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Drama Suspense Fiction

The unemployment rate in the United States hovers around 10 percent. It's not the highest it has ever been, but many people are out of work, short on cash, and limited with their options. There's a sense of hopelessness in the country, and it's bleeding into every corner of the world. The television news pundits are all predicting more of the same. It's a recession, and the government is out of moves to control the downward spiral.

To make matters worse, a war in Eastern Europe has spilled out into neighboring countries, threatening not just a world war but a nuclear one. A war to end all future wars. Because there would be no coming back from atomic destruction.

"Jorah Campbell? Jorah Campbell. Is there a Jorah Campbell here?"

A short, stout middle-aged woman stands outside a metal swinging door clutching a stack of folders to her chest as if it were her shield. "Last time. Jorah Campbell!" she barks in an adenoidal-sounding voice.

Jorah slumps in a plastic folding chair, the kind you find at places like the motor vehicle department, legs splayed out in front of him in man-spread fashion. His navy hoodie is pulled over his head, covering his forehead and eyes, hiding his disheveled hair, and the earbuds preventing him from hearing his name.

"Dude. Isn't that you?"

Jorah jerks at an unexpected nudge from the stranger sitting next to him and jumps to his feet. "What the hell, man?" he questions bitterly.

The offending stranger points across the room to the waiting woman. Tracing a visual line from his unexpected benefactor's finger, Jorah calculates that it must be his turn for the interview. He signals to the woman that he has heard her with a wave of his hand and gathers his backpack and winter wool trench coat before meandering through the menagerie of chairs toward her. As an afterthought, he turns and flashes the peace sign at the person who had helped wake him from his stupor.

"Jorah?" the woman confirms.

Jorah nods in affirmation, shuffling his feet forward to follow her behind the swinging doors.

After passing several rooms full of men in suits, jackets slung over their shoulders, and ties knotted tight, Jorah finally emerges into a small reception area. Cubicles line the perimeter, creating a square, twenty by twenty space. In the center is a long rectangular table, like in conference rooms. Banker boxes and piles of paper leave only a small area for someone to work. Movement in the corner cubicle catches his eye. A blond man with hair hanging below his chin works in the shadows. Something about him tugs at Jorah’s memory.

"Have a seat, please," the stout woman says as she leads him to the wooden table. She drops her stack of folders unceremoniously on top of it. Surprised the woman didn’t bring him to a cubical, Jorah sits down with a grunt.

An awkward silence fills the space between them until the woman clears her throat. "Let us know how we can help you, Jorah."

Her words trigger the memory, only moments before he wished he could recall. A blush heats his face as he relives in excruciating detail where he knows the man from across the room.

"Uh...” Jorah coughs, trying to stuff the images back in their hidey-hole where all unpleasant recollections live. “What's your name?" he squeaks out, fumbling with the edge of his hoodie sleeve where it has ridden up above his wrist.

"It's Mary." The woman gives him a reassuring smile but offers no handshake or further information. "Did you bring your resume?"

Jorah shakes his head no. "Uh," he stutters again. His stomach roils, causing his breath to quicken. He shifts in his seat, wishing he could fold himself up like one of the pieces of paper piled up around him and disappear. Disappearing has been on his mind a lot as of late. Pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes, he stammers, "I thought you guys had that stuff on file. I filled out a bunch of shit online before I came. And nothing said I had to bring anything besides my ID."

Mary scribbles furiously on a notepad in front of her, then picks up several pieces of paper, checking boxes and crossing things out with unnecessary aggression. "The reason you came here is that you need some job opportunities, correct?" she pauses, looking Jorah up and down as if assessing his appearance. "You have any experience working outdoors? In construction? Or in the community service program?"

Jorah frowns as he thinks about his master’s degree in computer science that set him back over $100k in student loan debt. Then looks down at his worn appearance, the fingernails that are too long, and the clothes he has worn for the last three days. When was the last time he showered? "I have experience in software design. I know five different programming languages and can muddle thru a half dozen more. My specialty is in AI."

