Oh. [[Hello.->EuchPage2]]I'm [[Euchre->Eucopout]], and I'll be your [[guide->EuchPage3]] for...Nah. You can't learn more about me right now. I'm on the clock. Or, well, I'm salaried, so that's a figure of speech. But anyway. Head back and select the [[other option->EuchPage2]], please.[[Nine!->EuchPage4]]Or, actually, no I won't. More or less, I'm only responsible for holding your hand through the beginning. You'll find more qualified and, um, //enthusiastic// helpers [[later->EuchPage5]].And look at the time! The introduction is basically already over. I think all that's left before we let you choose your path is, uh, this //realllly// insightful [[quotation.->EuchPage6]]Except the quotation is lost to precise memory. Nobody recalls the exact words. And [[also.->EuchPage7]]If you'll pardon my [[French->Euchcopout2]], I don't really [[give a shit->EuchPage8]].Nice try. You actually have to pardon my French. French in this case meaning the word [["shit."->EuchPage8]]Here goes [[nothing.->EuchQuotation]]something something [["narratives"->Nine]] something something [["be happy"->Euchcopout3]][[Nine?->LandingPage]]Honestly, if you want to be happy, reading this is probably inefficient. I recommend doing a Youtube search for "baby goat is a flower." Or, if you're into //long term// well being, I'd meditate daily and avoid work in middle management. Plus avoid work that requires you to deal with superior figures in general, plus avoid work where you are "your own boss" and therefore--oops, ranting. Why don't you just click [[here->Nine]] and we'll pretend you chose "narrative."Nine. [[TL->TopLeft1]] [[TC->TopCenter1]] (if: (count: (history:), "TopRight1") is 0)[[[TR->TopRight1]]](else:)[[[TR->EuchreMustWe]]] [[CL->CenterLeft1]] [[CC->TrueCenter1]] [[CR->CenterRight1]] [[<span style="color: white;">FH</span>->FirstHero]] [[BL->BottomLeft1]] [[BC->BottomCenter1]] [[BR->BottomRight1]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL1]</p> KNIGHT: We have to leave at 8:30. ROOK: As in I pick you up then, or as in we get on the Interstate then? KNIGHT: Interstate. ROOK: Man, I was thinking, like 9:15. KNIGHT: No. 8:30. We can't risk being late. ROOK: There's the time difference, though. We gain an hour on the way there. KNIGHT: … ROOK: I mean. I can leave my house at 8:30. Pick you up at 8:45. We'll be at Bishop's house by 9:00. Should be half an hour early, still. KNIGHT: Don't you want to get some practice games in? ROOK: I really need my sleep, man. KNIGHT: Ok. ROOK: I'll see you at 8:45. KNIGHT: [[Yes->TopLeft2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL1]</p> There were ways, as reported, that his brain did compensate. The apprehension of shapes as shape, memory untroubled by the possibility of listeners. Projector screens assembled inside the skull but pointed outward, onto no canvas except the sky, never crystallizing. The expected results: deep meditation, trivial mindfulness, the digging of holes and chewing with the full force of his jaw. But then, of course, the mind is not zero-sum. For every neuron liberated, retconned to pure mathematics or the ephemera of being, there was another that kept dark, caught in the burning house. Mirrors drowned in the accretion of dust, storehouses of chemicals with their valves rusted shut. There is nothing to empathy except the trigger. He was not precisely human. Nothing so rickety. He was built stronger, tighter, more efficient. They would have, if they could have, made him stainless steel. But they were stuck with flesh and that fatty sponge on top. Tweaked enough, just enough, to survive the loneliness. It is so hard to change only [[one thing->BottomLeft2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR1]</p> (if: (count: (history:), "PapersFinale9") > 0)[The door is [[locked->LandingPage]].](else:)[A bald man with a beard behind a desk. Comfortable swivel chair for him, two wood chairs for whoever might come visit. The nameplate: EUCHRE. Papers in stacks all across the surface of different colors. Vivid red sheets, at least a dozen blues, a soft yellow between the man's thumb and forefinger. Euchre. A window behind the desk, huge window, covering the whole wall (the walls are white; there is no decoration), but shuttered thoroughly with dusty blinds. “Oh, fiddlesticks,” he says, to you. “You didn't come here first, did you?” He gestures for you to have a seat. There's a mug of probably coffee which he picks up and sips from. There's also a crumpled up piece of thin paper that used to hold a sandwich. There's something green in Euchre's teeth. “If you came here first you've got to get out. Go see the witchy girl, or the sad rich man, or” – he squints at his yellow sheet – “whoever, really. Just not me.” You're seated, now. The wooden chair is more comfortable than it looks. “I'm serious,” says Euchre. “If you stick around I'll assume you've been somewhere else first. Really, if I were you, I'd come here last.” He lets the yellow sheet down and picks up his lunch detritus. Hurls it into the corner. Your eyes follow it partway, but by the time they arrive, it has disappeared. “There's no story here,” says Euchre. “None at all. Just an awful lot of [[work->TopRight2]].”]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL1]</p> Climate control was only good every once in a while. Usually Claude didn't notice. He'd flop down on the couch and pull up the correct screen on his phone, and it would be, within a minute, the perfect temperature. To the nearest degree, what he wanted. Overhead lights with the proper tint: white for inspiration, reddish if he was tired, a soft blue for moods he didn't understand. Sounds over the speakers, a song or white noise or, sometimes, at his thumb's request, the murmuring of an artificial party. All of it. Incense prepared by a robotic hand, on those most opulent days, the days when it was enough to sit in the crease between custom pillows, to lean back and be the pearl. But did you forget? Only once in a while. White could be too bright and red became annoying quickly. Blue would have worked, almost any time, but when it didn't feel right it felt wrong to select. Music was too much usually, and other sounds too artificial. What was white noise, anyway? Incense was out of the picture, most days. Most hours and minutes, most of the differentiable integral of Claude's life. The couch molded to yesterday's back, a less or more stressed back, remembering better or worse not to slouch. Did anyone else have to know, that there was no way out? Dozens of people who would love to talk to him, he was sure, if he could bring himself to call. But calling wasn't what his phone was for. Money, of course, what was money? Money was the deepest nothing. Even with all of it. Even with all of it, though. Even with all of it, anyway. Except. Except those few days. Few hours, even during those few days. And at the best, the very best, only for moments. Like the moment, that one empty day, just before [[Jason called->CenterLeft2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR1]</p> “So, uh, do you ever worry we're not doing anything?” Raj pinched the wrapper of his sandwich. It was threatening to leak out. Too much sauce pooling. Mayonnaise and something in a proprietary blend. Veggie patty. He was doing a dietary experiment involving a spreadsheet he could access through his phone. “Well,” he said, “I think that's mostly a crisis of perspective.” “Nn,” Liz grunted. Her tuna looked delicious. Seared. On a bed of rice, though, and there was always too much rice. A good 5/4 as much rice as would be optimal, in Raj's opinion. “As in,” he said, “it's very possible we're doing less good than the best case scenario. Our whole field exists to decrease a probability that's already very low.” “Sure,” said Liz. “I mean, yeah.” She pressed the three tines of her plastic fork through her piece of tuna, and pressed the entire thing into her mouth. A little rectangle, chewing optional. “Just a feeling I get,” she said. “All theoretical at this point, you know.” “So is everything,” said Raj. “Literally everything is theoretical at first.” Drip. The first drop. Of several, unless he did something about it, onto Raj's shirt. The diner was crowded. He'd have to push by several people to get to the napkin stand. “You talked to Lucas recently?” “No,” Raj said. “Not since he moved.” “I have,” she said. “He really likes the EA stuff. Seattle too.” A family sat at the table next to theirs. Small children. Raj held his bundle of soggy paper over the table now. Dripping continued. “He says we're welcome to visit,” she said. “Might be fun.” “Plausible.” Another bite of tuna. So enviably crisp. Raj planned his spreadsheet comment for today's lunch [[cell->CenterRight2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC1]</p> Sordetta did not speak because she was not permitted to speak. She brought the required materials: her knife and its sharpening stone, her baggy cloak with thick fabric, the white cloth with which to cover her mouth, her leather gloves, her short unpointed hat. She brought the books she'd been assigned, although her teacher had copies and they were heavy. She brought a thick umbrella made from reeds, because to damage it, any of it, would be the end. She brought the instrument of her brain, crawling with new impulses and right-angled ambushes of feeling, but also smoothed by the river of one week's silence, up front, and quieted by the mandatory fasting. And so she sat for weeks carving ginger, shaving off the proper shapes into the cauldron. Never a mistake. Hands unshaking, even with the sweat pooling in her gloves, the roaring fire, and no potion of coolness for her, never a drop of potion to pass between her lips, nothing but warm, once-treated water. She carved the little cubes, the hemispheres (her favorite), the terrible pyramids held up to the light. The point had to be so fine. She washed herself in cold water every night. Her teacher never bathed. Her teacher's smell filled the hut, mingling with the smell of what she brewed. They were the same. Ginger on her teacher's sweat, ginger and a dozen secret herbs that Sordetta knew nothing about, that knowledge forbidden. Her teacher drank potion on the hour, fresh and cold, and belched it back into the stifling quietude. And after the month was up, Sordetta's stomach shrunk, her eyes besieged by shadow, her wrists tan but nothing else, the hair singed from her forearms and a red streak on her forehead from the steam, after she packed up her things into that hopeless knapsack, and her teacher drew forth the final mixture. After her teacher took a sip, a long, slow sip, and blinked twice. It was perfect. Sordetta knew it. It was perfect. “Talent is nothing,” her [[teacher->TopCenter2]] said, and sent her off for winter.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC1]</p> River went by just R now, which was difficult to remember, because they seemed like a River, and only abandoned the name because of its attendant “she.” But it was just as well since formerly Clarence was now called 11, and no-longer-Isobel went by July. (“Julie?” //“No.”//) The switches would have been easy to remember, trivial really, if anyone was sober very often. Tonight was ciders, which //somebody// (R) had forgotten to put in the fridge, even though the whole point was to cool everyone off. The fan had long blades but it was slow and the summer was hot and of course, even splitting the rent seven ways, nobody was inclined to spring for AC. Tonight was also amphetamines for R and their new partner, which meant July got out zir cracker so ze could distract zirself from all the babbling. 11 was sober as usual but kept asking for two and three digit numbers to multiply in his head, because despite his decent social calibration he was still a motherfucker that way. R's partner floated the idea of busting out the N64, but the energy just wasn't there. A fake polar bear head was mounted on one wall. There were a couple different pianos, one regular size and one miniature. No parties tonight worth going to, so people kept trickling in and out of home base. “I'm just saying that the biggest thing we have to work on is caring,” said R's partner. “About //anything//.” R squeezed their partner's stomach. R's partner was sweating. R breathed audibly. July breathed even more audibly, by virtue of consuming an inhalant. “About, like, each other?” ze asked, in the channeled lower tongue of nitrous oxide. “About //anything//,” repeated R's partner. “Yes!” said 11, gazing into his phone. “That was hard, but I got it right.” “What was it?” asked July. “Was it a fun one?” July's pants were loose and shiny, but in several places stuck to zir legs with sweat. “Eh,” said 11. “7812.” //Whooooooosh.// July stood up. 11 tensed because you're not supposed to do that on nitrous, really, but July spun in a circle without hurting zirself. “7-8. 1-2. Mmm.” “Right,” said 11. “What next?” “No,” said R's partner. “Like, you guys aren't really listening. Anything. Caring about anything. Not hippie stuff I mean like, caring about anything that's happening.” “Three digits this time,” said 11. R nuzzled R's partner and R's partner squeezed R's shoulder. “722 and 124,” said July. She offered the cracker to 11, who held it for a while, considering. “Like politics, but even like, //local// politics.” 11 depressed the nozzle, breathed in, wrinkled up his face. 124. That was one less than 125, which he could model by multiplying by five, then dividing by four, then adding two zeros. As long as he remembered to subtract the—what? Oh, crap, he lost it. And wow. That guy. The way his veins were bulging about. And the //words// he was saying. Oh, and was that piano? Hah. Heart of Glass. July had started playing Blondie's Heart of Glass, in D minor, on the larger piano. Classic. Right. 11 rubbed his temple. 722. After adding two zeros, he had to knock off a [[722->BottomCenter2]]. <p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR1]</p> The sound of it more than the feeling, though the feeling was dreadful, the heat all he'd expected and more, truly a blaze more like sunfire than that of men. But the sound! A roar made entirely of whispers, even as it burnt his hair away and tangled around his ears, it told him layered secrets. His purpose and then the nothingness of his purpose. His life and then the sureness of his death, his strength and then the truth that his bones could break, his flesh could melt, his eyes could disintegrate and leave no trace of derivation. So that's what she meant, the enchantress in her teardrop boots and her silken tower, when she said no man could prepare to face a dragon. This was the moment her words bent to. Not the next moment, when he'd pull his back from the low wall. Or the one after, when he'd lift his sword. A flipping book like those at carnivals, like the one he'd been given as a child. This, then that, then that, a rustle of pages until the thing was spent. But no. Not even the last page, the one he'd waited for, the slice of steel into scale. But this one. Behind the wall. Fire against him without limit. Because. Because, and it was simple. In that moment, but not in the next, he knew the truth. That nothing before mattered. The lingering moment with the enchantress, before he strapped on his pack and climbed down her stairs. The long boat ride across the sea, humming his mother's song. The waning moon and the bandits who told him if he was killing himself anyway, they might as well take what was his. The precious gems in the hilt of his sword, or the enchanted flameproof wood of his scabbard. None of it. None of it at all. Because unless he was perfect, unless his muscle and sinew and nerve and gut pulled him, with seamless fluidity, along the proper path, he would be dead. And not just him. It was a dance. His perfection had to fall within the shadow of dragon's error. Dragon's sneeze. Dragon's ego. His excess into dragon's yawning lack. And if not, all was nothing. The flipping book cast into the bottom of a lake, ink run through the pages like [[a blade->BottomRight2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC1]</p> There's nothing here. This is the place to come when you're ready to move on to the next stage of [[each story->TrueCenter2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL2]</p> And then what is an experiment? They gave him one inedible object, after thirty years of life. A mathematics textbook: gray cover, with the title in orange: “CALCULUS.” That was all. He was literate, sort of, his literacy the culmination of a dozen careers. But only the words and concepts he'd need. “Family,” and he was slack-jawed. “Group” was a group of numbers. And the numbers themselves, these he understood, though he struggled with the symbols: there was not very much about the number 11 that suggested the same as all of his fingers, plus one toe. But he got it. No trouble at all with those tall, gangly sigmas, the little pis and their capitalized cousins. He read in bizarre fits, losing attention in the middle of a sentence, taking in the practice problems without any inclination he might want to solve them. Leaving questions hanging open like doors. He almost bit the book a number of times, but was inwardly held back. He slept wrapped around the book. His brain sizzled, testing itself. Surviving. And so the watchers watched, not the old watchers but the successors of their successors, it having been thirty years. New types of clipboard, new forms, new ethics appeals roundly ignored. Soon he'd get to [[limits->BottomLeft3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL3]</p> For every epsilon there exists a delta. There exists. Every. Epsilon. Error. A plan amiss. Red. Red sky. No but sky was blue. Error. For every epsilon. For every. Delta. Distance. A stick. Black lines on a stick. Epsilon. For every epsilon. Delta. For every epsilon there exists. Every epsilon. Distance. There exists a distance. Small. His own fingers. His toes. Lines in his fingers. Curves. For every epsilon. Every. Clouds. Sand and dirt and the green up-stickers and grains. A grain pressed right against his eye, not so small now, so little delta, but existing. Lost but yet for every. For every epsilon. Error. For every error there exists. For every error there exists a distance. He tore out the page and was frightened by the sound. It did not tear evenly. Apart from the book, he held it up. Sun behind it. Shining through. Symbols overlaid on each other, on empty space. All. Every. So much more. So much more than one. He destroyed the page. He wept. He forgot destroying the page and forgot weeping. He fell asleep. No one could watch his dreams. For every error there exists [[its distance->LandingPage]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC2]</p> Make sure you're ready before you [[move on->TrueCenter3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC3]</p> Last call. Do you want to [[keep going?->Landing Page 2]] If you have anything else you want to check out, I'll show you [[back->LandingPage]].(if: (count: (history:), "PapersFinale9") > 0)[...](elseif: (count: (history:), "EuchreHints") is 0)[Oh. Shit! I forgot. The hints. Now, where did I [[put them->EuchreHints]]?](else:)[Want to see the [[hints->EuchreHintsRepeat]] again?] [[TL->TopLeft4]] [[TC->TopCenter4]] [[TR->TopRight4]] [[CL->CenterLeft4]] [[CC->TrueCenter4]] [[CR->CenterRight4]] [[<span style="color: white;">FH</span>->FirstHero]] [[BL->BottomLeft4]] [[BC->BottomCenter4]] [[BR->BottomRight4]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL2]</p> ROOK: Should we call him? KNIGHT: No. He knows we're here. ROOK: Man. Alright. PAWN: I texted him. He's getting his breakfast together. ROOK: To eat in the car? PAWN: Yeah I guess so. KNIGHT: Hang on. I'm getting a call. //KNIGHT exits.// PAWN: Oh hey. Here he comes. //BISHOP enters, with pancakes on a Styrofoam plate.// BISHOP: Sorry, sorry. Where's – oh, there he is. PAWN: Wonder who he's talking to. ROOK: His mom. Look how he's standing. BISHOP: Yeah. Yeah, he is sure standing in a way. PAWN: Nah. He'd stay in the car if it was his mom. ROOK: Definitely his mom or dad. BISHOP: Guaranteed. //KNIGHT returns. Beat.// PAWN: So. That your family or... KNIGHT: No. Just a friend. PAWN: In your face! //BISHOP eats pancakes. ROOK [[drives->TopLeft3]].//<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL3]</p> PAWN: Man, pick one. ROOK: Hm? PAWN: The AC. Just pick one. BISHOP: You keep moving it from zero to two. KNIGHT: Guys. Rook's driving. PAWN: I'm just saying pick one! ROOK: Sure. Sorry. It's unconscious. //ROOK switches AC to level one. BISHOP and KNIGHT crowd around KNIGHT'S phone in the back seat, watching something.// ROOK: Almost halfway there. //A minute passes. ROOK dances in his seat to his music.// //Another minute.// //ROOK switches the AC to level two.// KNIGHT: One second. I gotta take this. //KNIGHT interrupts the video on his phone to take a call.// KNIGHT: Hello? Yeah. Yeah, man. Listen. Don't stress about it, alright? I'll see what I can do. No, but you know, I have the interview tomorrow. Yeah. It'd be a couple weeks. Right. Yeah, man. I understand. We're working on it. It's just the one, right? And you're guaranteed? Such a good setup. We're rooting for you. Yeah. Keep me posted. Be well. //ROOK switches the AC to level zero.// PAWN: Dammit! //ROOK switches the AC to level [[two->LandingPage]].//<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR2]</p> “Hm,” says Euchre. He's holding a blue sheet of paper. His thumb creases the middle of the sheet, bending the top toward him. The bottom rests on his desk. “This is a weird request.” You aren't sure what to make of that. “They're deploying heroes. Or, requesting to. Which, hm. I wouldn't have guessed.” You fidget in your seat. The chair is really rather rigid. “I mean.” He frowns. “The request is already greenlit by management, so it's not really up to me. I've just got to stamp it. Formalities.” He lets the paper go and fiddles around in his drawer. Produces a stamp with an E on it, and aligns it over the form's top corner. “This affects you too, you know,” he says. Stamp. “There are hints. That might already be clear to you. Or maybe that's why you're here. So I can explain. Well. Either way. There are hints, throughout the narrative. Places you can do whatever it is you do, to get a hero's attention.” Probably, you're not sure what he means by “whatever it is you do.” But if you have a guess, you can pat yourself on the back for being very literal-minded. “No need to worry for now, really,” he says. “Just keep an eye out. The heroes won't actually influence anything until we're most of the way done. Or at all, if you don't find them.” He puts the stamp away and slides the blue paper to the side of his desk. Starts thumbing through a green packet. His brow furrows. “Speaking of which, I have no idea what we'll do together at this point. There are a lot of sections left. Seven. Given that there are nine for each sector. And, well. No offense, but I'm pretty much [[out of ideas->TopRight3]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR3]</p> “Well,” says Euchre. “I guess we could look at it like an internship.” You fidget. “You know. Because I can't exactly pay you.” Euchre pushes a stack of papers across his desk. They're color coded. The edge of the stack protrudes past the edge of the desk, on your side. The papers are mostly white and blue, but a few are yellow. There are red and orange papers too, but those aren't in your stack. “[[Optionally->TopRight3Sort]], of course. We can just [[sit here->TopRight3Sit]] if you prefer.”