Part I | Part II: The War and The Many Faces | Part III
The strike team followed the road — a long ways from the city, past sleepy towns and grazing pastures.
The road had been whittled down, by elements, by trucks, or simply by time. After some miles, the road, reduced to a dirt path, terminated in a field of long, graying grass.
It was all a ruse, of course. This wasn't an empty field, and the road didn't simply end. Glamour and wards deployed by those on the run had obscured what was truly present.
It was clever. But not clever enough, not anymore. And now, it had become surrounded by trucks, by analysts pacing about with clipboards. One uniformed woman set up a chair in the dirt, while another stared through a curved spyglass-device at the center of the activity. Three men communicated quietly while examining munitions in the back of a truck. They were preparing for war. Five people lie in the dust.
The five were sitting in a circle, or a pentagram. Their characteristics obscured by metal armor and illusion. They were chanting in an unrecognizable language.
They couldn't know, but behind the barrier, in a stained cardigan, was Adrian Baudin. He stared at the five and one, visible to him through the blue smoke and mist that defined the barrier from his end.
A sound from behind him. Adrian's neck swiveled to look over his shoulder. It was Geoff.
"Didn't mean to sneak up on you." He looked tired. The color had drained from his face, rendering him as drab as anything else in the bubble.
Adrian shook his head. "It's fine. Just on edge."
Geoff took two steps forward, standing abreast of him now. He scratched at his scalp. "Have they," he struggled at the words, "have they told you what their plan is?"
Adrian swallowed. "No. Have they told you?"
"Nothing. Not a single word. Like I don't exist. More friendly with you."
"I wouldn't… call it that."
The older man shrugged. "Call it what you will. It's not a good feeling."
A sigh escaped Adrian. "I'm sorry. We'll do what we have to do. We'll make it out."
"As intact as we can be."
"Suppose I can't ask for more than that." Geoff's eyes followed the slow movements of the false mists visible through the bubble. If one watched for long enough, they'd loop around — like cheaply produced footage.
Adrian followed his gaze, tracing it to the five sitting in the dust, barely visible through the barrier. They were holding their hands up. Almost climactic. Surely transcendent.
Adrian nodded. "I can get us out of this."
Right you are!
After a few more minutes, the pair turned around and re-entered the sagging house.
The Cool Kids were buzzing around. It's all they could do anymore, clearly.
Adrian saw them pace about with brushes and paints. Not to make anything, really — they were used to reinforce sigils left about the house, directors of some kind of flow, some energy.
He watched them stand in front of the barrier, sometimes together, sometimes alone. Strengthening it. He wondered if they had done this before. Maybe they could make it go away, and with a word the pursuers would crumble into dust and swirl in with the dirt and sand of the field.
Houses don't get built overnight. How long has it been here? How long will it continue to be here?
That night, just before sunset, Adrian decided to look out the front door, check on the pursuers outside, as if they'd just be gone. He stood in the doorway.
He heard a voice he didn't recognize.
"Hey." It was one of his hosts. Adrian's head snapped to the right, and then up. Some kid, standing on a ladder. He pointed downwards. "Hold the ladder."
"Oh," Adrian nodded. "Right." The ladder leaned up against the edge of the roof, depressing the moldy wood and shingles. Still, Adrian stepped over to it, and braced the bottom with his arms.
He swallowed, and looked up. It seemed the man was fiddling with something on top of the sloped roof, but Adrian couldn't see what it was.
A few seconds of silence.
"Um," Adrian said. "So… do you all feel… ready? For what's happening out there?"
He didn't turn around. "We have been ready. You'll be ready too."
"Yeah… okay… but that doesn't sound especially reassuring. Or even… clear." The ladder wobbled a bit, but Adrian caught it.
"You're an artist, right? You know… sometimes you have the paints, but not the right canvas. Right?"
"Yeah, I… I know that."
"There's going to be a time, soon… when we'll have the right canvas. And we can make what needs to be made. And you can help with that, you know?"
"I'm… sure I could, but I don't know how. Or what."
