Outworld/Zenon 8 Business Park
Author: Thoughtful Spider
Thoughtful Spider stepped out of the shadows and into the Board Room of Executive Boot Camp 15G.
There was a door, of course, but there was also image to consider.
Sitting in the chair at the head of the table, he poured a drink from a nearby spider. As his implants engaged with his terminal, his psychitecture began to fill in the tactical analysis on the Shapers active on this side of the breach.
Spider steepled his fingers and silently watched the inhabitants of the room, as they pored through the data coming from the receiver at the centre of the table, or gathered around a spider for a mandatory social break.
He wondered where they slept.
The inhabitants interrogated Spider's thoughts, the probes asked what the key threats were to the Project Deliverables
Spider's mind went instantly to the Weaver. Their fight had been an ineffective waste of resources; while Orb Weaver had been left defeated and hexed, he was still an active rogue asset. Worse, Spider had invited the Walker to face him again.
Another operative might – should – attempt to eliminate him on sight.
MINE. The word filled his mind.
Thoughtful Spider took a deep breath and disconnected from the terminal. That was enough for today. He instructed a nearby inhabitant to amend the report, noting Orb Weaver had been positively identified and any further interaction was to be escalated directly, exclusively, to Thoughtful Spider.
He stepped out into white corridors, which hadn't been there before.
'You want to change your look? But, darling, it's so iconic!'
'The world engine systems attempted to identify me as a member of the Penitent Order. In other assignments, this could potentially be beneficial, however given my current position as the sole Protean Dynamic representative, brand confusion should be avoided.'
'But do you really want to add more colour? I always felt that your vibe was red and black, just two colours, darling, down at the essence of Spider!'
'I have noticed that the inhabitants of Opportunity Noxx do not engage well with my 'vibe', it would be better to responsively redesign my appearance to fit with the Joy Effect sensibilities of the majority of the stakeholders within the realm.'
'Spider? Are you worried that people don't like you?'
'It is a rebranding exercise'
'If you say so, darling, by the way, are the glass rooms new?'
Walking the streets, he found himself impressed by Joy Effect. They were clever, imaginative, irresponsible, untrustworthy, extrovert.
In other words they were some of the best Opportunities available.
It was obvious where the other shapers lived; their towers dominated the skyline of the city, the surrounding territories brightly lit, sounds being brought on the winds of the constant parties.
Here, out towards the edges, reality warped slightly. Spider hypothesised that it was the fluctuating nature of the world that had, thus far, prevented the realms from running out of food. Would that continue after the world engines shut down for the final time?
When he returned to the Nidus, Spider requested an analysis on how long it would take for food riots to break out in Outworld.
Thoughtful Spider looked up as a picture of a smiling Coffeespider was placed in front of him.
The employee was Joy Effect, some of the others Shapers had sent their inhabitants to help in Spider's realm. At least he assumed they had. The inhabitants in whites and pastel orange certainly didn't look like Spider's employees.
Spider nodded approval at the new logo design, the mortal beamed and scampered away.
The other inhabitants in the Nidus pored through the data coming from the receiver at the centre of the table - mostly stock orders, but the occasional piece of intel - or gathered around a spider for a mandatory social break.
Thoughtful Spider stepped into the light of Franchise Centre Eight.
Authors: By My Crooked Teeth and Thoughtful Spider
Location: Franchise Centre 8
Local time: Approximately Lunch Time.
As far as Crooked saw things there were only two things to consider, the lie everyone tells and the truth that is hidden. The trick was working out which was more important and to whom. Franchise Centre 8 was quite frankly a fantastic lie. It was sleek and beautiful, ultra modern with white walls and floors that were kept suspiciously clean, shops of all sorts that sold anything and everything you could want, or think you could want, or that you didn’t realise you wanted until they convinced you otherwise. It was clever, it was relaxing and it of course was very open about its deceptions.
