Your Future is Bright
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There comes a time and a place where all things end, and it may not seem so, but the lucky ones are those who know when that day will come. Maybe you'll learn via phone call, that blunted, sterile affect of a voice on the other line revealing that your life has a definite expiry. Maybe you'll take the easier option and set the date yourself, fearful of the Real and the suffering we tend to incur within its walls. If not, give it time. You were born to meet your Maker, but the anticipation never killed anyone. Wouldn't you want to be informed?

It is a generally accepted fact that everything dies, eventually. Some are more aware of the certainty and finality of that fact than others, the rest having a fleeting thought now and again, only to be stifled by the various things they do to distract themselves from their slow crawl into the grave.

People like Mcclanahan, however, had seen death so many times it mattered less and less as the days passed. By the time he had lost track of the body count, death became another pointless fact in a pointless universe. Something that just happens to everyone, even to himself, one day. Sure, there were still unpleasant ones, the bad times, with people turned inside out, eyeballs popped from their heads as their hollow shells lay broken on the ground. Those things were wiped clean with time and extensive therapy, not to mention the occasional forget-me-now.

Through all those gruesome shows, those brilliant bloodbaths, Markus Mcclanahan had seen it all and took it in stride. It was the only option, burning bridges and moving forward. Bridges being mounds of the dead, the once-friends. Those familiar faces, gone but for their bits of carbon that would go on to grace the lungs of some emphysematic somewhere, sometime. Legacy immortalized in a fit of wracking coughs, an unpleasant but apt way to honor the ephemeral and pointless existence of Foundation personnel.

None of it mattered, because it all had to be done. Not only that, it was routine.

Routine. That's the life of a Foundation operative. Put aside all the administrative bureaucracy, all the paperwork and the psych tests and you'll see thousands of faceless suits that struggle every day to keep the world from falling to pieces. Cogs in the machine of Consensus Reality, sculpted from fear and the quintessential worldview the Founder introduced into the world centuries ago. Only now, the gears constantly needed replacement, and the machine actively resisted the will of its operators.

Markus had just returned from his nth foray into what they call the field; real life. Real, real life. The gritty shit, the things people don't need to see, save for the select few. Mcclanahan was one of those few.

Yesterday, it had been a thing about three meters tall, with a head like a bison and reciprocating saws for teeth. Watching it bisect civilians for sport had made him wince for the first time in years. None of them died immediately, but they all eventually died. Even while ankle deep in displaced organs and lifeless, glassy-eyed stares, Mcclanahan still took it all in stride. When their caravan had returned onsite, the fucker was crammed in the back of an armored vehicle with a canvas bag over its enlarged head. A rejection of nature and reason, wrapped in blood-matted fur. The beast was no threat anymore, now sedated and bound by state-of-the-art carbide nanotube cuffs, those multi-million-dollar necessities that kept the monster and many, many others like it from doing much else other than existing. Still, when Markus heard that thing chuckle through the reinforced steel behind him, it made his skin crawl.

Again, he brushed those feelings away, knowing what the wretched creature didn't know, the padded cell that awaited him. Windowless and empty, just like the black of its insidious, unblinking eyes.

Today, the world was threatened by some dark, floating orb that rendered minds to useless mush. It warped its victims, slowly or quickly, toying with their lives around its mass of unidentified matter. Cognitohazards were the bane of the human mind; deceptive by design, they found their way into your head using back roads that only the well-trained could patrol.

Markus was seemingly in luck yet again, as the featureless sphere hated electromagnets, and EMPs were easily acquirable to Foundation field agents. The altercation proceeded to end relatively quickly, and the man and his present company were idly bantering and stroking their collective ego the entire ride back. Minimal casualty, record containment time- a welcome change from the viscera-soaked streets of the day prior. Arrival onsite was as routine as any other day, with silent nods and groups of task forces planning their next move with that one mind-bending sphere locked in a storage unit that doubled as a Faraday cage.

Mcclanahan's keepers had other plans in store for him than dealing with that, however, as he was quickly escorted away from the commotion by security personnel and not-too-gently shoved into one of the Foundation's patented Reintegration Chambers. The room was a glorified coffin, furnished with the organization's most uncomfortable folding chair, but at least it was only temporary. As SOP for potentially hazardous interactions goes, this cold welcome was not much of a surprise; it happened every time he returned from dealing with something that could manipulate the thoughts of others. Safety was the name of the game at the Foundation.

He sat down at the only seat and waited in silence for it to begin.