Before he can finish his list of qualifications, he hears Mary inhale with a whistle through her teeth. "You and every other unfortunate soul I've seen in the last month," she church-whispers under her breath. "Well, would you like some experience working outdoors or in construction?"

"It's twelve degrees out right now. What kind of outdoor work is happening? And I thought construction and real estate were the first fields to die in a recession?" Jorah rubs his arms to bring warmth to his body as he imagines himself working outside in this weather.

“Not this time around,” Mary sighs, busying herself with more paper shuffling. She mutters inaudibly while moving a box to the floor and reorganizing the space in front of her.

"Look, lady. I have rent due, I haven't eaten anything other than crackers and a can of cheese whiz in the last three days, and I've got bills up to my eyeballs. Me and 50,000 other programmers are out here looking for jobs that don't exist. I wouldn't be here talking to you if I had other options. So, if you've got something that will buy me a week's worth of groceries, hell, even a day's worth, I'll consider it."

As he speaks, movement catches his attention from the corner of his eye. It is the blond he wants to forget from earlier.

"Mary, why don't you let me take this one," the man's sibilant-sounding voice hisses.

Jorah nearly laughs when he sees Mary recoil from the blonde’s sudden appearance. He has a sudden change of heart about his first impressions of her. She is just another person trying to make it in the world and doing so in a way that helps people, which is more than what Jorah can say for himself.

Mary pushes herself away from the table and slides back down the hall where she and Jorah had entered only moments before. Jorah assumes she is off to get another miserable chump waiting listlessly in the waiting room. But she returns just seconds later with a shiny silver box that is more like a miniature briefcase, complete with a lock and number pad. She hands it to the man who is now occupying her seat. With pursed lips, she takes up her stack of papers, squares her shoulders, and starts to leave again. But before she does, she walks to Jorah and places a surprisingly warm hand on his shoulder. "Godspeed, son."

Instead of feeling at ease by what seems like an empathetic and genuine gesture, Jorah feels queasy and has the sudden need to run or cower under the table. Or disappear. Again, he coughs, unnerved by the need to recede into the shadows. He isn't sure if it is Mary's strange behavior or if it's that he is alone with the man he would rather forget.

"Jorah. I wish it were under better circumstances, but it's nice to see you again."

Jorah couldn't say the same. With an audible gulp, he looks down at his shaking hands and wonders if time is at a sudden standstill. Neither man says a word for what seems like minutes. Dragging his sweating palms down his pant legs, Jorah swallows back the sour taste in his mouth and speaks. "How did you end up working here?"

"Oh. I don't work here. I own the place," the man replies with a hardened expression that causes a crease between his eyes.

A thick silence lingers between them as Jorah stares vacantly at the floor while his counterpart studies his attire and posture. "You've had a rough go of it," the man points out.

Jorah shifts his weight from side to side, his worn-out Chucks bouncing against the linoleum floor. "I thought this,” he emphasizes the space around him with a swirl of his finger, “was like run by the government or something."

"Oh, it gets subsidies from both state and federal. But I own the infrastructure, both physical and technical."

"Of course you do," Jorah murmurs.

"Listen, Jorah. I realize things have been difficult for you after your employer YonderSage went under. And I want you to know that the failure to make a go of the product wasn't your fault. AI is a tightly controlled, competitive market right now."

"I was sabotaged!" Jorah stands, his nostrils flaring and his arms sweeping around in eccentric, jerky motions.

"I know. I know. Listen. Calm down. Sit. Sit," the blond directs Jorah, pointing with an open hand to the chair.

Jorah shakes his head no and paces around the area. "What the hell is this place?" The more he looks, the more unsettled he becomes. The back of his neck prickles with static, and sweat trickles down his spine. The drive to flee makes all his nerve endings sting like pins and needles. There are boxes labeled with company names. Startups that Jorah knows went under in the last year for one reason or another. Many of them are tech companies like his employer's. A large whiteboard is tucked in the corner where the man previously sat. It’s plastered with headshots of people, some of whom he recognizes from those companies, including his own. Each picture contains a white label with a name, job title, and pay scale in the right-hand corner. Scanning the images, he stops on his own. "Who. Are. You?!" he stammers, turning to look the man in the eyes.