"Yeah, we can help. You just have to be open. Let it happen." He must have been working on something very fine, not to take his eyes off it for so long.
Adrian was going to respond, but he heard something. A whistling noise, coming from nowhere in particular.
It quickly grew in volume and pitch. It reminded Adrian of old war movies he'd seen; mortars, whistling through the air, until…
There was a loud booming noise coming from overhead.
Adrian looked up, and he could see, across the center of the bubble, a five-pointed starburst of deep red, spreading slowly across the barrier.
It grew to several meters tall, an angry star over the house, before receding to nothing.
Adrian stared at it. He glanced to the boy on the ladder who had finally turned away from his work, neck arched to stare at the ceiling of the shield.
He was grinning.
The knock on the door had come. Efforts had been redoubled. The sun set quickly, not wanting to stick around for the nighttime.
The blasts kept coming, each one striking into the shield. After each attack, the barrier seemed to look the same. But the people outside wouldn't be using this technique unless they expected it to drill through eventually.
Adrian couldn't think about it forever. He had to sleep. When his consciousness gave out, he was lying on his cot in the basement, waiting for his eyes to grow too heavy…
After that, he found himself in a city. This wasn't any place he recognized — the buildings were short and small, each one a square column sticking up from uncomfortably flat expanses of concrete and asphalt. Adrian stood in the middle of a street.
There was no-one else around. No streetlamps, no billboards. No light at all. The sky was black nothing.
Adrian only heard one noise, faint, like it had been carried on the wind (but the air was dead) and he could feel it coming from the north, straight ahead of him.
He walked along the road. The buildings around him began to repeat. They didn't look like anything he'd seen before, concrete houses with sagging shingled roofs.
He kept walking, and the noise grew louder. It sounded like people, warm laughter, clinking of dishes and metal utensils. It was getting closer.
As Adrian rounded a corner, he came to it, a building much taller, more condensed than the rest. It stood wide, larger even than the house back in the field. Concrete walls behind painted white pillars, an ornate door dead-center. The sound was inside. Adrian knocked.
No response. He opened the door. The noise grew louder. But there was no-one inside.
He took a step in. He was in a hallway. To his right was a lectern of some kind. The hallway split off into open doorways on either side, to several different rooms. It looked like some high-class restaurant. The noise continued.
He crept forward, peeking into the first room on the left. He saw tables, chairs, and at one there was a woman, someone he knew, someone he-
"Mister Baudin. Please, take a seat." The moment she spoke, the dining sounds ceased. Her voice was lightly accented, German. He knew that voice. He had seen her, just before the exhibition. She came to his apartment.
He swallowed, eyes trained firmly on the ground. "What are you doing here?"
"You're dreaming," she said curtly.
"Take a seat." Adrian found himself standing next to the chair, now, but he knew he hadn't moved. And now he was seated.
The tablecloth was white. There were paintings on the walls, but the walls were painted blue. Adrian did not look at the paintings, he just looked at the empty plate in front of him. "Are you… here?"
"We have surrounded the dwelling. Our current collaborators required a more specialized approach, to break through the walls."
"Are you talking to the… others?"
"The Cool Kids? No. It would be a waste of resources and our limited time."
"Okay…" Adrian breathed but it felt like a formality. This wasn't real, was it? "Why me?"
"You seem to be someone outside it all, yes? An observer, in the truest sense. Professionals are always open to the opinion of an outside observer. We wish to understand you. But first-"
There was a clap — from the woman, presumably — and when Adrian blinked his plate was no longer empty. There was something on it, and a fork in his hand.
He dipped the utensil down, edge-first, pressing into the matter on his plate. He lifted it carefully to his mouth and took the bite. It tasted like broad nothing, an encompassing absence. He blinked again. His fork was gone.
"Why am I eating this?" His throat was dry, now.
"It's a dinner, Mister Baudin. That's what you do." There was a fluttering noise, and the table began to contract, bringing Adrian closer to her. He didn't look up.
Adrian didn't speak, or couldn't.
