io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Men Who Change the World” by Christopher East. You can read the story below. Enjoy!
Staring west at a blood-red sunset, Adam Fisk leans against the railing encircling the beer garden, willing his body to feel the alcohol. Usually he’s blunted by the third Manhattan, but tonight his tolerance foils him. All he wants is an empty mind, cool evening air, the susurrant drone of insects. But his every attempt to find contentment is just that, an attempt, an effort he feels, unnatural and doomed to fail. He wills his eyes to enjoy the beautiful hues of the sun-touched horizon, but they keep drifting back to reality, himself, his life, and all that he hasn’t accomplished. And, ultimately, to work.
Across the wide plain, beyond the highway, stands the corporate campus of Ubiquity, Ltd., cruelly situated between the office’s happy-hour watering hole and the Midwestern vista. A massive complex employing half the residents of the Quad Corners, Ubiquity services the vast and varied information processing needs of governments, schools, and businesses all over the world. During Adam’s childhood, it had been a simple rectangular building in a field with one small parking lot. Since then the campus has grown, an architectural monstrosity tentacling out to dominate the landscape. Its many annexes, situated in haphazard fashion across sloping green fields, are connected by tunnels of brick and glass, air-conditioned walkways to make them accessible in the extremes of the Iowa weather. Parking lots splay out in a sprawling network that can probably be seen from space. It’s where he works, and it’s the most boring place in the world.
“Beautiful night, isn’t it?”
The voice is deep, resonant, and it belongs to a man about twice Adam’s age—a short, fiftyish fellow in a t-shirt and faded blue jeans and white Adidas sneakers. Dark brown hair marches down his face in graying, meticulous sideburns, and the rough skin of his neck is marred by razor burn. A man refusing to acknowledge the passage of time.
“Sure,” Adam says, finishing his drink. When he lowers his glass, he notices the stranger also drinks Manhattans. In fact, he carries one in each hand. “Two-fisting it there, buddy?”
“This one’s for you,” the man says, extending a glass.
Adam studies the drink warily before accepting it. He’s burned through his recreational stipend for the week, a fact that wins out over any suspicion. “You aren’t hitting on me, are you?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” the man says. “It’s just nice to see someone drinking Manhattans in Bud country. Practically an affectation, in these parts.”
Adam sips the drink, and perhaps it’s just the timing, but suddenly he feels the alcohol, a blurry, wobbly pleasure. Easily the tastiest drink of the night. “Jeannine didn’t make this, did she? Wait, what do you mean, an affectation?”
“Forget I said it,” the man says. “I’m Gordon McClelland.”
They shake hands, muscles going to war. Then Gordon raises his glass before taking a swig. Adam mimics the gesture, which seems strangely formal in an Iowa beer garden. The drink, smooth and delicious, goes down. He edges closer to his goal of mind-numbing, in-the-moment presence.
“You work over there?” Gordon asks, gesturing at Ubiquity.
“I do,” Adam says, turning his back on the building. “Almost everyone here does. Well, not those guys—I think they’re IT subcontractors, working on Y2K shit. But everyone else . . .”
Gordon surveys the area. Dozens crowd the terrace, men and women, faces white and black and brown, a cross-section of the folks who live here near the four-way border of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They smile, they chat, a pleasant night out after a day’s work. “You don’t sound happy about it.”
“I’m not,” Adam says. The people around him are mindless automatons, servile and complacent. “It’s a boring job in a boring town on the ass-end of nowhere.”
“So, why are you here?”
Adam cringes, thinking of Chicago. His modest degree in communications and a tendency to panic under the hot lights had derailed dreams of a career in sports broadcasting, and he’d lasted a mere eight months before shuffling home with his tail between his legs, moving back in with his mom. Now he was stuck doing what so many others in his hometown did: an entry-level job at Ubiquity, a cog in the gears of the information machine.
“Let me tell you a story,” Gordon says, with a piercing glance suggesting he’s seen into Adam’s brain. “Back when I was your age, back in the Pleistocene, haha, I was a lot like you . . . few years out of college, searching for myself, working dead-end jobs. Wondering where I went wrong. I’d done everything right. Went to college, got my degree. Where’s my reward? But then the real world happened, and it wasn’t bending to my whims.”
“You don’t know me,” Adam says weakly. But he feels good. Very good. This cocktail is magic.
“Point is,” Gordon says, ignoring him, “it wasn’t like that forever. Make your living, figure out how the world works. Eventually you see an opening, move through it, find your way to another place. That’ll lead to more openings, other places. Before you know it, life will take on a shape you never would have imagined. And if you go with the flow and make smart decisions, who knows: you may end up in a position to change everything.”
“And that’s what happened to you, huh?”
