To Each His Own
The last time Agent 67 was here, it was a road in Kuala Lumpur. Now it was meant to be nowhere at all. That didn't mean dull, flat edges looming large like a streamlined city built in a day. That was never their style. Their goal was to disorient, and that meant making something akin to San Francisco, Delaware. The 1920s were creeping around the corner while the '50s, '60s and '70s ganged up on the '80s. The city they'd crafted had so many crisscrossing styles that it was everywhere all at once.
For a sliver of a second, Agent 67 wondered where they got the people for these things, but then the training took over. First, she looked up to see that there wasn't a clock. She registered it, and tucked the emotion of hating the lack of a time limit into the basement of her brain. No clock meant that the goal was far more difficult. But then, this was the final test, so that part was clear enough, wasn't it?
Her first few steps created a snare smack against thick cobblestones. She took a breath and kept her eyes open.
Even without the clock, she took a strolling pace, taking in the canopied store fronts to her left, the hand-me-down church to her right. Someone had taken a pocket knife to the wooden mouth of the sanctuary, and when she got closer, she made out the words: Optimus Res. She turned on her heels, noting that she'd snagged more points for leaving her gun holstered.
She stood silently for the next ten minutes until a man in a dark, ragged cloak that looked like it was made out of rat skins approached her.
"What's the password?" he croaked.
"Is that what I'm looking for?"
"What's the password?"
Another ten minutes went by.
The man's eyes were cloudy like a forgotten dream. He closed them and held out a pair of dice sitting on a small piece of paper that Agent 67 took without hesitation. With his hand relieved of its burden, he pointed to the doors of the church which had begun to peel back, revealing the gaping maw of their path.
Agent 67 did her four-minute mile up the alternating wooden and plastic stairs. At the top of the bell tower, she found a harsh wind and another piece of paper nailed into the stone ledge. The arrow drawn on it in thick, black ink was too clear to be without consequence. The sight as she stared down was of her own body breaking against the street that stretched out toward the town square. She could almost feel the freedom of floating through gravity and slamming into eternity.
She took as much air into her lungs as they'd allow, like a drunk sucking down the final drops of whiskey before the locked doors of last call. Closing her eyes, she jumped with both feet off the ledge, falling for less than a second, and landing impossibly on the ground just a few feet below.
They'd used forced perspective once before, but they'd truly outdone themselves this time. The fake wind was a nice touch. The man in the rat skin coat smiled, but Agent 67 couldn't tell if he was happy with her or with the power of the illusion. Even if she was pleased with herself, she couldn't smile yet. There were still too many miles to go.
The piece of paper that the rat man had given her now found itself tucked into her pocket like a bedtime prayer. She'd read the words on it: Ut Sulum Suus Solo. She'd always hated Latin. Agent 67 took up a brisker pace now toward the center of town. The danger was more acute here. The streets were creeping with people. The web was full of spiders, and any one of them could take her head right off her shoulders at any time.
Every other exercise had used paint bullets, but if she got tagged here, she might as well have her throat cut. Losing this job would mean the end of everything she knew and hoped for. Everything she'd worked for during the last decade. All lost. She wondered how many people killed themselves after washing out. She'd heard the number was high, but that might have been another one of their motivational techniques. Or not. Deciphering their intentions was almost as hard as Latin.
All of the little spiders came into focus. Fourteen businessmen hustling back and forth between buildings. Twenty-three women pushing baby carts. Nine children playing with a ball. One nearly naked soul shaking at the base of the fountain.
"Sir?" she took the initiative this time. She couldn't imagine losing points for speeding things up.
"Evolve they said when they said what they said what the business is your business is my business is the line of business your mind in mine in mind keep in mind in mind business alone your business my business is mine is mind...."
"Ut Sulum Suus Solo," she spoke, digging into the homeless Sphinx's eyes.
"...your business what business is mine of mind of mine of mind..."
She still hadn't blinked or drawn her weapon since starting the exercise. She felt the heat finally, and, fearing demerits, was physically willing herself not to sweat.
