From the files of Unreal Estate: Open House,
Some portions copyright other authors; see website for details.
Krap, Krap, Krap, Krap.
The snacks rang out across the register in rapid succession. It wasn't that difficult of a job, running a register, so I wasn't particularly impressed by the speed and efficiency of the clerk's work. A monkey could be trained to do that sort of thing with speed and efficiency; it wasn't anything to be proud of. Solving problems, finding solutions, digging up answers to questions nobody could answer... that's what made reality tick along like a watch...
...of course, I had no right to a massive superiority complex when reality was not in fact ticking like a watch, and I wasn't finding any answers to the question nobody could answer -- "Why has Restless been going into Safe Mode randomly all week long?"
"So whaddya think of all this Safe Mode stuff?" the trained monkey asked me, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't telepathic.
I pulled out one of my newly purchased cigarettes, lighting it up before responding. "I think it doesn't make any sense at all," I told him. "I've checked the harmonics four times, and they're all good. There's no flaw which would degrade stability down to the point of a crash. The software's clean, patched up to date, and other than a few smudges from the last hack contractor they hired and his snack food fixation -- a fixation I merrily continue -- there's not a problem to be found."
"...huh?" the clerk asked, pausing in ringing up a bag of chips which would send me to an early grave.
"I'm a freelancer," I explained, flashing the REC Certification symbol on my business card, and taking a drag on the cigarette. "Restless hired me to fix the crashes."
"Oh! Hey, great! I was hopin' they'd do something about that," he said, relieved to hear it, and resuming his scanning-and-bagging procedures. "I swear, every time the sky goes blue, folks get skittish. They don't wanna make impulse buys at convenience stores, I can say that for cert... errr..."
"I'm pretty sure that six pack doesn't cost 'ERROR' points," I said, reading the word off his register screen. "Looks like reality isn't the only thing crashing around here, huh..?"
The cashier gave me his best sheepish 'I apologize for poor customer service' look. "Guess not. Um. Look, I gotta phone in to the head office before I can ring up the rest of this--"
"Keep it," I said, taking the half-full bag, and pulling my Scorecard from the reader. "I shouldn't be eating all this garbage, anyway. I'll just take what I already paid for. Take it from me, kid -- never trust any machine you haven't disassembled, checked, reassembled, and checked again yourself. Later."
Not that he could do that, of course. Nobody knew HOW technology worked, they just knew it worked. And when it didn't, they called me. So I had better damn well know how it works, hadn't I? I should know why the engine was crashing. I should know. I should...
Pushing all that out of my mind, I walked out into the endless downpour of Restless, intent on going home, stuffing myself silly, then hacking at the engine s'more. Damned if I was going to let it stay unsolved one minute longer than it had to be...
Hailing a cab in Restless in the dead of night was no easy task. The place was generally abandoned at all hours, with folks preferring to stay dry and indoors if at all possible -- when the sun went off (or at least the glow behind the endless clouds died down) those same folks wanted sleep more than wet wanderings. With few fares, there'd be few cabbies, thus perpetuating the cycle. There had to be a solution in there, some way to tweak the urban planning or the cultural factors that would allow for proper transport coverage at all hours -- not my problem, not my problem. Get your mind off it...
And off the guy running towards you. The three people running. Two, chasing one, through the rain--
Two chasing none. A spherical hole left in the rain for a split second, empty air where normally there would be a few hundred raindrops. A few thousand? The density of rain versus the size of the sphere...
The two chasing one, who was now right behind me, as I got dumped on by the normal amount of rain falling, and the displaced sphere of rain he somehow brought with him when he moved from A to Z without passing through points B to Y. I felt a blade against my neck, and could only think about how I nicked myself shaving yesterday, standing there helplessly...
The other two were raising weapons. Guns. The one who had me held up his own weapon -- a ball of fire. An actual ball of fire, hovering there, as the superheated air above his palm ignited enough not to be doused by the rain.
"I'm warning you psychos, leave me alone!" the voice behind me screamed. "Or else I'll--"
I never heard a gun fired outside of a RealNet show. It was something like a man snapping his fingers. Maybe five men snapping fingers, so simultaneously that there was no echo. My assailant dropped, the fire going out, the knife falling away.
Panic set in a few moments after the fact, as my bag of Krap hit the ground, and I did the whole eyes-wide, mouth-open stare of horror thing as the gunmen approached me. No, not approaching me. They were approaching the dead person. And putting two more rounds into him for good measure, from the finger-snapping sounds of it.
