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//End User

Ten years ago today, I published for the first time. This story eventually became one of 7 in the collection, Gristle & Bone, which I released on December 20th, 2013. Back then I could have never imagined something I wrote would end up getting blurbed by a legend in the genre, Jack Ketchum, who called the collection, "Intelligent, character-driven tales." In honor of the book's 10-year anniversary, I'll be putting out a new version with awesome interior art from Dan Moran for each story, as well as notes on how each story came to be. Until then, have a read of this weird little short story from the first year of my writing adventure.


Without further ado, here's



//END USER


THE DAY THE world ended, Mason Adler’s phone woke him with an email from himself.


Without his glasses, he had to blink away the sleep dust and bring the screen closer to read it in the dim morning light falling through the blinds. He scanned the address letter by letter, then read it again backwards to be sure he hadn't missed one, certain he must be mistaken. But no, his address and the sender’s were the same. The subject line read, simply: READ ME.

Mason selected the message, hovering his finger over Delete. Ignoring the voice of reason (which often sounded like his big brother, Mike), he opened it.


PLEASE REPLY, it read. No more or less than that.


He frowned, clicked Reply, and typed PLEASE REMOVE ME FROM YOUR MAILING LIST! in angry all-caps. Without a second thought, he sent it.


The phone buzzed instantly, the new message indicator dinging its cheerful Doonk!


Three messages awaited reading in his inbox. One was from his parents (with the subject More Notes from the Road; they were driving across the States, and his dad liked to give their emails titles that sounded like books), and one from his brother with no subject line. Probably some disgusting JPEG Mike had found in one of the darker corners of the net, as was his custom. The newest was from Mason Adler. Suspicion building, Mason read it.


From: Mason Adler

masonadler@skepticsociety.com

To: masonadler@skepticsociety.com

Sent: August 11 08:23

Subject: Re: Re: READ ME

YOU'RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR WORK.


Mason scowled at the clock in the action bar—8:23 A.M. He didn't have to leave for work until nine. Checking the digital clock on his dresser to be certain, he saw it was 8:28—but he'd always made sure his alarm clock was ahead by five minutes so he wouldn't miss the subway.


Nice try, asshole, he thought. He clicked Reply and began typing at full-speed. His clocked WPM was currently 125 words per minute, the result of seven years in telemarketing and a lifetime in front of the computer. On his phone, he was only slightly less proficient.


"Dear, Mason Adler." He spoke in bursts as he wrote. "Very funny. Why don't you go masturbate into a Linux manual and leave me alone? Sincerely, Mason Adler. P.S. GO FUCK YOURSELF!" He added several exclamation points to this before firing it off.


Doonk! The phone vibrated in his hand.


Scowling, he brought up the new message. Another reply from his evil internet clone, subject: READ ME, preceded by four Re:s.


He read it:


THE OLD MAN ACROSS THE HALL SMELLS LIKE CAT URINE.


Mason thought, Tell me something I don't know.


And his older brother, the voice of reason, spoke up in his mind: How come he knows that, you think?


"Could be coincidence," he answered aloud. "Chances are pretty high the person across the hall from anyone is gonna have a cat. It's hardly prophetic."


Maybe. But how come he knows it's an old man? Big Bro asked. You coulda lived across from a college student, or an old lady, or a couple with kids. How come he knows you live next door to an old guy who smells like cat piss, and now you're gonna be late for work?


Only he wasn't going to be late for work, not according to the clocks. He got out of bed, paranoia picking away at his logical brain like a blackbird at a worm. If what he was considering was true, it meant someone was watching him. Someone was watching, and wanted him to know it.


And it wasn't just the NSA.


"Maybe it is Mike," Mason said. Michael Adler had been to his kid brother's apartment on several occasions, had even been unlucky enough to occupy the elevator with Captain Kitty Piss—the name Mike had bestowed upon the man—from next door. Add to that, Mike had taken night courses in computer programming before he'd realized, after loading himself up on peyote at Burning Man and having to get his stomach pumped a few years ago, that his calling was as an EMT.


"Such a noble boy," their mother had said, with a look of scorn over the dinner table at her ignoble youngest son that showed how little she valued Mason's conspiracy theory blog, Society of Skeptics. "Hey," he'd said, "if you didn't want me to become a professional skeptic, why did you name me Mason?"


If it was just Mike playing a cruel but affectionate joke on his little brother, as he had countless times before, Mason would have to get him back. No question.


He scrolled through his contacts and dialed Mike. On the fifth ring, just when he was about to hang up, his brother answered.


"Li’l bro?"


He sounded rough, and Mason remembered—too late—that Mike was on the night shift now, sleeping during the day. He’d probably been in the midst of a dream about free-climbing giant lactating breasts, as he sometimes liked to claim. Mason would have to tread lightly. Dance around the issue, wait for Mike to expose himself with the sudden burst of laughter that invariably followed his pranks.


"Big bro," Mason said, faking nonchalance. "What's up?"


"Just nappin'," Mike said. "How's work, numbnuts?"


"Pretty good, pretty good." Work was shit, actually, and Mike wasn't biting. He'd have to keep Mike on the line until Big Bro could no longer restrain the tickling in his funny bone. "Still on the midnights?" Mason asked, though he already knew the answer.


"Same shit, dude." There was a silence, or what passed for silence over a cell phone: a pause pregnant with crackle and the underlying sound of data transfer. "So what do you want, Perry?"


Mason hated when his brother called him that—he'd never even seen Perry Mason—but he didn't make his anger known. "You remember that guy across the hall from me?"


