Whack-a-Mole
rating: +15+x

2021


1 January

Site-120: Częstochowa, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland


Eileen Veiksaar was suspicious by nature, and by trade. She wasn't a spy, or a psychologist, or a lawyer, but she had spent two decades in information technology so she knew a great deal about lying. She knew that nobody had ever directly admitted to stepping, or sitting, or falling on a company laptop or tablet. She knew that everybody who'd ever been issued a desktop computer with internet access had used it for personal browsing. She knew that no software was bug-free, no hardware ever performed to spec, and no instruction manual for software or hardware perfectly reflected the shipped product.

Her cynicism about technology had become a general cynicism, since technology essentially defined her life as Chief of Identity and Technocryptography at Site-43. So when Daniil Sokolsky woke her up in the middle of the night and said he was flying her to ETTRA headquarters, Area-09 in the Great Basin Desert, she suspected it might be a lie. When she saw they were taking a jet instead of a helicopter, she decided it was likely a lie. When she discovered that the jet's windows were opaqued, she knew with the absolute certainty of a woman who had replaced dozens of cellphones which had absolutely, positively not been dropped into toilets that Sokolsky wasn't taking her to California.

She kept a straight face for the entire ride over, the two of them casually ignoring each other. Sokolsky pretended he wasn't trying to deceive her, and she pretended to be deceived. But when the plane finally shuddered to a stop, and the pilot announced that they'd arrived, she looked Sokolsky square in the eyes and said "So, where are we?"

He looked pleased by the question, and made no effort to dissimulate. "Poland."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "What's in Poland?"

He grinned. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

She nodded. "So that's why you never tell me anything."


120A.png

The front-facing superstructure of Site-120 was unprepossessing even by Foundation standards: a gigantic disused factory, all rust and concrete and obscured glass, towering over the broad embankments of a river. Once they moved past the facade, however, Eileen and Sokolsky found themselves in a fairly standard set of offices, archives and cafeterias. A pair of agents escorted them into the lower levels, past the containment wings and laboratories, past the vast anomalous library, down to where the Site's more technical apparatus was stored.

They emerged from the elevator to find themselves in a long tiled tunnel lined with pipes, electrical conduits and exposed wires. Some of them looked new, zip-tied together or spliced with electrical tape. They could hear arguing in the distance, and it was getting closer.

"Please stop," was the first thing Eileen heard clearly. The voice was young, tired, and vaguely accented; Polish, she guessed.

"Just listen," said a second voice, high, strident, excited. "He's telling me we can increase energy efficiency elevenfold, and all we have to do is consume a few more moulderin—"

AsheworthPlaceholder.png

"There's no more time!" The first man appeared around a bend in the tunnel, the second bouncing up and down behind him at his heels. "They'll be here any…" He noticed Eileen, Sokolsky and their escorts waiting at the elevator, and waved weakly. "They're here."

The second man waved both hands at them. "Hello! It's ready! Well yes I know, it's ALMOST ready, there's no point disappointing them." He delivered this aside to the empty air over the first man's shoulders. The first man clutched at his spiked black hair with his thick white gloves, and groaned.

Sokolsky pointed at him. "Director Daniel Asheworth, Ontokinetics." Eileen nodded. Reality-bending.

Sokolsky pointed to the second man, and Eileen nodded pre-emptively. "I know that guy, he was at 43 last month under an assumed name."

Asheworth and his giddy compatriot reached them just as she said this, and the latter stuck out his hand for her to shake. "That's me," he said. "But I didn't assume my name the way you presume. Placeholder McDoctorate, at your service."

Eileen shook his hand; his hand was trembling. "You under deep cover, or something?"

He shook his shaggy head. "No, I'm under a curse. If I told you my real name, no, obviously I'm not going to tell her, you'd forget it in an instant. Pataphysics is a dangerous game, and I wasn't always such a skilled player."

She nodded. "Who are you talking to? When you're not talking to the people I can see."

"He's talking to himself," Asheworth sighed. "From 2034."

She nodded again. "If you don't want to tell me…"

"It's the truth," said Sokolsky. "These gentlemen have been working very hard to enable our activities today, and they've had to work some unusual angles."

"And what might those activities be?" she asked.

"They're going to make me more copies of the password."

She stretched her mouth out in a gesture of exasperation. "How?"

Sokolsky grinned. "They're going to make more copies of me."


120A.png

"That's not quite right, of course," said Asheworth as he led them deeper into the facility.

"It's not remotely right," Placeholder muttered. "And it won't get righter if you get your explanations from Dr. Magic, here."

"At least my magic makes sense," Asheworth retorted. "And I like to think I've spent enough time on this project that I could explain it to a layman."

"Yes, but you have to SHUT THE FUCK UP!" McDoctorate suddenly hammered his palm into his forehead. "SHUT THE FUCK UP! I can't talk to these idiots while you're filling up our brain with…" He blinked. "Thank you." He opened his eyes, and looked at them each in turn. They'd stopped walking to stare at him. "Sorry. He won't leave until we're sure the device works."

"Who's he?" Eileen asked.

"Future me," said Placeholder, scratching at several five o'clocks worth of stubble. "He designed the device, and told me how to IS STILL TELLING ME how to make it EVEN THOUGH IT'S ALREADY MADE." He looked, just for a moment, like he wanted to cry. "It's been a hard month."

"The device will work, though," Asheworth emphasized. He made eye contact with Sokolsky. "It will."

"What device?" Eileen asked, almost certain the answer wouldn't clear anything up.

They'd reached a heavy, old-fashioned looking iron door. Asheworth tapped its mis-matched keycard reader with a key — an actual key, ornate brass filigree — and swung it open to reveal… something.

"Our baby," said Asheworth proudly. "Th—"

"MY baby," Placeholder interrupted. He paused, and nodded. "OUR baby, yes, but not HIS baby."
Asheworth sighed yet again, and gestured at the massive piece of jumbled machinery standing before them. It looked like a jet engine from a flying time machine by Doc Brown. "The Recursive Entity Identity Stability Normalization/Oscillation Cannon."

