Pando

FICTION: The Devil You Know (Chapter Five)

By David Holmes , written on August 7, 2015

From The Fiction Desk

Stellar had seen better days.

When they found him, he was sitting with his legs outstretched, back to the wall, eyes half-opened, and face scrunched into the opiate addict's grimace.

"Stellar?" Samantha said.

"Hey... you."

"This guy's done," Ryan said under his breath.

"Done?" Stellar said and in less than a second was on his feet, flattening the ruffles in his sport coat. "Children, the night is young," he said, eyeing Samantha -- not leeringly but almost sweetly and admiringly. "And where did this one run off to?"

Samantha steeled herself for the ruse. "Well... I was talking to a man and he gave me a small, white pill. And it felt good and all, but i just felt like being alone you know?"

"I understand. To each trip her own. No judgment or pressure will be placed upon you for how you choose to experience your pleasure." (Was the naked woman down the hall afforded the same luxury, Samantha wondered?) "I hope that the solitude served you well, and that you are ready to rejoin the party?"

"Well, to be honest, none of this is quite my scene. Could we go somewhere, you know, more private?"

"Why, yes, there are plenty of unoccupied rooms all around us that offer various forms of escape."

"But there are no locks," Samantha said. "People come and go as they please."

"Such is hedonism."

"Well, call me old-fashioned... You know, nevermind. Let's just hang out here and talk until the launch. You were telling me about Thomas Edison?"

"Hey listen," Stellar said under his breath. "I have an idea. That linebacker in the foyer's not going to let anybody upstairs. But I know a secret. There's a service elevator on this floor. I'll take you."

"Thanks, Stellar... but hey can I ask you a favor?" She leaned in close and whispered, "I promise I'll lose him later, but can we bring my friend here? He needs to know I'm okay. And trust me, letting him come up with us now is the best way to get him off my back."

Stellar sighed. "Life is complicated. But I'm easy. Let’s go"

On their way to the elevator, Samantha tried to make conversation. She had never played the honeypot before. She knew that men found her attractive, and yet it surprised her that she could so easily manipulate this man with the mere promise of sex. The only difficult thing was that, away from the crowds and without the need to put on a performance, she almost began to like the man.

"Okay there's gotta be a room up here without a bunch of skulls and shit," Stellar said as they exited the elevator to an unfurnished grey hallway, having completely dropped the British accent.

"So you don't share Moore's love of the occult?" Samantha asked.

"Are you kidding? I've been trying to convince him to cut that out for years. It spooks advertisers, shareholders, users... And he wants this place to be some kind of pleasuredome, but women - and men for that matter - would be a lot more willing to give themselves over to pleasure if he cut down on the Satanic bric-a-brac. Let's try this room."

"Okay, hey one second, Stellar," Samantha said. "I'll meet you in there."

"Please, call me Todd. There are no reporters or fanboys around."

After Stellar/Todd left them in the hall, Samantha whispered to Ryan, "Ok, stay here. I'll be out as soon as I can. If you see anybody, just act stoned and say you got lost."

"That shouldn't be hard," Ryan said. "I am stoned and got lost. Hey, hurry up in there. This place is making me really paranoid."

"I wish I could say it was all in your head."

"Just be careful, Sam. I know he seems harmless, but don't underestimate him. These guys aren't used to hearing 'no,'" Ryan said.

"You're sweet, Ryan. I'll be careful."

When Samantha entered the room, Stellar had already raided the liquor cabinet. This appeared to be a guest bedroom for visiting dignitaries, celebrities, and high-profile colleagues who did not share Moore's predilection toward the grotesque. Instead of chains and iron maidens, there were silk sheets, oak furniture, and watercolors depicting ocean spray lit by treetop sunsets.

"I poured us some bourbon,” Stellar said, handing her a glass. “Do you like bourbon? If not, I'm happy to drink both of them and fix you something else."

Samantha took one bourbon out of his hand, downed it, and did the same with the other in her hand. She began to kiss Stellar, holding his hands in hers. She walked him over to the bed, lips still locked, and then pushed him down onto the thick fur comforter.

"There's something I've always wanted to do..."

"Well, uh, there's no better place to try new things."

