Salt and Pepper (Extra Salty)
rating: +23+x

The meet was on the first of June, 2019. Saturday. Mx. Wren Masterson1 sat in the rear of the diner, in a booth with red seats. They waited but did not idle. Time wasn't money (not for an anarchist librarian), but it was definitely precious, so they always tried to keep busy. They brought a familiar book, so they could read it again. They watched people enter and leave the franchise, keeping a silent count, and regularly checked their exits. They drank coffee (black), and when the opportunity presented itself, Wren would pluck a couple of electrons out of the surrounding environment, pair them off as qubits, and sock them away for future projects. They weren't focused on any one thing, but they were occupied, and that was enough.

Eventually, Penelope Gore2 walked in, dressed in some of the most boring clothes imaginable. Baseball cap. Sunglasses. Lots of beige. This was an amateur mistake and actually made her look more conspicuous, but Gore didn't realize that, because espionage was not her specialty. She worked for the SCP Foundation at Site-76 as a Researcher, not a Field Agent. Spying on "Gamers Against Weed" had not been her choice, but when she was recruited by Project CLOWNFISH in 2018, Gore thought she might have an opportunity to redeem herself. Maybe even settle a score with the troll who had derailed her career. In practice, things hadn't been that simple. She scanned the room, spotted Masterson in the back by the jukebox, and grimaced at their fashion sense before approaching.

Wren didn't like to sacrifice personality for anonymity. It seldom worked. Leaning into a gimmick, though… that was effective, because people seldom think past their first impressions. Today, underneath a denim jacket festooned with pins, studs and patches, Masterson was wearing a bright orange shirt screen-printed with the grotesque rotting face of the "The Incredible Melting Man". They were dressed for a book fair, swap meet, concert or convention, all of which would be a pretty typical environment for "MxMasters"… but today, the anomalous individual known as "steakshift" was working.3

Gore came to a halt by the booth and stood there, waiting to be acknowledged. Masterson did not look up from their paperback copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. When she finally spoke, her tone could frost glass. "Sorry. Am I interrupting?"

"Not at all. I've read it before. Several times." They flipped a page.

Penelope removed her sunglasses, glared, and checked her watch. It was 2:30. "Well, are we going to get started, or-"

"Do me a favor," Wren interjected. "Queue up Track 6 on the jukebox. That way we won't be interrupted, or noticed, or anything."

"Oh… no. No, no. Masterson, whatever this is, I can't be an accessory to an anomalous event."

"Relax. It's self-contained. Think 'cone of silence'. Besides, you're withholding information from your buddies and scheming with a known weirdo, so I'm pretty sure you're a co-conspirator, not an accessory!" They clicked their tongue nonchalantly and flipped another page.

Gore set her jaw, exhaled slowly, and did her absolute best not to take the bait. Instead, she marched over to the jukebox, pulled up Track 6 (ugh, Tom Jones), and hit play. Then she returned to the table.

As music flooded the room, Masterson inserted a random piece of paper as a bookmark, then snapped the paperback shut and set it aside. "Alright. Now we can do business without anyone knowing or caring! Thanks, Tipper."

Gore's eyes narrowed. She had no idea how PoI-6966 had circumvented their post-interrogation amnestics, and she didn't care. I already asked you politely. "So, while the music is playing… the people here won't notice, whatever we do?"

"Essentially. It's similar to one of harmpit's tri-"

Gore balled up a fist, wound back, and socked Masterson right in the nose. They reeled and tumbled over into the booth like a cartoon character. As promised, none of the surrounding patrons batted an eye.

For a moment, Masterson was still; then they opened their eyes and touched their face gingerly. "Ow," they protested. "What was that f-"

"For the last time," she shouted, "do not call me that! My name is Penelope! Do you have any idea what it's like to be mocked, day after day, over a simple mistake?! It's been two years! This is all your fault, Masterson! You want my help? Fine! I'll help! But if you ever call me that again, I will kick the shit out of you!"