Placeholder prodded Asheworth in the shoulder. "That's not what it stands for. At all."

Asheworth glared at him, and then slowly, deliberately, prodded him back. "You showed up with the cannon fully-built and an acronym already in hand, you can't give me this one little thing?"

"Not if you're going to do that with it. Acronyms are the music of the spheres, Asheworth, you can't just bang away at them." He drew himself up proudly, and gestured at the device with more flourish than Asheworth had. "This is the Retrocausally-Engineered Intertemporal Synchronization of Noetic Ordinality Cannon."

"REISNOC," said Eileen, who had been paying attention.

Both Asheworth and Placeholder shook their heads. "REISNO," said Asheworth.

"The REISNO Cannon," said Placeholder.

Veiksaar shrugged.

"Say it fast," Placeholder suggested.

She said it fast. She grimaced.

Placeholder laughed. "You were right! She did grimace." He grimaced too. "Of course, of course you were right, you saw her do it, didn't you? I'm surprised you remembered a grimace all those years later." He paused. "I won't tell her you said that."

She prodded him in the shoulder. "Explain this thing, please."

He grew visibly excited. "Oh, it's fantastic. We're really slipping the bounds of surly canon with this one, hence the name." He was beaming. "It lets you be yourselves."

Eileen nodded. "As opposed to."

"As opposed to being yourself. Yourselves is plural. It lets you be more than one you!"

"It syncs your mind with your previous minds," Asheworth interjected.

"However many you need," Placeholder agreed. "You can access the combined knowledge of your entire prior life, if you want!" He swung his arms in the air theatrically, thwacking a thick bundle of cables off the wall in the process. Asheworth scrambled to reattach them.

"Why would I want?" Eileen shook her head. "What does past me know that present me doesn't?"

"Well, that's not the link I had in mind, really. I was more thinking of passing on information to the past." Placeholder was nodding so hard she thought his head might fall off.

"Doesn't that create a time paradox?"

Now he was shaking his head with equal vigour. "No, because it can't. You can only use the cannon to contact your past self, ergo you can only use the cannon when you did use the cannon. To complete the call you already know you must have made."

She considered this insanity for longer than it deserved. "You're saying… if I remember talking to my future self, I have to make a call on your cannonphone at some point in the future, to… complete the time loop?"

"Yes."

"And if I haven't ever talked to my future self, I can't make a call on your cannonphone?"

"Yes!"

"And what happens if I do? Or if I don't make a call I'm supposed to make?"

"Oh, the world ends, probably." Placeholder shrugged.

She stared at him. "The Earth-world, or the universe-world?"

"Seems academic, really," said Placeholder. Asheworth rolled his eyes.

She looked at Sokolsky. "Wait a minute. Is this… wait a minute."

He nodded. "Say it."

She took a deep breath. "You've known the password in the past."

He nodded again.

"You're going to call yourself… in the past… which has already happened… and you're going to access multiple… temporal… versions of the password. At once. That's how you can have more than one copy."

He grinned. "And your head didn't even explode! Well done."

Her head was swimming. "How many versions of yourself are you calling at once?"

"Fourteen."

"Oh, no," said Placeholder. "That's a terrible—"

"Fourteen," Sokolsky repeated. "And it's already happened, remember?"

"Wait," said Eileen. "Wait. Wait. Wait. Fourteen."

"Yes," said Sokolsky. "I'm calling seven former selves immediately, so I can send everyone their first copies before they head on out, and seven more to send them their seconds."

Eileen felt faint. "You're doing, oh god. You're doing every one of these operations on the same fucking day."

Placeholder rubbed his temples. "You're going to lose your mind."

Eileen fought the urge to rub her own temples. "That, also, has already happened."


120A.png

The procedure was stunning in its abject simplicity. First, McDoctorate deactivated the cannon. The light in the aperture winked out, the aperture closed, and the omnipresent whirring sound in the jury-rigged operation room mercifully ceased. This appeared to cause him no end of relief; he nearly collapsed, as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from his mind and the suddenly empty space had been replaced with cold air. He rallied magnificently, however, and proceeded swiftly to the second step: sitting Sokolsky down on a simple plastic chair in front of the cannon's aperture, and pressing Asheworth's gloved hands against a pair of electrified touchplates embedded into the wall.

"We need to give it a jolt every time we make the initial call," Asheworth explained. "I'm going to channel the latent thaumaturgical overflow from the library below the Site — which is going to piss off the Keeper something fierce, by the way — and then I'm going to channel it through myself, into the generators in the walls, and into the Cannon."

Eileen couldn't hide her cynicism. "This thing draws a lot of power."

Asheworth nodded. "Yep."

"And you're going to pull that much power through your own body, without ill effect?"

He shrugged. "I'm grounded." He pointed at the floor; he was standing on a rubber mat.

"Wait," she said. "No. No. Rubber doesn't ground you. Rubber prevents you from being grounded, which is a good thing."

"Yeah," he agreed, "but this is magic grounding. It's different."

"His magic is very grounded," added Placeholder. He giggled softly.

She looked at Sokolsky, wide-eyed. Sokolsky smiled at her.

She sighed, and left the room.


120A.png

One hour later, the REISNO Cannon spun down and Sokolsky began to spin up. "Ho boy," he said, his eyes completely glazed over. "This is… okay, but… okay but it's my turn, because I'm the present me. Yes I know it looks that way to you, but… okay, fine, I'm the future me. The future us. SHUT UP." He grinned manically at Eileen. "We're fine."

She escorted him to the comms center on the top sublevel, linking their arms together when he showed every sign of falling over. She didn't try to engage him in conversation; there didn't seem to be much point, since he was perpetually engaged in seven conversations all at once.

