“I work for the government.” That’s what Ryan first told me when I asked him what he did for work. It was our first date; an old cheesy boomer diner replete with vintage 50’s décor and a post-world war 2 aesthetic. He was 27 and I was 22, and I had reluctantly agreed to the blind date orchestrated by my best friend.
Truth be told, the only reason I really agreed at all was to give the appearance that I was trying, and stave off the incessant pestering remarks for grandchildren from my mom. I was pleasantly surprised when I met Ryan though. He was tall, dark brown hair with a well-kempt beard and fierce blue eyes. He was quite handsome, and I was even sort of glad I made the effort to meet him.
I teased him a bit about his comment, asking whether he was a secret agent on a dangerous mission or a CIA operative. He just chuckled and shook his head.
“No, it’s nothing that cool, trust me.” He never said much more about it than that, only adding that he was contractually obligated to refrain from discussing his work in any detail.
I didn’t think much of it either way, and soon after our first date we had a second… and then a third, and before I knew it, I was spending entire weekends at his home indulging in scary movie marathons and waking up to his butterfly kisses in the morning.
Things moved quick between us, and I admit, I fell hard in no time. He was always cracking jokes and making me smile. Always reliable and dependent. He had his own house and clearly made good money. Sorry, I know this is probably starting to sound a little too off track, but I just think it’s important to highlight how happy we were together. It’s what made everything that’s happened recently so hard for me to understand.
Ryan and I have been dating for almost two years now, but he’s now been missing for over a month. I came over one night after texting him earlier in the day, but he wasn’t home. I knew something was very wrong when I saw his front door wide open.
I left the home and called the police; who arrived minutes later. They searched the property, but didn’t find him. His car and all of his belongings were there as far as we could tell.
The front door was clearly forced in, but other than that there was no sign of a struggle. An odd metallic odor was lingering in the air. I don’t know if the police noticed it, but I sure did. By far the strangest thing they found was that all electronics in the house were dead. Everything from the lights and air conditioner to the toaster in the kitchen were just dead. Even his iPhone left on the kitchen table, and his Jeep Rubicon parked in the garage refused to turn on.
Electricians later found that his entire electrical grid had been fried. Not from a fire though, they said it looked more like the result of a massive electrical surge. A few of the neighbor’s houses suffered damage as well, but no one could determine what had caused it.
Ryan hadn’t said anything to anyone about going anywhere, and there was nothing to necessarily indicate he had been abducted or worse. They ended up rationalizing the bizarre power outage and circuit damage as the result of a freak lightning strike. As for Ryan: the police believe he went out and committed suicide somewhere hidden with the intention of not being found.
I know they say that the ones who seem the happiest are often times the best at hiding suicidal ideation, but I never saw anything to indicate that from Ryan. He never spoke about dealing with mental health issues, and he left no note or anything else behind. It’s like he just got up, walked out, and never came back.
For the first couple weeks I was an absolute mess. The loss was hard enough, but the prospect of just not knowing drove little daggers into my heart. I couldn’t help but feel it was my fault. Like something I had done had pushed him away. After finding the truth now, I would give anything for that to be the reality.
The one piece of evidence that gave me hope was the front door, and how it seemed as though it had been breached by force. Something in my gut told me there was more to the story than my emotional side led me to believe.
I scoured through his house for weeks, hoping to find something the police had missed. A couple nights ago I was looking through a photo album he had made for me one Christmas. There were pictures of all kinds in there through the various adventures we had taken together. The sorrow rolled like waves as I flipped through it, and it was all I could do to not be dragged back into the undertow.
After fully depressing myself, I slid the photo album back onto the open slot on Ryan’s bookshelf. Of course, my clumsy ass accidentally hit another book in the process, causing a small grey book to tumble out and land on the floor.
With an annoyed sigh I bent down to put it back. I grabbed it by the binding, and did my best to preserve the book’s condition. As I was scooping it up, I noticed something on the bookshelf where the book had fallen from. In between the slot was what looked like a hidden panel on the bookshelf.
After removing more books and eventually wobbling the bookshelf aside, I realized it wasn’t on the bookshelf at all; but instead on the wall behind it. There was a knob on it, and a small 3 inch by 3 inch slit. I grabbed the small knob with my fingers, and pulled it open.
The panel swiveled, revealing a small, blank metal box inside. Carefully I slid it outwards, and was surprised by the unexpected weight of it. The small metal box was only about the size of a cellphone, and maybe as thick as a bible, but was surprisingly heavy.
