::Carnelian Realty Headquarters::
There was a knock on the door to Cornell’s office.
Cornell was a serious-minded man who knew how to separate business and pleasure. Unfortunately for those who had to work with him, he tended to be much more serious-minded about his pleasures more than his business. Case in point: he had switched his office phone to “Do Not Disturb,” locked his office door, and logged into “White and Gold Online” to join his guild in a heroic endgame raid of Grimstone Castle.
Cornell was honestly a little startled when he heard the knock. Since his guild was recovering from a total wipe anyway, he excused himself with a quick “afk bio” and bounded over to the door to see who it was.
Cornell rolled his eyes when he saw who it was. “Yes, Jan, what is it?”
“Edmond Calis is here to see you again.” Jan said this matter-of-factly, with a calmness that was hard-won after having worked with Cornell for so long.
“Jan, do you not see that I’m busy??”
“I see that you turned your phone to DND and put a sock on the doorknob.”
“Yes, Jan, and do you know what the sock on the doorknob means?”
Jan blinked. “Really, sir? You want me to believe that you have a girl in your office?”
“No, Jan, but you really should consider the possibility that there could have been a girl in here, since I’m an attractive elligible single bachelor who…”
Someone out of view pushed the door in ever so slightly. When Cornell could see who it was, he balked just a little bit. “Oh. Hi, Edmond. I was just explaining to Jan that next time you drop by, she needs to come and get me right away.”
Edmond Calis just pursed his lips and shut his eyes. The Goddess of Fate, in Her infinite wisdom, had allowed Her android children the same range of personality and free will that had long been afforded to the human species they physically imitated. And somehow, under Her watchful eye, that freedom had been so twisted and abused to allow a being like Cornell to think and behave the way he did.
Insult to injury: Cornell was one of the chosen leaders of their race.
“Andrew, we have important things to discuss. May I come – why are your shoes off? And where’s your other sock?”
Cornell offered no explanation, instead hurriedly waving Calis into his office and shutting the door. The sounds of combat blared from his headset, resting idly on the armrest of his chair, but Cornell swiftly looped round his desk and adjusted the volume control so Calis would be none the wiser.
“To what privelege do I owe… this privelege, of your visit again, so soon,” Cornell managed to say.
“Well, it’s not good news, I’m afraid,” Calis said. “Per our meeting yesterday, I spoke with the other League members and they agreed with your plan to try taking out the Shield.”
“Oh,” Cornell said, evidencing genuine surprise (since the other League members weren’t known for agreeing with Cornell’s ideas [example: throw the Web of Worlds into chaos by assassinating Bertha Javelins with poisoned Maranda Farms string cheese. Related: buy controlling interest in Maranda Farms dairies and allow Cornell to run their string cheese division]). “Well, that sounds like good news to me!”
“It isn’t,” Calis continued. “The Z-Series we sent to complete the assignment failed to report in. Surveillance footage shows the Shield and an accomplice disabling our agent and walking away mostly unharmed.”
“Oh,” Cornell said, this time crestfallen, as he sat down in his chair. He swivelled around to his mini-fridge and drew out a fresh, delicious stick of Maranda Farms string cheese, freed it from its 100% recyclable wrapper and peeled off a strand. “Disabling, you say?”
Calis held up a flash drive. “You should see this.”
“Oh, okay, well, hold on,” Cornell set the Maranda Farms string cheese down on his desk and turned his attention to his computer. “I need to… save and close this important work document I had open before you came in… I’ll just do that first before I accept your drive and open it to look at… whatever it is you want me to look at…”
Calis sighed. “Okay. Please hurry and quit the important work document.”
“Yes, I am doing that,” Cornell said, “But it’s kind of slow because this computer doesn’t have a good graphics card… to handle… all of the graphics… of the work document.”
They waited another thirty seconds while Cornell’s “work document” closed down. Cornell peeled off another piece of wholesome, low fat Maranda Farms string cheese and remarked silently to himself how delicious and nutritious a snack it was. No wonder more moms choose Maranda Farms string cheese for an afterschool treat than any other snack food on your local grocer’s shelves.