Adam studies the face beside him, looking for a sign of sarcasm or mischief. He wants to say then what are you doing here? But this random stranger who fed him a magic potion seems sincere. He believes what he’s saying, that things can happen for Adam. The expression on Gordon’s face is far more convincing than his words, and for a moment anyway, Adam believes it absolutely. But moments pass. “Yeah, I don’t know.”
“Give Ubiquity a chance,” Gordon says, draining his drink in one robust pull. “It may surprise you. And who knows? You may even surprise yourself.”
He strides confidently away.
The next day, Ubiquity does surprise him. As he waves his badge at the scanner near the North Wing entrance, his minor hangover morphs into a screaming headache. Crossing the threshold triggers a shrill whine in his backbrain.
The North Wing is a cluttered, open-plan sprawl of tile and fluorescence, its vast departments marked off by gray partitions, modular cubicles, and floor-taped walkways. Adam has taken the same route through the building for months now, a daily-grind sleepwalk. But today his eyes, normally focused on the scuffed, off-white floor tiles in his path, see farther than usual and with more definition. The landscape of his daily work life passes on either side, a treadmill, a Möbius strip. Employees, cubes, carts laden with documents, computer terminals, support columns, it all drifts by, a surreal, scrolling dreamscape. He glimpses doppelgängers and reflections: identical people, places, and objects. When he stretches to his full height to peer over the partitions, there’s a hall-of-mirrors effect. The far end of the building can’t be seen. The rat-maze landscape stretches away to infinity, repeating itself.
A veil has dropped.
“What the fuck,” he says.
But his passing coworkers are oblivious. They go about their business. Morning shift strides one way, graveyard shift the other, the churn, the grind, the machine that powers the world.
Sheer muscle memory delivers him to his cube in Data Input. He powers up his terminal, blocky amber letters on a fading cathode ray tube. At the front of the room, batches of stacked documents are staged for entry into the database. He grabs a rubber-banded stack from the top of the pile, rumpled scannable forms that look like they were run over by a forklift. On his way back to his desk, he observes his coworkers going through similar motions. Has he seen these people before? Did he know they worked here? He’s always worked his shifts in a fog, typing numbers and names, digits and data, but never truly processing anything—where he is, who’s with him, what any of it means.
But he gets to work, despite his skewed perspective. Typing, saving, typing, saving, tracking his time on a ruled sheet of paper, signing his initials and keyer ID in red pen on the dot-matrix stickers attached to each stack of pages. Information comes in, information goes out. Adam Fisk, data conduit.
But then his eyes, passing over the information, start to process the data. Numbers in patterns, letters forming words. These aren’t standardized tests or application forms, he thinks, his brain parsing the information. This is code. Secret directives that move markets, distribute resources, control everything.
He’s not sure how he knows it, but an unsettling thought forms as his shoulders bunch and wrists ache. Ubiquity, the world’s dominant information services company, is not some benevolent corporate monolith. Something else is going on here, something nefarious, and something only he can see.
The rest of that week, Adam drives to the tavern overlooking the compound after work, burning through his government subsidy check as he drinks on the terrace, eyes bouncing between the sunset and the Ubiquity campus. From a distance, the buildings glimmer and wobble, a time-lapse heat haze. Suddenly Ubiquity makes no architectural sense. Scanning the tableau, he can’t pinpoint where he parks, the entrance he uses, where his department is located in the massive tangle of bricks and metal. Compared to the surrounding Midwestern landscape, it’s an eye-popping spectacle. But nobody else gives it a second glance.
Every night, he looks for Gordon. The man never shows, and he goes home frustrated.
Then Friday arrives. Normally, Adam avoids the beer garden on Fridays, because it brings out more locals. People he went to school with, played baseball with in Little League, occasionally even someone he dated back in his awkward teen years. He doesn’t like encountering these people, doesn’t want them to see him back in town to learn he’s working as a lowly data entry operator.
But this Friday he does go, to drink his drinks and watch the freaky, hallucinatory shimmer of the building, pondering the newly untrustworthy nature of his perceptions. The weather is nicer than usual, so the terrace is busier, but he finds an open spot near the railing.
Adam turns to find Gordon standing behind him, once again carrying two Manhattans. At least, he thinks it’s Gordon; the hair’s lighter in shade, the sideburns messier, the cheekbones more pronounced. A dream-logic Gordon, a Gordon-but-not-Gordon. “Gordon?” he says experimentally.
Gordon does not confirm or deny, just extends the drink.
“Why should I drink that?” Adam asks. “What’s in it? I’ve been seeing funny ever since the last one.”
Gordon sets the drink on the railing. “Well, if you don’t drink it, everything will snap back to normal. You don’t want that, do you? The effect fades over time.”