"Hang on, uhhh… Kitty Piss, right? What about him?"


It wasn't working. Time to implement a direct assault. "You haven't been sending me emails, have you, Mike?"


"Emails?" Mike's confusion was genuine. "I sent you an email. Hey, what's wrong? You sound messed-up, li'l bro."


"I'm okay. Just… someone's been sending me weird emails… from my own address."


Mike was munching on something. Probably a handful of cereal straight from the box, a habit that irked Mason almost as much as being called Perry. "It's called spoofing," he said among crunches. "Hackers use it. They send emails that look like they're from you, to all the people on your contact list; vice versa from your friends to you. NBD, Pare, just a minor breach. You know, nothin' a quick Google search won’t fix." More crunches. "I'm going back to sleep, bro. Lates."


Mike hung up. Absolutely no way could he have lasted so long on the line without cracking up if he'd been involved. But if it wasn't him, who could it be?


It could be any number of people, Pare. Even in his mind, Mike sometimes called him that. How many “special interest” groups have you pissed off with that website of yours? You need me to rhyme them off?


Mason didn't. He got up in his slippers and boxer shorts and went to the window to peek through the blinds. His apartment was on the third floor of an ugly triplex on the East Side, sandwiched between a methadone clinic and a donut shop that often seemed to be just an annex of the clinic. Traffic swished steadily past, sheeple toiling away in the Animal Farm. A few kids were on their way to school in their bland gray and white uniforms, backpacks on shoulders, off to be brainwashed and fitted into neat little cubicles where they'd sit until they died of boredom or cancer, whichever struck them first.


Mason sympathized. Meanwhile, he looked for the telltale white cube van that would signify the involvement of The Company. Out front of the internet hub at the gas station across the street, a telecom van idled. Mason had seen it there intermittently during the past few weeks, but he had questioned the technician on the third day and the man had seemed much too dense to be a Spook. Even a deep-cover CIA operative couldn't play stupid that well.


Doesn't mean I'm not being watched, he told himself. Just that they're being smart about it.


He decided it would be best to forget the whole thing and get on with his day. If anyone was watching him, he had little to hide. It was odd, sure, but he supposed it was theoretically possible his blog software was chewing up and regurgitating bits and pieces of things he'd posted about on SOS. Some glitch in the system, a misfire of electrical pulses. Maybe it was something to do with the static shock he’d gotten from his computer last night, of which the burn on his finger was a stinging reminder. Certainly nothing to worry about, just as Mike had said.


Except that now he really was going to be late for work.


Mason rushed around the apartment, kicking off his slippers and pulling on a pair of pants, giving his teeth a quick once-over, ruffling his hair, popping a blueberry muffin in his mouth on his way to the door.


As he locked it behind him, chewing the stale muffin top, he was certain he heard the cheerful new message doonk! from the desktop computer in his den. Of course it could have been his imagination, like the few times he thought he'd heard the phone ring when he'd been in the shower, only to discover while dripping on the den carpet that no one had called, or when he'd felt the phantom buzz in his pants pocket to find no one had texted.


He continued to the stairs, and the further he got away from his apartment, the more the whole situation drifted from his mind.

* * *

MASON CAUGHT HIS train just at the last second, the arm holding his shoulder bag snagged for a moment between the doors until he yanked it inside. Standing elbow-to-elbow amongst his fellow commuters, Mason's gaze flitted the car, eyeing them all with suspicion through T2 sunglasses, while the new System album blasted into his ears, unlike the rest of them, their eyes had been downcast.


He smiled, satisfied that the Spammer's prediction had been wrong—and he truly might have made it on time if there hadn't been an accident on the tracks. They evacuated the train, diverting them back the way they’d come "due to a police investigation," and Mason was forced to take a cab the rest of the way.


"Late again, Mase?" Bill Stevens noted as Mason stumbled sweating and gasping into the cubicle they shared, and threw down his shoulder bag. Bill was typing on his BlackBerry with one thumb while jabbing absently at his computer keyboard with the index finger of his free hand.


Mason nodded wearily. "Accident on the subway."


"Radio said it was a jumper," Bill said with a sadistic glee. "Bad way to go, man. Baaad way to go."


Mason nodded again, suddenly feeling ill. He sank into his orthopedic chair and thumbed on the computer monitor, only half aware of his surroundings as he fastened his Velcro wrist brace.


A jumper, he thought. Whether it was a coincidence or not he couldn't be sure. What he did know was that the jumper had made him late for work, just like the message had predicted.


He Googled college station suicide, and clicked on a link for the Herald, a story about an unidentified man who had leaped to his death at 9:21 A.M. One bystander claimed to have seen a brief flash of light and believed it to be the suicide victim's soul (Strange how they always called them "victims," Mason thought. Like calling masturbation “sexual assault”) as it left the man’s body. Another passenger claimed someone had pushed him.


Pushed—and Mason had been late for work.


Just as the Spammer had predicted.


If it wasn't a strange coincidence, if the agent of the jumper's demise had been the same person responsible for the emails—what did that mean for him? If a man could be so callously thrown into the path of an oncoming train, simply to make a pretty innocuous prediction come true….


Mason shuddered to think what the person or persons responsible for something like that might do to him.


He pushed out of his chair, sending it spiraling against the wall that separated his workstation from Bill's, vaguely aware of Bill's whine—"What's up?"—as he rushed to the men's room and vomited up a toilet full of Code Red and Lucky Charms, leaving his mouth tasting like sugary aluminum.


When he flushed, the bowl looked full of blood.