Cornell finally accepted the flash drive, plugged it in and opened the video file it contained. At first he thought he was missing the audio, but then he remembered he had his headset plugged in.
“I had my headset plugged in,” Cornell explained, “So I could hear… my work document’s sound. And background music.”
“That must be quite a document you were working on,” Calis said.
“It is,” Cornell said. “I wish you could play it sometime. See it sometime.”
Cornell watched the grainy footage. First he saw the man identified as the Shield stagger out of a bathroom. Then, moments later, a huge moblin comes flying into frame, followed soon after by a figure that must have been the android assassin. A woman gets in the way and she exchanges blows with the assassin, but in short order the Shield is sent flying and bouncing across the ground. Then the woman, as soon as the assassin turns his back, punches her bare fist clean through the android’s chest, and then knocks his head off with a single punch just as he’s turning around to face her.
“Oh my Gods!!!” Cornell shrieked, as he saw the assassin have his chest-cavity hollowed out and his head removed. “Oh God!!!” He shrieked again, throwing his headset down and standing. He groaned audibly, shut his eyes tight and ran his fingers through his hair. “God that’s gonna give me nightmares. Oh god so many nightmares…” He began pacing anxiously; his artificial subconscious kept replaying the image of the android having its head knocked off over and over and over again. Not even the vitamin-D fortified taste of Maranda Farms string cheese could soothe him now.
“And it gets worse,” Calis said. “You see, our surveillance just before we sent out the assassin suggested to us that the Shield actually had no idea we were operating in Albrook at all. So… it’s possible this incident tipped him off to something he actually was completely unaware of before.”
“Oh, you think that’s how it gets worse!?” Cornell said, almost screaming. “You think that part’s worse than the killer decapitating bodyguard the Shield’s rolling with now!?” Cornell clutched desperately at his neck. He liked his neck. He didn’t want his neck to twist around, his artificial flesh to tear and his head pop off like that assassin’s did. If it were possible for androids to hyperventilate, then right about then Cornell surely would be. “So, what’s the plan? Is the League going to send me reinforcements?”
Calis sighed. “So, that’s the other bad news.” He clapped his hands together. “The other League members… they kind of view this as your fault. Since it was, after all, your idea to go after the Shield and try to eliminate him. So they’re actually pulling out some resources unless and until you clean up this mess you’ve made.”
Cornell blinked. “Mess I’ve made!? I didn’t send the guy! THEY sent the guy!! I’ve been in my office all day playing --” He stopped, and cleared his throat. “Uh, that is, playing… my work document, which I’ve been working so hard on and enjoying so much that it almost feels like I’ve been playing… a game. Of role-playing military historical fiction.”
Calis shrugged. “Doesn’t change the reality of the situation, Andy. The League is seriously considering pulling out of Albrook altogether. In fact I got orders myself to relocate. I’m no longer your liaison to the rest of the League.”
Andrew stood up. He fumed. “Edmond. I thought we were friends, man. C’mon.”
“Friends?” Calis said. “Friends?? I don’t even like you, Andrew. You’re a useless buffoon who, somehow, wound up in one of the most priveleged positions of leadership among our kind. And what are you doing with your position? Hmm? Closing yourself up in an office playing video games all day? Coming in to ‘work’ at this ‘job’ of yours, messing up every assignment the League sends your way… Failing, by the way, to produce results at the one task you were given when the League sent you to Albrook. You think we’re friends, Andy? No. We’re not friends. I was ordered to come out here and serve as your liaison. It has been my thankless duty to bring you the word of the League, and then to have to go back and explain to them how you took the simplest requests and messed them all to hell.” Calis threw up his hands and smiled. “So, I’m leaving. Orders are orders, my hands are tied.”
Cornell opened his desk drawer. He produced a device that looked like a TV remote control. “Tied, you say?”
Calis moved to stand up, but his wrists snapped back down onto the armrests, and his ankled locked together, as if by some unseen force. He struggled, but in vain.
“Andy?” Calis said meekly, suddenly shifting his tone. “What are you doing?..”
