Wren has a chat and descends into the dark. Liz gathers allies for a revolt. Major thanks to the MVPs of this episode: Rae Lundberg as Shadow, Jess Syratt as Liz, and Nathan from the Storage Papers as the Director. (CWs, mild spoilers: fire, death,...
(CWs, mild spoilers: fire, death, body horror, distorted voices and faces, static, dripping noises)
Transcripts available at somewhereohio.com
Apologies for the delay!
*Fizzling Boss tones*
*boss tones coagulate into a voice*
BOSS: “Because I needed you alive long enough for us to talk.”
WREN, barely conscious: “wh-what? Where…”
WREN: Drops of frigid water pelted my forehead, stirring me from the astral plane. Above me was a whitewashed ceiling, stone walls curving in a circle like a shackle. I wasn’t restrained, however. I sat upright on crossed legs. Someone had been speaking just then, right?
WREN: “Is someone there?”
BOSS: “Ah, good, you are awake. I was a tad worried the furball out there hit you too hard.”
The curdled voice had to be coming from…somewhere, but it felt like it was all around me, under me, seeping into my hair and nails. The impact of the sheer cold of this place finally hit me as my head stopped spinning. I sat hunched for a moment before responding.
WREN: “Boss? I-is that you? How did you–”
BOSS: “I live in the wires, creep through static, remember? And your friend out there is about 50% wires, give or take. It’ll be fine once its circuits or whatever they have reboot. But that thing isn’t what I’m interested in. I brought you here to talk. So let’s hop to it.”
WREN: “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry for leaving? For trying to help you?”
BOSS: “Lucy. I want to talk about Lucy. See, Ever since our phone call, I’ve been…unsettled. Now that I’ve always been the boss, I have near unlimited knowledge of the DLO, of the things around me, but still no sign of Lucy. That bothers me.”
I warily stood up and looked around the frozen lighthouse. Long icicles hung from the ceiling–floor? whichever--dripping and freezing once more on the ground. The whole interior was covered in a thin icy sheen. No sign of Conw–er, the boss. I needed to find where this voice was coming from, but I needed time. I’d have to string him along for a bit and hope his confidence would play against him.
WREN: “Okay, then. Let’s talk Lucy. But first, there are some things I want to know. I’ve heard about some sort of machine salvaged from the lakebed. What is it?”
BOSS: “Might as well indulge the little worker bees in a bit of honey while they can still taste it. Very well, Wren.”
As he spoke, I snuck around the perimeter of the dark tower, listening for any changes in directional sound.
BOSS: “That machine is what made this place, made me real. It shepherded a new era for this state. Sure a few people lost a job or two, a few houses demolished, a few forests burned down, but it made way for industry, for growth. For potential. You shouldn’t blame this engine for your troubles: it’s people that run it. Without us, it’s just a hunk of junk. But with our hand on the till, we can remake the world. You’re stuck in the old ways, Wren. You’re a dinosaur, flailing in the tar, and I am the good god above, shaking my head.
Yes, this little engine can be dangerous, if you can’t handle the power. Kenji couldn’t. Look what happened to him. I could handle it, and here we are.
Speaking of power, don’t think I don’t know about the little coup attempt you’re plotting with some of my…former associates. It won’t work. As soon as we’re done here, I’m crushing your little salt and feeding her to the engine. Then it’s back to business.”
I should have known he’d know. But just because he knew what was happening didn’t mean he could stop it. If all went well on Liz’s side, it would be many hundreds against one. Those are decent odds in my ledger. I just needed a bit more time.
WREN: “So this ‘lucid engine’ really runs on human misery. It carved its way across the midwest, burning through the souls of workers, flattening towns, setting forests ablaze, bringing nightmares to life. But it’s our touch that makes it glow, our will that drives its whips and chains. Is that right? A conduit for economic malice?
You know you weren’t always like this. I’ve heard your earlier memos. You were kind, artistic, even funny sometimes, I must grudgingly admit. I trusted you.
I want to believe that person is still in you somewhere, trapped among the paperwork and oil. If it is, I intend to find that person, and bring them back. If it is not, I don’t intend to show any mercy.”
BOSS: “You sure say a whole hell of a lot and say a whole lot of nothing, huh little bee?”
