One man lived among those who had the typical life – average, dull, boring. Nonetheless, this young man enjoyed his life and was considered upstanding by many around him. Many said he was on his way to become a great leader and beyond. Those around him though, misjudged him, for he had been selected upon creation for a far darker purpose, one which even he was not aware of…

Michael looked at the elaborate building that belonged to the Party. As was typical, it was built to a different standard than other buildings in the area; all Party buildings were built to show just how great the Party was while other structures were built to a far more shoddy nature. If any laborers made a mistake while constructing a Party building, they were liable to be shot as an example of lack of devotion to the Conglomerate. Every other structure was built as sloppily and lazily as the laborers could get away with; it all added up to a not-so-subtle intent to glorify the Party over everything and everyone.

Even though he had refused Party membership when it was offered to him again after the war, as a Hero of the Conglomerate he was allowed access to all Party resources, save for those involving state secrets. It was a privilege he had never used – until now. He needed to push his prejudices and memories aside in order to help Beth.

He entered the building and saw even more disgusting displays of wealth and power. Had it not been for the secret police, the people would be rioting in the streets over such wealth disparity – directly against the Party’s purported teachings and agenda. Michael was used to such hypocrisy by now; he had seen it first hand far too many times to be shocked by it. The Party spent more on upkeep of this one building than the entire town earned in a year. Looking to the clerk at the front desk, he walked up to him and placed his cybernetic hand on the counter. The clerk froze for a moment in shock and looked up, the fear rippling across his face.

“Can I help you, sir?” the clerk managed to keep his composure upon speaking to Michael.

“Yes, I would like to speak with the local Party Officer,” Michael grimly replied.

“Sir, the hour is late. The Party Officer is heading home soon and-” Michael cut the clerk off with a wave of his hand. The whirring noise of the servo mechanics cut the silence in half.

“The Party Officer always has time for a Hero of the Conglomerate. Please alert him for me or I shall look for someone more useful to fulfill my request.” Michael put an air of superiority into his words, exactly as he had remembered from his youth in the Party. His words had the desired effect and the clerk stepped back and pressed a button on the intercom. Michael didn’t pay any attention to the conversation the clerk had, but assumed all was well when he waved him through.

“The Party Officer wishes to extend his welcome to the distinguished Hero of the Conglomerate. You may proceed to his office on the top floor.” The clerk gave a slight bow to Michael, but he did not return it. Not only did he dislike the clerk, but he felt that the whole idea of bowing it was anathema to the principles of the Conglomerate. Everyone was supposed to be equal, even though the current system made some more equal than others. Bowing was reserved for monarchies and other inferior forms of governance.

Michael opted to take the stairs to the top floor of the building. While most of the Party elite would sneer at such a “small” building, for the town it was the height of luxury and then some. The top floor was four stories up which gave an excellent view of the town. He knew that some of that was for a surveillance apparatus; rarely was it used for security of Conglomerate subjects, but instead as a tool for the secret police to ferret out potential disloyal subjects. Very few people would risk disparaging the state in the open and unless the state had determined a subject was a threat, the privacy of their own homes generally allowed them to speak their minds. As a result, the credits thrown into the surveillance was wasted, but this did not matter to the secret police or the party: it was enough for Conglomerate subjects to know they were being watched.

Arriving at the room for the local Party Officer, Michael knocked on the door twice and entered without waiting for a response. The Party Officer was sitting behind his desk, looking over some papers. He was a middle aged man, about Michael’s age. Michael knew the Party Officer was most likely from the capital; the Party would not dare risk having a local subject hold the position. The man looked up from his desk at Michael, then put his pen down.

“Michael Artigan. What brings you here at this hour?” The Officer had a gruff voice.

“I’m afraid we haven’t been properly introduced. You are?” Michael knew that he had to assert himself. After all, he might have to kill him later and he wanted to make sure he got his name right on the gravestone.

“I am Officer 3rd class Hickens. Please have a seat.” Hickens waved his hand at the chair in front of his desk. Michael sat down as gently as possible, using his hands to keep himself up. The servo strain from his cybernetic arm piqued the interest of Hickens.

“Now, what can I do for a Hero of the Conglomerate? It is unusual to have someone of your distinction to grace the halls of this noble structure.”

“I desire some information, if possible. Bethany Radik has been accused of some serious charges and I find myself concerned about her situation. She saved my life and has been nothing but loyal to the Conglomerate as well as an essential employee of Yankonian Aerospace.” Michael made his tone as formal as he could make.

“Mr. Artigan, Ms. Radik has been accused of nothing yet. I am intimately familiar with the case as the Agents of the Conglomerate have given me the details on their investigation. Ms. Radik is simply a key player in a high security government project and we must be sure of all personnel involved in it.” Hickens sat back in his chair a bit. “I’m afraid she may have passed too much information to you regarding her situation. I have much respect for your accomplishments but you no longer have a security clearance.” Hickens reached out to close the folder on his desk when Michael firmly placed his cybernetic hand on it.

“Officer Hickens, I implore you to properly evaluate the situation. Ms. Radik deserves far more than a casual look. Given her value to the Conglomerate, it would be a waste to cast her aside and lose her potential.” Michael put venom into his voice and coupled it with a hard stare into Hickens’ eyes. Hickens simply sat back in his chair and stared right back.

