Chapter 1, Episode 4

An agent calls. A resolution is sealed. A battle is joined.

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Written and performed by Michael Meinberg @meinberg13

Script editing and logo design by Erin Hawley at geekygimp.com and @geekygimp on twitter

Tracks “Spider’s Web” “Snow Drop” “Sad Trio” “Final Battle of the Dark Wizards” and “Awkward Meeting” by Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

SCRIPT

The next day at work started like all days started, time spent managing the minutiae of receipts and reports, of parsing data from a sea of vagaries. I talked with Teri over coffee, and she assured me that she brought the bottle, and asked me why I wanted it. I smiled as enigmatically as I could.

But shortly before lunch, a white-skinned, suited woman stepped into the work space. She wore her hair back in a bun and every stitch of clothing coordinated to project an air of absolute control, both internal and external. The work screeched to a halt as she strode across the room to my desk. All eyes were on her, then shifted to me. She spoke shortly and told me that I was to accompany her to headquarters.

Taking in the totality of her, I realized that she had to be an Agent. Agents served the Autocrat that had raised them up directly, and in most cases were simply faces and mouths in places that their Autocrat could not be. But whispers said that they also served as the wet-works for the Autocrats, doing the things too distasteful or too dangerous for the Autocrats themselves to perform.

It was also known that when an Autocrat fell, it was one of their Agents that took their place. And so I followed after the woman who might one day become my new employer, trepidation filling my steps. Perhaps my current employer had learned of my investigations and wished to have me removed. I quickly dismissed that thought, though. If my employer wished me dead, they wouldn’t be so brazen.

The walk passed in silence, until we came to stand before that glittering edifice, chrome and steel, perfect and bright despite the cloudy day. My trepidation turned into confusion as we entered the spire of our headquarters and began the ascent via elevator. My guide did not speak along the way, or even look in my direction. But we eventually arrived in an office that proved to be hers as she slid to sit behind the desk, backed by wood panels and bookshelves.

I took a seat across from her at a gesture from her, feeling my palms and brow begin to sweat. She had a portfolio held in a manilla folder and took her time in reviewing the text. Finally, she broke the silence that had been building like a tempest within the cramped confines of the office. She explained in blunt terms how Herb, the man who was promoted over me, had been released. He performed below expectations.

More was to be expected of his replacement. Headquarters needed their new manager to be agile and clever, and to know the operations of the organization like the back of their hand, someone who could recognize and remove weakness if needed. In short, she explained that Headquarters was looking for a candidate to become an Agent.

And at the end of her explanation, she told me, that in light of Herb’s performance, my application showed the most promise. Failing to live up to that promise would lead to immediate, and permanent, termination. And so I had a week to come up with my answer.

Dazed, I wandered my way out of the spire and down along the street back to my office. The world seemed too heavy, the sky above pressing down upon me. I paused half way on my journey to turn back and gaze up towards the stop of that spire.

Accepting the offer would be bring me one step closer to the dream I had been pursuing since my mother’s death. If I accepted this, I would be able to see the end of my road, I would be able to grasp my ultimate goal. But if I took it, I would have to make sacrifices.

I barely had the time for my investigations as it was. If I were to accept this new position, there was no doubt that my time would be all the more reduced, and my ability to look into the strange parts of the city would be hindered.

But more than that, I would become more of the machinery of the city. I would become a higher placed cog, one with more power perhaps, but with less freedom. I would be watched, I would be analyzed, I would be tested and judged. If I accepted the position, my future would become bound into the future of CrossCity StreetCleaning.

But perhaps it would be worth it. How could I care about those restrictions if it meant that my goal could be reached so much sooner? I felt the need roiling in my gut, flaring in my every organ, like an addict offered a fix.

And I knew exactly what I had to do.

***

I was distracted for the rest of my work day, the offer taking up the majority of my brain space. I narrowly scraped by until closing time, and strolled in silence behind the others as we headed to the pub.

After brooding over a shot of whiskey, Teri approached me and offered the bottle of water she had received from the woman. I turned my attention to the bottle and took my time in examining the fluid within, before shrugging. I didn’t see anything strange to it, I didn’t feel anything in it that called to me, and I said as much.

She didn’t let me get away with moping, though, and reminded me that I was the one who asked her to bring it in the first place. Then she bored in and asked me what was wrong with me. Under her intense scrutiny, I could only answer honestly and tell her of the offer I received.

At first, she reacted in shock that Herb had been let go. She assumed that his sycophantic nature would allow him to reach the tops, but it seemed that headquarters was more intense than she expected. But then she rounded back onto me, castigating me for doubting myself. I knew where she was coming from. Before encountering the faces in the rain, I would have agreed completely with her that jumping at this opportunity was the only wise action to take.

But things had changed. My eyes were opened to greater truths, truths that put to lie the promises of the Autocrat. The machinery demanded only a single path towards power, only a single route that would allow for liberation. But these strange things offered new routes, new opportunities, casting light onto the darkness and turning them into tools that could give one strength, though at a high cost.

Everything had a cost in the city, though. The unwritten strictures of society demanded that everything and everyone have a price. And anything that didn’t fit within this structure was tossed away.