I found no hints to the direction of his voice, but I did discover a narrow staircase winding down to the top of the lighthouse.
BOSS: “I believe it’s your turn now, Wren. Where is Lucy?”
WREN: “I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know. I encountered her at a waffle house at the end of the world. But she didn’t talk to me.”
BOSS: “Well…no, that can’t be right. I was…No. No. NO. You’re not going to play with my mind like he did. Said I wasn’t real. You’re talking to me right now! Real as real gets.”
WREN: “You sound unfocused, boss. Tell me this: what’s your full name? How old are you? I’m Wren Crawford, nonbinary claims adjuster born November 1st, 1998 in Illinois. My favorite color is silver, I love driving at night with the windows down, and I hate pineapple.
How about you? No easy answer? You think much too literally, Boss. Of course, ‘real’ can mean extant, physically in the world. But it has many other meanings, too. Genuine, authentic. You may be here, but you’re not authentic. You are a fiction.”
I had inched my way to the stairs as I spoke. Before I could take the first step, he noticed where I was headed.
BOSS: “Whoa, whoa whoa, hold on now, hoss. Sorry to disappoint you, but what you’re looking for ain’t down there. That’s just the DLO’s vault. All you’re gonna find there are dusty old letters.
You’ve shown a lot of grit to even get here, Wren, a good deal of stick-to-it-iveness. You’re bright, hardworking, got a keen eye. You shouldn’t waste your life scrounging around in the dark. I’m a compassionate leader, I recognize potential when I see it. So to make your trip worthwhile, I’ve got an offer for you.
I could use someone else under my wing. A right hand, so to speak. Someone to watch over the warehouses and offices while I’m away on executive duties. You would have your own office–with a window!--your own assistants, access to all the documents you could want. You could escape the life of the worker bee. You could be the Supervisor, Wren. A damn good one. Wealthy, to boot.”
WREN: “In my time, I’ve come to find that wealth acts like a poison. The more concentrated it is in one host, the more dangerous it becomes. But dilute it among many and it’s harmless, or as with a serpent’s venom, a vital part of its own antivenom. It should be the sweet fruits picked from trees we planted ourselves. I don’t want your poison apples.”
I stood at the precipice of a yawning mouth to hell. One more step and I could never go back.
WREN: “Sorry, Boss, I’m no insect. I am a hawk.”
My foot hit the metal stair, and the world above went dark.
LIZ: “Suuure, just round up some shadows and commit arson, Liz. This is a perfectly normal thing people say all the time, Liz. Well, no time like the present, I guess.
Hey, uhhh, you at the desk! What’s your name?
*Harsh buzzing and static emanate from the shadow*
LIZ: “All right, forget you then. Stapler dude, with the cool glasses. My guy, what are you up to?”
*more unwelcoming noise*
LIZ: “This isn’t working. How was that other shadow able to talk to me?”
SHADOW: “I’m not sure, how can you talk? You’re a shadow, too.”
LIZ: “Christ, you’re still here?”
SHADOW, gently: “You needed someone to talk to.”
LIZ: *pause, sigh* “Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound so…”
LIZ: “Right. There’s just a lot going on right now. I keep thinking I’ll see her here somewhere. I can almost feel her nearby. But then I turn around and it’s all gone, just a puff of smoke, sifting through my fingers like sand.
I just want to be back at our apartment, building a little house in the sims together. Pretending that someday WE could own a house. I need to find her before we get out of here. IF we get out of here.”
SHADOW: “And I need to make sure that thing in the middle is taken down.”
LIZ: “Well we’ve both got something to do then. I wonder…Do you think that having purpose makes here us…tangible?
SHADOW: “Makes about as much sense as anything else that’s happened to me in the last 24 hours.”
LIZ: “Ever read any Sartre?”
LIZ: “Me neither. But if his stuff’s anything like Groundhog Day, it’s about how we’re defined by what we do, not who we are. Making the choice to continue in the mouth of the void. We have goals, those goals give us meaning, that meaning gives us solidarity. Err, solidity.
SHADOW: “Then all we have to do is remind these people there’s more to the world than this office. Give them something else to live for.”
