Pando

FICTION: The Devil You Know (Chapter Two)

By David Holmes , written on August 4, 2015

From The Fiction Desk

Previously: Part One

A self-driving electric sedan, all-black save for the red EndTech logo emblazoned on its side, arrived to pick up Samantha at her apartment at 6:30 PM. Ten years ago, the trip up I-87 to Sleepy Hollow would have taken her two hours or more during rush hour. But in the “self-driving lane” and its specially-built exits and on-ramps, where cars speed up and slow down at algorithmically-determined speeds, Samantha would make the journey in 45 minutes flat.

Automated roadways allowed for more than punctuality. The turn-off leading to Moore’s home was blocked by a huge, steel gate that only opened for cars possessing the necessary certificates and permissions. As her sedan passed through, invisible sensors biometrically-scanned the vehicle for stowaways or other unauthorized intruders, cross-referencing each passenger's DNA markings against the guestlist for the evening. If Moore and the rest of America’s 0.01 percent had their way, the barrier around this estate and others would be electrified, doling out deadly high voltage pulses to the overly curious.

But human and animal rights activists called foul, and instead these fences were made to be merely touch-sensitive, alerting a centralized security company if any living object attempted to cross or tamper with the barrier without the appropriate credentials. The interloper, upon being apprehended by authorities, would in all likelihood suffer a blow more painful, slower, but just as fatal as electrocution at the hands of private enforcement officers -- professional sadists who didn't take taxpayer money and would therefore "keep the peace" however they saw fit, fuck you very much.

In any case, it was a pretty slick time to be rich in America.

The surrounding forest was so dense, Samantha couldn’t see the mansion until the car was just fifty feet from the front door. The smooth, grey façade was five stories high and reflected the sun as it dipped below the tree line. There was no telling how far back the mansion extended, but Samantha knew it had to be large enough to house and feed the people needed not only to maintain the premises but also to provide a skeleton staff of secretarial and technical labor to assist Moore, who for the past five years worked almost exclusively from home. The CEO teleconferenced in for all-hands meetings and, as far as the public was concerned, never left his estate except to attend EndTech's extravagant product launch events in the city. Moore was not the type of CEO to be seen bumping elbows and asses with celebrities at film openings or parties. To Samantha’s knowledge, this granite monument played host to whatever social or spiritual life Moore was afforded.

The car stopped alongside a short asphalt path leading up to the house, as the passenger door automatically unlocked and opened. The front door to the mansion did the same as Samantha approached it. On either side of her, gargoyles cut from stone and shrubbery grinned horribly at Samantha. A lapsed Catholic, she had been titillated by the perversity of possibly working for Satan. But now that she stood a few steps away from the beast’s lair, she became gripped by an irrational desire to run home -- not to Manhattan, but all the way to Muncie, Indiana. Samantha could hear the voice of Sister Patty -- the most pious and enthusiastically violent nun at St. Eugenia Academy -- telling her to do exactly that. Since she was a child, her belief in God had faded. The guilt, however, and the fear of what the Devil and his emissaries of evil would do to punish an immodest woman like Samantha, remained a part of her, embedded deep in her psyche by years of physical and emotional lashings doled out by St. Eugenia's holy sisterhood.

But it was too late to run. And a couple gaudy and grotesque gargoyles hardly constituted proof that Moore was a sincere agent of Satan -- or that Satan was real at all. The nuns’ visceral indoctrination was powerful, but Samantha could not allow herself to be distracted by phantom dangers -- especially when, as Ryan pointed out to her earlier today, very real perils potentially awaited her inside.

After taking one last look at the outside world, the trees' October oranges and reds lit up by the light of the dying day, and with the judgments and warnings and threats of Sister Patty still echoing in her brain, Samantha crossed over into Moore's territory. Samantha wouldn't hear another word of advice nor admonishment from the psychic sisterhood for the rest of the night. She was on her own.

Once inside, Samantha saw two dozen men and women in an enormous three-story foyer. The room was lit by an array of magnificent 19th-century chandeliers, which had been refitted with modern smart bulbs. The floor was marble and so was the giant staircase leading up to second and third story balconies. A tuxedoed man bigger than a football player stood with his palms on his stomach at the base of the stairs, looking serene but capable of shocking violence if called upon. At ground level, the oak doors that lined the walls of the foyer were all closed, penning in the partygoers. Though Samantha was a guest, she was keenly-aware of how easily and quickly she could become a trespasser. Or a prisoner.

The painted hellscapes of Heirnonymous Bosch hung at eye-level in the room, and were being admired by suits of armor collectively representing centuries of warfare, from the crusades to feudal Japan. How obvious, Samantha thought. It was the kind of adornment you’d see in a Bugs Bunny cartoon to signify a haunted house. When they conjure Satan later, she wondered, will the suits of armor begin to dance around and thrust their weapons at us? The tightness in Samantha’s shoulders abated, and she almost laughed aloud at her earlier anxieties.

