Redact Your Life
rating: +9+x

Something was following Foster. He was certain of it.

It was no foul beast, it did not prey on him in bloodlust nor hunger. It simply hung from him like a heavy chain on his form, a miasma. It plagued him from the background, and although he wasn't sure what it was exactly, he knew there was something inherently wrong about it.

He didn't know why it chose him, nor how long it had been following him before he had caught on. It faded in on a slow gradient, leaking into his life and corrupting the very fabric that held him together as a human. As he drove back to a dingy hotel from his nightly run for hard liquor and empty carbs, the rolling hills of the Carrizo Plain in the distance, Foster felt the cool hand of paranoia on the back of his spine. Crawling and itching with restlessness and ants, imaginary ants, just under the skin. He knew the feeling well.

Ignoring the usual cloud that followed his head on any given day, Foster allowed himself to grow hyperaware of his surroundings, his vision sharpening enough to pierce through the inky darkness surrounding the vehicle- although nothing was there. The silence increased in volume to a deafening and oppressive hum, so Foster switched on the radio and tuned it to a random station, a talk show. He was still alone, yet oddly comforted by the company of the disembodied voice, listening to it mumble on about some conflict or other in whatever impoverished, war-torn nation it was nowadays. The presence was still there, lingering in the folds, and it exhaled misery out into the aether with each invisible breath.

That thing had taken everything from him. It tore him from his family, his friends. His children. His home. Now, slowly, it fed on his sanity and sense of self, just outside of view, of knowing, and of form. Somehow, it was still everywhere; he saw the tracks it left behind as it consumed the world. The gaps and the blank pages, things between things, gone but for the space they left behind and nobody blinks an eye. He was not better for it. Ignorance is bliss.

Yet this ghost of an idea would not be ignored. While listening to the host drone on, Foster was caught off guard by a sudden change in the quality of the broadcast, like artifacts in an image, distorting and decreasing in pitch, warping into discordant ugliness, then to nothing. He changed the station, but static grew on that one as well, and the next, the music detuning and fading as chaos overcame the sound.

It would not be ignored.

Foster switched wildly through the stations until there was nothing left. Just emptiness and a harsh white noise. He turned it off with a sigh. This is how it goes. Everything and everyone he ever had ties with, it would cut them loose and he would never see them again. Nobody would remember except for him, and life seemed to find a way to adjust history to fit that definition. Yeah, they didn't believe him either, presumably until they too vanished from the world.

He checked the clock. ██:██. He should be tired, but he isn't. He was wired. And confused.

So confused.

In fact, it took him a minute to realize that he didn't actually know where he was going. He knew he was driving to a hotel, but forgot the name, and how to get there. Pulling off to the side of the road, Foster checked his wallet for the room key. After a minute, he succeeded, although it looked foreign to him as he studied it closer. ██████████ Hotel. Okay.

Foster pulled out his phone and searched the name, hands trembling. Luckily the place still existed. Relief was a strong word for how he felt, but it was a nice change. Glancing around for identifying street signs, he was startled to find that they were unreadable. Someone stuck tape or something over the words, leaving a white rectangle and a very useless landmark. Who does that?

It would not be ignored.

Right.

Punching the address into his GPS, Foster found that it was close by, and breathed another sigh of half-relief. He pulled out onto the now unmarked road and sped down the freeway, ignoring speed limit signs he was pretty sure he couldn't read anyway.

The ride, although uneventful, was thick with unease. He couldn't help but feel the weight of it on his back. Looming. He didn't believe how unrecognizable the area was. It was near the home he lost, or where it had been in another life, surely he had gone through this area before?

How did he find the hotel in the first place? He tried not to think too hard about it. Even if he did, he would never find the answer. Approaching the address, Foster reached to shut off his GPS, only to find his phone with a black screen. It wouldn't turn on. How long had it been off? How long had he been driving?

Glancing outside, he realized that he was obviously not in the right place. An abandoned strip mall, some empty lots and a restaurant or two. No hotel. He couldn't remember the name, or the address. He looked for the room key but it too was gone.

Panic gripping him, sense of direction waning, Foster decided to calm himself by heading into a neon-clad diner that was situated across the street from him, a bright beacon of pinks and reds in the otherwise all-consuming darkness. He wasn't hungry, but it was a distraction and something real- that was all he needed.

