This is a rough draft except from the upcoming horror anthology “The Immanent World: 404”. Clive Reznor’s yearly series continues with more gripping tales of horror, dark sci-fi, and black humor, wrapped in the story of David Clegg — a computer programmer who finds that his conspiracy theories about the government and the nature of reality itself might be more on the nose than he anticipated.
A SLIGHT CASE OF TROLLING
Dealing with the minds and emotions that populated–or according to David Clegg, infested–the internet varied from the mundane to the magnificent. Where others thought of themselves as enlightened, experienced, or enigmatic, Clegg, as he was known by his friends and online associates, had a knack for destroying whatever illusions many of these people had.
It’s what social media was for, in his opinion. Come with your best, comment on the world through keystrokes and icons, pull quotes from others as if they’re your own, and masquerade as a prince among the electronic filth of poppers.
Tonight, he couldn’t be bothered with the drivel. He’d only engage with others online when he saw something so idiotically incorrect that his ego couldn’t help but squash the person who dared to soil his eyes with their terrible grammar and sub-elementary school intellect. He had bigger fish to fry now, a chat room he discovered deep in the dark web, suggested by like-minded associates he communicated with in the most exclusive of message boards. Alpha level hackers and the philosophic were the patrons here, and among this inner circle, news of a sub group emerged. Clegg had heard of this place for weeks now, a board where the conversations comprised concepts and theories so intricate a thorough understanding of astrophysics, molecular biology, ancient and modern philosophy, and half a dozen other disciplines were necessary. The posts were long, detailed, and provocative. He spent two hours scanning the pages, his finger clicking his mouse to lead him from one subject to the next.
A chat window interrupted his journey down the rabbit hole, popping up on one of his three monitors.
“Now really isn’t the time,” he muttered, hovering the white arrow over the top corner of the window, turning it into a hand with the index finger extended toward a grey “x” mark.
Sandy: Why are you up so late?Clegg: Just reading some stuff online. What are you doing up so late?Sandy: Couldn’t sleep. There’s been a noise in the basement all night. It’s keeping me up.Clegg: Do you know what it is?Sandy: No. I hate going down there at night. I’m not doing it if there’s a noise down there.
Clegg ran his hand through his thinning head of brown hair, the small bald patch feeling slick on his palm. He huffed, now maximizing the screen and pushing the chat box into the forefront. His curled his fingers, not wanting to type the first thought that came to mind. He waited a few beats, lingering on the square pale box blinking on the black screen, hoping Sandy would grow impatient and continue the conversation on her own.
Sandy: Can I come over?
He laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back, his weight causing the joints of the chair to creak and moan. He rocked a few times, his index fingers pushing up against the bottom of his unshaven chin. With another deep inhale, he sprang forward in his seat and typed again.
Clegg: If you need to. I can’t say I’ll be much company.Sandy: That’s fine. I just don’t want to be here alone tonight.Sandy: I hope I’m not imposing. You’ve been distant lately.Sandy: Forget I said that. I’ll be over in a half hour.Clegg: Cool.
Clegg closed the chat window and took a sip from his cup sitting on his desk. Trash covered the desk, from crumpled balls of paper to twisted candy bar wrappers to empty cans of soda. It was later than he thought, almost midnight, which meant he’d spent six hours downstairs in his basement on his computer.
He rubbed his eyes and spun around in his chair, taking a break from staring at the three computer monitors for a minute to survey his man cave. The place was a mess. Before Sandy arrived, he’d have to clean up and make it presentable. At the very least, he’d stash away most of the loose trash in a bag and stuff it in a closet out of sight, wipe down his desk, and head upstairs to make sure the two days of leftovers weren’t stinking up the trash can.
Ten minutes later he had made little progress in cleaning, his attention drawn back to the internet and the chat board. Page after page he read, and once he was comfortable with how his own acumen would stack up against the other posters, he added his own contribution.