Adam peers into the drink, studying it for visible evidence of its properties. “So you admit you drugged me.”
“Sure, but it’s all good, I’m on it too,” Gordon says. He sips his drink, sets it on the railing, picks up the second one, and drinks from that as well. “Keeps me in the zone.”
“The zone,” Adam says, and his hand gravitates to the drink. It feels like a bonding moment, drinking from a glass sullied by Gordon’s lips. “What’s happening to me?”
“It’s not you that things are happening to,” Gordon says, rotating to face the crowded terrace. “Something just unhappened to you. All of them, on the other hand . . .” He gestured vaguely.
Adam looks around the terrace. His coworkers, from across four different states, many of them vaguely familiar. They seem perfectly normal.
“We’ve had our eye on you for some time,” Gordon says. He takes an extra-long pull on his drink, as if to prove that they’re in this together. “Noticed you in Chicago. You showed a lot of promise.”
“I washed out,” Adam says. “I didn’t amount to anything.”
“It may seem like that. But that’s where you started down this path. We knew you’d be useful to us some day.”
So many questions flood into Adam’s mind that he almost can’t decide which to ask. Finally, he lands on: “We?”
“I represent a group,” Gordon says. “The Myriad. The drink was a test, to see if you were one of us, if you were the man we need. Not everyone is responsive to the chemistry. We’ve been trying to penetrate this branch of Ubiquity since the McGovern administration. But we needed the right agent, at the right time. And we think we’ve found him.”
“Me?” Adam has consumed half the drink. “I’m not an agent. I’m a typist.”
“This makes you . . . usefully inconspicuous,” Gordon says. “Tell me. How long have you known something is wrong at Ubiquity? It didn’t start when you met me. You’ve worked there for months. You’ve lived around here most of your life, went to school with the kids whose families made their livings at Ubiquity. Haven’t you always wondered why they were so content? So well adjusted?”
Adam recalls, growing up, that the kids whose middle-class parents worked at Ubiquity were different. Smarter, more self-possessed, less prone to joining cliques and factions. He could never get to know them. They seemed out of reach, ahead of the game, beyond him. A Ubiquity kid would have conquered Chicago, would have beaten the competition and landed the dream job. A Ubiquity kid would have won. “I just figured they were lucky. They had advantages.”
“Yes, but were those advantages fair? We don’t think so. Ubiquity has facilities all over the globe. Practically a worldwide monopoly. Why aren’t they subject to the same antitrust laws as every other industry? How have they managed to operate in every country on Earth, including Soviet Russia and China? What are they hiding?”
Adam shakes his head. This information is all new to him. He’s never questioned the company’s success. Nobody does.
“The Myriad has been fighting corruption all over the world since the Fall of Tokyo,” Gordon says. “Saved the world from all sorts of perils. But Ubiquity has always been too powerful, too elusive. Too, well, ubiquitous to go up against.”
“And you think I can help bring them down?” Adam says. The idea leaves him incredulous.
“Not just help. You’re the key.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Let us do the believing for you.”
Adam shakes his head. Glancing across the field, he can’t tell if his eyesight is getting more acute, or less. “What’s in it for me?”
Gordon grins. “Oh, we’ll make it worth your while. But mainly this: You could go down in history as the David who took down Goliath.”
The job starts small. Gordon gives him a phone, a slick Nokia clamshell with a retractable texting keyboard. It still manages to fit easily in the front pocket of his jeans. Outwardly it’s identical to his state-supplied phone, but when he uses it he can tell it functions differently. It’s faster, more powerful, it has a feel. Gordon tells him not to worry; not everyone can feel his phone. Only certain people are predisposed to the magic that empowers its technology. Meanwhile, it quietly gathers data. Apparently.
His primary instruction is to carry the phone with him everywhere. Whenever possible, he is to stray from his usual paths, exploring Ubiquity’s vast interior. “The scanner will do the rest,” Gordon says.
“Mix this with some whiskey, three times a week,” Gordon says, handing him a small flask. “Just a few drops. It will continue to disrupt their behavioral wards. Other than that, just keep your eyes open and report what you see.”
It seems simple enough, so Adam does it, and for the first time in weeks, he doesn’t mind going to work. The clandestine mission infuses him with purpose. He hones his powers of observation, catalogues names and faces, makes mental notes of anything out of the ordinary. Anything he thinks Gordon and the Myriad might find useful.
On Thursday, he realizes he’s starting to make geographic sense of the building. In the past, he would walk only the routes between his cube and the restroom, the cafeteria, and the parking lot. But now he’s able to chart the baffling layout of the place’s Escherian architecture. He memorizes its labyrinthine floorplan, finding shortcuts and switchbacks that expose him to new secret corners of the complex. Nobody notices him or calls him out for being in the wrong place. As long as he keeps his head down, he remains inconspicuous. Invisible but powerful.