He managed to keep his shit together long enough to deliver each password to each agent; none of them suspected a thing, so far as she could tell, though they were all surprised to learn that he was not presently at Site-43. She'd prepared the comms devices and her noise-cancelling headphones ahead of time (Nhung Ngo would use a similar setup for her pantomime at Site-55) and it didn't take long, or too many technicians, to get everything up and running. The full process still took several hours, since each agent was departing for their targets at a different time to disguise their comings and goings from each other. No-one outside of Site-120 was to know that these operations were all happening simultaneously. Sokolsky obviously didn't want word getting out; if any of his target Groups of Interest happened to be on friendly terms, they might compare notes and realize they were being set up.

When all seven passwords were away, Sokolsky slumped down in his chair. She told him he should get some sleep; instead, he stood back up and shakily made his way to the door.

"Where are you going?"

"To get the next seven."

She followed him, which was how she barely managed to catch him as he fell. She shoved him back to his feet. "After ditching your present guests, one hopes."

"Nope! Can't ditch them until they get their passwords back. Gotta do all fourteen Sokolskys at once!"

She gawped for a full ten seconds as he stumbled down the corridor before rushing to link arms with him again.


120A.png

When Okorie called for her second copy of the password, she sounded cool and confident. "Everything's going like clockwork."

"That's…" said Sokolsky. He nodded. "You've…" He nodded.

Okorie frowned. "You're breaking up."

Eileen sighed. "You don't know the half of it." She slipped on her headphones, and Sokolsky vomited the string of characters into Okorie's ears at a speed and volume she was almost certain would induce them both to actual vomiting. The first time, it didn't even work; the second time was the charm.

"Talk slower," Eileen warned him. "And get some Gatorade, or something. You're gonna pass out."


SH.png

1 January

Site-91: Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom


Xavia Morse was spoilt for choice in the occult library of Site-91. It wasn't that the place was big; it was impressive, as manorial collections went, but it wasn't exactly the Bodleian Library. Any amount of truly esoteric knowledge was a lot, however, and the row after row of dark oak bookcases now confronting her was more than more than a lot.

First, she disabled the wards on the stacks. Then she grabbed a few tomes she knew from prior visits she'd want and stacked them carefully on the central desk. Then she went hunting, a few keywords rattling around in her head. Books she knew existed, and suspected might be here. Books she knew the Library wanted. Books she knew the Hand wanted. One by one, she made her selections. Lévi's Tome of Passage. The Ley Almanac. The Book of the Turning Falcon. There was no reason for her to hurry — nobody capable of bringing down the ward she'd put on the doors would be able to get here before the Way opened, and she was gone — but she was hurrying nevertheless. Her hands were shaking. Her resolve…

I am not stealing this knowledge. She hammered the palms of both hands into her forehead. I am setting it free. It hardly felt like an accomplishment. Her clearance level had made disabling the Site's thaumaturgic countermeasures a breeze. Her long years of service had made the acceptance of her application to use the password a foregone conclusion. Everyone trusted her, and almost nobody much cared for her; they'd practically fast-tracked her betrayal, and it made her feel… she wasn't sure how it made her feel.

She grabbed one final tome, glanced at the doors with a longing she couldn't justify, and completed the incantation which would link this library to a far greater one. She waved her hand through the empty space in front of her, and as the Way materialized in front of her…

…there was a faint fizzling sound from behind her, and she turned to watch the doors swing silently open on well-oiled hinges.

The books were out of reach. She dropped to a crouch behind the desk, and crept around the corner. Three figures entered the room: Okorie, the unassuming woman who'd brought her the password; Varga, the Site Director; and…

Fahd.

She felt like screaming. It was like a bad joke. She was in the final stage of the greatest heist in the Hand's history, and it was all about to go pear-shaped, and the thing which pained her the most was missing her date to watch Léon with Fahd Naaji, the only person she'd become close with in her fifteen years at Site-91. Was it a coincidence, or was this the final test of her resolve?

It didn't matter. She stood up.

"Xavia?" Fahd was the only one who spoke. He was pointing his pistol at her; she saw with yet another pang of guilt that he almost lowered it before a wordless glance from Varga stiffened him back up. "What are you doing here?"

"What does it look like she's doing?" Varga snapped. "Take her into custody."

Morse pointed at the Way. "I'm one step away from freedom, and I move faster than he does."

"You're not leaving without the books," said Varga. "Ergo, you're not leaving."

"But why?" The look on Fahd's face was don't look at his face. "I thought we…"

"Don't beat yourself up about it," Xavia spat, putting in all the venom she could muster, trying to push him away without touching him. "I'm a better thaumic than anyone in my unit was. You were always out of your league with me." She didn't like the way that came out, but she forced herself not to correct it. She inched towards the desk, towards the books. Fahd's pistol was quivering in the air.

"If you try to cast anything, I'll shoot," Fahd half-whispered. "If you go for the books… I'll shoot." She knew he didn't mean it. "Come quietly, and we can talk this over." He was walking towards her, and glancing back over his shoulder; Xavia realized he was keeping tabs on Varga and Okorie, positioning himself between them and the traitor.

He thinks he can save me. He thinks there's a chance we all leave here together as friends.

"Idiot," she said. "Get out of here while you still can." She reached out for the nearest set of tomes, and flinched when his first bullet impacted on the surface of the desk.

"I said," he rasped, "Don't move." He was almost upon her now. She didn't know what she was going to do.

"I can't take you with me," she said, so softly that only he could hear her. "But I have to go."

He shook his head. "You're in control here. You decide how this plays out. You tell me what to do, how you want this to end, and I'll help you."

She looked into his deep, trusting brown eyes, and for a moment, just a moment, she thought about telling him to turn around and put a bullet in his Site Director's leg. Not enough to kill her, but certainly enough to put her out of commission. She glanced past his broad shoulders; Varga was still behind him, but Okorie was creeping around the edge of the room. In a few moments, Xavia would be flanked.

She reached for the books again, and this time he let her take them. The Way was just a few meters behind her.