"Please do sit, Jorah. I'll explain as much as I am willing."

Against his better judgment, Jorah sits on the edge of his seat, leaning forward, elbows to knees. He is aware that he hasn't felt this alive in months. Not since the morning he woke for work, only to discover he no longer had a job.

"You know me by the name Riordan Saks. We met at a social club, if you recall. We'd both had a little too much to drink. I made a pass. You wound up back at my place. We talked for hours about the product you were developing at Yonder. You were passionate and excited about what this AI platform would mean for the world. I nearly fell in love with you then, with your innocence and naivety. However, I was disappointed by your shortsightedness about the product and how it could be used for evil. You lacked the foresight of the unintended, or should I say, intended, consequences your bosses held for the product. Something had to be done. In each of these companies, someone had to be stopped. Made the patsy. For the greater good! I've never felt bad about stepping in and making someone the scapegoat when it came to protecting our world from harm. But I felt bad about you, Jorah. So, now you're here, and I have something for you." Riordan slides the mysterious metal box across the table.

Jorah moves to open the box.

"Tsk. Tsk. Not here," Riordan places his right hand over Jorah's to still his movements. With his other hand, he slides a thick manilla envelope sealed dramatically with red wax in the shape of an eagle. "There's an index card inside. Read it carefully before you do anything else. There's a car waiting outside. A black electric G-Wagon, parked along the curb. It will work as long as you keep the contents of that envelope with you."

"Why are you doing this?" Jorah asks breathless with excitement and apprehension.

Riordan raises an eyebrow, tilting his head in curiosity. "I'm not sure. But go before I change my mind. Hurry. Out this way." He motions for Jorah to stand before ushering him out of a back entrance Jorah had not noticed before.

Out on the street, Jorah finds the vehicle as described and hops in. Clutching the steering wheel with white knuckles, he pulls out onto the road staring straight ahead into the great unknown.

"What if this is all a trap? What if I'm about to be pulled over for stealing a vehicle and thrown in jail?" he wonders aloud.

Pulling into a random parking garage only a few blocks away, he parks and opens the envelope. Inside are several stacks of cash and an orange index card clipped to a set of official-looking papers. The card read: A Guide to Going Ghost. "Ever wish you could just disappear?" was handwritten underneath the title.

Twenty-four hours later, Jorah Campbell was no more. The vehicle was discovered by police, abandoned where he had parked it. His hoodie was left behind, folded neatly on the driver's seat. His trusty old Converse sneakers were placed on top, and a torn manilla envelope containing his driver’s license, cell phone, and the key fob for the car sat atop the clothing. There was no note, no explanation. Jorah simply vanished.

His parents, friends, and community hung flyers, paid for private detectives, held news conferences, and set up websites, all to no avail. The police department labeled him a depressive. An unstable, out-of-work millennial who gave up when things got hard.

"We've seen this kind of thing a thousand times. If he wants to be found, you'll hear from him again. Or maybe you won't. Sometimes they realize running away doesn't solve their problems. It just creates more, and they resurface. Other times, it’s simply emancipation from what is. But look, our hands are tied. No crime has been committed. The case is closed," a detective told a local reporter, who published an article on a rash of disappearances among the recently unemployed.

Media coverage took interest for a time until public outcry died down. Eventually, the various outlets ceased reporting on the matter. The story sank below everyone's attention, the way hot topics do nowadays. All too soon, it disappeared entirely into the recesses of people's minds, just like Jorah Campbell.