After work, he dutifully reports observations into the phone, quietly in his bedroom so his mother can’t overhear. Gordon listens and says very little, just enough to cajole details or open lines of inquiry.
“This is the intelligence-gathering phase of the operation,” Gordon says one night, when Adam expresses frustration at the slow progress of their work. “Gathering intelligence isn’t glamorous. But trust me, the glamor comes later, when we win.”
So Adam sticks it out. Until one day, on his lunch break, while he’s striding the corridors of the Plaza Building, he comes across something interesting. Usually he walks briskly to look like he’s on his way somewhere, but today he slows down as he nears a wide passageway leading back to what appears to be a loading dock. Indeed, as he edges toward the opening, he peers back into a warehouse-like space full of huge storage racks and forklifts carrying pallets of boxed-up documents. A corrugated metal door has been raised to disgorge employees on their break, but presently it begins to descend.
He can’t tell, at first, why the loading dock seems unusual. But the more he considers it, and compares it to his increasing comprehension of the building layout, it comes to him.
The loading dock isn’t situated on the building’s perimeter.
It’s squarely in the middle of it.
Adam looks up, sees a familiar face. Whitney Schoenfeld, a girl he remembers from high school. Short, plain, dressed in steel-toed boots and blue jeans and flannel—not the half-assed business casual he wears as a nominally white-collar employee, elsewhere in Operations. “Whitney,” he says, managing a smile. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Likewise,” Whitney says. “Didn’t you move to Chicago?”
Adam winces. “Yeah, I’m back.” He studies the face looking up at him. Whitney is quite short and petite, all straight lines, easy to miss. A band nerd, he remembers; she played the oboe. He remembers her asking him, rather awkwardly, to the Winter Ball during junior year, and he’d turned her down because he was counting on going with Gretchen Hane, who had laughed in his face the next day. “You work back there?”
“Yeah. Warehouse. I know, it’s not much, but it’s a start. My father works in Forms, he got me in the door. Where are you?”
“I’m in Data Input.”
“Ah. You’re far from home, over here.”
“I sit all day,” Adam says, trying to sound personable. “Just trying to keep my blood circulating.”
Whitney smiles, a smile he doesn’t remember. It lights up her face, changes her. Maybe she didn’t smile much in high school. He notices, for the first time, the brownish-red tinge of her hair, now short and bobbed, rather than the long, straight mop she used to hide behind. Her cheeks are dusted with freckles. She’s actually pretty cute. He feels like a dunce for turning her down. “Well, I don’t want to keep you,” she says, glancing at her watch. “If I don’t start walking now I won’t make it to the cafeteria in time to order anything.”
“Good to see you,” Adam says. And it is.
“You too!” Whitney says brightly, and strides away, looking to catch up with her coworkers.
Adam watches her leave, just briefly, then casts one last glance at the huge metal door, which now conceals a mystery. Perhaps it is just a warehouse. But a warehouse with a loading dock that isn’t accessible from the outside?
This seems significant.
“I believe you may have hit the mother lode.” Gordon says this from across the scuffed table of a ratty, hole-in-the-wall bar just across the state line in Dubuque, Minnesota. They’d established the rendezvous by text, deciding that Adam’s usual watering hole may be too conspicuous for regular debriefings.
In the low light of the bar, Adam doses his Sazerac from the flask Gordon provided him. He’s got to keep the filters in place. “You think so?”
“I ran it up the chain,” Gordon says. “It corroborates intelligence from other Ubiquity sites we’ve investigated.” He looks haggard tonight, shaggier, skin paler. An unseemly purple wart juts from his forehead. “A site in Dundalk, Ireland, and one in Phnom Penh. Oddly situated warehouses, on the interior of the building. Difficult to locate, even for someone bolstered against Ubiquity’s behavioral wards—like you. It fits the pattern.”
“What’s in them?”
“We can’t be positive, but we believe it’s the source of their power. The resources that give them their stranglehold on the world economy.”
“Energies,” Gordon says. “Magics. Something paranormal. Not unlike the magics we wield, such as what’s in that flask there. Ten times more powerful than anything we’ve got, though. They’ve tapped into something. Built their facilities all over the world in the unlikeliest of places to give them access to this power. Power they’re keeping from the rest of us.” Gordon swirled his drink with a plastic red straw, consternation creasing his brow. His free hand is clutched in a fist.
“What’s our next move?”
Gordon shakes his head. “That’s for others to decide. Way above our pay grade. We’ve done our part. I mean, obviously if we could get an agent inside . . .”
Adam sits up straight. “Maybe I can get in.”
