The unit arrived at the old abandoned plant, surrounded by nothing but flat, scarcely vegetated plains, glowing eerily under the greenish sunlight. The unit leader got off the vehicle, walked calmly to the fence, and used his burner to cut out part of it. He then gave the sign, and the rest of the group joined him at the newly created entrance. As usual, no one spoke, the leader just pointed to the screen attached to his right sleeve, prompting the rest of the unit members to switch on their own screens. The item to be retrieved was a small, silver colored, rectangular device, with two black stripes running across its surface. Reconnaissance went first, Retrieval and Defense followed suit. Two out of the total of ten men staid behind, and Jame, who today was in Backup for the first time, approached the unit leader. He pointed at his screen, which he believed was probably old gear, to show the noise and weird artifacts that made it hard for him to make out any useful information. The leader shrugged, and pointed to his own device. The screen was barely readable, its transparent outer layer covered in scratches. Jame frowned, and turned around to face the plant, as if wanting to tell his colleagues to hurry up. Only after ten minutes, the “communication clear” signal was given.
“We need new gear, if we are to make safe runs, chief.” Jame told the chief over the direct radio line. “I made several requests with management already, Stetson. They told me they took it up with the Spire, but you know how these things go.” As the leader replied, he turned away from him to look at the plant. Jame frowned again, and wondered if he should press on. He had only recently transferred from his old unit, which had involved way more paperwork and way less action. His new unit almost exclusively did outside runs, which meant better pay, a little bit more adventure, a lot more free time, and not least importantly, the opportunity to leave that cursed tower every now and then. There was something about the atmosphere inside that was headache-inducing, Jame felt. But outside runs were dangerous, and he was convinced that he needed gear that at the very least functioned properly to do them safely. He decided he would take it up with the leader when they would get back to the tower, to not run the risk of disturbing the mission.
A few moments later, Reconnaissance got on the broadcast line. “Located the item, no irregularities, do you read our location, Retrieval?” “We do,” came the reply from Retrieval, “check time until wave?” “Fifty-four minutes, it seems.“ the leader responded. “Travel time about twenty minutes. Load up the trinket and go. No stress at all!” Jame turned away from the plant, and looked back at the tower. It stood there, a single silver needle in the middle of the endlessly stretched out green plains. They’d be back there soon, and he would have five days to himself. No stress, indeed. He would be off of this world for quite a while, he decided. He pondered upon the programs he could run, but then a tap on his back snapped him out of it before he had chosen one. “So, what’s it going to be, Stetson? Blue lights, or red lights? I’m thinking both!” The leader had a smile on his face, probably owing to the fact that the mission was proceeding smoothly, and Jame felt this provided the opportunity to push a little more. “Neither, chief, just some booze for me, and I’m trying to finish a couple of books. Would be happy to come back to some working gear next week though.” He tapped on his screen a couple of times as he said it. “Man, I try to think about the good things in life, and you make it about books and work, what a spoilsport!” His smile turned into a frown, but the leader did take another look at Jame’s screen, which was almost impossible to read now because of the static. It seemed to have gotten worse. “Gotta admit, this will probably be dangerous in case of an emergency. Tell you what. I’ll make work of it.” “Thanks chief.” “The girls can wait, and so can the lights.” The smile had returned, and the rest of the unit was coming back, stepping through the hole in the fence. “Alright men,” the leader told the crew over the broadcast line, “we are returning immediately. I’ll get the item validated as soon as we get back, and we can all enjoy our bonus if it’s intact.”
The unit got back to the tower, in time before the wave claimed the plant which it had put there before, indifferent as always. The crew were glad to learn soon after that their bonuses would be awarded.
Jame gently drifted back from the lights to reality, the sensation of his real limbs touching the couch he was laying on slowly coming back to him. These moments of half-consciousness, like being in between sleep and waking, always made him wonder what part of his mind, or even of his being, was exactly “him”, and whether other developed consciousnesses might live inside him, ready to take over when he was gone. “Someone has to run the night shift, I guess.” The absurdity of the thought got a feint smile out of him. The lights never really provided answers to the deeper questions. Just a bit of respite from them. Now almost totally back in the real world, the annoying buzz that was always there in his head when he was inside the tower had also returned. “Bah.” He suppressed the thought of putting the lights back on his eyes. He had been fully inside his head, or, wherever it was that the bluelights took a person, for quite a while now, he felt, and the subtle, somewhat annoying pull of duty calling couldn’t be ignored anymore. He checked the date on his home screen. Two days had passed. “Not bad.” he muttered to himself. His gaze fell on the stack of books on his table, the stack of unread books. “Next week.” He knew it probably wouldn’t happen.