The diner was about as run-of-the-mill as you can get, arguably how most diners are. It was themed in a half-hearted 50's fashion, and Foster was nonplussed by the furnishings but sat at a booth regardless. A waitress came over to him shortly afterwards, sporting bushy hair and a stained, white apron. She wordlessly handed him a menu and gestured with a pot of coffee. It took a minute for him to realize what she meant; his mind was focused on his faceless, formless assailant. He declined the caffeine. Probably wouldn't help his paranoia.

It wasn't so much paranoia as it was warranted caution now, though, right? He knew it was in the diner, eating the words off the menu. Good thing it had pictures.

Glancing at the images of platters and sandwiches, Foster was reminded of the many times he ate at an establishment like this with his family. His wife, and his kids? He had kids, right? He tried to picture them, to envision just one feature he remembered, but nothing was there. He wasn't even sure if he had had a wife anymore.

It was all too much. There was bile in his throat, his stomach in knots. He couldn't eat; the smells that wafted from the kitchen were wretched to him, as perfectly mediocre as they may be in reality. Getting up swiftly, head spinning, Foster made his way to the bathroom and locked the door behind him, buckling in front of the toilet and vomiting acid. It burned his throat and nose, making his eyes water as he continued to gag. It continued for some time, and when it relented, he laid on the filthy, tiled floor and tried to wish himself out of existence. It didn't work.

He didn't have the energy to right himself. Why would he try? Where would he go? He had nothing. He could barely remember himself, who he was before his mind was broken over the knee of uncertainty and terror. Foster reached for his wallet and dug inside for his license. An unfamiliar face stared back at him, laminated and real. There was a light in his eyes, a light he was sure had vanished eons ago. Even though he couldn't recognize the picture, a Foster █████ was indeed there. No address was present anymore, just a few lines of scratches that wore it down to illegibility. Did he do that? No, of course not.

Touching his face, Fos█er felt for the features on the photo and tried desperately to connect them. His mind was untethered, without a frame of reference or focal point to ground himself and orient his sanity. He tried to reassure himself that he is truly who he is, despite not really knowing what that meant anymore. Sitting up, F█s██r █████ glanced over at the sinks adjacent to him, and then to the mirror above. He could always look at himself. Would that help him remember who he was, this man on the card? ██████ peered back down to find the picture black, no trace of his visage was seen.

Now, he needed to know.

He stood and moved towards the reflective surface, looking into it to reveal ████████████████ ████████████████████ ██████████ █████████████████████████ ███████████████ ███████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████ ██████████ █████████████████████████ ████████████████████████████████████████ ████████████████████████████████████████████ ████████████████████
██████████ █████████████████████████ ██████████████ ████████████ ████████

And then he was no more.


THE NEXT DAY

Foundation Field Agent Markus Mcclanahan stepped cautiously over the shards of broken glass and upturned chairs that littered the tiled floor of the once-diner. His boots squelched against the ground as they waded through a shallow puddle that filled the area- a consequence of the fire sprinklers having triggered at some point in the hours before and continuing, without cessation, up until a few minutes ago. The smell of ash and burnt plastic permeated what was now the scene of an aftermath. Of what, he couldn't be sure, but it was likely nothing the man was unprepared for.

The stranger business was that of all the secrecy surrounding the event; there was no scheduled briefing or coghaz programming upon his routine arrival into the Site-19 Dispatch that morning, suggesting the answers escaped even Site Management. He had simply been instructed to "go to this address" and "report for damage assessment of anomalous event of unknown magnitude". The terminology used had made him snort audibly, giving the woman behind the glass a moment to shoot him a dirty look in response. He had reasoned at that point that he had possibly deserved it for making light of what was likely to be one of many fates worse than death.

Secrets weren't anything new to Markus, who had spent his last few years learning just how many things he didn't know. There was quite a bit, and there were forces on all sides of him working tirelessly to make sure he would never know. He had learned to live with it (and die with it, but that's another story), like many of his peers had done. You learn by what they can't tell you, using the process of deduction, and you meander through the field and try your best to use that information to not get annihilated in one of a million horrifying, unbelievable ways.

There's this common misconception that floats around the new hire pools for Foundation agents. It's said that if nonhazardous, classified knowledge of an anomaly's nature can help lower-clearance personnel in their investigative efforts that administration will always reveal that knowledge. Safety is the name of the game, after all.

