A body heals. A chemist reveals. A contact is made.
Written and performed by Michael Meinberg @meinberg13
Tracks “Spider’s Web” “Water Prelude” “Ritual” “The Complex” and “Awkward Meeting” by Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
A single ray of light punctured through the veil of the curtains and floated over my eyes. A few moments later, I realized that I had seen that light, and blinked, as my thoughts and my body’s reaction slowed to a crawl. Sensations blurred and diffused, leaving me in a haze that surrounded me. Pain radiated from my torso, but that concern seemed so distant. Much of my body was bandaged and bound into positions to hasten the healing, but the knowledge of that state lingered ages apart from the reality.
Darkness drifted over my eyes once again and the separation between the darkness and the light felt like nothing more than a flipping of a coin. The coin of alternating day and night twirled in the empty air of time, untold lengths passing while I laid in that bed. Finally, the weight of my senses broke upward, tearing its way through the numbness. It was hard to say how much time had passed. Days? Weeks?
I laid in a hospital room, unoccupied save for myself. IVs ran into my arms and when I tugged on them, I felt pain expand from the injection points. It still stung to breathe, and my left hand remained bound and bandaged, but beyond that, the pain seemed much reduced. I carefully removed the needles from my arm, not wanting to send the blood leaving too heavily.
Once I was comfortable that the flow of blood had ceased, I crawled out of the bed, landing on my bare feet. Instantly, I regretted my choice as my legs bowed beneath me and only my hands clutching to my bed sheets kept me from collapsing completely. My head swam as I slowly lowered myself into a seated position on the floor.
I was dressed in a simple hospital gown, as pale white as my skin had become, and a single lamp shone its light over the room, providing the only illumination. I focused on these immediate things, on the reality around me. I focused on what I could touch and smell and see directly. I had almost certainly been bathed at least once during my convalescence.
And then the door swung open and the one that had stolen my umbrella stepped inside. They strode confidently to a chair across the room from my current position on the floor, took a seat, then offered introductions as Alex. I stared until I had managed to process the new information of their presence, before introducing myself in return.
They thanked me for my assistance, and I inquired as to what in the name of the high autocrat was going on. They explained all that they knew.
They had been friends with the other five, ever since their childhoods. While other friends had filtered away, pursuing careers above all, the five remained close to each other, and eschewed the traditional paths that society laid out. They experimented heavily in all manner of drugs, and talked often of revolution, though Alex thought the unspoken consensus was that the high-minded rhetoric was all bollocks.
Things changed the night their paths first crossed with mine. They had been caught in the downpour, uncaring about finding shelter. Alex, even then, remained uncertain of what exactly the rain did and how it worked, but they thought it was the greatest trip they had been on. The other four agreed and they lost themselves into the false enlightenment granted by the rain.
They learned that they could enter each other’s thoughts and share sensations. And soon enough, they were united into a common feedback loop. It was there that the leader, Roger, began to take control. While their other personalities began to bleed away into the communal mass, Roger’s remained strong enough to impress his will onto the others.
Even when they went their own ways physically, the connection remained. Even as the trip of the rain began to fade in the morning, the connection remained. And Roger leaned onto it. He sought to bring others into the communion of rain, regardless of their will. And he grew frustrated at my ability to remain tuned purely onto myself despite my repeated exposure to the rain, thus the beating I had received.
Alex was the one who brought me to the hospital, having looped through the streets to escape from the pursuit of Roger and his communion. Fortunately, I had insurance enough to cover my stay, though I suspected that the extended duration meant that my personal finances were shot.
But I was alive, and mostly intact. I took my turn to thank Alex, and thought about what was to come. Eventually, I told them that I would look into this on my own. My curiosity remained unslaked, I needed to find the origin of whatever lay within the rain.
And I needed to stop it.
In the end, Alex decided that they didn’t want any more of this. They told me they were going to lay low and maybe find a boat to stow away on, and recommended that I do the same. After they left, I flexed my bandaged hand and felt jolts of pain rush up along my arm. I flexed harder and the pain crescendoed before breaking. I could handle it.
I recovered my belongings from the nurses, finding my clothing ruined and blood soaked, but the bottle of water remained intact. I returned to my home first, making sure to get dressed in fresh clothing, tossing away yet another set of clothes. I considered a stop at a tailor to get myself a new outfit -perhaps a dashing duster and vest combination to serve my transformation into independent investigator.
But in the end, I slipped on a long overcoat and hit the streets. With my pale skin and battered body, the people I questioned were quick to agree that I was another junky looking for a fix. After exchanging some coin, I got directions from a gaggle of teenagers to an independent chemist.
I stepped into the lab, via back alley, and found a mahogany-skinned young woman, barely out of her teens herself, tending to her beakers and boilers. She bid me patience and so I observed her in silence from near the door. I wasn’t an expert on chemical matters, so her science looked practically like magic to me. She turned up heat here and there, and spooned substances of a variety of colors into liquids of an even wider variety.
In the end, a cherry red fluid crystallized, expanding to the top of the glassware holding it. With that, she turned off the heating elements and asked what I was looking for. She offered the reds at a discount; they were a new recipe, and she wanted to test the results. I told her that I was here on other business and offered the bottle to her.
I told her everything I knew, explained my experiences, and asked her to look into the water, see if there was anything inside of it. As my explanation went on, she stiffened with understanding and familiarity, then, with a sigh, she wiped her lenses clean of steam and studied the bottle. “All clear,” she said. I groaned at the joke.