He hung his right arm of the edge of the couch, fishing for the food cubes he knew should be lying somewhere down there. He didn’t feel hungry yet, but he knew from experience that his stomach would start playing up in a couple of hours if he failed to eat something now. When he found the package, he took out two cubes and put them in his mouth. They tasted like nothing. “I should probably go take a walk, get the muscles back online.” he told himself, meanwhile noticing that he talked to himself quite a lot these days. “Maybe visit the girls’ quarter?” He looked down along his body. “Probably, yeah.” He took out another cube and crushed it between his teeth. It tasted like nothing again.
The unit arrived at the old abandoned plant, and Jame, who had been going through the menus on his new screen for most of the way, only at that moment noticed that it was the same plant they had visited last mission. The unit leader was getting ready to go outside. Jame raised an eyebrow in slight surprise, because he had never visited the same location twice during outside runs. He hadn’t even known it was possible. He looked around the vehicle, but no one seemed to be fazed by the return of the plant, and then he looked at the leader, who noticed his surprise, but simply shrugged before getting out. Jame looked at him walking to the fence, his grey suit giving off a green shimmer, the familiar green of the outside sun. The man-sized hole that the chief had cut last time was still there. It was definitely the same place.
A peculiar feeling of deja-vu came over Jame as the crew checked their screens following their leader’s signal, and Reconnaissance got ready to go in. Then suddenly, Jame’s screen went black. He tapped a few times, shook his arm, tried a hard reset, but it didn’t turn on. He suppressed the first impulse that came to him, which was to curse, loudly. He was trained well enough, as well as conscious enough of penalties for breaking protocol, to do at least that, but he couldn’t resist walking over to the chief in a way that clearly showed his agitation, and grabbing his arm, maybe just a little bit too roughly. The leader’s body shocked a little in surprise, but he quickly regained his composure. He made the “what?” gesture with his hands, to which Jame reacted with a series of exaggerated movements, pointing at his screen. The leader laid his left hand on Jame’s arm, probably meaning to tell him to take it easy. Then he pointed at the vehicle, and made a circular gesture. Jame nodded reluctantly, and went to get a new screen from the back of the vehicle, cursing internally.
He opened the back door, hoping to find a working, new screen. However, the only thing he found, after rummaging through the various items that had seemingly been carelessly thrown in the back, was his old screen. Left with no other options, he attached it to his sleeve, then walked back. The voice of Torland, the Reconnaisance lead, sounded over the broadcast line. “Communication clear!” Jame let out a sigh, but it didn’t really help relieve him of his irritation. He got on the direct line to the leader. “This is simply unbelievable! Weren’t those all new screens?” “They are, and they all successfully got through the standard testing protocols. Guess you’re just really unlucky, huh?” “Fucking hell. My old screen is good as useless. Look at this.” Indeed, strange characters were dancing over the screen just like they had been doing last mission, rendering the normal text and images unintelligible. Jame was about to follow up with more complaints, but at that moment the direct line got overridden by the emergency broadcast channel. “This is Defense. Chief? We need some help here. Dagson got stuck, nothing terrible, but we need someone to come help lift some rubble.” “Got that, please share your location on screen.” The leader watched his screen for a few moments, then looked up to Jame. “I’m going, seeing that your screen seems to be busted. Be ready for emergency departure protocol. Time to wave is…” He looked back at his screen, tapping on it a few times. “It’s thirty-five minutes. Travel time’s ten. Make sure you’re set. Also, remove some fence so the vehicle can get on the terrain. We might have to get it closer to Dagson’s location.” “Alright, chief!” The leader ran towards the hole in the fence, but then suddenly stopped halfway. “Location’s 55.1 dash 69.9.” Jame shook his head. “That won’t help chief, I can’t properly view the map on this thing.” “Just get the vehicle to the south-eastern corner of the plant when you get the call, ok?” “Understood.”