“You know… I get it,” Cornell said, as he walked around from behind his desk, idly tossing his remote from one hand to another. “I get that the other members of the League don’t like me very much. They think I’m a screw-up. That I suck. That I sometimes don’t actually know what I’m doing, or that I occasionally come off looking stupid just because I don’t know a lot of things.” He pushed Calis’ chair with his foot so that it rotated around to face him, then leaned down and looked Calis in the eye. “I know I was sent out here to Albrook because the other League members wanted to shove me aside. You think I don’t realize I’m the only member of the League of Eight based outside of Gate? Did you think that escaped me?”
Calis shook his head. He opened his mouth to say something, but Cornell pushed another button on his remote and Calis’ jaw snapped shut with a loud mechanical clank.
“But here’s something that maybe you forgot, Edmond. Hell, maybe the other League members forgot… but I was CHOSEN for this. The Goddess herself picked me. So, the ‘reality of the situation,’ Edmond… is that as far as you’re concerned, out here in Albrook – hell, in the entire Esper Dimension… I am the League of Eight. Is that clear?”
Calis made no move; his eyes were wide with some mixture of fear and defiance. Then, Cornell pressed a button on his remote, and, entirely against his will, with a forceful, jerking motion, Calis was made to nod in agreement.
“So let me tell you what’s going to happen next, Edmond,” Cornell said. As he spoke, he moved around behind Calis. He gracelessly tore out a fistful of Calis’ synthetic hair, revealing a smooth plastic surface beneath. Prying it open, he reached underneath the skin, and pulled out a small device with a short, black antenna coming off of it. A red light on the device blinked intermittently. “Nothing is leaving Albrook,” Cornell said, as he crushed the device in his hand. The red light winked out, and there was a spark. Calis seemed to feel it as this device was destroyed, and he struggled against Cornell’s technological ensorcelment. “Not me, not any of my personnel, not any of our weapons or assets or anything. In fact, this time I am going to have to clean up your mess by doing what you and the League were somehow unable to do in the first place. I’m going to kill the Shield. I’m going to show the rest of the League that they were wrong about me. And… I’m going to be sorry that you won’t be around to see it. Because you’re going to step into the stairwell and blow yourself up.”
Cornell pressed another button on his remote, and Calis awkwardly stood up. Cornell moved ahead of him and opened his office door, allowing the other android to walk out into the main Carnelian office space. His movements were halting; with every ounce of will he had, Calis tried to fight against Cornell’s domination.
But Cornell was a member of the League. Whatever else he might have been, however generally incompetent or inept he seemed, he had powers and gifts from his Goddess that were beyond Edmond Calis’ comprehension.
“Hey everybody!” Cornell said, clapping his hands and looking around the office. Distantly, Calis opened the door to the stairwell and it slammed shut behind him. “Quick announcement, I know it’s almost quittin’ time and you’re busy with stuff, but if I could have your attention for just eine minuten please. There’s gonna be a little bit of a change around here from now on. First, I’ve got some sad news: it turns out that our longtime corporate liaison, Edmond, has decided to move on. He’ll no longer be working here.”
Cornell held up the crushed antenna-device in his hand, and tossed it out onto the carpet of the main office floor. There was an explosion from the stairwell, startling everyone. A few faces went white with panic when they made the connection between Cornell’s speech, the crushed antenna and the loud bang they just heard.
Cornell laughed. “Oh, that Edmond. … He always wanted to go out with a bang.”
Now, anyone who hadn’t made the connection had realization suddenly dawn on them. There were gasps of horror among the other Carnelian employees.
“Sorry to have dropped such an explosive revelation on you,” Cornell said, through stifled chuckling. No one else was laughing. “I mean sometimes people just get to this point in their careers where they can’t handle the pressure, and they just suddenly blow up!” Cornell was racked with huge guffaws, so impressed was he by his own wit. “I mean, I guess he just couldn’t handle the industry… you know what they say about real estate, it’s boom and bust!!.. Wait wait, I got a couple more. ahem Looks like he wasn’t such a dud after all!! You know, I always loved hanging out with Edmond… we always had such a blast!!..”
Cornell looked up and noticed, for the first time, that no one was laughing with him. “Whoa,” he said. “Tough crowd. … So this is what it feels like to bomb.”