Note: since this tale is a continuation of Surfaces, it will be better understood if that tale is read first.
And so, I reach my final conclusion, and if you weren’t paying attention before, ladies and gentlemen, now is a damn good time to start. If we do not temper our wild, devastatingly irresponsible use of Thurman-Harrison Amnestics and their byproducts, the Foundation could soon find its ability to impose a normalcy of thought on the general population severally crippled, perhaps to the point of total impotence. Like bacteria developing immunities to even the most powerful of antibiotics, so will the human brain begin resisting this constant tampering of amnestics, the use of which became our standard modus operendi in dealing with the exposure of civilian populations to the anomalous over the last few decades. Indeed, our data indicates that this process has already begun. If we do not find an alternative, permanent solution to this problem of memory, well, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t think I need to explain how dire the consequences could be.
Doctor Malachi Harrison, in his address to the O5-Council
“Rememberer? That’s a damn stupid name.”
“That may well be, Upcard, but that’s what we’re calling it.”
Prosper sighed, reached for the can of lager at his right, lifted it to his mouth, only to find it empty. He sighed again. If Matthew Andrews was a man predisposed to sympathy, he might have felt sorry for the old man. Alas, he was not.
“Because that’s what the reports call it.”
“Hrm. I bet I could come up with a better name,” said Evening, his plump, bearded features positively glowing with mirth. If that was because of the undoubtedly idiotic name he’d soon come up with or because of the large plate of sausages in front of the big man, Matthew couldn't be certain. He recalled asking the man how he earned his nickname, sometime after their first acquaintance at the hospital. “It’s because I’m cool and shady,” was the reply he got. “It’s because he’s the dimmest bastard you’re ever likely to meet” was Upcard’s.
“How about ‘Repeaters’?” she now suggested, adding yet more sugar to her steaming mug of tea. Five packets so far, and the tea was fast becoming a literal saccharine wasteland. Upcard never did take any half measures.
“I like ‘Truth-Seers’,” said Evening, a thoughtful expression on his face as he chewed.
“’Relapsers?’” piped Hale, the gaunt, shaky little man gingerly sipping out of his red thermos. “Never drink anything I didn't prepare myself, that how they get you, with those tiny mosquitoes they put in everything,” he told Matthew shortly after they first met. “They lay spy-eggs.”
Prosper was clearly rapidly losing what little remained of his patience. “They’re not ‘Repeaters’, or ‘Relapsers’, and they’re certainly not god-damned ‘Truth-Seers’! The reports call them Rememberers, which means that the people who pay me call them Rememberers, and if they call them Rememberers, that means that I call them Rememberers. And if I call them Rememberers, you can bet your sweet condemned asses that that’s what you’re going to call them as well! Do I make myself clear?”
An uncomfortable silence, followed by three sullen nods.
“I mean you too, Andrews. In fact, I mean you especially!” Prosper said, shaking his empty beer can at Matthew.
“Yeah, got it. Rememberers.”
“Although… you have to admit, ‘Relapsers’ has a pretty nice ring to it.”
Ah, it certainly did him good, watching that crusty geezer squirm. One had to take one’s pleasures where he could find them. Such was life on Permanent Expungment Crew 3.
“Alright, let’s go over things one last time.”
This was received with a chorus of groans. The Crew has been waiting in the hot, cramped van for well over an hour, and patience was running thin.
“Don’t give me that. Just because we’re not exactly working within standard doctrine doesn't mean you get to slack off. You have more to prove than anyone else, in case you forgot.”
“How could we, with you reminding us every five seconds…” murmured Upcard.
Prosper ignored her. “Andrews, since this is your first real stab at this, if you would be so kind?”
“Oh, right. Our target is a, ahm, a Rememberer, a person who belatedly proved to be resistant to standard amnestic treatment. Whatever we originally wanted her to forget, she remembers now, and she’s not being quiet about it. We believe she contacted someone, and if that someone gets their hands on her, it could mean trouble. Now, obviously wiping her memory won't work, which means taking care of her through…other means.”
“Them other means is us, right?” asked Evening, raising a fleshy hand.
“Yes, Evening, that would be us. Now, since the target is living in a densely populated area, and since the usual cover system isn't available to us,” here he glanced at Prosper, who simply shook his head, “we’ll have to go about this carefully. I’ll take point, you follow as soon as I gain entry. She'll be expecting a crew to come pick her up, so getting in shouldn't be too difficult. Once we’re in and the job is done, Prosper will bring around the car and we’ll dispose of whatever needs disposing. ”
Evening lifted his hand again. “Hrm. And what about the real pickup crew? What about the neighbors, what if they hear something? If we don't have the usual cover, they’ll call the cops, and how do we explain that?