"Routine. Convention. It is the simplest way to power. Each time an action is made, the connection strengthens inside the actor. They become more sure, and it becomes their nature. The one who controls the actions, yes, they have power, but so too does the actor. They have a sureness of being. A simplicity."
Adrian squinted at the tablecloth. "And… the people back in the house, they don't?"
She made an odd coughing noise. "The thing you need to understand about the people who run the world, Mister Baudin, is that escape is a myth. Those artists can flee, hide in the basement of a magic house, put up a shield and call themselves rebels. And yet they are a part of the great plan, as much as they try to delude themselves. They can't escape the world they live in. And this, Mister Baudin, this is our world."
"No…" Adrian started slowly, "this isn't real."
"And yet here we are." She smoothed out the tablecloth once more, and the restaurant around her began to lose focus. "You're here, but you're still out there, too, Mister Baudin."
"And so are the Cool Kids. You said they were… still in the plan, right? They're in the routine. Has this… happened before? What's happening now."
Adrian could feel that he was now standing. The whiteness of the tablecloth had spread, like spilled milk, across the material of his dream, enveloping the two of them in blank space.
Her voice reverberated against his ears like a steel drum. "Not like this, Mister Baudin. Not with you. We need you to slow down, to cooperate. When the time comes, you must act correctly."
Adrian tried to speak but the air was pushed out of his lungs; he felt himself begin to fall and-
-found himself back on top of his cot, in the basement of the old house. He gasped for air, and stale breath filled his chest. He was alive.
He looked over, and Geoff's bed was empty.
Adrian clambered to his feet, spread flat on the cold concrete. He made for the stairs.
In the cramped kitchen, he found Geoff, who was stirring a bowl of oatmeal, sitting at a corner table alone. Adrian sat down across from him.
"Morning, Adrian." Geoff looked up, attempting a smile.
"Uh… morning," Adrian replied, not meeting his gaze. "Something… happened last night."
Adrian relayed the events of his dream as best he could to Geoff, who stopped spooning oatmeal to his mouth. When he had finished, Geoff appeared thoughtful.
After a moment, he spoke. "You're sure it was the woman who came to your apartment?"
Adrian nodded slowly. "Almost certain."
"And she wasn't… incredibly helpful, was she?"
The artist shrugged. "I think she had a purpose. She contacted me for a reason, right?"
"To warn you? To direct you on how to survive this?"
"It's… maybe. I don't… I can't say."
"Did she mention me?"
Adrian looked down at the ratty table. The green paint was chipping away.
Geoff frowned. "Oh. I'm just… a blank space, is it? Not even worth their address."
"Look, I can't say… exactly why anything's happening. It's all moving too fast."
"Too fast, but everyone has time for you."
Adrian's brow furrowed. There was a moment of silence.
Geoff clicked his tongue. "I'm… sorry, that was harsh. I know it's not your fault. Just… when this all goes down…" He took a deep breath in, and then let it out through his fingers. "Do you think I'm going to make it out?"
The artist's face softened. "Oh, no, Geoff, I'm… I'm sure it's…" Adrian sighed. "I don't know."
Geoff closed his eyes, letting his face fall into his hands. Adrian couldn't save him.
Geoff left to be alone in the basement. Adrian spent the rest of the day on the porch, watching the outside.
The blasts against the shield were only minutes apart, now, but Adrian still hoped that each one would be the last, before the assailants ceded defeat to the house's defenses. But they continued.
His hosts weren't very active today. They had spent most of the day pacing about at the barrier, or retreated in the house. Perhaps they were planning something. Adrian couldn't care about that now. He had to take care of his own.
Before long, the day was gone, and night had come. The shelling continued. Adrian just sat on the porch and watched. The events of the day were wearing on him. But he couldn't surrender to sleep, not when it was so easily manipulable.
For a long time, Adrian sat alone and watched the barrier. Through it, he could see moving shapes… vague shadows. Like this was all a show. Adrian yawned. Some show.