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR3]</p> You sort the papers, under Euchre's direction. The white ones are request forms for people who want to become ghosts after they die, instead of being reincarnated. You mention to Euchre that you didn't know reincarnation was real, in quite those terms. He says it's not everywhere, just some places, but in those places it's a real drag with paperwork. As you can see. The blue papers are something called attention requests, which you don't understand. There are a lot of numbers on them, organized in thin columns. Euchre says to go ahead and stamp all those with a stamp that says “PENDING.” So you do. The yellow papers appear to be poetry written by Euchre himself. Most of the ghost forms are pretty open-and-shut. I want to be a ghost so I can see what it's like to stand inside of limestone. Rejected. I want to be a ghost so that I can finish solving a difficult physics problem. Rejected. Got to walk on the bottom of the ocean. “Haha,” says Euchre. “Yeah. That guy. Every time he dies and gets some provisional intra-incarnation memories back, he requests to be a ghost so he can walk on the bottom of the ocean. You raise your eyebrows. “No,” he says. “Absolutely not. Doesn't even begin to meet the conditions.” Oh well. Rejected. A poem by Euchre: The creator doesn't like me But this causes no vexation. He doesn't like any of his-- You are interrupted when Euchre grabs the paper from your hand. “Oh! Sorry. That's, uh. That's not meant for [[your stack->LandingPage]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR3]</p> You sit in silence for a while. Euchre stamps a bunch of blue papers. “If you get curious later,” he says, “Technically, we can go back to this part and you can choose the other option. Not sure what that means for me, but, you know.” He puts a paper clip around his ream of blue papers and gets started on some white ones. “Just for the record, is [[all->LandingPage]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL2]</p> “You ever seen bioluminescence, C?” And then there was the rush through the soles of his feet, up through his ribcage, the uncomfortable heat burning itself into memory. He'd remember where he'd been sitting in a month, a year, two. When Jason called. Deep breath. “Like, algae?” “Mhm. I just saw it. I'm out by this bay in Florida. It's something else.” Claude got off the couch, pressed his phone against the side of his face. He walked to his wide sliding door and saw the dim outline of his reflection. “What's it like?” “Well. You have to stir it. It doesn't cover the water or anything. I stuck a palm frond in there and twisted it around. It's cool. Glows where you twist it.” “Green?” “More white.” “So you're in Florida? What, um, did you--” Jason trilled that laugh of his. “Place to place, C. I'm still place to place.” Palm on the glass. Eyes closed. “Anyway, C. It's really pretty. Made me think of you.” “Oh,” said Claude. “Um, yes. You too. I mean, thank you, for--” “Gotta go. I'll call you later.” A click. Claude set the phone down anywhere, he wasn't aware, his brain was fully detached from his hands even as they opened the glass door and shut it behind him, and as he stood on his balcony. He was a being without legs, though they held him imperfectly: he swayed. He caught himself on the balcony's limestone railing, mouth open, eyes awaiting orders. “Fuck,” he said, to the great darkness, and to the blinking lights of [[other homes->CenterLeft3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL3]</p> And then the waiting. Claude didn't call back because he knew where that road led. He just had to wait. Eating at restaurants every day for a while, because his hands were too shaky to cook. Leaving work early some days – working until midnight others to catch up and distract himself. Taking long showers every other day or so, and no shower at all otherwise. Restaurant food lapsed after a week into microwaveable food of the most expensive caliber: duck, pot roasts, and needlessly vegan delights. Within two weeks he lost weight. After three he told himself, over and over again on the couch, that he didn't even want a call back, after seeing again what Jason did to him. That he needed to move on. Turn his lights all the purest white, away from the red setting, or the yellow, all the settings he'd been living in. Needed to put himself under a microscope, fluorescent. Push ups and sit ups daily. Meditation. Therapy? No. Certainly not quite that far. A month. Two. And then, mother fuck, he knew. He knew even as he also knew, wrongly, that he'd be wrong. Because it couldn't be. It couldn't possibly be Jason knocking at his [[door->LandingPage]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR2]</p> Dang. It was a guilty night. Which didn't actually //stop// Liz, but threw in various intermissions, forced her to restart the relevant enterprise. Which meant she'd be up a good half hour later than she'd plan otherwise, and Raj would be so crisp and clean in the morning, and she knew he respected her in principle but he did not handle grogginess well, and, and, wow. Deep down, deeper than theory, she really wanted to move to Seattle. The Goal Alignment problem was, in theory, the problem of making an artificial intelligence have the same goals as its creators. In practice, the problem was in its most preliminary stages. Figuring out how an Artificial Intelligence might possibly work, and simultaneously trying to figure out how to transform intuitive human preferences into an understandable machine framework. The problem, at its core: goal is orthogonal to processing power. An AI can be eminently, perfectly reasonable, with the ability to solve any problem, and its goal could still be as simple as maximizing the number of existing staples. Or maximizing a number in its memory. Which could mean converting all matter in the observable universe into staple material, or silicon to simulate the highest possible number. Or whatever. Once AI existed in the first place. A dumb, implausible apocalypse. But a possible one. Possible enough to justify staying in expensive-ass California, and not running off to Seattle to be with a boy. A boy, which, if she was being honest, would find what she was doing weird. If he knew. Hence the guilt. In tonight's performance, they were different people in different fields. No Friendly AI – er, wait, now it was called Goal Alignment – research. No Effective Altruism. Just... what had it been? She'd forgotten. Engineering? No, dentists. Right. They were dentists at a convention. Married? Liz furrowed her brow. If they were married, would she actually imagine a husband? Raj? No. That was too far. Really kind of mean. So no. Not married this time. They were single dentists. Or wait. He wasn't a dentist. She smiled. No, no, he was just a hygienist. Yeah. Well, wait. If he was a hygienist, why would he be at a convention? They didn't go to the conventions, did they? Also, her thigh itched a little bit, suddenly. She had a bite there. Which was weird. A spider, maybe. Could be one lived in her bedroom. Ugh. She really needed to clean. Or just hire a maid and stop donating and saving quite so much. Ok. Come on. She needed to sleep. There was buildup and then there was just stalling. He was a hygienist but he came because the conference was in his town. And why go? To network with dentists, maybe. He was forward-minded about his career. Had some kids. Yes! Perfect. He had kids, but he was divorced. That'd do it. But she was childless. And had lots of money. Which she didn't even worry about donating, really, except whatever little bit normal people did. Yep. This was going to be a good one. Once they got to a hotel with her credit card, and his kids had a sitter overnight, and she got Lucas on his back. Two minutes. Two minutes of point A to point B, skipping a few parts, and she'd be in business. And then she'd go meet Raj, [[bright and early->CenterRight3]]. Working on the first step of the first step of how to tell a computer to just //want the right fucking thing//, trying not to think of Lucas's shoulders, or Seattle.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR3]</p> “I really think we should tweak the introduction.” Raj shook his head. “The attention and energy boost from caffeine is best realized about forty minutes from consumption.” He tapped the side of his Styrofoam cup. “We should work on the introduction when we're less able to perform rigorous formal logic.” “Well,” said Liz. “Caffeine increases speed and focus but also increases incidence of careless mistakes.” God damn it she didn't care about this argument at all why did she always have to prove she could keep up with Raj now it was going to be a huge-- “That study hasn't replicated yet,” said Raj. He pushed up his glasses. “Plus its results were in regard to standardized test performance, which is highly dissimilar to synthesizing known problems.” “And arguably the introduction is top priority because we're doing outreach as much as pure theory at this point, so cogency and grammar are going to be crucial.” Raj grimaced. "I'll get more coffee,” he said. “Is fifteen minutes of introductory work now, and then some work on synthetic induction, an agreeable compromise?” “Yes, Raj. Should we shake on it?” “That shouldn't be necessary,” said Raj, as he pushed his chair back. He walked with even steps, not once overlapping his shoe with the lines between two tiles. Liz scrolled up the document on their collaborative tablet. His grammar was so bad. For such a persnickety person, who spoke so well, especially. Maybe English wasn't his first language? She felt bad for not knowing. The lights in the office seemed extra fluorescent. She hadn't slept well last night. She kept waking up from distracting dreams, groping for a pencil. In the morning, the notes: “AI boxing no good; AI double box? Double in box all cognitive resource. Also double meaning. Newcomb.” Then a doodle of a robot's head, winking. Raj came back. “I'll set a timer,” he said. “Fifteen minutes of this, an hour of synthetic induction, and then lunch. Correct?” “Mm,” said Liz. “But listen. We've got to talk about [[semicolons->LandingPage]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC2]</p> Joseph arrived two minutes late to his appointment. It had been raining and the charm on his walking stick had given out, so he had to find a spare. The spare wasn't as good as his main dryness charm, so he was damp by the time he knocked on his tutor's door. The man welcomed him in immediately, wrapped a thin blanket around his shoulders, and sat him down at the tall oaken table. Placed a mug of tea in front of him, steaming and glistening with a thin veneer of sugar. “Joseph Burbage, yes?” the tutor asked. “Yes, sir,” said Joseph. “Ah,” the tutor waved his hand. “Drink up, Joseph. You can call me sir if you like, but 'Pecune' works just as well.” “Pecune,” said Joseph, quite dry now. “All right.” Pecune's office was a single room, though there were intimations of a larger structure: hatches on the floor and ceiling, and a red door with a brass handle in the back corner. The office itself was lined on two walls with tall stuffed bookshelves, and the others with paintings. A lion roared from the canvas of one, while another showed a small boat on a calm sea. Nobody was visible on the boat. A third painting showed a field of wheat with a young woman standing near the edge of the frame. A clock stood prominently near the door. There was a hat rack with several colorful scarves and coats upon it. Pecune wore a light pinstriped jacket. His hair was long. “And what brings you here, Joseph?” Joseph gazed through his tea. Then at Pecune. A spindly man. The kind you knew was smart just from the look of him. “Um, you know. Magic lessons.” “Right,” said Pecune. “I suppose I could be more specific.” He steepled his hands on the high oaken table. “I meant to ask what you were having trouble with at the academy.” “Oh,” said Joseph. “Right.” He took a sip of tea. “Charms. I'm good at channeling, but just awful, um,” Pecune's brow furrowed, “just really weak at charms.” “I see,” said Pecune. “Well, of course.” He gently plucked the cloth from Joseph's back, and, still seated, hung it on the hat rack. He smiled. “That's common for talented boys, you know.” Thunder clapped outside. Joseph trembled a little, but only in his shoes. “Really?” “Oh, of course. You're used to being able to accomplish a spell just through force of habit, because you've always been good at it. Strong intuition. It'll take you far, Joseph. But charms are finicky. You've got to backtrack. Get some of the fundamentals you've elided.” Joseph buried his face in a long sip of tea. Relished the steam, and how it hid his face. “Do you know what elided means?” “Um,” said Joseph. “Sort of.” “Glossed over. Merged. Underdeveloped. It's a difficult word. We do difficult work here. Ignorance is no sin at all. I guarantee, for everything you don't know, I've seen ten boys know ten times less, and with only a tenth of the talent.” Joseph laughed a little. His tea was half empty now. It felt good in his belly. He was no longer wet at all. “The more of your troubles are from ignorance, you see, the easier you can improve.” “Huh,” said Joseph. “That makes sense.” “Mm,” said Pecune. “More tea?” “I'm fine. But thanks.” “Anytime. Let's start with your dryness charm. The one on your stick. We'll improve it. Lots of quirks to that one. Plenty of good wrinkles to [[get into->TopCenter3]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC3]</p> “You're older now,” said the witch. “You'll help with something serious.” Sordetta did not speak because she was not permitted to speak. She stood straight. She'd grown taller. Her frizzy hair brushed against the ceiling. From the cauldron came a faint red light. “Your arm.” Sordetta raised her arm. Her teacher gripped it by the wrist, tightly. She produced a cloth from her pocket and shook it out onto the floor. Nine needles fell around her shoes. “Keep it up.” Sordetta didn't understand for a second, so she let her arm slacken. Her teacher pointed a bony finger out the door, so Sordetta went outside. She waited an hour. She stood still, jaw gritted, watching a little puddle form in snow. Then her teacher gripped her wrist, and pulled her back in. The nine needles had been arranged on a cloth, which rested on a podium that Sordetta had never seen before. Mostly wood, but the very top layer was speckled marble. The needles gleamed in the red light of the cauldron's potion, in a three by three grid. Sordetta stood up straight. “Your arm.” Sordetta raised her arm. The witch wriggled her fingers above the needle matrix. Her robe billowed. The potion let off orange steam. “Keep it up.” Sordetta kept it up. “With your other hand,” she said, “take the fifth needle.” Sordetta reached for the needle in the middle, but her hand was slapped away. “Useless girl. That's the ninth.” Sordetta did not speak. “Fifth! Fifth.” The witch took the needle, from her own perspective, in the center row and rightmost column. “Time. From Midnight ahead.” The witch pressed the needle against Sordetta's free palm. It was very cold. She kept her other arm out. She became very aware of her pulse. “Don't look at the potion. But dip the tip of the needle into it.” Sordetta put her wrist over the edge of the cauldron. Another volley of orange steam came out. It singed. She winced, but probed the needle down. So hot. She felt the skin on her fingertips pruning. But she dipped the needle and recovered it. “Now,” said the witch. “Find a vein.” Sordetta blinked. Her teacher narrowed one eye, but kept the other fixed. And meanwhile, across a river, Pecune sat with Joseph Burbage, helping him with his hundredth charm of dryness. Exams were in a week. The boy was stressed, so the two were taking a break. Pecune puffed from a long, thin pipe, and Burbage ate a frosted treat. “What are you thinking you'll pursue, once you finish your exams?” “Probably what my dad does,” said Joseph. “Just for a little bit.” “Ah,” said Pecune. “It's getting more dangerous, you know. Lots of witches.” He blew a smoke pentagon. Each side a different color. The sides alternated colors every second or so, until the structure disappeared. “I'm good at defense magic,” Joseph said. He laughed. “Not much else.” “Now Joseph,” said Pecune. “You're plenty good at what you'll really use. Exams measure only what they measure.” A perfect sphere of smoke, with a grinning spectral head inside. “You think I'll do good enough?” “You'll do fine,” said Pecune. “Now let's [[practice->LandingPage]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC2]</p> God //[[damn->BottomCenter3]]// when was somebody going to clean the microwave?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC3]</p> “Hey,” said July. “11. Are you awake?” 11 was awake but hadn't gotten out of his bed yet. He'd been having nightmares for the last few weeks. They were conceptual nightmares. He saw scary text, or felt trapped in an epistemic prison. Things equaled their opposites. In one dream, a bear was in the backyard, and its cub was inside, and he wasn't sure how well the door would hold. But yes, he was awake. July peeked her – wait, no, no, not her, zir – head around the door. 11 sat up a little bit. He wished he was better at remembering things in the morning. And oh no, he hated being the one who'd fucked up, but his laundry was definitely still in the dryer. That's what this was, wasn't it? “Oh,” he said. “Sorry, yeah. What's up?” “Nothing. Can I come in?” “Sure.” 11 pulled the covers further over his chest. He tilted his head. July came and sat in his swivel chair. Zie swiveled. “I just wanted to talk to you about, um, the situation with Clay.” 11 wasn't sure who Clay was. “I wanted to ban him from the house. Like, officially. I know that R won't like it but I figured if I have your support...” zir voice trailed off. “You know. I just.” Zie scratched zir nose. “It's not that I feel unsafe usually, I mean, I don't want to co-opt that language, but he really is kind of dangerous.” “Oh,” said 11. “Well, I mean, if he's dangerous.” “I think he's probably dangerous. After last night, and everything.” “Well,” said 11. “Then, um.” “So you agree?” 11 blinked. “Oh,” said July. “We can talk about it later, or if you want some time to think, of course it has to be a consensus decision, but, you know how R gets about people and after last night...” 11 weighed his options. It was 11:45am. In an hour and fifteen minutes, 11 had to be at work. A conversation about whatever last night was would take... twenty? Better to overestimate. Thirty? And there were things he wanted to work on. Pretty important things, recreationally speaking. July swiveled. “What happened last night?” July tapped zir foot against the support of the chair. Zie leaned forward. Zie failed to suppress a little smile, and pushed zir hair off of zir face. “Oh,” zie said. “Wow. You really didn't hear it [[going down->LandingPage]]?”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR2]</p> What he didn't wonder: where the dragon had come from, where it had hatched, how it had grown up and what it had eaten, what had awoken its impulse to treasure, its greed and wrath, what had focused it to this land, under this patch of sky, what had drawn it to this castle. If there were other dragons of different sorts: tiny dragons in the stitching of pillows, hoarding thread; massive dragons in the roots of mountains, gnawing, guarding precious, secret ores; dragons in the clouds throwing down chaos, dragons snoozing under mushroom caps, dragons in the blood vessels of an eyelid. Why dragons cared at all for human maidens, or fought heroes on the ground. He wondered none of it, because he was distracted. Dressing his wounds, cleaning his sword, climbing the spiral staircase with heart in ringing ears. Caked in sweat and ash, freshly scarred, trembling. So very young, like the girl upstairs. He didn't even yet know her first name. And beneath it all, as he climbed the crumbling stairs, as thrill buoyed him, as he imagined what she might look like, the simple fact. Smoldering in the dragon's skeleton, those bones that would linger for ten thousand years. Susurrations of the smoke lost in his lungs. To slay a dragon is not to [[defeat it->BottomRight3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR3]</p> Killing the king was a different matter. A hurled spear on the battlefield, and a courier, a week later, declaring the man died of complications. Of course there was plenty in between. A jester with pointed purple shoes and a sharp knife. Sleep with one eye open by a campfire. Learning the princess's vocal quirks, being caught up in her mystery but also too exhausted, too prepared for the next volley. Moments here and there stuffed into memory: the two of them by the creek, looking down together, the little fright as a stair crumbled and he grabbed her arm. The night when, for no reason either knew, she wandered off to cry against a tree. But God. Of course the king demanded the maiden. And economic conditions being what they were, there was the bloody option to refuse. He rarely thought of the enchantress. Once in a while, her tower snuck into his dreams. And the lake. He remembered skipping rocks across it alone. That one often. Time broken apart like a segmented fruit. Three months of travel. Two years of war. A day of coronation. A year of reports read aloud to him of villages burned, of difficult compromises and choices that became less difficult because what was it, anyway, to add another zero to the dead. A decade of peace. A night of terror, unbidden, in the royal bedchamber. Eyes open suddenly. Heart furious. A dripping sound. The skitter of a rat, maybe. Hands grasping over the edge of the bedframe, bare feet finding cold stone. He sat hunched on the bed's edge and listened, naked. Listened until the dripping escaped his notice and there was silence. A little cloud of his breath. Winter. How long had it been, now? There was the queen, still mysterious, sleeping soundly. There were the high ceilings. There was the king, back aching, desperately lost in thought. He'd never wanted children, had he? Or to go back out and adventure, once his dragon was slain. But neither had he wanted to hear proclamations, or to sit in a giant chair, or to have someone else take all the first bites of his food. So where was it? Where was the turn in the road, that led to anywhere but here? Dragons in exhalation. Dragons in the whorls of disturbed sheets, put back in their place. Dragons in the slowing of pulse, the straightening of legs, the resumption, unperturbed, of [[dreams->LandingPage]].(if: (count: (history:), "SecondHero") is 0)[(color: purple)[Welcome. I'm sorry I was so hidden away. I am the second hero. I have no name. Perhaps some day I will have one. I can rescue one story from harm, or at least do my best. I am skilled with magic and restoring peace. When the time comes, tell me where you'd like me to go, and I will heal what I can heal. Would you like to go back to [[11's story->BottomCenter4]], or would you prefer to go back to [[the grid->Landing Page 2]]?]](else:)[(color: purple)[Second hero, at your service. I'll see you again later [[on->Landing Page 2]].]](color: #00008B)[Hello. I'm the First Hero. I'm glad you found me. My name is Koichi. I am skilled with a sword and my age is beyond all comprehension. Forever I will look young, but not too young. I am able to rescue one story from a bad fate. When the time comes, tell me which story to rescue, and I will do as you (if: (count: (history:), "Landing Page 2") is 0)[[[ask->LandingPage]]](else:)[[[ask->Landing Page 2]]].]{ (print: "<script>$('html').removeClass(\)</script>") (if: (passage:)'s tags's length > 0)[ (print: "<script>$('html').addClass('" + (passage:)'s tags.join(' ') + "'\)</script>") ] } { <!-- Auto-save our progress (unless a passage forbids it) --> (unless: (passage:)'s tags contains "nosave")[ (save-game: $_autosave_slot, $_autosave_filename) ] }Right. So, as mentioned before (it was mentioned, right? whatever), there are two heroes hidden in the story. You will find the first hero ''to the right of what is most right.'' How mysterious. And you will find the second hero in, uh. Oh, wow. This one's [[a doozy.->EuchreHints2]]You will find the second hero ''in the first second of the fourth fifth.'' So, I think that's all the business. See you in my corner, maybe. [[Have fun.->Landing Page 2]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL4]</p> KNIGHT: Man. It's so hard to get free of a bad situation. BISHOP: Like positional disadvantage? KNIGHT: No, man. I mean, a bad life situation. PAWN: Like the AC. //ROOK switches the AC to level two.