"Clear!" one shouted, tugging at the collar of his coat. A microphone, that's what it would have to be. I'd seen enough Important Courtroom Drama to know that. "Clear. ...he had a hostage, but the target's down, hostage is safe. Pull the van around, cleanup. The situation has been normalized, I repeat, normalized. ...you okay there, buddy? I had to take the shot, you understand--"
"It's amazing how easily they go down once they START playing by the rules," the other gunman said, with a nasty little smile. "Taking a hostage, what was he thinking? If he'd kept running we might not've gotten him..."
"I'm fine," I said, more to myself than them. "I'm fine. ...what's going on? Are you guys police..?"
"The police won't do what needs to be done."
That was a new voice. Apparently a van had pulled up while I was busy being in shock.
Sitting in the van, unassuming in poise, was a young man. He had to be around twenty years of age, despite the mature and authoritative tone -- wearing a gentle smile, as he offered me unspoken sympathies for my plight. He ignored the other men, as they methodically bagged the body, and stored it away in the back of the van... his eyes were on mine. I was the only important thing, now.
I left my snacks on the ground.
"If you're not cops... who are you?" I asked. "IP Police? I didn't think they were allowed to kill like that..."
"We don't work for RealWare," he continued. "We don't work for the police. We work for a greater good. If you'd like to know more, I'd be happy to tell you..."
"...I... I gotta be going home," I said, stepping away. "Back to my hotel. I've got this project I'm working on--"
"Yes, you're Thomas Clearance, freelance Reality Engineer in charge of the mysterious crashes," he continued. Calm. Gentle, understanding, but very confident in his secret knowledge... "My name is Mortimer Fallsworth. I know who you are, and I know the source of your engine problems. Now, you're thinking to yourself right now, these men are murderers. If I go with them, it's only so they can erase a witness. But we know who you are. We know where you live, because it's our business to know about any reality-related activity in the area. So you can presume that your only two courses of action are either to run, run as far as you can -- abandoning your contract -- or to understand that we bear you no violent grudge, and in fact, you could be of help to us. And we can help you in turn. So, you can either walk away, assuming the worst and taking some very understandable if pointless precautions, or... you can climb in with us, and learn more. Which interests you more, Thomas? Paranoia, or truth...?"
Maybe it was the way he said it. How his words seemed to define reality, to dictate how things had to be. I couldn't feel any hostile vibes from him, I worked the variables over in my mind and there didn't seem to be any hidden threat to my person. I could be wrong. I've been wrong before. I've been wrong all week.
And he claimed he knew why...
Not many motels have guards standing at the parking lot gates. This one did.
"We've rented all the rooms for the duration of our stay," Mortimer explained, as the van pulled in. "The manager is one of us. We have connections like this in every reality, just in case we need to stage a more organized operation than the usual solitary investigations and normalizations..."
"Who's 'we'?" I asked, for likely the third time that night.
"The Society for Normal Reality. I'll explain when we're inside," he answered, for definitely the third time that night.
Nobody at this cheap ten-room motel was sleeping. The first room we passed was filled with RealNet messaging terminals; audio, video, text. Four men were working them, while a fifth brewed coffee. Another room, one with blacked out windows, was the destination for the body and the gunmen... I got a sick feeling in my stomach as they briskly whisked their victim away, wondering if maybe I was going to jail for playing along with this. Or possibly somewhere worse, if any of those crazy religious people were actually right...
"I know you feel upset," Mortimer said, walking with me under the rain canopy running alongside the motel rooms. "What you saw was legally defined as murder. But what you don't understand is that my men were not killing a human being -- they were putting down a rabid animal... ah, here we are. One moment while I find my room card..."
"Look, if you're worried about me going to the cops... I won't," I reasoned. "I don't even live here. All I'm doing is fixing the engine, then I'm out--"
"The engine flaws are nothing you can fix," he explained, sliding his room card into the lock, opening up. "Because the abnormal we normalized tonight was responsible for them. Most of them, at any rate. Come in, come in... it's not very clean, I'm afraid there's no maid for the duration of our stay..."
For 'not very clean', Mortimer's room was tidy enough. No discarded clothing, no empty beer bottles. One of the two beds was perfectly made; he was sleeping here alone. He moved over to the tiny guest table, having a seat in one of the chairs, gesturing to the other for me. On the table were various open folders... documents, photographs. From the brief glimpse I had of the man before he got shot in the head, they looked very similar...
"What I'm going to tell you is a secret very few know," Mortimer said. "And I must ask that you keep it that way, for reasons which will be made clear. What you saw tonight is the final line of defense we have against abnormality... against tainted people, people who have become monsters. You work in reality technology, yes? You know the basics of engine operation, how harmonics through treated engine water generate reality--"
"--and instability in the fluid can lead to crashes, errors in the laws of physics, the boundaries of the sphere shifting, yes, all of that," I finished for him.
