Leaving on a Midnight Train
Ian Roland slouched against the window of the train car, his head bobbing against the glass when the train rattled. He had his face pointed toward his tablet, his eyes dead. The object of his fixation was a blog he had found three nights before after falling down an internet hole. Conspiracy theory was always an amusing plaything for Ian, but this one had him hooked. He read every inch of it before his alarm went off like an existential jackhammer. He continued to read through shower and breakfast time, slapped on the suit from the day before and made for the train, dumping himself in the first seat, in whichever car was in front of him when it stopped, pulling his tablet out of his satchel and tended to his new obsession.
At this point, he was just re-reading and scrutinizing. It hadn’t been updated in weeks. This person sure had it out for Simon Vyx. A man Ian had idolized since he was he was a kid. Ian had even attended MIT to follow in the footsteps of the legendary tech visionary. A man he had, up until very recently, worked for as a mid-level R&D tech. But now here was this anonymous blogger implicating Vyx in some heinous activities. With pretty solid evidence. Ian did the research.
The first morning he slouched toward his terminal, exhausted, but wired. He kept churning the data.
“It can’t be possible,” he caught himself saying aloud. His co worker snickered.
This blogger Fanny Alexander had to be a crank, Ian thought. Simon Vyx is a philanthropist. He’s spent billions of his own dollars building schools and hospitals in third world countries. He hangs out with Bono for Christ's sake. Sure, he gets a little weird with the transhumanist stuff, but with medical science nowadays. Now this guy wants me to think he’s some kind of crypto-Mengele. Involuntary human experimentation. The guy is driven, but not that driven. Third world hospitals would make the perfect farm for...stop it. This Fanny Alexander- or whatever he/she/they call themselves- it’s political. It’s a political hit piece. But then again, they refer to specific innovations. Like the ocular implant.
Ian sprinted back to his desk and logged into the terminal. He began retrieving archived files pertaining to the specific tech mentioned by Alexander. Most of it was standard fare; technical specifications, abstracts. Some of them were light when it came to information on research and testing. Some of it was locked behind a higher security clearance. None of this did anything to tip Ian in either direction. And who the hell is Alton Blaylock?
“Follow the money and see where it goes,” intoned James Madison from his earphones.
Ian picked up his desk phone.
“Tyrone,” Ian said, “I’ll call off those twenty bucks if you do something for me. Look into some old accounting records. Like, the Horus Ocular Implant and the artificial muscle project. To start. Yeah, I know, we’re all busy. Or you can pay me that twenty. Right. Bye.”
Ian met Tyrone for lunch. Tyron didn’t have much to say. It was all standard stuff, except the numbers pertaining to R&D were kept in a separate encrypted file beyond Tyrone’s clearance. An organization called Blaylock Holdings came up.
Ian shambled back to his desk. His palms were wet. He flipped open his laptop and opened Tor. Fanny had an e-mail address with a Brazilian domain, but she dropped terms like ‘jawn.’ She had to be local, or a transplant. Maybe she (he?) had to disappear. Lay low. Ian typed:
We should meet. And talk.
What am I stupid? Ian thought. Nervous as hell. Get your act together.
We should meet. And talk.
We should meet. And talk.
Ian didn’t sleep again that night. This time he was waiting for a reply to his email. He wondered if they’d even respond. Maybe he should send another reassuring email. The site hadn’t been updated in three weeks. Maybe someone got to them? And maybe that person now has his email. Could they track him? Tyrone didn’t come in today.
“Shit,” Ian blurted and covered his mouth with one hand and made the sign of the cross with the other. His co worker snickered.
A tall figure, in a black suit and red tie, entered the doorway of the cubicle suite and scanned the occupants.
Why the hell is Roger Fuchs here? Ian wondered. Fuchs only comes to the main office when there’s been a massive security incident.
“Ian Roland?” Fuchs pointed.
“Come with me.”
Fuchs led Ian to a large, plastic, white office. Every surface was glossy white or glass. The only color came from the LEDs blinking on various devices. The gloss and the glass refracted the light and created subtle prismatic effects on the edges of one’s vision. A thin, pale man dressed in black sat with his hands folded on a glass table. Ian stopped with his mouth agape. Simon Vyx. As a child he dreamed of meeting his idol, but none of his dreams involved being questioned for industrial espionage.
“Sit, please,” Vyx smiled with his thin lips.
Ian noticed some things sitting three feet away. Vyx eyes seemed dead as he had them both replaced with Horuses. In pictures and at a distance, the Horus looks fine, but get too close and you go careening into the uncanny valley. And he has two. Simon Vyx was the poster boy for Uncanny Valley. Ian wondered how much of himself Vyx had replaced. Enough to be a cyborg? You would need at least one part on which your survival depends, like a pacemaker. Both one’s eyes would definitely count in an apocalyptic scenario, but not so much in modern civilization. So can one’s status as "cyborg" fluctuate in relation to environmental pressures? Calm down, Ian.
“Now, Ian,” Vyx said, looking at him.
Ian could see the telltale twitch of the nano servos in Vyx eyes. They were an early model. A big deal was made a few years ago when Vyx was the first recipient of the new eyes he had created.
“Ian, I feel you are an exemplary engineer and a vital asset at Vyxco,” Vyx gushed.
“Which is why it pains me to meet you under such unpleasant circumstances,” Vyx looked at Ian with concern.
“Sir?” Ian asked.
“Might as well just rip into it. Like removing a band aid. Ian, what do you know about Alton Blaylock?” Vxy quizzed Ian like a third grade teacher.