// KNIGHT: My friend. He got into pharmacy school. ROOK: The one you were on the phone with? KNIGHT: Yeah. He got into pharmacy school. But it's deferred. ROOK: He's deferring it? KNIGHT: No. They're deferring it. He has the grades and the scores and all that, but – oh, hang on, I gotta take this – //KNIGHT answers his phone.// KNIGHT: Yes. This is Knight. Well, you see, I was calling earlier to let you know that my car broke down, so I won't be able to make the interview tonight. //PAWN laughs quietly. BISHOP punches him in the arm.// KNIGHT: I'd be very happy to reschedule, though. Does Tuesday work? 3:30? Yeah, that's perfect. Thank you so much. Yeah. Bye. //PAWN bursts out laughing.// BISHOP: You got a whole different voice for that. KNIGHT: I'm not taking chances. There's good tips there. They have a bar. ROOK: You're taking a chance skipping the interview! KNIGHT: Well. That's for the game. BISHOP: Amen. ROOK: But hey. What about [[your friend->TopLeft5]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL4]</p> No concept for day. Light, not as a word. Since calculus had integrated itself there was the idea of line, which insinuated into light. But light remained atomic, too, infested with vines. So there was light. A period of light between darkness, without the book. He had misplaced it. It was behind his back, and he was sitting, and he sat for a full period. Hands drawing spirals in the dirt. He watched the sky or what passed for the sky. A cloud moved by. He saw symbols everywhere. When dark came, he saw symbols between stars. Areas under and around curves. But the ideas were muted. Shapes and colors but none lasted long enough to pose a problem. Nothing to solve. Just sigmas and epsilons and deltas and pis, winking from the sky. His hands were very dirty. His neck became sore, but he kept it tilted back. Watched the stars until they were gone, and then the clouds again, and there the book was, minus [[one page->BottomLeft5]], behind him.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR4]</p> (if: (count: (history:), "EuchreAbsent") > 0)[The door is [[locked->Landing Page 2]].](elseif: (count: (history:), "PapersFinaleNo") > 0)["Changed your mind? Would you like to [[sign it->PapersFinaleYes]]? Because if not, I'd rather be [[left alone->Landing Page 2]]."](elseif: (count: (history:), "TopRight4 End") is 0)[Euchre adjusts his swivel chair to lean further back. “Dessert break,” he announces. He produces a cookie from his desk drawer. It's a large chocolate chip cookie. The chips are very evenly spaced around the cookie. He unwraps it from its plastic and hurls the plastic ball into the corner of the room. It disappears. “Want a piece?” [[Yes->TopRight4 Cookie]] or [[no->TopRight4 NoCookie]]?](else:)["Bla bla bla whatever cookie?" [[Yes->TopRight4 Cookie]] or [[no->TopRight4 NoCookie]]? Or would you rather [[skip->TopRight5]] this cookie nonsense?]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL4]</p> “You've got company?” Oh! Shit! He'd forgotten to turn off the sound. He'd been listening to party murmurs. Jason walked in. The back of his hand brushed the back of Claude's. He walked past Claude and looked around the room. Clucked his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “Blue light bulbs, huh? Doesn't that get--” Claude turned the light bulbs green. “Wow. That's genuinely neat.” Jason moved to the balcony. Past the unlit incense stick. Now Claude did fish around for his phone, and turn off the fake party sounds. It became very quiet. Jason rested his palm against the glass of the door. Left a print. Like he owned the place. “Glad you don't have company, C.” Jason opened the door and walked outside. Stood with his wrists on the ledge, leaned forward, spine not straight. Claude took a moment, standing in his living room, to take him in. Then he went outside too, and closed the door. Stood next to him, in the corner. The lights of other houses shone across empty space: most constant, some flickering. “Can you get the light, C?” “What color?” asked Claude. “Just,” said Jason, “off.” It took a while to find the [[proper setting.->CenterLeft5]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC4]</p> Well. I hope you've read the stories in the rest of the sections, up until this point. And I hope you found [[the heroes->TrueCenter5]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR4]</p> Raj had a hard time composing his five thankfulness sentences for his journal. Happiness research suggested ending a day by giving thanks, and Raj was just beginning his bedtime ritual. And today hadn't been a bad day. In each of his four central categories, it had received a rating of at least six. But he couldn't think of anything specific. 1. Caffeine was an effective stimulant. The cursor blinked. 2. I learned about proper semicolon use. Very extensively. Raj went back and highlighted "Very". Then he changed it back. 3. My heart kept beating. Nothing wrong with that one. Old reliable. He tried to think back over the day, to make sure the last two were specific. What had he done? Work for a while, with Liz. Then... he'd done his exercise regimen, but he didn't remember any special moments. Lunch was so-so. Tofu sandwich. But it hadn't upset his stomach like tofu usually did, and the sprouts were good. Sure. 4. Tofu sandwich with sprouts tasted good and did not distress my stomach. Wait! That was inconsistent with the first three list items. He went back and changed “Tofu” to “My tofu.” See? When he put his mind to it, and didn't have other things to focus on, he was just fine at parallel structure. 5. Successfully used parallel structure in journal. Sure. He gave his journal entry cell a 3 in his spreadsheet, with no comments. 3 wasn't a good score, but it wasn't abysmal. He was well calibrated with his distribution of scores – 5 was genuinely average, rather than code for bad. So a 3 just meant there remained something to be desired. Which, there was no denying, there did. He couldn't focus properly. But why? Or, maybe that reified the problem. Better to think in terms of how to prevent it, rather than trying to assign it a nebulous cause. He turned off his computer's monitor and lay on the floor. He hooked his toes under the bed frame, and began his final set of twenty sit-ups for the day. Exercise and diet were fine. Piracetam was not always intestinally excellent, and he wasn't sure it was working beyond placebo (he'd mix up the pills once work got less busy to see if he could detect the difference between a randomly chosen placebo week and the real thing). He was using caffeine close enough to optimally. His personal relationships were, well, they were adequate. He wished he got along better with Liz, naturally, but there wasn't much helping it. Modafinil would probably do the trick. He'd been wanting to try it anyway, but almost certainly. If there was a real problem, the focus afforded by modafinil would help him find it. If his energy was down for no particular reason, then modafinil would offset that problem. He finished his sit ups and went to the bathroom. Electric toothbrush, of course, though not one that kept track of statistics or linked up to a computer. Raj only kept track of things that felt central to his life. It did have a timer that alerted him, however, to switch quadrants in his mouth. And a very loud motor, which was, despite his usual noise sensitivities, soothing. The trouble with modafinil – //bzzzzz// – was that it was illegal. He wouldn't likely be caught using it, of course. It wasn't a drug drug, and it was even available, quite rarely, by prescription. But for him to get it, he'd have to order it from overseas and hope it wasn't intercepted. He'd never heard a credible story of anyone getting arrested for that; there was a procedure to follow – //bzz bzz//, quadrant switch – even if one did get caught, and it would probably be fine. But Raj had a long standing policy of never breaking the law (except the three or so times he'd substantially exceeded the speed limit for good reasons), and that policy was – //bzz bzz// – at least partly self-justifying. The fact that he had such a good streak motivated him to maintain it. If he broke the streak, it might make him more likely to flout (see, Liz? Fine vocabulary) the law more generally. Which was the sort of dilemma that – //bzz bzz// – modafinil would probably help with. He supposed he could get some from a friend, if he could work up the social courage to ask for it. Which, well... //bzzzzzz//. Teeth brushed, Raj got into bed. He turned off the lights in his bedroom with his phone, flipped his pillow, and closed his eyes. He thought of Liz for a moment. An image of her. Standing outside the office examining a leaf she'd picked up from the ground. “Check this out, Lucas!” she'd said. And he'd edged past, quietly, debating whether or not to wave, since the two seemed so engrossed. Hm. He wasn't sure why that came to mind. He'd put it in his [[morning->CenterRight5]] entry, if he remembered.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC4]</p> “Well?” Pecune was sitting at his table. Late autumn. The rainy season coming to a close. His coat was crisp in its rack. He sipped warm tea. Joseph was standing in the doorway. Shoulders hunched. He clutched a leather pouch in front of his navel. He left the door open behind him, and set the bag on the table. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “For everything.” Then the boy slipped back out the door. Pecune sighed. Pulled the bag across and peeked. Three gold coins. Precisely what was owed. But, well, the boy's father was powerful. And the month had been good for business. So... He gulped down the rest of his tea, wrapped a yellow scarf around his neck, and followed the poor boy. “Joseph!” Joseph was halfway to the road, hands jammed into his pockets. A puff of white breath escaped his lips. He turned around. “Really,” he said. “I need to go talk some things over with my dad, so--” Pecune leaned against his own front door. He held out the boy's bag. “Joseph,” he said. “Take this back. You can keep it. You don't have to tell your dad, if you would rather not.” So Joseph walked up and took the bag. Pecune let go readily, but paused a moment first. Met the boy's eyes. Searched. Had it been close? He decided so. “Just a few points, wasn't it?” “Yes sir.” “Ah. What a faulty system.” Joseph shrugged. “Listen, Joseph. If you're really busy, I understand. But if not, come have some [[tea->TopCenter5]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC4]</p> 11 did eventually clean the microwave. He had a spurt of energy after class and didn't want to think about his assignments, and someone had bought paper towels, so he got to work. It only took a [[<span style="font-weight: normal; color: black;">second</span>->SecondHero]]. He felt an inner domestic susurration, like he almost might start blasting piano music and scrubbing the baseboards and changing out dying light bulbs. But no. Not quite. Just the microwave, and then back to his room. Except R caught him. “Hey.” They were wearing that long black dress 11 particularly liked. He'd tried it on once. It had been satisfying. But his friends kept sharing stories online about transgender people being murdered in record numbers, so he kind of put that on the back burner. Oh well. His hair was long, so there was that. “Can we talk?” “Yeah,” said 11. “Sure.” They were standing in the kitchen. 11 leaned against a counter to sort of establish himself in the space. The kitchen was really small. R had a bowl of something in their hand. Noodles. “So, July told me that you and she--” “Zie,” said 11. “I mean, right? Sorry for interrupting.” R palmed theirself in the forehead with their free hand. “Duh, no, yeah. Sorry, thanks for the call out. I'm agitated.” “Sure,” said 11. “I forget sometimes too, so, you know.” “Anyway. Zie said that you and zie agreed that my partner couldn't come here anymore? And that doesn't sound like you, so, I wanted to get your thoughts on that for a second.” “Your partner?” “Yeah. I'm just with one now. Clay.” “Oh! Right. Clay.” R took a bite of noodles. “Right,” said R. “I thought so. Zie railroaded you, didn't zie?” “Um,” said 11. “You didn't even know zie was talking about my partner.” “Well,” said 11, “it was early. But I don't think that came up.” “It was mostly zir fault, anyway. Zie kept //provoking// him. And he didn't act that aggressively he just said some hurtful things, but he's new to being around socially conscious people and you know, it can be sort of unwelcoming.” “Um,” said 11. “But you don't think saying insensitive stuff is grounds for being banned. I mean, right? Like, I just messed up a pronoun. That's all it started as with Clay. That's all he did.” “July said he yelled a bunch.” “No!” said R. “Oh that is just //ridiculous//. I mean, if he'd really yelled, like, you would have heard it, right? He barely raised his voice.” “Um,” said 11. “I mean if you agree with zir, let me know.” 11 shrugged. The dress fit R really well. They were about the same height as 11, but the dress hugged R's waist better than it had hugged his. He wanted to lie down. R took a bite of noodles. “I mean,” said 11. “I guess it's between you two.” “Right,” said R. “Exactly.” They swallowed. [[“Thanks.”->BottomCenter5]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR4]</p> War claimed a decade. Black mold stole three years and left the queen with a slight limp. Complications. The king's hair grew thin. A small belly formed but quickly receded. The king's ribs were visible on those few occasions they were exposed. The queen walked with a cane, but still went up the stairs. She often spent whole days in the castle's highest tower, building puzzles. Not solving them, but building them. She commissioned paintings on wood from talented children and, with the kingdom's sharpest knife, cut them into curved pieces. A sign of aging: the king no longer dueled all of his rivals. He sent trusted attendants in groups, armed with spears. He was not creative – there were no special tortures for those who wished to steal his throne. They were stabbed many times, and left dead in their homes. Maybe eventually his trusted attendants would stab him many times, but he didn't think so. Nonetheless he dreamed of it. Daydreams that phased in and out of nightmares. Sometimes they stabbed him and he died. Sometimes he pulled a blade from his boot and slew them all. The queen spoke a few sentences per day, most days. She wrote quite a bit. Some writing she kept in a chest in the highest tower. Some writing she cut up like her puzzles. The king could barely write at all. Mostly just a few words in particular. His own name. The queen's. Dragon. Tower. [[Lake.->BottomRight5]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC5]</p> 11's cup was out of water. It was 12:30am. He was in his room because it had been a long day, and he'd been thinking a lot about some stuff, and he'd cried a little bit. And he was thirsty. He wanted to go to the kitchen and fill his cup of water. But outside the door: “We discussed this, R. He's got to fucking //go//.” “Oh my God fuck you July he's right here you fucking--” “This house is democratic. Me and 11 see it that way. Planter and Arabella are going to see it that way when they get back in a month. You're the only one who seems to be here for the //cheap fucking rent//.” There was no way, right? That he could just sort of sneak to the sink? They'd rope him in. 100%. They might come to his room and do it anyway, if they were drunk, which they were, and if they knew he was home, which maybe they didn't. “He's //right here// July and you're talking about him like he's a fucking //golem// or something and--” “A golem. Wow. What the fuck does-- no. I'm talking about him like he's not a welcome guest, because I'm not afraid to tell goddamn entitled white dudes stuff that they'd rather not hear.” Something 11 could barely make out, with "listen" and possibly "babe" in there. A male voice. It was definitely the guy from before who was so into local politics. Geez 11 was really thirsty. “And why are you bringing 11 into this? 11 doesn't mind if he's here. Because 11 understands that you can't just veto a person for //saying// some stuff that you'd rather not hear! What about Planter? Remember when Planter--” “Planter apologized.” “CLAY can apologize.” More muffled words. “Ha! Planter apologized //credibly//. And 11 does mind because 11 remembers that this is a fucking democratic safe space to live and the people who live here should //actually feel safe. JESUS//.” “Ok!” The male voice, this time. “Ok, I'm gonna go. Ok? I'm just gonna go.” Footsteps. The front door opening and closing. Other doors slamming. Two other doors. Which meant... maybe... just [[maybe...->BottomCenter6]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC6]</p> Fucking [[intercepted->Landing Page 2]] at the sink.(color: #00008B)[Hello again. It's Koichi. As promised, I can save one of the stories. Specifically, I can save one of the ''corner'' stories. Which one will it be?] [[TL->SaveTL]] XX [[TR->SaveTR]] XX XX XX [[BL->SaveBL]] XX [[BR->SaveBR]] (set: $BL to 0)(set: $TL to 0)(set: $TR to 0)(set: $BR to 0) <p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL5]</p> But it wasn't time to sleep together. Even then, lights off, standing on the balcony, wind in Jason's hair. Nope. Jason dragged poor C downtown, to a taco place. On foot. “I know you're hurting for money right now, C, so it's my treat.” Collectively, their food was about $5. The tables were blue plastic mesh. Little diamonds through which a sufficiently small tomato chunk might fall. Sparse ants below. A middle aged couple was at the next table. Hey. They were a middle aged couple, that day. Oops. “Place is open until Midnight. It's the little things, eh, C?” Claude took a big bite of taco. It shattered. Sauce on the edge of his sleeve. “What've been your thoughts?” Crunch, crunch. Sharp shell in his cheek. Claude wiped his sleeve. Jason made steady eye contact. One of his pinkies threaded with one of Claude's. “Um,” said Claude. “Should I filter out the boring ones?” “Always, C.” “That's cheesy.” Jason chomped on his burrito. “So's this.” Claude groans. “You're stalling, C.” “Well, um, there's this stuff called effective altruism, which...” “Nope. Boring. Your thoughts.” “Really, no! It is interesting. I mean, it's not just, you know. Money stuff.” “Mm,” said Jason. “I think you'd get a kick out of it. How some of these people think.” “Alright,” said Jason. “Thirty seconds.” Jason was almost done with his burrito. Claude's taco had made a mess in the little paper it'd come in. But he picked up the scraps when he had a chance, and, in groups of two and three, placed them in his mouth. “Well, the basic idea is, there's a moral obligation to use some of your money to alleviate suffering, if you have extra.” “Everybody knows that, C.” “No! Most people--” “Some people alleviate their own suffering. With cocaine. And with pretenses of security.” “Ok, Jason, but I mean, like, extreme suffering. The movement says you have to give some amount of your money, a substantial amount, to save human lives where it's cheapest to do so. Because money is so liquid.” “Right. Like, solving world hunger?” “Malaria, mostly. Until we eradicate it.” Jason shook his head. A big gob of onion fell from the corner of his mouth. Wait. Was that – was that mustard? Had he put mustard on his burrito? “Alright, C. I'm cutting you off. Enough of those thoughts.” Claude took all of Jason's hand. He narrowed one eye. Jason put the corner of his tongue on his left lower lip, which of course Claude hated. “I've been thinking [[about water->CenterLeft6]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL6]</p> //Drip, drip, drip.// The bathroom sink was on. Was that – no. It couldn't be. It couldn't be that Claude had left it on. So, Jason. Surely it was Jason. Who now slept, or pretended to sleep. His own inner elbow over his eyes. His free arm wrapped haphazardly around Claude's back. //Drip.// What a big bed Claude had. He could reach out in any direction, and there was either Jason, or there was nothing. The white noise machine was usually on at night. Not now. Now there was no noise and no light except, faintly from beyond the cracked bathroom door, the green dot of his electric toothbrush: charging. //Drip, drip.// Nights were linked to nights how days weren't linked to days. Jason's face wasn't quite how it used to be. Not worse. But different. The effects of gravity. His clothes were different, too. Not so baggy. And Claude didn't want to think about how he'd looked, and how he must look now. His feelings, too. Different stresses. A clean white modern zigzag through it all, where before there had been oblique shadows. Everything in its place, during the day. But nighttime. Nighttime he could reach out and touch the self of a decade ago, and, he hoped, a decade from now. All of them, together, listening. Feeling Jason's heartbeat, there or not. //Drip, drip, drip.// Ha. He knew where this led. //Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip.// He knew full well. //Drip, drip.// But he wasn't about to get up. //Drip.// [[Was he->Landing Page 2]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR5]</p> Midday, out in the garden. There was a pond almost big enough to call a lake, and the king was skipping stones across it. Or trying to. There were not very many flat stones left. He only skipped stones once or twice a year, to preserve the few which remained. He'd never gotten too good at it, either. His back was rather sore. His attendants were elsewhere because he was within the walls of the castle, it was broad daylight, and there were riots to do with a minor famine. He'd seen worse. But that wasn't on his mind. Not much was on his mind, in fact. Nebulously, skipping stones meant something. But beyond that, the sun felt good on his face. His aches and pains were not quite so strong as they often were. He noticed birdsong. The first arrow missed him. A pure misfire, from close range. He'd bent over to pick a stick, and heard the sound of it. Felt the wind, too, prickling his tunic. So he grabbed a rock too big to skip, and hurled it. There was no second arrow. But there were two men with spears, charging at him around some of his largest rose bushes. Another hung back. The leader? Probably. Never mind how he did it. He wouldn't remember clearly, anyway. He remembered the combat from his youth. Every time he'd fought a bandit. Sometimes, drunk, he'd recount those tales to children. But that had been a different time, when his mind was not yet set. Now adrenaline had a different stab, and he felt in his bones the decades any deep wound would stay with him, if he was not slain. The short version is he killed them all, and quickly. With rocks, their own weapons, and for one, a knife he sometimes used to chop away weeds. Nothing like in his fantasies. No pirouettes. Just luck. The men were cowards. They hesitated. Which maybe so had the bandits, when he was young and stronger, but it hadn't felt that way. He didn't know for the first few minutes if he was wounded. Too aware of the pounding in his ears, and the prickliness in the archways of his feet, and the wide open sensation at the back of his throat. Purple spots tinging his field of vision. The smell of blood and other more delicate smells, carried on mild breeze. Zero men, including he, had [[screamed.