The man was suffering, he knew.
The man was suffering, and he had nobody to blame but himself.
The man’s name was Daniel. Daniel Rustenford. A prodigy in technology and programming.
At seven years old, he built a mechanism that could pass the butter. At twelve, he could code in three languages and make simple text-based computer games. When he was in high school, he wowed the entire staff with a machine that could accurately grade papers, and when he was in college, he made all his professors gape with his thesis on how sentient robots could help people in their day-to-day lives.
He was a genius.
A stupid genius.
He was stupid because despite his many talents, he couldn’t find a good job. He had to settle for a terrible IT position in a terrible company trying to help terrible people. He never got a promotion, he was never praised for his hard work, and he never got a raise.
He was a nobody who could have been somebody.
So it was no surprise when his terrible bosses stole money from the company and he took the fall for them. Did he get mad and complain when he was laid off and replaced with a foreigner who agreed to work for peanuts? No, he just let it happen, doormat that he was.
Did he try and prove that he worked for them when they went bankrupt and his work history became non-existent? No, of course not, what would be the point. Something else would just pop up and ruin it.
And something did pop up and ruin it, because the next week the man lost his house and his wife.
He managed to earn enough money on the streets, at first. Travelling Robot Circus, the cardboard said in sharpie. It wasn’t anything like a circus, of course, but it sounded good, and there were robots, after all. He made them, crude little things made of scrap metal and old computer parts that danced on command and did simple tricks. He had a fancy hat he put on the sidewalk, and people chuckled and tossed some coins in now and again. An amusing distraction.
And then he messed up. Again.
He walked down the wrong alley at the wrong time, and some rough, tattooed men with bloodshot eyes beat him up. Took his robots, even his fancy hat. They didn’t have any weapons, but he just let them do it, because he was scared.
This man, this cowardly doormat of a man, the one sitting on a park bench rubbing his bruised face, Daniel Rustenford.
That man was him.
He was floating in nothing, watching it happen. He had watched his life unfold thousands of times, now, and he still found things he could have done, should have done, to avoid what happened to him. Even now, though, he somehow knew he’d still do those things. Even now, after everything that happened.
He didn’t hate this place, however. Despite all the bad things he let happen, he still found plenty of things he could enjoy. Popsicles on a summer day, his mother’s hug after he scraped his knee, his first kiss in high school. Despite his problems, he still found more good than bad, and there was a measure of peace that came with that.
But when the bad things came, when the bad things showed up, he couldn’t escape them.
The man had approached him while sitting on the bench that day, dressed in a pristine white suit, freshly starched and pressed. He had a grin on his face, though, a cheesy car salesman grin that showed several yellow and black stumps of teeth.
“Say, aren’t you Daniel Rustenford?” He’d asked, tilting his head to one side. He didn’t reply at first, thinking that this was yet another former classmate who’d come to gawk at The Amazing Daniel Rustenford, Homeless Child Prodigy. But then the man said something else, something he knew would get Daniel’s attention.
“‘AI - Man’s True Greatest Friend’. An interesting paper, wouldn’t you agree?” the stranger said, sitting down on the bench next to him. This caught his attention, and he lifted his head a little, almost but not quite looking him in the eyes.
“You read that?” Daniel asked. The man’s disgusting smile grew larger. He knew he had him, now.
“Of course! The effects of creating artificial sentient life on the human psyche has always been a...personal interest of mine.” The stranger paused for dramatic effect, letting his words sink in. He was good. Very good. Most considered him to be the best at what he did. He continued.
“Actually, we could use someone like you on our team.”
And there it was. The offer he couldn’t refuse.
The stranger in white held up a finger, then shoved his hand into his suit, rustling around for just the right amount of time before taking out a stack of papers and tapping them on the bench, straightening them despite the butterfly clip holding them in line.
“A-ha, here they are.” He stated. He grinned again and leaned in closer, as if sharing a secret. “I always bring applications with me, just in case.”
Daniel knew this was a lie, knew that he’d planned on this meeting, but he didn’t say anything. He never said anything.
When the papers were handed to him, he gave them a cursory read. Accidental disintegration policy, one of the papers read. Safety waiver, read another.
The man saw him reading these, and, perfectly on cue, began to speak.