"I have to go," she repeated. She blinked away tears. "I'm sorry."

His face hardened. "I understand," he said.

He turned back towards the doors, and a single shot rang out, and he fell to the floor in a heap.

Xavia dropped the books, and fell on top of him. He was bleeding; he'd been shot in the shoulder. She looked up to see Varga standing in the doorway, pistol still smoking. She advanced, and Okorie moved in from the side…

…and Xavia raised both hands in front of her, and put everything she had (and the one-time password) into finishing the emergency barrier she'd never expected to use. The air between her and her pursuers clouded, and they stopped in their tracks. It would only last a moment. Okorie put both hands against it, probing it as if checking for weaknesses.

"I can't…" Xavia swallowed. "I can't send more than one person through the Way. There isn't enough power. It was only meant for me."

Fahd nodded.

The aphorisms resurfaced in her mind, one last time. Knowledge is an act of love. We learn, that we might understand. We understand, that we might protect.

She cupped his face in her hand, and nearly wept.

There wasn't enough time to weep, however. There was enough time to haul him to his feet, to ignore his protestations, to turn her back on the woman with the gun and the woman with the Coke-bottle glasses, and shove the only person at Site-91 who still didn't hate her into the open Way. It snapped shut behind him before he struck the polished oaken floor of the Wanderer's Library.

She still didn't turn around, not even when she heard the barrier drop several seconds too soon. "They'll take care of him," she said. "They saw what he did, they know he's not one of you anymore."

"Turn around," Varga snapped. Xavia turned around. Okorie was already picking the fallen books up off the floor, and examining their spines. The Director had already lowered her pistol.

"How did you get past the door?" Xavia asked. "And the barrier? Even if you knew the password, every thaumaturge in the Site is locked in the barracks right now."

"Every thaumaturge you know about," Varga responded.

Xavia blinked. She stared at Varga. She stared at… Okorie.

"Site Directors are a special breed," Okorie grinned. "They always think two steps ahead." Almost as an afterthought, she traced a few thin lines in the air and restored the wards on the stacks.


120A.png

1 January

Site-120: Częstochowa, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland


Amelia Torosyan called in early for her second copy, or rather Site-77 Director Shirley Gillespie did, which freed Sokolsky's schedule up considerably. He slept, though fitfully; only three of his fourteen targets had been asleep themselves at the time he was talking to them, and the mis-match played havoc with his brain. He flip-flipped on the simple cot so often, Eileen was certain he would break his collarbone.

Asheworth and Placeholder were arguing about the cannon in the next room. Something about the ongoing power drain, and then something about…?

"What? What?" Placeholder was still manic after his long date with the Cannon. "You're telling me I put all that time into the torque specifications for nothing?"

"I told you in an email!" Asheworth's tone was now permanently long-suffering. "Torque literally doesn't matter!"

"You did n—"

A pregnant pause, as if notes were being consulted, and then: "Is that what "Turks literally don't matter" means?"

She closed her eyes, and willed herself to drift off to sleep…

Sleep…

Beep. Her pager, and Sokolsky's, in perfect sync.

She keyed the comms. "Go ahead."

"Eileen?" It was Delfina Ibanez; she'd obviously been running. "Eileen, is that you? I need the second password, fast."

Eileen stood up and shook Sokolsky awake. He fairly leapt to his feet, shouted "NOT WHILE WE'RE LINKED, PLEASE, HAVE SOME DECEN—" then slapped himself on both cheeks, one hand after the other. He looked at her. "Who is it?"

Eileen slipped the headphones on, and mouthed Ibanez.

He nodded, swayed on the spot, and began droning out yet another password. He got it right the first time, this time.


HI.png

1 January

Gandhinagar: Gandhinagar District, Gujarat, Republic of India


Under a different name, the name she'd been born with, Sunita Misra had destroyed many anomalies in many bizarre ways. She had detonated a thinking, literally thinking bomb by quoting poetry at it. She had melted a magical sword by temporarily converting to Zoroastrianism. She had killed a demon by forcing it to eat communion wafers. The Global Occult Coalition had considered her one of its most flexible, creative, effective agents.

She had, however, never destroyed a festering, cancerous wound on a national psyche by sitting in an office and waiting for an internet connection to dial in. It was an appropriately absurd capstone on a thoroughly chequered career.

"You're sure this will be enough?" the man in the immaculate grey and white suit demanded for the third time. He was sweating, even in the climate-controlled office he'd borrowed from the state governor for this special occasion; the Minister of Home Affairs had weathered security challenges before, of course, but this was something entirely outside of his experience. Misra almost expected his glasses to fog up.

"It will take them at least ten more minutes to reboot the system," she said. She kept her hands folded neatly in her lap, and maintained confident eye contact. "You'll have your data in five, enough to bury them ten times over."

Amit Shah frowned. "You're willingly implicating yourself, if what you say is true. If they're really doing what you say they're doing."

She smiled. "I'll be gone before you make your report, and you'll never find me." She'd done it before. She hoped she was about to do it for the final time.

Shah looked down at the laptop computer she'd supplied. She knew there was nothing so cinematic as a progress bar, just a constantly refreshing connection-seeking dialogue. The Foundation had such tight cybersecurity that India's best experts had never managed to crack it; five minutes wasn't a long time to wait, considering the miracles Misra's hacked subroutines were about to manage.

The screen died — she saw it in his glasses — and Shah nearly jumped. "What in…"

The screen flashed back on, and a familiar prompt appeared on the screen. Someone's calling. Even in miniature, even in reverse, she could see who it was. As her world fell apart, she watched Shah decide whether he really wanted to talk to Azad Banerjee, Director of Site-36…

…before the call went through anyway.

"Minister Shah, good afternoon. Are you alone?"

Shah nodded, keeping his eyes on the screen. "Of course. What's this regarding?"

"We've had an attempted security breach. A rogue GOC agent is attempting to access our network from off-Site; she powered down our systems and rebooted them with administrator privileges."