Most of what he wrote was his own personal mantra, pulled from his mind and transferred onto the screen with lightning fast keystrokes. He opened a folder on his computer and scanned the various files he had kept in secret. From here, he copied and pasted his thoughts on multiple dimensions, String Theory, the Theory of Eleven, and a few of his own observations, cobbling them together in a series of responses to other users’ posts as well as constructing his own thread on the chat board. Switching back and forth from screen to screen, beads of sweat formed just under his hairline, his face flush, his eyes darting back and forth.
The buzzing of the doorbell upstairs snapped him out of his work. The visitor was insistent, pressing the buzzer repeatedly. Clegg rolled his eyes, pushed himself away from the desk, and stomped up the basement steps.
He opened the front door of his house to see the face of his girlfriend, lips downturn and brow wrinkled.
“Didn’t you hear the doorbell? I’ve been standing out here for five minutes,” Sandy said.
Clegg put his hand to his forehead, wiping the sweat away and closing his eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear it. Come in.”
Sandy rubbed her hands together before entering the house, the chill of early Fall following behind her. Clegg took her coat and hung it on the coat rack next to his skateboard, a set of keys, and his leather jacket with the Ramones patch stitched into the sleeve.
“You tidied up I see,” Sandy said.
She circled the kitchen table, running her finger across the still wet surface that smelled of disinfectant. Clegg’s house wasn’t that big, a functional kitchen and a modest sized living room making up this level of the house with a wooden stairwell that connected it with the upstairs and basement. Clegg watched her as she inhaled, wrinkled her nose, and then took a seat at the kitchen table. He repeated the same sequence, the scent of chemical cleaners making him cough.
“Look at it this way: at least I care enough to make a good impression on you,” he said.
Sandy crossed her legs and pushed a few strands of dark hair from her face. “I didn’t mean to be pushy earlier. We haven’t talked for a week though.”
“I mean, I didn’t want you to think I was being stalkerish or anything.” Sandy rubbed her hands together again, looking around at the kitchen. “Do you have any tea?”
“Sure, I can make you a cup. Sweetener, right?”
“Just a little.”
Clegg got up from the table and opened the kitchen cabinets, the mismatched collection of mugs, glasses, and cups clattering against each other as he searched for a tea cup. He pulled a mug from the collection, examined it with one eye closed to make sure it was clean, and then filled it with water from the kitchen sink.
“Are you that afraid of the noise in the basement?” he asked while washing out the cup. “Your house is older than mine. It’s the pipes.”
“Didn’t sound like pipes,” Sandy said. “This was something else. I’m sure I’m just hearing things and being silly, but I’m not like you. My basement isn’t a computer control center like yours. It’s old, dusty, empty, and I only go down there to do laundry.”
Clegg pushed the stainless-steel faucet over from hot water to cold, filling the mug just under the brim before putting it in the microwave. He pressed a few buttons, setting the timer for a minute and a half, and hit the start button. The appliance hummed as the cup spun in a slow circle.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said, leaning against the linoleum countertop.
Sandy left her seat at the kitchen table and sidled up next to Clegg, leaning against the counter in the same fashion so they were shoulder to shoulder. A hint of her perfume swirled around her, a sweet strawberry scent that Clegg had grown fond of in the months they had been together.
“Well, maybe tomorrow I can come over and check out the scary old basement of yours and tell the big bad monsters to leave,” he said.
“Oh, and could you install a nightlight too? I need one of those,” Sandy said with a smirk. “It can be like one of those clap-on, clap-off kinds, so if I ever get scared I can smack my hands together.”
“Maybe. But I think you’d be too scared to clap, so I could rig the light to turn on whenever you make a smart-ass comment. The only problem is it’d never shut off.”
Sandy put her hand to his cheek, her pale thin fingers rubbing against his patchy beard. “It takes a smart ass to know a smart ass,” she said, kissing his lips.