I thought it was an iron ingot at first; and wondered why Ryan would bother hiding it behind his bookcase so secretly. But as I was fumbling around with it, I felt it slide apart. The small box separated and slid open into two halves; like some contraption machined to fit together like a puzzle. Inside was a small hollowed out compartment, a thick bundle of copper wire, and in the middle was a single USB flash drive.
There was nothing extraordinary about it, and nothing to indicate what it contained, but clearly if Ryan went through all that trouble to protect it, it had to be something important.
Part of me had begun to wonder whether he was involved in some shady activity, and his vague job description was just a convenient cover. I thought maybe it could’ve been money laundering or some other work of the criminal variety. It may have been a violation of privacy, but I was desperate. I had to know what was on it.
After plugging it into my laptop I was met with only an error message stating that the attachment wasn’t recognized. I took it out and put it back in several times but my efforts were all in vein.
Since I don’t know jack about computers, I got in contact with a friend of mine who does. He came over to my house the next day; dragging a plethora of diagnostic equipment along with him. I explained to him what I knew, and hoped he’d be able to assist in accessing the flash drive.
Luckily, he identified that the reason it wasn’t opening for me was because it was in a format which isn’t normally supported by computers. He didn’t even have the equipment for it, but claimed he could get it with little issue. He commented on how odd the format itself was, as it’s not something normally utilized by coders.
Once he got the equipment he needed, he was finally able to unlock the mysterious drive. The file opened to reveal several dozen different files within; most of them simple notepad documents. They were all titled in series of numbers, and there seemed to be no indication as to what they contained.
There was another file titled Ventriloquist.NSI, but it appeared entirely corrupted. Chris – the name I’ll use for my computer whiz friend who was helping me, commented on the odd find, and his curiosity seemed to pique. He tried messing with the corrupted file with several techniques but nothing he did got it to function.
He said that the format of ‘NSI’ was one typically used in anti-virus software. He wondered if maybe the corrupted file was a type of malware or computer virus. Luckily the notepad documents provided some context, but the more we read the stranger it all got.
The first several were all titled by dates, and seemed to contain nothing but gibberish to me. Chris recognized them as lines of code, and began scrolling through them. He opened some other programs and began copying them over, and I stayed quiet to allow him to work.
I might as well have been looking at Ancient Sumerian, because I had no idea what any of it meant. Chris sure seemed to though, and I heard him gasp aloud several times.
“Incredible…” He muttered while shaking his head in disbelief.
“What is it?” I asked, on the verge of dying from suspense.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Incredibly complex and look at this…” He grabbed the cursor icon with the mouse and dragged downward. What had to have been millions of individual characters zoomed by my eyes, and the scope of the document became clear.
“And there’s 37 more like this.” I piqued an eyebrow at him.
“And I’m guessing that’s a lot?” I naively asked. Chris’ eyebrows jumped and he nodded enthusiastically.
“Oh yeah… like an insane amount of code. If the other documents contain even half of what this one does than it’ll easily dwarf what most triple-A video games take for an entire project.” I squinted at the screen, but it made no more sense than it had earlier.
“Is that what he was doing? Building a video game?” Chris paused and glanced at the screen, slowly shaking his head a moment later.
“No, this is something else.” Chris continued scanning through the files for several minutes. I asked a few questions, but remained mostly silent to allow him to do his work. He copy/pasted a large section into a separate program, and stared in silence for a moment. He then slowly turned to face me with an unnerved expression.
“What did you say he did for work again?” I shrugged.
“I don’t know.” I shot a glance back to him. “Why? What did you find?”
“All of this…” He gestured up to the screen. “If I had to guess… I’d say it’s the code for an extraordinarily complex autonomous program… a bot essentially. But we’re talking a massive bot.”
“Maybe something for Google… or Amazon.” Chris shook his head.
“What about like the NSA? Or CIA? Or some other shady three-letter government group?”
“I mean it’s possible… but it’s just so huge. I mean there’s gotta be hundreds of millions of lines of code here at the very least. Some of it’s in a script I’ve never even seen before. It doesn’t even use alphanumeric text.” He looked me in the eye again, as if I was supposed to understand what that entailed. My blank stare must’ve told him that and he scrolled the cursor down and pointed at something on the screen.