Shah was really sweating, now. "Your lights appear to be on, Director."

Banerjee nodded. "We have alternate sources of power."

Misra suddenly realized why he seemed out of breath. The Everhart Generator. There was enough energy in that thing to power the Site's non-thaumaturgic systems ten times over, and he was an accomplished technician. Oh, Azad, if only you'd developed your heart while you were developing your brain.

A second voice, the voice of the agent who'd inadvertently supplied the password to Misra, chimed in. She, too, sounded out of breath, and there was a loud roar behind her. "She also toasted the Site's interface and comms network, but luckily I kept my security team off the grid. It was a simple matter to remote-call the hacked network, feed in the password and disable the transmission."

Shah swallowed. "Transmission?"

Misra's head was spinning. How do you have the password? I have the password.

"Yeah, the rogue agent was trying to send you our files. Probably thinks there's something incriminating in there, though who knows what that might be."

As Misra edged towards the door — Shah was no danger to her, but she hoped to make a neat exit — three loud raps from the other side nearly stopped her heart.

Shah looked at her. He looked back at the screen. He sighed. "Your team," he said. "I'm assuming you're mobile?"

The door opened, and Delfina Ibanez strolled in. "Helicopter!" she declared, all smiles. "Going somewhere, Nita?"


120A.png

1 January

Site-120: Częstochowa, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland


"Is there any chance of this causing permanent damage?"

Placeholder shrugged. "Absolutely. Do you have any change?"

She fished around in her labcoat, and produced a toonie. "Does it take Canadian money?"

Asheworth sighed, and tapped his ID card against the vending machine. The buttons all lit up. "Go hog wild."

Placeholder hammered every single button, in order, and a cavalcade of snackfoods poured into the hopper.

"Place, for fuck's—"

Beep.

Eileen checked her pager, then jogged back to the comms center. She heard Sokolsky's pager beeping in tune with hers; by the time she reached him, he was already face-down on the desk. She prodded him awake. "Who was it?"

"Me and me and what?" He blinked blearily at her.

"Who was it?"

"Oh," he agreed, and he closed his eyes.

She pried them back open. "Who was it?"

"Lillian," he said. "She didn't check in. We and me've been teeping kabs. Teeping kaps. Tabkeepings. On her. Didn't check in, so I called." He slumped forward so hard that his head struck the table, and he jerked back in surprise. "Whoah." He blinked again, his eyes suddenly clear. "Sounds like she's having a good time."

"Did she mention me?" asked Placeholder, sitting down with two armfuls of open potato chip bags.


CI.png

1 January

Site-45: Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia


Lillian Lillihammer looked down at the PDA. She looked up at Chief Technician Max Vroom. She cocked her head to one side. "What do you mean nobody died?"

Vroom took his PDA back. "I mean, nobody except the mole. Yeah, we got almost absurdly lucky here." He closed his mouth, and smiled, and opened it again. "Rather, we've got very competent personnel and very tight security here."

"Already writing your report to O5, huh?" She winked at him. "Now, what's this you were saying about a submarine?"

"We sunk one. With the MTFs already topside on The Rig, and us knowing that's how Rask planned to make his escape, they never stood a chance. A few depth charges, and boom. Go insurge yourself."

Lillian retrieved her umbrella from where it was leaning against a computer console. "You're sure it was Insurgency?"

"Yeah, had the ice cream swirl logo on the hull and everything."

She guffawed. "Ice cream swirl, nice. I've been calling it the angry daisy."

Vroom burst out laughing. "It does look like an angry daisy." He stopped laughing for a moment, then added: "The Peppermint Insurgency."

She very nearly kissed him, but he wasn't really her type. She offered him a job instead.


120A.png

1 January

Site-120: Częstochowa, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland


"Hey," said Asheworth, sitting down at the table beside Eileen. "You work in IT, right?"

"That's technically what my Section stands for," she agreed. "What's up?"

He set down a PDA. "This thing has been giving me hell for a year now." He slid it in front of her.

She keyed the power switch while he explained. "I don't like computers. I'm not from… well. Where I'm from, we didn't have a lot of them. I like talking things out, you know? So I use voice recognition."

She nodded.

"It doesn't… well, it doesn't always recognize my voice properly. But that's not the real problem, I just need to lose this damn accent I guess." He shook his head. "The real problem is, it hasn't been sending my emails properly either. They keep bouncing back. Can you take a look?"

"Sure." She frowned. "You have anything sensitive on here?"

He had already left.


SC.png

1 January

Sloth's Forest: Douglas County, Wisconsin, United States of America


Ryan Melbourne gazed pensively into the infinite nothingness at the heart of his home town. He held up his Gamblers' Anonymous chip, drew it close to his eyes, and blotted out the Pit entirely. He closed his eyes and thought about William Wettle, the new guy, who by now was already celebrating his victory back at Site-87. Ryan knew how these self-contained little stories went. Wettle had gotten his moment in the spotlight, and now he was in the big leagues. He would get the final scene, as the main character so often did, Sloth's Pit would move on, the other protagonists would keep on protagging, and tertiary character Ryan Melbourne would remain stuck in the perennial background.

He lowered the chip, and considered tossing it in.

Don't even think of littering, kid.

It took him a moment to realize he wasn't hearing his internal monologue. He didn't often call himself "kid."

Have a little respect for your local historic sites. The voice was barely louder than a whisper.

Ryan looked down at the pit again. "Is that you? Are you… Jackson Sloth?"

The voice laughed. Do I sound like a Jackson?

Ryan stepped back instinctually. "Please don't be the Pit Sloth."

That laugh again, so tinny and so faint. Do I sound like a sloth? My, how soon they forget. No matter how strong your start, if the writers forget you, you get consigned to Early Installment Weirdness in two seasons or less.

Ryan slapped his forehead. "I know you. You're… what was it, Chapman-292? The Hum?"

