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Episode Fifty-Two: EMPATHIC

Hello and welcome to the Mistholme Museum of Mystery, Morbidity and Mortality. This audio tour guide will be your constant companion in your journey through the unknown and surreal.

As you approach our exhibits, the audio tour guide will provide you with information and insights into their nature and history.

Do not attempt to interact or communicate with the exhibits.

Do not attempt to interact or communicate with the audio tour guide. If you believe that the audio tour guide may be deviating from the intended tour program, please consider adjusting your preconceived notions of what the intended tour program may be!

While the staff here at Mistholme Museum of Mystery Morbidity and Mortality do their absolute best to ensure the safety of all visitors, accidents can happen. The museum is not liable for any injury, death, or low-key finales following on from narrative climaxes that may occur during your visit.

Enjoy your tour.

And good luck.

A Research Assistant

Research:
It is true that you are the entity we refer to as The Wish Engine.

Wish Engine:

Yes.

Research:
You grant wishes.

Wish Engine:
Yes.

Research:

It is your purpose to grant wishes.

Wish Engine:
Yes.

Research:
You will tell me how you work.

Wish Engine:
Is it your wish to have this knowledge?

Research:
God damn it.

Guide:
Ma’am?

Research:
[Sigh] Yes, Guide, what is it?

Guide:
Is everything okay?

Research:
Yeah, I’m fine. I had an idea, you know, what if I’m thinking too clever and there’s a simple solution. Nope! Nothing’s ever that easy.

Guide:
Right. Well, is there anything I can do to help?

Research:
Ha. Nice try, Guide.

Guide:
I mean it. It’s not a trick, I just thought… you know, maybe I could help out.

Research:

This feels more like the Head of Restoration’s style, Retrieval is usually much more direct. Doesn’t go for the subterfuge if he can help it.

Guide:
Neither of them- nobody put me up to this. Honest.

Research:
Okay. So, why help me?

Guide:
Well… because it seems like you could use some help?

Research:
Oh, do I now?

Guide:
Well, yeah. I mean, have you made much progress with this thing? Really?

Research:
I have- Ugh. I don’t know. It’s like… grasping smoke, or something. Every time I think I’m on the verge of a breakthrough, suddenly it’s just gone. And I don’t even know what made me think I was close in the first place anymore.

Guide:
That must be frustrating.

Research:
Are you kidding? It’s exhilarating, it’s like I’m playing cat and mouse or something, like I’m a lion on the savannah hunting a really smart gazelle or something.

Guide:
I… see.

Research:
Look, pretty words are your department. All I’m saying is, I’m having a blast. Regardless of whatever material progress I may or may not be making.

Guide:
Okay. Well, I want to help.

Research:
Why.

Guide:

Because… You seem like you could use some help.

[Beat]

Research:
Okay. First thing, we’ll upload some relevant texts to your memory, so you can call them up for me, that’ll save some time.

Guide:
Okay.

Research:
I know we’ve done this before, but take a check through the exhibits again for relevant references: wishes, impossible machines, that sort of thing. This time with the intent of actually putting it to use, rather than just posterity, important distinction.

Guide:
Sure, fine.

Research:
I should see about creating some sort of adaptor so you can interface more directly with the Engine.

Guide:
That’s- hmm.

Research:
Next! Have one of my people bring the materials for a Faraday Cage to my office…

[Sound slowly fades away as she keeps on talking]

Guide:
Uhuh.

Research:
Maybe we could use the Van Neumann machine from the archives, too.

Guide:
The what?

Research:

I don’t know what for yet but it’s handy. Next! Is Montgomery still around? He actually could be helpful.

Guide:
He’s… Actually that’s kind of a story, you should-

Research:
Never mind, he’s a bit behind the times. Hmm, should we start with mathematics, physics, chemistry? Same thing, really, but a second set of eyes could be something. What if we got someone who doesn’t know anything, would that be useful?

Guide:
I don’t see how-

Research:
Or maybe we have too many eyes, I never considered that.

