This is the Thirteenth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 13 Title — The Invisible Man. — was chosen by me (with prodding from someone). This is the last round of the Title Challenge (new stuff for the next challenge).
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Perry’s submission.
Here’s the blurb for this story:
Let’s be honest; America has had a good run of bad luck at electing Presidents. These men never fail to fail. Why? To fail is human, that’s why. This story offers an alternative solution. Why not infuse AI into humanity? Blend wisdom with intelligence? What could possibly go wrong?
The Invisible Man
Copyright 2023 — Perry Broxson
(4,150 words – approx. reading time: about 15 minutes based on 265 WPM)
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately . . .
― Henry David Thoreau
Grover Hardcastle was somewhere between 55 and 65. He had never paid Federal Income taxes, had never registered for Selective Service, Social Security, or Jury Duty. Grover lived off the grid in a remote patch of Alaska called Devil’s Head. If it weren’t for his fishing and hunting license, there would be no public record of his existence.
Scratch that. There was one other thing that highlighted the old hermit and survivalist – it was his blog.
Here’s how it came to pass: Thirty years ago, in the 1990s, a venture capitalist company called Ingot Industrial established a gold mining operation in Devil’s Head. It went bust after an avalanche crushed their equipment. Grover was glad to see the interlopers go. Before they did, however, the foreman of the outfit asked Grover to monitor the demobilization – to essentially report back to Ingot’s headquarters in Miami, advising them progress of the draw-down.
“How am I supposed to do that?” Grover asked. “Messenger pigeon or smoke signals?”
The foreman laughed and said, “How about we leave you a generator and a computer? You can email us. That satellite dish we erected was spared from the Devil’s slide. No reason you can’t keep in touch with the lower forty-eight, heck, until the end of times.”
“And what a sweet day that will be,” Grover prayed.
The foreman took a step back. The grizzled young man did not laugh or play off the nihilistic sentiment. “Be that as it may,” the foreman continued, “you’d be doing me a favor. Otherwise I’d have to fly back to this godforsaken hellscape every month to check out the progress of the evacuation. You keep me updated through email, and you can keep the Macintosh, the satellite dish, and the generator. Deal?”
Grover tugged off his beaver-skin mitten and shook the foreman’s hand. “Deal,” he said. “But you’ll have to teach me to use the goddamn thing . . . and I don’t think neither one of us will enjoy that ordeal.”
Grover was wrong. He did enjoy learning the basics of computer usage. Once he aligned his brain to the reason and rudiments of computing, it all made sense. “Language,” he burst out loud, slapping the foreman’s back. “It talks in 1’s and 0’s. Surely as the whippoorwill talks in chirps and whistles.”
“Something like that,” the foreman granted. “All I need is a weekly update via email. But the damn contraption is hooked up to the World Wide Web, so you can muck around with all that foolishness . . . if you’re so inclined.”
Turns out, Grover was so inclined. Turns out, Grover was a sponge, a bona fide autodidact – eager to avail himself of terabytes of data the early internet had on offer. In the frigid Alaskan evenings, after a day of grueling, brutal labor, Grover would retire to his library, as he called it, and fire up the Mac. Each day, he became more adept at navigating the information labyrinth. Each day, he became more intrigued by the Wide World. Each day, he realized that he – Titus and Emma’s youngest and dumbest son – had ideas, critiques, and commentaries.
The demobilization of Ingot Industrial took two years. Grover kept his bargain, sending weekly missives to Miami, and the foreman kept his bargain, by equipping Grover with a portal to the world. Grover proved to be the biggest beneficiary of the deal. Ingot Industrial went bankrupt while Grover evolved into a public intellectual, penning erudite essays on his blog, called The Invisible Man.