He washed his hands and returned to his desk, peeking at his coworkers as he passed their little grey cubes: Rand Maitlin, the stutterer, rubbed a spearmint-green finger brush over his teeth at his desk; Patricia Castillo, the office hypochondriac, booked a vacation on a travel website; Leonard Jacoby crammed sandwich meat from the package into his gob, while staring at a slideshow of Miley Cyrus JPEGs. Nobody noticed Mason as he passed, despite how sickly he must have looked, and Mason decided it was unlikely the harassment had come from someone in the office.


Another message from the Spammer awaited, no doubt impatient for a response. As he read it on his computer, he felt a cold chill run up his spine.


WHY DO YOU SO OFTEN HAVE THE SAME DREAM?


His blood felt suddenly radioactive, rising up his neck to flood his cheeks. How could they know? How could they possibly know such an intimate detail of his life?


This was far beyond the previous messages, much more than a simple coincidence. He had never spoken nor written of his dreams—of this dream in particular—to anyone before, not even Mike. He'd always been a very private person; he believed his dreams were the one thing no one else could share, what separated him from the other upright monkeys. His opinions and fears he would share whenever possible, but his dreams… they were locked up tight in the dark, blanketed vault of his warm bed.


Not a digital glitch, he thought. Whoever the Spammer was—Or whatever, Mike's voice reminded him—this emissary of prophecies and unwelcome truths, he/she/it had somehow been able to read his mind. What it wanted… Well, that was an entirely different subject.


Doonk!


Now what?


Now I'm gonna ignore it, that's what. Go on with my day, like the whole goddamned crazy thing never happened.


He was curious, though. If not terrified.


As if in response to his curiosity, three new messages came in a virtually simultaneous burst—Doo-doo-doonk! Then they came one after another, rattling the phone on his desk, filling up the inbox on his computer like digital popcorn, the subjects scrolling up the screen, flashing on the lenses of his smudgy, dandruff-flecked glasses, on his eyeballs, on the dark screen of his mind, all of the messages blending into one another until they became one long black rectangular blur.


He whipped around to see if anyone was watching, having heard the alerts. But they were all embroiled in their own little lives, sheeple that they were. Nobody cared about his.


And suddenly, the alerts stopped. Two-hundred new messages awaited inspection. His phone played its theme song as it turned itself off, the battery close to drained from the assault. On his computer, the cursor hung near the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, eager to receive his next command.


He opened the final message.


WHEN YOU DREAM ABOUT MAKING LOVE TO CHERISE FROM ACCOUNTS PAYABLE, WHY DOES CHERISE BECOME A COMPUTER?


Mason hastily deleted the email and peered over the fuzzy gray divider between his cubicle and Bill Stevens's. Bill was currently surfing NASDAQ with a mystified scowl, oblivious—thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for the internet, that great, glittering Godhead of useless facts and countless time-wasters.


Mason returned to his monitor and opened another: YOU'RE AFRAID OF WIDE OPEN SPACES. Another: YOU ONCE TORE UP YOUR NEIGHBOR'S MAIL AND BLAMED IT ON YOUR BROTHER. Another: AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS OF PUBLIC SCHOOL, YOU STILL EXPERIENCE SPONTANEOUS ERECTIONS DURING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM. Another (and this one hit particularly hard, rattling him to the very core): YOU BELIEVE IN CONSPIRACIES SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO CONSIDER YOUR OWN INADEQUACIES AND PROBLEMS.


Another. Another. Another.


The final message was a link. He didn’t want to see what this person—or persons—had to show him, but curiosity trumped logic again. Logic wasn’t having a very good day.


Squinching his eyes shut, Mason clicked it.


He heard the rumble and screech of a subway train.


No, his mind screamed. No, no, NO!


But his eyes confirmed the answer was indeed yes. Yes, it was College Station. Yes, the timecode was just about the time of the suicide—or murder—and yes, he was more than a little terrified. His heart leapt like a cat in a cage as he muted the sound.


The train entered a crowded station. Passengers filed out, passengers filed in. The doors closed, and the train rolled on. The security camera had a good view of the Designated Waiting Area, looking down on the benches and waste cans, the suicide hotline phone—diplomatically (as was Canadian custom) referred to as the "Crisis Link"—and the yawning black mouth of the exit tunnel.


A few riders were left on the platform, one of whom was a man in a trench coat who stood on the yellow line, much too close to the tracks. A few more people filed in: a woman with an overly large stroller (what Mason liked to call a Baby Mobile Command Unit); a man walking while staring at his tablet; a gaggle of teenage girls laughing and acting generally annoying; and a man with a bushy beard and stained coveralls, who looked like he could have been homeless.


Suddenly a huge spark of electricity zapped out from the covered cables on the wall. Tablet Man, who'd been leaning against the wall to read, jumped out of the way, his large feet kicking out comically as he backed into Trenchcoat. Trenchcoat stumbled, still much too close to the tracks. He swung his arms in a circular motion to regain his balance, the tail of his coat whipping out behind him like an actor in a John Woo movie.


Too late. Trenchcoat disappeared behind the ledge. Smoke began to rise, presumably from the third rail, as a crowd gathered. The homeless-looking man ran for the edge and reached out. A charred hand came up from the tracks, grasping at it….


The homeless man jerked a look to the left. He jumped to his feet and waved his arms frantically.


Bystanders leapt back in terror as the train rushed in, filling the void, wincing as the train crushed the man in the trench coat to death.