"Okay. Okay. Touchy." steakshift straightened up in their seat and gestured to the opposite bench. "Please. Be my guest, 'whistl_stahp'."

Still fuming, Gore sat down and inched deeper into the booth. "Honestly… that name is silly, too. Just the oldest meme I could remember."

"Yeah, well, I named myself after a joke I heard when I was seven. The Internet is weird like that." They drummed on the table with both hands. "So… what exactly are we talking about, today?"

"Your request. The anomaly. Unwinding." She saw Masterson's expression shift, and they snuck a glance over their shoulder. "I thought people wouldn't notice?"

"They won't, it's… reflex. I don't talk about it. Ever. Much less in 'public'. I'll manage. What's the problem?"

Wow, where to begin? This whole thing was an ethical quagmire and Gore was still struggling with the implications. Unwinding was a lost piece of anomalous art, produced by a rookie member of "Are We Cool Yet?" and abandoned in the Canadian backwoods for a decade. It had killed five people… or possibly six? Wren Masterson claimed that Anna Bojarski (AKA "The Developer") was effectively gone, but this was still their crime, their responsibility, and their plea for assistance. It had been an earnest confession, but definitely not guileless. In fact, the whole thing left a bad taste in her mouth. "For starters… I can see that you're trying to do right, and I respect that. But this is not an actionable lead. It's incomplete."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm sorry, you just haven't given me enough. We're mi-"

"Excuse me?" Wren repeated. "Ti… Gore, I gave you everything I had! What more could you want? My wrists, so you can clap 'em in irons?" They paused. "Wait a minute. Is this a trick? Are you going to rat me out after all?"

"What?! I'm-"

"Dial, a-3-a-1-1-f."

Penelope slammed both hands onto the table. "RED!" she barked, then let out a shuddering groan. "Oh God. Please stop that."

"Huh. So you're not trying to fuck me, here."

"No, Masterson," Gore seethed. "I would literally never fuck you, but especially not after what you've done."

"That's… not what I meant, but… feel free to expound."

"On top of torpedoing my workplace credibility… what did you put in that second tape?"

"It's a sort of lie detector. Question and answer. Red light, green light. Simple."

"Oh. 'Simple'."

"Works, doesn't it?"

"No! I mean… yes, but it's not '100% safe', you lying…" Penelope choked on her rage and swallowed it. "Ass!"

Wren chuckled, then coughed hurriedly. "Well, not to be unkind, but… I'm surprised you didn't run a coghaz filter. You don't seem like a quick learner, outside your white box."

"Listen. To. Me. Every time you trigger that thing, I taste colors. Synesthesia, except it hurts! It's like licking a bug zapper!"

They paused, mug of coffee at their lips. "That's… not supposed to happen." They finished the drink and set it down. "Sorry. I'll try not to use it."

"You'll try?! Get this shit out of my head! I keep biting my tongue!"

"Dial, a-3-a-1-1-f."

"GREEN!" She clapped a hand to her mouth and stifled a moan. "Please, please stop. I can taste blood."

"Uh. Well. Did not intend or expect this, but… not sure I can trust you without it?" They cowered beneath the scientist's withering glare. "That sounds bad! Coming from me. Not personal. Don't trust easily, but particularly not janitors."

"That's… fine. Even fair. But you asked me to respect your fragile brain. So please, I really am begging you now: respect mine."

For a moment, Wren was silent. Then they nodded. "Alright. I have a countermeme in storage. It's not format-dependent so I can pop it to you as a nice friendly jpeg. No more lights. No more synesthesia. We can just talk, and… inevitably lie to each other some more, like regular-ass humans."

"Thank you." Penelope glanced around the room. Nobody was looking at them. Nor was anyone coming into the diner, or leaving. The wait staff seemed… occupied, but not with anything in particular? Everyone was sort of going through the motions. "Is there any chance I could get something to eat? I skipped lunch."

"Nope. They won't respond even if we flag them down. Besides, you shouldn't eat or drink at a meet, not unless you control the terrain. And, uh…" They gestured broadly to the environment.