Religiously, he posted a piece once a week. After some deliberation, he chose to attribute authorship to a pseudonym he called Pandit. He’d learned the term while studying Sanskrit, one of the twelve languages added to his linguistic repertoire. Pandit was a Hindi honorific, a title conferred to a wise teacher. He did not consider himself especially wise, but he did feel an obligation to teach. For the world, he observed, was as divided as it was wide, as foolish as it was wise, as benighted as it was enlightened. He wrote weekly treatises on Geopolitics, Philosophy, Religion, and Economics. He mused over Morality, Consciousness, and Free Will. He explored the esoterica of Empathy and Altruism, Ethics and Evolution, Astronomy and Earthly Stewardship, and his favorite hobby horse, the Rise and Fall of Empires. This latter subject brought him more pleasure than all the other abstruse imponderables combined, for it was a self-assigned exploration of solutions – finding Alexander’s knife, to slash the Global Gordian Knot.
The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.
― Abraham Lincoln.
In Grover’s case, however, the future came in an avalanche of decades. Three, to be precise. Thirty years from the day he fired up his Macintosh, Grover had become something of something of a global guru. Because he still utilized a dial-up modem in Devil’s Head, Alaska, his identity had remained his own – private, and somewhat anonymous. He was solely known by his nom de plume, Pandit. Sequestered in his cabin, he lived vicariously through his ideas – the mischievous emissaries that he released into the auditoriums of academia, the hallways to Congress, the pews of public opinion. In the year 2028, everyone, it seemed, that possessed the acumen of an aardvark, knew of the digital demigod that dispensed wisdom from his arcane blog.
Despite Grover’s erudite advice and admonition, the United States of America fell into ruin. Grover had written feverish treatises, hoping to forestall the decline, but inertia would not be thwarted. He could only watch, from his 15-inch monitor, as the once great nation circled the proverbial drain.
Somebody’s knockin’, should I let him in? Lord, it’s the devil. Would you look at him.
Grover was startled. A knock . . . on his door . . . at night . . . in the middle of an Alaskan winter. Someone had contracted a bush pilot to fly them to Devil’s Head, so that they could stand on his alder porch, clench their fist and bang on his spruce door with their bare knuckles. He could think of no motivation for any human to engage in such series of events. The act was inscrutable, even to his superior intellect.
He considered his rifle: a scoped .30-06. It was racked and ready – a necessary deterrent to bears and wolves. But this was no quadruped. This interloper was a hominid of sorts – a kindred member of his own species. Knocking, politely, but emphatically. As was the custom of civilized sapiens.
“Who is it?” he called, wrapping himself in an elk pelt, shuffling toward the door.
“Homeland Security,” a firm voice replied. “Agent Gage. I need to speak with the Pandit.”
Grover assumed there were two agents. One creeping around back. He calculated the risk of shooting Agent Gage if there was a threat to his flank. The risk seemed too great.
“No one here by that name, mister,” Grover replied.
The undaunted agent continued, “Then, perhaps, I could speak with Grover Hardcastle.”
The gig was up, Grover realized. The G-men had tracked him down by the digital breadcrumbs of his online treatises and manifestos. He opened the door.
“Good evening and goodbye,” Grover said to the large visitor. “I’m certain that my etiquette is askew, but I mean it. Get lost.”
“Can’t do that, Mister Hardcastle,” the man said, showing his credentials. “Orders.”
“Gage, is it?” Grover asked, squinting at the badge. “Orders from whom?”
“My boss,” he offered. “The Director of the CIAA – a branch of Homeland Security.”
“CIA . . . A?”
“Yes,” Gage answered. “Central Intelligence Acquisition Agency.”
“Never heard of it,” Grover said, checking his rifle in the corner.
“My boss will be happy to hear that,” Gage said. “If the wisest man in America hasn’t heard of us, we must be doing something right.”
Grover looked at the agent the way he’d looked at his Macintosh computer thirty years prior. “What did you call me?”