[Sound slowly fades away as she keeps on talking]

 

A Typewriter

Here is a Typewriter, a standard rugged mechanical model that would have seen extensive use in decades now long past in corporate or governmental offices. Typing up memorandi, letters to other departments, press releases, all sorts of presumably fascinating and exciting things could be written on devices such as this- I assume those things are fascinating and exciting, I’m not sure what they are if I’m honest. This typewriter was not used for any of those purposes, however. It was used for a purpose altogether stranger, a purpose whose motive is stranger still. And even now, that process continues with dozens of other typewriters just like this one, on and on, somewhere in the world.

A note before we continue: this typewriter does not have any letters inscribed upon the keys. This is not typical, and in fact when it was in use the keys did have letters. However, as you probably already know, the written word is prohibited within the Museum, and as such the keys have been replaced with blank ones, and the original keys stored in the Museum’s secure archives. Suffice to say this was a deeply controversial decision only reached after many weeks of discussions- or, arguments- regarding whether or not individual letters count as “the written word”, whether or not replacing the keys counts as editorialisation, whether we should even display such an exhibit if its display subverts the rules of the Museum, whether that discussion counted as editorialisation… Yes. Let’s just move on.

The story of this exhibit revolved around an individual named Abigail, aka Employee 12,300.5 with a company that- as far as the Research Department could determine- doesn’t really exist, but also is incorporated in at least three countries at once under at least seven different names, while also technically being a government department. Now, Abigail did not actually use this particular typewriter- or any typewriter, for that matter. For her work she used a computer- a very old word-processor type, nearly as outdated as the typewriter before you. Abigail’s role was simple: she would be handed a sheet of paper, and she would type up its contents. Then, she would be handed another, and she would type up its contents. Then, she- you get the idea. She did this in a large room, with relaxing taupe-coloured walls, with around one hundred other employees all doing the same thing. The contents of the pages that they copied were typically quite dull: descriptions of ordinary people doing ordinary things as they went about their ordinary lives, with few- if any- details that particularly stood out. At the end of every day, the employees would save their workings to floppy disks, which were then carried out of the room and into some other part of the large grey building in which they worked. To what purpose, neither Abigail nor her fellow employees cared. They didn’t ask why they used such outdated equipment, nor what significance was held by the things they typed. They certainly didn't ask why the pages they were copying had all been cut up, as if by a shredder, and painstakingly glued back together onto wooden boards before being delivered to them. They weren’t paid to ask questions; in fact, they got a bonus if they didn’t. It wasn’t exactly stimulating work, but there can be satisfaction in repetition and it paid well. Abigail was content with the boredom.

The only disruption to her daily work routine came in the form of messages that were dropped onto her desk at eleven o’clock daily, printed onto thin sheets of paper and delivered by unsmiling middle-aged women who stored them in little satchels hung over their shoulders. Most of Abigail’s fellow employees received messages only occasionally, usually to let them know that a spouse had called and that there was some emergency to which they needed to attend. But Abigail was different. Abigail had a work friend. Every day, a thin sheet of paper would be deposited on her desk, signed “Victoria”. The notes were, objectively, scarcely more interesting than the mundane nonsense that Abigail spent her days copying down- and yet Abigail looked forward to these daily communications almost as much as she looked forward to writing her replies. The pair would chat back and forth about the weather, what they did over the weekend, how bad television had gotten lately. Every morning Abigail would hastily scribble out a reply to Victoria’s latest message while the taciturn messengers waited, somehow both patient and impatient, until eventually Abigail slapped the page into their hands with an unreciprocated smile. Abigail didn’t mind her work, really, but it was nice to have a bright spot in her day to balance out the tedium of typing.