“You ever seen anything that looks like this?” He pointed to an individual symbol within the sea of text. It’s hard to describe, but it looked sort of like a half-star with three trailing lines on the right side. Needless to say, I’d never seen anything like it. It looked more like a hieroglyphic or rune of some kind than it did a letter.
We just lingered there in silence for a few moments. Chris then minimized the program he was using and returned to the flash drive folder. He scrolled through the dozens of notepad documents, and at the very bottom there was one which stood out. It was the only one titled with actual words rather than numbers.
‘In case the worst should happen’.
My heart skipped a beat as I read the title, and for the first time since all of this began, I felt as though we were on the right path. Chris opened the file, and several paragraphs of text popped up.
“If anyone ever finds this, than that probably means I’ve gone missing. I probably said nothing about it, and the circumstances have probably left everyone very confused. I’m not supposed to do this; and it goes against everything I signed in my contract, but I had to leave something behind. People need to know about this.
I can’t tell you who exactly I work for, or what we were doing. Let’s just say they are very powerful, and simply googling the name is enough to get them looking for you. You’re not going to be able to find me; no one is. Please, just forget about me, and know how sorry I am for all this. I wish I knew how to stop it.”
Ryan went on to give the standard last testament and final wishes he wished to convey. I felt my heart break again as I read his professed love for his family, his friends, and then me. He reiterated how sorry he was, and how much he wished he could’ve told us everything. He wrote how he loved me, and wanted me to understand that none of what happened was my fault.
I felt tears rolling down my cheeks as I read. Chris stayed silent, and I heard him sigh heavily under his breath. I finished reading, and wiped the tears away with a deep breath that burned like sulfur. As hard as it was to read, it told us a few things about the situation. The first thing that was obvious was that Ryan had seen this all coming, and had made at least some preparations for when it did.
It was also clear he did not vanish of his own volition. He seemed to know that the people he worked for were up to some shady things, and had a great deal of remorse over his involvement. Even though he didn’t spell it out directly, he left enough info for us to delve deeper. That line about him wishing he knew how to stop it kept ringing in my head, and each time it did I felt shivers descend my spine.
“You okay Kelsey?” Chris asked. I nodded, but didn’t even know what to think then. It hurt to know Ryan had held these secrets alone for so long, and it hurt more to think he had helped these people do whatever they were doing.
Chris was hesitant to go any further, but I insisted upon it. Despite what Ryan had written, I wasn’t about to give up on him that easily. We must’ve spent hours sifting through those files of code, but only minutes for my mind to start to phase it all out. Not as though I really understood what we were looking at anyways; I just hoped Chris could make sense of it.
He seemed absolutely enthralled by it, saying very little as he scanned page after page and utilized some of his other programs. I stayed quiet and allowed him to work, and after a lengthy period of silence he slumped back in his chair. He then chuckled, but there was no comedic cadence within his tone.
“There’s no way…”
“I just had a crazy thought. With all this data and code, and all the secrecy surrounding it. It’s gotta be something more than just a virus or bot. I’m just wondering if maybe your boyfriend was working on an air-gapped network of some kind.”
“What is that?” I asked, once again demonstrating my technologic incompetence.
“It’s basically an isolated network that can be used to test bots before they go live. Devs use it to test for bugs – coding errors and whatnot. But this… something this big is unheard of. I can’t imagine…” A sudden thought sprung out in my mind like a daisy in the spring, and I couldn’t help but interrupt him.
“A.I.” I expected ridicule, but Chris just gave a crestfallen stare.
“It’s possible…” Even though I had been the one to say it, I didn’t necessarily mean it as a possible solution.
“But that stuff doesn’t exist right? I mean I thought that’s just in movies.” Chris nodded.
“For now, but it’s only a matter of time. And maybe that time has come.” I glanced back at the screen, and the same NSI program seemed to glare back at me. The name suddenly sent shivers down my spine.
“Ventriloquist… that’s like a puppet person isn’t it?” Chris nodded.
“Why would they name it that?” Chris shrugged.
“Who knows? They always have cutesy little nicknames for diabolic secret projects. Acoustic Kitty, Tempora, Blue Book…”
“What if it’s like mind control? Y’know… puppet master and we’re the puppets… MK Ultra kind of thing.” I asked; positing another wild theory.
“It could be a virus developed by aliens for all we know, but without any developer notes or mission statements there’s no real way to tell aside from opening the file, which can’t happen because it is corrupted.” He paused, and it seemed like an idea blossomed in his mind.