“Nothing. I just assumed he was an investor, a silent partner... you know, like that.”
“Mm hmm. And why were you looking into these specific files?” Vyx turned his monitor around.
“I was just seeing if I could glean any information pertinent to my current projects,” Ian rambled.
“What pertinent information did you glean from accounting?”
“Your friend Tyrone, from accounting, was terminated this morning for attempting to bypass encryption. Albeit, he tried using his supervisor’s password. Hamfisted attempt aside, it was an attempt. Even minor infractions in security protocol carry a heavy penalty,” Vyx sounded conciliatory, “However, it’s not his attempt that arouses my interest. It’s your asking him to make the attempt,” Vyx put his hands together as if he was going to shout ‘namaste’. His expression was of pure disappointment. “...after you wouldn’t make the attempt yourself.”
“I didn’t ask him to do anything outside of his clearance. He did that on his own.”
“I’ll take that as admission of collusion,” Vyx paused and poked at his monitor. “Grounds for termination, unfortunately. You’re very talented, Ian. Why did you settle for a mid-level cubicle and conspiracy sites? For instance, all day yesterday you were looking at this.”
Vyx turned the monitor. It was Fanny’s site. Ian put his hand to his head and dropped his eyes.
“The things they say about me on here. And glorifying that vigilante High Priestess,” Vyx frowned, “Do you believe this?”
“I wanted to make sure they weren’t true,” Ian pleaded.
“I can appreciate that. I admit some this can look pretty damning, but...” Vyx fidgeted in the chair. He looked as though he was about to shoot a beloved family dog that had gone rabid. “This pains me.” He was looking everywhere in the room but Ian. “Vyxco has to terminate your employment.”
Ian put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He didn’t know whether he felt relieved that he wasn’t being hauled off in cuffs or defeated; either way, he was now unemployed.
“You can finish out the day. Say your goodbyes. And you can always use Vyxco as a reference. We won’t hold this against you any further than is needed,” Vyx’s voice was consoling. His face was almost mournful. As Ian left Vyx’s office, Roger Fuchs entered and stared hard at Ian as they passed.
“Do we have to go with full termination?” Vyx asked Roger.
“Mr. Blaylock insists.”
“I liked him. Smart.”
The remaining uneventful hours of the clock thundering in Ian’s ears passed into evening. As it was Tuesday evening, Ian would have something to take his mind off his current affairs; open mic. Ian spent a bulk of his off-hours playing jazz flute at open mics. And practicing escrima. His mother was Filipino and very tradition-proud. Two things were sacrosanct in Rosamie Roland’s household; escrima and the Pope.
Ian managed a frenetic Serenade to a Cuckoo, followed by a nervous Summer Wind, capped off with an out-of-tune Autumn Leaves. The last of which was punctuated by some lady, who looked like the height of fashion for 1978, kicking an idiot in the groin and storming out. Ian cleaned his flute with a comically long pipe cleaner. He had two flutes that were unique, in that they didn’t disassemble and he needed comically long pipe cleaners to clean them. They appeared to be made of a heavier metal than more commonly seen and were also longer, putting them in the alto range for musical purposes. He kept them in silken sheaths with cords attached that he slung across his back, one over each shoulder. Ian entered into the early AM Philadelphia streets. The public trans had stopped running hours ago and the only rides to the burbs were overpriced taxis. And something about Uber at two in the morning felt seedy. Ian just started walking with no destination in mind. He didn’t have work in the morning.
He sat on a bench in Rittenhouse Square staring at the ground. In his peripheral vision he noticed a man clad in black enter the park from on his right. Another on his left. He kept his eyes on the ground. Another man in black entered the park in front of him. He heard a foot step on a dried leaf behind him. He crossed his arms across his chest and put a hand on either shoulder and waited. He feel a figure right behind him. He pulled his flutes from their sheaths and leapt to his feet. The men began to charge. Ian noticed they had Vyxco patches. One man lunged at him from behind. Ian turned and cracked him on the head with a flute. He fell unconscious. Another agent shouldered his rifle. Ian redirected the agent’s rifle with his flute and the agent pulled the trigger. His shot hit another agent in the thigh. Ian jabbed his flute at the agent’s wound, causing him to howl. The howl caught the attention of a police officer who ran into the park. A Vyxco agent produced an ID badge and flashed it at the officer. The officer nodded and walked away. Ian swept the agent’s leg and began to run. The two remaining officers pursued.
Ian darted down an alley, knocking over trash cans with his flutes as he passed. He could hear the agents behind him negotiating the impromptu trash slalom. Back out to a main road, he ducked into a diner and slid into a booth out of view of the windows. He pulled out his phone and stabbed at it with frantic fingers. He addressed an email to Fanny Alexander.
I need help. They’re trying to kill me.
Ian gripped his phone and drummed his hand on the table. Checking for a notification at least every heartbeat. A waitress approached.
“Coffee. Black,” Ian snapped, “Thank you.”
His phone vibrated.
Call it, dipshit.
What if my phone is tapped?
Ofc it is. Don’t sweat it. I got u.
Ian pounded out the number.
“We have 30 seconds before Vyxco adapts their signal,” said a heavily modulated voice, “Listen. Only talk to answer questions. Understand?”
“Yes,” Ian panted.
“Where are you?”
“Can you get to the aquarium?”
“As soon as the trains start running.”
“Nine AM. Be there. Stay in public places.”
The line went dead.
Ian Roland slouched against the window of the train car, his head bobbing against the glass when the train rattled.