It had all the modern mod-cons, air conditioning, soothing but unintrusive background music, a food court and of course no windows so you forget how long you’ve been in there. Crooked was window shopping at Spider's Silks. “Perfect from the boardroom to the bedroom”. He was admiring what was dubbed a “commanding” clothing line when he noticed the first set of listening devices, cleverly hidden in the palm of a display manakin. Once he knew it was there he started making a game of it. Seeing how many would be in each store and where. Identifying blind spots in the cameras (not as many as he would have thought, good for them). He clocked about seventeen in Violet’s Vivacious Vegetarian Venders; who supplied produce from the Amethyst Tower. The cleverest was attached to a ceiling fan in the centre of the room. He laughed at noting a microphone inside another microphone out for ‘display’ (free to use for five credits).
He saw people of all sorts trying on the wears not realising that they were being watched. Or they did and they just enjoyed the drama of getting caught by someone else. He started sorting those who were aware of the surroundings into two different categories, those who were quiet around the cameras and those who started talking about anything outlandish for a laugh. Crooked noticed the cybernetically enhanced security operatives that made regular patrols around the complex. To keep his mind busy he started trying to work out what enhancements they had, what their rotations were and how quickly he could take a couple down if he had to. Not that he was going to do anything about it but it was better than doing the crossword - cheaper too.
He checked his pocket watch and wondered how long it would take before he was noticed by the owner of the establishment and what his reaction would be.
In a control room of the nidus, Graceful Coati stood on a dais in the centre of the room and relayed instructions to her subordinate staff. The left side of her blue hair had been cut short; fashion-forward and it allowed the wires of the monitoring equipment better access to her cranial implant.
From here, she was able to see and hear through every monitoring device in her sector of Franchise Centre 8. It was a rarefied role, even among security personnel, requiring years of training, multiple rounds of promotion, and upgrades which cost enough to make a margin driver blush. Coati was rightly proud of the position, confident that she might see a promotion to an executive role in the next few years, but she really hoped for a secondment into one of the teams that monitored the wider Opportunity metropolis.
Not that they officially existed, of course.
She needed to catch something major, something that would get the eye of the SMT, something that singled her out as taking initiative beyond her job spec.
The majority of clients in the mall were Joy Effect, but the same could be said of anywhere in Opportunity Noxx. She noted a lot of regulars, fresh from another after-party at the Silver Cross and making use of the REM pods to ensure they were fresh before the after-after- party at The Underworld. She’d seen some of them go back and forth for days at a time. One minor celebrity, so the rumours said, had an agreement with the management to only use REM pods for at least 6 months.
In amongst all that colour, a figure dressed in black stood out. Not that he was trying to be especially subtle, he seemed to be idly walking through the mall, observing the clients, and the wares.
“Security Team Haas-Six, please proceed to sector FF-G an-” Coati trailed off as the customer made eye contact with her, then again a moment later, and again a moment after that; he was staring directly at her cameras. She reviewed the footage she had of him, and made note of the pistol and kukri casually slung on his belt; within easy reach, but he wasn’t making ready to draw them. A sense of recognition began to worry her.
“Central? Please confirm” came the voice the leader of Haas-Six
“Obliging Wolf, please proceed to FF-G and angle your external camera towards the client whose profile I’m sending you. Do not engage”
A few moments later, footage from the security team showed the customer looking at the security team. His gaze was analytical and unconcerned, and from this angle she could see the large keyring slung on his belt alongside the weaponry. She realised where she had seen him before.
Crooked smirked at the subtle increase of security observation. “You’re getting slow Spider.” he muttered to himself, well… mostly himself. “No that isn’t fair. The response time is pretty good, it would be faster if i shot up the place but why would I want to do that?” he shook his head. He looked up at one of the cameras, “I hope you aren’t bored.”
Coati’s first instinct was to put the Centre into immediate lockdown, but if she was right then a full security alert would do little to stop a shaper. Worse, it might risk bad publicity resulting in a net loss for the quarter.
Coati took a breath and brought up the executive directory; this was going to need to be sent up to a higher power.