The guests were all dressed, as the invitation gently mandated, in formal attire. Some of them Samantha recognized from the office, others were executives she had seen only in HR videos or on the news. A few were complete strangers -- hangers-on, private house staff, or perhaps EndTech VIPs whose involvement in the firm was so shadowy as to preserve anonymity. Most of them were drinking cocktails, white wine, and craft beers procured from an open bar nestled in the corner.

Samantha walked toward it, wondering if she could order and down a shot of bourbon without drawing too much attention, when somebody called out, “Samantha!”

It was Ryan.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. What was he doing here? Ryan had nothing to do with Gamechanger. Or did he? Had Ryan been lying to her? The shoulder-tightness returned and was now accompanied by a twisting feeling in her stomach.

“Happy to see you too,” Ryan said. “After lunch I got an email from Moore’s executive assistant saying that he was throwing a party for a few choice employees tonight and that one of them couldn’t make it,” Ryan said. “Something about a reward for all my hard work over the past two weeks? About time.”

That’s right, Samantha thought -- Ryan couldn’t be working on the secret project because Moore had fired half of his team last month, and Ryan had been working upwards of 90 hours a week just to keep the wheels on the old ad platform.

So Ryan was telling the truth. But that gave Samantha an even more unsettling thought: had someone spied on their conversation at lunch? But then what was the purpose of inviting Ryan? To bring him in on the whole thing? To bully him to silence? Or worse?

"I wanted to surprise you," Ryan said. "Also, when I saw you come in, I got you this." Ryan handed her a glass of white wine.

"Thanks, Ryan, but..." She considered her next words carefully, aware that someone might be listening. "Don't you think it's kind of weird they invited you? I mean, I'm happy to see you, I really am. But I'm pretty sure they're unveiling the product tonight. They've kept it so closely under wraps, don't you think it's a little strange that they're bringing you in now? I mean, plenty of people have been working hard the past couple weeks and I don’t see them here..."

"What do you mean?" Ryan asked, not at all catching her drift.

"You don't think that... well, that because we're friends, Moore thought I might have told you something? And that they want to, I don't know, make sure you don't tell anybody else?"

Ryan laughed. "You think they're going sacrifice me to Satan?"

"Not so loud!"

"Samantha, do you hear yourself right now?” Ryan said. “EndTech is a publicly-traded billion dollar company. They may be rapey and creepy but they're not a Satanist cult."

"As if being a Satanist cult is worse."

"Hey," Ryan said, touching his hand to her shoulder and bringing his face closer to hers. Judging by his breath and handsiness, he was already a few drinks deep. "Don't worry. Nobody's going to hurt you -- not a drunk, lecherous exec, and not a spawn of Satan. Everything's going to be okay. Now, walk over here with me. You know Stellar Ross, our 'chief dream officer'? There was that video of him on the TODAY Show that went viral last month? He's here. I've been listening to him talk for the past 20 minutes, and I'm dying just trying to keep from laughing."

Samantha shrugged in assent and followed Ryan in Stellar's direction.

Imagine that a trend-piece from the New York Times Styles section and a TED Talk had a baby: That baby would be Stellar Linus Ross.

He wore a child's tweed sport coat that hugged his tiny, thin frame and spandex yoga pants which left little to the imagination, pelvically-speaking. His sleeves were rolled up to reveal a rainbow array of smart watches, activity trackers, and hemp bracelets, including an Apple timepiece with the engraving, "SLR Punk." He had silver hair tied tight in a manbun and a thin mustache waxed into twirls on either end. He had dental implants that were far too big for his smallish mouth, which chattered and clacked at a beautiful, smartly-dressed woman in her early 20s when Samantha and Ryan approached. It goes without saying that he wore a bowtie. The coup de grace, the cherry on top of this absurd sundae of a human being, was a monocle on his left eye. Samantha wondered where he had parked his penny farthing.

His female companion listened wearily as Stellar spoke, 140 characters at a time, about mindshare, disruption, branded content, and, of course, the genius of one Ellis Moore.

"When people talk about the future," Stellar said in an affected British accent as Samantha and Ryan came within earshot, "they talk about flying cars and teleportation and virtual reality. But what makes 'E-M' such a genius is that he realizes all technological progress is simply innovation in advertising. We don't need flying cars anymore than we needed Henry Ford's Model T. Human beings survived and were happy for centuries living in villages and never going more than a mile away from home. But the automobile gave us billboards, roadside attractions, Howard Johnson's, a whole new world of commerce. Or look at Thomas Edison. He too expanded the reach of commerce. Oreo, to quote its classic tweet, may have said ‘you can dunk in the dark.’ But it's a lot easier to dunk by incandescent bulb than candlelight, I’d say."

"Did he just quote a corporate brand tweet?" Ryan texted Samantha.

"Yes," she replied, followed by a series of emojis signifying instruments of death one might use to commit suicide.

Stellar went on:

"Edison and Ford didn't realize -- at least not consciously -- this symbiotic relationship between advertising and innovation. But Moore is hyper-aware of it. Which is why EndTech, despite the fact that it's not the most original or even the most user-friendly social platform, has become the most profitable company in the world. Does that answer your question?"

