Sci-Fi Apple Pie waited in the crowded mass between dreams like a busy street corner of a too-large city, playing with her holographic hair. Buildings of non-euclidean design towered above, each window a door to some sleeping mind. They winked in and out like a child cutting onions. A gloved hand touched her shoulder. Beside her stood a girl that hardly met her shoulder, wrapped in red ribbons and pink glitter. Golden doll-like eyes watched her, adorning a face with a perpetual tinted pout. From her glittering, rainbow hair peeked two white cat ears. Behind her swung a tail with a softly jingling bell, attached by a shimmering ribbon in a bow.
"Where do we go, Hans?"
"Mako-chan, greenhorn." She reminded her, patting her arm with a glittering pink-and-gold wand.
Sci-Fi Apple Pie sighed. "Fine. Brief, then let's go. Mako-chan."
"We've found a Bryce Fox that has what we need. Big in-between place but with more diplomatics. We've got intel that our spiral-toothed friend's got an eye on the place. We can inflame her and frame West at the same time."
"Right. Lead the way."
Shortly after, Sci-Fi Apple Pie found herself twenty stories in the air, spraying graffiti over a billboard, painting mustaches onto Qi Shao's image and replacing the provided hashtag with a sticker for Oneiroi West. Mako-chan worked to flutter through the air with conjured sparkling wings, tossing glittering pamphlets below. She scanned the faces and not-faces of the crowd. They were all oneiroi one way or another. Some West. No Collective, at least, none that she could register. A flicker of movement, too fast to be an accident, speeding up the building face. "Greenhorn! We got company!"
Sci-Fi Apple Pie felt something tug a rocket-boot, then slam her into the floor. The world swam more than could be justified in Bryce's dream. Distantly, she wondered if Bryce was aware of the territory spat going on in his subconscious. Someone, muffled, commanded her to fight but the dream clung to her mind, slowing her movement as if running through molasses. The creature was all sharp palette shadows and fever delusions, biting into her arm; its breath reminded her of acetone, she remembered thinking.
She could see Mako-chan slam away the creature with her wand, transformed to a nacreous warhammer made to look like a shining rabbit's head atop a golden pole. Her captain kneeled down to her and touched her on the arm, tsking.
Sci-Fi Apple Pie was Sherry again, awoken. Hans stood by her body, no sign of waifishness on his toned form. He held her by her shoulders as she trembled and regained her footing. "Greenhorn." His voice was soft. "Come on now."
Hans looked like he would either punch her or cry. He did neither and pushed her to the floor instead. "Hans Drescher out here. You clear your head, greenhorn. Too slow a reaction. Go work on your beta-ameilorace hyperglutanomous response."
"What was that?"
"One of Qi Shao's. At least it felt like one on my weapon. She knows now, I'm betting. Good. Check the trawler off Urooj's last session with Glass."
Sherry drank coffee to recover from her first stint at action. Hans glided behind her, silent as a memory. He reached down towards her. She blinked and looked up at him. "Did you need something, Hans?"
"You're aware. That's good. What did Glass's readings say?"
"Just one thread. 3 comments, one of them a bot." She tried to ignore as Hans sat beside her, too close.
"You trust Glass?"
"Yeah, sure. He introduced us."
"Through a pane," Hans said as he poured himself more coffee.
"He said it was necessary."
Hans grunted and drank, then moved to leave the break room.
"How do you make a NoPage profile?"
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Placid Spaghetti-O mitts or GTFO
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Sci-Fi Apple Pie watched her captain with the x-ray vision on her holoLens goggles. Mako-chan was talking to something Sci-Fi Apple Pie couldn't rightly understand. It had too many shadows to be any shape, and yet it formed so many shapes, like a pollock painting of conceptual ideas. Too big to fit in the tiny coffeeshop of Cassidy Campbell's mind, and yet sitting on the chair and drinking coffee as if nothing was wrong. She could tell her captain was having a hard time of it too, by the way the ribbons clutched her silk gloved hands and her cat tail's bell jingling back and forth.
Outside of the dream, she confronted Hans as he walked from Cassidy's still-unconscious body and out of the dirty apartment. The man never showed the hint of surfacing-trauma like the rest of them. No, Hans was unlike them all, stiff as a board. He separated as Mako-chan and Hans Drescher with an iron curtain between dreaming and wakefulness. "Hans, what were you doing there?" she asked, before the thought slipped from her.