Gordon’s eyes widen. “No offense, but you’re still awfully new at this. We’ve tried infiltrating these places for years now. They’re impenetrable, even for seasoned agents.”
“But I may have an in,” Adam says. “I know someone who works in the warehouse, a girl from my high school, Whitney Schoenfeld. She had thing for me. Maybe I could use that.”
Stroking the stubble of his square-jawed chin, Gordon appears to consider this. “Well. That is interesting. Could lead somewhere.” His eyes drift, but then snap back to Adam. “We’ll need to give this some thought. It’s a rare opportunity. We don’t want to rush our chance and blow it. Give me a couple of days.”
“What do I do until then?”
“Go to work. Do your job. And if you see this girl again, for God’s sake, don’t let anything slip. Stay on her radar, but treat her like you normally would.” Gordon leans forward, leveling an intense gaze. “What’s her name again?”
For a brief moment, Adam doesn’t want to respond, feeling a twinge of remorse for even mentioning her. But his will buckles. This is his chance to make a difference. “Whitney Schoenfeld.”
“We’ll need to research, determine the correct approach,” Gordon says. “Leave that to me. In the meantime, here.” He withdraws an envelope from his rumpled suit jacket and slides it across the table. “Don’t throw this money around carelessly, now. But you deserve to a reward for your efforts so far.” He smiles. “You might just be the one, after all.”
Adam finds it difficult to treat Whitney the way he treated her in high school. He’s conflicted about using her, and now he’s attracted to her. He tries to follow Gordon’s orders and remain distant. Even so, he schedules his breaks to coincide with hers, conspiring to place himself in her path. Every now and then, they share a smile, which gives him an unexpected rush.
When the time comes, he’ll be on her mind. But days pass without contact from Gordon, and he wonders if the Myriad has forgotten all about him. His life starts to feel plodding and mundane again.
Finally, one Saturday night as Adam sits at the edge of a packed sports bar not far from his house, it happens. One second he’s craning his neck toward a distant bartender, trying in vain to get her attention, and the next Gordon is seated beside him on the neighboring stool. “Give me your phone.”
“Why?” Adam asks. He’s relieved to see Gordon, but also surly with impatience.
Gordon lifts a finger toward the bartender, who miraculously notices him through the chaos and rockets down the bar to them. “Let’s mix it up. Two Black Manhattans.”
The bartender nods and gets to work.
“Phone,” Gordon says. “Be discreet.”
Adam sighs, drains the last dram of rye from his tumbler, and fishes the phone out of his pocket. Keeping it under the bar, he hands it to Gordon, only to have Gordon press a replacement into his hand. An identical model. “My numbers . . .”
“Your numbers are in it,” Gordon says.
“Where’ve you been? I give you the best lead you’ve ever had, and you freeze me out for over week. What gives?”
The drinks arrive, and Gordon slides some bills toward the bartender. “Have a drink,” he says. “I said we had to plan, and you’re not my only responsibility. I get that you’re impatient. But I’ve been in this game a hell of a lot longer than you have. Listen, I need to tell you something.”
Adam meets Gordon’s blue eyes, which he’s pretty sure were brown the last time they met. Gordon’s hairline is higher, face fleshier. Oh, it’s Gordon, it’s definitely Gordon. And yet Adam doesn’t recognize him. For a split second he wonders if there are multiple Gordons, hundreds of them, thousands of interchangeable middle-aged white men who materialize and disappear as needed to guide him toward his destiny. “What?”
“Everything’s ready,” Gordon says. “This is the week. Time to activate you.”
“What does that mean?” Adam asks. Hadn’t he already been active?
“The girl, Whitney. You see her every day?”
“I do now,” Adam says. “I switched my lunch shift.”
“Have lunch with Whitney this week,” Gordon says. “Doesn’t have to be Monday. But any day this week, if you can make it work, see if you can sit down with her.”
“Strike up a conversation,” Gordon says. “Flirt. You said she has a thing for you? Use that. See if you can get her to take you on a tour of the warehouse.”
“A tour of a warehouse?” Adam asks. “How the hell do I make that convincing?”
“I’ll leave that up to you,” Gordon says. “Be resourceful.”
“Resourceful,” Adam mutters.
“Hey.” Gordon sets his drink on the bar with a sharp thwack. “This was your idea. You want a chance to make a mark? This is it. We’re trying to undo decades of evil, here. A greedy, all-powerful corporation controlling the world. And you, of all people, have a chance to stop it. Show some balls.” Gordon spins back to his drink, polishes it off in one reckless gulp, and stands to leave. “How are you fixed?”
Adam taps the flask in his pocket. “I’m good.”
“Good. Look, they think I’m wrong about you. Say you’re not the guy we need. But I went to bat for you.” He squeezes Adam’s shoulder with a grip like iron, an attempt at affection that feels possessive. “Prove me right.”
