Masks Issue 8 - As In a Vision Darkly [Cutscene]

The warehouse was cool and cavernous, nothing but the motion-activated working lights providing a cool LED glow at the emergency exits, the elevators, and wherever Jason walked to. In the daytime, translucent panels on the outward walls had their security screens rolled back to let in some natural light, but at night all was dark and, while safe, still shadowed. And, at 3 a.m., it was positively like a tomb. He was on the second floor of the A-Block warehouse, a multi-level building that rose five floors up, three floors below the surface. It would be easy to get lost amongst the giant vaulted chambers and their steel racks of crates, packs, armored security cubes, and pallets of shrouded materials, but signage, as always, was excellent. ("If you don't know where you are, how can you get anywhere?" Dad would say to visitors.) A giant "A-2" was painted on each of the four walls, floor arrows showed paths to key locations on each level, and the racks and pallet areas themselves were coded in a way to show building, level, and coordinates. She was here. Jason looked around. The stills and video snippets he'd reviewed of Alycia Chin -- going by the name Alice Chan, like she was teasing Quill security. She'd worked here for weeks, according to the records she hadn't bothered to erase. But why? What was she doing here? I have to know. There were three warehousing and storage buildings on the Quill campus here in Halcyon, nestled amongst the labs, testing areas, fabrication and manufacturing shops, garages, hangers, the Quill skyscraper (all of twenty stories, but still a visual symbol for Halcyon), the gardens, a gun range, a tennis court, an Olympic pool, a small bowling alley, a conference center, a day care, and the family quarters. Living here was like living in a city within a city, with housing and office space and parks and recreation and industrial zones, all writ small. A city within a city that was, inexorably, in decline. Not the Quill Foundation, or Quill Technologies, or a dozen other Quill firms that the business folk had put together. They were all quite healthy, at least in terms of bank accounts. From what Jason could see, they could probably never go broke, making investment and patent money faster than worthy causes could be found for it. But the heart of the campus had always been Dad. He made this place work, Jason mused. Tearing out old equipment, putting in new, a hundred different experiments at a time, new proceses, new technologies. Two years ago, these warehouses would have been busy even at night, let along bustling during the day. Now there were still manufacturing and fabrication processes going on, still some proprietary compounds being produced and shipped out, but nothing new. And most of the old, the stuff under patent, was contracted out to third party industrial manufacturers for their own uses, crafted in vast factories and plants that could do so far cheaper than a place designed for one-off experiments and prototypes.  Nowadays, the warehouses were -- Jason looked the large crate in front of it, barely visible through the sheathing of transparent tarp. The contents label, aside from the location information, was encoded on the sticker; a glance at his Q-phone showed it held archaeological artifacts from Costa Brava, on loan from the government there. They were flagged for Benton Quill's follow-up attention ... three months ago. More and more of the warehouse space was being used for simple storage, archives, mothballs, artifacts. Jason flashed on the closing scene of the first Indiana Jones movie, the one Rusty always got such a kick out of. This warehouse wasn't nearly as large as the one that the crate with the Ark of the Covenant was being stashed in, but it was large enough, and, like that warehouse, it was meant for stashing things away from the public, for locking up, for holding, until -- Until when? Jason wondered. Until Dad gets back? Or someone asks for it? Or the board of the Foundation decides to sell off some of the real estate? And makes that final decision about what to do with it all? Who would make sure that the crate of Costa Bravan artifacts was shipped out, but the experimental plasma pistols weren't? Jason imagined himself, an old man, puttering about the warehouse, having dedicated his life toward being guardian and custodian of the collection. He felt ill. Well, not like I'm likely to live that long. I don't know what happens to everything when I did. I haven't had the nerve to ask, and nobody knows enough to tell me. Amir gets it, I guess. If he wants it. Jason wondered if someone could abdicate from the Quill Family. * * * I'm getting morbid. That's not cool. It was easier to dwell on all of those problems than to do what he knew he needed to do next. That terrified him, even as it intrigued him. He somehow instictively knew the process, how to make it happen. It's what it would do to him that he was so scared of. He wouldn't do it if it weren't so important. Alycia. Daughter of his father's arch-nemesis. Self-declared nemesis herself. I looked the word up once. Nemesis was the Greek goddess of retribution -- punishment against people with hubris, pride and arrogance against the gods. Why had she been there. It couldn't have been just to steal something, or to cover up the theft. The EMPulsor