A Corp is infiltrated. Two minds clash. Resolve is tested.
Written and performed by Michael Meinberg @meinberg13
Tracks “Spider’s Web” “Evening of Chaos” “Cognitive Dissonance” “Heart of the Beast” and “Awkward Meeting”by Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
I clad myself in my finest clothing, checked my tie and the line of my suit and drank a deep pull of my coffee. I poured over the data I had collected over the years, one last examination before fitting my analysis into a manilla envelope I deposited into a briefcase. I blended in with the mass of moving bodies and strode towards the spire, a mask of confidence on my face.
I arrived soon at the base of the spire, which was the headquarters for Efficiantum SideSweepers. And then I walked in like I belonged there; no one bothered to question me as I made my ascent towards the top levels. The spires all had the same sort of floor plan, though they differed near the top. But still, I was able to find my way to an office of someone who was surely ranked closed to the Autocrat, judging from the finer quality of the surroundings.
I stepped in to discover a tall and slender person hunched over a desk, busying themself with paperwork. They were bronze-skinned with a loose mass of curled, black hair set free on top of their head. Upon my entry, they looked up and blinked several times. I didn’t hesitate, but strode forward and made my offer. I was turning coat, and had decades worth of CrossCity StreetCleaning’s finances ready to hand out.
My offer was met with shocked silence, and I felt a grin creeping onto my lips. But then the person in front of me recovered, their posture shifting subtly, but aligning to almost click into place. Their eyes went from bewildered to confident in a moment, and they nodded. Apparently, they usually had further notice of such an action, but they were more than happy to help with my transition.
I handed over the briefcase without hesitation. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The data within might be useful, but the mercurial nature of the business meant that the data was only as useful as the mind behind it. I was confident that my home CrossCity StreetCleaning would be able to survive my betrayal, though a brief twinge of guilt fired in my stomach as I thought about the rest of my team.
But then the Agent, and they were clearly an Agent, asked me what I wanted in return. They offered a high position – money, power, anything that I wanted. But I only wanted one thing – information about nanoscale manufactories. They narrowed their gaze at me then nodded slowly. They’d have to get in touch with experts, but I was more than welcome to have a seat while they went off in search.
After the Agent left, I did not sit. Instead, I poured over every bit of visible text within the room, trying to put together a picture of what was happening. A progress report on their desk was written in marketing speak, largely gibberish, but the numbers painted a clear picture. Something strange was happening within this Efficiantum SideSweepers.
The precise picture was hard to parse, but it seemed like a rogue element had seized control of the Corp. Large funds were being redirected to new projects, massive layoffs – a complete corporate restructuring. But the same Autocrat remained in power, which made no sense. In these sort of coups, there was always a change of power at the very top.
That’s when I noticed an empty bottle in the rubbish bin. I couldn’t say for sure, but it looked familiar.
I dashed to the office door, but it swung open just before I reached it. The Agent entered, flanked by two toughs in suits, followed by an elegant woman dressed in silks and gold. I froze as I took in her attire and backed up toward the desk.
“Oh sweetie,” the woman said, “it seems you’re looking into things that you really shouldn’t.”
The two men surged forward and pinned me down to the desktop face up, while the woman strode forward, procuring a bottle of water from her handbag. She opened the bottle and poured the liquid down my throat, while the Agent massaged my neck, forcing me to drink.
I sputtered and struggled, trying to fight off all four of them at once. I writhed like a wild boar beneath a net, bucking in an attempt to gain a degree of freedom. But I couldn’t help it, and the liquid flowed through me.
And then I felt my senses fall away, and the fingers of my mind creep forward once more.
I convulsed as the nanomachines went to work in my system. My mind cracked and my senses expanded. The paltry stuff of matter around me became pale shadows of the true power of the minds before me. The woman contained a universe within herself, and glowed with the brightness of a thousand suns.
I recoiled as I felt that light streaming in toward me, but the hands of her servants gripped me tightly. I could see now that they were hollow puppets, their minds gone completely,controlled by strings coming from her mind. A bit of the Agent remained, but much of their mind was gone as well, subsumed into that glowing mass.
The tendrils touched into the core of my consciousness and I screamed as fire ripped through my body. The tendrils pulled and I felt my sense of self being torn away from my body. I gritted my teeth as another scream built in my chest and pulled as hard as I could with the fingers of my mind, keeping as much as myself behind as possible. The stuff of my consciousness stretched under the pressure and I could feel more cracks forming within my mental architecture.
As I felt myself nearing the breaking point, I made contact with that fiery thought-form and a calm settled over me. In that instant, all pain melted away, all sensation drifted into a comfortable haze that clung to my form like smoke. I floated in that space between spaces, an infinite white void, for what seemed an eternity.
But then I became aware of other thoughts, pressing in from without. They shouted and bellowed and the strength of their need called to my own lacking. They longed to consume me, and make me as they were. They wished for me to become united completely, so that they could share their pain with another.
The pain of countless lives reflected in every thought. The pain was no less for the sharing, but spread, multiplying with every moment of anguish. And not enough of these hungry spectres remained to be able to handle their pain, to be able to address the root with rationality. All that existed was the raw impulse to share and to feel and to share that feeling.