But within that garbage heap of discarded elements, true freedom might be found.

And so I told Teri that I needed to get to the bottom of things. That my urge to know and understand outweighed my desire to advance. And in that moment, I realized that I had exchanged one addiction for another.

Teri stared at me, understanding the weight of my choice, and the dangers that I invited unto myself by doing so. But the weight behind my eyes spoke the truth of my intent, the intensity of my goal forward. She left the bottle behind and then turned to leave me at the bar alone. I had little doubt that she would be their next choice, that she would gain the future and the fate that I had once longed for.

But I turned my attention to the bottle, staring at the liquid with fresh eyes. The key to unlocking everything just might lay within its contents. The key to the visions, to the terrors in the rain, all within the invisible substances floating around in that water. I would need to contact a chemist as soon as possible.

I took a moment to look over the interior of the bar. Teri had joined the rest of the team in exchanging tales of spreadsheets and office gossip, a false smile plastered over her features. The rest seemed content enough, they had found or made for themselves a comfortable place within society. But comfort was not enough for me.

For not the first time, I wished I could be one of them, that I could find the happiness they possessed. But my brief dalliances with that sort of contentment had always proved insufficient. My heart had cried out for more. Or, perhaps I simply realized the transient nature of such things. Without the power of an Autocrat, everything could be snatched away in an instant.

I downed my whiskey and lodged the bottle of water into a pocket, then exited out onto the streets. The rain tonight fell steadily, though the wind blew slowly enough that my spare umbrella served to keep me dry. The streetlights flickered slightly as I wound along familiar paths towards home, and a sense of uncertainty entered my frame.

And then five figures rounded the corner, five very familiar faces that erupted into five broad, toothy grins at the exact same moment.

***

I backed away from the five that appeared before me, but they moved swiftly, encircling me. In their hands, they carried slender canes, brandished as clubs. I darted off, trying to escape through a gap between two of them. I instantly felt the sting of the canes lashing against my chest, knocking me backwards. I stumbled, but kept my feet even as my umbrella went flying.

One of the figures, tall and broad, with a square jaw and his nearly translucently pale skin, spoke. He told me that I had begun to walk a road. That my future still laid before me, but that I needed to turn inwards, not outwards. I needed to consume, not understand. That my desire for truth in a world that denied it would lead only to pain.

And then, to demonstrate, he swung his cane onto my shoulder and sent me reeling to the ground with an audible crack. Pain, he continued, could serve as a guide. By transforming the pain of the world into the pain of the flesh, he hoped to instruct me. Another cane slammed into my ribs and I felt them fracture beneath the blow.

According to their leader, the path forward led to unity. It led to the erasure of all that kept individuals distinct. The visions were the first teachers, and the power within the water opened them to the world. Within this new world, the truly deserving would be rewarded. Within this new world, only the minds that were strong enough to endure would be able to maintain their presence.

The leader motioned to the other four, and explained that they were him now, but that he was also them. They had achieved unity, but his mind remained the dominant one. I took a moment to look over the other four. Their faces bore the same expression as the leader, though for a moment, a flicker passed over the face of the one that had stolen my umbrella.

I reached a hand out to that one, and felt the crunch as a cane landed on my wrist, slamming it into the ground. Some emotion, perhaps terror, perhaps anguish, perhaps disgust, flashed over their face, before they turned away. A moment later, a booted foot ground my hand into the pavement.

I struggled to push myself up to my feet with my other hand, but another one kicked me in the chest, making my ribs scream. The leader seemed distracted by the one that had turned away, and as the rain began to sink into me more, my eyes opened further.

The fingers of my mind crept forward from my prone position, and I saw them all, as they truly were. The five minds had congealed into a singular mass, flaring and flashing with color and sensation. I reached forward with those fingers and felt the flurry of thoughts. Five minds coalesced into a single thought-form, and I could feel the internal struggle, the one that the leader continued to dominate. It formed a gestalt of existence that flared and writhed within that mass.

But one pushed away, trying to extricate itself from the mass, trying to fracture that unity. I grasped onto that part, feeling a singular passion, one warm and comforting. In that presence, understanding and empathy bloomed and spread, trying to work its way through the rest. But the cold and hard power of the leader held it at bay, forced the compassion into subservience.

I pulled and together, that presence and mine, we broke the unity.
I blinked and tried to pull myself back together, tried to calm the longing for more, to subsume myself into another. Finally, I let out a wordless sob and collapsed fully onto the ground, pulling my mind back into itself, forming a bubble of self around my thoughts and being. And then the canes rained down on me from four sets of hands until I was left barely breathing on the ground.

I tried to cling to my consciousness, and through my only working eye, the other swollen shut, I saw the one that had stolen my umbrella flee down the streets. At the small smile that formed on my face, the leader grasped me by the hair and hefted me into a seated position. He stared into my eyes, and said simply, “The time is coming.” He released me and took his time to adjust his clothing, putting on the appearance of a regal lord standing over a disobedient servant.

And then a cane slammed into the back of my head. My vision swam briefly, and then darkness took over.

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