The ding of the microwave drew Clegg’s attention. He removed the cup from the appliance and dipped a tea bag into the steaming water. Sandy grabbed a clean spoon from the drawer next to the sink, took the cup from Clegg and sat down at the kitchen table again. Clegg watched her blow into the cup, her cherry red lips pursed as she tried to cool the drink, the echo of her kiss still on his lips.
“What have you been doing all night?” Sandy asked.
“Not much. Same old stuff, you know,” Clegg answered, taking a seat across from her again.
“In the basement hard at work?” Sandy watched Clegg for an answer and all she got was a shrug. “I’m not judging you, David. It’s good to come up for air every so often.”
“I get sucked down the rabbit hole, I’ll admit. You know how I love a good debate. This new website has smart folks on it. They’re talking about all kinds of theories, some I’ve never heard of. There’s a few leakers in there too.”
Clegg leaned forward, folding his hands together as he explained.
“Government types. Former employees of the NSA and the CIA.”
Sandy cocked an eyebrow. “Are you sure they’re legit?”
“Trust me, they’re the real thing. They’ve reported quite a few stories that turned up on the news a week later. It’s stuff no one could have known about unless they worked for the State.”
“Sounds interesting,” Sandy said, sipping her tea.
Clegg sucked in his lower lip and leaned back in the chair. He felt Sandy was skeptical about the conspiracy theories he held to as gospel. They never discussed it at length, Sandy expressing a general dismissal about the subject that stifled any desire Clegg had to share.
“How’s the tea?” he asked.
“It’s good,” she answered.
A long pause followed. Clegg tapped the top of the table with his fingers while Sandy took a few more sips. She squirmed in her seat, fidgeting between sips. After her fourth sip she set the cup down, cleared her throat, and sat up straight.
“I have a favor to ask,” she said. “Can I stay over tonight?”
“Are you that afraid of your basement?” Clegg said, a sort burst of laughter following.
“There’s that and, I don’t know, I just want to spend time together this week.” She swirled her finger around the rim of the cup, her large brown eyes batting. “I’ll make it worth it to you.”
Clegg’s grin disappeared, replaced by a tight mouth and a blank stare. He hadn’t prepared for this. His mind was still in the basement, on the keyboard and monitors, wondering what he was missing out on this entire time while Sandy was visiting. If she stayed, he’d have to attend to her and put off finishing his online mantra until the next day.
“Thanks Sandy…” is all he could muster as an answer.
Sandy waited for him to say more, and after a few minutes, realized he wasn’t going to.
“But?” she asked.
“I’m in the middle of something. I’m sorry, but tonight’s probably not a good night. I’m pretty tired too. I wouldn’t be great company.”
She sucked her teeth and turned away from him. Clegg immediately felt guilty watching her look away, hiding her face beneath her hair. He knew he’d made her feel foolish for coming over, unwanted by rejecting her, and stupid for even suggesting a sleepover.
“That’s fine,” she said through clenched teeth.
“It’s not that I don’t want to. I’m just very, very busy with all of this. How about I come over tomorrow afternoon and I can play ghost hunter in your basement?”
She was still avoiding eye contact, brushing her hair from her face. “Whatever you want, David.” She tilted her head back to swallow the rest of the tea before setting the mug down on the kitchen table with a noticeable thud.
“I guess I’ll go home then,” she said with a huff.
“Don’t be like that, Sandy.”
“No,” she stood up from the table and marched past him to the coat rack. “You have things to do, as you said. It’s very, very important, right? I don’t want to be in your way.”
She grabbed her coat from the rack and struggled to put it on, her arm missing the hole for the sleeve a few times before she got it right. Clegg followed her to the front door, reinforcing how he didn’t mean for it to sound the way it did. He promised to come over the next day. He promised to take her to whatever movie she wanted to see. Promise after promise, none of it stopped her from opening the door and leaving the house.
“Stop,” he said.
Sandy froze in place. Clegg stammered now, his mouth trying to form a word and then changing to form another, all without saying anything until he found the right phrase.