The brilliant white void around me rippled as those hungry presences began to close that space, clawed hands reaching up toward me. I kicked at the hands and grasped onto the void with all of my strength, before pulling myself upward. I dug my fingers into the emptiness around me and ripped away handfuls of the structural component of this void.
Holding that material, I felt contentment and stability wash through my form. I knew my fear, but I also knew I was strong enough to overcome it. I had a flash of insight and tossed those handfuls into the grasping hunger below. They tore into the mental solidity and calmed for a moment.
With my physical eyes, I saw the woman recoil. I grinned and tore more and more of that thought matter, allowing it to fall down into the hungry masses below. I continued until I saw lances of golden light appear within the white and surge across space. One ripped across my side and all strength faded from that half of my mind-form. As another lance launched in my direction, I gripped a handful of the void matter and brought it up to shield my body from the impact.
The lance pushed through my makeshift shield, slowing as it did, before puncturing my hand. I felt tingles flow through that arm before it fell limp. A third lance aimed forward, straight for my chest and I stared at its approach. These had to be reflections of her will, the power of her mind, honed by dominating all the others that she had pulled into her communion. She was strong, certainly, but I was determined.
The lance rammed towards my chest and I concentrated with every bit that I could, sweat beading on my forehead as I imagined a barrier pushing the lance back. The white void swirled around me and coalesced into a spiralling mass before me and the lance was dragged backwards, before crunching into nothing within that spiral.
Pain flared, my heart beating too fast, my lungs pumping in a vain effort to fill my body with air, my ribs screeching in renewed agony. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I stared at the physical form of the woman, and then I wrenched my mind-form backwards. I screamed again as full sensation reunited with my body and I lay in a sweat covered heap on the desk top.
I heard the woman murmur, “no matter,” and then her puppets lifted me up. My limbs hung lifelessly, all strength drained. My mouth worked soundlessly as I attempted to form words, but I swam with the weight of that encounter. I was dragged, my legs scraping along the ground, as the woman remained behind to converse with the Agent.
I descended with the puppets, taking the elevator lower and lower, beneath the surface. My every bone ached, even through to my teeth. My fingers twitched occasionally, but refused to move. The basement was all long tunnels and narrow corridors, dimly lit, with pipes dripping or hissing.
The puppets dragged me into a storage room and dropped me to the floor. I heard the tumble of a deadlock and laid my head down onto the concrete. Around me were metal shelves, bare save for a couple of scattered boxes. I couldn’t find the strength to lift my head, and languished in the dimness of the place, until I drifted into unconsciousness.
Dreams bordering on visions troubled my sleep, but I had no recollection when I awoke. One of the puppets had stomped in and tossed a bottle of water and half a loaf of bread at me. I drank and ate heavily, not caring that the water was laced with those nanomachines. I needed to fill myself, to find strength once more.
I didn’t try to escape, I knew that the puppets were watching the door like hawks, and that I had no way of overpowering them. Shortly after I finished my meal, the Agent stepped into the room, into my cell. They told me that my resolve was curious, and that it was to be tested, until I broke. And then they pulled forth the substance that made up my consciousness, as the woman had, and pulled me into that great gestalt.
I knew how to react better though, and focused my strength, pouring every bit into evading the hazards that had assailed me the time before. I fared better this time, getting hit by only one of the lances, and the Agent left me with a pained look on their face.
Still, I was exhausted afterward, and allowed sleep to comfort me, until I was given more food and water. It was impossible to tell the passage of time in that dark space beneath the earth. Twice more, the Agent came and twice more I repelled their attempt to destroy my will. After each attempt, I retained more of my strength.
And so they stopped giving me food, and my body grew weak from malnutrition before the Agent yet again tested me. Despite my weakness, I was able to fend off the assaults with even greater strength. Indeed, I began to probe back at the massive mind-form, seeking for more information, for a crack in the wall of thought-forms.
And so they prevented me from sleeping. They made noise at all hours, and brought in massive flood lights to keep me awake. My body degenerated further, my face growing haggard and my skin becoming even more pale. I still drank the water as heavily as I could, but now exhaustion clouded my every thought.
I could barely focus my eyes as the Agent entered again. My mind slipped easily from my body, my physical frame lacking the strength to support my mental energy. It felt so good to be free of that husk, to float in that white void. I pondered if it would be so bad to fall within, to allow my concerns to become everyone’s concerns, for my pain to be spread throughout the mass of minds so I didn’t have to carry it any further.
I drifted down towards the grasping hands and I felt their hunger as they brushed against me. But I felt more, I felt beyond the immediate needs into the grander tapestry of their existence. I saw the spreading network of minds, filtering throughout the city, forming lines of communion across the physical space.
Was this space any different than the hierarchies imposed by the Autocrat? Was this nothing more than another place where the strong ruled and the weak knelt? Why should I fear it so?
But then I remembered Alex, I remembered our brief encounters, and I realized that I wanted to see them again. That I couldn’t let myself be torn apart here, that I still had things that I wanted to do. I still had wants and needs.
I would get out, I would fight, even if it was the last thing I ever did.