A plan is hatched. One last question is asked. A story ends.
Written and performed by Michael Meinberg @meinberg13
Tracks “Spider’s Web” “Blue Feather” “Gagool” “Inspired” and “Awkward Meeting” by Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Frederich gazed up at me, wanting the rest of the story. I offered him cash in response, but he shook his head. If he was going to give me a bomb, he needed both cash and the rest of the story. He wouldn’t toss a tool that powerful into the hands of a person who was plotting a scheme he didn’t approve of.
And so I told him. I told him everything, everything I’ve told you up to this point. To his credit, Frederich took in all the details, severity crossing his face. In the end, he told me to go rest. There was a break room that I could use. He’d confer with his people and get back to me in the morning.
And so I slept again. The chase had worn me out more than I cared to admit, and so I crashed on the tiny mattress and slept as well as I had in the plush hotel room.
I awoke later that day, not sure when exactly, judging from the light streaming in from the windows. As I turned to stand, I found the door opening and three familiar faces stepping in to talk to me. I had been expecting Frederich and even Jasper, but Alex’s presence came as a shock. Jasper explained that Alex had been looking for me, and they had been crashing at Jasper’s place.
Frederich had brought them up to speed, but they all wanted to know what my plan was. I explained that my plan was quite simple. I would head to the factory that held the device making the nanomachines and I would blow it up. I could stop any of the puppets by reuniting their minds with their bodies.
Alex asked what I would do if I ran into trouble on the inside. I didn’t have a good answer for that. So Alex asked Frederich for a shock cannon. I guessed that’s what the big guy used to knock out the crowd. Frederich nodded and I protested that I didn’t want anyone to tag along. They ignored me.
Jasper told me that stopping this was too important to leave unfinished. Everyone could tell that things were getting worse. Everyone in the back alleys went around armed, and kept on guard for those with the wide-eyed stares of those in a communion. But that wouldn’t be enough if the city exploded into chaos.
Frederich muttered something about not being ready, but I didn’t follow up on that. I recognized that Jasper was right, that this was too much to leave to chance. With my sigh of acceptance, Frederich brought forth the bomb.
It was a metal sphere, divided in half, about as large as the space created by bringing my fingertips together and branching out my palms. He explained that if I turned the halves in the right way (he mimicked turning the top half clockwise and the bottom half counterclockwise), it would click into place. At that point, I had five minutes before it exploded, so I had better get running.
I slid the bomb into a satchel which I slung over my shoulders. Meanwhile, Alex hefted up the shock cannon, the device looking far larger, and no less menacing, in their hands. I began to offer my thanks to Frederich and to Jasper, but Jasper cut me off and said I could thank them when I came back. Jasper added that she had taken payment out of my pocket, so we were square on that.
And so, I said goodbye and I left the factory with Alex at my side. As we walked, I asked them why they hadn’t left town, why they came looking for me.
They had spent some time at the docks, looking for a ship that might take them away. But after a couple days, they realized that didn’t feel right. They’d be running, and probably spend the rest of their life running. Alex was just as keen to get this solved as I was.
As for me, I had seemed so fervent on knowing how to fix things;clearly, I would be the person to go to for more information. And Alex seemed quite proud to be right. I smirked, and they added that it helped I was cute. As a blush rose to my cheeks, Alex added that I could afford to put on a few pounds, to which I did not disagree.
We walked the rest of the way in silence, becoming more certain of our path with every step. And then there it was. The factory, a crumbling edifice of iron and concrete, surrounded by a horde of puppets which now numbered at least fifty.
The horde swivelled to face our direction in unison, their vacant eyes staring through us. Alex immediately pulled the trigger on the shock cannon and the orb of light flew forward and landed in the midst of the closest group of the puppets before bursting. As the light faded, the rest of the horde twitched and writhed as the pain of the shock was shared throughout the mind.
I charged forward over the unconscious puppets and dashed for the nearest building with Alex following shortly after. I saw one of the puppets lash towards Alex and pulled the puppet’s mind back to his body with a flick of my mental wrist, sending him collapsing to a heap. I reached the door a moment later and flung it open to a narrow hallway, poorly illuminated but more solidly constructed than the exterior would indicate.
Alex threw the door shut and locked it after Alex followed me in and put their back against the door, before nodding to me. They promised to hold the entrance even as hands began to bang at the door, searching for entry. I hesitated for just a moment, but then Alex yelled at me to go. I went.
I delved deeper into the structure, and the path proved to be remarkably straightforward, with much of the halls filled with rubble or partially collapsed as I got further in. And so, I eventually came to a large set of double doors. I felt the sweat forming on my palms as I opened them.
Within, there was a large circular room, dominated by a piece of elaborate machinery in the center. I could make little sense of it, save that it appeared to replicate itself, but smaller and smaller and smaller as it got towards the center, until the central mechanism appeared as a blur before my eyes. I shook my head at it, and then noticed a figure, hunched over and heavyset, working at a keyboard with an attached monitor.
He didn’t seem to notice my arrival until I stepped in closer towards the machine. They warned me away from it, saying that the mechanisms were very delicate. I noticed a pair of channels connected to the machine, one pumping water in, the other pumping it out, to a location outside of the building.