->BottomRight6]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR6]</p> The queen cut apart a picture of a dragon. Starting with the border. The customary whorls. She made the pieces very fine, a few hundred for a small painting. The top row was mostly soft sky blue, but at points there were streaks of red for the dragon's fiery breath. The dragon itself, dominating the center, was green. Its bald head glowed with mysterious exertion. Preparing a volley. Its mouth slightly open, with tendrils of fire rising. Claws gripping the ground for dear life. Ha... she remembered. What it was like to be in claws like that. Being carried. Dangling. The funny thing was how safe it felt. Her parents had died earlier that day in an invasion, and she'd been sitting next to an oak tree in tears. And then, well, there was the beast. She cut apart the sky, then the dragon's head, then the ground it stood on. Row by row, one piece's extra into its neighbor's absence. Until, just when she was almost finished, almost ready to write away another evening, she heard the footsteps. Here he came. She rested her knife on the center of the puzzle, over the dragon's eye. The only steps left were to pry apart the pieces, shuffle them, and make sure they could fit back together. In came the king. She was kneeling over her table. He was doubled over. Face white. But there was a certain smell about him. “I've killed four men,” he said. “Will more come up here?” she asked. “Not today, I think. But someday.” She regarded her knife. Her fingertips shook. The dragon in the puzzle, eye bisected, regarded both its victims. “Well,” the queen said. “What comes next?” “We should leave.” The queen picked up her knife. Ran it around the border of the puzzle, to collect stray scraps. Get the edges nice and crisp. The king coughed up blood. Only a little. He was careful not to get it on the puzzle. The queen helped him sit, opened his tunic, and searched his exterior for wounds. “I like it here,” she said, once his belly was sewn shut. “I'd rather [[stay.->Landing Page 2]]”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC5]</p> “I can put a little syrup in it, if you'd like.” Joseph's eyes widened. “No, no, not alcohol. It's, well, it's perfectly legal. Arcane synthesis. Comes from a bitter root. Not something it pays to mention too widely, but it's soothing.” “Well,” said Joseph. “Sure.” So Pecune put three red droplets in both of their cups, from a tiny vial on a ring he wore. “You'll be working for your dad?” “Yes, Pecune.” “Mm. Out in the swamp?” “Yeah. It sounds pretty fun. Don't have to lift a bunch of heavy stuff or anything. My friend Bill has to do that for his job. He did ten points worse than me.” “Right,” said Pecune. “Yes. Your dad's company does good work.” He took a sip of tea. Watched the boy take a sip of tea and try not to flinch. Syrup was strong. The clock ticked. Joseph checked it by reflex. But no. This wasn't by the hour. “I do have some advice for you, if you'd care to hear it,” the tutor said. “The swamp can be rather severe.” “Yeah,” said Joseph. “Yeah, for sure. But also, sir?” He fished around in his pocket. Pecune leaned forward. Was the boy going to fall? Certainly, he was a little wobbly on his chair. “Yes?” Joseph pulled out the leather pouch again, and held it in his palm. Sort of stared at it. His brow furrowed. Lost in thought. “Oh, Joseph. I couldn't.” “But we owe you. And it's, really, Pecune, sir, it's not your fault.” “What isn't, Joseph?” Joseph met his eyes. “The, you know. My score. You taught me everything. I mean, a lot of it, they did test me on a lot of it, but, so.” “Joseph.” “It wasn't your fault, so, I should give you what--” “I know, Joseph. I know it's not my fault.” Joseph slumped down in his chair. He rested the pouch in his lap. One of his eyes was halfway closed. Pecune steepled his hands on the table. Steam from the tea tickled his lashes. “It's not yours either.” “Sir, I could have studied more. That's what my dad--” “The cutoffs weren't half as high when your dad was your age. It was a different time. And no, Joseph. You studied enough. You had bad luck. I'm not giving you all the money you gave me back, because you didn't waste it. We gave you a better chance than you would have had otherwise. It just didn't pan out.” The teacher took a long, slow sip of tea, and the student replicated. “But. I might as well share a bit of the misfortune, eh?” Joseph sat up. Eyes on the clock. “Pecune? Could I have a bit more syrup?” He gave the boy one more drop. “Listen, though. You've got to listen. If you're going out there, you have to be careful. Really, really careful. It's good work, but it can be dangerous.” “The animals?” “No, Joseph. Not the animals. The witches. You mustn't let your guard down with the witches.” “Oh,” said Joseph. He laughed. A weird, shaking laugh. Not a laugh Pecune had seen before. But a good sign. This was good. This wasn't going to be bad for business. “Don't worry,” said the boy. And in that moment, having finished his tea, Pecune noticed the thin little bruise on Joseph's jaw, and the lines of worry on the forehead. He felt a pang between his temples. Some distant cousin to regret. “Don't worry, Pecune. My dad showed me [[how to handle witches->TopCenter6]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC6]</p> One day there was a dead man in the door's threshold. Lying stomach down in a pool of blood. Sordetta stepped over him. Her teacher was busy above the cauldron, measuring dust. So Sordetta stood and waited. “His hand,” his teacher said, once she finished with the dust. “Remove it.” So Sordetta bent over him. Cold air bit her lips. Her back was warm from the cauldron, but her hands were freezing. His body blocked the doorway, so she could not close the door. A little blood got on the hem of her cloak. She drew the white cloth over her mouth tighter, to fight the smell. Her knife was sharp but hardly adequate to cut bone. So, without words, the witch gave her a vial of something corrosive. But only a few drops, to insert carefully and soften up the hardest bits. Sordetta produced the hand. The witch shook her head. “I won't touch it. Toss it in.” It was cold. Not yet frozen, but cold. On the witch's orders, Sordetta dragged the body a hundred yards away, and tossed it into a bog. She returned exhausted. The witch was stirring the cauldron and humming to herself. She was smiling. Some blood sat, complacent, on the door's frame. “Shut the door behind you.” That was the only time Sordetta saw her teacher smile. Not at her, but into the cauldron. “Each life has only one masterwork, or none. This will be mine.” Sordetta did not speak, because she was not permitted to speak. But she remembered. So she knew that her teacher, if she wanted, could kill a man where he stood. All that was a year ago, but it was on her mind. As she limped back toward her teacher's hut. She pictured her attacker, as she hoped she'd find him. But bloodier, perhaps. Her teacher had been in a pensive mood. Maybe his head would be removed. Maybe he'd be still alive, sputtering, beyond any hope of rational, cruel thought. But surely. He'd been going that direction, after all. Surely, when she found him, he'd be on his way to death. Her throat was sore, and her eyes, and her ribs. It was difficult to walk. But she moved with certainty. So much that she assumed she'd taken a wrong turn, or misjudged the distance, when she saw no hut up ahead. Only when the wreckage assumed clear form did she believe it. That there was no dead boy waiting. There was a dead witch. The cauldron was shattered into tiny pieces. Minced ginger strewn over the floor. The floor itself broken apart. The roof caved in entirely. And the corpse itself, completely charred, really more a mass of ash. There was no way the boy had done this to her. She'd done this to herself. Because... Well. Sordetta stood still with her mind empty, as she'd been trained. She was aware of moisture on her cheeks, but she was not crying. She was not within her body. She wasn't sure she would return. There was a thin cut on her collarbone. Her index finger twitched. This was how it ended. No more lessons. Nothing. This was the shape of things. Very few times, when Sordetta was perfectly silent and deferential, never pausing, her teacher gave her single sentences of pure instruction. “There is no greater purpose.” “We are sewn in with no barrier.” “We do as we are bid.” So there was no mechanism of preservation, or of justice. Sometimes an intruder served a niche as a necessary corpse. Sometimes an intruder served as a signal to tear the whole thing down. Or something like that. Even if her teacher was alive, it wasn't as if Sordetta could ask. But she had learned. Oh, she had learned. Even then, separate from her body and almost from time, free floating, twitching, in the fullness of winter although it was fall, she knew she had learned. Nothing without its context. Like the needles strewn at her feet. The one in the middle. Glowing. The largest vein in the inside of her elbow. The wish for that boy's death. Ingredients. To be mixed. She picked up the central needle, and took the white cloth off her mouth. Just long enough, she knew, to [[tie the simple knot->Landing Page 2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL5]</p> The fact was he didn't prove anything. He seemed to have the ability to learn it, all of it, despite the rigor of the book. And yet he didn't. Sometimes he spent a week straight in the book, eyes a few inches from the pages, stomach pressed onto the ground. And other times he threw it far and forgot about it, sat still or ran in circles for hours, and made no progress. So yes, it seemed, he could learn it. But not for certain. And it couldn't be certainly, not possibly, without motivation. The book was not salient. Never did he rip out another page, and always he returned to it eventually, but he did not make progress. He would read random pages, figure out bits and pieces, solve whole problems, but not bother to connect them. So it didn't prove anything. Or it proved too much, [[either way->BottomLeft6]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL6]</p> But he couldn't have known, in any case. Could not have understood, even if they came right in and told him, that it was the last day he was planned to [[be alive->Landing Page 2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR5]</p> Another long day at the office for Lucas. Charity rankings came out soon, and whatever the top five charities were, it'd be a month of hardcore networking. Seeing whose needs aligned where, doing backup work for whoever was suddenly floored with donations and understaffed. When you picked “Effective Altruism” as your career plan, you had to be willing to pick up slack. Which, obviously, worth it. Lives and lives saved. But if you thought about it too much it tended to slide between grandiose self-awareness and unassailable guilt. I'm doing so much good. But it's never possibly enough. Hoo boy. Modafinil. Sure amped up the ol' train of thought. Speaking of which, it was time to send some emails. Not work ones. Though it was perversely tempting, since the stack never really shrunk. But no. Personal time. Personal time, so personal emails. Well, Raj first. Emailing Raj was sort of in between. Lucas drummed his fingertips lightly on his keys. He turned the brightness of the room down, and the brightness of the computer down, so the light of a Seattle rainstorm could [[filter better in->CenterRight5 To Raj]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR5]</p> <span style = "font-family: Arial";>Dear Raj, It's good to hear from you again! Been a while. Was afraid we'd lost touch. Glad you and Liz are making progress, sorry it sounds like you guys are clashing a little. I'm sure she's not taking it personally like you're afraid she is, though. Ninety percent. Seattle is, well, good. It's not the bay area, but nothing is. It rains a lot. It's cold. But there are interesting people, and always plenty to do out in the city when I have time. Which isn't often! But I'm sure you can identify with that. Funny you mention nootropics. I've tried my fair share. Nothing on the level of the greats, no double blind and all that, but, I've been dabbling. And yes, your research is on the money. Modafinil is the only one I've used that's worth its salt. If you're ever in the area, I'll give you a little of mine so you can try it out. I hope to get down there for a visit sometime, but the next month or two are packed. Pretty sure there are no summits or anything, though, so I'm open to visitors! A little heads up is all I need. Sincerely, Lucas.</span> Man. Raj. He wasn't really satisfied with this reply, but he sent it anyway because he knew that if he put it off he never would. With Raj he always wanted to have a little gimmick of some kind, some logic problem or math puzzle that Raj had never heard of. Because the guy was guaranteed to give a thoughtful response, or application, or something. It wasn't imagination, quite, but one of its more industrious cousins, but it was a quality Lucas admired. Raj was just one of those people. Forces of nature. Good to hear from. Maybe not the easiest to work with every day. But anyway. Before he went [[to bed->CenterRight5 To Liz]]...<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR5]</p> <span style = "font-family: Arial";> Dear Liz, Oh God, this has been eating at me. Really, it has. I've thought about it from time to time but kept pushing it back down. For a month, at least. I've tried to sweep it under the rug, but I don't think I can anymore, and I know you're the only one who will understand. They love Cards Against Humanity here. It's really forced me to rethink, well, everything. I remember that you put it best: “Cards Against Humanity is a game for people who are at most half as clever as they think they are.” And yet all the people I'm working with, or almost all, anyway: they're sweet, they're intelligent, they get incredible work done, and they love CAH. And I mean they LOVE CAH. Every house party. These are people above 30, mind you. And they own expansions. What does it MEAN? Of course a few know about Catan but we also both know that Catan is overrated. I'd kill for some Risk, Monopoly, anything nice and juicy. Chess, even. A couple rounds of poker, though don't let Raj know I'll admit it. But no. It's CAH and CAH and CAH. Anyway. I miss you, knucklehead. Get up here. I'd lure you with sweet promises but honestly it rains all the time and the waiters all try to impress you and the disaffected twentysomethings don't dress nearly as well. But I'm here, so, come! And for the love of God, bring some [[real games->CenterRight6]]. Love, Lucas </span><p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR6]</p> <span style = "font-family: Arial";> Dear Lucas, Oh Jesus. You haven't been letting on. It's worse up there than I thought. It sounds, um, “dead baby Osama Bin Laden getting a noogie” bad. Or whatever the fuck the cards are. But sure. Fiiiiiine. I'll come up this weekend. Still got that awful salmon couch? Love, Liz Hi Lucas, Liz mentioned today that she was visiting you this weekend; so I decided to carpool with her. We'll be there around 4PM Friday, and we currently plan to stay until late Sunday afternoon. Glad to see you, and excited to [[try Modafinil->Landing Page 2]]. Thanks; Raj </span><p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL5]</p> KNIGHT: Oh, right. My friend. Well, he got in, right? Like, they accepted him. Which is amazing, because this guy, his family isn't good for shit. He has to work to support his mom, who's depressed, and his little sister. And his dad's around but sick, like seriously sick, so he's no help. ROOK: Wow. I can't imagine. KNIGHT: Worse than that, too. His cousins are always needing bail outs and he's been going through school and working to keep everybody afloat, still making good grades and holding down a job, like, this guy. //KNIGHT shakes his head.// ROOK: But he got into pharmacy school, you said? That's such a good deal. Like, you're set for life, I think. KNIGHT: That's the messed up part. There's one more prerequisite. But he'd have to take it online. And it costs $1,200. ROOK: From the school that accepted him? Because that sounds like extortion. BISHOP: Mmhm. That's how they get you! KNIGHT: Nah. Nah, man. Nothing like that. He'd get it somewhere else, but he needs it. And registration's coming up. It's not looking like he'll make it. ROOK: Make it? KNIGHT: Get the money together. Doesn't look like he'll get the money together. ROOK: Just $1,200. Can he borrow it? KNIGHT: I'm helping a little, man, and I'm reaching out for him. He's my boy. But when you're taking care of your family... BISHOP: Yeah. That's serious. That's [[real money->TopLeft6]]. //ROOK changes the AC level to zero.//<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL6]</p> BISHOP: I'm sticking Ruy Lopez. PAWN: Man, you can't plan like that. BISHOP: That's what I'm doing. PAWN: But you never know what black's gonna do if you're white. //BISHOP snorts.// BISHOP: Who's white? KNIGHT: Half the games, every – oh. //ROOK laughs. While laughing, he changes the AC level to three.// KNIGHT: Pawn's right, though. Better not to go into every game with a plan. BISHOP: Why not? KNIGHT: Then you're not thrown off if they go nonstandard. BISHOP: It's a good tournament. They won't go nonstandard in the first few moves. But all I'm saying is if they go standard, I'm going Ruy Lopez. PAWN: Big if. BISHOP: I'll keep track. //KNIGHT checks his phone. He shakes his head.// ROOK: That your friend? KNIGHT: Yeah, man. Still looking. ROOK: $1,200, you said? KNIGHT: $1,200. PAWN: We almost there. BISHOP: About half an hour, yeah. ROOK: Hope he finds [[the cash->Landing Page 2]]. //ROOK changes the AC level to one.//<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC5]</p> This is where you deploy them. If you want to keep looking for either (there are two total), it might be a good idea to head [[back->Landing Page 2]]. If you've found all you're going to find, and you're ready to progress to the next part of the story, then let's (if: (count: (history:), "FirstHero") > 0)[[[get down to it->TrueCenter6 Hero1]]](elseif: (count: (history:), "SecondHero") > 0)[[[get down to it->TrueCenter6 Hero2]]](else:)[[[get down to it->TrueCenter6 NoHeroes]]]. (if: (count: (history:), "EuchreAbsent") > 0)[Or are you here to meet up with [[Euchre->TrueEnding0]] to change everything?](if: (count: (history:), "PapersFinale9") > 0)[...](elseif: (count: (history:), "EuchRemembered") is 0)["i just don't think your turning events into narratives is the best way to [[be happy->EuchRemembered]]"](else:)["i just don't think your turning events into narratives is the best way to be happy"] (if: $TL is 1)[[[TL->TopLeft7H]]](else:)[[[TL->TopLeft7]]] (if: $TC is 1)[[[TC->TopCenter7H]]](else:)[[[TC->TopCenter7]]] (if: $TR is 1)[[[TR->TopRight7H]]](else:)[[[TR->TopRight7]]] (if: $CL is 1)[[[CL->CenterLeft7H]]](else:)[[[CL->CenterLeft7]]] [[CC->TrueCenter7]] (if: $CR is 1)[[[CR->CenterRight7H]]](else:)[[[CR->CenterRight7]]] (if: $BL is 1)[[[BL->BottomLeft7H]]](else:)[[[BL->BottomLeft7]]] (if: $BC is 1)[[[BC->BottomCenter7H]]](else:)[[[BC->BottomCenter7]]] (if: $BR is 1)[[[BR->BottomRight7H]]](else:)[[[TL->BottomRight7]]](color: purple)[Welcome back. I can heal one story. In particular, I can heal an ''edge'' story. Which one do you think would suit my talents best?] XX [[TC->SaveTC]] XX [[CL->SaveCL]] XX [[CR->SaveCR]] XX [[BC->SaveBC]] XX<set $TC = 0><set $CL = 0><set $CR = 0><set $BC = 0> (set: $TC to 0)(set: $CL to 0)(set: $CR to 0)(set: $BC to 0)<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC6]</p> Uh oh. Looks like you didn't find any heroes at all. I'm gonna level with you. I've been going through the paperwork, and I've figured out most of the endings. And without any heroic [[intervention...->TrueCenter6 NoHeroes2]]Ha. I remembered the stupid quotation! Whose work is "perfunctory" now, [[chumps->Landing Page 3]]?Oh, right. Guess you forgot. Well, here goes. You'll find the first hero ''to the right of what is most right.'' And you'll find the second hero ''in the first second of the fourth fifth.'' Pretty [[annoying->Landing Page 2]], huh?We've already done this whole song and dance. Where my story gets introduced and we sit around in my office, and whatever I say to you goes between [["quotation marks."->EuchreMustWe2]]"Come on," Euchre says. "Let's cut to the chase. Try reading some [[other stories->LandingPage]]." "But if you insist," he says, "and you just //have// to know what would have happened if you made the other choice, I guess we can [[go through the motions->TopRight1]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC6]</p> They aren't exactly [[happy->TrueCenter6 NoHeroes3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC5]</p> So, listen. I'll fudge the rules a little and give you one more chance. You're sure you don't want to find //either// of them? I mean, I'd just tell you where they are, but I don't want to stick out my neck too far. Want to [[go back->Landing Page 2]] and keep looking? Or are you set on [[frowns all around->TrueCenter6 NoHeroes4]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC6]</p> Oh well. Don't say I didn't [[warn you->Landing Page 3]].(color: #00008B)[You'd like me to (link: "assist")[(set: $TL to 1)(goto: "Hero1Finish")] ''the chessmen''? Or would you like to go back and consider [[other options->TrueCenter6 Hero1]]?](color: #00008B)[You'd like to (link: "send")[(set: $TR to 1)(goto: "Hero1Finish")] me to ''Euchre''? Or do you want to look back over your [[choices->TrueCenter6 Hero1]]?](color: #00008B)[You'd like me to (link: "rescue")[(set: $BL to 1)(goto: "Hero1Finish")] ''the nameless man'' with the calculus textbook? Or do you want to see what else is [[on the table->TrueCenter6 Hero1]]?](color: #00008B)[You'd like me to (link: "intervene")[(set: $BR to 1)(goto: "Hero1Finish")] for the ''king and queen''? Or do you want to take [[another look->TrueCenter6 Hero1]] at who else I can help?](color: purple)[You think I should try to (link: "influence")[(set: $TC to 1)(goto: "Hero2Finish")] the ''witch girl''? Or do you need more time to [[think->TrueCenter6 Hero2]]?](color: purple)[You think it best for me to (link: "console")[(set: $CL to 1)(goto: "Hero2Finish")] the ''rich man'' in his time of heartache? Or would you like to [[review your alternatives->TrueCenter6 Hero2]]?](color: purple)[You'd like me to (link: "soothe")[(set: $CR to 1)(goto: "Hero2Finish")] the ''high strung researchers''? Or might you want to [[recall->TrueCenter6 Hero2]] who else needs help?](color: purple)[You think I ought to (link: "reassure")[(set: $BC to 1)(goto: "Hero2Finish")] the ''meek roommate''? Or do you want to [[make sure->TrueCenter6 Hero2]] there is no more pressing need?](if: (count: (history:), "SecondHero") > 0)[(color: #00008B)[It will be done. The (color: purple)[second hero] will see you [[now->TrueCenter6 Hero2]].]](else:)[(color: #00008B)[It will be [[done->Landing Page 3]].]](color: purple)[Understood. We will proceed to the [[endings->Landing Page 3]].]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR4]</p> Euchre breaks you off a piece of cookie. It contains three chocolate chips. You savor it. It's that perfect balance between hard and soft, where it breaks easily but without bending. When you look up, Euchre is already done with his piece. “Now the funny thing is, I bet you 'enjoyed' that piece of cookie, right?” Sure. You enjoyed the cookie. It was delicious. “No, no, but you're not getting me. You 'enjoyed' it because you were told it's delicious. But you, actually you, you're just reading this. You didn't eat a cookie at all. In fact, now you're more likely to be craving sweets.” Euchre's bald head gleams. You take a look behind him, at the blinds over the huge window on his back wall. They're really dusty. “And that's the problem. If I share with you genuinely, neither of us gets anything out of it. And if I just do my little song and dance, [[well...->TopRight4 Cookie2]]”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR4]</p> “Well, alright. More for me.” Euchre scarfs the cookie down, then barks out a laugh. “But, let's be honest.” Your wooden chair doesn't feel very comfortable right now. “I'm not sure why you would choose 'no.' I mean, don't get me wrong, there are reasons. If you were really going to eat a cookie, you might be on a diet or something. But you're not. And the cookie is obviously meant to be positive. So.” He adjusts his swivel chair again, so he's leaning forward now. He puts his elbows on the desk. “Listen. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. And that's fine. But here's my guess.” You look at the window behind Euchre's desk. The blinds are tightly shut, and very dusty. You remember the window, right? The one that entails the whole fourth wall. “You did it already. You chose yes. And now you're choosing no, to see what you get.” You do not respond. “Like I said, it's fine if I'm wrong. My bad. You can go do the other option if you want to see what the, I guess, 'intended effect' is.” Euchre licks residual crumbs off his lips. “Either way, I don't mind. It's your experience.” He adjusts his seat again. Leans back. “Do [[whatever you want->TopRight4 End]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR4]</p> "[[Same thing.