Thoughtful Spider sat behind his desk, reviewing his files. His staff could never truly understand the Nexus, but once he had explained that he could produce bleeding edge deliverables, they had been able to propose a number of innovations that he could take to the “Executive Shaping Team”.
The security holophone on his desk flashed once and Spider answered it with a gesture. Graceful Coati’s face hovered a few inches above his desk.
“Chief Executive, sir, we have identified the shaper By My Crooked Teeth within the campus, sector FF” Alongside Coati’s hologram, holovid footage of Crooked appeared.
“He’s armed, sir, but he just seems to be… window shopping. Mostly our security setup”
“That fits his profile, you’ll need to rotate your camera placements early. Has he had any interactions with any personnel or clients?” Spider knew that Crooked was dangerous with his weapons, but that threat assessment increased significantly if he was allowed to speak to someone. One just had to look at the situation with At Dawn and At Dusk to see that.
“No, sir, he’s just waiting. For you, I think.”
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, operative, forward the case file on to me and I’ll take ownership.”
Coati nodded at the order and ceased transmission as Spider stood up from his desk.
It was probably time to take lunch.
Crooked walked away from the guards and up to a random customer; a Protean Dynamics operative on their day off if the tailoring was anything to go by. “Excuse me? Can you help me I’m looking for the food court?”
The customer pointed over their shoulder to the massive, very obvious food court about sixty feet away. “Erm over there.”
“Thank you. Oh! One more thing.” He leaned in closer, “Could you do me a massive favour and look a bit troubled and walk away quickly?”
Out of the corner of his eyes Crooked saw the guards tense at the same time as his unwitting associate took a step back, confused. The corners of Crooked’s mouth quirked into an amused smirk until he realised that the customer was looking over his shoulder.
Was that onions he could smell?
He looked over his shoulder, to find Thoughtful Spider looming behind him. Not aggressively, Crooked had long since realised that Spider was one of nature’s loomers - maybe it was part of the ProDyne induction. The effect was somewhat hindered by Spider biting into a hot dog. He proffered a second towards Crooked.
“Apologies for the wait, but you seemed to be quite comfortable browsing, and we attempt to ensure our operatives are as unobtrusive as possible.” Crooked chuckled, “Certainly not Spider. I like to have a look around first. I love the surveillance by the way, the one in the microphone was entertaining.” he took the hot dog, “Thank you.”
“Individual security managers are responsible for the layout of surveillance, but I’ll be sure to pass on the positive feedback.” Spider made a hand gesture and the nearby guards visibly relaxed and carried on their rounds. Crooked allowed himself to be led towards a bench in one of the blind spots he had noticed earlier.
“I am curious, are there blind spots because of natural holes in your security system or because you feel like it? Shapers can make anything. So one has to wonder if you are giving shoplifters a fighting chance?”
“It’s part of a joint talent-management scheme with Ten Count’s School. Failing sophomores can get extra credit for extracting key supplies without being detected; I agreed to add in a few blind spots to test their observation skills. There’s enough security footfall to keep them broadly secure, but enough to give the occasional window”
“This one, however,” Continued Spider as he sat down “Is where I take my lunch”
“Somewhere you can see your creation without being watched I assume?” Crooked blew on his hot dog.
“Precisely, spend a decade doing recon and people watching becomes a pastime.”
“Ain’t that the truth? Being an Archivist, watching people is most of what I do. To see outside the regular flow of events. It is soothing don’t you think? It give you perspective.” Crooked shrugged leaning back on the bench and started watching the flow of people.
“Though I use perspective to advance objectives, you’ve always struck me as more after-action reporting” Spider said, and took a bite of his hot dog
“Common misconception. My primary role is explaining what happened but my job is a little more complicated than that.”
“Yes, I saw reports about your clean-up operation back on Homeworld. Our analysts were certain that of all known former Concord assets, you wouldn’t go through the breach. The working hypothesis was that the war had broken you.”