He makes his move on Tuesday. Entering the cafeteria, he spies her from across the room, sitting alone at the end of a table near the windows.
Adam strides over, approaching from an angle so she can’t see him coming. “Hey, you,” he says, just the way he practiced it. “Anyone sitting here?”
“No,” Whitney says. Her eyes light up a little, even as she awkwardly dabs a smear of mayonnaise from the side of her mouth. “How’s it going?”
Adam shrugs, setting down his tray, which holds a slice of pizza and a can of Pepsi from the commissary. “Not bad,” he says. “Another day, another dollar. How about you?”
“I’m good!” Whitney says. “I’ve been meaning to say hi, see how Data Input is treating you.”
Adam pops the tab of his Pepsi, then shakes his wrist out. “Now that you mention it,” he says, wincing in mock pain. “I think it’s giving me carpal tunnel. And I swear, I’ve put on five pounds since I started. So much sitting around.”
“Aw, sorry to hear that,” Whitney says. “I guess it’s not for everybody. The great thing is if it doesn’t work out for you, they’ll try to find something else you like.”
“Yeah, so long as you put in a good-faith effort and show up reliably,” Whitney says, taking a bite of chicken salad sandwich. “They started me in Editing. But I had the same problem, all that sitting around just made me sleepy. So they moved me into the warehouse. Guess that showed me.”
Adam smiles. “How do you like it back there?”
“It’s great! I mean, it’s not great great. It’s only work. But I like it. Mostly how awesome the people are. But that’s true everywhere here, I think. Don’t you?”
No, Adam thinks, glancing around at all these pleasant, easy-going people who don’t notice the murky, fuzzy underside of this evil place. No, Ubiquity is a bland, stultifying trap, and these people have the soul of a McDonald’s commercial. They don’t even realize they’re clueless pawns. But he says none of this, of course. He just swallows pizza and says, “You bet. Say, you think I might like working in the warehouse better? Maybe you could show me around.”
“Why not?” Adam says. “I mean, you’re out there, right? That’s definitely in its favor.”
Whitney blushes. “Well, sure. But there’s only twenty minutes left in lunch. You won’t have time to eat.”
Adam frowns at his pizza. “This old thing? I’ll live.”
And so, easy as that, they’re walking companionably back to the warehouse. On the way, Whitney waxes nostalgic about high school, talking about old friends and silly things that happened back then. She recalls the time he got into an argument about grammar with their English teacher and sent to the principal’s office, even though he’d been right. And the time he hit a triple off the left-field fence in JV baseball—how he slid head-first into third base to beat the tag, and how cool that had looked. She’d been far more aware of him than he’d been of her. He remembers that hit, too, of course—it was the closest he’d ever come to hitting a home run. But who gives a shit about the guy who almost hits a home run?
They approach the corrugated gate to the warehouse, and Whitney pauses. “I’m really not supposed to take anyone back here, you know.”
“Why not?” Adam says. “Anyway, who’s going to know?”
Whitney clutches the employee badge dangling from a lanyard around her neck, thoughtfully. “It’s just . . . the rules.”
Adam follows her furtive glance toward the panel by the side of the door, a badge reader like the one at the entrance. “It’s not like I don’t work here, too. If anyone asks, we’ll just tell them I’m thinking of transferring.”
“I suppose that would just be the truth, anyway,” Whitney says. “Okay. But just a quick look, okay?”
She hustles to the reader and flashes her badge at it. The door slowly lifts. Together they duck under it as it rises. Inside, Adam peers into the gloom while she waves her badge at the reader on the other side. They’re in a large, connecting antechamber that joins the main building to a two-story-tall warehouse. Its floor is unyielding concrete, walls some unrecognizable rocky substance. Once they move beyond it to the warehouse proper, the place feels unimaginably vast. The chamber is as wide as a football field, stretching away endlessly to their left.
The floor is a maze of pallets holding Gaylords full of documents, row upon row of them. Impossibly distant walls are lined with metal racks, stacked with more pallets full of booklets and forms and printouts, several stories high. At least, they look like metal racks at first, but as they slowly walk farther into the space, the scene distorts. Soon they’re passing rows of glistening, crystalline shelves covered with golden pallets holding colorful, glassy substances. Gems, minerals, precious metals bringing a muted, rainbow glow to an otherwise lightless place.
“Come on!” Whitney says, striding ahead of him. Her voice is melty. “It looks cooler the farther in you go!”
Adam follows, focusing on her diminutive frame, marveling at his idiocy for failing to appreciate such a cheerful, gorgeous person, who now guides him toward his place in history. It feels like racing headlong toward power and wealth and immortality. So close to everything he’s ever wanted.