had been taken, and the Quill people had finally tracked down how it had been done -- an internal purchase order written to ship it offsite. That was damned scary -- the EMPulsor (originally juryrigged by his dad on that tropical island with that howling invisible electricity creature) would scale from shutting down pacemaker at twenty feet to blacking out a city. If Alycia was going all Dr Chin, which apparently she was, who knew how she might use it. What it could do. Fry someone's brain? Blow out the power grid? Anything with electricity -- He paused. That made him think of something. He just couldn't call it to mind. Electricity -- Hannibal Lectric? Jason had originally thought the theft was to somehow communicate with Lectric from outside Freescott Prison, through electromagnetic pulses that only Lectric could "hear." That didn't seem right though -- and wasn't what he was wracking his brains for now. Jason shook his head with a violent jerk. You're distracting yourself. You need to do this. Stop delaying. Alycia Chin had covered the theft (or made the theft -- it was still unclear) with a counterfeited requisition that shipped the device to a PO Box across town. She'd done it in person, after working there for a month. He could hear the security chief, what's his name, Hoth, Thoth, something. "Background check on Alice Chan was totally normal. Eighteen months of trade school in Des Moines, all checked out. Good employee, good evals, team player, got the job done. Never showed up after that day, of course." Of course. But why had it taken her so long? Was the internal security that good? Was she reconnoitering? Did she even know what it was she was looking for? What else had she found? A security sweep hadn't found anything else missing ... but they hadn't spotted the EMPulsor immediately, either. Half the crates around him might be empty, for all he knew. Or they could have bombs inside of them. He'd had the computer security people run multiple sweeps as well. Nothing (else) was left in the computer system, aside from that one self-destructing message she'd left him. Tracking down paperwork (a dead end), looking at the automatic payroll deposits (they all went into an account that automatically routed the funds to Greenpeace -- Greenpeace!), looking at parking lot security footage (she always took the bus, but got off at stops that had no camera coverage) -- none of it had helped. But there was a month's worth of security camera footage, showing her activities in the warehouse, where she was active, what she was doing. There were computer logs that showed "Alice Chan"'s access and activities. Going through all that footage, looking at all those logs -- that was, literally, a full-time job for, well, a month. And the patterns, the truths behind it might not be obvious. But he could do more than that. And all it would do would cause him to die a little more. * * * He stood where she most often stood. A set of crates. A metal rack. A computer station with phone and coffee maker, for use by the floor manager or workers. Jason looked around at the internal security cameras about the room, on the ceiling, along the walls, mounted on the shelving racks.. They weren't actively manned right that moment -- if Alycia or anyone else chose to break in, the passive security systems would have to do the job. He didn't want any witnesses to -- well, whatever was about to happen. Slowly, almost delicately, the nanobots lifted away from his body. They were designed by Byron Quill as semi-intelligent, redeployable body armor, to protect him from harm. Jason had figured out how to use them for so much more, even though he'd discovered too late the neurological damage it was doing to him. Each time he drove the bots out a certain distance, forced them to do something too unusual, act too powerfully -- a bit of his consciousness, engaged with the bots, never really reconnected afterward. Sooner or later, he wouldn't come back. He thought of the AI holographic interface that walked and talked like his father, and the conversation he'd just had with him earlier that night. Jesus, Dad -- this stuff was included in Error Logs, and you didn't even think to tell me?  But, then, Byron Quill hadn't expected to get sucked into a dimensional rift opened up by Dr Achilles Chin a rift that doomed both men, and Rusty, and Chin's bodyguard. He'd already used the bots more than he should. It was going to kill him, or the next best thing, eventually. But Jason had made some interesting discoveries in the process, learned some instinctive ways of using the bots he'd never even dreamed of. And now, before he could hesitate or delay further, he let the nanobots, swirling about him like a black sandstorm, fling themselves out into the vast room about him. His vision blurred -- and pulled back like a spy satellite's point of view, as the nanobots touched every part of level A-2, tapping, caressing, embracing. Not covering -- the generation of that many bots would almost certainly kill him. But with everything in there stationary, he could use a much lower density to get an impossibly detailed three-dimensional image of the entire room, filter out further into adjoining floors, create a model within his mind of everything there. Silent. Waiting. There were no guards in the warehouse, either. He needed a blank canvas for this. The bots