"Don't move." Samantha walked to the dresser, found some T-shirts, and began to tie one of Stellar's wrists to the bedposts.

"Shouldn't I take my clothes off first?" He asked.

"Shut up. Don't speak unless I say you can speak."

"Yes, ma'am."

She slapped his face, a little harder than she intended. "Are you deaf? I said, ‘Don't speak.’"

Samantha tried not to look at the tiny erection bulging from his yoga pants. She struggled with his legs, which were so short the shirts barely reached the posts. When she finished, she stood at the foot of the bed and began to lift up her shirt but then stopped cold.

"Is everything okay?" Stellar asked.

Samantha put her hand to her mouth. "Sure just give me a minute." She hurled her body forward. "Oh god. I'm gonna be sick. I'm so sorry <gulp> just... just... Hold that thought, I'll be right back."

"Wait! Untie me first."

"No no I swear I'll make it worth your <gulp> while. Oh god..."

She ran out of the door with her hand over her mouth, a little shocked that the gambit worked. She gave Ryan a thumbs up as he approached.

"Are you okay? Did anything happen in there?"

"Everything's good, except we're running out of time. We need to find one of Moore's computers, or at least a Bible. I think I know what he's building but I want to be sure. I want to know what we're up against. I saw him go through a door near the main staircase."

"Okay. I'm not totally sure, but I think I know where we are in the house. The foyer should be this way."

Samantha followed Ryan around a bend in the hallway, and, sure enough, it opened up into the foyer, which was empty save for the guard at the bottom of the staircase. She put her index finger to her mouth, pointed to the door she saw Moore go through, then took the lead. The railing to the balcony was built atop a half-wall of solid marble, so they could crouch down and crawl invisibly just twenty feet above the guard. Once they reached the door, Samantha put up her hand to signal them to stop. She crawled to the door and placed her ear to it. She could hear the buzzing and whirring of machines and nothing else, though there could easily be one or two or an army of Moore's people inside. But they had come this far, and the time for caution had passed. She reached up to the knob, turned it easily, and opened the door a crack. After a few moments, she gestured for Ryan to follow.

The room was exactly what Samantha expected from a Satanic tech CEO's private study. There were computers, laptops, and tablets everywhere, along with a giant mainframe. Moore was careful enough to keep the building's data server close, but apprarently not so careful to lock the door. The walls were lined with historical artifacts that belonged to occult icons, mad scientists, and mystics. Charts devoted to palmistry and phrenology sat alongside Satanist lore, like the forged letter supposedly signed by Lucifer himself that condemned Urbain Grandier to be burned at the stake. Floating in a jar of brine was a mushy grey mound said to be the preserved brain of rocket scientist and occult enthusiast Jack Parsons. A black wooden bookshelf contained ancient-looking tomes pertaining to arcane fields of religion, science, and mysticism.

"I'm going to try to log on to one of these computers," Samantha said. "Until i do, check the bookshelf for a Bible.

Samantha sat down at a large monitor on a desk in the center of the room, but it was password-protected. She hardly had time to try every word for Satan so she moved on to a laptop beside it, but that too was locked.

Samantha heard a whirring sound above her. When she looked up, she saw a tiny flashing red light. It was a camera.

"Found a Bible!" Ryan said.

"Give it here," Samantha said. "They're coming. Go prop something against the door."

"This isn't the Alamo..."

"Just do it!" As Samantha searched for the passage, she heard massive footfalls running up the marble steps, footfalls that without a doubt belonged to the 300 pound guard. Meanwhile, Ryan was placing a chair under the knob.

"We need something bigger!" She shouted, before running over with the intent of pushing a book shelf, which sat against the wall directly to the right of the door, on its side to block the entrance. Whatever semblance of a plan at this point had fallen apart, as Samantha ran on instinct alone now. The shelf barely budged until Ryan came to help. Just as gravity began to take over, the door swung open, though when the shelf fell it pushed the door back closed. Samantha wondered if they had injured the guard. At the very least, reckless endangerment would be added to the list of charges leveled against her.

Injured or not, the guard was vicious in slamming into the door. BOOM! The bookshelf was only wide enough to cover the lower half of the door. BOOM! The guard needed only to break that down and climb over the fallen shelf to reach them. And then what? BOOM! CRACK!