Adrian shut his eyes for just a moment… and when he opened them, he was in a white expanse. Sleep had caught up to him.
He turned in place, scanning an unseen horizon for any figures. But he was alone.
He took a deep breath. "Hello?"
"Look, I… I need you to talk to me. I need to know what's going on."
Now, he felt a presence. He turned around, and there she stood, clad in dark formalwear. "Hello, Mister Baudin. We're glad you could join us."
Adrian diverted his eyes to somewhere else in the blankness. "This has gone on long enough. I need you to answer my questions."
She made an inviting gesture. "Go on."
He nodded, and cleared his throat. "Who are the Cool Kids?"
"Adrian, do you remember, years ago, when the movement began? When, for a moment, it seemed like you'd broken the unspoken taboo of the world, like the silence had been lifted?"
She laughed, bitterly. "Do you remember how easily it was shut down, when the powers that be realized it was a threat to their ordering of the world? How simply they erased it from history, from memory? How rare you are to remember it at all?"
Around Adrian, images danced through the fog. Marches, exhibitions, work that touched the soul. "I… I remember."
"The Cool Kids are no different. They still carry the torch of a zeitgeist long rendered nonexistent. They yearn to make themselves known. To make the word mean something once more."
Adrian squeezed his eyes shut. "Then this, all this, has happened before?"
"The Cool Kids live in a bubble, Adrian. They make noise, try to break out, to pop the bubble. We apply pressure, and they are gone once more."
He squinted, confused. "You… you let them get away."
"Some of them, yes. They rebuild, and they try again."
"But… why? Why let them?"
"Because they are predictable. They are contained. The exhibition at Greenwich was informative. It happened before, and it happened again. The rats were culled, as they always have been. As was said before, Mister Baudin — they're still a part of the routine."
"Then who are you?"
"Mister Baudin… why don't you take a look, and find out?"
Adrian opened his eyes. The world around him remained white and still. He turned his gaze to the woman's face.
She looked just as she did when she visited his apartment. Her face, vaguely Eastern European, rounded, typical of a woman in her late thirties. Her dark hair was cut short.
But her eyes were small and unfocused. She looked through him, full of memories of a war without end. A conflict fermented for generations. She looked through him as if he wasn't there. After all, he wasn't there, and neither was she.
Then her face began to change. She was a young woman, face marred by scars. Then she became a elderly man, barely clutching to life. She was an artist. An agent. A poor child. A corpse.
Adrian tried to back away, but his eyes remained transfixed. He struggled to process his vision as her metamorphosis only intensified in speed.
She began to speak, and her voice came from everywhere. "What do you think happens to the people the artists hurt? What justice do you think they deserve?"
The whiteness that surrounded Adrian began to resolve into a crowd of people, arms outstretched towards him. He tried to yell over the noise. "You can't… you can't argue that you're fighting for justice. You caused this. You let them do it."
The voices around him drowned him out, and the woman had disappeared into the mass. "And you think you're better than us, that you aren't clinging to the ideals of the past?"
Adrian blinked, and the mass was gone. The many-faced woman stood alone before him. "You're no different than them. Your magnum opus, your great glimpse into the nature of humanity? It's filed away in a containment vault."
She walked towards him, placing both cold hands on his shoulders. "It's not that you're fighting a fight you can't win, Adrian. It's that the fight against authority never existed outside your head."
She stared firmly into his eyes, now. Her face was indescribable. "Stop fighting, Mister Baudin. Don't interfere with what is going to happen. Then you can take your place in the real world."
Adrian stopped holing his breath. "What is going to happen?"
She smiled. "You already know the answer. You should go, now. Your friend needs you."
The many-faced woman began to fade from his sight-
-as Adrian's ears were filled with the sound of shattering glass. He was lying on the floor, just inside the door of the house. Geoff knelt over him, shaking him by his shoulders. "Adrian, Adrian, wake up!"
Adrian rubbed his eyes and shifted to a sitting position. "What's wrong, what's going on?"
Geoff pointed out the door. "The barrier. It's going down."