touched the security cameras, too, understanding their location, their perspectives to the overall mental model, then -- somehow -- tied into their feeds, wired and wireless, back to the host system, chasing down pathways of cable and routers and software and light, riffling through the files to just ... what ... he ... needed. Security footage -- silent but 1080p crisp. Computer logs, with a light touch on the systems to know what they tied into. And a 3D model of the warehouse in his head, focused on where Alycia spent the most time. Show time. * * * And there she is, reporting in the first day, jacket and jeans and OSHA-required steel-toed boots. Hair in a scarf, set of glasses, something in her makeup that kept her from recognizable, unless you knew her. Dad didn't believe in facial recognition technology. He said it was dubious given variety and lighting and the ease of changing faces and body outlines and posture. He also said that, even if it worked, it would be the greatest threat to freedom man had ever created. Even so, I don't know that any software would have spotted her. First day, briefings, stand-up meetings, introductions to the team. First days are hard, the first day at H. A. was hard, so many strangers, so many people staring, not being quite sure. Wow. These guys don't suck. They're showing her the ropes. Carl Washington, the warehouse manager, yup, open door policy, big handshake. Co-workers inviting her to lunch. Free lunch for workers in the cafeteria, even folk in the warehouse. Especially folk in the warehouse. A great bennie. Good thing, since she didn't pack anything to eat. Wish I could hear what they're saying. Ed -- Ed DeWitt, assistant manager, Warehouse A. He's doing some mentoring sessions, making sure she understands everything. She's actually -- smiling. That's ... creepy. No, it's not. Who --? You. Oh, this is just wrong. Probably some cognitive feedback in the system. An echo of consciousness. Parallel synapses firing. You've seen Alycia smile before. Not often. Antarctica. Once, at least. The Redwoods. Ayers Rock. That sunset in Kauaii. It was creepy then, too. Well, okay, it was unusual. But it was nice. She has a nice smile. When it isn't full of maniacal laughter. Well, yeah. So she's a good actress. Or she's appreciative of their help. Even bad guys are human? Even humans are human, whatever else they do. Do you think --? What? Never mind. Whatever. I'm you, so it's not like you should be embarrassed. This all feels like normal time. You've already gone through three days. Elapsed time real-world thirty seconds. She's checking that crate. She using that forklift. She's tying into the computer. All innocent. Hasn't done a thing. Ed's keeping an eye on her. Only to help, and he's backing off of that. He needs a raise. Noted in his file. Day 5. Who's that? Cosmos Jones. Dad? Of course not. Your father is dead. Then who -- the AI? I don't think so. Maybe a bit of bleed from the security system, but ... no. Then -- What does it mean when I tap my head like this? It's ... all in my head? I am the Ghost of Fathers Past, speaking to you out of your memory, as you perceive me. Great. And a sign that the cognitive schism is increasing. Oh, also great. Cosmos Jones, a design student -- What kind of a name is Cosmos? Cosmic? Don't ask me. I prefer classical names, myself. How do you know here? Was she here when you -- I'm not the memories of your father, I'm your memories of your father. You're tapped into the HR system. Simple query. Glad to see the Workday implementation went forward while I've been away. Dead. Dead, right. Why is she bringing Alycia cupcakes? Well, she actually brings everyone cupcakes. We're only watching Alycia. But Alycia's not eating hers. Suspicious, as always. Achilles Chin was pathologically paranoid. You sound like my Dad. You heard him say that four years ago. I don't remember. Well, yes, actually, you do. See, I'm tapping my head again. Right. And Ed again. Checking up on her. She doesn't seem to mind. Actually -- checking ... in. Not up. Security risk, and he doesn't even know it. Rusty? I'm not going to tap my head. You can figure it out, Jason. Right. Um ... I don't -- If you're going to go all psychoanalytical, kid, forget it. There's nobody here for you to really talk to except yourself. Hmm. We should really review that background checks. Process. Day 20 -- hey, she's eating a cupcake. And the Jones girl is smiling. Chin's good. What do you --? Infiltrating that way. Start off aloof, anti-social. If you're left alone you get ignored. It provides opportunities. She's been alone, but hasn't done anything. But if that doesn't work, then you let all the good cheer and helpfulness seem to wear you down, and break through to the "real you." Once you start to smile more, start eating the cupcakes, start laughing at the bad jokes, people don't suspect you if they atually do see you do something. Sat the computer again. Hasn't done anything there, either. All the queries have been broad inventory, part of the assignments she was given. Maybe that's why she was here so long, simply going passive, absorbing intel rather than hunting it down. Ed's spending a lot of time with her. Personnel jacket says he's high on empathy, mentoring, staff engagement. Touchy-feely stuff. He does the same with the other employees; like the cupcakes, we're just focused