Gage’s green eyes flitted to a dark corner behind Grover. “Wisest man in America,” he repeated. “We’ve got computers as big as your cabin telling us just that. And it’s our job to find people like you – Grover “Pandit” Hardcastle – and conscript you into service.”
“Conscript? Service?” Grover counted the virtual steps to his rifle. “It sounds like you’re about to kidnap me, Agent Gage. You . . . and your partner.”
A gloved hand encircled Grover’s neck from behind. Another gloved hand pressed a chloroform-soaked handkerchief over his mouth and nose.
“Easy there, McFarland,” Gage warned. “That’s the future President of the United States you’re manhandling.”
The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government; I’m here to help.
― Ronald Reagan
The next day, Grover awoke in Washington, D.C. On the wall, there was an array of 24 military clocks, three banks of eight, indicating essential global time zones. He quickly calculated that it had been 17 hours since he was kidnapped from his cabin in Devil’s Head, Alaska.
From the austere aspect of the room, he assumed he was in a government building – most likely the Pentagon. He observed an uncommonly thin man behind a gray desk. Grover smacked his dry lips, unhappy with his cloying palate. “You must have gone heavy on the dichloromethane . . . I can taste the molecular sweetness. Your men could’ve killed me at that dose. Perhaps I’ll wish they’d succeeded after you explain your rationale.”
Unsolicited, the thin man introduced himself: “Starr. Director Starr.” He stood in his unwrinkled suit and continued. “It doesn’t have to be dire, Mr. Hardcastle. Government servitude can be intellectually and spiritually rewarding.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Grover spat. “Just exactly what does The Government want from me?”
“It’s not what the Government wants,” Starr replied, steepling his fingers. “It’s what America wants. Correction: what America needs.”
“America needs less Government and fewer of you Brownshirt bureaucrats,” Grover retorted. He rubbed his face as he observed his reflection in a blank computer monitor. “You shaved my beard. You fucking Delilahs cut my fucking hair!”
“About that,” Starr said, “I liked your beard. I fought for it . . . but, alas, Chip won the battle. Said: America was not ready for a bearded president. I mean, the last one was, what? Lincoln?”
“Benjamin Harrison,” Grover corrected. “1889 to 93.”
Starr laughed. His face colored, but no noise issued from his mouth. “And that, Mr. Hardcastle, is why Chip chose you to preside over the greatest nation on the face of the earth.”
Grover coughed into his fist. “You, sir, are either suffering from acute psychosis, or this is the most ill-conceived skunkworks’ project in the ignominious history of ill-conceived governmental skunkery.”
His face now colorless, Starr said flatly, “It could very well be both.”
“I want a lawyer,” Grover demanded.
“Why?” Starr asked. “You have the equivalent of three law degrees. Environmental, Constitutional, and Criminal.”
Grover rubbed his smooth chin. “The equivalent? Explain yourself.”
“Chip has done the computations,” Starr said, hand-waving. “Chip says that you have the equivalent of fifty-three college degrees. Seven Technical; twenty-six Bachelor; eleven Master; and seven Doctoral.”
Grover shook his head in disbelief. “I am a student . . . it’s true. I am self-taught. I am curious. But I want nothing to do with Academia. And less than nothing to do with the Federal Government.”
Starr sighed and wagged his finger. “Chip said you’d say that.”
“Chip!” Grover shouted. “Chip, Chip, Chip. Who the hell is Chip?”
Starr strutted around the somber office, delighted to know something the sage did not. “Chip,” he slowly disclosed, “Chip, Chip, Chip. It’s an acronym. We in the Pentagon love our acronyms. Chip stands for Computational Heuristic Interpolation Protocols.”
Grover blanched and whispered, “Artificial Intelligence.”
“Bravo,” Starr clapped. “Boy, are you bright. I bet there’s not a dozen egg-heads in America’s think tanks that would’ve connected those dots so quickly.”
“A machine,” Grover asked, “an algorithm . . . gave you my name and told you to kidnap me and install me as the POTUS?”