January 27, 2023 20:23

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16 comments

Graham Kinross
02:42 Mar 20, 2023

The way the reader doesn’t know what the truth is, like Jorah is interesting. Like others have commented, she could easily have been lying to him. His idea might have been stolen so that another company could use it and she’d get the credit or she could work for a competitor trying to monopolise the market. Maybe she is working in the greater interest and he’s just the sucker who took the fall for everything. Having worked hard to learn all he did and then by the sound of it getting blacklisted would suck.

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KT George
14:08 Mar 20, 2023

I like to play around with dramatic irony to add mystery and tension. Did you like not knowing what the character had experienced? Or was it an incomplete arc?

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Graham Kinross
22:43 Mar 20, 2023

I think it works for a short story. In a book this would just be the beginning. I would want to know: 1. How many clones are there? 2. Why are people cloning them? 3. Whose memories do they have? 4. How are they living eerily similar patterns that cascade after they’ve interacted with each other? 5. Why are they considering dangerous?

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Kelly McCluskey
18:42 Feb 02, 2023

LOVE this. It was well written and very suspenseful! I loved the relevance of AI and the current political and economic status we face today. Excellent. I want to learn more about where Jorah went.

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KT George
19:56 Feb 02, 2023

Thank you, Kelly! I appreciate the feedback. :) I was torn on whether to continue a little bit with Jorah, or leave it up to the reader's imagination. Disappearing can be good or bad, as the detective said. Maybe I'll explore his fate in a future writing prompt!

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Lily Finch
02:16 Feb 02, 2023

Kt, this story was imaginative, interesting and interested this reader. I like how you developed your plot and allowed our thoughts to think about what Jorah Campbell did and who he became. Well done. Thanks for the good read. LF6

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KT George
02:55 Feb 02, 2023

Thank you for reading and for your generous feedback! I'm happy you liked the open-ended conclusion. It's not for everyone, but I was always a fan of those choose-your-own-adventure stories. It's the control freak in me! :) ~ KTG.

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Michał Przywara
21:42 Jan 31, 2023

A very mysterious ending! We're left wondering where he went, and what was in the box. I'm picturing that he joined a clandestine network of Riordan's operatives, who are trying to mitigate the potential abuse of AI (or maybe that's the lie, and they're trying to control it) but maybe the disappearance and Riordan's work are unrelated.

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KT George
22:26 Jan 31, 2023

I love playing with endings so that the reader has the option to imagine what the potential outcome could be. It's not for everyone though. I'll be keeping my eyes open for a future writing prompt that might have me continuing the Jorah/Riordan story! Thanks for taking the time to read and review.

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John Del Rio
05:31 Jan 31, 2023

I like. Of course it would be nice to know what happened. But then the point of the story is that Jorah (Game of Thrones influenced?) Disappeared. I will read more of your stories when I get the opportunity.

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KT George
13:45 Jan 31, 2023

Thanks for the feedback, John. I thought about trying to squeeze in a few words about whether Jorah reached a happy ending or not, but the prompt was simply about disappearing, so I decided to leave it there. Jorah is my neighbor's little boy's name. They are Jewish. In Hebrew, it means first or autumn rain. :)

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John Del Rio
15:46 Jan 31, 2023

Interesting. It's funny how inspiration comes. I am a big nerd and have a D&D character that I have played for years. The characters name -Corvin- came from encountering a random individual at a pharmacy. Look forward to reading more from you.

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Wendy Kaminski
03:07 Jan 31, 2023

Excellent! I loved this mystery benefactor mopping up the dregs he'd made of Jorah's life. What a cool and unusual plot, plus of course, the twist - fantastic address for the prompt! Great storytelling, Kt!

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KT George
13:48 Jan 31, 2023

Thank you, Wendy! I was torn on whether to continue a little further and address what may have happened to Jorah and whether his 'friend' was indeed a benefactor. But decided to stop with the disappearance to stick to the prompt. Maybe I will fit it into another prompt in the future!

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Viga Boland
00:35 Jan 29, 2023

Fascinating!

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KT George
14:24 Jan 29, 2023

Thank you! ☺️

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