on Chin. And everyone's laughing again. The man tells some horribly bad jokes. Squeaky clean, but really funny. I'm laughing now, too. Rusty? You don't really want me in your head. Alycia? Because then you'll start to doubt whether it's your thoughts, or some sort of infiltration. Why are you here, Alycia. What are you doing? I seem to be getting along pretty well. Look, I've even telling a joke -- and they're laughing. It's -- weird. Yeah. Strange thing -- I never held down a job growing up. Yeah, me neither. I mean, handing my dad fuel cells to put in the sky cruiser, or walking patrol around the camp in Mongolia, those aren't really jobs. They're chores. Or washing the hover disk, or watching an experiment to make sure it doesn't boil over, or feeding the captive stegosaurus -- -- yeah. These guys walked me through everything. You saw. Yeah. They're trusting me. It's only been a month, and -- What's up with Ed? Last day. His wife, Jenyne -- with a "y" -- she's gone into labor. He's leaving? His wife in labor, Jason. Priorities What are you -- no, the computer queries are still coming back unsuspicious, and you're -- I'm covering for him. He could have gone to Carl, he probably would have let him off. But it would have been a hassle, and she just started labor, so the baby probably wasn't going to come before he went off shift that afternoon. So -- So I'm covering for him so he can leave early, doing his work. Updating the schedule for the next week with him out and Frieda having called in sick that morning. Making sure the forklifts are plugged in, the receipt system is updated with that morning's deliveries, the -- Who are you texting? I can't see. Ed, dummy. He's letting me know what's going on with Jenyne. You look worried. I -- Back at the computer. You're -- now you're finally looking up data about the EMPulsor, accessing the invoicing and shipment system. Yeah. Now you're doing it? It's -- the perfect moment. Short-handed, Ed's not around, plenty of time. There was plenty of time after Ed went out the door at a run. True. You spent hours watching, working, texting. Also true. Things are slowing down. You're coming to the end of the security footage. Feels -- strange. You're also reaching the end of your endurance. You're moving toward that spot again. This spot. Here in the warehouse. My plans are moving forward. I want to ask -- You don't have much time, Jason. You can ask a question, figure out something from all this, draw a conclusion, justify your sacrifice. But quickly. You must do it quickly. I -- want to ask -- A million questions. You can ask one. -- want to know why -- -- why I behaved this way? What I was feeling? Can I be redeemed? Can kindness and friendship cause me to drop this vendetta against you and your father's works? You're me. You're not the real Alycia. Do you know the difference any more, Jason? Yes! I know now what your father did. What my father -- Your father killed mine. That's why I'm doing all this. But go ahead, ask that question. Understand the villain. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? I want to -- Tell him, Rusty. The enemy's motivation doesn't matter half as much as his actions. Everyone's a hero in their own cause. If that cause is wrong, stop it, even they don't think they're evil fiends. Humans are humans, Rusty. Tell him, Byron. There's time enough for rehabilitation once a criminal is behind bars. Priorities, young man. Protect the public. Keep order. Advance humanity. I know, Dad. I -- know. Are you going to ask me about my feelings, Jason? No, Alycia, I know what I have to do. I need to take charge, and stop this. I need to be the hero. Not even if I make little sad puppy eyes, or am standing there hesitating before I press that final Enter key? Alycia, what's your plan? Why did you steal the EMPulsor. What are you really doing? Images, flashing all around me. I -- I can see it now. The dimensional portal that Dr Chin opened in DC. Power -- electricity. A massive, harnessed -- shearing of reality, through electromagnetism. He had -- -- a version of your EMPulsor, Dad. That's what she wants -- to recreate that experiment, that trap -- to get her father out of the other dimension -- Pennsylvania! The results of that simple search I was running nefore. A little town outside Philadelphia, people suffering from weird headaches, nose bleeds -- seismic activity -- sleep pattern disruption, meteorological -- shifts, ionospheric oscillations -- She's there! That's where she is! How she's doing it! Why she's doing it! Experimenting -- Oh my God. Harry. He talked about that electrical glove she had, the one that, with his speed -- sent Harry into another dimension , one with its own Quill Dragonfly jet in it. Did she know? Does she know? Was it intentional? I understand now. I see her plan, I see it! What she was doing here, where she is, why she's doing it -- I understand it all! The security footage is almost over. She's at the desk, standing there, submitting the last command for the delivery, the invoicing, all the tricks. Her finger reaches -- The key's pressed -- And she's turning -- -- looking at the camera -- -- looking at me -- -- shooting me with her finger -- -- and everything goes. Black. * * * Jason lay on the floor, arms to the side, legs crossed wide. His eyes stared toward the light, but he saw ... nothing but shadows above.