Crooked laughed, “I am flattered that your people took so much of an interest. Though your analysts could do with a little work. They were very off.”
“We never really had psychetecture profiles for Sublime Concord members. Or Shapers in general. And the last Civil War within the Visions was centuries ago when we incorporated the final government as a Limited Liability Company. They had nothing to compare you to.”
“So what did they have on me? I am curious what else they got wrong.”
Spider took a bite and chewed on his hot dog for a moment or two. From the slight tilt of his head, Crooked guessed his was trying to remember, though perhaps he was bringing up a report behind his glasses.
“They had you identified as a limited proficient combatant, possibly a pacifist or conscientious objector. They’d identified a number of identities you’d used in the Opportunity Metropolis; Locke in particular had been previously flagged as suspicious, even by Driver standards. The sticking point was the executive Concord analysts were working on hypothesis and rumour; we didn’t know what your project deliverables were, so couldn’t connect them to what few actions we could identify. And when the Concord ceased as an active concern, we found out that you didn’t know what you were trying for either, which invalidated most of our theories.”
Crooked started laughing, “They thought I was a pacifist? Really? That’s rich.” He shook his head. “We knew what we were working towards. It was the how that we didn’t know about.” Spider placed his empty hot dog wrapper in a bin next to the bench. He steepled his fingers and looked at his companion “You were all mission statement, no business plan. Centuries of investment for the worst return possible. In some ways it was impressive, the longest any pyramid scheme works in the Visions is a decade at the most.
Crooked snorted, “Too many business plans actually and an upper management who were not willing to commit to the hard sell, leaving the members of staff destitute without pension. Though to give you a bit of advice, I wouldn’t say that to some of my fellows. They might take it a lot worse than I would. The past is the past, learn or be crushed. The Masters were wrong. They were cowards who abandoned the people they were supposed to protect. But I can’t go back to where I came from. The only way is forward.”
“Which is why you abandoned the people you were supposed to protect and did exactly what your masters were trying to do? After your clean-up job, of course”
Crooked turned to face Spider with a calm expression, “And which people were those? Everyone I was meant to protect is dead. Archivists tend to the dead, not the living. Please elaborate Thoughtful Spider if you would?”
“You’re not only an Archivist, you were one of the Abettors” Spider replied, his voice equally composed. “Even if your personal spec was to tend to the dead, you made a decision to sit on the sidelines while your society crumbled in front of you. If you had living people you wanted to protect who died during the resulting insolvency, you certainly didn’t take ownership of that task.”
Crooked’s face twitched slightly but that was the only sign of a reaction “I had my reasons, maybe one day I will tell them to you. I have pissed you off haven’t I Spider?” Crooked exhaled, he seemed to relax a little. “Sorry about that.Truly, I was out of line.” Crooked offered his hand.
Spider shook it, “I don’t appreciate you coming into my territory and causing disturbances for my operatives and clients. Petitioners aren’t equipped to deal with shapers at the best of times, much less when they’re just trying to do their jobs.”
Spider looked Crooked up and down in estimation.
“That said” Spider continued, “Should you find yourself nearby around this time again, I’m open to further lunch meetings.”
Over the weeks and months, the Visionary and the Penitent would meet at the bench in the blind spot of Franchise Centre 8 and talk. Occasionally they would talk around each other for an hour, as one tried to coax information from the other. At other times, one would volunteer classified information with no prompting at all.
“I still don’t believe that was you” Said Thoughtful Spider flatly one afternoon, taking a sip of a lurid green smoothie, “You know that nearly started a price war, not to mention the damage to the hab-block”.
By My Crooked Teeth had gotten pretty good at spotting hidden truths in Spider’s facade, and could see the hint of a smile in the eyes half-hidden behind dark glass.
“Well, all history is subjective, I suppose” replied Crooked, standing and discarding a napkin in the nearby bin “Besides, it increased profits by a considerable margin, and they had to replace that hideous statue, which was a small gift to prosperity in itself. Anyway, same time next week?”