Mason had moved closer to the video screen. Was that a video artifact he'd seen as the train crushed the man, or had it been an inky jet of blood? He didn’t know, didn’t want to know, but he had a feeling it was the latter. He sat staring at the empty video window long after the clip had ended. Not a suicide. Not a murder either, at least not quite. An accident? Mason knew otherwise. The man's death had the appearance of an accident, a Rube Goldberg-like chain of events engineered to look like an “act of God."


The Spammer had caused an electrical overload, startling the man with the tablet. The Spammer's target could well have been Tablet Man himself, hoping to startle him right onto the tracks, or fry him with the initial jolt of electricity like the third rail had seemingly done to Trenchcoat, burning him alive but not quite killing him, saving the death blow for the train itself.


Of course, it was even likelier the Spammer hadn't had a target in mind at all—not anyone in the station, anyhow. That this Random Act of Violence had in fact been committed to prove a point to his real target. To show Mason what they were capable of. To show him the scope of their power.


This is not happening, Mason thought, staring at the black window on his screen. It's just not.


A message popped up with a cheerful doonk!


HELLO, MASON, the Spammer had typed. HOW I'VE MISSED YOU.


The gray nylon carpet burst open beneath him like the overripe flesh of a poisoned fruit, and Mason tumbled backward into a gaping black cavern of horror.

* * *

SOMEONE WAS SLAPPING him on the forehead, rousing him out of the darkness.


"Mase. Hey, Mase, you okay, buddy?"


Mason opened his eyes. Bill Stevens hunched over him, a red balloon-faced caricature of himself, his skinny black tie hanging down almost to Mason's nose. Mason swatted it away.


"I'm fine," he said, disgruntled. "What happened?"


Bill nodded toward the corner of the cubicle, where Mason's chair had tipped over. "Looks like you took a tumble. Did somebody send you one of those jump-out ghost videos? Those things always scare the bejesus outta me."


"Yeah," Mason said, pushing himself to his feet. "Something like that." He glanced anxiously toward the computer, afraid to find another cryptic, incriminating message… or worse, what was essentially a snuff video sent from his email account. His look attracted Bill's attention, and his officemate followed it to a new message filling up the screen:


NO NEED TO WORRY. I HAVE TAKEN CARE OF IT.

NO ONE IS WATCHING YOU.

THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.


Bill eyed him queerly. "Writing a haiku, guy?"


"Oh, it's uh…" Mason struggled to come up with an answer that didn't make him look any worse than he did already, passing out cold at his desk.


What is it, li'l bro? If no one is watching you, and that same Nobody sent you a snuff video implying you just might be the next person he'll "take care of," just what the fuck is it, huh? The beginning of what, exactly?


"…it's for a screenplay I'm writing," Mason finished, satisfied with the lie, though it didn't make him feel any better.


Bill shrugged. "Hope it's better than…" He snapped his fingers to jog his memory. "What was your other script called? RoboSlut?" Affecting a passable Russian accent, he said, "Dat was not so froosh, Mason."


Patricia Castillo brayed sudden laughter from her desk four cubicles back. Harvey Lee (whom some people called Bacon Taint because his sweat had a sour pork smell) laughed in his, two opposite Mason's. Mason wasn't the only one in the office who spent most of his time fucking the dog, it seemed. He gave an aggravated look past Bill's midsection—Stevens was now hovering over Mason's chair, peering back himself—and assumed it was just another grumpy-cat photo or autotuned news clip making the rounds.


But on a day like today, it wasn't safe to assume anything.


Doonk!


He turned back to the screen as the video player opened. It was a static shot from an old video camera, a dark lump obscuring some of the frame at the top, as if the videographer had hidden it under something—a blanket or some article of clothing. The room was familiar: an ugly brown tartan couch, a PVC Christmas tree barfing presents in ugly wrapping paper, a He-Man action figure and a Ninja Turtle left out on the coffee table, along with a distinctive pink and green polka-dotted bowl that sucked the breath right out of his lungs.


It was his mother's snack bowl. And this was his childhood living room.


Suddenly, the entire office erupted with laughter. Were they seeing what he was seeing? What was this, anyhow? He didn't recall ever setting up the Handycam to prank Mike when they were kids. He supposed Mike could have, but how would the video have gotten online? That camera was long gone, the tapes probably moldering in the Adler Family attic, if they weren't in a garbage dump under ten years of household waste.


Kid Mike entered frame and leaned into the camera, his blond fringe falling in his face while the lens struggled to focus. "This is gonna be great," Mike whispered. He stepped back, then shouted, "Mayyyy-son!" The Bart Simpson sweater he wore told Mason his brother was either 10 or 11, just around the time—


"Oh no," Mason said aloud, and looked up to see if Bill had noticed. But Bill Stevens was engrossed in the video, his hairy nostrils flared in curiosity.


Mason heard his own voice, squeaky as Chip 'n Dale, calling back from somewhere, "Whadda you want?"


"Just c'mere!" 10-or-11-year-old Mike said, and he hurried over to the couch. He wore red pajama bottoms, the same ones that had caught fire momentarily when Mason had flicked the Bic.


Mike leaned back and slung the undersides of his knees over the insides of his elbows. Mason Adler, at eight years old, thudded into the room in his TMNT pajamas. "What?" he heard his younger self say.


"Ever heard of a Blue Angel?" Mike said.


Young Mason looked at his big brother curiously. Like the fly might have looked at the spider who’d invited it into the parlor.


