamechanger?" The coding she picked back up as if she never stopped. The firm’s lack of creativity on the part of everyone who worked there, however, would take some getting used to.

Well, not quite everyone. EndTech's CEO Ellis Moore had flaws aplenty, but no one could ever accuse him of lacking creativity.

 

* * * *

"Just heard the news,” Ryan texted. “You're gonna meet the monster.”

The "monster" was Ellis Moore. Moore was EndTech's tall and perpetually boyish 45-year-old billionaire CEO and cofounder. In keeping with the 21st century "cult of the founder," Moore's origin story was a blur of fact and fiction. He told reporters that he built his first computer program at the age of six on a TI-85 graphing calculator. News outlets reported that he was entirely self-taught, dropping out of high school his junior year to focus his efforts on building the underlying technology that would become the EndTech social algorithm.

The truth of his biography, however - which any reporter could have verified, but didn’t - was that he never wrote a line of code until the age of 18. Nor did he drop out of high school. Moore graduated from the public school where his mother taught with respectable though hardly stellar marks and completed a Bachelor's degree and accelerated MBA at a large state school known more for producing future NFLers than the nation's most accomplished technical and corporate minds. This was a source of immense secret shame that Moore wished to exorcise by not just beating his Ivy League competitors -- he vowed to annihilate them.

Moore's ominous "monster" moniker meant different things to different people. To some it described the CEO’s inhuman treatment of employees and competitors; the impossible expectations he had of the former as he sought to destroy the latter. To others, it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a New York Times Magazine cover which referred to Moore as a "Free Market Monster" -- an epithet splashed in red bubble letters atop a grotesque illustration of a man with domestic and foreign currency oozing from his every facial orifice. The cover art, which awed critics and made its creator famous, could have been ripped directly from Samantha's portfolio of portrait paintings.

But to Ryan -- and in particular the small group of managers and executives who interfaced with Moore with some regularity -- the "monster" nickname had a much darker connotation.

Unlike many of his tech CEO peers, who adopted Puritanical poses to help offset to the public the moral and ethical quicksand of running a billion dollar company, Moore was fascinated with the occult.

His fascination went beyond that of an armchair Satanist or Wikipedia Wiccan or those whose occult leanings began and ended with mere aesthetics or fashion.

In addition to Moore's home and office having been amply adorned with the iconography of the movement, magic and devilish mysticism were parts of his corporate and personal persona. Everything from his speech patterns to his facial hair were informed by Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey. The first thing visitors and employees saw when exiting the elevator to EndTech's office was a wood-engraved banner upon which read one of Crowley’s most famous lines: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." According to the octogenarian woman behind the front desk, the wooden plank was recovered from a ship that sunk upon entering the Bermuda Triangle. Reports varied as to whether or not the sweet old lady was among Satan’s many brides.

"Whose turn is it to pick up the sacrificial virgin for today's all-hands meeting?" Ryan would often joke to his team members, who would then rebuke him for using the same line over and over again. That’s when they’d usually start paraphrasing Al Pacino quotes from The Devil's Advocate.

"Move fast! But don't break things... Break things! But don't disrupt. Disrupt! But don't disrupt yourself..."

Few inside or outside EndTech believed that Moore was a genuine devil worshipper. Many attributed his fascination with the occult to the CEO's sleazy idolatry of rocketry pioneer/occult orgy enthusiast Jack Parsons. Rumblings over Moore's polygamous sexual appetites were more than rumors, corroborated by office assistants, developers, and at least one senior VP.

Even if Moore were a card-carrying acolyte of the Church of Satan, however, it would hardly be the most troubling instance of a tech CEO following a questionable philosophical creed. Better to work for a man who reads Anton LeVey, Samantha figured, than one who reads Ayn Rand -- though Moore, she suspected, read them both.

When Samantha discovered that she was one of a couple dozen employees invited to dinner at Moore's home in Sleepy Hollow (where else?), her stomach felt like it had rotated a full 360 degrees. Her strict Catholic upbringing, though since denounced, produced an instinctual reaction that was at once enormously unsettling and preversely thrilling.

"What does one wear to a satanic blood orgy?" Samantha joked to Ryan on the day of the visit as they ate lunch in EndTech's absurdly-gourmet cafeteria.

“Definitely white,” Ryan said. “Unless it’s after labor day.

"I don't know why I got all this food," Samantha said. "I need to save room for all those virgin hearts."

"Better get those jokes out now or they might sacrifice you," Ryan said. "Virgins are tough to come by in this city."

"I might as well be a virgin after wasting my 20s with Wes."

"Hey I know we're just joking around, but Samantha. Seriously. Don't kid around about the sex stuff. I've heard some fucked up things about Moore and his crew."

"That's sweet of you, Ryan, but I can take care of myself."