"…you're right, I learned that in training. I'm… sorta new to field work."

"Don't feel too bad. Tradecraft takes lots of practice." Masterson hesitated, then sighed. "Rewind. What do you mean, I haven't given you 'enough'? As far as I know… this is it."

"Don't get me wrong, the data is good. I could use this information to help design containment protocols. The question is, if you're not involved, how do my employers discover this anomaly in the first place? It's in the middle of nowhere. It just doesn't scan."

"Ah… heck. Didn't think of that." Wren leaned back and gazed at the ceiling. "Besides myself, nobody knows or cares."

"What about the rest of the 'art society'?"

They laughed but there was no mirth in it whatsoever. "It was a decade ago. The art world moves fast. Nobody remembers the Five, except me. Those ten freaks who walked away… well, several have shuffled off this mortal coil for other reasons. No idea where you might find any surviving… survivors."

"Great. Square one."

"Not exactly, Deepthroat. How does the Foundation normally find… abnormal stuff?"

"Don't call me that either. Broad strokes: many anomalies were discovered because of public incidents; disruption, upheaval, loss of life…"

"Hard pass."

"Historical or cultural precedents, like legend or myth, with consistent anomalous features…"

"No ghost stories in the Crossing about a TV in the woods. Not much local color at all, in fact."

"You're sure? You've checked? Recently?"

"Yes, Researcher. I have my sources.4 Besides, I picked that place for a reason: nobody just wanders around that part of the country unless they already know what they're after. It's… well, rural Ontario, it's boring."

"Fine. There are also objects discovered in the midst of other investigations…"

"Oh c'mon," Masterson whined, "haven't you stolen enough of my shit?"

"The word that we use… is 'secure'."

"Yeah. Right."

"Then there are primary and secondary sources. Which we have! But they're not enough." Gore turned her palms to the sky, defeated. "I'm sorry, Wren. I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but-"

"Wait, wait. Hold up a minute. Secondary sources? Such as?"

"Again, variable. We sometimes find references in newspapers, forums, or…"

"A photo album? Filled with images that are consistently, verifiably weird, but don't have any juice?"

"Define 'juice'."

"Magic. Creativity. Zip. Bite. 'No juice' equals 'safe to observe', albeit frequently unpleasant. I ask because I've got a veteran anartist's personal photo album buried in my collection somewhere. Acquired it thirdhand. Original owner is dead and the timeline would fit. I'll put a few snaps of Unwinding in there, add a little extra fakery, and boom. Done. Corroborating evidence with no traces back to me."

"That could work, but… you said you didn't have anything else. No photos, just diagrams."

Wren chortled. "You remember who you're talking to, right? I can gin up some thoughtographs, vintage film and all. This is my art."

"So how does the Foundation find the photo album?"

"Uh… around? Shit, another plot hole. I guess you could 'discover' it in somebody else's collection but I don't want to get The Amazing Rando thrown in your gulag, either."

Gore scowled. "It's not a 'gulag', Masterson. Speaking from experience: we help people. My civilian background was in social sciences. My employers do a lot of cross-training, so I'm not in that division anymore, but I have helped… a fair number of people." She tried not to think about why she had transferred out of Site-17. Eyes in the dark.

"What, by bleaching their brains with chemicals? Locking them away forever?"

"We are not having this argument! We're wasting our very limited time!" Gore twisted in her seat and gestured towards the diner. "This song isn't going to last forever, and… uh…"

Something was wrong. The staff wasn't simply distracted; everyone was distracted, from everything. Nobody was placing or receiving orders. Nobody was eating, though they were certainly trying to jockey food from table to mouth. They just kept getting sidetracked by other things: looking around, considering the menu, talking. One guy kept dropping his cutlery. The background conversation was becoming… tense.

"People around here are noticing, Wren."

"No, they're tangentially aware that something is off, but it's not clicking on a conscious level. A lot like how you don't seem to realize 'What's New Pussycat?' has been playing for five minutes straight. Even though it's a two-minute song." Masterson giggled.

