"So there I was, in a power plant what was about to explode, surrounded by the enemy."
An idle thought; it's how Max would have started the story, if he'd survived. He'd have come up with some clever, improbable solution, or revealed that he'd had an escape plan the entire time. Or his team would have come in and saved him at the last minute, so he could fix the plant.
But he hadn't survived. Most of his team had been elsewhere. I'd been the only one with him, and when the time came, I wasn't fast enough. No one could have made it to help and gotten back in time, but that didn't make it any easier.
No one blames me for it. That makes it almost worse. I could get defensive, then.
A backfiring car jolts me out of my thoughts. I'm jumpier these days.
The neighborhood I'm in has seen better days. Industry built it, and then industry left like a deadbeat father without even the promise of child support. But it's on the uprise. That's why I'm here, in fact.
I'm watching the men and women going to work. Work at the factory, which had been closed for years, and shouldn't be open. There were plenty of possible explanations, some of them perfectly ordinary. It could be a front for some crime syndicate or other, or more sinister, it could be a front for the CI. It could be any number of things. But our suspicion is that it's not just a factory, but the Factory, capital letter and all.
I'd heard of it, of course. It's in the intel briefs. But for the first time, I'm trusted with more of the story. It moves around, taking over abandoned factories like a parasite. It stays, collecting workers, shipping orders, and making trouble until someone goes and stops it. It's not as hard as it sounds. The trouble's finding it.
I'll be going in soon. There isn't much more information I could get from the outside. I won't go in far. The Factory can be dangerous, but we've seen it enough times to know how far to go. If I'm right, then I'll call for back-up. If I'm wrong… Well, it'll be embarrassing, but I'll be on my way soon enough.
No use stalling. It's time to take a look.
I get out of the car, adjust my clothes, and, after a block, I'm there. There's no security I can see, which makes me more suspicious. No guards, no ID checks. There aren't even any locks on the door.
I walk through the door as though I belong, just behind a man in a trenchcoat. The workers making their way in ignore me. Not even a spare glance. Perhaps they're just busy. Perhaps.
There's a receptionist seated behind a desk. "Hello, sir," she says. Her voice is chipper, almost excited to see me. It puts me on edge. "How can I help you?"
"Which way to the bathroom?" I ask.
"Down the hall, second door to the right," she chirps.
I thank her, and walk past the desk, glancing as I do. Bingo. The receptionist has no legs. She just grows out of the chair. I'm in the right place.
I go into the bathroom for the form of things. It looks fairly normal, except that it's clean. Too clean. People are never that good at cleaning up after themselves.
I start making my way to the entrance when I hear a number of people entering the building. I see them before they get a good look at me. They're wearing robes, and there's at least twenty of them, if not more. One of them is carrying a scepter made out of a broken clock. He's asking the receptionist something.
I keep a smile on my face and head left into the first intersection I see, and then run. Things just got a lot more complicated.
I duck into an office and pull out my phone. No service. I slip it back into my pocket, and consider my next move. I could try finding another exit. However, the Factory is supposed to be a maze. We're never supposed to explore it alone. On the other hand, the tickers are between me and the main entrance. I might try waiting for them to go past. I might even be able to get away with walking out past them, so long as I don't look out of place.
My planning is interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. I curse, and start moving. I need to be as far away from the lobby as possible as quickly as possible.
I make my way out and start walking confidently down the hallway. Behind, I heard the sounds of scuffling shoes and muffled shouts. They're still excited about their discovery and full of righteous fire. The Factory will be slow to respond to them. If I'm lucky, it won't respond to me as well.
I'm leaving the office area and into a more open space. I see men and women at tables, mindlessly putting small knick-knacks together. They look like smoke alarms. As I pass by a table, I see a woman delicately, carefully put a tooth into one. I don't get any closer. Whatever they're building, I don't want any part of it.
I pause to check my phone again. Still nothing. I notice a few of the larger men standing up from their work and turning towards the way I came. They're all carrying screwdrivers, holding them like knives. I pick up speed slightly and make it to the other end of the room before they start slowly walking the other way.