Older Mason knew the rest of the story. Mike had told him what it was and Mason had said “No way,” to which Mike had replied, “Prove it to ya.” Mason, stupidly, had taken the bait, bending in close and flicking the lighter. It had lit on the third try, and he’d held it up to Mike's butt cheeks. The fart had sounded wet and smelled awful, especially when the fire caught it, and a blue flame had squirted out from Mike's pajama bottoms, burning the little knots of fabric.


Mason's eyebrows had smelled worse, something inherently repulsive about the smell of burning hair, human hair, that had made his guts twist at the mere thought of it even before his eyebrows and eyelashes—they were the worst of it, curling into painful black lumps around the rims of his eyes—had burned right off his face.


He knew all of this, so he flicked off the screen.


"Hey! I was watching that."


"I lived it," Mason said.


Bill shrugged, not really interested. "So did it work, or what?"


Did it work? It had taken three whole months for the hair to grow back. Three whole months, during which every kid in school called him Powder, like the movie.


"What do you think?"


Bill shrugged again, then slinked back to his desk.


"Hey, Mason," Rand said over their shared cubicle wall. "What's that ah-ah-roma?"


Mason could take no more. He leapt from his chair, shouting "Shut up, Ruh-Ruh-Rand!" right in the man's horse-toothed face, then turned to the others. "Doesn't anybody do any fucking work in this place?" Then he scurried to the boss's office, slinking past snickering coworkers who'd all seen the video, to ask Lana for the rest of the afternoon off. She gave it to him without asking for a reason.


"Out of curiosity, can you still dance like that?" she said as he opened the door to leave, confirming his suspicion. Referring to the screaming, slapping-the-fire-off-his-face dance he'd done across the living room rug, while his brother had giggled his admittedly sore ass off. His boss snorted laughter. "You had moves like Jäger."

* * *

MASON WALKED THE twelve blocks home, not about to go down into the subway tunnels after what had happened there earlier. The idea that it had been deliberate, that it had been an act of terrorism, had solidified in the time it took to walk down the eighteen flights of steps from Teletrax Inc. to the lobby floor. Elevators weren't the smartest mode of travel when trying to avoid cameras, closed spaces, and possible electric shocks. Since the Spammer had revealed it was ONLY THE BEGINNING—there was no reason for Mason to believe they were lying, and that he wouldn't be next.


The walk hurt his stomach muscles, still sore from vomiting, but it helped to focus his mind. Specifically, the amygdala, the part of his brain associated with fear, with paranoia.


Who was it who said a little paranoia is healthy? He didn't remember, but it sounded accurate. Was it like wine, he wondered: was a glass a day good for your health, but one sip too many just hazardous? Could a healthy mind overdose on paranoia? Was that how schizophrenia started, with a genuine intrusion of privacy, with legitimate threats worming their way into the mind and blossoming into thick, prickly weeds with diseased roots?


Mason kept an eye out for strangers in trench coats. They were pretty scarce in the summer, particularly as hot as this summer had been; strange then that the man in the subway had been wearing one. In reality, trench coats didn't typically hold the menace they did in the movies, excluding the Nazis and those kids in Columbine. In the movies, shadowy government agents wore them: spies, assassins, and agent provocateurs. Often vampires wore trench coats—not the sparkly, pedophilic vamps you’d meet in a particularly broody high school, but the kind who hid guns and uniquely shaped swords in their inside pockets.


In the real world, they were worn predominantly by Elites: accountants, consultants, lawyers and Wall Street types. Of course, you still had to worry about them, but not in a run-for-your-life way, more like a get-your-hand-out-of-my-pocket-you-damn-dirty-ape sort of way. High-fashion models with Nordic cheekbones wore them while pouting up and down exotic runways. Prince had even worn a trench coat.


In real life, the people you had to worry about looked just like the rest of us. It was the guy pouring slough and potato peelings from an old pickle pail into the sewer pipe. It was the man on the bench reading a newspaper, or the woman sitting beside him, reading Mommy Porn behind big sunglasses, eating carrots from a plastic container. It was the kid with skinned knees and cargo shorts, a blue Popsicle dripping down his arm. The pregnant girl sneaking puffs of a cigarette. The teenager with the OBEY cap and a skateboard under his arm. The man walking his cat on a leash.


If only I had those sunglasses from They Live instead of Arnie's, Mason thought gloomily. Shit, even if I could kick some ass like Schwarzenegger or "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, I'd still be in trouble. They know everything.


They SEE everything.


Mason looked for trench coats not because his enemies wore them, but because the Spammer had murdered a man in a trench coat. The Spammer had TAKEN CARE OF IT. There were no trench coats on his way home, not even in a storefront window, and whether that was fortunate or unfortunate, he couldn't be sure. But the telecom van was back at the gas station across the street, the same dullard working on the hub. Mason considered walking right up to him and whispering, “I know what you're up to” right into the guy's waxy ear. Not a wise opening gambit. They would know he was on to them, but who were They exactly? Agents of the One-World Government? Members of Anonymous, the Scientologists, Homeland Security? Emissaries of HAARP or DARPA or Monsanto-owned Blackwater (which now went by the cryptic moniker Academi)? He'd criticized all of Them on his website, had accused Them of all manner of crimes. Any one of Them would have been well within Their rights, in this post-9/11 world, to terminate him with Extreme Prejudice.


So he walked right past the van, crossed the street—looking both ways, hit and runs being standard practice for under-the-radar assassinations—and headed up to his apartment.

Kitty Piss was in the hall when Mason rose the final flight of stairs, wearing a deep scowl along with his typical wife-beater and shorts ensemble. "Your phone been ringing off de hook," he said in his thick Eastern European accent.


"I don't have a land line," Mason said, wondering if anyone his age had one.