“Do you know what our mission statement is?”
Daniel didn’t respond. Then again, he didn’t have to.
“Our mission is to rebuild society from the ground up. There’s a war coming, you know. All that fighting overseas, all that tension, it has to go somewhere, and it won’t be long before it moseys on over here.” The man stopped and took a long breath, gauging his reaction before letting it all out in a stale-smelling sigh.
“Our hiring practices also mirror this- from the ground up. I understand that your last job didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, yes?” Daniel didn’t even bother asking him how he knew that. He knew his type. He’d done his homework, and pounced on him when he was at his lowest, like any adept salesman would.
“There’s a catch, isn’t there.”
The man laughed, long and hard.
“Of course there is,” he said, catching Daniel by surprise for the first time, “but it doesn’t matter.”
“What if I say no?”
“Oh-ho-ho yes. What if.” The stranger smiled and shook his head as if it were the funniest joke he’d ever heard. Then he leaned in close. Too close. And his smile nearly touched his ears as he replied, “But you won’t. Because without this, you won’t get your life back, at least not the way it was.” Then the man straightened, dusted off his coat, and stood up.
“It’s up to you, of course. If you want to surprise me, now’s your chance to do it.” He stood there for a few seconds, waiting for a reply that would never come.
Then, as suddenly as he arrived, he left. And as he walked away, just loud enough for Daniel to hear, he added, “I thought not. Talk to you soon.”
Talk to you soon...
Daniel sat there for a long time, speechless. He wondered who the man was, but very quickly realized that this didn’t matter.
Because next to him, on the bench, lay a stack of papers, a pen, and a business card simply titled “call me” in perfect, handwritten cursive.
Of course, Daniel called.
Of course, the stranger he spoke to answered on the first ring.
Of course, he showed up only a few minutes later, the driver of an unmarked black car with tinted windows.
He knew the job was shady, knew there was bound to be a catch. He saw the waivers, read the fine print, knew he was walking into a trap. But he signed those papers anyway.
What other choice do I have? He asked himself. What else could I have done? He knew beyond a doubt that there were no other choices, but he also knew that he knew. The man in the white suit, he knew that Daniel was out of options and out of time, and that’s why he was sitting in this plush leather seat wearing a blindfold, traveling God-Knows-Where to do God-Knows-What.
After what felt like hours, the car finally rolled to a stop. He was let out, searched for weapons, and led to an elevator. All of this with the blindfold still on, of course. If there was anything Daniel could give them credit for, it was thoroughness.
It was only after the elevator was a good way down that his blindfold was removed, and shortly after that the elevator made it to the bottom floor.
When the doors opened, every bit of Daniel’s trepidation vanished.
Machines, great and complex, filled almost every inch of the main chamber, each attended by dozens of technicians in lab coats. All of them hummed and whirred, and somehow, without even looking, Daniel knew that each and every one of them served a specific purpose, and served it well. Behind him, the man in the white suit stood silently, grinning like a child at a candy store as he let him gawk at the breathtaking view.
“So,” he finally interrupted, walking up next to him and placing a hand on his shoulder, “are you glad you signed up?”
Daniel didn’t say anything, afraid he’d be unable to form proper words, instead nodding vigorously.
“Salesmen aren’t really supposed to say this but...I told you so,” he said smugly.
They stood in silence for a few more seconds before Daniel cleared his throat, finally finding the words he needed.
“So...which of these machines will I be working on?” he asked.
“All of them,” the man replied. “But wait-” he grabbed Daniel’s arm before he could start off, “You’ll need these.”
The man in white handed him a mop and bucket.
This is the first part of my second story here on steemit, called "Masterpiece". Just like the first one, this story is rough around the edges and hasn't yet had a red pen brought to its pages. You all are the first to read this.
This is the sci-fi story I mentioned in my past blog post, the one I planned as a placeholder until I can get enough time to write the second segment of The Candyman
As for the title...no, I don't actually think it's a masterpiece. That's just the title. Just...read it and you'll see why it fits in with the story.
Eh, I should still probably change it at some point. It still seems arrogant.
The image source is my own hands, drawn in Mr Doob Harmony, a free web tool which draws images using HTML5.