The room I'm in is short on exits. There are stairs leading down, and an elevator, neither of which seems likely to lead me out of the building. I start to turn back when I hear more gunfire. I see robed figures entering the assembly floor. They're ignoring most of the workers, likely to conserve ammo. I don't think they'll be nearly so chary with me.
There's mist rising from below as I descend. It's like walking into a jungle, but instead of flowers and vines, there are pipes and conduits. Still animals, though. I hear the sound of rats and larger things moving deeper in. Better, though, than the animals I've left behind.
I run in, hoping the steam will conceal me, that the tickers won't want to follow me through. I force myself to slow down, even though I feel like there's a target painted on my back. Sound carries in a place like this.
"He went this way!" I hear a voice call out behind me. "I saw him."
I hate my luck, some days. Most days, in fact.
I run down the corridor. My footsteps echo, but it's too late for stealth. My only hope is that there's some cover I can take advantage of.
A shot hits a pipe, letting out a gout of steam. I avoid it, continuing to move forward. Another shot, and another. They can't see me through the artificial fog, but enough shots, and eventually one of them will get lucky.
Finally, a branch in the corridor. I stop long enough to throw some lead back their way. No reason they should have all the fun, and it might give them something to think about before running headlong after me. Or not. Hard to predict just how fanatical they're feeling today.
More shots ring out, but I'm already booking it down the side path. So long as nothing gets in my way, I should be able to outrun the main group of them. Their leaders are slow, and full of metal.
I find another stairway, and climb up. If I haven't gotten completely turned around, this should have taken me outside the building. However, I find myself on an assembly line floor. My brief hadn't mentioned anything about weird spaces. But then, I wasn't meant to go exploring, either. Need to know's a bitch, Max used to say.
I race across the floor, trying to avoid the workers. I'm almost out when something grabs me by the back of my neck.
He's a big sucker, Goliath-sized. His uniform is torn where he's outgrown it, like a man wearing a schoolboy's clothes. His head is gone, replaced by a security camera. A badge proclaims his name is Jim. I raise my gun and he knocks it out of my hand, the camera whirring as it focuses on me. I kick him hard in the gut, but I might as well be kicking a wall. The other hand takes hold of my leg. It seems to be deciding what to do with me.
I pull out my knife, and slash at his wrist. It doesn't matter how strong he is if he can't use those muscles. Of course, now he's made his decision, and he knocks me back against the wall. The air rushes from my lungs, and I'm seeing stars. He's about to bash me again when he jerks, and stumbles.
I see a pair of tickers running through the assembly line, pushing past workers, firing at me and Jim. I take advantage of the distraction to twist out of my shirt, and scramble away. Jim lumbers away towards the bigger threat as I run through the door.
There are more offices, and I run into one of them.
Interesting decor in here. There are strange implements hanging on the wall, including what looks like a rack. An empty business suit is stretched out on it. On the desk there's an old Macintosh, but the monitor's doesn't have a screen. Just an old, dusty book propped up in the empty shell. The pages flutter, even though there's no wind.
I freeze as someone enters the room, then relax as the man smiles blankly at me, and pulls a mop and bucket in behind him. He slowly begins cleaning the floor, all the while with that empty, unknowing stare. However, he leaves the door open, so I move further back, toward the closet.
Idly, I check my phone again, still no signal. As I look up, I see the machete come down at the base of the janitor's neck. I quickly and quietly slip into the closet as the ticker moves in.
He doesn't see me, not yet. But I know he's looking for me, and it's just a matter of time before he checks the closet. I'm unarmed, and there isn't so much as a wire hanger in here to defend myself with. My best chance is to hit him as soon as he comes in range of the closet, try and get that machete away from him.
Suddenly, he makes a strangled noise and holds his throat. He thrashes around for a minute, and I finally notice the man standing behind him. Tall, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora. I realize I saw him before, when I first entered the building. He goes through the ticker's pocket, takes out some papers, and then picks up the machete. He looks directly at me through the slats of the closet door, and holds a finger to his lips, then walks away.