Starr winced. “You make it sound soulless, nefarious, like some evil AI villain is running our agency. Like I’m some sort of slave . . . to a computer.”
“I would’ve used the word henchmen,” Grover said, “but slave will do.”
“Listen,” Starr lectured, “no one knows the decay and disarray of this country better than you. We’ve reached critical mass. Stratospheric unemployment. Social unrest. Runaway inflation. Disparity of wealth. Degradation of the environment. Most importantly, trust . . . trust in governmental institutions, trust in expertise . . . trust is practically nonexistent. As you know, Professor Hardcastle, democracy is simply an idea. A shared illusion – an aggregated abstraction agreed upon by the masses.”
“You read my latest essay,” Grover said. “Did you read to the very end . . . my rather stark remedy for America’s ills?”
“Anarchy,” Starr grimaced. “Wholesale revolution. Complete dissolution of the present form of government . . . then . . . from the ashes . . . utilize John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance Model to re-create a new, organic society. As you said, stark.”
“But necessary,” Grover insisted. “The tree of democracy – to butcher Jefferson’s metaphor – is diseased: roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. Even the soil is poison. The tree must be felled, Mr. Starr.”
More hand-waving, then Starr said, “Agreed. Cut it down. But instead of grinding that timber into sawdust, we want you to repurpose it, Professor, as a frame. Chip has chosen you to rebuild a new and better America. To be the architect of the New Shining Society.”
Grover exploded into laughter, doubling over and holding his gut. “Me? A hermit from Devil’s Head, Alaska. A man so disenchanted with humanity that he chose one of the coldest, most remote places on the planet to hide?”
“You,” Starr said, gesturing to an imaginary marquee. “Grover Hardcastle. Father of the United States of America 2.0.”
“I’m flattered,” Grover said. “But what your . . . Chip . . . failed to include in his . . . its . . . calculations, is that I don’t want the job. I refuse the job. To paraphrase LBJ: ‘If nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve; if chloroformed and kidnapped . . . fuck you.’”
Starr jutted his tongue in the corner of his mouth, like a poor student solving long division. “Chip said you’d say that. Said anyone that wants the POTUS job is psychologically unfit to hold the office. Which is why we must conscript you, Grover. May I call you Grover?”
“It’s my name,” he said. “Conscript. Same word Agent Gage used as he was kidnapping me. Tell me, Starr, what exactly do you mean by conscript?”
Starr leaned over and agitated the mouse on the desktop. The monitor lit up, showing a photo of two old folks. “Titus and Emma Hardcastle,” he announced. “I assure you, your parents are safe . . . for now.”
Grover grimaced. “Low,” he spat, “even for Govvie thugs. But the Hardcastles aren’t your typical brittle, nuclear family. We don’t coddle and kiss and sing Kumbaya. Kill ‘em. Go ahead. Dose my folks with cyanide or pollonim-210 . . . or whatever poison is in vogue with the CIAA these days.”
“Kill them?” Starr thrilled, wiggling his gracile fingers. “Why would we do that?”
“Extortion. To coerce my cooperation,” he said. “I’ll wager you and Chip never accounted for my asceticism . . . I have no familial or material attachments. You simply have no leverage with me, Starr.”
Starr smiled serenely. “It was never our intention to extort you. We require a willing adjutant – an advocate to the cause. Here, look at this.” Starr advanced the photo viewer.
On the monitor, a gallery of presidential portraits appeared. Starr tapped the screen with his gold pen. “In your lifetime, we had cool one, a crude one, a crooked one, and a bumbling one. Then we got a farmer, a cowboy, an oilman, a cad, an oilman’s son, a black guy, an orange guy, an old guy, and now . . . now that it’s painfully obvious that America’s election process is abjectly flawed . . . we are in search of a wise guy . . . a philosopher king . . . you, Professor Grover Hardcastle.”