“Mr. Artigan, I’m going to let you in on a secret. Ms. Radik has no value to me, the Party, or the Conglomerate. She has great value to our enemies but that is not our concern. Our concern has to do with the security breach that Ms. Radik is a part of. She does not know she was a part of it.” Hickens matter-of-fact speaking caught Michael off-guard. What is he getting at?

Hickens noticed the confusion on Michael’s face. “You see, Mr. Artigan, not everything is as it seems. Ms. Radik was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before we continue, what do you know about psionics?”

Michael frowned for a minute as he thought about the word. “Superstitious mumbo-jumbo. The idea that some people are capable of manipulating the world with just their minds. Only people in the Divide believe in such things. I thought we in the Conglomerate considered ourselves above petty ideas.”

Hickens smiled at Michael’s response. “Mr. Artigan, your indoctrination serves you well. Surely you’ve heard of cybernetic psionic implants on the black market?”

Michael shook his head. “I don’t dabble in the black market. You should know my vices are drinking and gambling.”

“Yes, those are some problems for you, although not as large as others. Anyways, there are certain… Elements of the Party and the Conglomerate that are well versed in psionic disciples. Many believe that the only way to have the abilities is through implants but others have been making strides in proving a biological connection as well.” Hickens paused and pulled out a bottle of liquor and two shot glasses from his desk. He filled them both up and downed one shot glass in one gulp.

“Ms. Radik had the misfortune of finding a vulnerability we left open for a potential biological psionic. This potential… Thing was detected by methods which I shall not speak of here and we needed a strong bait to draw it out. That bait was the project Ms. Radik was working on.” Hickens once again filled a shot glass full of the gold liquid, but sipped on it this time.

“I won’t go into the full details of it but at the end of the day, the operation failed miserably. We underestimated the target and needed to cover our tracks. Had Ms. Radik not interfered, she only would have lost her position at Yankonian. However, now that she is aware of a security breach, we cannot allow her to expose the elements within the Party involved in this little operation. Her loyalty to the Conglomerate and the Party is admirable, but it is dangerous to our elements. We cannot trust her not to reveal what we are doing.”

“Why kick her out then? Why not put her under a gag order? There are mechanisms to cover black operations; I’ve seen them.” Michael frowned at Hickens.

“Mr. Artigan, we’re still not on the same page. The elements in discussion are well beyond the reach of the Party, much less the Conglomerate. Think of it as the shadows of the Party itself, with only a few key players. These key players have been involved since before the Conglomerate itself. Think about that for a moment – the Conglomerate has been around for hundreds of years.” Hickens stood and looked out his window.

“I may not be a part of them now, but there was a time when I aspired to be. Once you enter that world, everything looks different.” Hickens looked back at Michael. “You find yourself staring at reality beyond the Party, beyond the Conglomerate. You feel the veils of the world around you rise and certain truths are exposed. Some people can handle the view; others go mad at the revelation. We cannot risk even one crack to allow the light in, since so few are ready for the true nature of the universe.” Hickens finished the remainder of his glass and chuckled at Michael.

“What if you could bring your wife back? What if you could change the past? Stop the Fourth Divide War? Would you stop there?”

Michael sat back in his chair and thought for a moment. “I do not think I could make a rational decision with that kind of power. Such power is too dangerous in the hands of men.”

“That is our dilemma, Mr. Artigan. There are forces in this universe – perhaps the very elements that compose it – that could not handle that power. We believe that mankind once attained such power and our current world is the result of it. Perhaps even the universe as a whole was changed. But this is beyond our little discussion of Ms. Radik.” Hickens sat down and waved his hand at the folder.

“Ms. Radik is, once again, not our concern. The Agents will arrest her tonight and come dawn, she will be exposed to the elements we speak of. She has a strong mind but I fear that will not be enough.” Hickens poured himself another glass of liquor. He was apparently immune to the effects of it and did not show any signs of losing his composure.

“I tell you this because I do understand your situation, Mr. Artigan. She does have options, of course. For example, if she were to leave the country, Conglomerate agents would not pursue her. She needs only the courage to do so. And perhaps, the aid of a friend.” Hickens looked at Michael and smiled. “I know you will not reveal what we have spoke of to anyone. Not even a bandit in the Divide would hear your confession, much less believe it.

“Your path is laid out for you, Mr. Artigan. You can spend the rest of your days rotting away here or you can save the only person you can consider as family from a painful process. I trust you will make the right decision.” Hickens set his glass down and glared at Michael.

Michael wondered briefly if Hickens was simply telling a tall tale just to test his loyalty, but the look on Hickens’ face suggested that he believed every word he had just told him. He was right; if they made a break for the Divide, the Conglomerate would not pursue them. Beth was just, as Hickens said, the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Thank you, Officer Hickens. This has been an enlightening discussion.” Michael stood from his chair. “But make no mistake: should anything happen to Ms. Radik, your ‘elements’ will find themselves contending with a new force in the universe. One that will not stop until every last one of their still-beating hearts has been ripped from their chests.” Michael’s threat carried some weight with Hickens – he appeared to take Michael’s threat very seriously.

“I have no doubt you would be capable of such actions, Mr. Artigan. The Darkness favors you. Beware you do not fall into its clutches, or Ms. Radik will just be the beginning.” Hickens stood and waved Michael off. Michael walked out of the office and found himself more confused than ever.

I’ve never known any Party Officer to be the superstitious type. What have I gotten myself into? “The Darkness”? Still, he seemed pretty serious about the threat to Beth. I’d better hurry back and get her ready to go. We have a long journey ahead of us.

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