"I know you can, but..." Ryan leaned in and lowered his voice to a stage whisper. "So two months back, we brought on this exec from VidCore, Rachel Craig. Total superstar. She was running all of our media partnerships, striking killer deals. Anyway, Moore does this executive retreat thing in the Bahamas once a year, and a couple days after they all get back, Rachel comes in looking like she got hit by a fucking bus. Bruises on her neck and face, little cuts on her hands and wrists, and she's all covered up, even though it's like July. I ask her what happened and she says ‘car accident.’ The very next day I hear she's accepted some huge buyout and left the company."

"Oh my god. That's awful."

"I know you think you’re hot shit working on this secret project, but if it could happen to somebody like Rachel, it could happen to you.”

Samantha had heard plenty of stories like this, but chalked it up to the inevitabilities of corporate tech culture. Despite the progress made across the country toward gender equality over the past few decades, life for women at tech firms had only worsened. As more and more cash stood to be made in this sector, the kind of moneyed fratboys once destined for big investment banks had migrated to Big Tech -- and they brought with them their fratty, misogynist culture.

EndTech, Samantha had believed, was no better or worse than any other big tech firm in this regard -- just as it was no better or worse in terms of for-profit surveillance, offshore tax evasion, and the other corporate ills she and her friends bemoaned. Samantha wasn't naive. But there's a difference between companies that vow not to be evil -- and, as a consequence of that corporate culture, manage to do something good for the world every now and again -- and companies that actively scoff at any ethical or philanthropic efforts that don't directly enrich the firm's bottom line. And lately she was beginning to think that EndTech not only exhibited bad behavior -- but did so with malice. 

Ryan could tell by her silence that Samantha was no longer in the mood for jokes. "So tell me about this project," Ryan said. "Everyone’s being crazy secretive about it.”

"I honestly don't know."

"Come on, you can tell me.”

"I’m serious,” Samantha said. “At first when they didn't tell me anthing I thought, 'OK, they're just being careful with a new employee.' But I've been here six months and they still haven't told me. As far as I can tell, they haven't told anybody outside of the executive circle. And they definitely don't want the public to know.

"So how are you supposed to do your work if you don't know what you're building?"

"Well, our team is just writing the basic architecture. The skeleton, really. We have no idea what the other teams are doing, and they don’t know what we're doing."

"My guess is it's probably just a new way to show ads to users," Ryan said.

"But the code isn't structured like anything I’ve seen before. And if it were just another way to serve up shitty ads and puppy videos, then why be so secretive about it?” Samantha stabbed a particularly gnarly potato with her fork then flicked it off back to her plate. "There is one thing..."

"What?”

Samantha's lowered her voice to a whisper. "If I tell you something, Ryan, you need to swear on your life it stays between us."

"Of course."

“Okay, so check this out: Obviously we can't just use dummy code for the whole thing, even if it is just the structure."

"Uh huh."

"So they give us these key components and phrases, but they're all gobbledegook. Encrypted. After we ship our parts of the code, they de-encrypt it, and it makes sense. Most of the encrypted phrases are impossible to decipher without a key. But every once in a while the encrypters get lazy and use a single substitution model, like those cryptograms in the newspaper. Trouble is, these passages are totally random and so it takes trial and error to find them. In one document, however, I kept seeing the same seven letter codeword all over the place that started with DC. Now, there were very few Ds at all in the text except in that word and a few others. And every time a D appeared, without fail, it was followed by a C. Which letter in the alphabet is only ever followed by this one other letter?

Ryan thinks for a moment. "Oh right, Q!"

"Exactly. And Q is always followed by U."

"So Q-U... Seven letters total... I don't know, Quarrel? Quakers?"

"Quantum. As in Quantum Computing."

"Damn."

"Right? If EndTech figured out to make Quantum Computing work - that is, to make a computer where the bits are smaller than atoms -- then we're not just dealing with 1s and 0s anymore. We're dealing with bits that can be one or zero or both at the same time. Or something crazy in between. That could make EndTech’s computers 100 times faster than anybody else’s in the world.

"It's like that thought experiment. There’s a dresser that's got a billion separate drawers and one of them has a red ball in it. A normal computer has to look in each drawer separately. A quantum computer can look in every drawer at the same time instantly."

"There's going to be a new 'Moore's Law' - literally," Samantha said. “And the chest of drawers? That's just one application. You could create an AI that's capable of mimicking every possible verbal or nonverbal response to every possible situation a human might encounter."

"You think that's what Moore is up to?"

"Who knows," Samantha says, getting up from her seat. "Hey I gotta get some work done before the cars leave for Sleepy Hollow."

Ryan stands too. "Sam -- Do you know that Einstein quote about quantum mechanics?”

"Yeah, he called it  'spooky action.'"

"Right. But a lot of people forget that Einstein was trying to argue that quantum mechanics was bullshit. That's why he described it as 'magic' or 'spookiness.' Einstein was wrong, of course, which basically means that magic does exist. And you know what kind of people love magic more than almost anybody else..."

"Crazy occult Satanists like Moore?"

"Yep. But if quantum computing is magic, is it white or black magic?

"I’ll find out tonight.”

End of Part One