Last week, we took a quick look at the rather mysterious beginning of Avarice, an unfinished biopunk novel. We’ll dig a little deeper into the world in today’s entry, learning more about the place’s methods and madness.
Chapter 2: Clean Room
Matthias woke in darkness, surrounded on all sides by the cyclic hum of electronics. Blind fumbling revealed smooth walls and a perforated floor but nothing more. Unless he missed his mark. this was some kind of clean room buried in the endless perimeter complex.
He added up the facts of his situation quickly: he was naked and alone, and every inch of his skin felt raw like it’d been scrubbed with steel-wool. Quarantine. Ellia was nowhere to be found, and he had zero possibility of escape. He knew that no amount of yelling or thrashing about would hasten the process. That was just how the company operated; they moved with sure hands and took control of every variable.
He feared that fact more than any other.
Matthias had no choice, so he waited… and waited… and waited some more. Trapped alone in perfect darkness, he started to hallucinate. Multicolored lights flashed as his eyes fought for purchase, while he listened to the bubbling laughter of non-existent children and the mothers who never bore them.
The company left him alone like that for days, and there was nothing to do but slip in and out of a dreamless sleep.
The light that finally greeted him was a queer shade of blue-green, scientifically calculated to make him feel ill at ease. He felt like the subject of some inhuman experiment, and that was precisely their intent.
“Sit down,” said a voice in the speakers.
A chair emerged from the floor and cupped his body. He was seated before he could tell anyone to go to hell.
The light grew brighter, revealing some kind of laboratory beyond his cramped confines, and a lone bureaucrat in a fine suit. The man’s clothes were neat and orderly and his face betrayed no emotion. He had the strong jaw and hollow eyes of the Stone bloodline.
On the far wall hung a monstrous replica of the company’s seal, the letters W & V arranged vertically to resemble a fountain of blood.
The unreadable man took a seat on the other side of the glass, glanced down at a computer terminal and then back up again. “According to our files, your name is Matthias Cole.” He had a voice like an over-starched shirt. “You were once a fully-vested employee of Windsor-Vitality. A Rank-7 Whisperer. Is this correct?”
“Yes,” Matthias replied flatly. “All of it.”
“And you’ve come back to us from the wilds? How terribly unlikely. By our best estimates, less than .04% of all subjects who leave the protection of the city survive for more than a week. Yet it says here you’ve persisted for more than four years.”
Matthias flashed a mortician’s smiled. “Guess I’m a survivor.”
“So it would seem,” the bureaucrat said without humor, then punched some information into his terminal. “What brings you back to us, Mr. Cole?”
“My daughter. She’s very sick.”
“A sensible reason. Has she contracted the plague?”
“No,” Matthias barked, then forcibly regained his composure. “Not… not as far as I can tell. She just has a common bacterial infection, but I lack the tools to treat her properly. The company is better equipped.”
“Indeed. Now, why would you ever think…”
“Where is she?” Matthias demanded, cutting the bureaucrat off mid-stream. “Where’s my daughter?”
“Never fear, Mr. Cole. She is in no immediate danger.” Those words were carefully chosen. “Her care is being overseen by the best physicians Windsor-Vitality has to offer.”
“I want to see her.”
The bureaucrat pursed his lips and shook his head. “That isn’t possible just yet, but I believe we’ll come to an equitable agreement in due time. Let’s get back to the interview, shall we?”
“As I was saying: why would you ever think the company would allow you to re-enter the city?”
“I didn’t,” he said. “But I had no other choice. I had to try.”
“I see,” the bureaucrat said as he typed. “And the medical expenses you’re incurring? My records show that your status, company shares and all other assets were dissolved. How did you intend to pay for our services.”
Matthias had planned for this part, and it turned his stomach. “I’m willing to do whatever you ask.”
“I’m sorry,” the bureaucrat said. He wasn’t. “I didn’t hear that.” Actually, he had.
Matthias took a lung full of air and raised his voice. “I said I’m willing to do whatever you ask.”
“Excellent. That’s precisely what the company likes to hear.” The bureaucrat turned back to his terminal and hummed as he skimmed the page. “It says here you were a decorated agent before you took leave of your senses. You received high marks in reconnaissance, investigation, disinformation, and wetwork. The only negative remarks are in regards to your lack of company loyalty. What a prescient observation. Would you agree that this is a fair assessment of your previous work with Windsor-Vitality?”