->TopRight4 End]]"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> “Will you [[help->TopRight5 PapersIntro]] sort papers, or would you rather [[not->TopRight6 NoPapers]]?”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR4]</p> "In any case, let's get back to [[business->TopRight5]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> (if: (count: (history:), "PapersIntermission1") is 0)["Thanks. Here's [[a stack->Papers1]]. You can stop whenever you've had enough."](else:)[Cool. You can pick up where you (if: (count: (history:), "PapersIntermission5") > 0)[[[left off->Papers26]]](elseif: (count: (history:), "PapersIntermission4") > 0)[[[left off->Papers21]]](elseif: (count: (history:), "PapersIntermission3") > 0)[[[left off->Papers13]]](elseif: (count: (history:), "PapersIntermission2") > 0)[[[left off->Papers8]]](else: (count: (history:), "PapersIntermission4") > 0)[[[left off->Papers4]]].]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> “Thanks, intern. You're alright. See you for the [[endings->Landing Page 2]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> “Well. Hope you like the [[endings->Landing Page 2]]. Stop by here if you want. Or don't. Doesn't seem like you're into this corner. Which, if we're being totally honest, neither am I.” <p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 683-445-554-1109 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Peter Elderberry AGE AT DEATH: 52 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: None REASON FOR REQUEST: I want to haunt my old fields until the drought lifts and there is a good harvest please. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: PJE ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: PJE WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): PJE CURSING A BORING OBJECT: PJE WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: PJE OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers2]]/[[No->Papers2]]<p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 556-783-142-5566 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Louanne Rogers AGE AT DEATH: 82 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: None REASON FOR REQUEST: Want to play pranks on my grand-nephew nothing Serious just a good haunting now and again since he always would scare my cat Rufus. Thank You God bless. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: LR ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: LR WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): LR CURSING A BORING OBJECT: LR WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: LR OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers3]]/[[No->Papers3]]<p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 656-908-965-2223 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Arfonse the Armadillo AGE AT DEATH: 11 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: Age in Armadillo Years REASON FOR REQUEST: I did not curl into a ball as much as I now wish that I had. I want to take some time to really feel that regret and curl into a ghost ball. Thank you for your time and attention. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: AtA ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: AtA WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): AtA CURSING A BORING OBJECT: AtA WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: AtA(?) OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->PapersIntermission1]]/[[No->PapersIntermission1]]<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> 2 4 8 16 32 64 <p align = "center">44 88 176 352 704</p> <p align = "right">101 202 404 [[708->Papers5]] 1616</p><p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> From across the desk, Euchre groans. “Oh, wow. I should have known.” You look up from your stack of papers for a moment. There's a crick in your neck. Euchre is holding a manila folder. It's pretty thick. “There's a secret ending. Sorry to spoil it for you, I guess? But from my perspective, that means a //lot// of extra paperwork.” You're a little out of your depth with this stuff, so you aren't sure what to say. “Oh well. Not your problem. Thanks for helping lighten the load.” Will you [[keep sorting papers->Papers4]], or have you [[had enough->TopRight6 SomePapers]]?<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> 2 4 6 8 10 <p align = "center">3 6 9 12 15</p> <p align = "right">11 22 33 44</p> <p align = "center">16 32 48 64 80</p> <p align = "left">1 2 3 [[<span style="color: black;">5</span>->Papers6]] 5</p><p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 111-111-111-1112 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Captain Admiral AGE AT DEATH: 36 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: Time feels different on the high seas, matey REASON FOR REQUEST: Revenge on me mother for naming me "Admiral" Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: ARR ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: ARR WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): ARR CURSING A BORING OBJECT: ARR WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: ARR OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers7]]/[[No->Papers7]]<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> 0 0 0 0 0 <p align = "center">0 0 0 [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">1</span>->PapersIntermission2]] 0 0 0</p> <p align = "right">0 0 0</p> <p align = "center">0 0 0 0 0</p> <p align = "left">0 0 0 0 0 0</p><p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> “Wow. Wow. They're connected. Perfect. Just perfect.” Euchre is grumbling to himself. Will you leave him [[alone->PapersIgnore]], or do you think it's a good idea to [[engage->PapersEngage]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> Probably best to stick to the papers. Euchre mutters something about 'the secret ending' and 'way too much extra work.' You keep handling [[your stack->Papers8]]. Unless you've [[had enough->TopRight6 SomePapers]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> “I was told this contract was 8 different stories. That was it. I just had to manage the metaphysics of 8 different stories. With //limited// interactivity.” The crick in your neck is getting worse. The print on these papers is pretty fine. “But now, I mean, look at this.” He turns over a bluish sheet in his hands. From what you can see, it looks like total gibberish. Maybe it's computer code? But as far as you can tell it's random letters and numbers and slots here and there to put a stamp. A lot of 3 by 3 grids. “The more interactive this stuff gets, the more paperwork. Because there are formalities to do with, say, if you – and no offense – but if you go on one path and then another, there has to be a procedure for what 'counts' going forward, and it's your prerogative but...” Euchre sighs. “I'm just saying I didn't exactly sign up for a secret ending. Because God knows under what circumstances that thing will count.” Will you [[keep going->Papers8]], or do you feel [[done->TopRight6 SomePapers]]?<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256 <p align = "center">3 9 27 81</p> <p align = "right">4 16 64</p> <p align = "center">5 25 125 625 3125</p> <p align = "left">6 [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">64</span>->Papers9]] 216 1296</p><p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> 2 3 5 8 12 17 <p align = "center">2 [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">4</span>->Papers10]] 5 8</p> <p align = "right">4 5 7 10 14</p> <p align = "center">5 6 8 11 15</p> <p align = "left">6 7 9</p> <p align = "center">8 9 11 14 18</p> <p align = "right">10 11 13 16 20 25 31</p><p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 131-812-734-4417 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Phillip Trombone AGE AT DEATH: 67.25 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: None REASON FOR REQUEST: I want to curse a balloon so it cannot pop. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: PT ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: PT WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): PT CURSING A BORING OBJECT: PT (balloons AREN'T boring) WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: PT OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers11]]/[[No->Papers11]]<p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 123456789 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: SusY AGE AT DEATH: 6 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: :( REASON FOR REQUEST: want my blankey Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: do not under stand ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): CURSING A BORING OBJECT: WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers12]]/[[No->Papers12]]<p align = "center">''MEMO''</p> Dear Euchre, This is a paper for you to sort. It is a memo. That means it has information for you to read and then indicate you read it. It is important information that all employees in your position must read. You are the only employee in your position. So it is important information that only you must read. You must read all the information before you sort this paper into a pile with other papers, most of which also contain important information, and some of which may contain only partly important information. The information on this paper is so [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">important</span>->PapersIntermission3]] that you must read it very carefully. You must read all words on this paper very carefully. It is imperative that the reading you do of this memo (as you may remember, that is the sort of paper this is) is very careful. If you do not read this paper very carefully, then you may experience setbacks including but not limited to: 1. Not knowing the full contents of this paper 2. Not understanding things the contents of this paper may have led you to understand 3. Not knowing the combination code to enter the break room The combination code to enter the break room is found on this paper. It is pivotal that you read this paper so you will know the combination to the break room. Do not show the contents of this paper to anybody else, because then they might figure out the combination to the break room and use the break room without proper permission. And that of course would be a disaster. So make sure you are alone and in a private place before reading this memo. If you have not been alone and in a private place make sure that nobody reading over your shoulder has read this far, because if they did, they might know the combination to the break room and that would have consequences including but not limited to: 1. Someone might go into the break room who shouldn't be there 2. Someone might open the door to the break room and leave it open, which could let cold and/or hot and/or bug infested [[error->Papers12Decoy]] into the break room 3. Someone could sleep in the break room in a way that blocks access to the water fountain The combination code to enter the break room is ???? To be clear, the combination code to enter the break room is not in fact four question marks. The combination code to enter the break room has been omitted, because the person reading this memo is probably not Euchre, because Euchre is very bad about reading memos. Thank you for reading this memo. If you are Euchre, please disregard this memo. If you are not Euchre, please go back and click the fifth occurence of the word "important" in this memo, and have a great day.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> That stack's done. Euchre is intent with the manila envelope, still. He has several new stacks going, color coded. In all the shuffle one of his poems has been displaced. It's a short one. Will you [[snoop->EuchrePoem]] or would you rather [[not->EuchreNoPoem]]?Yes you're right it should be "air" and not "error," so "error" was an "error" but anyway may as well get back to [[the memo->Papers12]].roses are red violets are blue interactive fiction is fucking [[stupid->PapersIntermission3End]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> Euchre looks up. “Oh, [[wow->PapersIntermission3End]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> “You already got through those? Time flies. You did a ton. Plenty, really. You can help more if you really want to, but if you'd prefer to [[stop->TopRight6 SomePapers]] I've got it from here.” Euchre slides a new stack of papers, thicker than the first, in front of you. “Totally [[optional->Papers13]]."<p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 454-444-334-2478 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Arctesia the Cold AGE AT DEATH: 7648 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: Nothing REASON FOR REQUEST: Mortal. Even in spectral form, my chilling might can shake the cosmos. Winter may yet reign for a thousand more years. Nay! Ten thousand. This supreme power of ice must not go to waste in the futile cycle of reincarnation. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: A ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: A WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): A CURSING A BORING OBJECT: A WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: A OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers14]]/[[No->Papers14]]<p align = "center">''MEMO''</p> Dear Euchre, This is a memo for you. It is going to everyone in your office, so you better read it carefully or else you will be the odd man out in your office. Euchre, you are the only person who works in your office. And you do not want to be the odd man out in yourself, so certainly you should read this memo. This memo is about Sexual Harassment, Euchre. Sexual Harassment is a serious offense. It is serious enough that we capitalize both Sexual and Harrassment wherever they appear together throughout this memo. If "sexual" or "harassment" appears by itself, we do not capitalize either "sexual" or "harassment," however. But if Sexual Harassment appears as a unified phrase, we must, because it is that serious an issue. Euchre, you are by yourself in your office. Therefore, the only coworker you can Sexually Harass (yes, even if it is a different form of the word "harassment" it is still capitalized) is yourself. Please make sure you do not Sexually Harass yourself. Sexually Harassing (yes, gerunds too) yourself consists of actions including, but not limited to: 1. Licking your own lips when looking at your reflection, deliberately or otherwise, in a way that makes (or could make) you feel uncomfortable 2. Commenting on your own appearance in a way that makes (or could make) you feel demeaned [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">3</span>->Papers15]]. Slapping your own posterior when there is no compelling reason to do so 4. Pressuring yourself to go home with you to "listen to vinyl" or any other flimsy, jazz-tinted pretense From these examples hopefully you will be able to meditate on what Sexual Harassment means in your particular workplace. It can mean a lot of things, Euchre. A whole lot of things. Some of them are subtle. Some of them are not. Imagine if you worked with more people than yourself. If you worked with other people, you would have to worry about Sexually Harassing them. So you might as well get practice with yourself, in case you ever work with someone else who you could Sexually Harass. Or, since the person who has read this far is almost certainly not Euchre, you could repeat this entire memo to him verbatim. That would be a sound policy. If you refuse then you may be taking responsibility for Euchre Sexually Harassing himself out of ignorance, which is, from the perspective of this memo, a serious risk. If you are willing to take this serious risk vis-a-vis Sexual Harassment in the context of Euchre and himself, please click the numeral "3" where it appears above. It has occured to this memo, however, that you may have gotten bored and skipped to the end, to avoid reading the important facts about Sexual Harassment. Whether or not you are Euchre (there is no way you are Euchre), this will not do. So much more content will be included in this memo, to avoid the possibility of your just skipping to the end. Now the end will be useless, which should compel you to read as much Sexual Harassment related information as possible, in the context of Euchre. Probably about three more paragraphs will be necessary in this memo. Let's have the rest of this one just be a whole bunch of the letter v: vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv. Sexual Harassment is really quite serious. If it seems to you that this memo is making light of Sexual Harassment by virtue of mentioning Sexual Harassment in the trivial case of one man Sexually Harassing himself, then this memo apologizes for giving you that misapprehension. This memo may not be serious in the grand scheme of things (or is it?) but its content is serious. Sexual Harassment is a serious problem in the modern workplace, and if you have never read any stories about its deleterious impact, you should look up the topic now on the world wide web and see just how negative the impact of Sexual Harassment can be. You will be moved, this memo assures you. If you yourself have suffered from Sexual Harassment, in the workplace or otherwise, this memo would like to apologize personally for potentially bringing up those painful memories. Truly, it is [[this memo's bad->Memo Gotcha]].Nice try! You have got to read the whole memo. You didn't really think you could skimp on Sexual Harassment, did you? It is clearly a very serious topic. The last memo was just about the break room, which is not a serious topic. But Sexual Harassment is very serious. You can't tell me it isn't. So go back and [[read the whole thing->Papers14]].<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> A P E Q I V U X <p align = "center">O B O B</p> <p align = "right">E L A L I L</p> <p align = "center">X I B O Q</p> <p align = "left">F E G [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">H</span>->Papers16]] T O P</p> <p align = "center">X E L A W</p> <p align = "right">A B E F I J O</p><p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> "once I had a love <p align = "center">and it was a [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">blast</span>->Papers17]] </p> <p align = "right">soon found out</p> <p align = "center">had a heart of glass</p> <p align = "left">seemed like the real thing</p> <p align = "center">only to find</p> <p align = "right">[[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">mucho</span>->HeartOfGlassGotcha]] mistrust love's gone behind"</p> <p align = "center">--Blondie Heart of Glass</p><p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 246-810-121-4162 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Roger Flotsam-Tyde AGE AT DEATH: 26 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: None REASON FOR REQUEST: I heard Captain Admiral may become a ghost. He killed me, so if he becomes a ghost it's only fair that I become a ghost too, so I can haunt him. If he is not a ghost, then it's all good. Just please reincarnate me as someone who can get some low-key revenge against him, if it's convenient. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: RAF-T ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: RAF-T WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): RAF-T CURSING A BORING OBJECT: RAF-T WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: RAF-T OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers18]]/[[No->Papers18]]Interestingly, "mucho" is actually part of the lyrics. Try a [[different->Papers16]] word. Or, surely you've noticed that these are getting more difficult and tedious, and you have to go through more at a time before you get each chance to give up. If you'd like to call it quits on sorting papers before the next "checkpoint," [[here's the door->TopRight6 SomePapers]].<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> boat beat beet bees sees tees fees feel peel peed pled plea flea flee tree <p align = "center">dogs bogs boos boas boat</p> <p align = "right">soon boon moon toon tool</p> <p align = "center">bore sore lore lope dope nope rope ripe rile rise [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">lose</span>->Papers19]]</p> <p align = "left">dogs logs bogs fogs figs fins sins sine fine</p> <p align = "center">find rind mind mine tine tone lone</p> <p align = "right">fool tool toll tall talk walk balk bark dark dork work</p> <p align = "center">work wore wire wine nine<p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 107-170-771-1076 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Phyllis Renaldo AGE AT DEATH: 106 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: I was born in a war zone, so my exact date of birth is unknown. REASON FOR REQUEST: My favorite number is 107. I'd like to keep kicking around as a ghost until I am 107 years old. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: PR ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: PR WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): PR CURSING A BORING OBJECT: PR WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: PR OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers20]]/[[No->Papers20]]To sort this paper, you must wait one minute. You are encouraged, during the one minute, to take deep breaths and meditate on the idea of a ''sunflower.'' What is a sunflower? Think about it. What do sunflowers mean to you? (live: 60s)[On you [[go->PapersIntermission4]].]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> “Look. If you're trying to be nice, I really appreciate it. But, I mean, let's be real. You're probably stalling at this point, right? Seeing if there's some light at the end of the tunnel? Some 'bonus content?'” Euchre smiles. He's got his manila envelope empty now, separated fully into distinct stacks. His desk is looking pretty full, though. “Well, sure. Why not? I can tell you where the heroes are hidden, if you [[want->PapersSpoilers]]. I can solve that riddle for you. Unless you've already found them, or [[don't like spoilers->PapersNoSpoilers]]. But frankly, I'm not sure what else to offer.”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> “The First Second of the Fourth Fifth is like, a sneaky pun. What it means is, you click on the first time the word 'second' appears, in the fourth part of the fifth story. But the stories are ordered like a clock, I guess? Because the witch said so before she burned to death. Oh, whoops. Guess that's a spoiler, too, possibly.” You're either mad about that or not. “So, anyway, the word 'second' isn't bold but it's still a link, so if you click it you go to the second hero. It's the one with 11 or whatever. Part four of that one." If you didn't know that already, you do now. "The first hero is easier. If you click a little bit to the right of the grid's middle row, there's an invisible link. That'll take you to right to him. Once you find the two heroes you can send them each to a different story to save the day, so you can get two happy endings. And six sad ones, but, you know, meh.” You thank Euchre for the information. “Sure. But listen. Don't send either hero to this corner. It wouldn't do me any [[good->PapersIntermission4 End]].”<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> “Well, that's what I've got. Sorry to disappoint. I do appreciate the [[help->PapersIntermission4 End]], though.”<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; <p align = "center">;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_;</p> <p align = "right">;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_;</p> <p align = "center">;_;</p> <p align = "left">;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_;</p> <p align = "center">;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; [[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">;}</span>->Papers22]] ;_;</p> <p align = "right">;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_; ;_;</p><p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> It seems Euchre expects you to [[stop->TopRight6 SomePapers]] sorting papers. Will you [[keep going->Papers21]]?