LIZ, speaking to the room: “All right, listen up, folks. You’ve been working, what, Eight? Nine hundred hours? With no break? Do you even know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it?
Look at me, I’m not glued to a desk, grumbling and sneering at everyone trying to be nice to me. I’m free! No boss to tell me what to do. Come on, you can’t tell me you actually like your boss. What’s more American than hating your boss? You in front, yeah I know you think he’s a real pissbaby.”
SHADOW, whispering: “I hope you know where this is going, because we’ve got a lot of eyes on us.”
LIZ: “Good! I want them to see. There’s got to be some part of you that knows this office is busted, this state is busted. Hell, this whole damn system’s gone busto. You’re all toiling away down here in the dark for someone that doesn’t even know your name. Not to mention the giant column of flesh. That has to be an OSHA violation. And these folders on the floor–serious fire hazard. Do you even get sick leave?”
SHADOW: “More are listening. Keep going!”
LIZ: “Are we not meant to be free? To see the sun with our own eyes? To be entitled to the spoils of our own labor?
Have you all become ants, mindless cogs to be spun, or does some sliver of you yet remain human? Can none of you work up the courage to hold on to that sliver of humanity?
Lay down your tools and come with me. Then you’ll find your answer.
Maybe you can go home again. Maybe we’ll meet on the other side. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to kick the guy who did all this in the teeth.
Shadows of the cave unite, you have nothing to lose but your chain letters!”
WREN: “Wow, did you really come up with all that on the spot?”
LIZ: “I may have been taking some poetic license with what happened near the end, but you get the gist.”
WREN: “Okay…then what happened?”
LIZ: Many of the shadows dropped their papers and stamps, littering the floor with office trash, and stood on desks with me. Some shades remained hard at work. They buried their faces in their books. I don’t think those shadows wanted to be helped. I think they were happy being pawns in the DLO’s game. I only hope they’ll find peace some day.
I hopped down from the desk to be among the shadows. We gathered on one side of the massive file cabinet and started pushing. It didn’t budge much at first, seeing as it was about 60 feet high. The tower of tissue noticed what we were doing, and sent some dark matter assassins our way. But more and more shades joined our cause, and the wall of drawers started to tip under our collective strength. It fell toward the tower in the center of the room. An enormous tongue shot out from the tower, halting the fall of the cabinets. I shouted for any stragglers to join up with us before it was too late. Then we did what you said to do.
The friendly shadow I’d been talking to found a small space heater at one of the abandoned desks. She set it down next to the base of the giant leaning cabinet and switched the heater on. I opened a few of the lower drawers, which spilled their contents onto the floor beside the heater. A big pile of dry paper plus an unsupervised space heater…You can imagine what happened next. And you can imagine the smell, too, as the paper and flesh were licked by the flames.
We stood in front of the burning tower for just a minute, outlined in the dark by a ring of righteous flame.
And then with our shadowy friends, we left the way we came.
Which is to say: through a series of unexpected and inexplicable moves and feelings that I can’t recall. And then we were in the cold.
WREN: I prowled down deep into the guts of the wretched lighthouse. Each footfall was imbued with growing dread. I descended into the darkness for some time, passing a grim scullery and fetid living quarters, until a dim light and faint roar made their presence known. As I continued, the light and sound grew stronger, and then came the smell: scorched oil and exhaust. Illusory hellfire overwhelmed my senses until at last my boots made contact with the lighthouse floor.
The circular room was small, only just wide enough for a small walkway around the lamp in the center. There was a door across the way, so I started to work my way around the lens. But I quickly realized that in the center of this lighthouse was not a light. Instead, there was a horrific chunk of alien steel, like quicksilver in one corner and immovable iron cubes in another. It had pipes running up and down its sides, spouting haze into the tiny chamber. This is what had been making the dizzying light and sound.
I felt a pit open in my stomach at the moment of recognition. I was terrified and thrilled in equal measure. I, much like Conway, had been unwittingly trailing this engine. This room felt more like a shrine than a beacon, a place of worship for a dead metal messiah. White fire burbled into the air, and the rattling hum of the engine grew as I approached. I was drawn to run my fingers along its cool surface, but I restrained myself, and recalled what had happened to the others who came in contact with the engine.