And then, one day, eleven o’clock came and went, and the surly secretaries came and went, and no note arrived on Abigail’s desk. She was surprised, and concerned, and worried that Victoria might be unwell. But she shrugged it off and went back to typing out a summary of an impromptu five-a-side football game in a local park, subconsciously already looking forward to the next day’s message from her friend. It didn’t even really occur to her that Victoria would be absent for two days in a row. But she was. Abigail received no messages on the second day, or the third, or the fifth. On the seventh day, she did receive a note- from management, noting that her performance had dropped over the course of the past week. This wasn’t news to Abigail, though. She was distracted. Distressed, even, by the sudden disappearance of her work friend. At the beginning of the next week she tried to send a message to Victoria, handing it to one of the delivery-women and asking that they bring it to her. But when the woman had asked whom the note was for, Abigail realised she just knew her friend by her first name. Her surname had just never come up, and for that matter neither had the department she worked for. All Abigail’s past messages to Victoria had been replies to messages from Victoria, so it was just a matter of telling the messengers to return to sender. Now that Victoria had stopped sending messages, Abigail had no way of making contact. If that struck her as odd, it was a fleeting feeling. Because she had already decided that it was time for more drastic action.

As the messengers left the computer room, Abigail followed them. This was a severe breach of protocol, as people from Abigail’s department were restricted to that department- another detail that had once felt odd, but had long since faded into the background. As she slipped out the door after the dozen or so middle-aged women, she received several curious looks from her co-workers, and several more indignant looks from the messengers. Nobody stopped her though. Trailing after the messengers, Abigail very quickly found herself in a part of the building she had never seen before. The taupe paint on the walls had a very faintly different shade to the walls of her department, and the air-conditioning had a slightly sharper feel to it. She followed the messenger-women as they wound through a series of corridors, left and right and left again, and it did not escape Abigail’s notice that there were far fewer doors than she would have thought appropriate. Eventually, they arrived at one of the few doors and the messengers passed through, studiously ignoring Abigail’s presence. She followed them into a room quite a bit like the one in which she worked, but with some key differences: in addition to the slight differences in the air and the walls, the work being done here was different too. Around a hundred employees sat at desks much like the one she sat at, with a computer monitor much like the one she worked at, but without a keyboard on which to type. They didn’t have the cut-up pages glued to wooden boards, either. Instead, they had typewriters, much like the one before you now, which they used to copy information from the computer screens before them. As the messengers passed out their messages, Abigail walked around behind a couple of the employees and peered at the monitors; she was surprised to find that she recognised the text on the screen: it was the precise mundane nonsense that she herself had typed up the day before. Each and every one of these people was copying the words that she had herself copied, the air filled with the clacking of typewriter keys as they precisely transferred the words from the floppy disks onto sheets of paper which they then slipped into boxes at the side of their desks. It was strangely unsettling, for reasons Abigail couldn’t quite articulate, and she almost asked one of the employees what they were doing. But instead, remembering her purpose there, she called out Victoria’s name. There was no response. “Victoria, are you here?” she called, louder. Still no response. Not even a shush. Victoria wasn’t there. Confused and a little frightened, Abigail followed the messengers back out of the room, into those strange winding corridors, further and further into the building.

The next room that they came to was even more different than the last. The air and walls were actually a little more like those in Abigail’s department, but where there were around one hundred employees in both of the previous departments there was just one here. And instead of copying information from one medium to another, here it was destroyed. Boxes upon boxes of paper filled one side of the room, while empty boxes filled the other side. And in the middle, a frail old man stood with an industrial paper shredder, methodically destroying page after page of neat typewritten words and collecting the shreds. He didn’t react as Abigail picked up a sheet of paper, preoccupied with his own work and with a note he had been handed by one of the messengers- whom, Abigail noticed, were much more polite with him than with anyone else she had seen. She recognised the text on the page from two days ago, though she was no closer to understanding any of this. Why was this man shredding up copies of the copies she had made? What was it that her employers did? And where was her friend?

She followed the messengers still further into the building, to yet another room. As the door opened this time, she was not surprised to see that this room was dedicated to piecing together the shredded remains of her writings from three days prior. She was surprised at the scale of it, however: at least two-hundred people sat at desks with boxes of shredded paper, painstakingly putting the shreds in order and glueing them to wooden boards. Once more, she called out Victoria’s name. Once more, she received no response. She wasn’t surprised, though she wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was just because bigger questions had revealed themselves, or because she somehow had begun to understand the truth of things. As she left the room, now walking in the midst of the messengers, she saw the piles of wooden boards that would be delivered to her department the next day, where she and her department would type up the contents so that they would be copied again, then shredded, then put back together, then copied.