"What if I told you that certain... I don't like to call them 'people'... were walking Reality Engines?" he said. "Living abnormalities, with the power to control reality around them. Some trait they hold, making their blood resonate the same way an engine's does, gives them unheard of power. Dangerous power. I'd say godlike, but they're more demonic than angelic... if you believe in god. I don't believe any kind god would allow these things to walk among us."
I leaned back in my chair... having hit the point where it was too much to swallow. "You're saying that the guy you shot was a dangerous freak of nature, a walking Reality Engine. That's--"
"--crazy? You saw what he did. That particular abnormal had exhibited traits of teleportation and pyrokinesis," he continued, tapping the notes on the table before him with one finger. "He used them to put your life in mortal danger. He victimized you, and if we allowed him to live, he'd likely have victimized others as well. Power corrupts, Thomas. You've seen enough RealNet video streams, likely read enough comics to know that -- those who are given power over others will abuse that power."
"Unless they become super heroes," I said dryly.
"In my experience with abnormals, very few take up crusading careers of goodness in spandex tights," the boy joked lightly. "What we are doing is silently protecting society from a menace it would never truly understand. The public wants to feel safe and secure, Thomas. They don't care how that safety is achieved, as long as it's achieved. It's like technology... as long as it works, they're happy. But a hint of blue in the sky..."
"And they get skittish," I agreed. "But I'm not getting why you guys take a vigilante angle on this. Why not tell the cops? Or RealWare, even?"
"Thomas... think back to the comic books," he said. "What do large institutions of power do when presented with something like this..? They exploit it. They use it to their advantage. They don't do the right thing, which is to expunge the problem and normalize life, return things to the way they should be. RealWare is a corporate empire, and a certified engineer or not, you know they're capable of anything if it means a higher profit in the end. We can't trust them, Thomas. We can only trust those who know what has to be done. Conservative persons who want to conserve our way of life... who will fight, and even die, to defend others from the unseen menace..."
"No disrespect, but you understand that this sounds insane, right?" I asked him. (He wouldn't hurt me, right? He was being honest, I should be honest. Right?) "Let's assume you're right, that some people have these... powers. Like I saw tonight. I won't deny what my eyes saw. But this, this secret society, is this really the best way to deal with it? Look, I'm a problem solver, I calculate the factors and come to a conclusion and work the situation. And this doesn't say 'optimal solution' to me..."
Mortimer sighed... and actually nodded, in agreement. "It's not the best way, I'll agree. If we could trust governments, if we could trust RealWare... we're working on that. We're infiltrating the power structures, putting people in place who can work with us, trying to prepare society for the truth. We do want to tell them the truth one day, Thomas. But we can't do that yet, and in the meantime, we have to act. For us, the normal ones, it'd be gross neglect not to act... I understand your doubts. I'm not going to demand you be a part of this; I just felt you deserved an explanation for your woes... for your engine crashes."
"The abnormals caused your crashes," he said. "That's what happens when they abuse their powers, push them too far. Their changes they make to Restless can destabilize your engine. You've seen it happen, right..? Crashes from nowhere, with no internal explanation? Logic. It must be an external cause. If two engines were in the same reality, one would affect the other, correct?"
I hated it when nonsense started making sense. But I could only nod my head mutely, agreeing. It had the weight of evidence behind it -- my own observations, with his theory, proof positive...
"Well, now you know the truth," Mortimer said, rising from his seat. "Once we finish operations here... and normalize the second abnormal in Restless, who has been evading us so far... your problems will go away. You can collect your paycheck, having solved the problem, and I doubt those who contracted you will care HOW it was solved. They'll just be happy that it's been dealt with..."
The boy opened a nearby suitcase... withdrawing a wand-like instrument, a metal tool with a single light emitting indicator. White or green. A device I was intimately familiar with...
"Take this with you," he said, holding the gift out. "It's a specialized tool that the Society for Normal Reality uses to confirm potential abormals..."
He waved the wand in front of me -- white light. Then, he turned it around, and waved it in front of himself -- also white light, which I was fully expecting.
"A harmonic wave scanner," I said, taking the item from him. "I know. I use them to diagnose engines. Green means it's generating reality waves, white means it's not generating anything... although usually there's a frequency readout, and the handle's different..."
"We simplified the tool a bit, for our field agents to use. All we care about is normality or abnormality, not exactly HOW abnormal someone is," he said. "This is what separates us from them, Thomas. Keep it. You probably already have one, but I wouldn't feel right sending you home without the light of truth."
"I suppose you're also going to warn me to keep quiet about all this," I said, pocketing the object. "To help protect your secret..."