But something’s not right. His eyes have gone acid-trip haywire, blurring and warping everything. The atmosphere fills with flashing geometric shapes, winking and blinking lights, blobby lava-lamp glows. Forklifts morph into chariots, boxes into treasure chests, stacks of papers into shining gold bars. His steps get heavier, the gravity in the room increasing, and random muscles spasm in his arms and legs.
“What’s wrong?” Whitney asks, suddenly funhouse-mirror stretched. She’s nine feet tall, teeth a white picket fence.
“Something’s . . . I’m . . .” He collapses, landing on his tailbone, and pain spikes up his spine.
“Can’t handle it, eh?” Whitney says, kneeling beside him.
“What?” Adam slides to the ground, lying flat, face going numb.
Whitney sits beside him, cross-legged, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Security,” she says, into a phone. “I’ve got another one. I’m with him now, halfway down the gangway.”
Adam tries to speak, but all he can manage is “nuhhhhhhh.”
“Serves you right,” Whitney says, before he blacks out.
When he awakens, he’s facing a wall of reddish glare his eyes can’t process. He sits in a sinister, metallic contraption vaguely mimicking the postural angles of a dentist’s chair. He’s unrestrained, but feels paralyzed, helpless.
Finally his eyes adjust, and he looks up at the light: an enormous, spherical mass of red, swirling . . . cloud? Light? Special effects? He can’t tell, but it’s a stunning sight, huge, foreboding, impossible. Somehow, it emanates penetrating cold.
This must be it, he realizes. The source of all their power.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” says a voice behind him. Confident, female, a resonant alto.
Adam cranes his neck as a woman emerges from behind him. She’s black, fit, intimidating, probably in her forties. She’s dressed in a sharply cut gray suit. She strides between Adam and the inexplicable globe of glowing red, followed a moment later by Whitney, whose arms are crossed.
“I’m Roberta Towbridge,” the woman says. “Chief Security Officer of Ubiquity, Ltd. You know *Whitney*, of course.” The name clunks out of her mouth, a poor, otherworldly overdub.
Adam tries to meet Whitney’s eyes, but she stares forward, a disciplined sentinel. She’s flickering, her familiar features blurred by fleeting glimpses of strange, anonymous bodies, eyes and skin and hair changing color in a frenetic time-lapse morph. Most of them are female, some male, but he gets it: She’s whoever they need her to be.
Because he’s not alone, and she must be for all of them. He’s one of a dozen men in an arcing line, propped upright in front of Roberta Towbridge, *Whitney*, and the swirling mass of red weirdness. Through a haze of disorientation and anxiety, Adam feels his heart sink. He’s not the chosen one. He isn’t the key to anything. He’s a foot soldier, a pawn, one of countless dupes that Gordon recruits, cultivates, and leverages against Ubiquity.
“I’m proud to say,” Towbridge says, “that it’s my job to travel the world, to every Ubiquity facility, to deliver this orientation lecture. Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘How is this an orientation? I know why I’m here.’ But really you don’t. You’re about to gain a new understanding.” She gestures at the spectacle behind her. “I’m sure you’re wondering, what’s this giant red blob behind me? Since you entered this space under false pretenses, you may have a theory. ‘It’s the company’s evil power source’ or something along those lines, conditioned as you are by the Myriad’s lies. Well, they’re right about one thing. It is a source. A source of unimaginable cruelty and horror.”
Adam stares into the confusing red depths, and the more he stares at it, the more detail he sees. Vistas, skylines, vehicles and animals and people. But he can’t tell if they’re truly there, or just figments projected from his mind onto the freakish, inchoate tableau. He tries to rotate his gaze to see the men on either side of him, to gauge whether they can move or react. But they are indistinct shapes, pale blobs in button-down shirts and Dockers, sweaters and blue jeans, faces blurred out like redacted reality-show nudity.
“These portals are all over the world. They’ve been here forever, but humans only started learning to see and control them in the late thirties, when the scientists who discovered them formed this company to save the world. That’s right.” Towbridge stamps a foot to emphasize her point. “Save the world, not control it. That’s just Myriad propaganda. If you knew the extent of the corruption on the other side of these gates, the self-destructive prion diseases that poured through them from the other dimensions before this initiative began . . .” She shakes her head, takes a deep breath. “Let’s just say, all manner of unspeakable awfulness happened before we came along.
“We’ve built containment fields around every known portal. Right here in the nerve center of Ubiquity’s U.S. headquarters, we’re just a short walk away from the beginning of the end of the human race. Worlds where infectious madness has led to nuclear proliferation, an intractable military-industrial complex, corruption, war, rapacious greed and rampant injustice and environmental catastrophe. Without us, all that evil would seep through into our reality and destroy it. The utopia we’ve built here will fall prey to the fate of all the other failed realities trying to encroach upon us.”