"Good afternoon. CIT Proctor number four, I'll be the observing agent for your integration test under standard hazard protocol in accordance with- oh, Markus. Hello again. I'm sure you know the drill by this point."

"Don't I ever", said the man to the blank wall, with about as much enthusiasm as one would expect.

"Cheery today, aren't we?"

The box was small, cramped and featureless. Mark Mcclanahan stared at the single camera lens in front of him and tried to act like he wasn't about to be interrogated by his own co-worker and something of a friend. It was the drill, after all.

"Alright Mark, this is your, uh, forty-seventh debrief and coghaz decontamination procedure. You remember them, yes?"

"Each and every one."

"Good. Preface-"

The voice cleared its throat and rattled off in a rushed but disinterested tone that implied recital of pre-written documentation.

"Commencing with agent's mandatory cognition test, number forty-seven, executed on the fifteenth of May. Subject is a level-two field agent, may or may not have had unwanted contact with thought-manipulating entity. Entity's mode of infection was preemptively described as formant in nature, duplicitous, and write-only. These descriptors were determined using preliminary observations and are subject to change with further study, in which case additional testing may be required. Based on these descriptors it has been deemed necessary to submit the agent in question for review of adherence to previous mental state, including but not limited to embedded recall, Foundation loyalty, and subjective personal views or observations. Say 'Yes' if you understand."

"Yes." Markus understood a little too much perhaps, gleaming information about his spherical adversary either not known or not told to him at the time when he probably could have used it the most. Formant in nature, duplicitous and write-only, meaning that the infection is vectored through sound waves, hides within the psyche to avoid detection and can override parts of the host's mind but couldn't recall the bits it erased nor read the victim's unaffected thoughts. It's an all-or-nothing type, either dormant in the mind or rewriting it completely. Markus had seen the effects of F-D-W/O cognitohazard infection before, during damage assessment of an entity that could fill your mind with black ink and empty, endless redactions, though he did not know what it was at the time, he only saw the path of nothing it left behind.

Markus knew himself and his mind like the back of his hand, and as far as he was concerned, there wasn't room for another passenger. Not that he had heard anything unusual from the sphere anyway; there was too much commotion to discern noise at that distance. Even with sound reassurance, the rhythmic beating in his sternum only seemed to accelerate, reaching a peak moments later as the speaker interrupted his internal debate with the harmless sound of leafing papers. A small dose of silence followed and diffused, permeating the tight space as the man in the chair listened to his tinnitus swell to uncomfortable levels.

"State your full name and identification for the record."

"Level Two Field Agent Markus Mcclanahan. Seven-four-alpha-nine-six-delta, erm, thirty-three."

"Good. And now, your phrase."

"In the twilight, the black and white goes gray."

What a stupid line. Still, taking a half second to think about the responses could easily throw off his metrics and create undue suspicion, so Markus took a deep breath, letting go of his thoughts. He tried to answer automatically, using those canned responses that administration burned into his brain when he first became a field agent.

"Correct. Alright, onto boilerplate loyalty, embedded recall and personality tests. Say 'Yes' if you understand."

"Yes."

"Good. What is the Foundation?"

"The salvation of mankind."

"Do you work for the Foundation?"

"Always, as far back as I can remember, thanks to you guys."

"Let's keep it professional, Mark."

"Right, professional. My bad."

All the conditioning in the world couldn't keep the ice from his veins. They were only checking for inconsistencies and sincerity anyway. He gave the same answer every time, in essence, although perhaps he had added a little more bite this time around.

"Do you have doubts about the Foundation?"

"No."

"Do you have plans against the Foundation?"

"No."

"Do you dream of leaving the Foundation?"

"No."

"Count to seven for me, 74A96D-33."

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven."

"How many numbers are between four and seven?"

"Two."

"How many numbers are between five and six?"

"None."

"You hear about that thing down in Samothrace?"

"No."

"Feel your skin. Is it yours?"

"Irrelevant. My skin belongs to the Foundation."

"Is the vessel a vessel without the flesh?"

"They are one in the same."

"Do you prefer flesh or metal?"

"I prefer life."

"Good. Do you recognize the bodies in the water?"

"I do not."

"Where do you go when you are alone?"

"I'm never alone."

"Are you real or are you fiction?"

"Real, of course. Can we speed this along?"

There was a slight pause, the shuffling of papers. The disembodied voice hated giving these exams almost as much as Markus hated taking them, but at the end of the day, the voice belonged to it's own person, with their own dreams and aspirations, fears and hopes, blindly and often unwillingly carrying out the interests of the O5 Council. That's what they all were, under the lab coats and orange jumpsuits and Kevlar vests, just vulnerable heaps of flesh and bone with little control over their actions and no escape clause. When the wall spoke again, its voice was softer than before.