I asked him if he knew what was going on outside, if he knew what this stuff was being used for. He let out a sigh and turned to face me, his pale, white features dominated by bushy, white eyebrows and a grandfatherly smile. He explained that he knew full what the end result of his labor was. But ultimately, it didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was that the manufactory worked.
The old man continued; he had invented the first one as a pure design concept, and had yet to see a working model until he had been brought out of retirement. A functional nanoscale manufactory would change the world, he claimed. With this device, he could usher in a brand new age, where labor could be handled by automated machines, freeing the working class of their need to toil.
With the proper programming, a nanoscale manufactory could make anything, could cure lethal diseases and repair injuries, could lead to a glorious new golden age. But I knew that would never happen, not while the manufactories were controlled by the Corps and the Autocrats, let alone the mysterious mastermind.
People like that, systems like that, would only use the miracles offered by this technology to feed their own ambitions and to perpetuate the systems of which they were masters. I didn’t explain this to the old man. I knew he would never understand. I could see in his eyes that all he cared about was his dream. It was a feeling I sympathized with.
And perhaps I could be the one to take over. Perhaps I could take control of this fantastic power and use it for all of the good that the creator desired. I imagined myself taking charge of the nanoscale manufactory, and gaining power greater than any Autocrat, of coming to rule the world with my strength alone.
But after a moment’s consideration, that dream faded. I knew that even a saint with the greatest of intentions could be corrupted by so much strength. I realized that such power could not rest in a single hand, but needed to be shared with the many. And right now, with only one hand on the rudder, the power would lead only to corruption and suffering.
So I told him was that I was going to blow up the machine; that if I did not, then everything would be lost. His eyes widened in panic and I told him to run. He did not. I stared at him for a long moment, trying to understand his reasoning.
It took me a while to figure him out, but I reasoned it eventually, months later. He had lived a long life, after all, and this was the only thing that mattered now. This was the sum of all of his life’s work, and if it was going to be destroyed, then he would go face that destruction with it.
I sighed then, and I pulled out the bomb. I twisted the halves as Frederich demonstrated, and rolled the bomb towards the machine. Then I turned and ran.
I found Alex by the entrance, sweat drenched from the exertion of holding the door shut. I yelled at them that we had to run and they nodded. They pulled away and the door burst open. Alex fired fired onto the incoming horde, and then we sprinted through the crowd, trying to get as far as we could from the factory. One of the puppets, laying prone, reached forward and grasped my ankle.
I tumbled to the ground, but Alex tossed aside the shock cannon to help me up. I mentally clocked the time as we ran and ran, through the twisting alleys formed by the abandoned factory district. At exactly five minutes, I heard an audible thump from behind us. A moment later, a roar rushed through the air, smashing through the concrete of the abandoned buildings, crumbling the masonry. A wall of force slammed into our backs and Alex and I went flying to the ground, surrounded by the falling walls and ceilings.
The rubble collapsed on top of us, burying us beneath masonry and concrete. I shielded my head from the worst of impacts, but I descended into darkness, separated from Alex. Time lost all meaning in that space, buried alive in the grey. Enough cracks formed within the rubble above for faint bursts of air to flow into my makeshift tomb.
I breathed slowly as I slipped into unconsciousness. I knew that if I died there, I could die content that I had achieved my goal. The nanoscale manufactory was gone. The one person who could make one again was gone. In a few days, the nanomachines would be washed out of everyone. Everything would return to something resembling normalcy.
I drifted in and out of consciousness several times, and I had no idea how much time passed until my mind reached out. The nanomachines still remained in my system, though I could already feel them beginning to weaken. But I sensed a familiar presence above, and I sent forth a direct call for assistance. I did my best to construct an image of where we had fallen, but then the presence faded.
I fell away again, until I awoke to the telltale nausea of the fading of the nanomachines within me, my body shivering and impossibly cold. I tried to shift away the rubble and grit my teeth at the pain rushing through my form. But then I felt the weight above me slide away and bright noonday light shine down onto my face. I turned over to see the rubble being pulled off of Alex, then looked up to grin at Sam.
After reading my note, Sam had gone looking for me, and eventually followed my trail back to Frederich, which led them here. Seeing the rubble, they had hired a crew who had managed to extricate the pair of us after Sam had a flash of intuition that said to look here. Alex seemed just as wan and pale as I, but I smiled to them as well, and offered coffee at the soonest convenience.
I never returned to work after that. I couldn’t go back to scratching after all I had seen, after all I had done. Teri got the promotion and sealed her position as an Agent by overseeing the merger of the Efficiantum SideSweepers. Sam had retired too; their Corp was basically a ghost town at that point, nothing more than a name and a building.
After dinner, Sam and I decided that we wanted to keep looking into things. There was still so much more strangeness left in this world, after all. And we never did find the root of the mind that was controlling things. We wound up opening a small firm, designed to look into cases of the strange. We didn’t expect to make much coin, but Sam had a decent savings we could use to fund things.
Jasper and Frederich continued their business, and I’d come to rely on them as a source of information and resources in the months to come, at least until things changed. Alex started working with Jasper, and while I didn’t approve of them getting back into the drug scene, it wasn’t exactly my prerogative.
I did eventually have that coffee with Alex, but that’s the start of another story. How about you get me something to drink and I’ll start on that one? If you really want to know everything that I saw in the city, we’re going to be here for a very long time. But I guess I don’t have anything besides time right now.
How long did you say we’re stuck on this boat?