Matthew was about to answer, but Prosper interrupted him, looking like he was barely stopping himself from slapping Evening. Matthew couldn't blame him. "We've been over this, Evening. We're arriving a few hours before the time the pickup crew is supposed to show up, so we shouldn't run into them. Taking care of them ain't our job, a real Task Force will be here for that soon. As for the neighbors, well, they'll be taken care of.”
There was something about the expression on his lined face, and not for the first time, Matthew wondered just how the old man came to hold his current position as their operator. “We might not have the typical layered cover, but that doesn't mean we’re alone here." he continued. "I've managed to get us some special assistance, which should hopefully keep everything around us nice and calm until we’re done."
“Wait, special assistance? What sort of assistance?” asked Hale.
“They’ll be waiting outside of her apartment building. Look for a brown semi. They've been keeping an eye on the entrance.”
“You… you didn't really answer my question.”
“No, I didn't. Now go.”
As the four left the van and strode into the warm evening air, Matthew fell into stride beside Upcard, who shot him a contemptuous glance and began walking faster. Matthew persisted, until she finally slowed down and faced him.
"I just need to ask you a few questions, relax."
She bared her teeth in a way that instinctively made Matthew want to cover his softer bits. "Don't you tell me to relax, you slimy little bastard. Prosper might force me to work with you, but that sure as hell doesn't mean I have to treat you like a person. Because we both know you ain't."
"You're acting like you didn't do anything to get you dropped down here."
"I did what I did, and I'm paying the price for it, but that doesn't make us the same, not by a long shot. You'd be wise to remember that."
"Oh? And what if I don't?"
She smiled at that. "You ever wondered what we did before we dragged your carcass out of the hospital? Who we used for our face man, that is?"
"I assumed you did it yourself. I certainly wouldn't trust Evening or Hale with the job."
"Prosper wouldn't hear of it. Says I have too much of a temper, that I'm 'unsocial-able'. So no, it wasn't me. We had Francis. Real sociable guy, was Francis. Could get just about anyone to open their door for him. Real friendly face. I suppose he found it useful in his extra-curricular activities."
Matthew paused. "Wait, I think Prosper mentioned him once. Said that he got his skull caved in during a mission."
Still smiling, Upcard suddenly pulled Matthew close, so only he could hear what she said next. "Well, that's half right at least."
Evening and Hale went ahead, and now Hale was waving, probably signalling he found the brown semi. Upcard stepped away from Matthew and moved to catch up with the two. She didn't look back.
So. That was how things were going to be. All right. She wasn't the only one with an experience in caving skulls.
"Hey Matthew, someone here wants to talk to you!" called Evening, who Matthew saw was now standing next to a old, beaten brown semi-truck. As Matthew approached the vehicle, he began noticing something odd about his surroundings. Although the hour was still early and the weather was pleasant, the streets around him were virtually empty. Stores and coffee shops closed and deserted, the windows of nearby apartment buildings dark, even of the stray cats who usually swarmed the area there was no sign. For some reason, Matthew had a suspicion that this unnatural quiet had something to do with whoever was sitting in that brown semi, a suspicion that gain credence when he ducked his head to peer at the couple sitting in the car.
At the driver's seat sat a man the color and complexion of a prune left in the desert for a few centuries too long. He was wearing some kind of bizarre corduroy robe, which together with his complexion gave him the appearance of a snake that had a run-in with a cheese grater. The man was currently eyeballing Upcard, and it was clear that whatever he just told her got her pretty riled up.
"-You see, this is what I like to see in a woman! Finally someone with initiative, some sass. It really is a breath of fresh air. I remember having to deal with that one, oh, it was just impossible. I mean, when I eventually decapitated her and scooped her brains out with one of those melon ballers, there wasn't even enough for one decent cocktail. It really is a shame you're slumming it up with Squirmy and the Orange Menace here. But I suppose it's just the cards nature handed you."
Upcard was frowning at the man. "Is he always like that?"
This was directed to the woman sitting in the passenger seat. Compact and short, her hair dyed in a peculiar mix of orange and white, she seemed half asleep, and Matthew could see dark black circles under her eyes. She was wearing a blue mechanic's jumpsuit with a bright red logo. 'BOB'S WHEELS AND PRAWNS'.