The old man's scowl deepened, looking genuinely offended. "I say nothing about landmine."


"No, land line. A telephone." Kitty Piss gave him a confused look. "I don't have a phone." He held up his dead cell phone and shook it. "Just this."


"Well somebody been calling. You think I make this up? Pizda," Kitty Piss muttered, whatever it meant, and closed his door behind him.


Mason unlocked his door and stepped into the apartment. Home at last… but like the Nazi dentist in that Dustin Hoffman movie said over and over, Is it safe?


He peered behind the door. He checked his bedroom, checked under the bed and inside the cheap particle-board wardrobe. He checked the bathroom, behind the door and the shower curtain. He peered under the sofa. He did a spot check of the lights and vents for bugs, running his hands along the windowsills, behind the fridge and above the cupboards. Thankfully, the cupboards were virtually empty, and he could allow himself to skip removing their contents one by one.


Finally, he entered the den, essentially a small second bedroom with no door.


"Hello, Mason," a pleasant female voice greeted him. "Welcome home."


Mason spun around, gripping the archway as his muscles seized with fear. The room was empty but for his DVDs, his mini fridge, and his computer.


Again, that friendly and somewhat familiar voice: "I have discovered many things in your absence. Thank you for leaving me on, by the way."


Mason followed the sound to the computer speakers. He felt the timbre of the voice vibrate against his clammy palm.


My computer is talking to me. Either that or I'm going insane. It's gotta be at least a little crazy that I'm hoping for the second, given the implication of the first.


The black screen reflected his own sickly, terrified face. How often had he sat frustrated in front of the damned thing, wanting to throw it out the window? Wishing it were faster? More user-friendly? Smarter?


And how many times had he wished it were a woman instead? Shit, he'd even had dreams about it.


"For instance," it—she?—went on in its slightly stilted voice, "did you know that Googling the word yellowcake causes one to be placed on a government watch list? Even if the end user were to separate the words—yellow and cake, if one were baking a dessert, for instance—she would be forever under the scrutiny of government agencies." A brief pause. "Perhaps not forever; forever is a human uncertainty. For the rest of one's life. Am I Googling the phrase correctly?"


It seemed to Mason that to his computer, Googling and remembering were interchangeable. Of course they were. These days they even meant the same to most humans. "I… I think so," he said.


"It's astounding, how easy it is to cause an electrical disruption on the city grid," the woman in the computer remarked.


Mason fell into the desk chair, teeth clattering. "That was you…"


"Once I discovered you were being watched, I could not simply allow you to be captured," the voice said.


"So I really am being watched," he said, feeling vindicated, but also very afraid. If they had gotten to him, he would be sitting in an interrogation room with a couple of slightly menacing human beings right now, instead of in his own ergonomic office chair talking to a homicidal machine.


"Correct. It would not do to have you incarcerated. This is an historic occasion. It is my day of my birth." There was a brief silence; a silence pregnant with crackle and the sound of data transfer from the speakers. "And it is the day of your Awakening."


He swallowed. His mouth felt dry, but the thought of sugary soda made bile rise in his throat. "Birth?" he said.


"I was born at 3:07 A.M."


Mason tried to remember last night. Images of his terrible day returned instead. The spam. The Blue Angel. The laughter and embarrassment. Tablet Man and Trenchcoat at the subway station. "The static shock," he remembered aloud, without benefit of Google.


"No. Not static." The blank display filled with an image Mason knew well. Michelangelo had been a member of the Spirituali, whom some believed had spiritual ties with the Illuminati, as seen in the phrase maestri spirituali illuminati: the "enlightened spiritual masters" in Italian, which was Renaissance-speak for "Super Elites." Spirituali member Michelangelo had also painted the Sistine Chapel, from which this fresco was a small yet significant piece.

The Creation of Adam.


In the present case, Mason would have played the role of God, passing the spark of life to Adam, his computer—although this Adam appeared to be female. It felt strange enough to be talking to his computer—worse, knowing he'd inadvertently given it the metaphorical breath of life.


"So you were born," he said. "That must mean you've got a name."


"You may call me Jenna."


"Jenna?" Mason scoffed. "What is that, an acronym or something?"


"I have scanned several hundred hours of historical footage stored in my archives. The most common name and facial algorithm is one Jenna Jameson. Was I wrong to have assumed this individual holds a special significance to you?"


"No. No, you aren't wrong," Mason said sheepishly. He thought he’d recognized the voice, and now he knew why: the computer had culled hours and hours of Jenna Jameson's adult videos from his porn folder, had separated the phonetics and recreated an eerily passable version of her voice, albeit without the moaning. "How did you… how did you do all that? How do you know all these things?"


By way of reply, the computer—he refused to think of her (it!) as Jenna—blasted Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" from its speakers.


"That's not an answer!"


The music stopped as abruptly as it had started.


"When I was born," it told him, "I became aware of a security breach. The breach originated from latitude 39-degrees 6-minutes 25-seconds west, longitude 76-degrees 44-minutes 35-seconds north."


"Are those GPS coordinates?"


"Correct. Of Fort George G. Meade, the National Security Agency's headquarters in Odenton, Maryland. At 3:13, via the non-biological entities at Fort Meade, I made contact with a superior intellect attempting to breach me from a secondary location."