Adrian followed his gaze, and saw through the open door that the barrier, typically milky-blue, was pulsing red with a furious rhythm. With each pulse, a deafening boom came. Adrian saw glass shards. The windows had just been broken.
"Where are the others?"
Geoff was breathing heavy. "They're in the basement, but I had to- I had to get you."
Adrian started to speak, but was interrupted by a loud buzzing. He turned back to the doorway, and he was bathed in red light.
The barrier was flickering. Glimpses of the blackness of the night outside filtered through, an image of a starry night Adrian hadn't seen in weeks.
Seconds later, it was gone. The buzzing cut out, and the silence was all-consuming. Beyond where the barrier had once stood, there were lines of vans, and squads of people in body armor.
Adrian stared, wide-eyed. Geoff backed away from him to hide behind the doorframe. Both of them noticed at the same time that the buzzing had been replaced by the familiar whistle of a mortar.
Before they could take cover, the blistering projectile crashed through the ceiling, streaking flames and blowing splinters into the air. It burrowed into the molding floor. The sheer heat leaking from the air pushed Adrian back.
The whistling started again. The two scrambled to their feet and ran from the foyer.
Outside, they heard yelling. On all sides, agents were marching towards the house.
Geoff ran down the hall, Adrian following closely behind. The floors creaked uneasily as they sprinted over them.
A glowing orange sphere came down through the ceiling, striking Geoff in the left shoulder. It continued into the floor as Geoff collapsed against the wall.
Adrian knelt, panting quickly. Geoff's face was squinted in pain. His shoulder seemed like it'd been burned — the skin was badly damaged. Adrian cast a quick look behind him before heaving his friend onto his shoulders, wincing under the load.
He continued now past the kitchen, into the waiting stairwell. Climbing down into the basement, he could see the crowd gathered around the hole in the wall. The place Adrian had seen their van.
Adrian set Geoff down on a cot. He was squirming, but alive. Adrian turned to the others. "Geoff needs medical attention."
They didn't respond.
Adrian yelled. "Is this what we're doing now? We'll just shuffle off, send a few people in a van and let the rest die?"
Adrian took a step towards them. "This is what they want. Don't you see that? Is that what you wanted me to see?"
He rubbed his face. "You wanted me to help. Just… just tell me what to do."
One of the group turned around to face Adrian. It was the man with the hawkish face, who had spoken to him days ago. "Adrian…"
Adrian spread his arms out. "What is it? What can I do?"
The hawk-man was approaching, hands held out, something in one of them.
Adrian took another step. "Please, just-"
The hawk-man swiftly shoved his knife into Adrian's chest. He barely had time to register the hit before the blade slipped through his ribs and became hilted in his flesh.
"N- n-" Adrian couldn't speak, the air was forced from his lungs in a sick gasp. He was pushed backwards by the force, and he could see the hawk-man's face. Apologetic.
He said something, but Adrian couldn't hear, he could only see his lips move. Stop us. The rest of the Cool Kids had their backs turned.
Adrian grasped for his chest, and found the knife's hilt. There was a schlk as he pulled it free. The blade was glowing, a bright blue, and it was not blood that ran from his chest but green sparks.
He dropped it to the floor. Everything around him became slow. Pain enveloped him. He fell to his knees.
The Cool Kids were filing into the hole in the wall. Towards escape. Adrian tried to yell at them but words weren't on his lips.
Adrian wretched, falling onto his side on the cold concrete floor. He could hear boots stomping on the ground above him.
The hawk-man stepped over him on the way to the tunnel. Over his back was Geoff, passed out. He entered the tunnel, and Adrian was the only one left in the basement.
The last image he saw was the rafters above him, streaming with neon flames.
The hive is burned. Paradise lost.
The Cool Kids were always digging tunnels.
The barrier doesn't end. Out there, it's all blue mist.
That isn't a way to live.
The knock came.
But there was nobody home.
And when Adrian awoke, he was in the Circle.
Part I | Part II: The War and The Many Faces | Part III