Gore paused. This was true. Tom Jones was still crooning. She looked at her watch. Still 2:30. What the hell? "Are you slowing time right now?"

"No. Well, technically yes, but… literally, no. I'm compressing all the information around our conversation, using this sequence as a sort of… narrative prism? Conceptual algorithm? Whatever. Regardless of how long our meeting takes, the routine will play until we're good and ready."

She stared at them, dismayed. "That sounds like… pataphysics. You're talking about pataphysics?"

They squinted back, nonplussed. "Maybe? I heard that word in college, but that was a long time ago."

"I don't know the theory behind it. I've only read a few casefiles, and those were… really, really weird. From what little I understand, pataphysics is a branch of metaphysics predicated on the idea that on some level, reality is… fictional. Malleable." She paused again. "Christ, Masterson, you're a reality bender?"

They shook their head vehemently. "No, no, no. I'm just… genre-savvy."

Penelope Gore's brain short-circuited. For a moment, pgOS 2.0 idled. Then it came back to life and she realized that everyone in the Foundation, including her, had been completely off-base in their assessment of Wren Masterson's anomalous traits.

We've been looking at this backwards. Tapes, storage, screens and lenses — they're the medium, not the message. Specialization, not limitation. PoI-6966 is a metaphysical remix artist who "deconstructed" themselves through weaponized doubt, came back, and they can only be "genre-savvy" if…

"You don't think that any of this is real." She gestured broadly to the diner, then realized she should probably clarify, given the circumstances. "The world. The universe."

Masterson hesitated. "Well… no, honestly. I think this is, uh… shadows on a cave wall. A 'dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind'. 'The Matrix'. Whatever you prefer." They cocked their head to one side. "You know you're the first person to just… straight-up ask?"

"Really," Gore deadpanned. She was doing her best to stay outwardly placid, but her mind was reeling. PoI-6966 is a Type Green with a derealization disorder. This is like standing in conceptual quicksand. Penelope glanced towards the doors, then remembered her training (far too late). Can't just walk out of a bender's range, Pen. Not if they don't want you to.

"Yeah. Wild!" Masterson giggled. "Doesn't come up in conversation and I don't talk about it unprovoked; that's a faux pas, like waving at the fourth wall."

Penelope was conflicted. Do I want to ask? Hell no! But… should I? I'm neck-deep in this already and I'm only just realizing what it means! Eventually, she spoke. "'Genre-savvy' implies that life has a genre."

"Tons, actually, thank goodness. Variety, spice, all that. In my experience, the narrative landscape shifts all the time. Luckily, I'm good at reading the terrain."

"'Terrain'," Gore echoed.

"Conceptual terrain. Genre conventions are sort of like landmarks; they help me orient myself. From there, I mostly just… ride. It's nice. Like biking with the wind." Their smile faltered a bit. "Doesn't stay smooth forever, though. There are always ups and downs. Some conflict is inevitable. Nature of the construct."

"'Construct'." She'd learned this trick in her old job; repeating someone's last phrase typically encouraged them to elaborate.

"Story. Narrative. Reality. Whatever. Existence isn't one thing with a single order; it's a bunch of complex systems with interrelated parts. Heterarchy. Some things rise up, take precedence, then fall back down afterwards."

"'Afterwards'." Stop stalling and think of something, Pen.

"After they stop being relevant to someone's perspective. Stories typically have a beginning, middle and end; those parts are rendered in scenes, chapters, arcs, et cetera. Subplots and genres come and go. Sometimes the transitions are predictable. Mostly… not. My life seems to be governed by narrative inconvenience."

Penelope winced, and her facade cracked. "Uh… isn't that sorta self-fulfilling?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well… you've mentioned this before. You said you were 'depressed and dissociating' when you built Unwinding in 2008. How long have you been experiencing these symptoms?"