After a few seconds, the door had already begun to splinter. Samantha's hands shook as she again picked up the Bible and searched for the passage, her fingers guided by moral muscle memory. Meanwhile, Ryan searched the room's perimeter for a secret escape route.

"Here!" She shouted as the guard's bloody fist plowed through the door, spraying bits of knuckle flesh on the downed shelf. It read the passage, silently. "Of course."

"What's it say?" Ryan asked.

"'In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.' Ryan, this is about the antichrist."

"What?"

"Quantum computing... AI... He's building a robot capable of understanding and replicating every gesture or vocalization known to man. And its programming will be to cause deception and destruction and chaos."

"You don't really believe..."

"It doesn't matter! God or no God, this thing is coming and it's going to be smarter and more evil than anything the world has seen. We helped build it, and we have to stop it,"

The hole in the door was now two feet wide -- still too small for the guard to enter. But not for the man who gracefully hoisted himself over the bookshelf and into the room. The figure dismounted with elegant flair and before saying or doing anything else brushed the tiny shards of door from his black suit. Whatever people would say later about Ellis Moore, the man knew how to make an entrance.

***

For a few seconds, nobody said a word. When the silence finally broke, Samantha and Ryan realized that they'd forgotten to breathe.

"Okay, I'll go first," Moore said. "Your actions this evening, Ms. Rix, have proven to be most curious. At first, I suspected you had been enlisted by one of my competitors as an agent of corporate espionage. But if that's true, then I have to say I'm insulted. Do my rivals think so little of me that they sent as incompetent a spy as you? But as I watched you contend with spice racks and broom closets on our surveillance feed, another theory crossed my mind - a theory that required only the quickest glance at your personal history to confirm. Twelve years of Catholic school. A portfolio full of paintings that betray a sincere -- if a little cliched -- fascination with Christian imagery. Therapy sessions with not one but two psychoanalysts who identified mild, though unequivocal, symptoms of paranoia and deep-seated guilt. A tweet in which you say, and I quote, 'No matter how many times I watch "The Exorcist," I always get scared and turn it off.' Such insight. It's a wonder you only have 231 followers. And finally, don't think that your Puritan work ethic has gone unnoticed at EndTech. For that, I'm pleased to have the opportunity to say thank you, face-to-face."

Samantha stared at Moore and said nothing. Ryan looked at her floor like a kid brought into the principal's office for punishment.

"In short," Moore continued, "while your faith has diminished, the fear and guilt of your upbringing has only deepened with each passing year. You fear me, thinking I've got the power or desire to enlist demons into my service. And you feel guilty for working at a giant technology corporation which, yes, ‘spies"’on its users, manipulates them even, so that advertisers give us money that we use to pay our server bills and keep operating a free site that billions of people love. How diabolical of me! You're not alone in hating me, of course, but you are a special case. You're more than one of those spiteful journalists or armchair activists who complain about EndTech and use our platform to do it. You are one of our best employees. And yet the harder you work, the guiltier you feel - all thanks to those horrible nuns. If either of us have a reason to worship Satan it's you."

Samantha had a hundred things she'd planned to say to Moore if he apprehended her, but none of them came to mind.

"Which brings us to the final - and my favorite - twist of your little adventure," Morre said, "in which you convinced yourself that our secret project was in fact a plan to conjure some kind of antichrist made of algorithms? Ms. Rix, I want EndTech to survive for a thousand years. I want to die knowing I've guaranteed wealth and comfort for however long the Moore family line remains. Why would I birth a destroyer of worlds? You artists know nothing about capitalism and never have."

In her heart, she knew everything he said had was true. But she didn't want to give up yet.

"What about that fucking sex ritual with the gallons of blood that came out of nowhere?" Samantha asked.

"Let me ask you a question, Ms. Rix: Do you believe in... Magic?" Moore said as he condescendingly pretended to remove and reattach one of his thumbs from his hand - the kind of trick that fools nobody over the age of 5. "As for the untraditional nature of our little show... Members of my flock are often asked, why would anyone choose to worship Satan? It's because, unlike the nuns who abused you - emotionally and likely physically - we readily admit that we cannot control what titillates and excites us. That's why we do not judge our brothers, no matter how strange their proclivities."