392. What's the point of a system if it doesn't help you remember? The voice sounded somehow even fainter, now.

Ryan sighed, and walked back to the edge of the pit. "I know what it's like to be forgotten. Not even the goddamn Nexus remembers me."

The Nexus remembers everyone. It's the writers that lose the thread. Ryan had to strain to hear the words. Of course, that's not really fair. Some of us just aren't that inspiring. There aren't many narrative uses for a disembodied voice in the woods. Not until a linguistic story comes around, and who wants to read one of those?

Ryan nodded. "Yeah, that's…" He paused. "That sounded like… foreshadowing."

Rearshadowing, actually.

"Of course. The password. Dr. Wettle's story."

It's not his story until it's over. It could still be your story.

Ryan laughed harshly. "Like hell."

You've never heard of a Decoy Protagonist? Because that's what I just made your Dr. Wettle into.

Ryan frowned. "And how did you do that?"

I'll tell you, if you promise to tell everyone else.

"Everyone else being…?"

The two dozen agents presently combing this forest for whoever snatched the password right out of Dr. Wettle's stupid head.

If Ryan had dropped his chip, he could've heard it. The air was silent with anticipation. "You're… you're serious? You stole 5109?"

Ayup.

"And you're bringing it to ME?"

Right again.

"Why?"

Because this isn't his story, dummy. He didn't want it to be, and he didn't learn anything. He's just malignant narrative right now, so what say you and I lop him off?

His mind was racing. "But this is his story, whether he wants it or not. The only difference is how he chooses to experience it, whether he decides to let it build him up or not. Stories build character."

No. The voice was suddenly stronger. Characters build stories.

And then it whispered something else in his ear, something which stuck. He gasped as he realized what it was, what it meant.

He looked down at the bottomless pit.

He flicked his chip down into it.

As he turned to go, the chip pinged off the back of his head and landed in the grass at his feet. He heard it rustle as it landed. "Don't litter, boy," an old man's voice drawled from the endless depths.


SC.png

William Wettle felt badly used. The short story of the Leet Phreaks had seemingly been forgotten in the furor over the misplaced password; he'd expected to spend the rest of the day as the toast of the sleepy midwestern town he'd been forced against his will to visit, and instead he'd spent it in the back of an MTF wagon, waiting for reports. Sokolsky was going to kill him.

"Don't fuck up," he muttered.

"Bit late for that!" Agent Ruby Williams didn't seem put out at having missed quitting time to babysit Wettle. None of the agents did.

He hated them for it.

The mobile operations centre's radio crackled to life, and Wettle recognized the voice of So-and-So Ewell. "Ten-Delta calling Ten-Command."

Ruby flicked a switch. "Go ahead, Nick."

"You can tell Dr. Wettle we found his little lost lamb."

A weight fell from Wettle's shoulders, and settled in the pit of his stomach. Now Sokolsky was merely going to mock him, which was nothing new, really. "Where? And how?"

Ruby flicked the switch again. "Where'd you find it? Up a tree?"

"I didn't find it. Dr. Melbourne did. He says the Hum came out of nowhere and told it to him."

Ruby's eyes widened. "Say again?"

"You heard me. The Hum plucked the password right out of Wettle's mind, and delivered it to Melbourne. Told him it can read people's minds, and steal their thoughts. That's bullshit, right?"

"It's definitely bullshit, but." Ruby flicked a second switch. "All units, evacuate Sloth's Forest. Listen up for Chapman, ah…"

"392," Ewell chimed in.

"Chapman-392, the Hum. Focus your minds on non-confidential information, subject may be capable of telepathy. Get back to your vehicles, and haul ass back to the Site."

She deactivated the transmitter, and sat back in her chair. "Wow. Well, at least we know you didn't fuck up."

Wettle nodded immediately. "I had specific instructions in that regard."

She snapped her fingers. "That reminds me! Dr. Bailey has a box of Hodag eggs for Dr. Sokolsky, you're supposed to pick them up before you go back to 43."

Wettle was still nodding. "I don't know what that means, but don't tell me. Just drive."

She waited until she was in the driver's seat, away from his placidly stupid gaze, before grinning. She wouldn't have told him if he'd wanted her to.


120A.png

1 January

Site-120: Częstochowa, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland


"Blankety blank," Sokolsky half-sang.

"What's he on about now?" asked Asheworth.

"Blank never called in for a second password," Eileen shrugged. "There's a good chance he won't need it. He likes to think he's clever, probably figured out a way to go without."

"Who does that leave, then?"

"Wettle's on a wild goose chase, probably won't need his second one either, so just Director McInnis in Japan. We haven't heard a word from him; I was about to call his helicopter, make sure he actually arrived."

As if on command, their pagers began beeping in tune. Either Sokolsky was adapting, or he'd slipped straight past madness to a calmer pasture beyond, because he sat up quite deliberately and flicked on the viewscreen. "Wow, Al, you look like sh—"

"Password," McInnis panted. "Fast."


TO.png

1 January

Site-79: Yumegēmu, Tokushima, Japan


Shinoda Souda dragged his naginata up behind him, trailing Kuroki's blood on every step. He wasn't worried about breaking or denting or even nicking the blade; this was a game, and not the kind where his equipment could get damaged. The player's equipment, perhaps, but not Shinoda's.

Shinoda was the antagonist, and he was functionally invincible.

The door to the top floor was blocked with rubble; Shinoda stuck his blade between the chunks of concrete and pushed them about, almost idly. With the control he had over his environment, he could easily have willed them out of existence, but he wanted to savour the moment. He wanted the interloper to hear him coming.

In a few short moments, he would know where Daniel Dunn was hiding, and everything he'd done would have been worth it.

His path cleared, he pushed the door open. The interloper was standing in the middle of the communications centre, in a nest of desks and consoles. A defensible position, if he hadn't been an exhausted-looking old man facing down an IJAMEA agent in the prime of his life.