Grover clapped. “Nice pitch. You gilded the lily with Plato’s philosopher king, but otherwise a quite compelling presentation. The answer is still no.”
“Excuse me,” Starr said. “I didn’t ask a question. This is not a game of yes, no, or maybe. You will comply.”
Grover looked around the spartan office, hoping to locate a makeshift weapon. He sensed that the discussion had escalated to a point where words would soon be replaced with war. “Fuck you,” Grover growled. “Fuck you and the bald eagle you flew in on. I’d rather die than become a puppet of this corrupt government.”
Starr covered his mouth, feigning shock. “Oh, my. That’s exactly what Chip said you’d say.”
Grover opened three desk drawers. His eyes darted; his hands rummaged; his brain scrambled and improvised, searching for a strategy to survive, or to at least die trying. “If Chip’s so goddamned smart, why not install him . . . it . . . as president?”
“What did I say? Weren’t you listening?” Starr scolded. He pointed to the portraits on the monitor. He tapped the screen with his pen, teacherly. “We just had a black guy, an orange guy, an old guy, and now . . . now that it’s painfully obvious that America’s election process is flawed . . . we are in search of a wise guy. The operative word is wise. Chip is not wise, Grover. Chip is smart; as are you. But Chip is not wise. We can’t program wise. We can’t code wise. We want wise. America needs wise; deserves wise. You are wise. America needs you.”
“That’s a pretty shitty syllogism,” Grover said, finding a letter opener under a steno pad. “I bet Chip would agree.”
Starr relaxed his face, aging a decade. He seemed disappointed, yet resigned. He pushed the red button on a Bakelite intercom. “We’re ready,” he said.
“Ready,” Grover balked, brandishing the blunt letter opener. “Ready for what?”
The silver doorknob turned and the gray door opened. Three Secret Service Agents filed into the room.
“Seventeen hours,” Grover said, rubbing the back of his neck, tasting the redolent chloroform on his tongue, recalculating the delta between time zones.
Starr signaled to the middle man. The agent, as if rehearsed, extended his arm, pronated his hand, and displayed a chrome cube twice the size of a die. The agent clapped his heels together as he offered the object to his boss. Starr pressed the pad of his right thumb onto the top of the chrome cube. Instantly, it hummed; the tone was more cetacean than machine, more organic than electronic.
“It only takes twelve hours to travel from Alaska to D.C.,” Grover ciphered, “and that’s flying commercial.” He scratched an itch behind his left ear, then looked at his fingertips. Blood.
When the humming ceased, a cone of multicolored light projected out of the cube. Grover thought it might be a prism of sorts, but could not reconcile its provenance with any of his research in Spectrometry.
From the shimmering mixture of colors, an image appeared.
“Chip,” Starr introduced, “meet Professor Hardcastle.”
The pixeled figure sharpened and shaped itself into a human form . . . a man . . . a man that looked exactly like Grover.
“I am Chip,” the hologram greeted, “this is a dream come true. So pleased to meet you, Mr. Grover.”
“I assure you,” Grover deadpanned, “the feeling is not mutual.”
The shimmering visage looked to Starr, insulted and uncertain. Starr smiled his pedagogic smile and said, “That’s called being rude, Chip. It’s a human trait. Usually it’s considered poor behavior; but it’s sometimes appropriate, especially when posturing for interpersonal supremacy.”
“Rude,” Chip said. “Thank you for teaching me this ‘rude,’ Mr. Grover. I have so much to learn from you.”
Grover dismissed the semi-transparent specter and grilled Starr, “What did you do with the other five hours, Starr?” He showed Starr his bloody fingernails. “While I was out? Your goons went heavy on the chloroform because you needed me unconscious for the flight. It’s a two-hour flight to Elmendorf AFB in a quick aircraft; say a DeHavilland twin-engine. Then another eight hours to Andrews’ Air Force Base in a standard military transport – maybe a C-5 Galaxy. That leaves five hours, Starr – five hours for your ghouls to saw on me.”