"You have no idea."
"All you're doing is proving my point, Barcode. Although, looking at these… people, I'm thinking I finally starting to see some value in you. I mean, even your sorry hide shines when compared to whatever those two supposed to be."
Upcard's frown turned into a smile, which was somehow far more disconcerting. "You're a funny little man, aren't you?"
"Darling, you have no idea. You really should be grateful for the fact you're standing here, talking to me as if we're equals. It's such a rare opportunity, I know, I sure you very much appreciate it."
The smile widened. "Oh, certainly. In fact, why don't I show you my appreciation right now-"
Matthew decided to interrupt them before things got any further. Though he would enjoy watching a fight, this probably wasn't the best time for it. "As much as I'd love to hear the conclusion of this fascinating conversation, I believe someone here wanted to talk to me?"
Prune-man still grinning, now turned his gaze to Matthew. "Aye, pretty boy, that would be me. Just wanted you to know you can you're not gonna hear a pip out of no one here. It's all taken care of, so you can shimmy right in yon apartment and do whatever you folks need doing there."
"May I ask exactly how you accomplished this? Who are you anyway?"
"That's for you to ask, laddie, and it's not for me to tell. We're just here because someone cashed in a favor, and we really rather not be."
"Is that so? May I inquire as to why?"
"It's because of the people the woman,our target, called." said Hale, and Matthew was surprised to hear nothing of the usual nervous shake in the little man's voice, "or rather the people those people hired. These two here don't have a lot of power here in the Baseline. Reality's too strong for their minds to do much. It's why she's so tired, you see." He pointed at the woman in the passenger's seat, who was now staring at Hale intently.
Prune-man frowned. "Now how'd you go about learning all that, Squirmy?"
Hale shrugged. "I wasn't always in the Crews." He turned to the woman again. "It's not going to get any better, you know. Soon, you'll be looking back at the days all you had to worry about was screaming towers of flaming goat skulls and Vinnie. Hi Vinnie, long time no see. Hope you've been treating that rash."
Matthew had no idea what the hell Hale was talking about, but the woman grew very pale all the sudden, and Matthew could see this little twitch just by the corner of her eye. Hale continued, a distant look on his unusually passive face. "There's no shame of being afraid of the Jackalmen. You were never bred to deal with the likes of them. While they… well, I suppose time will tell what they'll do to you all. If I'm still alive then, I'd be interested in seeing that. For now though, you should probably go. I don't think they'll stick to their schedule. Unpredictable, the Jackalmen."
"Barcode, what is The Artist Formerly Known As Squirmy talking about?" asked Prune-man.
The woman simply shook her head. "I don't know who this person is, Ramses, but he got one thing right. If the Jackalmen get here early, I sure as hell don't want to be here to meet them. We should go."
"And how do you know he's not full of shit? We haven't seen any Jackalmen in years."
"Trust me on that one."
"Hmm. Fine. This scene's getting old anyways, and I can't say I appreciate the company."
Matthew watched him turn on the car, and moments later the semi was gone. Once it was out of sight, he turned and gently placed a finger on the side of Hale's stomach, in that sensitive place where every tiny poke felt like a nail driven into your side. He pushed. "Hale, would you care to explain what that was about?"
But something changed in the little man in the few moments it took the semi to leave the street. He was shivering and shaking again, and his face showed nothing but incomprehension at Matthew's question. Irritated, Matthew poked harder, saw Hale's face contorting with pain.
"Who were those two, Hale? Who are the Jackalmen, and what did you mean when you said they were coming early?"
"Stop poking me! What are you even talking about!? What two people?"
"Those two you were just spewing cryptic bullshit at ten seconds ago!"
"I wasn't talking to no one! You're crazy, man! They… they must have gotten you! You've been implanted with Prometheus brain drones! They can see your libido from their invisible spy satellites! Don't have sex with me, I warn you, I'm terrible at it!"
Evening laid a plump hand on Matthew's shoulder. "No point in shaking him anymore. He sometimes gets like he was, starts flapping his gums like he knows all sorts of things. Don't mean nothing, really. He's always going about weird things. Besides, we should probably get going, cause Upcard is looking impatient and you wouldn't like her when she's impatient."
"I don't like her already."