Unfortunately, this is not always the reality of the situation. In fact, this is hardly ever the case.

The administration has their hands in the politics of a billion worlds. Parallel, distant, macro-and-microcosmic, future and past. The Foundation can't help but flex their reach internally, despite secrecy being a top priority. Markus had even heard rumors of in-house spacio-temporal gateways somewhere in the labyrinthine hallways of Nineteen that would allow for unified diplomacy across dimensions. If they accidentally let even one piece of vital information slip through all those layers of black ink and red tape, if it gets down into that metaphorical multiversal ooze, the results would be… unforeseen. And that's the Foundation's greatest fear- the unknown. Their second greatest fear? Loss of control.

Markus' train of thought derailed without warning as he became aware of a stout woman staring at him with a look of moderate displeasure, arms crossed against her chest to match her demeanor. She stood in the center of the ruined eating establishment, holding a stack of papers under her arm with significant tension. Her eyes looked at him but through him, equal parts vacant and occupied, suggesting she believed her problems were more important than her immediate surroundings. They were, but her surroundings included Markus, who didn't like the idea she knew something he did not and was continuing to waste his time ruminating on it. He wouldn't reveal his disdain for the obvious disrespect, settling for a tone that was both cordial and dry.

"Director", he uttered, and followed it with a curt nod that hid his opinions well.

Seeing a Site Director in the field is not a common occurrence. They are typically vital to the day-to-day operations of their assigned facility, and therefore are rarely risked out in the real world. Usually, the only time a Site Director oversees field affairs is when it pertains to a containment breach. Markus had answered his next question preemptively, but it didn't stop him from prying her to see just how far he was out of the loop. That's the process of deduction at work.

"What are we looking at here?"

Site-01 Director Audrey Phillips clicked her tongue, exhaling her words in sharp, impatient bursts.

"Fire erupted early this morning, no emergency response. No one was in the building when it happened, so luckily no cleanup detail for you guys today." He stared at her for an extra moment too long and she added, "That's it."

"So why are you here, then? Why are any of us here?", Markus wiped his brow and tried to piece it together from what she was allowed to say, ignoring the unintended existential implications of the question.

"Extranormal event. One time thing. No need to designate", she spoke with decreasing effort. Her mind was apparently too preoccupied to come up with a Level Two-approved excuse for him. Mcclanahan chuckled and glanced around. There was no way this was just a fire, anomalous or not, it looked like the place had been completely robbed of it's identity. Conceptually gutted would be a more apt comparison.

If it weren't for the layout, he probably wouldn't have known it was a diner. There were no identifying marks on the exterior, the signage, the labels, nothing. The furniture was strewn about and without design nor color. The entire building was painted in shades of gray and black, and not just the charred bits either.

Audrey piped up again, "If you're done admiring the decor, I need the surrounding blocks canvassed for individuals who may have witnessed the fire."

Markus twinged inside at the idea of what was essentially cold-copping for suspects and then Amnesticizing the lot when they turn out to be innocent civilians. No one had seen the fire because everyone that was present was gone. Dead, or dead, adjacent. It was just an assumption, but from the way Audrey tightened her form around the papers when he questioned her about the situation, it seemed to him like it was a safe assumption to make. The fire was likely caused by neglect of the kitchen, perhaps upon the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the entire staff, their patrons, and quite possibly many of the conceptual structures that defined it as a diner as well. Markus had an eye for these things.

A single, uniformed Mobile Task Force member walked briskly between them with inherent purpose, paying little mind to the others as he did so. He held a stack of laminated menus in his arms, and when he passed by, one slid from top and fell, settling at Markus' feet. As he reached to grab the glossy paper, the Task Force operative snatched it from him, spun on his heel and, in one motion, skulked off, leaving the two to themselves and the sounds of water dripping off ruined, colorless upholstery.

It didn't stop him from briefly glimpsing at the menu, and, in that same moment, to the rest, which revealed that the words and pictures were simply redacted off the pages. All of them. The black blocks burned an image into his brain, which he saw again, inverted and superimposed over his vision when he closed his eyes. The image faded with Markus' curiosity about the subject.

Sure, a fire. He decided it wasn't his problem. Not this time. Ignorance is bliss.

"Canvassing. You got it, Director Phillips."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License