This is excellent.
About four times as long as I expected, but hella fun to write.
Doyce T.
Sheet Author
This is so great, and so beautifully aligns with some stuff I had in mind.
Doyce T. said: This is so great, and so beautifully aligns with some stuff I had in mind. Well, you get co-writing credit for the plot. :-) And I pulled in some themes that we've discussed before, so that make sense, too.
Getting a little meta (for those who are interested) ... Much of the length (if you remove some recap, and the actual Dark Vision bits) comes from thinking about how things are changing at the Quill campus, and why. The Quill family world is far more economically active than the inspirational Quest family world was (though this is also a more sophisticated take on the science adventurer / spark / super-genius scientist trope than the 1964 kinda-kids cartoon). How that all changes, what continues to run on, what begins to run down, parallels the economic fortunes of any number of companies once the founder dies or retires.  ( Statistically , "less than one third of family businesses survive the transition from first to second generation ownership. Another 50% don’t survive the transition from second to third generation.") I also riffed, emotionally, off of Asimov's Foundation; just as the Empire trundles along under (fading) inertia, public perception of the Quill empire is far more optimistic / nostalgic than the reality. Jason's eval of its fortunes is probably correct -- between patents and good investments, it's probably like the endowments of the Ford or Carnegie foundations, metastasizing under compound interest but divorced from their industrial roots. In a decade, barring any active business engagement by Jason (or Amir) or return to this world by Byron, yes, someone will decide that the Quill campus block in Halcyon is a white elephant and should be sold off for a very tidy sum. That does leave the question of what to do with all those crates of tech; some may be obsolete by then, but other stuff will remain dangerous for decades-to-centuries. Turn it over to AEGIS? (Will AEGIS allow a choice in the matter?) Jason's vision of himself trapped as a caretaker of the Quill estate for the rest of his life came to me in an unplotted flash, but he would have a hard time both emotionally and from a sense of duty to not take up a role like that -- bitterly hating every moment, but doing it to serve the greater good.  (This assumes there are not active forces inside the Quill business that are sucking it dry for their own purposes. There are bread crumbs that could  be happening, but it's not my preferred direction.) While Doyce developed the actual Dark Vision narrative, I was tickled to include a backstory to the EMPulsor that tied to one of my favorite JQ episodes, " The Invisible Monster " (probably a favorite because it riffed off, in turn, Forbidden Planet). I thought of doing the actual Dark Vision as a dialog with various characters showing up late in the writing, when I realized that narrating the vision would be relatively dull, but having Jason just talking to himself would be kind of weird. The idea of Jason talking to himself as translated through manifestations of people close to him came late in the writing. In retrospect, I'm a little sorry I didn't throw in a few more: Amir, Dr. Chin, let alone his team mates. Maybe next time. I went back and forth a couple of times as to whether to include Jason's internalized Alycia at the end; at the last, it was too tempting not to. Since it was how Jason perceives Alycia, it is not necessarily in any way congruent with how the GM thinks of who Alycia is. Jason could be spot on with his suspicion that Alycia can be reached. He could also be totally deluded out of optimism or poor judgment. (This story is completely unsuited, set-wise, to a Plotagon, so none will be forthcoming. :-) ) As a player (and person), I sooooooo wanted to get to the emotional heart of the villain, rather than the conspiratorial heart. I transferred that to Jason, and chose the less emotionally satisfying but more narratively conflicted direction of finding out what plotting Alycia was up to, rather than probing to see if she's actually as redeemable (or, at the least, approachable) as she seems. Which, from