“Well, there might be one way.” Chris sprang into action again, beginning to search around online for a myriad of topics. He downloaded several things, and after a few minutes began opening new programs. By that point his screen was a collage of text and numbers, and I was more lost than a cat in a mirror store.
“This may work.” Chris finally spoke after what seemed like an eon of silence. I sat up in my chair, shaking the drowsiness from my bones and attempting to pay attention. Chris was loading up a program with no name. It looked pretty much identical to the command prompt; with only a black screen and white text. He messed with some of the settings, and something finally happened.
“Here we go.” The screen suddenly flashed just as he spoke, like the sight of an old pre-2000’s TV turning off. I think we both expected something dramatic, but instead the screen remained black. Chris then typed in what appeared to be a command, but then something very strange happened. The text on screen simply flickered and fizzled into nothing.
I was about to speak, when suddenly the entire monitor lit up like a busy city in the dead of night. Cyan text and imagery popped in and out with unrelenting speed. Within the vortex of text emerged unlabeled graphs, blurry images of people rendered blue, various locations and cityscapes and more of those odd rune-like symbols.
So many things zoomed by in seconds that I could never possibly identify all of them. Chris was aghast; mouthed slacked and eyes bulging as the torrent of images continued. His laptop began to whir loudly as the internal fan kicked into overdrive.
Suddenly it seemed to coalesce, and betwixt an ill-defined miasma of text and symbols an image of planet earth itself emerged. It was colored blue like all the rest, and seemed to zoom in on the image several times over; using two lines running perpendicular to triangulate something. We realized all too late what it was doing, when I saw a bird’s eye view of my neighborhood emerge on the screen.
“Oh shit…” Chris suddenly scrambled and tilted his laptop to the side, tearing the battery out from underneath. The screen went black, and the stream of images finally stopped.
An uncomfortable silence then gripped us as I tried to process what had just happened. Chris was breathing heavily, and eyes stared unblinking at the blank screen. His look of horror was only further emphasized as his phone suddenly vibrated on the desk. The phone lit up from the call, and the two simple words on the screen made my blood run cold as ice.
Both of us just stared at it as it buzzed away on the desk. A sudden thought struck my mind like a hammer to an anvil. I knew even then it was a bad idea, but I had no other option. I did it for Ryan. I grabbed the phone and held it to my ear.
“Kelsey wait…” Chris begged, but it was too late.
There was only silence on the other end, but after a moment a faint buzzing sound began. It sounded like some weird, bug-zapper or something, but more garbled and electronic. I was about to hang up, when an automated voice spoke.
“Christopher John Smith (fabricated name). Abiciendi.” (uh-bee-see-en-dee).
The line then immediately went dead. I lowered the phone from my ear, trying to process what had even just happened as my heart soared in my chest.
“Who was it?” Chris asked. I just shook my head, reluctant to speak. I had to tell him, but the words stuck in my throat.
“It… I don’t… it said you. It spoke your name.” Chris reared back in confusion.
“It was like an electronic voice. It said something else too, but I’m not…” Before I could finish the thought a sudden burst of light emanated through the cracks on the blinds. Before either of us could react, the lights in the room suddenly all extinguished in unison. The only remaining light was a faint blue flickering from something outside.
Chris sprung from his seat and approached the window, prying the blinds apart so he could glimpse what was on the other side. I took my phone out to try and use the flashlight, but realized it was suddenly dead. Nothing I tried would get it to turn back on.
“Holy shit…” Chris scrambled back from the window.
“What is it?” I asked. Before he could reach his bedroom door, a calamitous bang emanated from somewhere down below us. It sounded like someone had kicked the front door in. Chris shut the door and I saw the rank terror etched upon his face.
“What is it? FBI? What did you see?” I begged. Chris held a finger to his lip and shook his head.
“No… something else.” I didn’t even have a chance to ask him anymore questions before he basically grabbed me and pushed me into his closet. I asked him what was happening but he just commanded me to hide. He shut the closet door, and as the sounds of an odd mechanical whirring grew louder, I decided I had no other option. It all happened so fast.
The strange noise grew louder, until I could hear just outside the door. The blue light had gotten much more intense, and it’s luminosity increased even further as Chris’ bedroom door was flung open. I then heard three things happen in a few seconds. Two booming gunshots, a loud mechanical hiss, and a scream.
After only a few seconds the only thing I could hear was the slight mechanical whirring just outside the closet. My heart was pounding, tears filling my eyes and teeth clamped onto my wrist to prevent myself from uttering a sound.