I wonder for a moment if it really was Nobody. I'd always assumed he'd been made up. Lombardi has just as near told me so once. But I don't have time for riddles. There were two on my heels, and more behind them. With one of them already dead in here, I don't have a chance at taking the other by surprise. Time for another plan.
I hightail it out of the office and into the hall. I hear the sound of a fight on the Factory floor. Seems the other tickers are fighting it out with the Factory workers. I don't need to be a part of that.
One of the other office doors is open, so I take a peek in. There's the other ticker. He sees me just as I enter, and he raises up a crowbar. I'm ready, though, and I dodge the first attack, get inside his reach, and get him in an armlock.
"We are his—" he starts, but I slam his head down against the desk, shutting him up.
I consider trying to use him as a hostage, but he's a fanatic. If he can die killing me, he will. Besides, while he doesn't appear altered, you can't always tell. With a tinge of regret, I change position, moving my hands. He starts to struggle as he feels my grip slacken, but then I have him again, and with a crack, he falls limp. I take the crowbar and head back into the hallway.
"The heretic! He comes to take our God from us!" a voice calls out. It's the man with the scepter. He's pushing his way past the assembly line workers as though they were children. His robe is torn, and I can see where parts of his body have been replaced with metal and ceramic. Time to book it again, before any of his gunmen have a clear shot.
At the end of the hallway, I find myself in a cafeteria. Workers are eating, ignoring the sound of the battle nearby. As I watch, several of them reach into their glasses of water and very deliberately dab their faces with it. There's an odd, chemical smell.
I think of ants, and I get an idea. It's risky, and I'll likely pay for it later, but I'd like to have a later to regret it with. I take one of the glasses and pour it over myself. If my hunch holds, it'll help me later. I start moving again. I'm through to the other side as the tickers make it in. There are fewer of them now, down to half a dozen. I smile. At least I'm not the only one having a bad day.
The smile lasts as long as a cheap match. I'm at a dead end. I raise the crowbar, and wait, trying to think of some clever last words.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," I say. I'll admit, not the best epitaph, but it's from the heart.
The lead ticker walks through the door. I swing at him, and he catches the crowbar one handed, wrenching it from my grasp. He takes me by the wrist, and twists. I scream as I feel my bones creak. He's stronger than Jim.
"So, heretic, we catch you at last. You don't belong here. Who are your masters?" His face is fringed with a beard of steel wool. Clockwork has torn through his skin. His eyes are the most human thing about him, and they're what terrify me the most.
"Fuck you," I spit, then grimace as he tightens his grip.
"We'll find out," he tells me. "We may have to rebuild your tongue in time, but we'll have your secrets." He hauls me to my feet, and gives me a little shake. "Then there will be time for penitence. In the end, you'll beg to join our number, to become one with the God."
"Not interested," I tell him. "I'm machine-agnostic." I'm trying to buy some time, maybe make him angry enough to do something stupid, like kill me.
He laughs, a sound like bending metal. "You'll learn. We all have learned. But put off the pain a while, and tell me this: What are these that have taken over the heart of our God? Where have they come from, and how can we exterminate them?"
"Wait, the heart..? You think this is the heart of your god?" I ask. That had not been in the report.
"Yes," he says, his mouth twisted in triumph. "It has long been lost to us, but we have finally found it. This place is the Heart, even as you have stolen His Brain and his Muscles. And we find it has been invaded. How can we be rid of these invaders?"
I stare at him for a moment, and then I burst out laughing. This time he doesn't find me so amusing, and he digs his fingers in.
"Tell me what I need to know!" he yells.
"You idiot. You poor, blind, idiot. You think they're invaders?" I'm not laughing, but I still can't help but smirk. I'll admit, there are times I'm not a clever man. Then again, I hear something moving behind the wall.
"They infest the Heart! They use His grace for their perverse works!" he tells me.
"They aren't invaders," I tell him. "You think they call the shots? Look around you. They're practically growing out of the walls. They're being controlled. Changed. They're practically like insects, the way they act."
"What's your point?" he asks me.