Jason's perspective is even more  frustrating, because he as A Really Bad Idea that is just the sort of thing that could turn out to be A Really Brilliant Idea (which is Jason's idea of Proving Himself to the World and His Dad), as hinted at in  his chat with Not-Byron . (I ought to probably discuss that with you, Doyce.) It occurs to me that Alycia's "move" at the end could be something as simple as Jason's end-of-his-endurance mental/cognitive collapse. Which is not nearly as cool as Alycia anticipating something of this sort and being able to strike out at him in some way visualized with the finger-gun (because, like Moriarty or Fiona, there are always layers upon contingencies upon loopholes in a good opponent's planning), but provides a possible out. I trust to whatever you have in mind in your NPC wrangling, Doyce, as you're the one who provided that delicious final point. What happens next is wide open. I can see Jason waking up (a) on the warehouse floor on his own, (b) on the warehouse floor by the first workers arriving in a few hours, (c) in an ambulance, (d) in the hospital, (e) in his own bed [and how did he get there?], (f) slumped over his keyboard [did any of that actually happen?], (g) in an interior mental state unable to reattain his body and dealing with any number of internalized psychological threats, (h) in a small tourist town in outside Philadelphia (i) in shackles in an old civil defense bunker, (ii) in a feather bed, a breakfast tray with poppy seed muffins and hot cocoa beside him, (iii) chained to a Fiendish Device on an isolated beach. Or something even more interesting (a jungle full of dinosaurs! a Roman orgy! an examination table aboard an alien spacecraft! his rocking chair as an octogenarian!). I look forward to seeing what happens next.
I think the internal dialogue worked well as it was, and your choice of cast worked fine. The overall story for this PC feels like "Jason Quill has to graduate from seeing a black-and-white world to one where people have complex, contradictory motives", and those two NPCs were the right way to surface it here. Why? The real Alycia, as depicted, feels like she's playing a game with Jason. "Guess my motives," she seems to be saying, and the only way that Jason can anticipate her is to grow as a person. Her current actions don't fit into the Hero and Villain black and white world. For him to ever get ahead of her, Jason has to have his Pleasantville moment. Maybe that's what she wants, who knows. If you cast this scene as a Hook in Masks, Head Rusty and Head Alycia are the NPCs on opposite sides of this particular moral tug-of-war. "Uphold your legacy," Head Rusty seems to say. "Open your eyes," Head Alycia seems to counter. In that case, her finger-guns may well have been entirely intentional. I mean, Jason's easy to read. He's the last and only real caretaker of this stuff. Of course he'll investigate the warehouse. Of course he'll surveil her. Of course he would see this moment. And realizing that he's been played so easily might be part of what made him pass out. Whether or not Jason thinks Alycia is "redeemable".... she might be asking herself the same question about Jason.
@BillG -- Shudders deliciously.  Real-Alycia is utterly masked from our view. Conflicted villainess? Manipulative spy? Genius observer / manipulator of others? Abused child lashing out and looking for sympathy and succor? Some, none, or all of the above. Jason's head is in the game, but so deep in that he (and so we) have no idea what to treat as objective, what to dismiss as self-delusion. Unless, of course, someone else has a chance to chat with Alycia first. Harry's come closest, and look how that  turned out. Whether or not Jason thinks Alycia is "redeemable".... she might be asking herself the same question about Jason There is a version of this campaign where Byron and Achilles look on in horror as their children kill each other, blade to blade. And another where they look on in terror as their children abandon their fathers to the abyss and walk away, hand in hand. The realty will likely be somewhere in-between. The only universal will be the fathers' disapproval.
I think we might know (or infer) a few things, and I'll talk about that to anyone who expresses interest. :)