“Utopia,” Adam utters, a weak act of defiance.
“You don’t believe this is a utopia?” Towbridge asks. “Of course you don’t. That’s why you’re here trying to destroy it. But you’ll realize soon enough the gift we’ve given the world. And like those who’ve come before you, you’ll see that a warless universe, where nobody starves, where everyone has income and healthcare and human rights and basic safety, is a far better deal than the Myriad can ever offer you.”
Adam’s eyesight continues to give him fits. It ricochets from sharp clarity to hallucinatory distortion and back again. He’d been convinced it was Ubiquity’s magic making him feel this way, but in the face of Towbridge’s speech, it occurs to him the Myriad hasn’t unprogrammed him at all. Quite the opposite. He’s been a fool.
“If my experience is any guide, you probably see the idea of switching to our side as a betrayal,” Towbridge says. “I get that. But I hope you’ll think it through. Who would you rather betray? The guardians of a sane universe, or those looking to profit from the chaos of an insane one? Once you have all the facts, I think you’ll make the right choice.”
“Do we have a choice?” Adam asks.
Towbridge meets his eyes. “Of course. You can stay here and help. Or we can send you through, and you can take your chances on the other side. There’s no other option, so think it over.” She gestures behind her, then glances down at her watch. “I’m due in Kamloops for the next one. *Whitney*, if you please?”
Towbridge strides away, and *Whitney* approaches him. But now it’s just Whitney, not *Whitney*. The uber-being that she was has splintered off into each prisoner’s human-shaped bait of choice. Friendly faces, deployed to ease their victims into a new belief system. Benevolent scheming.
“I know you’re a good person,” Whitney says. “I wouldn’t have asked you out if I didn’t know, deep down, that you want the world to be a better place.”
You’re right, Adam thinks, even as he tries to tell her to fuck off. He only manages an airy consonant.
“Will you join us?”
He can feel his muscles again, at least, and sharp pain in his thigh where the phone Gordon gave him presses against his leg. He glances left and right, where the Whitney analogs are working their charms on his fellow agents.
Whitney tracks his eyes. “Wait. You can see the others?”
Adam sees the startlement in her expression, and with her realization comes his own. The other agents think they’re alone, but he can see everyone, everything, see through Ubiquity’s illusions. Gordon’s primed him for this moment, has chemically conditioned him to resist their power.
“Something’s wrong,” Whitney says into her phone. “Get security to the portal, stat. We’ve got a problem—”
A commotion from down the line. Adam whirls to see what’s drawn Whitney’s attention: A few chairs down, another Myriad agent is strangling his *Whitney* with both hands, a crazed look in his eyes. Several of the other *Whitneys* rush over to restrain him, leaving Adam alone in his chair.
The phone in his pocket rings.
Adam retrieves it, noticing a tingling sensation radiating out from his thigh. The phone stabs his finger as he extracts it, and he sees now that the device has deployed a needle. A spike of adrenaline inspires him to flex his leg muscles. He can move.
He answers the phone.
“Now’s your chance,” Gordon says. “They’re distracted.”
“The other agents are dummy runs. They’re the diversion. You can destroy the containment field.”
Adam watches the fray, which is spreading. Other agents are wrestling with their captors, a full-blown melee. “You lied to me,” he says. “Ubiquity is protecting us.”
“Ubiquity is controlling us,” Gordon says. “They’ve made us simple, complacent, unexceptional. Don’t you see? A world without losers doesn’t get to have winners. If you open that portal, you can change all that! You can change everything!”
Adam stands up, walking toward the massive red glow, seeing his reflection in the swirling matter. Or, no—it’s not a reflection. It’s his opposite number, from another reality, smiling and waving him forward. The Other Adam looks dangerous, confident, on top of things. “What do I do?”
“Just take it,” Gordon says. “Take what’s yours.”
“Say what?” Adam says, walking up to the edge.
“Adam, no! Don’t do it!”
Adam spins, sees Whitney running toward him. She’s trying to stop him, to keep everything the same, to keep him in his servile box. He knows she’s right, understands deep down that the heroic thing to do is stop, cooperate, join them and become a guardian. Make the world a better place for everyone, not just a chosen few.
But seeing the panic and desperation in Whitney’s eyes, he senses another path, one in which he ceases to be ordinary and forgettable. He can create a world that can bend to his whims and, with the help of the Myriad, be shaped to his benefit.
And all it takes is a simple act of destruction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative,and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the January 2020 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus nonfiction and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by N.K. Jemisin, Kij Johnson, Alexander Weinstein, Ramez Naam & Jason Hough, M. Rickert, J.R. Dawson, Adam-Troy Castro, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.