"Well, you're going to like her even less. You'll be surprised to how many levels there are to disliking Upcard, it's a really complex tier system. Me and Hale we made a list once, only Upcard burned it and she kicked Hale in the nards besides, which of course got her another tier up the dislike list, though we didn't know where she was now cause the list was gone, so that was a conundrum, so we decided that-"
"You know what Evening, you are absolutely right. We have a job to do, so let’s just go and do it, eh? Just… no more talking. You wait here with Upcard and Hale, I’m going to see if I can’t get us in."
As the passed the big man on his way to the nearby apartment building, Matthew stopped by Hale, who was still obviously recovering from the shaking Matthew gave him. He patted the little man's shoulder. "Don't you think we're done with our little talk, by the way. I'll see you soon." With that, he went forward.
After a short climb through a deserted stairway, Matthew found himself before the door to the target’s apartment. As he was about to knock, he briefly found himself wondering. Who was this woman before she saw whatever she saw? What brought her to the place of her unfortunate encounter with the anomalous, and why couldn't she just keep quiet about it? He didn't doubt the Foundation wouldn't have unleashed them on her trail unless all other options were exhausted. If amnestics began to fail, you couldn't just kill everyone who was exposed. It wasn't practical. No, Matthew thought, something about this person must have reveled in this subversion, delighted in the shattering of normalcy, celebrated the breaking of wholesome patterns.
His hand, still hovering above the door, was shaking, and he realized that this was because he was furious, a revelation that in turned only made him confused. What was he so angry about? He didn't even know this person. And yet, it felt like he did. It was because people like this, after all, because people like her, that this world was the way it was. Poisonous, hateful, messy. Uneven. It was because of those ravagers of surfaces, because of her, that people like him was forced to do what was necessary. Even if no one cared to admit it. Even if they looked upon with contempt. With horror. With disgust.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
And just as it appeared, the shaking was gone, and his hands were steady, and he was smiling, a smile no one could imagine as anything less than utterly candid, even if it was the last thing they ever saw, as was a case for more than a few.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Well, that was the thing about monsters, wasn't it? There was nothing at all dishonest about them.
Knock Knock Kno-
The door opened a crack, and Matthew came face to face with a tall, middle-aged woman. As Matthew regarded her pale, lined features, he was surprised with what he found in the murky pools of her eyes. Not anxiety, or fear, or relief at the arrival of a savior. No, all that was there was the coldest apathy, like staring into a long-dead hearth, where no ember remained. Matthew found himself speechless. The woman, however, had no such problem.
“Ah, you’re here. Good. I suppose you should come in then.”
“Um, yes. Good evening, Madam. I have a few others with me, should I-“
“Yes, yes. Just be quick about it, you’re letting the warmth out keeping me at the door like this.”
Matthew nodded and began descending the stairs, when a thought occurred to him. Letting the warmth out? It was July. He turned back to the apartment when he heard a shout from below, followed by a loud crash and the sounds of struggle, suddenly cut short. Shadows appeared in the stairway’s entrance, and with a swelling sense of fear Matthew recognized that they did not belong to his crew. He turned and ran back up the stairs, back towards the apartment. It was all her fault, that cold-eyed bitch, and he wasn’t about to let her get away with it, oh no. They would catch him if they could, but he’ll get to her first, oh yes, even if he had to bash open that door to do it. He’ll get to her first, and when he was done there wouldn’t be enough left of her to-
In the middle of a step his muscles froze, and suddenly the stairs came rushing up to meet his face, to crash into his forehead with a crack that left him dazed. He tried moving, something was overriding his instincts, overshadowing his very thoughts. A presence in his head, an iron grip on his body. The sensation of serrated teeth closing around his throat. Then, a voice like a muted snarl, like the promise of a depthless maw, descending on his mind.
Thus, you are netted, little jailor man.
Your kind thinks this world is yours. You claim it without a moment’s thought. You play with the minds of others as if memory had no consequence, and its erasure was not the direst of crimes. You covet information, and so you cannot bear the thought of others having it. It is greed of purest sort, and that is it disguised as an act of guardianship only makes it so much fouler.
But… perhaps it is wrong of us to judge. Perhaps this is right. Your kind knows more about this world than most, after all, and in knowledge there is mastery, a sense of ownership. Perhaps you are not to be blamed for this coveting of information. Yes. In knowledge there is mastery, and so this world is yours. This we will concede.
But we are not of this world, and you do not know us.
But we know you, little jailor man. Aye, we do.
And now, you are ours.