"I asked you where the bathroom was," the woman said, and within moments a large bald man who had been standing against the wall approached.

"Right this way, miss," the man said, and the pair walked away arm-in-arm.

"You see," Stellar said, turning to Samantha and Ryan without missing a beat, "Ford expanded human consumption spatially - humans could now consume and spend money in other cities that were too far to reach by horse. Meanwhile, Edison expanded human consumption - and, more to the point, production - temporally. Thanks to the light bulb, commerce could go on unabated even after the sun went down. What about Moore? Moore came into a world that had already reached a saturation point of external, omnipresent, 24-hour advertising stimulus. So he had to expand human consumption psychically - to expand the amount of internal real estate the human brain reserves for consuming and spreading advertising content for brands. By manipulating the billions of conversations and trillions of emotions conveyed on EndTech everyday, Moore can turn each user into an brand ambassador without them even knowing it. One user says, 'Did you hear Pepsi poisoned all those kids?' Another says, 'Oh my, I'm having a Coke, then, eh?'"

"What if Pepsi is an advertiser?" Ryan asked.

"Are you suggesting that EndTech would partner with a poisoner of children?" Stellar asked, gravely.

"I-- well..."

"I'm just joking, of course we would! The negative brand sentiment is depreciated across the network while the positive brand sentiment is amplified."

"And if Pepsi ever does stop being an advertiser..." Samantha said.

Stellar began to sob, mockingly. "Oh the poor children, dying their painful little deaths as Pepsi counts their stacks of money..."

"Ladies and gentlemen!"

A voice boomed from the second floor balcony. The crowd immediately went quiet and looked up at a thin, grey-haired man with the face of a baby and a peaceful, half-open smile. He stood in a black suit and tie at the railing and introduced himself.

"My name is Ellis Moore. I see you're enjoying my refreshments, of which there are many more in the dining area before you. I sadly won't be joining you for dinner, but at exactly midnight I will debut for you what you've all been working on so diligently for the past six months. The moon is full and the fires of progress breathe hot tonight as we embark upon a historical event, not only for this company but for the world. I must leave you for now, but though this is a work event, remember you are not at work. Pleasure awaits you, should you choose to take it. Good evening."

Moore exited through one of the oak doors on the second story - more specifically, the third one from the left when facing toward the base of the stairs. Samantha made a mental note of it.

* * * *

"That was a weird speech," Samantha whispered to Ryan. Stellar overheard them.

"Not at all, my dear," he said, his eyes sizing her up for the first time. "You must be a virgin."

"Excuse me?" They were talking about sacrifices already?

Stellar laughed. "Apologies if I offended. I simply meant that this must be your first party at Chateau de Moore," Stellar said, mispronouncing the French "de" as "day." "The rumors are all true. Ritualistic sex and drug use followed by a couple demon conjurings and a sacrifice - usually an animal, but if we're lucky, human blood is shed."

"He's joking," Ryan said, as if he were a regular at these parties.

Stellar quickly put a stop to Ryan's feigned attitude of experience. "And you're a virgin too, Mr. Kinkaid, yes?" Before Ryan could answer, Stellar went on. "No he's right, I'm only joking. But this is a place where no judgments are made about one's appetites. To wit: In my pocket I have 4 sleeves of heroin which I intend to put up my nose this evening. Would either of you like some?"

Samantha was shocked. But this, she supposed, is the kind of candor afforded to the rich and powerful. "No thank you, Mr. Ross."

Stellar's fake laugh was beginning to grate on her. "Now I'm 'Mr. Ross,' I see. Friends, there's no reason to be shy. But very well. I'm sure you'll find something more to your tastes within."

The guests were escorted out of the foyer through double doors where a woman afflicted with gigantism took each person's phone and placed it in a suitcase containing separate compartments labelled with the name of each guest.

"Okay, children, phones out," Stellar said, now fancying himself Samantha's and Ryan's chaperone for the evening. "Moore wants nothing to distract his guests from the sensations and experiences offered here. Trust me, you won't regret it."

Samantha downed the rest of her wine in one pull. It was all she could do to keep from having a panic attack. Moore was slowly and systematically cutting them off from the outside world. And what was with that speech? "The moon is full"? "The Fires of progress breathe hot"? It went beyond garden-variety corporate egomania. Samantha wanted desperately to be anywhere else, and the longer she waited to feign a sickness or fake an emergency, the harder it would be to leave.

But as the wine warmed her blood, she began to relax. Yes, this house, this host, and this weasely heroin-addicted tech loser were unequivocally creepy. But at no point had she felt a reason to fear for her life. Plus Ryan was here, and whatever he lacked in social and physical fortitude he made up for in loyalty. He would have her back if things went South.

As she reached the double doors, she pulled her phone from her purse and placed it in the compartment labelled "Samantha Rix."

And with that, Samantha and Ryan were stranded -- physically and digitally -- and almost entirely at the mercy of Ellis Moore.

End of Part Two

Part Three