"So, let's say you're right. This place is just a big piece of your god. Then what in the hell do you suppose they are?"
"I…" He stares at me for a moment, and I can literally hear the gears turning in his head. There's a click every so often where one skips.
"You're killing your fellow servants. How do you suppose your god's going to feel about that?" I laugh again, and his grip loosens. Then suddenly it tightens.
"Blasphemy!" he screams. "We are his Clockwork Servants! We do the work of his Hand! We will remake this Earth. No one else!" He throws me across the room. I manage to roll into it, but it still hurts like hell. Then a hidden garbage chute opens up near the lead ticker, and a tendril made of coils and wires wraps around him. His comrades immediately work to free him, only to be grabbed themselves. I run out the door, back into the cafeteria.
I run through a different door, and I'm blasted by heat. My first thought is that it's like a furnace. Then I look and I see I'm not far off. I'm on a catwalk over a large chamber. Below sit several furnaces, filled with bright molten metal. Twenty-foot-tall, vaguely human figures attend them, stirring the metal with long rods.
I stumble across the walkway. The heat's oppressive. I need to get out of here, and back to cooler air.
I'm halfway across when the door slams open. The lead ticker has followed. He's alone now, and his robes are entirely shredded. His body is lined with numerous cuts, which bleed a mix of blood and oil. His eyes are even madder. "I'll tear you apart! I'll tear apart all who oppose us, and rebuild in His name!" He starts running toward me. He's slow at first, but building up speed, and I can hear his heavy feet banging against the metal frame of the walkway.
There's a metal hook on chain attached to a belt of some sort. My arms feel heavy and my lungs feel like they're on fire, but I don't have many good options. I grab onto the hook and swing out as far as I can. It works, to an extent. I'm off the walkway when the ticker gets there, but what goes up must come down. I swing back, and I brace my legs for the impact. I slam into the ticker, and we both go flying over the railway. I manage to grab the railing. I watch as he falls down into the molten metal.
There's a splash as he lands, and then he bobs up to the surface again. The human body, even one as loaded with metal as his, is still lighter than the molten steel. He thrashes around, and I can hear his mechanical scream. Flames lick over his flesh, and he's soon reduced to little more than a metal skeleton, and he still won't stop screaming, until one of the steel workers takes his pole and pushes him under the surface. The thrashing stops.
My grip is weakening, and I know I can't hold on. I feel my hand slip from the hot edge of the walkway, and close my eyes as I prepare to die. Then I feel an impact, and something has me. I open my eyes to see the face of one of the steel workers. He's let go of his pole, and he's simply holding me. Then he steps away from the furnace, carries me to a door, and sets me down on the other side.
The linoleum beneath me is cool, and the air conditioner blasts down on me. I take several deep breaths, and thank god for ant hills and pheromones. Eventually, I stand up, and look for the exit.
It's been two hours since the rescue team found me. When I didn't report in, they sent a team to check on me. There was apparently another wave of tickers trying to get in, but they dealt with them. I'm now in quarantine in the back of a truck. They already checked to make sure the tickers didn't do anything to me. They asked me questions to make sure I was still me (no, I don't feel like I belong there, yes, I work for the Foundation, no, I've never thought it would be "neat" to be a clock). Now it's just observation to make sure.
I don't mind. It gives me time to think. Not about the Factory, or the Church, but about the stranger in the fedora. Whether or not he was Nobody, there was a nagging feeling I'd seen him before somewhere. It was a puzzle.
While I ponder the riddle, I watch through the window as they complete the containment procedures. It's anti-climactic after all the excitement. No gunfights, no explosives. Just handing a letter to each and every person who leaves for the night.
Notice of Termination
It is our unpleasant duty to inform you that your services are no longer required at this facility. Due to budget cuts, this location is being shut down. Please find enclosed your final paycheck. If you need a letter of recommendation, please contact our parent company, Sedgeville Capital Products. We wish you all luck in your future endeavors.
An out of business sign will be affixed to the door, and within a week, this will just be another abandoned factory again, and the workers will have only the vaguest memories of working here.