"Can you tell me what they told you?"

"I work to serve in the dark, so others may live in the light."

"Who is your superior?"

"I serve the oh-five."

"Do you question the Overseers?"

"No."

"Recite your phrase."

"In the twilight, the black and white goes gray."

"Where do you go when you go to sleep?"

"Inside myself."

"Where do you go when you look away?"

"Inside myself."

"Where is Site-104?"

"Site-104 does not exist."

"Take a drink from the glass in front of you."

"There is no glass."

"Good. Continuing further. What does the key look like?"

"I don't know."

"Does it open a lock?"

"No."

"Does it open yourself?"

"No."

"How many stars are in the sky?"

"Too many to count."

"How many stars have died?"

"I don't know."

"Does the black moon howl?"

"When the twilight turns gray."

"Are you unclean?"

"I certainly hope not."

"Professional, Mark."

"Sorry, no, I'm not."

"Next question. Does the name 'Ruhar' mean anything to you?"

"No."

"Have you ever dreamt of being on a carousel with a close friend?"

"No."

"Where do you go when you are not here?"

"I'm never not here."

"What does this image mean to you?"

A symbol manifested on the white wall on Mcclanahan's left. He gave it a good look and turned to face the camera once more.

"It means nothing."

"Recite your phrase."

"In the twilight, the black and white goes gray."

More silence. Mcclanahan sat on the hard, metal chair for moments that felt like eternity.

"Alright, Agent Mcclanahan, that is enough. We're done here."

Slightly relieved, the body of Markus McClanahan grabbed its coat off the back of the chair and moved to the door in victorious hurry. On the other side, two guards greeted him with dour expressions on their faces.

"What? What is it now?"

The voice in the microphone answered as the door slid shut behind the guards.

"Markus, are you real or are you fiction?" The voice of his once-friend was distorted through the small speaker with gravitas that did not match the absurdity of such a question.

"What-? I- of course I'm real! That's the easiest fucking question on the exam!"

"Real or not, your answer was wrong, Mark. I'm sorry."

Then it all went black for the agent, who, as he was, was never seen again. The few that were present at the time noticed that something in the man's eyes had changed, a deep nothingness that was well-hidden prior to being outsted, rapidly boiling to the surface of increasingly dark irises. Markus was not present, and how long he had truly been absent would never be known.

Seeing the guards reach for the metal attached to their waistbands brought further change in Markus and Company, catalyzing the process out of need for survival. The unseen pilot of his form lunged at the guards in desperation and received a .22 caliber bullet to the forehead for the trouble. The offering passed through his skull and cleanly exited the back of his neck, leaving behind a cylindrical hole through his brain stem that would have definitely killed the same man just hours prior. Instead, he stumbled and righted himself, a thin stream of black tar running between his eyes. There was no humanity in the agent's face, no life in the traditional sense.

That Thing that Occupied Markus Mcclanahan was something else entirely- the imprint of a certain dark sphere with strange intentions beyond understanding. Mcclanahan's form wrenched back and emitted a foul roar, and as he did so, his flesh began to split at the hole in his forehead, curling back in segments like the peeling of a banana. The two guards continued to watch in abject horror as the coil of a man-turned-anomaly sloughed off in chunks, bleeding a viscous black liquid before them, somehow alive but not quite.

Another orb, fledgling in size, rose from the featureless pile of pale flesh and black oil, dripping strands of puréed tissue left over from converting Markus' body cavity into a walking gestation pod. The sphere began to ripple and spasm with undulating movements and a low, pulsating tone. A deep, almost inaudible hum, embedded with hazardous information which altered the minds and bodies of those around it, a mobile hotspot of madness and forced metamorphosis alike.

None would leave that chamber alive, and yet, none would notice a difference. There would be no one to blink an eye at the lost, nor anyone to question their passing. The world would continue to turn, oblivious to the unseen suffering that the Foundation has assigned upon themselves. Life would march forever onward, persisting still as it always does, and in those last moments before the Reintegration Chamber filled with neurotoxins, one of the guards, a bird enthusiast named Jerry with thirty gruelling years of Foundation service, would have a transient thought about whether or not he had made the right career choice, that perhaps he should have pursued his love of theatre instead of listening to his parents and getting mixed up in this nonsense. That moment would come and linger with him, and when he died, just mere seconds later, he would still be unsure of the answer.

Soon after, he wouldn't really care.

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