“I look forward to it” said Spider, who stood, walked into a gaggle of shoppers and was gone in an instant.
Thoughtful Spider stepped into a room in the Nidus, in which an operative sat behind a desk, scrubbing through security footage.
“Good afternoon, Mister Spider” said the operative “how was lunch?”
“Very pleasant” Replied Spider, removing a button from his cloak and laying it down between them. “Log any important information and cross reference it, see if any of it can be verified.”
“Of course, sir” Said Graceful Conti, the Shaper observation analyst, who didn’t technically exist.
Suits you, Comrade!
Authors: Thoughful Spider and Liberator Dynamics
Just Fix It was not having the best of days. Despite opening up several additional cashiers, the crowd that had flooded the designer hardware store wasn’t dispersing for the simple reason that only one person there was buying something. Or, more accurately, trying to buy something.
“Sir, I’m not sure I can accept payment that I literally saw you fabricate out of thin air,” the increasingly desperate cashier protested, “particularly since you previously tried to pay for this screwdriver in gold coins I also saw you fabricate out of thin air before I explained the concept of legal tender to you.”
“But it’s money,” Liberator Dynamics said, with a number of notes in his gloved hand, “this is how your whole ‘capitalism’ thing works, right?”
“Yes, but sir-”
“Comrade Sir, I’m not sure… could you please wait for my manager?”
“I shouldn’t worry about your manager, operative” the voice was suddenly behind Dynamics, “this client is being escalated to me directly”
Conflicting emotions danced across the cashier’s face, as they attempted to work out if the situation had improved or just got a lot worse. Dynamics turned to face...
“Spider!” Dynamics’ voice carried surprise, “I thought I might see you around here, well given it's your territory I suppose that was more likely…” his hands hastily tried to hide what he was trying to purchase, “How's Capitalism?”
Behind his glasses, Thoughtful Spider looked the Liberator up and down. “Clearly doing very well, after all even Combine are looking to engage with it.”
Spider looked around casually, almost as if seeing the shop for the first time, he couldn’t remember seeing plans for a hardware shop in his realm. Perhaps The Void’s traders had set it up as an outlet.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you chose some familiar surroundings for your first purchase,” continued Spider, “A tool shop must seem a very vanilla way of entering into the marketplace for a Liberator. What are you buying, anyway?”
“I was…” Dynamics fished for an excuse while fumbling to hide the product behind his back, “I was just looking for… looking to see what Opportunity’s… available… screwdrivers… um…”
The cashier, tired of dealing with this client, interjected, “He came in looking for a present for a Heartisan, but evidently has no idea what he’s doing.”
The purple-handled screwdriver clattered to the floor in its packaging, as conformation, and Dynamics’s face turned slightly red, “...or that.”
Spider watched as the screwdriver rolled in his direction and came to a stop against his feet. He bent down and picked it up, turning and examining the tool, his eyes wide behind his sunglasses.
“You were going to buy Desiderata Violet a screwdriver?” Said Spider, haltingly, stating the obvious in an attempt to find something - anything - diplomatic to say.
“To your credit, it could be worse. It’s not a gift card… or flowers from Violet’s own building.”
“You knew about that?”
Everyone in Opportunity knows about that, thought Spider, do you realise how many Exposeurs and other operatives spend their time watching our front doors?
“Dynamics, I want to help you.” said Spider, changing the subject, “I would be happy to act as your personal shopper for the day, I’m sure together we can come up with a gift deserving of Desiderata!”
“That’s very kind, Comrade Spider,” said Dynamics, taking a nervous step back “but… ah! I must be getting on, besides I’ve not got any money to pay for anything, much less your services”
“Think nothing of it, Dynamics” replied Spider, as he guided the young Liberator to the door “This is great publicity, you’re one of the premier liberators of the Combine, engaging in a relationship with a star heartisan. You’ve got the looks, the name, the connections, consider this on credit”
Spider paused by the door, as if suddenly realising something.