"That's… kinda personal. Started young, though. Way before I discovered magic. It's definitely bound up in that project, but I didn't know what any of it meant until afterwards." They stared off into space for a moment, quietly distressed, then blew a raspberry. "Joke's on me, I guess."

"Don't you think this could be confirmation bias? You're a reality bender. Maybe the surrounding world acts like a story because of your influence?"

"Again, not a reality bender. My life is really weird and contrived sometimes, but that's not because of me, I'm not in charge."

Gore pointed at a nearby table, where three men were stuck in a short, recognizable loop. One told a joke, the second laughed, and the third knocked his cutlery off the table. The third picked up his cutlery, put it back, then the first man told the joke again. Repeat. "These guys might disagree."

"Ha! Fair point, but not the same. I don't do things passively; there's always a control system. Remember my story about the pinhole? Had to understand photography before I could mess with film. Well, narrative engineering is way tougher, because everything in the construct is connected. Jamming fingers in the universal machinery is a great way to lose the whole hand, so I use tools instead. Mostly jokes, homage, pastiche. Small, simple stuff. I try to be responsible."

"Responsible?! Masterson…" Gore tried to say "SCP-4581" and couldn't. Foundation neuroprogramming forbade her from using the official designation outside of work, even to people who (apparently) knew it already. "That tape you made-"

"Ah yes. The gun."

"The bomb. What if it had ended up, say… on international TV?"

"Well then there would be… oh. Oh, wow, then there could be problems." Wren bit their lip. "I didn't consider that sort of scale."

"You don't say." Gore put her head in her hands. SCP-4581 was a counter-propaganda tool embedded with a virulent infohazard: when recorded and uploaded, "the Loop" would propagate and overwrite derivative media with copyrighted music, while "the Jam" would disable the effect and wipe audio recordings. The containment breach at Site-76 had been damaging. Embarrassing. On the other side of the Veil, though? SCP-4581 could have been devastating. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but… you really should be higher on the threat index."

"What, is that a power level thing? Like DBZ?"

"Sure. I guess. But also a 'public enemy' thing."

"Oh I am definitely not one of those."

"But you are!" she exclaimed. "You say you're careful, but you miss important details! Checks and balances which seem obvious, from my perspective."

"Oh, I see. You think you can do better?" They scowled and crossed their arms. "Well, enlighten me, Researcher. Tell me precisely how I've fucked up and how you, in your infinite wisdom, would patch the holes."

"Fine. Gladly. Why doesn't the cassette have a safety system?"

"It does, jackass. You used it."

"No, I mean, why is it indiscriminate? I am not a propagandist, but it treated me like I was, just because I recorded the experiment. If it's an anti-fascist thing, why isn't it keyed to the uploader's politics? Not everyone with a camera is trying to poison the discourse."

Masterson cackled. "You've clearly never tried to pack a definition of 'fascist' into an essay, let alone a cassette tape. Read Umberto Eco, Penelope: fascism isn't internally consistent, it's a rhetorical shitshow, and it would have taken me months to make a more specific targeting algorithm. So I didn't! Didn't need one! It was a purpose-built device. Specific context. Explicit instructions. The most important safety is keeping your finger off the trigger."

"Where was your finger when you sent the cassette to that kid, 'polaricecraps'? Where was the safety when he dropped it in the street? What was your remote failsafe, in case things went nuclear? Because yes, it is a bomb, Masterson! This was like… a land mine, waiting to be tripped." She sighed. "Much as I hate to admit it, I was actually kinda lucky to set it off in a controlled environment."

Masterson fell silent. They looked at Gore. They looked around the diner, then down at themselves, contemplating. Eventually, they nodded somberly. "You are absolutely right. I should have built in a quantum failsafe, on/off, so I could flush the juice remotely. I… didn't expect that someone else would need it at all, let alone so quickly." They sighed heavily. "The tape belonged to my dad. Making it was impulsive and letting it go was shortsighted. I'm sorry for what happened to everything and everyone involved… except, uh, the ones who deserved it… but you obviously did not deserve this. The Foundation scares the piss out of me, but you have a conscience and from the way you talk about it, my tape wrecked your world. Then I made it worse with my 'red light, green light' bullshit. That was a low, underhanded thing to do when asking for help. Had reasons, but… they're not good enough. I'm sorry. I will never do anything like that again. I will send you that countermeme A-S-A-P." steakshift paused, then raised a finger. "Also… names are super important and I should have respected yours. So. Big apologies, Penelope Gore. Never gonna use that nickname again."