"I ordered you to stand guard outside."
"Hans. What were you doing."
"Feeling out for options."
"You've been here maybe 6 months, Sherry. I've been going on more than four times that much."
Sherry grabbed his arm. "Can't you retire?"
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A Gentle Painting
Shaper Deathbell Urooj
Scifi do you need to talk…
A thousand dead circle the Oneiroi Collective entity as their massive form tears into the subconscious territory. The Xiupanians, knowing no fear, swarm to kill with a thousand papercuts what they can hardly perceive. Sci-Fi Apple Pie watches through her holoFocus goggles, painting the world in serene orange and data points. The Oneiroi Collective has a temperature of a summation as an imaginary negative number quadratic reaches the square root of negative three point thirty five. The three of them- Mako-chan, Concrete Tomb, and herself- stand away enough to avoid the damage, and yet the Collective seems too close for comfort. The entity's existence on the same plane is too close to be safe.
"Good job, Sci-Fi Apple Pie. It was a nice idea to leak the story of a West official getting arrested," Concrete Tomb speaks, his voice wavering. "I'm heading out before we get spotted." Sci-Fi Apple Pie notices that he hadn't moved his stony gaze from the massive conglomeration, killing even in its immense death throes. Broken Xiupanian consciousnesses float through the milky way in the night sky above, leaving trails of moving stars. Their shells crack onto the population of fleeing Oneiroi West forces below, catching the wind and creating a dust storm through which only a massive silhouette could be seen.
The entity lets out a roar or a groan, and slams something between a pseudopod and a claw down on the remaining Xiupanian forces making a tactical retreat.
"Why are they leaving?" Sci-Fi Apple Pie asks.
Mako-chan puts on her cherry pink lip gloss, the one that made her lips look like animated sequins. "'Cause this entity's a scouter for the main mass, testing the strength of Xiupania. Qi Shao's not gonna show her full might over a territorial skirmish."
"Right, I'll see you, then?" Sci-Fi Apple Pie says, almost bored. She didn't look forward to the paperwork she'd have to write when she got out.
"Naw. I'm going to go take them up on their offer."
"The collective's offer. Welcome all, all walks of life."
Sci-Fi Apple Pie closed, then opened her eyes again. Looked at her captain. The ground shuddered underneath her feet with a slow awakening. "Mako-chan… Hans? What do you mean?"
"I'm just tired. Of being either. Of being both. You still look like you on both walks of life. I'm… I thought I was an awesome marine. A real jarhead. The real manly man, clean and shoot to kill in the blink of an eye. Used to keep trophies of hunts, mounted and stuffed… And here I am… not that person, and yet who I'm supposed to have always been." The last of the old Omicron-Rho guard lets out a sigh from small, petite lips. "I don't know… and I don't want to think about it anymore. The Collective's a big enough mass of people that you're not just you, you're everyone else, and everyone else is also you. I'm just tired of being me."
Sci-Fi Apple Pie reached out to grab her captain's slender, soft arm. "But the Collective will know everything if you do. New recruits need you. Glass needs you. Who will teach your replacement? Who will know about beta-ameilorace hyperglutanomous response efficiency?"
A flash of light blinds her for a moment. She feels her captain slip from her grip and recalibrates the brightness adjustment on her holoFocus goggles. Mako-chan flutters on conjured wings, letting out a trail of glitter like the aurora borealis. "The Collective's so expansive I'm not surprised if they knew this whole time. And don't worry about the other things."
Mako-chan smiles and cups Sci-Fi Apple Pie's cheeks with her gloved hands. Kisses her forehead with her rhinestone lips. "I have faith in you. When this is all over, in some other life, maybe we'll meet again. I'd like that."
"Yeah." Sci-Fi Apple Pie notes that her captain's breath smells like acetone. The dust from cracking Xiupanian corpses reduces her visibility to ten meters. She watches Mako-chan's form meld into a silhouette against the storm. In a shadow puppet play of dead bodies and moonlight, she watches an uncomprehensible mass of once-were-people swallow a little catgirl in pink frills and ribbons.