She asked if there was anything special about the bottle, and I told her that I had no idea. With a nod, she separated the water within into four different beakers, leaving a portion remaining in the bottle. She then reached up and swung over a massive metal beam attached to the ceiling, but easily moved with the aid of counterweight. At the end was a device that resembled a powered drill, but without the drill bit itself, and with an eyepiece that she fit her head onto.
She aimed the device at the beakers and fiddled with knobs, occasionally humming to herself. Her experiment continued with her placing one of the beakers over heat, another in a freezer, and placing some sort of powder that dissolved into the last. While waiting, she examined the bottle under the device, and confirmed that the bottle wasn’t anything unusual.
After she finished checking out the other beakers, she strode up towards me and extending a hand, palm up, toward me. The grin on her lips told me everything I needed to know, and I set some coin in her hand. She thanked me kindly for the donation and then took a seat on top of a table to give me the details.
There wasn’t a drug in the water. It wasn’t chemical, something that any chemist off the streets could have made. What was in there was far smaller, but active, moving. While she couldn’t say anything more about the nature of the substance, she did tell me that it needed a narrow band of temperatures to remain active. Boiling water would be enough to kill whatever it was, or freezing it.
I needed to know more. This was a start, but it wasn’t enough. I questioned who might have the means to make this sort of thing. Fortunately, she took that as a personal challenge and set to pacing the room. The universities were scratched off immediately. They lacked the funds to even begin delving into this. She pondered the Corps for a moment, but then shook it away. If they had access to this tech, to this effect, everyone would be hooked right away if they chose to implement it.
That meant a rogue agent with access to high levels of tech. Fortunately, she knew just the right person to talk to.
The chemist took the lead and I followed her. We travelled the back alleys, keeping out of the sight of the ordinary inhabitants of the city, out of the way of those that worked their jobs without curiosity and with simple acceptance of their place in life. Along the way, she introduced herself as Jasper, and I offered my name in response. Back then, I was far too free with it.
As we walked deeper into the tangled nest of the city, the concrete and wood became increasingly replaced with wrought iron and forged steel. Rust covered every surface, and flakes of it drifted in the air, giving the sky a reddish haze. Music blared from every other window, forming a cacophony of noise.
Jasper was a short woman, barely reaching my shoulders, with a shock of bright pink hair, and a build that bordered on the malnourished. Of course, I wasn’t anyone to talk about that, being half starved from my time in the hospital. In spite of her distinctly unintimidating looks, no one hassled us on our journey. Indeed, most that we passed treated her with a degree of decorum unexpected on account of her age.
She paused only once in her journey, to negotiate with a similarly aged man. Their conversation descended into slang and jargon and I studiously kept my attention elsewhere. Ultimately, she handed over a vial of that red crystal in exchange for our free passage through some gang’s territory, and some coin for her.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination. From the back, it looked like any of the other residential buildings we had passed. Jasper provided a secret knock and a key word and we entered into what appeared to be a massive factory. Dozens of people, recent graduates of primary from the looks of them, tinkered with massive machines, scaffolding and catwalks rising up through the core of the hollow building.
I continued to follow Jasper’s lead, but gawked at the tinkerers, the sound of powered tools resonating in the air, and the flash of welders brightening the otherwise dim lighting. Their work baffled me, constructions abstract and complex beyond anything my education had prepared me for. Perhaps if I had realized what they were making, I would have been more ready for what came later that year. But that’s a story for another time.
Jasper brought me before a long-armed but keen eyed man with deep onyx-hued skin, who wore metallic bracers over his legs as he sat in a wheelchair. He was looking over a set of schematics that resembled a suit of armor, but with additions that were as arcane as the rest of the building. Jasper handled the introductions. The man was Frederich and we shook hands, firmly but not too firmly, enough to convince of my importance, but not enough to try and deny his.
She introduced me as a man looking into the “water weirdos.” I let out a disgusted sound, but she merely stuck her tongue out at me, and proceeded to ask Frederich if he knew about any “nanoscale manufactories.”
The words were gibberish to me, but Frederich perked up at the mention. He cast a pensive glance in my direction, but Jasper assured him that I was “cool.” Frederich pondered further, but in time gave in and explained what he knew.
Apparently, there were miniscule machines in the water, smaller than the cells of the body. In the dying days of the local manufacturing scene, a few of the Corps experimented with tools that could work on that scale. But those projects were shuttered after a massive explosion at one of the plants that was developing the tech.
But rumor had it that the explosion was an attempt to hide the success of the project. The numbers made it clear that, at least in the short-term, there was no money to be made in nanoscale manufacturing. But being the only Corp with access to that tech might prove valuable once the proper application had been discovered.
I inquired as to which Corp had the factory that exploded, and Frederich told me it was Efficiantum SideSweepers. I recognized the name. They were rivals of CrossCity StreetCleaning working in the same industry, but had resisted all attempts at a merger over the years. Perhaps they had hoped that this secret in their pocket would give them an edge.
I took in this knowledge and prepared to make my exit. As I turned, Frederich promised to kill me if I revealed anything that I saw. I agreed readily enough. At the time, I thought that place was small fry.
And I had learned everything I needed to know to get to the bottom of things on my own. All I had to do was betray CrossCity StreetCleaning and ruin any chance of future success I might have.