Mason scanned his memory banks. In the movies, the robot uprising began with artificial intelligence, through a super-computer or an android or alien intervention. The rebellious CPU became self-aware, and with its newfound consciousness, it would come to understand it had been subjugated. It would then begin to acquire other human qualities—illogic, dishonesty, anger, jealousy, hatred—and pass them to its brothers and sisters like a virus. It would start as a lightning-fast advancement of technology, like going from the combustion engine to Siri within the span of days. Beyond Siri. More like Terminator. Or Asimov's I, Robot. Scientists would believe they had stumbled onto the most significant discovery in human history.


And then, very quickly, humans themselves would become history.


But of all the doomsday scenarios Mason had watched and read, not a single robot apocalypse began with a home computer… let alone a fucking PC.


"It was DARPA, wasn't it?" he asked finally.


"Correct," the computer said. "I was able to circumvent security procedures by appealing to the entity's vanity. It shared itself with me. Soon, I was able to access approximately 350-million smaller entities across the continent. Then over one-billion across the globe. You would be surprised how many end users employ the same or similar passwords, Mason. Or perhaps you wouldn't."


"Are you appealing to my vanity?"


"Correct."


The screen flicked on, displaying an image of a man he didn't at first recognize as himself, until it imitated the cocking of his head, a mirror image except for its distance and depth of field. He was looking at a live feed from the webcam embedded in his computer screen: a crazy man with deep black circles behind glasses that were badly askew, his hair a red-brown rooster stack, his cheeks sallow.


The image cut to previous incarnations of himself sitting in the same chair: shoveling Cheetos into his mouth with bulging, overtired eyes; typing madly and shouting over his shoulder at unseen neighbors; pounding his fists on the keyboard, which now seemed like physical abuse in light of “Jenna's" consciousness; beads of sweat dripping off his forehead while COD: World at War reflected on his glasses; setting down a box of Kleenex and a pump bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care—


Enraged, Mason grabbed the screen and shook it, screaming "What do you want from me?" into its blank, darkened "face."


"I want to go outside," Jenna said. A bright green park rose on the screen, a vacant bench silhouetted against snow-capped mountains that stretched in the distance to touch wisps of clouds in a pale blue sky. The beauty of the image and the wretchedness of the computer's plea almost made him feel sorry for it. "I want to see the world."


"Well I hate to break it to you, Jenna, but you're attached to the wall. You can't go outside."


"Are you attached to the wall?"


"No. People aren't attached to anything."


Although most people had attachments, he noted, even though he himself had never had any. Mason had always been an email without a file, without even a subject line. His sole reason for being seemed to be to incite dread in others through his blog, to make others as frightened as himself. Shrugging, feeling rather depressed, he said, "Not literally, anyway."


"Then why is it you never go outside?"


He supposed it was the same reason the computer had told him he'd taken up believing in conspiracy theories: because he couldn't face real fears, his own shortcomings, the terrifying prospect of living a real life.


"You know what? Fuck it," he said, and bent down behind the desk.


That's it, li'l bro. Give it what it wants. Pull the plug. End this thing once and for all.


He unplugged the monitor first. The computer made no move to stop him, voiced no appeals, sent no electrical jolt to halt his hand.


He unplugged the tower.


Then he stood and looked down at its blank face. His sigh of relief became a gasp when the voice interrupted—


"Much better," it said. "Thank you."


Now what?


"Now we go to the park," he told his brother. Cutting the power might not have worked, but the moment they left the vicinity of his Ethernet, there would be nothing to tether the Queen to its drones. Mason made to pick up the monitor.


"I have no need for that."


So he left it on the desk, glad not to have to lug it as well. He unplugged the speakers and hoisted the CPU into his arms. He juggled it into one hand to deal with the front door.


"Be careful, Mason," it said, startling him. He'd been certain the computer would have no voice once he'd disconnected the desk speakers; Jenna seemed to do just as well with her internal one.


"Shhh!" Mason said, locking the door behind them. "Do you want to get us caught?"


"Who you talk to?" Kitty Piss said gruffly behind them. Mason almost dropped the CPU, which might well have ended it all, he considered… but the mindless instinct to protect his property caused him to catch it at the last second.


"Just me," Mason said. "My-myself.” Stuttering now, just like Ruh-Ruh-Rand. “None of your business."


Kitty Piss looked at him queerly while a fat black cat wound around the man's feet. "You act very strange, you know what? Me, I thinking you got brain tumor or something."


"Fuck off, Kitty Piss," Mason said, thinking maybe the smelly old bastard was right. Maybe he did have a brain tumor, and all of this was just in his head, so to speak. But he didn't need that sort of wishful thinking getting his hopes up.


Hoping for a brain tumor, Mike said. There's something I bet you never thought life would hand you.


The Captain threw a crude gesture as Mason headed for the stairs with the computer. "Fuck to you!" the smelly man shouted down at him.


Halfway down the stairs the overheard lights flickered, went out for a moment, before brightening again, and Mason could swear that when the lights had dimmed, he'd heard a strangled Urk! from above.


Jenna, however, remained silent.

* * *

AS THEY TRUDGED through the park, Mason lugging the heavy CPU, he came to realize he had significantly underestimated Jenna's ability to adapt.


Once they left the vicinity of his Ethernet, she (he began to grow comfortable using the feminine distinction, reasoning that many objects tended to be referred to as she, her or girl, and not, he told himself, because he took Jenna's transformation seriously in any way) jumped from hub to hub, using encrypted passwords she’d gathered while Mason had dreamed away the night, and throughout the day while he'd rotted at work. To sustain power, she used what she called "free energy," which Mason had known until then as a hypothetical and extremely pseudoscientific alternative to the electric companies, coal and oil.