They looked at each other for a while. Researcher and librarian. Liberal and anarchist. Lurker and troll. Then Penelope sighed. "That is probably the most thorough and specific apology I've ever heard."

"Go figure! It's even earnest."

"Wren… I don't agree with your politics, let alone your methods. You are more reckless than you realize. Still… I can tell that your heart is in the right place, even if your head is right up your ass. So, apology accepted. For now."

"Oof." They clapped a hand to their chest and twisted in their seat, as though they'd been struck by an arrow. "Your judgment wounds me."

"You've got thick skin, I'll give you that." Gore hesitated. I need to say it and this is as good a time as any. "For the record… your conception of reality doesn't appeal to me, either. I'm a human being, not a fictional character."

"'Por que no los dos?' They're not exclusive. Humans are people, but on a biological level, we're also meat puppets. Emotion is chemical. Consciousness is electric."

"I'm familiar with biology, Masterson. I'm even familiar with philosophical pessimism. I'm not a fan! Bottom-line… I don't appreciate your insinuation that someone is pulling my strings."

"Oh. Heck, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be, like… condescending, or deny your agency. My perspective isn't fatalist. We do have choice and independence, it's just…" They trailed off. "You're asking me to shut up."

"I was trying to be polite about it, but yes." Gore drummed her fingers on the table, considering. "In fact… I have an idea. You will hate it, but it might work."

"Lay it on me."

"You give us the album."

"Uh… you sure you're not trying to get me pinched?"

"Look, real talk: the best lie is the truth, at least in some capacity. You hide the lie in something earnest. Like your '100% safe', self-incriminating Trojan horse, or that story about driving out to your target and using your cassette. Compelling stuff! Except we looked it up afterwards, and you don't drive."

"God damn it, I knew that would bite me in the ass."

"No, that's the thing — no one cares about a discrepancy like that. You're with 'Gamers Against Weed', for crying out loud. Of course you lied to us, the janitors, the nightmare men. If we dug deep on every little thing that seemed amiss, you'd still be in custody."

"How reassuring."

"What I'm saying is, what you see is typically what you get. You're a librarian! You told us as much. If you find an anomalous document out in the world and report it, nobody will assume you're the one who planted it. You just recognized something dangerous and called the people equipped to handle it."

"Except blunt told me about the last time he gave you a call. Y'all tried to roast his grey matter with angry math."

"That doesn't sound like us. Are you sure Kriyot was telling you the truth?"

"Like, 90%? Well, maybe 60%.5 He said it was a robot, and robots seem rare-ish."

"Hm. Regardless. From my bosses' perspective, you are small fry. Janitors don't kill small fry. We prefer to use them as bait."

"Wonderful. Remind me again how this solution will not get me neck-deep in shit with everyone I know and love?"

Gore sighed dramatically. "Masterson, what do you think happens when a known weirdo submits a tip… which turns out to be legitimate… and asks for something entirely predictable in return?"

Their expression brightened. "Like my cassette! You have my undivided attention."

"Well, most of the time… nothing happens at all. I sincerely doubt that you'll ever see that tape again — sorry, my bosses don't really trade — but you're an anomalous individual who collects stuff. Stands to reason that some of it is hazardous. We could conceivably take care of it when you can't. Calling it in makes logical sense, unlike me saying, 'hey guys, there's this dangerous thing I heard about, somehow'."

"Huh. Wait, you're suggesting that I pretend to be a source who provides the Foundation with info… to cover up the fact that I'm a source, providing the Foundation with info?" Masterson tapped their chin. "That's… elegant, actually. Very John le Carré, except hopefully without getting shot on the East German border."