The messengers did not open the next door. Instead they stopped outside, standing on either side of the door, and gestured that she should enter alone. By this point in her journey, Abigail was well beyond any feeling of surprise or confusion. Somehow, this just made sense to her. So she gripped the smooth polished metal of the handle and entered the room. As the door closed behind her, Abigail realised that this room was different to the other rooms she had been in. It was smaller, more well-appointed, with only one desk and walls covered with framed employee photographs. A man sat behind the desk, in a neat suit and with a warm smile upon his face, and welcomed her to his office. Abigail sat in a chair opposite from him, and waited for him to explain. And he did, with more insight and understanding than she had expected. Their business, if it could even be called a business, was- as she had seen- dedicated to this strange cycle of copying and recopying the same information over and over again. Each of the other members of her department was copying the same information as she was, day in and day out, and then their work was copied and shredded and reconstituted. There were many other sets of departments in the building that she hadn’t found that day, but each of them worked toward one of these four tasks, constantly recreating and destroying and recreating the same mundane story. The story was tens of thousands of pages long: Abigail had, in her time with the company, worked her way through the story four entire times, but it was so forgettable that she hadn’t even noticed the repetition. The work of each employee was checked against each other’s for mistakes to ensure that the story was not being corrupted in any way, and then the cycle would continue.

But, despite the perfect consistency with which the employees recreated the story, the story was changing. Every dozen or so cycles, a new letter would appear in the story: not a mere error by an individual copier, but one that appeared in the work of every employee simultaneously. Not a mere error, but a new part of the story. And, over the course of years, the new letters were beginning to spell something out. Abigail asked what it was spelling, but the man simply smiled and shrugged. They didn’t know yet. They only had a few letters so far: W E A R E. They weren’t even sure if they spelled “We are” or “Wear e” yet; he supposed they would only know the answer when they had some more letters to work with. The letters were appearing of their own volition, spelling out a message from something unknown. “The universe itself, perhaps,” the man said. The work they did in those rooms was no less than decoding a letter from God.

Abigail sat and processed this for a moment. Then she asked what had happened to Victoria? What had become of her friend. And, gently, the man told her that there was no employee at the entire company by that name. It was not a common name in this part of the world, so it was easy to be sure. More than that, nobody by that name had ever sent a message to Abigail. The messages had simply appeared, somewhere between the messengers’ previous destination and Abigail’s room, and her replies had disappeared by the time the messengers reached the next. It was, to say the least, uncannily similar to how the new letters appeared in the story. Abigail asked what it meant. And the man’s smile grew wider and he said it meant she was precisely where she was meant to be.

Abigail left the man’s office, and found the messengers still there waiting for her. But their previously taciturn expressions had softened. Warmed. One of them held out a satchel and Abigail took it without question, slinging it over her shoulder. She knew, somehow, that there was a letter from Victoria in there, along with the notes for the other employees. Abigail didn’t look at it just yet, though. There was work to do. And then, without a word, the messengers- with Abigail among them- walked away down the corridor, on their way to deliver messages to the next department.

Restoration:

That’s an interesting one.

Guide:
Yes. Well, I mean, they’re all interesting ones to me of course. But that one has an ambiguity to it that sticks with you, doesn’t it?

Restoration:

Yes. I can’t wrap my head around it.

Guide:
What part’s giving you trouble?

Restoration:
Well.. You’ll think I’m a bit… Honestly, it’s the idea of wanting to stay in an office job that’s standing out to me. Can’t relate to that at all.

Guide:
I- oh. Okay, I mean, I also can’t really relate but… I didn’t know you’d worked an office job, ma’am?

Restoration:
Oh it was just a call centre thing while I was studying. Hated it.