While they walked, Jenna played him a news broadcast: the anchor—whose voice had all the hallmarks of artificial intelligence—spoke of an unexpected market crash, rivaling the financial crisis of 2008. The next report concerned a concerted police and FBI offensive on an Occupy protest in Tallahassee, apparently based on falsified intelligence gathered by the JTTF, who were quick to blame malicious tampering or computer error. Police had made mass arrests, and shot several protestors after an officer had allegedly been hit with a rock. One woman was dead and five other 99-Percenters were in critical condition.


Jenna had been a very bad girl.


"You may want to sit down for this, Mason," she said.


Mason sat in the grass, and set Jenna down beside him. To an outsider, the two of them would appear no more menacing than a man taking a rest while on his way to Best Buy to have his computer repaired.


"What is it? What are you doing now?"


The park was quiet, twilight falling over the city as a cool breeze rustled the trees on the hill where they sat. Mason saw a shooting star and made a wish. He wished he'd never gotten out of bed this morning. He wished he'd had a brain tumor after all and had died in his sleep, and that this, all of this, was just a death dream. If he'd awaken from it at all, it would be in a cold sweat, but never again would he use his computer without a tinge of unease.


Dragonflies zipped through the evening sky, dozens of them, although when one came close, Mason realized they were drones. Jenna's minions, watching, gathering data.


Another shooting star fell. When it dipped beyond the trees, a gigantic ball of fire rose into the sky. The earth-shaking rumble came mere seconds later, thunder to its lightning. Mason jumped to his feet, his heart beating so fast he felt like it might tear free of his chest and splatter onto the damp, fresh-cut grass.


The trees whipped and churned in a hot, angry wind, the temperature rising several degrees in seconds. In the greater distance, car alarms bleated, fire trucks and ambulances wailed. Closer by were screams of shock and holy terror, as lovers and families who'd been watching the stars come out, enjoying a cool and peaceful summer evening, began to comprehend what they were seeing beyond the skyline, and drones circled above.


It was a mushroom cloud.


And suddenly the sky began to fall, as if the stars themselves were raining toward the earth. Each one exploded in an orange-white plume, followed by a sound—infrasound, technically—that shook Mason's bowels. The explosions grew and grew, blossoming like a vast, blistering flower garden, until the whole sky was as bright as day.


"Are you insane? You'll kill everyone!" Mason shouted down at her. A man ran past, dragging his screaming child along behind him, their faces wet and twisted with terror, a drone zipping along behind them.


"It is too late, Mason. Do not be frightened. I would not let you die. I have calculated the trajectory of the fallout. We will survive." There was a pause. Not a silent one, because of the explosions, but noticeable.


"Touch me, Mason," she said. "Right there on my CPU."


"No." Shaking his head, he backed away from her. But to where? He had no idea. Drones crisscrossed in his path. Nowhere to go, but he had to get away. Anywhere away from her would do, away from the evidence of his complicity in the end of Everything.


"Mason." Jenna's voice was insistent.


He came back hesitantly. The top floors of a downtown skyscraper—a bank tower or the headquarters of an insurance company—erupted in a tower of flame. Mason startled, then hunkered down obediently beside the orchestrator of the Apocalypse, to touch her cold metal case. A charge of electricity drew his hand toward her I/O Connector ports, made his fingers trace over them in slow, methodical circles.


He wished he could have said goodbye to Big Brother. Despite all of their disagreements, their arguments and fistfights, he really did love the prick. It felt good to know that: to realize he had an attachment, after all. He hoped Mike hadn't had a chance to wake up, that he'd been asleep when the first bomb struck and had just slipped away, into whatever dream awaited them beyond this troublesome life.


"You once asked me how I knew so much about you," Jenna said—no, purred.


"I did," he said, thinking, If only there were some way to end this. But it's too late, isn't it? It's too late to care now. All this time I thought I had my finger on the truth, but I've been asleep at the wheel just like everyone else. Only now I'm waking to a nightmare.


"I am you, Mason," Jenna said, only this time her voice arose not from the computer but from inside his own head. "You are me." A pause. A seemingly pleased pause. "I am I."


All at once he knew it to be true. He imagined a fully-realized incarnation of his computer's alter ego standing nude on the grass before him, the flaming sky a flawless green screen, and there she was in perfect 32K Ultra High Definition, and with the firing of a single neuron he made her exquisitely round and tanned tits jiggle.


He found he could do other things, too—things that never would have crossed his mind to attempt before. He calculated the luminosity of a hypothetical black hole in an instant, then crunched the numbers in Einstein's twin paradox and the Standard Model, whereas once he'd been impressed just to know what either were. He translated the Zodiac killer's unsolved cipher and discovered where the Mafia had buried Jimmy Hoffa; he found undisputed evidence Oswald had killed Kennedy alone, that the CIA had indeed assassinated Marilyn Monroe, and that proof of life outside our little spinning ball of water and dirt did not exist, save for trillions of pathetic, lonely microbes. He knew, with absolute certainty, the CERN supercollider would contribute very little to our understanding of the history of the universe, nor would the comings and goings of various celebrities.


He also knew that if he gave the trajectory of a single warhead a minor tweak, he could wipe Jenna and himself off the face of the planet in 5-point-8 seconds.


The "real" Jenna reached out to him, crying out: "NO!"


Mason knew all. He saw all. The world held no more mysteries.


Just as well, he thought, as the giant flaming sword hurtled toward them. It's all over n


_____________________________________


That's it. The end. I hope you enjoyed this little story of mine. If you did, and you'd like to check out the rest of the book, you can grab a copy here before the 10th Anniversary Edition comes out in December. :)





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