The bureaucrat stared intently at his monitor, overcome for a long moment by an air of vacancy before he finally returned with a sharp sigh. “Well, Mr. Cole… It appears today is your lucky day. We at Windsor-Vitality require an operative of your considerable experience and expertise, and I am empowered to negotiate the terms of your services on the company’s behalf.”
The bureaucrat leaned closer to the glass. “Now, it must be understood that everything I’m about to tell you is confidential. Any breach of company confidence in this matter will be dealt with swiftly and without remorse. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure I do,” Matthias said. “It’s not in the company’s character to trust anyone, least of all a traitor such as myself.”
The bureaucrat looked Matthias in the eyes, his expression taking on a razor-sharp edge. “You’re right. Trust is not in the company’s character, but we possess something very precious to you, Mr. Cole, and we’ve seen the lengths you would go to ensure its well-being.”
Matthias’ guts churned and he choked back a rush of bile. His heart was beating in his throat, and he fought the urge to engage his predator circuit. He couldn’t afford to lose control; he needed to stay cool if he wanted to see this through.
“Is that a God damned threat?” he asked through clenched teeth.
“Windsor-Vitality doesn’t make threats, Mr. Cole. We create opportunities. Today, you’re being given an opportunity to assist the company, and in so doing, help your daughter. Nothing but opportunities.”
Matthias’ jaw felt like a sprung bear-trap, and it took a minute for him to pry it back apart. “What would you have me do?”
“Then we understand one another. Good. Your task is simple. Over the past few months, four of our best Whisperers have been found murdered in the street. Their bodies were torn apart by an unknown weapon-type.”
“Lurks,” Matthias said, feeling a fool the instant the word escaped his lips.
“That is what the killer would like us to believe, but you know as well as I that such creatures are an urban legend. There’s nothing beneath the streets but rats and cockroaches. No, these are targeted killings. All four Whisperers were working the concerts, and died en route to their weekly check-in.”
“And you want me to find the killer.”
“Find him and figure out how he’s detecting our agents. All of our operations in the Outreach depend on secrecy. You know this better than anyone.”
“Once the security leak is fully understood, you will be cleared to eliminate the threat. That is all we ask of you.”
Matthias had done far worse in his time, and the gravity of the situation was clear. The Outreach was a world of tribal violence and savagery; clean, methodical killings were unknown. This kind of sophistication represented the one thing the company feared — evolution.
“And my compensation package?”
“Of course,” the bureaucrat said, looking back at his terminal. “The company is prepared to offer you full reinstatement. You will resume your old status, payscale and benefits, as well as a fully-vested stock grant commensurate with your bloodline and birth order. You may also apply to have your daughter certified as a purebreed. If her genome is reasonably sound, that would mean acceptance in high society, a proper education and full employment with Windsor-Vitality when she comes of age.”
Matthias was filled with unease at that. An offer so generous meant either that the company was terrified and desperate to have the problem solved, or that they didn’t expect him to survive his task. Either way, he wasn’t getting the whole story… not that he’d expected otherwise. “I suppose that will have to do,” he said after some feigned consideration. “Strange, though, that the company would offer reinstatement. Aren’t you afraid I’ll just flee again?”
The bureaucrat smiled, and there was something disgusting squatting behind it. “The company understands you, Mr. Cole, quite a bit better than you likely understand yourself. Love, you see, doesn’t come often in our lives. The kind of love that would drive an otherwise reasonable man to turn his back on civilization and walk into the jaws of leviathan…” His voice quaked around that word. “Such a love never comes to most of us. The likelihood of you stumbling across it a second time is statistically insignificant.”
That love was a dagger still buried in Matthias’ ribs, and the bureaucrat had just given it a healthy twist.
“Besides, you have a child to think of. The company is offering you an opportunity to raise Ellia in the light of the civilized world, where she will be free to choose her own destiny. She has a chance at a real future here.”
They were offering him a chance to raise his daughter in a world of institutionalized backstabbing, built atop a foundation of ruthless subjugation. She had a chance to become a real monster there.
But at least she would live.
“You have a deal,” he said quietly, the wind knocked from his lungs. “When… when do I start?”
“Just as soon as your bloodwork is complete. We mustn’t have any unknown vectors loose in the city. Soon, Mr. Cole.”
With those words, the lights faded and Matthias was left alone with his thoughts again. He didn’t appreciate the company.
Thus the stage is set. In one week, we’ll join Matthias as he returns to the city and begins his investigation.
See you then,