“Excuse me one moment, Dynamics, I need to return your first attempt to my operative”
Spider walked quickly to the cashier, handed over the screwdriver. As the petitioner took it, Spider leaned in and whispered.
“I want that entire line rebranded as ‘Liberator Dynamics’ Choice; better than the Combine’s own tools’, with a 75% mark up.”
The cashier smiled broadly and nodded. Spider walked back towards the door and the waiting Dynamics; this was going to be fun.
Spider steepled his fingers in front of him as he walked and Dynamics followed him through the corridors of Franchise Centre 8. The two shapers drew stares from the crowd of Visionary petitioners. The Liberator’s eyes were darting around from shop front to shop front. On display was everything imaginable, the sort of selection that would make an Opportunist giddy with choice, but all seemed so impractical. You couldn’t mount a missile pod on a fascinator…
“So, er, Comrade,” Dynamics started, “what, er, exactly, hypothetically, would be a good present? I was going for something Violet probably needs, because, well, she does appear to have good access to… um… everything.”
“Need is a subjective and ever-changing concept within the Visions,” Answered Spider “Even those tools you were browsing will have been more for show than utility”
Back on Homeworld, ProDyne analysts had concluded that the average DIY hobby in the Opportunity Metropolis lasted just long enough for the practitioner to buy all the fanciest tools - plus wardrobe to match - and to put a hole in their wall attempting to hang a picture with a power saw. Not that the tools ever got returned. Aside from the difficulties navigating Protean return policies, the tools (and the holes caused by them) often became a conversation piece.
“I’d recommend going for something that complements Desiderata’s style; she received thousands of gifts back on Homeworld, including tools she could have used day to day, but none of those were subsequently seen with her. The holorazzis assigned to her believed she had a mythical present room where it was all kept”
“And did she?” Dynamics paled a little at the idea of competing with thousands of gifts.
Spider shrugged “She had an incinerator. Desiderata Violet’s wouldn’t let anyone else impose themself on her style; you need to fit into it, not put something on top of it”
“Her style,” the Liberator pondered for a moment then smiled, “so we’re talking purple or white then I take it?”
He glanced at the assorted windows before pointing at a particularly awful sparkly purple hat in the window of a boutique simply, and grammatically confusingly, named Azures. “What about that?”
Spider steered Dynamics away from that window, “Try to imagine Violet wearing that hat. Or anything that… glittery,” he paused as the confusion on Dynamics’s face said it all, “it’s not really something she’d want, is it?”
“I suppose not, Comrade,” Dynamics said, his eyes roaming the windows again.
“Think of what will look good on her,” Spider said, “something she would actually wear.”
A lightbulb came on in Dynamics’s head, “Ooh, do you sell goggles? We got her wearing a pair at the last Nexus and she looked pretty cute- er, I mean, they didn’t, not… didn’t not look awful, they weren’t bad… I quite liked…” Once again the Liberator’s face went closer to the colour of his coat, “maybe not goggles.”
“Goggles as maybe a fourth date gifting solution, and we’ll gloss the suggestion of lingerie.” said Spider, who had noted a few passing Heartisans point at Dynamics’ deep blush and take notes. Spider didn’t make special attempts to conform to fashion, but it pleased him to know that red would be in next season.
Spider turned around, suddenly aware that Dynamics was no longer walking beside him. The liberator was still, staring into a shop window. Spider wondered if his last suggestion had broken his client, when Dynamics straightened up and strode in.
“What about gifts that mean something?” Dynamics asked Spider as he followed, his eyes fixed forward, “like flowers and chocolate suggest… well, apparently, romance, and yes I can guess what lingerie would suggest.”
Dynamics walked up to a display rack, reached out and unhooked an item, turning to show his selection to Spider, with certainty that had not previously been there. The sight of a Shaper from the Combine was drawing the gazes of the clientele in the shop, and a number of onlookers joined Spider in looking at the product in Dynamics’ hands with approving murmurs.
“So, how about these?