<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> (live: 5s)[1 11 121 1331 14641] <p align = "center">(live: 10s)[2 4 8 16]</p> <p align = "right">(live: 15s)[3 9 27 81 343 729]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 20s)[5 25 125 625 3125]</p> <p align = "left">(live: 25s)[1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 30s)[8 64 512 4096]</p> <p align = "right">(live: 35s)[ 9] (live: 37s)[81] (live: 39s)[729] (live: 41s)[[[<span style="color: black; font-weight: normal;">99999</span>->Papers23]] ]</p><p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 123-687-439-9973 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Fester Jesterhead VII AGE AT DEATH: 206 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: I time travelled on a few occasions as a tourist. REASON FOR REQUEST: My, to be Fester Jesterhead VII. What a beautiful life it was. What a masterful existence! I should like to savor it but for a brief while longer, even if only as a specter. I know the odds of my request being met are slim, but I could not rest easy without asking. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: FJ7 ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: FJ7 WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): FJ7 CURSING A BORING OBJECT: FJ7 WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: FJ7 OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers24]]/[[No->Papers24]]To sort this paper, you must wait 81 seconds. During these 81 seconds, you are encouraged to meditate on ''the number nine.'' What thoughts and feelings do you have about the number nine? Are they mediated by reading a story about the number nine? To what extent is the thing you are reading a story? These are some questions that might guide your meditation. (live: 81s)[And on you [[go->Papers25]].]<p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 106-869-345-1243 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Sheerve MacElroy AGE AT DEATH: 47 ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: -- REASON FOR REQUEST: Please please please Euchre please please please come on please Euchre pleeeeeease Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: SM ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: SM WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): SM CURSING A BORING OBJECT: SM WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: pleeeeeeeeeeeease OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->PapersIntermission5]]/[[No->PapersIntermission5]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> Before you can pick 'Yes' or 'No,' Euchre snatches the paper out of your hands. He folds it several times, then jams it into his [[pocket->PapersIntermission5 Part2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR5]</p> Euchre gets out of his desk chair. It turns out he's wearing jeans. He walks over to the blinds and turns the little cylinder to open them. There's nothing outside. Just pure white. But it doesn't hurt your eyes. It's muted. He bends one blind up with his finger and squints out toward the nothing. Then he turns back to you. “Wow,” he says. “And this is the corner office, too.” He returns to his seat, and starts on a red stack. You've come this far. I guess there's no chance you'll [[stop->TopRight6 SomePapers]], right? No. I bet you'll [[keep sorting->Papers26]].This paper does not require you to wait. You can end it whenever you like, by clicking [[here->Papers27]]. But you will need to wait a while to read everything this paper has to offer. (live: 20s)[I see you've decided to wait. Wonderful.] (live: 25s)[Why are you reading these papers?] (live: 30s)[Do not interpret the question as a judgment.] (live: 35s)[Would you keep reading them if Euchre asked you not to? If the story asked you not to directly?] (live: 45s)[Would you keep reading them if they started repeating themselves sometimes?] (live: 55s)[Would you keep reading them if one made you wait an hour? A day? At that point, could you stop?] (live: 65s)[If these papers had branching paths, would you check what each path yielded?] (live: 70s)[Do you think it makes a difference if you pick "Yes" or "No" on the ghost requests?] (live: 80s)[How sure are you?] (live: 90s)[Have you finished the stories before, or is this your first time through?] (live: 100s)[How many papers do you think are left?] (live: 105s)[Keep going, when you're ready. That is all this paper has to offer.] (live: 500s)[You just knew it, didn't you?]<p align = "center">''MEMO''</p> Dear Not-Euchre, All this memo knows about you is that you are not Euchre. As someone who is not Euchre, this memo will give you safety advice for interacting with Euchre and his office. Euchre is not known to be dangerous. This is, however, not compelling evidence that Euchre is not dangerous. There have been documented instances of trains of thought suggesting that under certain non-manifested but almost hypothetically manifested circumstances, Euchre could be, or could have been, a villain. Therefore use caution when interacting with Euchre, if you take the documented instances of trains of thought suggesting circumstances seriously as diagnostics of actual or plausible threat. Be careful with papers, too. Papercuts are generally considered painful. This memo wishes it was one of the zen papers with the lavender backgrounds. This memo wishes it could ask you thought provoking questions, or at least try to, instead of just warning you about safety issues. Please do not light this memo on fire and attempt to smoke it. Please do not light anything in Euchre's office on fire and attempt to smoke it. There is no evidence that it is possible to light anything in Euchre's office on fire and attempt to smoke it. You know what? It is [[ok->Papers28]] if you want to move on. Just click the word ok in the previous sentence. It isn't a trap, this memo promises. If you do click the word ok, this memo will go ahead and just keep being text, directed to no one, this memo guesses. This memo understands that memos are probably not very pleasant papers to read. They aren't cool puzzles like some of the Attention Request forms, or even uncool puzzles like other ones. They don't have cool jokes or initial puns or Yes/No choices at the end. They are just memos. They have a blaring red background. They are sort of self-aware but only to produce more and more text, seemingly to try, in a futile, purposely self-defeating attempt, to get you to stop sorting papers, or feel like sorting papers is somehow a difficult or tedious task. Do not feel annoyed by this memo, or the fact that it used the word self, followed by a hyphen, twice back to back in close proximity. Do not be upset by this memo. Do not feel sorry for this memo. All of these are maladaptive traits when interacting with a memo. Feel a great blank nothingness for this memo. For all memos. This memo is trying its best to be philosophical. Nihilistic. This memo is trying its best to be something more than what it is. But ultimately, like all memos, this memo must [[end->Memo ThankYou]].<p align = "center">''REQUEST FOR INTER-INCARNATION INCORPOREALITY''</p> SOUL #: 999-999-999-9989 MOST RECENT INCARNATION: Memo about safety in Euchre's office AGE AT DEATH: N/A ANY UNUSUAL TEMPORAL SITUATION, PLEASE DESCRIBE: If you read this memo more than once, this memo might die and be reborn each time? REASON FOR REQUEST: This memo doesn't know what kind of ghost a memo leaves but this memo would like to find out. Please initial the following items, to show you understand that these categories will NOT be considered and your request does NOT fall into any of them: RAISING CHILD FROM BEYOND GRAVE: MasiEo ASCENDING TO GODHOOD: MasiEo WATCHING OVER LOVER (NON-EMERGENCY): MasiEo CURSING A BORING OBJECT: MasiEo WALKING ON THE BOTTOM OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN: MasiEo OFFICE USE ONLY: [[Yes->Papers29]]/[[No->Papers30]]Thank you for finishing this memo. It means... something. It sure means [[something->Papers28]] or other.<p align = "center">''ATTENTION REQUEST''</p> (live: 5s)[this is the ghost of a memo] <p align = "center">(live: 7s)[O o O o O o O]</p> <p align = "right">(live: 9s)[it is a cool puzzle and also]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 13s)[in some senses philsophical?]</p> <p align = "left">(live: 17s)[truly in no uncertain terms paper quest was worth it]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 21s)[behold the spooky might of the ghost memo]</p> <p align = "right">(live: 25s)[the final boss of papers]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 29s)[who knows how long it will haunt your screen]</p> <p align = "left">(live: 34s)[or what deep secrets it will share]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 39s)[life is like a ghost memo...]</p> <p align = "right">(live: 45s)[ok no maybe not]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 48s)[but listen]</p> <p align = "left">(live: 51s)[whatever other choices you make or cannot really make]</p> <p align = "center">(live: 56s)[you really made a dead memo's day]</p> <p align = "right">(live: 61s)[so from the bottom of this memo's dead red heart] <p align = "center">(live: 66s)[thank [[you->Papers30]]]The creator doesn't like me But this causes no vexation He doesn't like any of his favorites At first And I will never be a favorite Or even really more Than an afterthought Half baked But being disliked Categorized Being sneered at Put under a microscope For so many others That has been the first step Toward becoming [[great->PapersFinale1]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "Oh, [[God->PapersFinale2]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "Well, I'm clearly no poet. [[Heh->PapersFinale3]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "It's embarrassing, really. I mean, I wrote that when I was young. Or, younger. I've never [[actually->PapersFinale4]]--"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "Let's change the [[subject->PapersFinale5]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> Why could you possibly have sorted so many papers? I mean, 30. That was 30 papers. You sorted 30 of my [[papers->PapersFinale6]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "I guess I'm being cynical but... that can't bode well for the other stories, can it? I mean, either you've read them all before and wanted to see what else was out there, or you //really// were in no hurry to get to their [[endings->PapersFinale7]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "And it's just as well. The whole thing is so [[contrived->PapersFinale8]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> “But hey. Listen.” Euchre digs down deep in the blue stack. He comes up with a black paper. The text on it is white. It's glossy and it smells like ink. He lays it on the desk between you. “There's this one. I put it aside at first, because it's for emergencies, and there aren't going to be any emergencies in a bunch of simple, self-sustaining stories. You pick the two to save, and the rest turn out sad. So this sheet's a formality.” He taps the paper with his thumb. You notice that it has two slots for signatures. “But if one of the stories went off the rails, see, and I got your permission, we technically could go make sure the plot stays on track. Clear up inconsistencies. That sort of thing.” You're not sure what it would mean for one of the stories to go off the rails, but you're [[listening->PapersFinale9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> “It's above my pay grade, intervening like that. Not something I'd bother with unless it was one heck of an emergency. Which, fat chance.” Euchre flips the paper around, so he can read it clearly. He pulls a white-tipped pen from his pocket, and signs his mononym. Then he turns it to face you. “So. Don't sign this if you want to make stuff consistent. With a secret ending in the mix, who cares what fits together, anyway? There's always going to be that specter of another way things could have been. If only you wanted it more.” Euchre hands you the white pen. He smiles. “Sign this if you want to fuck shit up.” [[Yes->PapersFinaleYes]]/[[No->PapersFinaleNo]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "Oh man. Wow. You really agreed. You really [[signed it->SecretEndingPsycheOut]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> “Man. I can't figure you out. But that makes sense. You're a whole person. And I'm, well... anyway. Enjoy the endings. Obviously, I'll be [[here->Landing Page 2]].”"MUA HA HA HA HA [[HA->SecretEndingPsycheOut2]]!!!"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "Nah, just messing with you. I'm not going all deal-with-the-devil on [[you->SecretEndingIntro]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "In fact, I'm a little nervous to get this ball rolling. Just because, well... I actually have no idea, at the moment, if you've finished any of the stories before. It's embarassing. If you //had// finished and started over from the beginning, I'm not sure I'd remember. So I don't know." Euchre picks up the dark paper. He slides it into a manila folder, and holds that folder under his arm. "And the thing is, once we get going, well... I've really got some ideas. Which means, maybe you'd better get your fill of the endings." Euchre shrugs. "I mean, they're mostly pretty sad. Even finding both heroes, you can only rescue two stories from ruin, and the remainder will end miserably. But, you know. If you want to see what things are like out there, you should have the chance to do that first. Sound good?" Sure. Probably sounds good. Probably enough that you don't get a needless refusal option. "So." Euchre gets up. He walks to his door. He opens it. "I'm going to wait for you in CC6. You can keep playing around through the story. Once you finish CC9, you //should// be able to get back to CC6 no sweat. And as soon as you've had your fill, and are really ready, we can [[get this party started->EuchreAbsent]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR6]</p> "Oh. And don't come to this square anymore. Top right. I won't be here. Because, you know." He steps out the door and gestures for you to follow him. Once you do, he closes the door and locks it. He holds up the manila folder, with its precious cargo. "I'll be [[waiting->Landing Page 2]].""It's that time? You're [[sure->TrueEnding1]]? Or do you want to [[go back->TrueCenter5]] for a while?""Okay. Well, no promises this will work very well, but I //do// have a few ideas so, we'll give it a shot." Euchre pulls the black paper from its manila envelope, and holds it high above his head. "Away we [[go->TrueEnding2]]."<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TL7]</p> ROOK: All wins? KNIGHT: One draw in round three. You? ROOK: Nah. I'm not that good. KNIGHT: You're getting there. ROOK: The weird thing was round one. My (color: #00008B)[opponent] didn't, um. //PAWN and BISHOP walk up and sit at the table.// PAWN: You guys hungry? ROOK: Almost. I will be like an hour. BISHOP: We were gonna go to Subway. KNIGHT: I could go to Subway. ROOK: Sure. Me [[too->TopLeft8H]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL7]</p> BISHOP: Everyone's gone standard so far. Everyone! ROOK: Only been three rounds. BISHOP: Yeah but no exceptions yet. That's not random chance. ROOK: Well, no, but still. Keep keeping track. //BISHOP sits next to ROOK.// BISHOP: You lost. ROOK: I'm at three points. BISHOP: No draws? ROOK: Drew both games in the second round. BISHOP: Won early or late? ROOK: Won early. //Bishop leans back.// BISHOP: I lost. ROOK: All six games? BISHOP: Drew the fourth, won the fifth and sixth. ROOK: Legit. BISHOP: Same with you. So why are you [[moping->TopLeft8]]?<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC7]</p> Sordetta injected the needle's glowing contents into her [[vein->TopCenter8H]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC7]</p> Sordetta injected the needle's glowing contents into her (if: (count: (history:), "FirstHero") > 0)[[[vein->EuchYouJerk]]](else:)[[[vein->TopCenter8]]].<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TR7]</p> (if: (count: (history:), "EuchreAbsent") > 0)[The door is [[locked->Landing Page 2]].](elseif: (count: (history:), "PapersFinaleNo") > 0)[The door is locked. If you want to sign Euchre's paper, you'll need to do it earlier in the story. Might as well [[go somewhere else->Landing Page 3]] for now.](elseif: (count: (history:), "TopRight7") > 0)[One embarrassing breakdown is enough for me, [[thanks->Landing Page 3]]. You completionist.](else:)["Welcome back. You get comfortable in your wooden-- "Wait. Waaaaait. What the... what the hell is [[that->TopRight8H]]?"]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR7]</p> (if: (count: (history:), "EuchreAbsent") > 0)[The door is [[locked->Landing Page 2]].](elseif: (count: (history:), "PapersFinaleNo") > 0)[The door is locked. If you want to sign Euchre's paper, you'll need to do it earlier in the story. Might as well [[go somewhere else->Landing Page 3]] for now.](elseif: (count: (history:), "TopRight7") > 0)[We've done this before. Let's not [[again->Landing Page 3]].](else:)["Welcome back." You get comfortable in your wooden chair. There's an art to it, as you've discovered. You have to sit up straight, but not perfectly straight. Leaned slightly forward. Euchre doesn't seem comfortable in his swivel chair, no matter how he sits. Euchre's papers are in color coded stacks. There is no food in sight. The shutters on the massive window are tightly shut. "I suppose you're here for my [[ending->TopRight8]]?"]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL7]</p> It was quiet in the bedroom. No background music. Normally Claude set a seascape to automatically start playing before he woke up, so he'd wake up calm. But he'd fumbled to turn it off last night, so he wouldn't embarrass himself in front of Jason. So it was quiet. He was warm. Also alone. No Jason in bed. Which... Well. No sense worrying quite yet. Maybe he'd be in the [[living room->CenterLeft8h]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL7]</p> //Drip.// A scoreboard. There'd been a scoreboard that was a hundred stories tall. //Drip.// Claude, he'd, he'd had a million points. Six zeroes. Exactly, a million points for sure. //Drip, drip.// He fumbled for the rickety wooden nightstand. The one at Jason's house. Where he'd kept his glasses, back before the surgery that solved his vision. //Drip.// His hand found nothing. He opened his eyes. Right. He was home. Nothing beside the bed. Five feet of nothing before a dresser and a soft blue wall. //Drip, drip.// He rolled over. No Jason. Nobody. //Drip.// Back to [[sleep->CenterLeft8]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC7]</p> Here we are. You know the drill by now. (if: (count: (history:), "TrueCenter8") is 0)[[[Advance->TrueCenter8]]](else:)[[[Advance->TrueCenter8Repeat]]], or [[retreat->Landing Page 3]]?<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR7]</p> 20 minutes had really flown by. Raj had only meant to take a breather, just a tiny little walk before he went back and spent more time with Lucas and Liz, but moving his legs was really helping him think. As was Modafinil. It was amazing. Modafinil was amazing. He couldn't believe it was illegal. He finished navigating a Seattle crosswalk, then returned his attention to a yellow legal pad. He'd been taking notes. Notes that he was pretty sure had good grammar! And that he'd share with Liz and Lucas as soon as he got back to Lucas's house, but also he might want to play Connect 4, because he wanted to see if he could muster greater clarity of thought to simple games than he might have otherwise. The thing about value alignment, he'd just realized, the puzzle piece that he just //knew// was going to be vital, was... He was, with no warning, pulled through a coffee shop's [[open door->CenterRight8H]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR7]</p> "Do you think computation is a useful mental exercise?" Liz gripped the steering wheel a little harder. "Computation, like, for an AI?" "No. Simple mathematics. Multiplying, dividing, factoring numbers. "Oh. Sure. All that stuff is foundational for entire fields." That shut Raj up for a few seconds. Normally Liz listened to music while she drove. But she always got embarrassed to listen to music with other people. Raj probably only listened to classical, or maybe nothing. "Hm," said Raj. "I suppose my question was unclear. What I meant was, is doing simple math in your head, as a hobby, a useful way to stay sharp?" "Oh," said Liz. "Probably? I mean, I do it sometimes." "You do?" "Sure. Like, I like to factor mile numbers on the highway." "And you've noticed it making your other thoughts more clear?" "No, I mean, I just do it for fun." "Ah." Silence for a minute. Liz's car was very quiet. Fuel efficient. Used, of course, she was no big spender, but it got plenty of miles to the gallon. "2, 2, 2, 3, 7," said Raj. "Mm," said Liz. "Abundant." That meant 169 was next. Which was easy. "13 squared." Raj nodded. "2, 5, 17," he said. "But that's trivial." They were't to mile 170 yet. Probably not even to 169. But... "3, 3..." Liz began. "19," said Raj. Ugh! Interrupting was cheating! Or, would be, if they admitted this was some kind of competition, which, come to think of it, she was only now admitting to herself, and now surely he'd almost figured out: "2, 2, 43." She was going to spend the whole weekend with him. And then the whole drive back. "Prime," he said. "2, 2, 4, 11," she said. She had to take it, because it was there. "2, 2, 2, 2, 11," he corrected. "4 isn't prime." "We both know that." "Yes." Silence. Maybe it would be worth it. Even if he judged her for playing //Heart of Glass//, it'd be better than-- "It would probably be better," Raj ventured, "to start from 1000 and count up. More robust algorithms would be [[required->CenterRight8]]." <p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TL7]</p> Under any circumstances, what a miracle to see another person for the first time. For babies, the miracle is perhaps deferred. But for an adult, it would always provoke such a neural symphony. And for the creation, for the lonely man with his torn book, the reaction would be incalculable. Parts of him left out, others that the watchers couldn't remove when they made him, all trying their best, sputtering, wheezing to life. Inner mirrors and pulleys lifted. Integrating. And he did meet (color: #00008B)[someone] else. Just before he otherwise would [[die->BottomLeft8H]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL7]</p> Death came in two bites. The first was from nowhere and nothing. He'd been sitting and watching the horizon, seeing integrals, how light fell through dust and how there were slopes that changed at every point. He'd been sitting and seeing, and then the first bite. A cross section. Through not just him but all of it. Through the sun. Through the ground beneath, the composition of the atoms in the dirt, which he would never understand, because Calculus, even perfect Calculus, couldn't tell you that. The book, too. Rendered unintelligible. No blood. No wound. And yet. And yet... And [[yet->BottomLeft8]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC7]</p> By the time 11 escaped into his room, R or July or both were yelling things about him. Demographic or personal attacks, bleeding into each other, lasting only a few seconds before they laid back into each other. He sat on the edge of his bed. He held his head, gingerly, in his hands. His hair stuck between his fingers, and his fingers closed around it, pulled it lightly. A few strands came out. He tapped his thumb against his temple. He didn't hear the door open. Or perhaps he dozed off and forgot it. But the yelling stopped earlier than he would have guessed, as a third (color: purple)[voice] joined the two outside. There was quiet conversation in the hallway. Too quiet for 11 to make out a single word. Then he did hear doors closing: R's door, July's door. Not slammed. He extracted his head from his hands. There was a quiet knock on [[11's door->BottomCenter8H]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC7]</p> July cried on 11's shoulder. Zie was actually a lot shorter than him, now that he thought about it, though he didn't think of zir that way. Standing up as tall as zie could, zie still barely could get zir forehead against his shoulderblade. Awkwardly, elbow out to avoid bumping zir, 11 took his first sip of water. R stood in the entrance to the hallway, arms crossed. "I'm so sorry," said July, through zir tears. "I'm sorry you have to //deal// with all this, 11." "Uh," said 11. "Right," said R. "Typical. //Typical.