It seemed like an eternity that I lingered there, with me all but certain that whatever was outside was mere seconds away from breaking down the door and ending me; but it never came. Instead, the whirring grew progressively more distant, and the blue light fainter until I was left alone in silence and darkness.
I must’ve waited for close to an hour before emerging from that closet, and was only spurred to do so after I heard chattering voices outside the house. Slowly, I pushed the closet door open, and saw nothing. Neither Chris nor whatever he was shooting at was there, and the only indication they ever had been was the shotgun laying on the ground with two discharged shells lying beside it.
Things were a bit of blur after that. I must’ve been in shock, because the following minutes past as little more than a haze of images and faces. I remember going outside, and finding several neighbors congregated in the street.
Apparently, all power in their houses had been snuffed out, and all electronics went dead. Somebody said that perhaps the circuit breakers had been flipped, but that wouldn’t explain why my cellphone was dead. Even my car in the driveway refused to turn on; not even so much as a click when I turned the key.
Everyone just stood around scratching their heads until another neighbor returned from work sometime later. His car seemed unaffected, and after being informed on the situation from his wife he phoned the police.
They arrived maybe half an hour later and got the stories from everyone, but they weren’t sure what to make of it either. Far as anyone could tell, there was some sort of sudden EMP which fried all the circuits in the neighborhood. As we attempted to determine what had happened, an unlikely source suddenly spoke up.
“I… I know what happened.” A meek voice suddenly spoke through the crowd. I turned, and saw the six-year-old neighbor boy shuffling his feet as he waited to speak. The group turned to him and he nervously tried to explain.
“It was a glowing man… he… he did a laser burst and all the lights went out.” The rest of the group just sort of chuckled, but I did not. They obviously did not take him seriously, but I did.
“Did you see what he looked like?” An older man asked. The young boy nodded.
“He was blue, and really, really tall. He went into that house.” My heart sunk as the young boy pointed directly to my parent’s house. People then looked to me in a somewhat accusatory glance, but I said nothing. There was nothing I could’ve said to explain what I had just experienced.
“Did you see his face young man?” One officer asked. The young boy fiddled with the sleeves on his jacket, and then looked back to the officer with a perturbed glance.
“He didn’t have a face. He didn’t really have a body either, his arms and legs just floated.” Silence once again befell the group as no one knew what to make of his statement.
“Maybe he was a super hero!” The boy exclaimed with an excited look. He was met by a hushed chorus of chuckles and reassured smiles, but none of them were mine. I knew he had seen it.
The cops had a look around – and while they did find evidence of a break in, they were unable to obtain any evidence as to who had perpetrated it. That came as no surprise, but the little boy’s description refused to leave my mind.
My parents- whom I still live with and who were absent that night, were none too thrilled to return home and find every appliance and outlet in the house fried. Luckily for all of us, most of the damage is being taken care of by insurance on what has been officially deemed another ‘freak lightning strike’. There seems to be a lot of those lately.
Ryan is still missing, and now Chris is gone too. Both of them taken by that thing. I don’t know how or why or what it does, I’m afraid I don’t know much more than what I’ve posted here today. That incident unfortunately fried not only Chris’ laptop, but also the USB drive. We lost all the evidence we had, and I’m not sure what to do now.
As of me posting this, it’s been thirty-four days since anyone has seen or heard from Ryan. His financial accounts remain untouched, and his name has not been used anywhere. I still have hope that one day I’ll see him again, but as of right now, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. The reason I posted this here to begin with, is because this doesn’t just involve Ryan and me anymore. It involves all of us.
That thing that came for us that night. I don’t know what it was, who made it or for what purpose. I don’t know if it’s being instructed or whether it’s being controlled at all. There’s only one thing I really do know about it, it’s real.
The Ventriloquist is out.
It tracked us in seconds, and then it came for us. It took Chris, and I don’t understand how. It left no trace. I don’t know if he was abducted or… worse. It’s got to be some kind of super weapon; some artificial intelligence super soldier or something. I know that sounds ridiculous, but what else am I supposed to think?
No matter how grim things may look now, or what Ryan wrote on his manifesto, I don’t plan on giving up. If anyone reading this has any idea what Ryan was a part of or has heard of the program known as Ventriloquist, please contact me. I need answers, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to find them.
Ryan, if somehow you read this. Just know I haven’t given up on you. Stay strong, and please if you can, come home.