"I don't get the reference, but… yes. That's my idea."

"What's New Pussycat?" came to a sudden halt mid-croon. Gore looked at the jukebox, confused, until it fired up again. More Tom Jones. This time, "It's Not Unusual".

"Don't worry," Masterson said, "the effect is still going. We're just moving to the next phase."

Wait. "Hold on a second. I know this joke from Tumblr. Is this a John Mulaney bit?"

"Of course it's a bit." They giggled maniacally and snapped their fingers with the music. "I'm actually surprised you got it! Figured you'd notice 'Track 6' first."

It took her a second to connect the dots: "TRACK 6 FOREVER" had been in the instructions for SCP-4581. "Wait, you included a callback? Why?!"

"Because it's an in-joke. We both know it. That's why it works."

"Why are you such a…" Gore bit back a more cutting insult. "…such a goof?"

Masterson shrugged. "Humor helps people deal with a cruel, random and frequently unfair universe. I figure that if nobody's getting hurt, why not have fun with it?" They put two thumbs up. "Cosmic nihilism! But the cheery kind! Where possible."

"Doesn't this routine end with the patrons being supremely pissed off?"

"Well sure. But they're just mad… because they are angry."

Penelope snorted involuntarily. "The 'first rule of tautology club'…"

"…'is the first rule of tautology club'. Yeah." Wren gazed at her, visibly re-evaluating. "You're a bigger nerd than I thought. What's left on the agenda?"

"Well, if we're going to do this, we need a direct, discreet backchannel. Asking bones to pass you a note was beyond awkward."

"Mmm. No, we don't."

"Yes, we do."

"No. We don't. bones is impartial. Besides, you're in the shallow end of the GAW pool, 'whistl_stahp'. Let's hash out some challenge/response codes, then you can @ me in the chat to set a meet."

"Do you actually want to play this game in a monitored channel of magical stoner outlaws? That seems like a real bad idea, assuming you don't want to get caught or labelled a narc. Which, technically… you are."

"I am not a narc. I am narcing on myself. That is called 'responsibility'! I'm not going to tell you fuck-all about the others! I might say that our admin calls itself 'bones' because it's a skeleton in an enchanted server farm, or that 'kkrule' is an actual gremlin, who eats rocks. Am I telling the truth? You'll never know!"

"We're getting off-topic. You don't have a phone?"

"Ha! No. GPS, stingrays, NSA shit? Best way to get made, nowadays."

"I can't drop a postcard in your mailbox, or something?"

"Uh… no. I've got PO boxes all over the place but checking them takes a while."

"Masterson…" Gore wrestled with the phrasing a bit before giving up. "Are you homeless?"

They scoffed a little too loud. "No. Of course not! I mean… I may not have my own house, but I go home all the time. I live with people. Around."

"Aren't you a librarian?! Where do you keep your library, if you don't have a base of operations?"

"None of your business, officer." Masterson glowered for a moment, then sighed. "Put an X in your window if you want to talk."

"Everyone knows 'The X-Files', Wren! Besides, what if I need to contact you urgently?"

"God damn you are picky. Uh, let's see. Walk… clockwise around your apartment building, making right turns. Carry chalk. If you need to contact me, turn hard right, mark an X on that mailbox on the northeast side and keep walking. As for speed, I can tweak my delivery route to check it daily."

Penelope's heart leapt into her throat. Then she saw red. "First of all," she hissed, "fuck you for spying on me at home, Masterson! You memorized my block? That is creepy!"

"What? This is basic tradecraft! When I found your wallet-"

"'Found your wallet', what horseshit. Like you'd just stumble on it at random. You're Canadian! What were you even doing in the States, in my town? You've been following me!"

"You're the party crasher, 'whistl_stahp'! You snooped in our chat, and no! I am not following you and I did not steal your wallet! I am not a thief! I don't judge people who are, because 'crime' is fake anyway, but that's not something I'm into!"