I knew not where it came from and probably never would, so I looked at rather teleologically. I whispered to myself: “What does this thing DO? What is its purpose?”
And I received an unexpected answer.
BOSS: “It can make your dreams come to life.”
I crept around the edge of the machine to confirm my horrible suspicion. This is indeed where his voice had been coming from, but not in the way I expected.
On the other side of this nightmare device was a face–Conway’s face–stretched across its surface beyond the point of possibility. It spanned maybe three feet across, skin and metal fused and tangled, a simulacrum of a sick rubber mask pulled taut. The large eyes were dull and hazy, roving aimlessly. The distended mouth hung open, through which I could see the burning fire within.
My autonomic nervous system kicked in, and unfortunately my fight and flight instincts often exert equal and opposite force, leaving me frozen in place. I couldn’t move, and could barely make a noise.
WREN: “C-conway…is that?” I whispered through my pale lips.
The cloudy eyes rolled without clear direction, angrily searching for the source of my voice. The engine rumbled and spit embers, and then the mouth of the Conway mask moved slowly, with some effort.
BOSS, stuttering and glitching: “Please, call me Boss. I’m your superior after all. Unless you’re quitting now.”
WREN: “I already…quit. Boss, you…you’re not…this isn’t right. This isn’t…you.”
BOSS: “Of course it’s me. I am fire. I am steel. I am the Boss.”
WREN: “You weren’t always like this. Do you remember playing in the woods? Studying art?”
The voice using his face like a puppet grew harsher, more mechanical.
BOSS: “Your conjecture interests me not, insect. I am the standard. I am the control. I am the Boss.”
WREN: “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m not stopping now. I’m going into the vault, and I’m going to bring you back with me. The real you. Just keep…breathing, if that’s a thing you still do. It’s not over yet.”
I tore my eyes away from the shining abyss and passed through the door across from the engine. As it closed behind me, the sound and heat from the machine dissipated, and I was once again on my own in a dark, quiet cave. I could hear water drip from stalagmites onto the damp stone ground. My phone had just enough battery left to cast its light across the rock, revealing hundreds of boxes and bags, all stuffed to the brim with letters, packages, objects. A chef’s knife, a game cartridge, cassettes unspooling their magnetic tape through dirty puddles. All things forgotten but not lost.
I was finally in the Vault of the Dead Letter Office of Aisling, Ohio.
CONWAY: “Yeah, good to meet you. *ow* Strong handshake you got there. So this is still my first week, what did he say I should do with the ones that uhh fit the criteria?”
DIRECTOR: “The Boss says to make a note of it, send the memo to your supervisor, and place the letter or object in the shaft to the vault.”
CONWAY: “Right. Now pardon me if this sounds a little funny, but who is my supervisor? Where’s this vault?”
DIRECTOR: “At present, you don’t need to know any of that. Just follow the steps exactly as prescribed.”
CONWAY: “Aw hell, you’re the ones giving me health insurance, I’m not dumb enough to question that. So you got it, sir.”
DIRECTOR: “Good to hear. You know how to keep a secret, right? Because at this agency, we value our privacy. We don’t need your average citizens finding out what we do. So this vault is where we send all evidence that we, and the things we handle, exist. You don’t want to go in there. Could be dangerous. It’s best that it’s forgotten. You understand?
CONWAY: “Not really, but I promise I won’t go in there. Wherever ‘there’ is.”
DIRECTOR: “Oh and one more thing: you like baseball, Mr. Conway?”
CONWAY: “Sure, well enough. And please, call me–”
Hey everybody, it’s your host here with just a few brief announcements and shoutouts. So this is the penultimate episode. The next episode will be out soon and that will be the finale of the series, or at least the series as it exists now. I’m sure I’ll make more at some point, but it’s not going to be these characters, it’s not going to be this story, it’s going to be a whole different thing. So I hope you still enjoy it and I will certainly enjoy my break.
I want to thank everybody who’s listened so far, or left reviews or subscribed or shared the show. It really helps and it means the world to me.
And without further ado, I’d love to give a shoutout to our lovely patrons:
Carriers Alien Octopus, BertBert, Feather, Flo, and Jessica.
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