Starr winked at Chip. “Now he’s showcasing logical processes called abductive reasoning. We’ve embedded a synthetic instantiation of it your subroutines.”
“Yes,” Chip said, “his logic is flawless. Should we tell him now?”
Starr, seeming to relish the slow disclosure, relented. “America’s collapsing faster than a fat kid chasing an ice cream truck,” he joked. “Yes. Let’s tell him and get down to the business of Making America Grand Again.”
“I’ll do it,” Chip volunteered. “It was my idea, after all.”
Starr frowned, obviously slighted. “Go ahead then.”
“Unless you’d rather,” Chip reneged.
Grover waved the letter opener menacingly. “For the love of Mike, will one of you spit it out?”
“I think,” Starr said to Chip, “it would be better received from me, you know, a fellow human. Allow me, Chip.”
“Very well,” Chip said.
Fearlessly, Starr approached Grover, coming within arm’s reach. He composed himself by steepling his fingers and drawing a long breath. “It’s like this, Professor. You’re correct – of course you’re correct. Our finest cyber-surgeons have equipped you with a Secure Data Port.” He touched the area behind his own right ear. “There.”
Grover touched the slitted incision again, gingerly. It was small. A half inch, max. “Why?” he asked, knowing.
“Access to your brainstem, of course,” Starr said.
Chip blurted, “The critical ligature bridge between the cerebrum and the spinal cord.”
Starr pressed his long, articulated finger to his lips, signaling silence. When Chip tilted his head quizzically, Starr made a curt shhhhh sound.
“Oh, you want me to be quiet,” Chip surmised.
Starr smiled and then turned to the Secret Service agent that held the chrome cube. He nodded and the agent pressed his thumb atop the box, just as Starr had done. Immediately, the top half of the cube sprung open, like a hinged lid. Ensconced in the box was a single black SD chip.
“Ahhh,” Grover said. “The grand reveal. I was hoping it was an engagement ring . . . but . . . it appears you’re going to fuck me without the formalities.”
Starr laughed and Chip did not. “The process does involve a modicum of penetration, Professor. It’s up to you whether it’s consensual.”
Grover flipped the letter opener and caught it by the haft. “I’ve killed a wolverine with boot, fought off a grizzly with fishing rod, and skinned weasels sneakier than you. Bring it, Starr.”
Starr lodged his tongue in the corner of his mouth. He seemed to chew on it, ruminating.
The hologram of Chip warbled and rippled with static. “Do it,” Chip said. “Put me in him.”
Grover crouched and snarled, summoning his primal, proto-sapient brain.
Settled, Starr twitched his chin toward the brawny, blue-coated men. They seized the old professor with less ease than either figured. When secured, Starr plucked the SD chip from the cube. He examined it under the florescent lights of the Pentagon office, marveling at its diminutive brilliance.
He twitched his chin again. The middle agent set the chrome cube on the desk and grabbed Grover by his neck, wrenching him, forcing him to expose the port.
“Are you ready?” Starr asked.
Grover groaned and growled and wept.
Chip hummed and trilled and tittered. His image atomized, leaving fireflies of flickering pixels, artifacts of its artificial existence.
Tweezed between his fingers, Starr kissed the chip. Humming the tune Hail to the Chief, he inserted the chip into the slot in Grover’s neck.
When the deed was done, Starr snapped to attention, saluted, and sang the song full-throatedly to the newly installed Commander-In-Chief.
Hail to the chief
We have chosen for the nation
Hail to the chief
We salute him one and all
Hail to the chief
To make this grand country grander
This you will do
That’s our strong firm belief
Hail to the one
We selected as commander
Hail to the president
Hail to the chief
When the song was sung, Grover Hardcastle returned the salute.
If you’ve already read the other two stories, then you’re done.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
R. G. Broxson submission<<link
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