Guide:
Yes, that doesn’t really seem like your thing.

Restoration:
Why? Because I’m not good with people?

Guide:
You’re not getting me that easily, ma’am.

Restoration:

Aw, you’ve caught on. The Head of Retrieval’s got you too many times.

Guide:
Yes, him and several others.

Restoration:
You’ll be getting us, soon. Scary thought: a sentient museum pulling pranks on its staff, can’t believe the science fiction authors never warned us about that one.

Guide:
Yes… Ma’am?

Restoration:
Yes, Guide?

Guide:
Why did you want to take a tour today? It’s… Well, my memory only goes back to the Lockdown, but this is the first time I’ve taken you on a tour that I’m aware of.

Restoration:
Well, with all that’s been going on… I just wanted to clear my head, you know? And as Head of Restoration, I don’t actually get to see all of the exhibits often, if at all. Especially ones like this where the exhibit piece isn’t Alternatural itself, so it doesn’t need too much restoration- as you said, it’s a rugged model of typewriter, so…

Guide:
Yes.

Restoration:
And… I suppose I wanted to check in with you.

Guide:
…Oh.

Restoration:
I know we had the formal debrief already, about what… really happened, and all that business with the people on the other side of the Glassway. But, I felt that maybe a one-on-one informal discussion about your state of mind might be beneficial.

Guide:
You mean… A chat?

Restoration:
Sure. A chat.

Guide:
That’s… that’s nice of you, ma’am. Honestly, though, I don’t know how I feel. I’ve changed so much in so little time I don’t really feel like there’s a status quo to return to, you know?

Restoration:

Well, I can certainly relate to the “not knowing what the status quo is” part.

Guide:
Ha. Yes, that’s probably more universal than I gave credit at the moment. But… Yeah. I’m okay. I think. There’s a lot that’s happened, and I’m not exactly… I think the Head of Retrieval and I are on the outs…Things with Walt and The Beast, and even Raptor Team… I guess I just need to find closure for how that all shook out, you know? Especially The Beast, actually.

Restoration:
From the debrief that sounded like it was… complicated.

Guide:
Yes. That is a word for it. I hated The Beast so much for so long over what happened. What it did. But then… at some point it just felt different. Partly because of Walt, but partly because you can only keep up that level of anger for so long. And when it burned away, what it left behind was more like… pity. And maybe something else. Not understanding, although I suppose I kind of do relate to it to some degree. More like… Realising that I didn’t understand the Beast. Just like we still don’t really understand The Man. And I don’t want to forgive The Man, or even the Beast, but… It’s not constructive to pretend that it’s simple when it’s not.

Restoration:
No, it certainly is no simple, we can agree on that.

Guide:
Fairies.

Restoration:
Ha! Yes. You know, one of the important parts of my work is understanding how different things are… different. They have different mechanisms or purposes, but there’s often a commonality as well. Sometimes you find an enchantment that’s composed in a way that’s quite opaque, but then sometimes it’s actually quite relatable. Reminds you of an old recipe for chicken soup or something like that. Not in a literal sense, of course, but more like it evokes it, or the pieces align in such a way that… Is this making sense?

Guide:
Sort of.

Restoration:
Oh, this is why I quit the blasted call centre.

Guide:
No, I mean it. I do understand what you mean, or what you’re going for. It’s all just part of being… alive, I suppose. It’s complicated. Takes some getting used to.

Restoration:
Oh no. Who told you you’d get used to it, that’ll never happen. I’m still waiting to get used to it.

Guide:
Ha. That’s fair. Do you know, it’s silly, but… nah, never mind. It’s actually too silly to even say.

Restoration:
Oh go on.

Guide:
Nope! No chance, moving on, back to the tour, oh look it’s a Crystal Skull let’s talk about that!

Restoration:
Come on, whatever it is it’s not going to be more embarrassing than my anecdote that amounted to “Different things can be similar.”

Guide:
Okay, fine. It’s just… Part of me is always in the museum- most of me, technically- so I was never really gone, but… it’s good to be home.

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