The Mirror-Like Ocean
Author: Volunteer Abacus
From the warmth of the Nexus, of his Comrades, the cold sea air on his face and arms was a shock to Abacus. Suddenly standing upright and being in a different place entirely were also a bit shocking, but for some reason it was the cold that struck him first.
“This must be why he always wore that coat...” Abacus mused to himself. With a few moments thought, he focussed on his desire to be warm, and felt fabric slip over his shoulders and cover his bare arms. Looking down, he saw a red jacket clasped around him. Idly, he wondered if somebody like Glint would consider it fashionable. He doubted it somehow.
Now satisfactorily warm, Abacus looked up and around at the large boat he was standing on, and then out at the shore he was nearing on it. Expecting the sharp, stainless steel sheen of a large refinery platform, Abacus squinted uncertainly as a verdant green plain, dotted with various buildings, came into view. He stared around; another island, just as green, and another beyond that...
The boat came into dock as Abacus continued to stare, having conjured up binoculars, and then a telescope, to help him take in the entire gorgeous, yet unexpected view around him. Dropping the visual aids into the ocean to be eaten by the large mechanical beast that was just below the water's surface, devouring rubbish, Abacus stepped onto the solid ground, taking a moment to delight at the smell of the grass as it interacted with the briney air around it.
“Comrade? Comrade Valve?”
Approaching Abacus was a team of people, (unmistakably so, they walked in a way that only a team could), dressed not unlike the image of Valve on the biscuit box, all clutching folders and papers and looking concerned. Briefly, Abacus considered jumping into the water.
“Comrade Valve?” the group, of whom there were six, had caught up to Abacus, and were gazing at him expectantly.
“No, um, I'm Comrade Abacus,” the newcomer replied.
“Where's Valve?” asked the (so-far) most vocal of the group, a woman with slightly more medals than her colleagues.
Abacus desperately searched through his twenty hours of life experience for something to help him explain this.
“I'm Comrade Abacus,” he said, again. “I'm the last volunteer.”
The group looked nervously among themselves.
“How did this happen? Who did this?” the woman asked.
“He, uh, well there's a lot of changes happening, and I think he felt he wasn't the right man for the job anymore? I mean, re-education is prohibited now, I think, and there's a new society called the Revolution co-existing with us in the Liberated Skies, and...”
Each member of the group was displaying a slightly different mixture of shock, outrage, and disbelief at Abacus' words. In the corner of his eye, the Shaper could see a growing crowd of people assembling to look at them. To look at him.
“You, um, your takeover of responsibilities for this territory was known to us,” the woman began. “Although the manner is... shall we discuss this matter in yo- in the Shaper's office, Comrade?”
“Sounds good,” Abacus said, nodding uncertainly. “And that is... where?”
“We will be happy to orient you, Comrade,” the woman said, giving a practiced smile, and extending an arm to indicate a direction to follow.
The group moved through the grassy territory as more crowds thronged to watch them. Abacus kept hearing the words “Valve,” “Abacus” and, more than a few times, “blebs”. He giggled. Two of the group with him looked at one another, visibly alarmed.
As the group ascended the stairs to Valve's former office, Abacus was assaulted by a host of almost familiar sensations. The feel of the stair-rail on his hand, the angles and positions of the walls and doors, the smell of paper and ink... He pinched his brow as a headache began to set in.
This was not good.
Finally, as Abacus was led in through a doorway into a large office, an unsettling sense of calm fell upon him. Not mine, he thought to himself. The room was absolutely... bland. No décor to speak of, walls covered in cabinets and shelves full of paperwork, with a single window looking out over nothing but ocean.
How a Shaper could live and work somewhere and leave it so blank and empty was something Abacus could not comprehend.
The group assembled themselves around the room's only furniture; a large desk with a chair behind it, and Abacus took position beside the chair, as he felt he was expected to.
“Perhaps we should introduce ourselves,” the woman who seemed to be acting as a leader spoke up. “My name is Hailer, this is Mainframe, Girder, Dial, and Superstructure. We are, were, Comrade Valve's core Hegemonic Engineering team.”
“Ah, you were his friends,” interpreted Abacus.
The ones named Dial and Girder looked at one another a second time, once again alarmed.
“We... we were his Comrades,” Hailer replied. Abacus' tensed up slightly at the correction.
“Ok yes, so... I suppose we should talk about the, er, changes I mentioned? Have a meeting about it? I have to say, it's a relief none of us are talking in 'blebs' or else it could get tricky!” At this, Superstructure cleared his throat and spoke.
“Ah yes, the 'blebs', they were a problem. That universal translator system dealt with the worst of it though. I assume the causative media was an Opportunity attack, designed to interfere with our productivity and ideological cohesion via the introduction of a disruptive meme-virus?”