Gore crossed her arms and waited.

"Okay, not regularly. Some people just… need it more than the mark. Whatever 'it' is. But I swear to everything I hold dear, I did not steal your wallet and I am not stalking you, Penelope, that would be super gross and creepy and I am nothing if not professional." They sucked air through their teeth. "Ethical trolling. It's the GAW creed."

She chortled humorlessly. "That's rich, given the 'tricks' you've pulled."

"Look, I… like I said in my message. I travel, a lot, all over. Wallet on the sidewalk. Yours. Thought it was a trap. Bolted. Checked it for bugs, found none. Scoped the block the next morning. There you were, catching the bus. You looked stressed. I realized it wasn't a trap, it was just… a very strange coincidence. Those do happen." They hesitated. "Right?"

"You — are — a — reality — bender," Gore spat. "You used a Tom Jones song as a 'prism' to timefuck this entire diner!"

"I used… two Tom Jones songs. Compressed and looped. Plus one standup routine."

"Who cares?! That doesn't matter! Nothing matters in here! For all I know, you could be messing with my brain right now — even more than you already have!"

Wren shook their head frantically. "I'm not. Promise. Gonna send you that countermeme as soon-"

"You could have primed this whole sequence of events. Pataphysics. Reverse causality. You could've set up every variable: song, diner, wallet, con, taskforce — your fucking tapes! Was this you, Masterson?!"

"I don't — no. I don't do that, I can't."

"Not consciously. You keep saying it: your 'brain-meat' is kinda messed up, and you don't talk to anyone about it. Are you medicated? Have you been taking them properly? Do you have, like… substance abuse issues?"

"…don't do this."

"God, you do. Are you sober, 'steakshift'? Maybe desperate for a hit? Are you sure you're in control here? Or… are you sure that you're not controlling everything here?" Penelope Gore let that question hang in the air for a moment, then scoffed. "Who am I fucking kidding. You've never been in control for a second. You're a mess. You're barely here at all."

Masterson paled. "Please don't say stuff like that," they whispered. Their voice shook, heavy with emotions. Confusion. Horror. Fear.

"Or what?!"

"I don't… no."

"You don't know! That figures!" Gore's voice got louder and louder. It wasn't like it mattered. The patrons and staff were busy with what they were doing, which was… nothing. Angry, boring nothing. "You are like a conceptual explosive, wrapped up in a gaudy jacket! You're so tightly wound, you're eventually gonna pop out and shred everyone in the room! Christ! You're scared of us, the janitors? We're lucky you didn't just manipulate the narrative and turn us inside-out! You could, couldn't you? If anything mattered to you, you fucking poser!"

"Please… Penelope, you're hu-"

Gore balled both hands into fists, thrust them into her lap, and let her voice boil out of her belly. "You are, without a doubt, the most sloppy, dangerous and violent person I've ever met, Wren Masterson! You're a fucking bitch and the world would be better off without y

Foundation Researcher Penelope Gore rinsed her coffee cup, wiped it out with a dry cloth, and refilled it. Sugar, cream. Clipboard, itinerary. Another day at the office. She heard the rustle of movement and turned to greet Doctor Robert Saunders, who breezed in through the open door of the employee lounge with a wide smile.

"Oh hey, Doc. How're you doing?"

Doctor Saunders grinned. "It's a good day, Penelope. How about you?"

Wait, what?

Record scratch, freeze-frame. Penelope Gore didn't know what was wrong, but she almost dropped her coffee cup regardless.

Something was… missing. Something she had almost (but not at all) grown accustomed to. What was it? Gore considered the scene. Site-76. Research. Still working her way through scheduled test sequences. Had Saunders changed his hair? No. Was it in how she'd been addressed? He hadn't said anything odd, he'd only used her


instead of a horrible, disrespectful nickname they'd cooked up because of the Incident, a sophomoric joke, boomers pretending to be hip, like anyone still cares about Ti

This wasn't right.

She knew what had changed.

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