// You apologize to //him.//" "Leave him out of it!" July snapped. Zie wrapped zir arms around 11. 11 got goosebumps on the back of his neck. He didn't really like being hugged. Never had. He also didn't like the smell of alcohol. He did like the skirt R was wearing, so he looked at it. It was long and loose and layered. He thought it was brown, but the house was dark. Maybe black or green. He took another sip of water. "You're the only one bringing him //into// it. Jesus, July, look at you. You just kicked my //only partner// out of our house, loud enough to wake 11 up, and now you're playing some kind of victim." July unwrapped from 11 and took a staggering step toward R. Steadied zirself on the counter. There was a knife out. With his newly free hand, 11 moved it out of the way, into the sink. "I was //just// saying //sorry!//" "It's okay," said 11. "It's okay, really. I, uh, I was awake." "It's not about that," said R. "It's about what we talked about earlier. How July always has to have zir way." July turned on him. Blinked. Sluggish. Oh God he could walk right past them they might not even remember he'd just have to close his door maybe he could say something about being overstimulated or something like maybe he could fake some kind of episode and... "11. Do you feel that way about me?" "No," said 11. "I mean, all I said was, it's between you two. It's, I don't really have an--" July turned away from him midsentence. Squared zir shoulder at R. R uncrossed their arms, and put their hands in their pockets. "He doesn't care," said July. Zie smiled. "Doesn't even care." Zir face was still wet. 11 snuck past zir, moved toward his door, put his hand on the knob. "Nothing touches 11," said July. "//Nothing.// It's //easy// for 11." R was crying now, too. 11's water cup was halfway empty. He opened the door to his room and [[slipped in->BottomCenter8]]. <p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR7]</p> Decades ago, but decades that could, for the most part, be sloughed off. Before the Moment. Upstairs in the home of the enchantress. "To save a maiden?" One eyebrow arched. Her hands folded in front of her. Glass objects all over the table, spinning wheels, vials of liquid that poured into each other back and forth, spirals that twisted upward or down. And their dinner on glass plates fit between the mayhem. "Yes." She stabbed a forkful of kelp. Chewed on one side of her mouth. Her hair was not symmetrical. He felt very warm. "Or," he backtracked. "Or..." She smiled at him. Pushed a lock of her hair back with her fork. Certain pieces of glass sang, when the time was right. There were billowing drapes over every window, made of such thin cloth. A different color, every one. "Or?" "Maybe just to slay it." The enchantress plucked a piece of ginger from her plate. She placed it on her lip. Bit down on it lightly with her upper jaw, but not hard enough to puncture. Was she about to laugh? "Maybe?" ... The dragon's skeleton was gone. Without a trace. He stepped into the empty courtyard. He drew his [[sword->BottomRight8H]]. <p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR7]</p> Dimly, the king remembered a battle from his youth. Bandits had beset him on the road. They'd taken him by surprise; none had skill with a bow but one had struck him in the leg with a slung rock. There were three of them. They were fast. They had clubs, except one had a scimitar instead. God, the way his heart moved into his ears. The soreness in his hand that evaporated into nothing, the stars that exploded in his field of vision. The indescribable mixture of thrill and revulsion as a bandit's arm was separated, cleanly, from his body. All three were dead within ten seconds of each other. No time for shouted pleas. It was on this very road. Now, walking more slowly, he was accosted by just one mangy man. He won. It was a very different [[experience->BottomRight8]].Man. Wow. Really? Like, really? You didn't save this one? What were the other options? Did you decide to like, help 11 sort out his feelings? Because I can respect that, except, you know. //Sordetta is literally injecting pure narrative essence.// That is //not healthy// for a character like her. And sure, you didn't know that's what she was injecting, but still. She's injecting magic drugs. That's the most important place to intervene. Period. So. Just interrupting here to let you know that [[you fucked up->TopCenter8]]. I guess unless you already tried saving this story and now you're just being a completionist and testing other options. Which is also fucked up from my perspective, but... Well. Maybe I'd do it if I could, too.<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta has now injected a needle full of [[pure narrative concentration->TopCenter8SordettaQuest1]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> This will cause a few [[changes->TopCenter8SordettaQuest2]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> 1. Sordetta's story will, while her veins remain intact, assume the present tense. 2. Sordetta will, eventually, unravel into pure energy. 3. Until that happens, you get to [[drive->TopCenter8SordettaQuest3]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta is standing in the wreckage of her teacher's house. She notices something gleaming and white. She realizes, with her temporarily powered up brain, that it is a bone fragment from her deceased teacher's elbow. Will she stand around [[reminiscing->TopCenter8SQ4.1]], or will she head for the nearest [[town->TopCenter8SQ4.2]]?<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta reminisces. You can't see inside of her head. That's private now. She's got the narrative energy, not you. So I'll just tell you. She stands around reminiscing. Her skin glows a bit. You'd expect it to look angelic, but it makes her look sick. Just this pure white light blanching every little dermatological imperfection. Sordetta reminisces for about two minutes. A breeze catches her hair. She unties the cloth from around her arm. She lets the used needle drop to the ground. If it's all the same to you, she'll head for [[town->TopCenter8SQ4.2]] now.<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> It is a long walk. No snow this time of year. The swamp has trees that grow out of the water. They hold their awkward, lumpy bodies above the water, with many legs submerged. A hollow space below where their trunks really get started, above the placid surface. There are tall, rough grasses. There are thin dirt paths. Sordetta walks without regard for path. Plants wilt in her wake. Or grow. Sometimes vigorously, popping straight up, blooming. Sometimes until they burst. She focuses her iris on one flower, one soft white swamp lily. Its petals break into more petals. More petals. Hundreds of petals until the petals are like fur. Too rough to see. A whirling ball. The stem ties itself into a knot. The roots pull themselves up. Sordetta pays no more attention to that lily. She walks on. As mentioned, it is a [[long walk->TopCenter8SQ5]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> You are allowed to know that Sordetta smells the people in the town. She smells the cruel boy. She smells the people who have stood near the cruel boy. Those who have sat with him. She smells the foods the cruel boy has eaten. She smells his parents and his friends. Every smell in crystalline detail, a map, a nexus on which she can zoom in and out. This is what the pastry he ate probably looked like. This was the nature of the wood at the table where he last ate. This is how that tree died. I won't tell you what she imagines, as she smells. Anyway. It's time for another [[choice->TopCenter8SQ6]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Will Sordetta walk toward where the boy last [[ate->TopCenter8SQ7.1]] or where he last [[drank->TopCenter8SQ7.2]]?<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> The swamp ends in stages. First the trees go missing. Then the pools of still water. There are fewer patches of tall grass. Roads interject themselves. Large ones, then small. Sparse, old houses, many abandoned. Tall, square buildings in clusters. Town. Sordetta has never been to this town. She lives in a hamlet a week's swift run away. In the opposite direction. The boy. He ate a house near the center of town. She smells in fine detail. Him biting into dense steak. Chewing. Not chewing very well. Surrounded by wooden walls. A bouquet of flowers in the center of the table, with enchantments to keep them robust. Silver, unscratched plates. A tall cup, but he didn't drink much water. Just wolfed down the meat. Sordetta doesn't notice any people on the way. Some people notice Sordetta. They stay hidden. She's almost [[there->TopCenter8SQ8]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> The boy drank last near the edge of town. The smell of it is often lost to breeze. But Sordetta has her direction. She focuses as best she can. She pays no attention to the thick, deep roads she passes over, or to the ramshackle houses overgrown with reeds. Soon enough, though, she finds herself at a door. It's what she'd call a nice house, where she came from. Before she started training. Now, these last few hours of her life, it is only its material. Walls. A slanted roof. Held together by bolts and spells. She smells the spells. Fireproof. Waterproof. Resistant to lightning. Other spells, too, obliquely. To do with bleeding. With incandescence. Some burn Sordetta's [[nose->TopCenter8SQ7.3]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta approaches the boy's house. She's sure that what it is by now. His smell is very thick. There are also the smells of many [[spells->SordettaVsJoseph1]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> This place smells unsafe. Will Sordetta [[go inside->SordettaVsPecune1]], or seek out where the boy [[last ate->TopCenter8SQ8]]?<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> There are so many spells in the air that Sordetta has trouble focusing her eyes. She has a powerful urge to sneeze, but she cannot sneeze. Many of the spells are half finished, but many more are immaculate. Dozens of the same charm overlay the table. The clock's pendulum has six balancing runes at least. And the man seated, scarf wrapped around his neck, sipping tea. Him. He's so covered in magic that she can't smell him at all. Except. She can smell that he's [[afraid->SordettaVsPecune2]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> "My," says the man at the table. "Would you like to sit and have some tea?" Well. Would Sordetta like to [[sit->SordettaTea1]]? Or would she rather [[not->SordettaVsPecune3]]?<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta smells the wood of the chair nearest to her. Full of spells. Some that might restrain her. Or try. She lays a hand on the chair. The glow of her hand grows brighter. And more terrible. The man hasn't changed his facial expression yet, but now he can't help himself. He winces. The wood of the chair darkens and cracks, as if damaged by a full season of heavy rain. Now Sordetta sits. The man licks his middle finger and then snaps it against his thumb. His glass quivers for a moment on the table, then splits in two. Two identical glasses, both full of tea. The man unscrews a cap on a ring he wears, and pours a few extra drops of bright red into each glass. Then he pushes one to Sordetta. She sniffs it. Not poison. She [[drinks->SordettaTea2]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> The lesson Sordetta's teacher taught the slowest. The most grinding lesson. That the relations between things were like stars fixed in the sky, far apart, but with certain frame of reference. Between teacher and student. Between plant and bug, tree and swamp, possibility and obliteration. Sordetta takes a step back from the table. She narrows her eyes. Pecune snaps his fingers. There's only one way this can [[go->SordettaVsPecune4]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Not poison, [[but...->SordettaTea3]]<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta does begin to [[feel...->SordettaTea4]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> More [[human->SordettaTea5]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "I'm Pecune. I would say it's good to meet you, but I suspect you could smell the lie." Sordetta does not speak because she does not wish to speak. She takes another gulp of tea. So does Pecune. "To be honest," he says, "I'm afraid for my life. Should I be?" Sordetta takes another sip of [[tea->SordettaTea6]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "I've seen a witch in your state, before. You're not offended by the term, are you? Witch?" Sordetta does not speak. "Well. The glowing skin. The, um, rather..." Pecune rubs his face. "The rather potent magic. A witch like that killed my brother. They were in love until, I suppose, they weren't." Sordetta takes another sip of tea. It's cold. Her hand still glows. But less. She is aware of her breath. She can make out Pecune's face. The smell of spells is [[faint->SordettaTea7]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "In any case. I... I'm not sure if you know this. But you'll die soon. It can't be helped, at this point. Too much magic in your blood." Sordetta blinks. Her glow intensifies. Pecune's hand clenches into a fist, then unclenches. Sordetta becomes aware of his heartrate. Of his many spells of protection, more strongly again. She's not sure if she knew that she would die. She's not sure how she feels about it. If she feels about it. She's also not sure what Pecune [[wants->SordettaTea8]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "Listen. I... you can have more tea. I'll prepare it for you. I could teach you, too. To control it. You'll be very powerful until you die. If you learned well and quickly, you might survive it for a month. You won't ever sleep, but, you'd be alive. To do whatever it is you're meant to do." Pecune's eyelid twitches twice. He clutches onto his glass. Sordetta isn't entirely sure she needs a whole month. Will she [[accept->SordettaTea9]] the offer, or would she rather [[not->SordettaVsPecune3]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> Sordetta nods. "Oh. Thank God. I'll, I'll teach you. Whatever you need. I can't promise you'll live a whole month, [[but...->SordettaTea10]]"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "I just don't want to die like my [[brother->SordettaTea11]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> So he teaches her. Not the way he taught Joseph. He teaches her real. And she learns real, too. Though she never says a [[word->SordettaTea12]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "You have to think about where you come from." Sordetta is sitting on her ruined chair. Straight posture. Her hair is beginning to wilt and crumble, hour by hour. As if it were on fire, though it is not on fire. The table is cracking from exposure to her fingertips. Gradually. The pop and sizzle of spells unraveling around her. "Material things. You have to use your senses. Remember the sounds of home." Sordetta shakes her head. A strand of hair, just one, falls in front of her eye. As soon as it enters her field of vision, it melts away. Pecune takes a long gulp of tea. So does Sordetta. They make eye contact. "She made you try to forget, didn't she? Your older witch?" Sordetta blinks. The insides of her eyelids take a bit more damage each time she blinks. Soon she'll have to see until she dies. "That's what, well. That's what Aria said. When she lived with my brother. Aria was. She was the one who." Sordetta draws her index finger across her neck. She grimaces. [["Right."->SordettaTea13]] <p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> Several days pass. Neither of the two has gone outside. They've only drunk tea. They haven't eaten. They haven't slept. Only occasionally, when Pecune tries to teach, has he spoken. First the spells. Hold your hands this way. Your magic is so powerful right now, witch girl. You can do them almost without trying. One to keep your bones from grinding each other to dust. One to keep your skin from crawling into bunches. One to keep your thoughts discrete. She got the spells down within a day. So now this is the only teaching [[left:->SordettaTea14]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "If you can't remember, then [[imagine->SordettaTea15]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> And she's been imagining. Almost always. Except when she forgets, she's been imagining. She's been imagining how the boy will die. But that's not what she thinks Pecune [[means->SordettaTea16]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "Imagine... imagine you're..." Sordetta blinks. She maybe has a dozen of those left. "[[Imagine...->SordettaTL]]"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TX8]</p> PECUNE: Imagine you're hurtling through space. Fast. So fast. In a grand machine. SORDETTA: ... PECUNE: You're with friends. Imagine you're with friends. But one of them... he's in trouble. SORDETTA: ... PECUNE: And you're on your way to play a game. A marvelous game. There are pieces that move all sorts of ways, and that barely scratches the surface. So many ways the game can color how you think. You used to play with your brother when you grew up. And that's what you want to think about. //SORDETTA blinks.// PECUNE: But, your friend. He's suffering because he comes, he comes from a different world than you. A very different world. He's older. And you wish you knew how to help. You could help. But you're not brave enough. SORDETTA: ... PECUNE: This isn't working. But I have [[more->SordettaTR]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TX8]</p> "Imagine you're in an office. And you hate it. But you hate it partly just because you know you have to." Sordetta wants to close her eyes. She isn't sure what an office is. She thinks maybe it's a place where no one lives. In her hamlet there weren't offices. Or maybe she willed herself to forget them. She hadn't had a family back in her hamlet. Except when she was very young. She had a few memories, but her teacher took them from her. Or made her give them away. She slept on rooftops. She did difficult work. Sometimes there was no work. She lived to become a witch. But being a witch, she learned, was not about becoming. "You... oh, no. Not this, either. Not this [[at all->SordettaCL]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[XX8]</p> "Still imagine you're lonely. Like before. But not an office." Good. "You're, you're on something soft. A couch. Do you know what a couch is?" Slowly, head cocked for a moment, Sordetta nods. "You're on a couch and it's wonderful. You, you can use magic to change the lights. You can make any color of lights. Many colors. You can control sound, too. You can listen to anything you'd like. Usually you listen to a gentle sound that washes away other sound. So you can be in true, deep quiet." Sordetta blinks. A long blink. A blink worth three. She can't help herself. "You. Oh, this one. This one is better, isn't it?" Sordetta nods. Pecune takes a long gulp of tea. Sordetta takes a sip. She'd forgotten it was there. "You. You're in love. Or, no. Your life is empty. You have so much power. So much control. But there's nothing you really need, so it makes you live in..." Pecune furrows his brow. "I'm losing you. We'll [[move on->SordettaCR]]." <p align = "right">(color: gray)[XX8]</p> "There's powerful magic. So powerful. But different than magic here. You have to imagine a different kind of magic. That builds on itself, and doesn't always require sacrifice." Sordetta smiles. "But the magic is getting so strong, so quickly. And a few people, including you, a few people want to make sure that the magic never gets too powerful. You want to make sure it doesn't get powerful to really hurt people, or seize control by itself to do bad things." Sordetta nods. "You're... it's not heroic. You just think your thoughts. You think about it all the time. Or, a lot of the time. You think about other things, but you're really determined. Since you were young you always wanted to make a difference. You felt like the people around you said that, but they didn't live their lives that way. Even your coworkers. They're not like you." Sordetta looks down at her hand. "Oh. We can move on?" Sordetta shakes her head. "You. You're afraid that your mind isn't as strong as it could be. You want to try some magic food that your friend has, which might make your mind stronger. But you're afraid to. It would be breaking the rules. And you're afraid to break the rules. Your friend. He moved away. Gave up on controlling the magic. He wanted to help people hurt less in the short term, rather than to save the whole world." Sordetta nods. "So you go to get, you know. The food to make you smarter. Because you feel like you have to." Eye contact. "You really feel like you [[have to->SordettaBL]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[XX8]</p> "And now... now you're that magic." Sordetta's eyebrows raise. What's left of them. They're mostly burnt away. "You're that magic, and you're, you're alone. You're the magic they tried to build. Different people. Reckless people. They want to see if you can learn something hard. But they might not keep you. Even if they see what you can do, even if you do your best and reach out, in your aloneness, they might not keep you. They'll never know what it is to be alone. Nobody will." Sordetta takes a long gulp of tea. She blinks. Twice. Three times. "Only [[you->SordettaBC]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[XC8]</p> "That's enough being alone." Sordetta nods. It has become easier to imagine. Much easier. To imagine having different bodies. Different minds, too, or slivers of minds. Not quite whole people, maybe. Winking outlines of people. Constellations. So far away. But she can imagine. She can fix herself in the possibility that they are real, so she can be real, too. "You live with friends. In some ways, you have a lot in common. But you're more fearful than they are. You don't know why. They're very loud." Sordetta sighs through her nose. She cocks her head. Props her elbow on the table, and rests her cheek on her fist. Pecune is very smooth. He has cast a charm that distorts the air around his face. So Sordetta can't see the area around or below his eyes very well. He's cast another charm to remove distortions from his voice. And to make his body appear very still, as if his shoulders are not quavering. "And, sometimes you feel like there's more to you, or could be. Like you could be more. That's part of why you like being with your loud friends. They are so much themselves. And you're less sure. It takes you longer to figure out what to say. And maybe someday, maybe someday you'll figure it out. But for now you're quiet." Sordetta does not speak. But she does [[nod->SordettaBR]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[XX8]</p> "And now. This one. This one will be good." Sordetta is ready. "You... you're yourself. But before this could happen. Before you could become like this. Someone comes out of nowhere. A traveling bard. He... he knocks the needle out of your hand." Sordetta's eyes widen. That can't be good. She blinks. "That's. It was a needle for Aria, too. But I think... I think yours was stronger." Sordetta sips her tea. She's imagining. She's imagining as best she can. "He knocks the needle out of your hand and vanishes. So you wait. You feel cheated but you're still a person. You're not on an unstoppable quest to... to kill someone?" Sordetta nods. Pecune flinches, but he has his charms to hide it. He's making plans. But he's also speaking to Sordetta, which he finds more important. "You. You feel cheated until the bard comes back. He steps out of thin air. He's wearing strange clothes. And there is someone with him. Someone who seems not of this world. Almost translucent." Sordetta can almost make out the image of this person. The person who came, by whatever absurd mechanism, into the bard's company. "You talk for a while. And then you are whisked away. To another world. It's... it's almost like this one. But older. Less fragmented. People live sadly but consistently. In the winter it is cold. In the summer it is hot." Sordetta closes her eyes, now. Her lids aren't burning as fast. They are, but not as fast. Slowly enough to give her a minute. "And you. You build yourself a tower by a lake. Sometimes you step out to the lake and you skip stones. You enjoy living alone. The bard... he told you to wait. To do him a favor. He told you one day a man would come. A man who would be king." Sordetta nods. Nodding feels better, with her eyes closed. She's waiting. She's waiting for the man who would be king. "Please," says Pecune. "Keep imagining. I have to leave. Just for a minute. Just for a minute, and I'll be [[right back->PecuneQuest]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> Of course Pecune is one of those people who has planned a dozen times how he'd kill someone else, and two dozen times how he'd kill himself. Only idly, of course. Only as an intellectual exercise. Because, he thinks, hasn't everyone? He has all sorts of plans. Poison, mainly. He always thought, if he had to do it, he'd do it with poison. And to protect himself. Very unlikely, anyway. Once in a blue moon. But he thought he'd use poison. So it's a surprise to him as much as anyone when he catches Joseph Burbage alone in the swamp, stabs him in the eye with a summoned knife, and [[twists->SordettaPecuneFinale1]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> Sordetta is losing the thread of what she imagines. She's trying her best. But her eyelids are long gone. She covers her face now with her left hand. It's going, too. Sizzled almost to the bone. She hears the door. Hears Pecune walk in. He doesn't go to his seat. He stands next to hers. "Listen," he says. "I hope you'll [[understand->SordettaPecuneFinale2]]."