“Um no,” Abacus responded, starting to fidget. “I just made it because I thought the people would enjoy the cartoon. It's about friendship, like, comradeship...” he added, by way of defending himself. “But we might be getting some link-ups to the whole Aethernet, as a present from, well, one of the Opportunity shapers.”
Dial tapped three fingers against zir wrist. Girder nodded, very slightly.
“Truly?” Mainframe spoke up now, raising an eyebrow. “Is the Combine pursuing more peaceful relations with the Visions of Opportunity?” Abacus couldn't be sure, be he swore the Hegemonic Engineer was looking hopeful.
“Perhaps,” Hailer interjected. “We let Comrade Abacus speak about the events of the Nexus, without interruption, so we can all be apprised of the new situations that face us.”
Gratefully, Abacus nodded, and began to explain the many meetings, the decision to abandon re-education, and the document he didn't sign. By the end, Dial wasn't even trying to mask zir look of utter outrage, although Mainframe still had a hopeful sort of expression. Only Hailer remained completely impassive.
“I guess, well, I guess that's rather a lot to get used to, especially if you were used to other things before...” Abacus trailed off. Girder seemed like she was about to draw a breath to speak, but Hailer cut her off.
“We will adapt, and serve,” she said, simply. The others nodded in unison. Abacus, not reassured, went on to a different, perhaps less unpopular topic.
“Well, that's good, I mean we can do whatever we want if we work together, like, I mean, we should probably sort out the fact the territory is a bit different, shouldn't we?”
“Labour is at a standstill,” Superstructure said by way of agreement. “We will need to radically overhaul our socio-industrial schemata if we are to exploit new means of production.”
“Yes, that,” Abacus replied underwhelmingly. “So, I propose we each go away and brainstorm new ways to make the economy work, I don't know, like changing to an agrarian base? Anyway, whatever ideas, then we can bring them to a consensus, and pick whatever one we like best. All the people. Sound good?”
“We serve, Comrade,” Hailer replied. “And perhaps, while we do so, you might want to take some time to re-familiarise yourself with Valve's files, you will find his information, and ideas, probably very helpful in your new role.”
Abacus nodded, and the Hegemonic Engineers nodded back in unison once again, before turning on their heels and departing.
Once they were gone, Abacus collapsed onto the chair.
He could not do this.
He pinched his brow again. His headache was getting worse, and he'd learned enough to know that, for him, headaches meant incidents.
Is he trying to come back? To run this place properly?
Abacus' heart raced. The idea of waking up and just not being him any more, of being tossed aside for no longer being of use, had haunted him for much of his short existence, and whilst he knew he had little natural right to the life he had been handed from nowhere, he had no desire to give it up now.
What if he's watching? Assessing?
Abacus looked around at the shelves upon shelves of papers, heaving quick and shallow breaths, interrogating them with his eyes as though they held the answers to his fears.
“What would you do?” he demanded aloud of the silent office. “How would you deal with this? Well, come on, I know exactly how you deal with things you can't manage. You give up, and leave, and let somebody else do the jo-”
Abacus' mouth stopped, open, mid-word. He'd had an excellent idea.
First, he shaped a mirror. It resembled one he'd seen in the Nexus, so no doubt it was unacceptably Valtarian in design, but it did the job. After some time staring at himself in it, he brought the shaping power he'd felt in the Nexus to his fingertips, and began to paint upon the air. After nearly an hour of painstaking work, he'd built a perfect replica of his own form; face, build, clothes, everything. Abacus raised his left arm, and the simulacra raised its in response.
“Hello,” Abacus said, experimentally.
“Hello,” it replied, identically, tone for tone.
“Hello, you are an Apparition,” Abacus began to explain. “Your function is to assist this territory and its people.”
“I understand. How is that achieved?”
“You have paperwork here explaining how, but also, you should interact with the people. Let them govern things, by consensus between themselves, just... be there. Be the person they expect you do be, follow their lead. And if they need anything Shaped, bring the requests to me and I'll fulfill them.”
“Very good,” it replied.
“But... now here's the thing. I don't exist. I mean, my existence is a secret. As far as everybody else is concerned, you are Abacus, me, and you're the one doing all the Shaping. Understood?”
“I understand. Shall I commence with the execution of my function?”
“Oh, yes please do,” Abacus replied, and at once, the simulacrum picked up the nearest file and began to read its contents. Abacus moved across to the single window, and stared out towards the blue distance. He formed a single wish in his mind...
..and there he was, out in the ocean, suddenly in the form of a young seal, swimming through the cool water, his headache quite gone. It was wonderful.