If she had felt comfortable doing it, she would have smiled when it hit her. Two birds with one coat. She slid her arms out of her jacket and gave it to the writhing man on the ground who had replaced most of his words with spit by then. He lifted his head when the coat hit his flesh. Wrapped in it, he stood up and frantically searched in his pack for something worthy to trade.
She didn't dare bite into the stale crag of bread, but the paper she'd found inside after ripping it open came in handy. The words on it didn't help, but they were a sign she was on the right path. Or at least a path. For all she knew she was heading down the rabbit hole so far that she'd fall right through the earth, but her only course of action was to keep pressing forward.
She looked down at the paper a second time, almost assuredly losing points in doing so: Shoo Bop Bop Bop Bop.
She missed Latin.
On the road past the town square, she found herself alone with a distant siren whining and the temperature dropping fast. They spared no expense for these things.
There were doors to investigate and new paths to go down, but her gut told her to see how far they took the road this time. She wanted to see if it would end.
Half an hour later, she still couldn't see an edge. She kept going. Another mile couldn't hurt. After all, there was no countdown keeping tabs on her.
Another mile down.
And she was there.
For all they had done to make the world seem authentic, they'd left the end unfinished. The dead end of brick and mortar seemed too obvious. She felt like they might be behind the wall listening and watching right now, and all she had to do was push through the lazily painted, makeshift door to find them there with balloons, champagne and her first paycheck.
She tossed the thought aside. Agent 67 was too close to the finish line to start clouding her mind with a view from the podium. It was thoughts like those that got Agent 64 kicked out during week 119.
She beat the pavement steadily, showing no sense of stalling or stopping to collect herself. Pressing through the cheap door, she first saw the lights, then the woman, then the chair they'd strapped her to.
The door, which had been much heavier than she'd anticipated slammed shut in its steel frame behind her, and the only thing left was a spot illuminating the feminine form in the seat. She was the star. The Madonna. The halo kept her safe and warm.
"You did it, darling," the voice slow and sweet said through a tear that was forming.
"Don't worry. I don't think questions can hurt you now," she sat still. "And you didn't even take out your gun once. I'm so proud of you."
A small planet could have crashed into Agent 67, and it would have made less of an impact. She only heard one word in the statement.
She pulled her gun from its holster and held it the way she'd been trained. Her mother's tear finally escaped the prison of her eye and started making the long journey down her cheek.
"Ut Sulum Suus Solo," her mother tried to show her teeth through it, but another tear fell. No matter how they found the other living elements of the exercise, here was one they couldn't control. In a fake town built of stoicism and day labor, here was a sparkling well of emotion ready to overflow and drown Agent 67. Maybe that was the point. Maybe it wasn't.
She took the safety off.
There was a solidarity and a code. One had to be shut off from the world. One had to be complete in one's self. One couldn't have attachments beyond a fingertip's length, and that length needed to be glued to the trigger of a cold standard issue and a pulse that never wavered.
Her mother betrayed the world's smallest smile - a signal that what Agent 67 was planning was correct. A sacrifice.
"I love you, mom."
The blast and bullet echoed into the endless darkness. They weren't playing with paint anymore. Her mother, and the chair she was strapped into, fell back and slammed into the ground, causing one of the legs to buckle. The blood started to pool when the lights came on - revealing a door too normal-looking to stand in the room where a daughter murdered the woman who gave birth to her.
She couldn't stop now. Not with it already over. She opened the door and crossed the finish line.
The table could have been purchased at any outlet store. The piece of paper looked like it had been taken off a stack from every office building in the country.
She lifted it, folded it back, and fell to her knees: Thank you, but your services are not needed at this time.
The vomit came quick. Getting back onto her feet didn't. They must have accounted for that sort of thing, but after ten minutes, a young man in a sharp suit entered the room.
"Applicant 67, we need to get you moving now. There's another applicant already in the town square. Just to be safe, you know. You can't come into contact with each other during the exercise."