Thanks to the game, that is. Shinoda resisted the urge to fiddle with his headset, the monocular device which made his will manifest in the world around him. Kotodama. The power of language. His masterpiece. He was surprised Kuroki had never tried taking a shot at it; perhaps the late security chief had been afraid of what might happen if the lever that moved the world suddenly ceased to exist.

Shinoda reached up and pulled the wrappings from around his mouth. He advanced. "Tell me," he rasped.

The other man shrugged. "Tell you what?"

"Tell me where Dunn is."

The other man shook his head. "I don't know. I don't think anybody knows."

Shinoda had once been an expert interrogator; apparently, this man McInnis was an expert at the opposite role. He almost seemed to believe what he'd said. "You're not my enemy. Give me what I want."

"Don't think I don't sympathize." McInnis did affect a sympathetic mien. "Dunn took everything from you. But that doesn't give you the right to do what you're doing."

"And what is it you think I'm doing? Do you think I killed everyone in the Site? Is that what you think?" Shinoda tried to laugh; it wouldn't quite come. "You've already met them all. If you took the elevator, I'd imagine you became quite close."

McInnis twitched, and this time Shinoda did manage to laugh. The image of the man struggling to the top floor, surrounded by the pale naked bodies of his erstwhile colleagues, was darkly humourous. "You want to help them? Turn the snake over to me, and I'll do the world a favour, then turn this thing off and let you have it."

McInnis shook his head again. "You're not going to give up your pet project that easily. What's to stop you from making the entire world your own private video game?"

Shinoda felt his bile rising. "I'll never make another game," he spat. "Togenkyo is finished, Dunn saw to that. Ikigai was going to be my masterpiece, and he ruined, he FUCKING ruined it." He stabbed his naginata through the nearest computer monitor, and revelled in the hail of sparks that tumbled onto McInnis' polished shoes. "You should've seen the advertising. 'Togenyko says NO PUSSIES ALLOWED'. For a fantasy role-playing game! He hired a bunch of hacks to ruin my dream, and when it went belly-up, he blamed me. Drove me into hardware development."

McInnis pointed at Kotodama. "You made a new masterpiece."

"But was that good enough for Dunn? Of course not." Shinoda suddenly felt constricted by his ridiculous costume. He needed fresh air. His bones and muscles ached. "He found out I was making a device that would let the gamer construct his own game, in reality, and what did he say? "So, my lead developer just spent four whole quarters and over a million bucks building a game dev tool. That's fine, he's a good worker, taken a lot of hits for the company, I'm in a forgiving mood. Then I find out he's planning to give the thing away to the general public when he's finished. Not so forgiving, now. Arcadia isn't a charity, Shinoda. You make the games, that's how I make the money. And if I'm not making money, I'm wasting my time. Am I wasting my time with you?" I told him this was the future. I told him the therapeutic benefits alone would make us the talk of the industry. And what did he do? He drummed me out of the company, my company, and when I tried to sell the thing, he sold me out." Shinoda shoved the shattered monitor off the desk as he approached the other man once more. He raised his naginata up, pressed the tip against McInnis' sternum. "I have a right to what I'm going to do. He needs to pay. You want him to pay. Not as much as I do, but you know he deserves it. Let me kill him. Don't make me kill you."

"Why would you kill me?" McInnis stood stock-still. "If you think I know something, you'll never get it that way."

"You don't think so?" Shinoda grinned. "This is a game, Director. What do you think happens if you die?"

McInnis blinked, and in the space of that single moment Shinoda knew he'd made a terrible mistake.

McInnis stepped forwards, driving the blade of the naginata through his own throat.


Died2.png

Shinoda didn't shout. Shinoda didn't scream. Shinoda simply watched the light in the other man's eyes go out, and muttered "I lose" to the suddenly empty air.

A single peach blossom tumbled to the floor, slick with blood.


TO.png

There was a flash against his eyelids, and he opened them. The space he was standing in was an undifferentiated shade of pitch, and a series of glowing words and symbols filled his vision. He tilted his head from side to side; the marquee was two-dimensional, like a television screen display.

Togenkyo.png

"And we're back," muttered Kuroki from beside him. "New game plus."

McInnis took a deep breath, then fell to his knees. He felt dizzy. He felt sick. Kuroki put one hand on his shoulder. "Never been killed before, huh?"

McInnis coughed, and shook his head. "Have you?"

"No." Kuroki laughed. "Did you… did you make him kill you?"

"I killed myself." McInnis sat back on his haunches. "He let something slip. Reminded me that this is just a game, and not a very sophisticated one. I did play Donkey Kong, once or twice." He looked up at the security chief. "If you don't want to fight another round…"

Kuroki nodded, and headed for the door labelled SETTINGS. "Even if he jumps off the roof, I'll have the password in before he hits the ground."


120A.png

1 January

Site-120: Częstochowa, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland


"And that's all she wrote," Placeholder announced, flicking the final switch. The REISNO Cannon spun down, the light died out, and the aperture closed.

Sokolsky fell off his chair.

"Yeah," said Placeholder. "I feel that." He tapped a button on the wall. "Medical to tech sublevel?"

Eileen propped Sokolsky up against the wall. His eyelids fluttered open. "Ship… out of danger?"

"Fuck off," she laughed. "You goddamn maniac, fuck off."

As the med techs swarmed in, electrolytes and stimulants in hand, she cornered Asheworth by the power panel. "I took a look at your tablet, by the way."

"Oh, yeah? You figure out why my email isn't working?"

"Your email is working. It's your voice recognition system that's the problem." She keyed on the PDA, and showed him. "The problem is, you were trying to send messages to Dr. Richard Barnyard, Dr. Everyman, Dr. Destiny Everwoof, Dr. Hairy Blanket, Director Alec McGuinness and… Fae Owen Wilson." She barely suppressed a snicker. "I'd recommend you either learn to enunciate, stop using speech-to-text to dictate your emails entirely, or learn how to astral project."

He scoffed at her. "As if I don't already know how to astral project."