"Even if those 'proclivities' involve cornering and groping a woman against her wishes?" Samantha said.

"What did you think was going to happen? You walked in, uninvited, on the preamble to a ritualistic sex orgy. Some of those in masks were women, by the way."

"I'm sure a jury will side with the degenerate Devil worshippers," Samantha said, intending to sound menacing but sounding meek instead.

"As you can probably imagine, you're not the first to threaten me with a sexual harassment suit. You are, however, the first to do so after committing a half a dozen felonies on my property. But we'll get to that later. The longer I watched you, Samantha, I more I realized how similar you are to us. You kept pushing onwards, wanting to see more and more of our strange behavior. You just couldn’t help yourself, the perversity excited you so. You thought your friend was in danger, and yet you thought it more prudent to stop in at our ritual first."

"Did you really do that, Samantha?" Ryan asked.

"Really, Ryan, it's not in anyone's interest for you to speak right now," Moore said.

"Don't listen to him, Ryan," Samantha said. "Every last word that's come out of his mouth is bullshit."

"It really has been a pleasure to share this evening with you," Moore said. "You know, there's still another hour before midnight, but I think it's fitting that you be the first to see what we've created together. Victor! " The massive guard obediently stuck his head through the hole in the door. "Escort us to the crypt."

***

Samantha watched as the quantum computer carried out the operations that until tonight lived only in txt files and in Moore's imagination. She watched it scan a user's personal, financial, and medical data, cross-reference brands, and compile natural language that prove would irresistible to consumers, lighting up the parts of their brains that govern desire, inadequacy, jealousy, and, most importantly, the knowledge of one's own mortality. With the help of Samantha, Moore had built the greatest achievement in advertising since the invention of 99 cents.

"I can tell by your face that you've figured it out," Moore said. "I have to say I'm impressed. Ryan here is still lost. Would you mind explaining it to him?"

Samantha sighed and after a few seconds, assented: "It's an algorithm that serves up personalized advertisements virtually guaranteed, with a 95 percent success rate, to make the user buy whatever product a company is selling. Commerce will never be the same. The Internet will never be the same. By tomorrow morning we will have turned two billion people into literal slaves to consumerism."

"Very good," Moore said, clapping his hands. "You really are one of us."

"Fuck you," Samantha said.

"I know you're disappointed," Moore said, "but you helped make history. You should be proud."

"You know what?" Samantha said, the words she had wanted to say to Moore finally coming to her. "I am disappointed. Disappointed that instead of doing something truly innovative, albeit evil, all you did was find another way to sell ads. At least if you had built the antichrist it would show some conviction, some devotion to something other than money. Don't get me wrong, this is still evil. But it's the kind of banal and boring evil that hardworking people have had to put up with for centuries. You are one of the smartest people that's ever lived but you're also a hack who lacks the creativity to achieve anything more important than selling more hamburgers, SUVs, and other shit nobody needs. At best, you're a glorified salesman. An incredibly malicious and misogynist salesman, but a salesman nonetheless. A common fratboy."

"Well, Samantha, I'm sorry to hear that," Moore said. "But I still had fun with you tonight so I'm going to cut you a deal. I won't press charges, as long I never see your face ever again."

***

Samantha did see Moore one last time - in court at a sexual harassment hearing brought against the CEO by 23 current and former employees. It was Stellar Ross - better known today as Todd Rothstein - who helped organize the plaintiffs and who used his connections to convince the New York Attorney General to subpoena the surveillance footage from Moore's estate. As Todd later explained it to Samantha, unlike many tech CEOs, Moore wasn't mobbed up or involved with any other criminal syndicates. Nor did he possess inroads with US government agencies like the CIA. Moore's arrogant antipathy toward government organizations finally caught up with him.

As for EndTech, its board decided that the only way to salvage the company's now-toxic reputation was to install Todd as CEO, in light of his whistleblower status in the harassment case. Todd was no Satanist, but he did owe the government a few favors. And as the company in possession of the world's only functional quantum computer, EndTech became the NSA's unofficial partner in conducting mass surveillance on a scale that made the Edward Snowden revelations in the 2010s seem quaint.

You know what they say: Better the devil you know.