She did. The instincts were now an invisible whip crack that she had no use for.
"Better. Now get moving. This way."
He put his hand on her shoulder, but it wasn't an act of kindness or empathy. It seemed distant despite the contact. They walked down the length of the room and turned down into a large hallway that took them to another door in the underground system she'd trained in. As they exited, she recognized the room on the other side as the applicant common area where they spent time getting to know each other and speculating on what would come next in the process. The room was empty now save for her and the man she'd never met before.
Since she didn't own anything, there was nothing to gather. The pair kept moving through the communal dining hall, down into the sub-basement, and through to the giant staircase that led up and out onto the street. She'd never been allowed into the stairwell until today.
The door closed behind the man, and they both stood before the first step.
"Confidentially," he said, causing her to turn. "You lost because you told your mother that you loved her. They just want the bullet. Not a Hallmark card."
Washout 67 swallowed hard, tasting battery acid and the rotten corpse of tomorrow. Her chest heaved, her face swelled and reddened, her arm felt solid. Her finger was still on the trigger.
She raised her gun up to his face, holding it close enough to kiss and mean it.
"I'm just a messenger, 67. A grunt. They'll have another grunt drag my body off, clean up the blood, and walk the next washout to the same spot ten minutes later. They won't miss me. And they won't miss you."
The shaking was uncontrollable. No amount of training could take over at this point, and her mind flew back in time over decades and years and hours and minutes. For reasons she'll never know, it landed on her mother dancing in their living room to an old 45. It was a floating harmony set to a disco beat that stuck in your head if you weren't careful.
Her mother smiled that full-toothed smile as her auburn hair whipped around to the same dance steps as her pale blue cotton dress. Something in her eyes begged for 67 to come join her, and she so desperately wanted to swing her pigtails around just like her mother did. The lyrics tore into the air without much effort.
...the best business...to mind your own business...I don't know what's best for you...and you don't know what's best for me...shoo bop bop bop bop...
She couldn't see through the tears, and even without them, the blood in her face made it difficult to concentrate on anything but the pain.
Time stopped. Silence took over. Her training was about to kick in on the man standing calmly in front of her, his apathy taunting her like the biggest kid on the playground.
She felt each vein constrict. The muscles in her arms sang symphonies on their own. Her wrist twitched. Her finger faltered.
She dropped the weapon, slid out the clip, and emptied the shells onto the ground. They rained down, making a shining sound like the wind chimes at her grandparent's farm.
She tossed the weapon down as well before turning on her heels and taking the first step up a staircase that seemed cruel.
The word was its own bullet through Agent 67. A bullet that magically stole straight through both her head and heart. She turned around.
"Congratulations. You passed."
She tilted her head like a newborn puppy.
"And, can I say, I'm really glad you did. They aren't messing around with fake bullets, and if you had failed..."
"What do you mean?"
"They don't care that you expressed love. What do you think you did with the homeless man? That was compassion, and they don't want you completely without it. They need to count on you to make difficult decisions, and sometimes those will mean not pulling the trigger when that's all you want to do. So, you passed. This was the last test."
She blinked twice.
"Can we get back to the main room? I'm sure they have things they want to go over, and Agent 01 will definitely want to meet you. I was watching from the monitoring lab, and you were racking up some record points."
"Oh, yeah, sure. Um, yes," she fumbled. "The main room. Of course."
"You know you were supposed to throw the dice off the ledge to see that it was safe before jumping, right?"
He smiled, opened the door again, and motioned for her to go ahead. The pair then made its way down the corridor toward the one last room in the compound she hadn't been allowed in until then. The heels snapped out snare smacks as they went.
"I'm sorry about your mother by the way."
A memory danced through her head.
"But welcome to The Company."
About the Author
Scott Beggs currently lives abroad with his beautiful wife, two dogs named after Tom Robbins characters and a cat named after a 20th century madman. When he's not making up things that aren't true, he writes about movies while moonlighting as Cole Abaius, managing editor of Film School Rejects.