“You matter,” he said. “I’m in the zone right now. All I need is tonight to get through it, to get my thoughts out there to those who I know can confirm them. If even one person of any significance can see what I’m writing–can back up what I’m saying–then I’ll know what the truth is. Isn’t that worth one night?”
He watched Sandy’s head turn to the side, her profile caught in the yellow glow of the streetlamp a few feet away, highlighting the long slope of her nose, the curves of her lips, the strands of her dark hair as the wind blew through it. She didn’t look back at him, but down at the sidewalk leading away from his house, denying him her beautiful brown eyes.
“Truth,” she said, just above a whisper. “Yes, David. Go find your truth. I think it’s time I found mine.”
Clegg opened his mouth to continue the conversation but stopped as Sandy walked away from him. He stepped out the open door, part of his conscience telling him to go after her while another side felt relieved she was leaving. Frozen in place outside his home, Clegg watched as Sandy opened her car door and threw one final tight-lipped glare at him before getting inside and starting the engine.
The dual monitors set up at Clegg’s desk lit up once he touched the mouse. The website he visited earlier in the evening was still on screen. Clegg continued his work, pasting together his manifesto and posting it in chunks on the website.
Several comments had been attached to his prior posts in the time he had been away from his desk. Most were complimentary, others were questioning his logic about the nature of a multi-verse, claiming his knowledge on the subject as far-fetched. He frowned as he read those posts, but dismissed them, choosing to return to completing his posts.
What had escaped him while reading the dissent over his philosophy was a command line chat box in the lower left corner of his third monitor. The window’s black background and blue-green text took up a tiny fraction of the screen, its cursor blinking behind a single line of text he read, and then reread to make sure he comprehended it.
Kuttner: Hello, David Clegg. We must talk.
“Who the hell is Kuttner?” Clegg asked, turning his full attention to the chat screen.
Using a series of keystrokes, he typed in several commands to track down the identity of this mysterious person. He found his efforts pointless. The stranger’s identity was hidden behind so many proxies and false IP addresses it’d take a day for Clegg to figure out. He stopped typing and bit his nails, bouncing his right leg up and down under the desk until he responded.
Clegg: Hello, Kuttner.
A response didn’t come immediately. Clegg looked around the basement, scanning the walls for any sign that something was off. There were no windows, only four walls covered in posters of rock bands, a few abstract paintings of multiple colors and irregular shapes, and a stack of servers he used for his own personal intranet. This was a remote hack, he thought.
Whoever Kuttner was hacked into his system off-site.
Kuttner: No, you don’t know me. I know of you.Clegg: How are you hacking into my system?Kuttner: That is not important. What is important is that I believe what you are saying.
“He must have seen my posts,” Clegg said to himself.
On the one of his other monitors, Clegg scanned through his prior posts on the site, taking note of every handle that commented on what he had written. None of the names were Kuttner’s.
Clegg: What do you want?Kuttner: It’s more about what I know. Do you want to know?Clegg: Is this about my multi-verse theory?Kuttner: In a way.
“In a way? Oh, so you want to play word games, is that it?” Clegg said. “There’s no way this is real.”
Clegg: Are you trolling me? Is this Josh?
Kuttner didn’t respond. Clegg grabbed his cell phone to call Josh, shaking his head as he scrolled through the list of names.
Kuttner: No, this is not Josh. I wouldn’t try to call anyone either.
Clegg’s eyes widened as a chill crept up his spine. Goosebumps formed on his arms as his eyes darted back and forth, reading the sentence over and over. His hand covered his mouth as he struggled to breathe, a pressure forming inside of him as if he was being squeezed by some unseen force.
They must be watching, he thought. But how was that possible? Again, he spun around in his chair, searching the basement for anything was out of place; a hole in the wall, reflected light from a camera lense.
The black chat window drew his attention again. Sweat beaded on Clegg’s forehead, a few drops rolling down his reddening face to his chin.
