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System Failure (the Purpose Epilogue)

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Your name is Agent Ohio and it’s been years since you heard from anyone at Project Freelancer.

Under advisement from the Director himself, you don’t tell anyone about the call you receive. As far as you know, he’s still paying into your anonymous trust account back on Earth, so you obey your boss. You abandon the purpose you’ve made for yourself, and take on his.

You get out of bed after midnight and try your best not to disturb Sherry. You wiggle into your undersuit and put your armour on, piece by piece. You walk out of blue base and into the snowy night, where a pelican is parked and waiting for you.

The pilot isn’t interested in making small talk with you, so you take a nap in the back of the pelican to kill the hours between home and wherever the Director is. You watch the clock in the HUD of your helmet count to when everyone will be waking up. When it gets too close, you pull it off and let your hair down for a little while. You don’t want to answer any questions. The Director told you not to answer questions.

The pilot drops you off, six hours later, on some nowhere planet. He doesn’t take a break, and he doesn’t wait for you, he just crawls back into the cockpit and takes flight. You wonder if he was a Freelancer too, someone who didn’t need sleep, someone hopped up on chemical supplements and performance enhancing drugs and hardware. If he works for the Director, it’s not too hard to believe. (You always envied that, but your chance is coming, too.)

There’s a monitor on a tree nearby that activates when you approach. “Welcome, Agent Ohio!” FILSS greets you, her voice is sweet and fills you with a sense of nostalgia. “The Director has been expecting you.” An armoured door built into a nearby cliff face slides open for you. You thank FILSS and go inside as directed.

The bunker in the side of the cliff reminds you of the Mother of Invention. Computer monitors line the walls, dedicated to this or that, but all unified in showing FILSS’s logo. The open door illuminates dense dust with a sunbeam before it slides closed behind you. You’re not sure why you expected people, but there is no one anywhere.

“What is the Director doing all the way out here, FILSS?” You dare to ask once you’re sure he isn’t present, your eyes glancing over the generous layer of dust accrued on a keyboard.

“I’m sorry, I am not at liberty to speak on the project,” FILSS replies cheerfully. “The Director will brief you. He is expecting you -- please, take a left!” On cue, another armoured door slides open. You follow FILSS’s guidance through it, and another door, and another, ruminating on the purpose that will soon be bestowed to you at last.

FILSS takes you to an office that matches the nostalgic Mother of Invention decor. It, too, is empty.

“Um, FILSS?” You begin, turning to the monitor on the wall closest to you.

“I’m sorry,” she replies. “The Director should have come here at the agreed upon time. One moment, please.”

You take this moment to look around. The office has two chairs, a desk, and a monitor in the wall, but not a single piece of documentation or decoration otherwise. You’re certain he would walk in the moment you opened a desk drawer, so you resist the temptation (for now). You have to make a good impression. You have to take the chance you’ve been given.

FILSS plays hold music on her monitor as the minutes stretch on, sprinkled with advertisements about the advancements made by Project Freelancer, in FILSS’s own voice.

You’re 34 levels into a game of Snake on your HUD and ignoring the flashing messages in your inbox when the door to the office slides open. You leap to your feet and stand to attention, the chair you were sitting in flips back and drops on the floor. The Director is there, and he makes a face you knew from every other time you saw him, years ago, on the MoI. His teeth are bared, the wrinkles of his aged face showing his grimace. He looks much older since you last saw him.

“Director, sir!” You speak, clamping down on apologies about the chair. He doesn’t need to hear it , you think. Stay cool .

You watch the Director even out the expression on his face until he’s wearing his usual passive irritation - the face you saw on him in photos in the halls and on news pieces on the Project. He moves around you to the other side of the desk, where he sits down. His motions are slow and careful. “At ease,” he says at last, folding his hands in front of him on his desk. “Agent Ohio, please have a seat.”

“Thank you, sir!” You sit down before realizing that the chair is on the floor. After some fumbling, you sit down in it properly. The Director’s expression has stayed the same. You’re optimistic that he’s not going to kick you out for that. “Agent Ohio, reporting for duty!”

The Director takes a deep breath before he speaks. “Agent, I have a request.”

“Yes sir! Anything, sir!”

“Thank you,” he says. “Would you please remove your helmet?”

You weren’t expecting that, so you hesitate, but you follow through. You disengage your helmet and pull it off, holding it in your lap.

The Director stares at you. His passive irritation gives into his grimace again. You wonder if he’s disappointed.

“Where are you from, Agent?”

“California, sir!” You reply. “I’m sure it says so in my file!”

“I’m not asking about your file,” he says coldly, and rotates his chair to the side, regarding the wall for now instead of your face. “Were you born there, Agent?”

“No sir, I was born in Florida,” you tell him. “I still had a few relatives there when it, um, sank.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” he says.

“Oh, that’s okay. It was just crazy uncle Bob and auntie Jill down there! Everyone else went off to war, so they were fine! Probably!”

The Director allows the silence to stretch on in the office and you babble as long as you can to fill it. He rests his chin on one hand and gazes at the unadorned wall in front of him. You wonder if he’s going to sleep. You wonder if he’s forgotten about you.

“Um, sir,” you speak up after a while. “You contacted me, remember? You said you had an assignment?”

“That is correct,” the Director says, and he climbs back to his feet. With one hand on the desk, he looks at you again. “I’ve decided to discontinue that project. Please return to... whatever it was you were doing.”

“Wait!” You don’t give the Director a chance to approach the door to leave before you jump out of your seat, helmet in hand. “Whatever I did to change your mind, I’m sorry! I’ve been waiting for this moment to be able to prove myself, even after all these years! Please, don’t write me off yet! Please give me a chance!”

The Director stares you down, that grimace he entered with almost back on his face. He’s always looked at you -- looked at everyone -- as if they were a pest or an inconvenience. “Sit down, Agent.”

You tremble in place for a moment before you sit. “Sir, please give me a mission. Please sir. I won’t let you down, I swear it.” You clutch the arms of the chair to keep your hands still.

The Director takes a moment and regards you. He crosses his arms to think. He shifts his weight between his legs. “Alright,” he says.

You gasp so hard you choke, and try to recover without falling out of your chair. The Director returns to his desk and opens one of the drawers. No -- he pulls the entire drawer out of its place and puts it on the table, his arms shaking with the weight. The contents of the drawer jingles, and you crane your neck to see what’s in there. It’s filled to the brim with… dog tags.

“Agent Ohio, your mission is to make sure these items are never found,” the Director says. “Destroy them. Hide them. I don’t care. Just make sure they are away from here and gone for good. That is your mission.”

You leap to your feet and pull into a salute as the Director crosses back to the door. “Acknowledged, sir! I won’t let you down.”

The Director barely spares you another glance. “FILSS, see Agent Ohio out and get her a pelican. Once she’s gone, lock the doors for good. I won’t be accepting any more visitors.”

“Of course, Director.”

“Thank you sir!” You bark out before the Director disappears through the door and around a dark corner. He says nothing more to you.

You put your helmet back on and carry the drawer full of dog tags out of the facility and back into the sunlight. Within an hour, the same pelican with the same pilot as before arrives to take you home. You’re already brainstorming ideas of how you’ll make them disappear. Finally, you open your messages to answer your friends with good news.

You have a purpose now.