SC.png

1 January

Sloth's Forest: Douglas County, Wisconsin, United States of America


"What were you doing in the woods, anyway?"

"Hmm?" Ryan stirred from his daze, contemplating the newly-empty space in his head. Wettle had, of course, taken the password back to 43.

Across the desk, Akio Naguri was looking at him curiously. "What were you doing in the woods? How did you know Wettle was going to lose the password?"

Ryan shrugged. "I didn't. I was just… taking a walk."

Naguri whistled. "And the story just appeared around you? That's some serious protagonist shit." He re-focused on his own workstation.

Ryan stared at him for a moment, then called up SCiPNET on his terminal. I wonder. He loaded up the SCP-5109 waitlist system, which had been down for maintenance since he'd submitted his original request. He held his breath as the page loaded.

The page loaded.

He exhaled, slowly, and began filling out the form again. Why the hell not? My proposal was sound, and I've already got prior experience. Maybe they really would let him research the damn thing.

Memetics was all about patterns, after all, and he thought he could see one forming. The Hum was the talk of the town, since the Plastics People had come out in force in Sloth's Forest to hunt it down. It wasn't whispering anymore; since the townies had started whispering about it, it had found its full voice again. Dr. Palmer's appointment schedule was almost full, and Ryan's pinch hit at the pit had made him the talk of his department. Maybe, just maybe…

Stories create possibilities.

He submitted the application again. This time, someone would read it.


TO.png

1 January

Site-79: Yumegēmu, Tokushima, Japan


Shinoda had been telling the truth about the staff of Site-79. When Kuroki input the password and deactivated the game, and the façade fell away, they found each agent, researcher and administrator milling in the halls and offices and crawlspaces, addled and bemused. Most of all they were piled at the bottom of the elevator, none the worse for wear. There didn't seem to have been a single fatality, and the Site psychologists expected a complete recovery in every single case. Nobody remembered the events of the past few days, which McInnis and Kuroki assured them was a good thing.

Whether Shinoda himself would remember, well, they might never know the answer to that. The IJAMEA agent was found in the comms centre, prone on the floor, dressed only in a simple Foundation detainee jumpsuit. Just as his prisoner profile indicated, he was comatose.

"Project Kotodama let him walk again," Kuroki marvelled. "It let him shape the world in his image. We took that away from him, and we took everything away from him."

"Not everything." McInnis smiled. "Daniel Dunn is still a Person of Interest. I'm sure you'll catch him some day."

Kuroki shook his head. "Not me. I'm transferring out of here. Today, if possible."

McInnis arched an eyebrow. "Why? And to where?"

"Because I have something to tell you," said Kuroki. "About your Site, which is the answer to the second question."


WWS.png

1 January

Clackamas County: Oregon, United States of America


It felt good to be back. The Shelter needed her. She'd secured a few vital concessions by playing along at Site-55; the Foundation would lighten some of the financial load, she'd been promised an able-bodied and strong-willed new employee, and she'd probably secured a permanent ally in the person of Justine Everwood. But Faeowynn Wilson belonged at Wilson's Wildlife, and she felt like the homecoming queen as she chewed up the asphalt between the airport and the City of Boring.

She checked her mirrors and watched the road carefully, so it certainly wasn't her fault that she didn't notice the tiny red lights on the side of the road, or in the sky above her, or behind the tinted windshields of her fellow motorists, how they tracked her every movement, how they followed her all the way to the gates of WWS, and beyond.


120A.png

1 January

Site-120: Częstochowa, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland


Sokolsky told Veiksaar that he needed to stay at 120 until he had all the passwords back in their proper times; if he tried to de-sync without them, all of reality would be destroyed, yada yada yada. He sent her on ahead, and promised to meet her back at 43. She clearly didn't see the point in leaving without him, but he did a little song and dance with the voices he was pretending to hear in his head, and that was enough to drive her up the ramp.

"Do you think it fooled her?" Asheworth asked, as they watched the jet take off.

"Nope," said Sokolsky. He yawned. "So that part of the plan is working."

"Do you think the tablet part of the plan fooled her, at least? I really resent your painting me as some sort of technological incompetent, by the way."

"Yeah," said Placeholder, "you're more of a social incompetent."

"What does that even mean?"

"I think she fell for the tablet part, yes." Sokolsky smiled. "And she'll write down the REISNO Cannon cover story in her report to O5, which will form the official record. That's all I needed from you gentlemen, so, well done."

"I hate how you mischaracterized the Cannon," Placeholder sighed. "You'd never be able to sync up with fourteen selves at once. Never mind the threat to reality, your brain would simply implode."

"Well, we're lucky the Cannon's not real, then," Asheworth grinned.

"Oh," said Placeholder. "It's real. It works."

They both stared at him.

"What? My future self explained the whole thing to me, just like I said. If we actually plug it in, and feed it enough thaumic current, it'll do precisely what it's meant to."

They were still staring at him.

"What? There's a fine line between sounding plausible and being plausible, so why would I stop just short of brilliance? Besides, I never lie about science." He cocked his head to one side. "Oh, and the world would've ended if I didn't make the thing, because, you know, time paradox."

They were still staring at him, so he decided to change the subject. "Where did you get fourteen copies of that password, anyway?"


120A.png

Eileen waited until the jet was in the air before taking out her tablet and reading the email message she'd secretly snagged from Asheworth.

She sighed. I gave you the benefit of the doubt, Daniil. He'd put on a grand performance; all for nothing.

The ride home was almost the exact same length as the ride over had been, in another life, before the fever-dream of the day's events. She was almost nodding off when the pilot spoke to her over the intercom: "We're here."

"Home, sweet home," she muttered.

"Ah, not quite. Dr. Sokolsky radioed in a change of plans."

Her blood turned to ice, and her temper rose precipitously. "A change of plans."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Where are we?"

"Site-34."

She nodded. She adjusted her glasses. She wrinkled her nose.

She shouted: "WHERE THE FUCK IS SITE-34?"

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License