Kuttner: I will say that your theories are accurate, Clegg. I’m not here to threaten you. I am here to enlighten you if you can embrace the knowledge. You have gained my attention and that of many others, some not as forgiving as I am. You have only two options: continue as you are and suffer the consequences of your government, or…
Seconds passed as Clegg rocked in his chair, waiting for Kuttner to give the second option. He couldn’t stand it. His fingers went to work on the keyboard, typing so fast he had to correct his spelling a few times before pressing the Enter key.
Clegg: Don’t play games with me. Or… what?Kuttner: Or, I can show you the multi-verse, tonight.Clegg: How are you going to show me the multi-verse?Kuttner: Reality is nothing more than code. What you think of as physics, chemistry, laws of attraction, mathematics, all the base code–to use a way you’ll understand–of reality. If it is manipulated, upgraded, tinkered with, you can take a glimpse into another reality. The government, as you’ve suspected, has this technology. They’ve had it for quite some time. I can show you.
“Bullshit,” Clegg said. “Who the hell is this?”
The original thought of tracking down Kuttner’s identity seemed like a better use of Clegg’s time now instead of continuing this conversation. He switched to his other monitor and restarted his trace program, tweaking the code as he went. He could only write a few lines before his keyboard froze. Confused, he retyped his prior command. Still no response. He hit the enter key, hammering it with his index finger repeatedly. Again, no response.
Kuttner: I don’t have all night. You won’t find me. I won’t allow it. Stop wasting time and answer me.
The pressure pushing in on him from all sides was suffocating now. He didn’t like being forced into anything, much less being given a false sense of choice by a manipulator masquerading and a mentor. This was a tantalizing predicament once he pushed past his anxiety. To see the multi-verse, his theories and thoughts made real, was enticing, even if this all turned out to be a game. What wonders would he see? The notion that this was a trap didn’t escape him either. Kuttner could be a government plant, setting up a calculated string of traps that led to prison or worse.
Clegg: I’ll bite. How does this work?Kuttner: Excellent! Do you see the icon at the bottom left of this chat window?
Clegg noted the icon, a sienna symbol that looked Celtic in origin. He moved the cursor over to it and waited.
Clegg: Yes, I see it.Kuttner: Click on it.
Following the instructions, the symbol turned black and a new window opened, filling his monitor while the chat window remained in the lower left corner. The screen was black and came with no controls, instructions, or icons that would allow him to close it.
Kuttner: What you’ll see is a series of real-time videos from the multi-verse. Other dimensions. Other realities. We’ve made it so that almost any perspective can be viewed, you’ll understand how as we go along.Clegg: We? Who is we?Kuttner: Again, not important. Keep in mind that once we start, there is no going back. What you see is real life, no matter how far-fetched you may think it is, these are people–flesh and blood–just like yourself.Clegg: So, I’m just watching videos?Kuttner: More than video. Experience let’s say. You’re a fly on the wall. There is one difference. For each of these you will have one chance, and only one chance, to communicate with someone under your surveillance. It’s taxing on the system to allow for more than one interaction. You choose what to say to them.
This sounded more like an interactive video game by the minute to Clegg. What a disappointment. Regardless, he considered this to be far more entertaining than he had assumed. Tomorrow, he’d track down what marketing or gaming company had devised such an ingenious interactive experience. For now, he’d play along.
Clegg: Sounds fun. What’s this going to cost me?Kuttner: Only what you allow it to.Clegg: Right.Kuttner: I will warn you, this is not a game. How you interact with them has consequences for more lives than you realize. Do you understand?
Clegg laughed at the ominous warning. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, and in a sense his prior nervousness, and clapped at the screen.
Clegg: I understand. Are we going to do this?Kuttner: Absolutely. Let’s begin…
The chat window minimized itself into a single grey rectangle at the bottom of the screen. A digital flicker flashed on the larger black screen, runic symbols appearing in scrolling lines of code mixed with numbers and characters Clegg had never seen before in any programming language he was familiar with. The light green symbols scrolled off screen, giving way to an image fading in to view. Clegg leaned back in his chair, folded his hands behind his head, and waited for the experience to begin.