The sudden sense of emergency had cleared away Jame’s feelings of annoyance, and he swiftly moved towards the vehicle to get the burner. After quickly grabbing it, he ran back to the fence, and started to cut along one of the posts. The high intensity flame of the cutter made quick work of the fence, and he ran to the next post to finish the job. All of a sudden, his screen started beeping. Although he didn’t hear it often, he immediately recognized the sound. It was the wave proximity alarm. He grumbled. “Stupid thing is totally broken.” He decided to ignore it and to finish creating an opening in the fence. When he cut through the last part of the fence that held on to the post, he pushed it away to make sure it didn’t fall on him, and the braided wire hit the ground with a crash. For the second time, the alarm went off, and although he knew his screen was broken, it didn’t sit right with him. He decided to get on the broadcast line to make sure. “Hey guys, I’m getting wave alarm here. How much time do we have?” Silence, except for the beeping sound of his screen. A sudden feeling of shock gripped him, but he quickly regained control of himself and turned off his broadcast connection, then reconnected. “Backup here, anyone hear me?” More silence. He looked at his screen. He gasped. The visual noise was gone, and he could clearly make out what it said now.
WAVE INCOMING, ETA 00:01:29.
The feeling of shock returned. 28. 27. 26. “Don’t lose it. Think of the protocol.” he told himself out loud. Then he checked the bottom right of the screen, as he had done during many simulations.
He was at the northern side of the plant, he remembered. “This can’t be…” He forced himself to turn around. The wave was there, and it was closer to him than it had ever been. He couldn’t even make out the tower in the distance anymore. And it was moving towards the plant with incredible speed.
He ran to the vehicle and got in, grabbing the wheel, hands trembling. He raced onto the terrain through the opening he had just made, meanwhile going over all protocol steps in his head, mainly as a way to calm himself, because he already knew what he had to do, by heart. “Establish contact with unit members. FUCK!” He yelled out loud. He tried reconnecting to broadcast multiple times while he maneuvered the vehicle over the plant terrain at high speed, but failed to get any semblance of a response. “NO… FUCK!” He turned on the screen in the dashboard.
WAVE ETA 00:29:17.
“Wh… what?” He looked at his own screen.
WAVE INCOMING, ETA 00:00:44.
He checked the rear view, his heart pounding. The wave was there, closing in on the plant, closing in on him. He noticed he was close to the southeastern corner of the terrain now, but he didn’t see any sign of any of the unit members. Defense should have set a perimeter outside of the building the mission objective was located in, he knew, but there was no sign of that either. He pushed the brakes, and shot a glance at his screen, which didn’t show any signs of malfunction at all.
“I can’t outrun it…” he muttered. His thoughts were racing, looking for a way out. What would happen when the wave would hit him? That was something that had never been discussed in much detail, but the terribleness of it had been implied many times over. Death. Maybe perdition. No one who got hit by the wave had ever returned, in all of the tower’s recorded history.
He got out of the vehicle, and turned, facing the wave. As he witnessed it closing the distance, the feeling of panic left him, and a sense of acceptance replaced it. The wave looked pretty beautiful from up close, a destructive sublimeness. He tried one last time to contact his team members over broadcast, then the chief through direct line. No one responded. The wave crashed over the plant buildings, devouring them like a ravenous God-beast. And then it devoured him. As he got swallowed by the wave, he noticed that he had felt this all before. It felt like the bluelights. Then it felt like nothing he had felt before. It hurt.
What was left of Jame wandered over the terrain. The ground was pulsating more intensely than before with the greenish glow of the outside sun. His crew mates were gone, the vehicle was gone, his screen was also gone. The plant buildings were still standing, but there had been nothing inside them. He had taken off what was left of his protective gear, as it had been torn beyond usefulness anyway, and to his surprise, the outside air didn’t seem to harm him. A little bit earlier, he had decided to go back north, and look for the tower, but he had soon noticed that the tower was not there anymore, either. He had thereafter traversed all the outer sides of the abandoned plant. It was surrounded by nothing but empty stretches of glimmering plains. Even the vegetation was gone.
Jame came to a halt. He thought he understood now. He had noticed that he was missing a lot, he was missing much of himself. He laughed, but it was an empty laugh. That is how he felt, vacuous, and he knew the world he was in was for the most part empty as well. There was nothing anymore, no goals, no passions, no values, no dangers to his being. But was it all that different? Had working for the Spire provided him with all these things before? Had anything, ever? He decided that it was impossible to know without access to his whole being.
He laid down, closed his eyes, and prayed for nothingness. Cried, and begged, for nothingness.