"I already did that, didn't I?" Mortimer asked. "My memory can be fuzzy. But I'm sure you won't make waves. You of all people understand how important it is for reality to be pure."
My motel room, on the other side of restless, was far crappier. And that wasn't just because of the open food packages lying around. It was seedier, nastier, more lived-in by far than the sterile little base of operations I had just visited... I was cutting costs, taking a lousier hostel. I hadn't anticipated I'd be here a full week working on the engine problems.
At least my problems would be going away now. I'd still poke at the engine via my RealNet Workstation, check the code, maybe visit it in person tomorrow morning to run the same diagnostic tests I'd run countless times over... in case they were insane, and wrong, and the problem wouldn't go away.
Except someone had teleported and nearly thrown a fireball today. Which meant they were at least partially honest.
It was a tidy solution, really. If you assumed it all to be true, it made perfect sense; it explained every oddity I couldn't have explained myself, solved every problem. Part of me had a genuine appreciation for the way that puzzle came together, and was lazy enough to sit back and let things take care of themselves...
But then again...
Sitting back and letting someone else do the work was the cheap way out. It meant letting technology own you, instead of vice versa. Like a cashier who calls the front office, then sits around because he doesn't know or care about how to fix his gear.
I had to do something, even if there was technically nothing to do but sit and wait. I could at least solve for a few last variables tickling at the back of my mind...
They told me Mortimer was personally overseeing the last normalization in Restless. They were packing up when I arrived the next morning -- and cheerfully informed me that he was at a motel a few blocks away. Oh, and he'd left instructions that I could come observe if I actually returned.
I ran as fast as I could, once again plagued by a lack of cabbies. I ran until my nicotine addled lungs burned and my snack food weighted legs ached. Then I ran more.
I arrived just in time to see a familiar scene -- the Society for Normal Reality chasing down a fugitive abnormal. In fact, she fell at my feet just as I was approaching the parking lot, skidding on the rain-slick asphalt, face first with a wound in the back of her head that I couldn't look at.
The child's mother was lying dead nearby, as well. I didn't know which one they considered abnormal. They were bagging them up and clearing away the evidence before I had a chance to say a word, ignoring my presence... all of them ignoring me, except Mortimer. Who was smiling to me in his peculiar little way. Expecting my arrival. While the vans pulled away, tires squealing as they fled the scene... he stayed behind. His followers had other tasks to attend to, after all.
"It's good to see you again, Thomas," he said. "I'm sorry you had to see the uglier side of what we have to do again, though. If you had waited a bit, I could have--"
I pushed the horror out of my mind. I had to work the problem.
Slowly, knowing this was a bad idea but what had to be done, I raised my harmonic wave scanner, flicking it in this direction.
The light turned green.
At once, I knew I had disappointed him. His smile fell, his eyes downcast. The sigh that flowed from his lips was one a parent might give to a child who just handed in a poor report card from school.
"I should have realized you'd do this," he said. "I blame myself. You're an inquisitive person. A problem solver, as you said so yourself..."
"You altered the scanner you gave me," I said, lowering my own personal engineer's tool, one I had snatched up from my equipment box an hour ago. "I don't trust any equipment I haven't disassembled, checked, assembled, and checked again. Which I did to the wand you gave me. You didn't just remove the extraneous engineer's features, you actually altered it so it would register false for one specific signature. Logic says that it'd have to be yours... you're an abnormal, aren't you, Mortimer?"
"Why did you have to do that?" he asked me, sad. "Why did you have to upset things? People just want to be safe, happy, and normal. But you had to go and look behind my curtain... I'm glad you at least waited until my men had left. That way, they won't have to be as disappointed as I am..."
My chest began to hurt. I was about to blame the garbage I'd been shoveling into my stomach lately, until I realized this sort of thing was more along the lines of a heart attack rather than heartburn.
Stupid. Very stupid. No right to a superiority complex when I made a trained monkey mistake. I should have left it alone. I shouldn't have come charging along, waving my wand-of-truth and trying to satisfy my need to know. I should have at least taken steps to protect myself. I shouldn't have been blinded by solving the equation...
"You think I'm a hypocrite," his voice was saying, getting farther and farther away as the ground rushed up to join with me. "That I'm an abnormal. But I'm better than that, super-normal, perhaps. You wanted a caped crusader, someone who used their powers for good, yes...? I'm simply clearing the playing field of those who could stop what must be. In the end, I'll redefine what is normal to be what is beautiful, and wonderful... a bright and shining future for all. They'll love me for it, embracing their savior... I'm sorry you won't be there to see it, Thomas... but reality shall be determined by the last one standing."
He slipped on a pair of purple-tinted glasses, pulled up the hood of his cloak, and walked away while I went cold.
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