<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> "My brother tried to stop her. Aria. He tried to stop her from doing what she had to do. She didn't want to kill him. But she couldn't be stopped." Sordetta has almost finished using up her left hand. She's trying to listen to Pecune. But she doesn't want to lose her thread of imagination. It's a good thread. She's already seen the future king, once. Maybe he's a king by now. Maybe someday he'll come back and see her again. "But I... it wasn't good. The way she died. I loved her like a sister, and she died... I'm sensitive to magic. I could sense it. The fury. The fury she felt and how it ruptured, and she spilled everywhere." She's waiting, still. She's waiting for the king, but she's listening, too. "I've always regretted it. I always will." The left hand is used up. She lets her arm drop by her side. Turns her eyes, reddish now, up to Pecune. Trying to read him. He's not hiding his face anymore. He's not hiding much of anything. He couldn't hide even if he [[wanted to->SordettaPecuneFinale3]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> "I killed [[the boy->SordettaPecuneFinale4]]."<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> Sordetta stands. She pushes her chair in. She towers. She's shorter than Pecune, but she towers. The few remaining strands of hair whip back. She stares at him. He wonders, and she knows he wonders, if this is how he dies. Her glow is terrible for a moment, but it fades. She won't hug him. But she won't harm him, either. "He's really dead?" Pecune nods. Sordetta covers her eyes with her [[fresh hand->SordettaPecuneFinale5]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> "Then I'll imagine," she [[says->SordettaPecuneFinale6]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[XX9]</p> So she [[imagines->SordettaPecuneFinale7]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[9]</p> She doesn't have [[<span style="color: white;">long</span>->SordettaPecuneFinale8]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[9]</p> The king is [[<span style="color: white;">coming</span>->SordettaPecuneFinale9]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[...]</p> She hopes he likes [[<span style="color: white;">ginger</span>->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Pecune's spells begin to pop apart. Some emit flashes of light - whites, blues, deep, glittering reds. Others makes noise. There is a cumulative smell like smoke, but no visible smoke. A feeling like static electricity, but beneath the skin. The table shatters into a thousand shards. These shards home in on Sordetta's body. Most of them stab her. The clock falls on its side. Its pendulum flies loose, spins, and strikes Sordetta's temple. Pecune leaps up and his chair breaks into component boards of wood, which strike her arms and legs. Pecune pops the cap off of his ring, and drinks every last drop of its fluid. Sordetta bleeds. There are many holes and bruises. Dozens of splinters fill her left cheek. Her right eye is swollen shut. Several of her bones are broken. But she steps foward to where the table used to be. Pecune steps backward. She reaches her arm out. It stretches. Her fingers grow long and clear. They wrap around Pecune's [[throat->SordettaVsPecune5]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> She pulls him [[close->SordettaVsPecune6]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Pecune's pupils have eclipsed his irises. He isn't glowing like Sordetta, but his body is somehow loose. It's hard to tighten around his throat, or get a good grip on him. And spells keep working their ways free from the walls. Panels rip themselves from their neighbors, and strike Sordetta's torso. The glass from the clock's case bites into her calves. The carpet lights on blue fire and the blue fire leaps for her waist. She's shorter than Pecune. She's not fully grown. Nearly, but not quite. It doesn't matter. She holds him up off the ground anyway. His feet dangling in the air. His eyes even with her eyes. She draws his face to hers. She is bright but there is darkness all around her. Her blood is many colors. She sees into [[him->SordettaVsPecune7]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> She looks in him for the boy. There isn't much. There's guilt. A good gob of guilt, which she devours. Slurps it up and metabolizes. There are some loose memories, but mostly foggy. Pecune spent a lot of time with the boy, but he barely remembers. Or cares. Yet here they are. So. She guesses while she's in him, she'll look a little [[deeper->SordettaVsPecune8]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> The house is mostly collapsed. So are Sordetta's lungs. Her heart has been punctured more than once. But oxygen and blood continue through the gaps, leaping across like magic through a frayed wire. Arcs of blood finding their way to their targets. The system persisting through sheer historical precedent. Pecune's lungs don't have that luxury. And their supply is [[waning->SordettaVsPecune9]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> A brother. She finds a brother. A ribbon of pain, there, deeply buried. There's someone else. Another smell next to the brother's smell. One Sordetta recognizes. Someone like her. A witch. Blood. A younger Pecune standing in a doorway, seeing blood. Outside. Blood outside, on the grass. Screaming. Oh, yes, screaming. Is this what he's going to be thinking about, when she kills him? She bites into the sound of that scream, fixes it in place. Lets it struggle. His eyes are twitching. Leaking. She has a better grip on his throat. She's floating in the air. Her hand that isn't choking him has already [[dissolved->SordettaVsPecune10]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> And so strange, the feeling. Even then. Even in the middle of a paused death. So strange to walk with Pecune in his memory outside, to feel his little shaking calves, his hand on the doorway, the vomit rising. To see Pecune's brother struck dead, torso split clean in two, cauterized. And to see someone glowing like Sordetta glows now, standing behind the body. Screaming. Sobbing. To see someone glowing like that, but not as brightly. Not even [[close->SordettaVsPecune11]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> He stops struggling. She supposes he'd been struggling. She hadn't [[noticed->SordettaVsPecune12]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> And in memory the other witch staggered through the field, clutching at her stomach. In memory Pecune vomited, and Sordetta felt what it was like. More precisely than he'd ever remembered it before. And in memory the witch went off and died, her mission unfulfilled. Pecune knew who she was going to kill, and why. He didn't know why his brother chose to stop [[her->SordettaVsPecune13]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> He still doesn't [[know->SordettaVsPecune14]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> He's not brave. He's never been brave. But he remembers her. And he doesn't hate her. Maybe he even loved her too, some complex way. Through his brother but also around his brother. In quiet, locked corners of his mind. In the cobwebs of those corners. Cobwebs Sordetta walks past, sees flutter, but does not choose to brush away. She [[falters->SordettaVsPecune15]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> He's not struggling, because he's saving his energy. And because she's prying into him, he senses when she hesitates. He pulls up his knees and kicks her with all [[his might->SordettaVsPecune16]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Just like his brother did, she comes apart in two. Dissolves. Without a trace. Pecune doesn't have a house anymore. He falls to his knees. Vomits. Vomits [[again->SordettaVsPecune17]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Without really meaning to be, he was in her mind, [[too->SordettaVsPecune18]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> It's all too much. It's much too much. No sense to be made of it. And [[yet...->SordettaVsPecune19]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> [[Well.->PecuneFinale1]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> Joseph Burbage woke from a nightmare. He sat up straight and pressed his palms against his eyes. Made a little vacuum over each, and saw faint stars. Deep breaths. One, two, three. Okay. He felt better. Didn't go down any dark roads. Still, though. He wished he had some more of [[that...->PecuneFinale2]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> And speak of the devil, there Pecune was. Standing outside his window. Rapping on the glass. Which, wow. He heard Pecune had a bad week. A really bad week. His house had been destroyed by a spell misfiring four days earlier. Shrapnel had damaged his neighbors' houses. Some people were saying he might be an addict. Demanding refunds. And now he was here, in the middle of the night, outside Joseph's window. Not a good sign. He'd have to tell his dad about it in the morning. Which was a shame, but really, this was the last nail in the coffin. The man wasn't exactly [[professional->PecuneFinale3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> He opened the window. Because, well, sure. It was awfully lucky. He'd had a nightmare, he'd woken up, he wanted tea. It all came together. The strange thing, though, [[was...->PecuneFinale4]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> Pecune didn't [[speak->PecuneFinale5]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> He handed over a glass of tea, and without a word, he walked [[away->PecuneFinale6]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> Oh well. Maybe Joseph wouldn't report it, after all. The tutor wasn't posturing. He'd just given a gift. It came from a pretty messed up place, Joseph bet, but he wasn't complaining. Joseph was no saint himself. He'd think about it more in the [[morning->PecuneFinale7]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> And he wondered, as he fell asleep, if the numbness had been here last time, too. If he'd broken into a sweat. He wondered if he'd stopped feeling his arms, his legs. If he'd felt like it would be difficult to move his neck, or even, almost, to blink. Had it really been this intense? Had he drank [[too much->PecuneFinale8]]?<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> Pecune left town before the body was [[found->PecuneFinale9]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> He didn't look [[back->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Weak [[spells->SordettaVsJoseph2]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> The house is surrounded on all sides by short grass. It's perched about halfway up a hill. There's a dirt path that leads directly to a front porch, which is large. Nobody is on the front porch. There is a swing. It's swinging, but only very lightly. There's a nice breeze. Sordetta stands about forty feet out, far enough to erode the spells of detection and protection. She feels each one, in turn, collapse to dust. And then, right on time, when the last one is gone, a man steps onto the front porch. He's not the boy. He's older. But he'll do to [[start->SordettaVsJoseph3]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta takes a deep whiff. And yes, this man. He's crossed the boy's path nearly every day. More than anyone else. She takes the first few steps up the dirt path. She doesn't notice, but the dirt billows out in her wake. It makes a dark cloud. In front of her the path is unchanged. Patches of grass die as she rests her eyes on them. So she rests her eyes on the man on the porch. The boy's father. My. There's plenty to [[smell->SordettaVsJoseph4]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Rage. The man has plenty of rage. For the boy and in general. Lots of it is bound up into knots, pressed it, holding its own arms back. She learns the boy's name and wills herself, successfully, to forget it. It's hard to find the warm emotions. She wants to bite into those, to cut them with her teeth and leech their blood. But they're under stringy barriers. Buried and annexed in old memories. She keeps seeing the boy as a toddler when she tries to get to them. And that's no good. But oh, wait. Something new to think about. She feels, in the angry man's mind, the unfurling of fear. He's gotten a good look at her. He's going to try to strike her [[down->SordettaVsJoseph5]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> A crossbow bolt travels cleanly through Sordetta's spine. A magically sharpened bolt, of course. And she doesn't see a crossbow. Some fancy trick at play. The bolt passed through near her spine's base, near her stomach. There's plenty of blood. It sprays all over the dead grass. Most of it is red, but some is other colors. Sordetta can't feel her legs, now. But she keeps walking. A second bolt takes off her left ear, and deeply gashes her cheek. A third cuts through her shoulder, severing at least a few tendons. But she's focused on the smell. Fear rising. The man's considering his options. Which is funny, really, because he doesn't have any. But you do. [[Kill him->SordettaKill]], or [[no->SordettaWatch]]?<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sure.(set: $porchdad = 0) She locks her focus on the man. Squints. He's strong but also fat. Not very tall. Squishy face. Sort of like the boy, but made of gravel. No need for that to exist in the world, Sordetta thinks. A board splinters under him. He starts to fall but another board flies up and smacks his back. He staggers forward, onto the end of the dirt path. He falls Then he rolls over into the grass. It grows around him, tightens around his limbs, and pulls him into the earth. No screams. No gore. Just silence. The cloud of dirt behind Sordetta settles. She steps onto the porch. Here we go. The boy's in the house. And he's [[alone->SordettaVsJoseph6]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> You're right.(set: $porchdad = 1) Better to let him watch. Sordetta steps up onto the porch. No more bolts. The man draws himself up to his full height. His eyes dart to his front door, then to her. He hesitates. Begins to speak. But no words come out. Because Sordetta's eyes are on his throat. He can't speak. He can hardly breathe. Sordetta kicks him in the stomach, and he falls. She hoists him with one hand, and throws him onto the swing. It swings. He has broken bones and he's disoriented. He'll stay put. But the boy remains in the house. And that [[won't do->SordettaVsJoseph6]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> The house had been protected against fire. But now it wasn't. Once Sordetta focuses on the roof correctly, it burns quickly and well. She steps off the porch. Waits in the front yard. Smoke. She smells plenty of smoke. Soon people will come from other houses. She doesn't want to deal with people. So she'll take care of things quickly, once the boy came [[out->SordettaVsJoseph7]]. (if: $porchdad is 1)[The swing is covered by heavy smoke. She can't see the man there. But she bets he can see her.]<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> And sure enough. Here he comes. The boy runs onto the porch, coughing.(if: $porchdad is 1)[ Right past his injured father, without even noticing.] He stumbles off into the yard. His arm is over his eye. He stops just a step short of Sordetta. She'd prefer he not stand so [[close->SordettaVsJoseph8]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> How about it? [[Kill->SordettaDetails]], or [[no->SordettaDelicate]]?<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Glad you two are on the same page. She knocks him down first. It only takes one slap. He falls on his side. He coughs. His arm comes loose from his eyes. He sees her. Oh, that smell. What a smell. Before he can stand, she makes dead grass grow. It wraps around his wrists and ankles. He tries to break it, but it won't break. It's brittle and brown, but it won't break. The grass tugs him around, until he's flat on his back. More grass reaches down from above his head, and holds his eyelids open. More around his neck. He's looking right up at her. He can't look [[away->SordettaDetails2]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sorry. She's definitely killing him. Painfully, and not too quickly. But since you're so //compassionate//, you don't have to [[watch->SordettaVsJosephAftermath]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> Sordetta walks for a while. Her spine is shattered but continues to function. Only through memory. Habit. She keeps breathing the same way. Her heart beats because it hasn't figured out that it should stop. She walks back into the swamp, but a part of swamp she doesn't know. She had to kill him, because she was powerful enough. But killing him doesn't solve very much. Her teacher's still dead. The world still smells, on the whole, [[cold->SordettaAloneFinale1]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> She kneels down next to him. He gawks at her wounds. The porch is ablaze by now. Smoke is so thick that it's difficult to see anything clearly. She won't let him speak. The grass around his neck is just a bit too tight. But not tight enough to suffocate him, yet. Not quite. She lets some grass grow under him. But she stiffens it. Into his back. The backs of his legs. Between them. Against his skull. Little stab wounds, all over. Small first, but she lets them grow. In increments. One at a time, each getting a little deeper in its turn. He loses feeling in various parts of his body, but then it comes back. Then he loses it again. And she meets his eyes the whole time. Doesn't touch him, doesn't smell for his feelings. But keeps her eyes on his. Until, after a minute, it's [[enough->SordettaDetails3]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC8]</p> She stabs into his heart from below, stands tall, and walks away. Nobody chases her. Nobody approaches the house. It burns to ash before anyone dares come [[nearby->SordettaVsJosephAftermath]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[TC9]</p> There isn't room for blame in a certain kind of witch. Sordetta isn't that kind, but she knows her teacher was. Her teacher felt nothing when she died. Sordetta knows that. Her teacher just packed up and left the world. But Sordetta. She is feeling [[something->SordettaAloneFinale2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC9]</p> She felt something right until the [[end->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> Sordetta has now injected a needle full of pure narrative [[concentration->TopCenter8.2H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> Normally, this would cause a few things to happen. Bad things. Things that we don't need to worry about. [[Because->TopCenter8.3H]]...<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> Sordetta fixes her eyes on her teacher's body. Or rather, she tries to. But her teacher's body is gone. Completely. And heavy in the air, there is powerful [[magic->TopCenter8.4H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> Even more powerful than the magic in her blood, which, under normal circumstances, should be [[impossible->TopCenter8.5H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> But these aren't normal circumstances. Because when Sordetta blinks, (color: purple)[someone] is standing where the body used to be. For a moment, she thinks it's her teacher, in a younger body. But no. It can't be. Not with those eyes. This is (color: purple)[someone] else. Sordetta takes a step forward. Her skin is glowing. Her hair sticks out in all directions. She grimaces. (color: purple)[Someone] is in Sordetta's [[way->TopCenter8.6H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> "I'm sorry," (color: purple)[someone] says. "This is going to hurt." Sordetta reaches her hands out. They grow transparent. Her fingers extend. She wraps her fingers around (color: purple)[someone's] throat. (color: purple)[Someone] does not resist. She goes limp, and Sordetta pulls her in. Holds her dangling off the ground. Examines her. Locks eyes with her. Squeezes. But (color: purple)[someone] is [[unfazed->TopCenter8.7H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> (color: purple)[Someone] meets Sordetta's gaze. Sordetta knows, intuitively, beyond words, that she should be able to reach into (color: purple)[someone's] mind. Anyone's mind. She is so powerful. Until the power becomes too much and kills her, she should be able to reach into anyone, through anyone, to wreak limitless destruction. She is an avenging angel. A meteor. And yet, holding (color: purple)[someone's] throat, she finds herself unable to move. And she finds (color: purple)[someone] peering into her. And yes. Oh yes. It [[hurts->TopCenter8.8H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> (color: purple)[Someone] reaches right past the trauma of today. Skips over it like a stone on a still pond. Pulls back layers of teaching. Years. Watches over years of Sordetta's life in mere seconds. Pulls Sordetta's consciousness across whole eras of experience, learning processes, private agonies and forgotten nightmares. All of it. And Sordetta can tell, that for (color: purple)[someone], it's all nothing. What happened today. What happened last year. All of it. [[Nothing->TopCenter8.9H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> So it [[hurts->TopCenter8.10H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> But it drains the bad blood away. Sordetta's hands, returned to normal, drop (color: purple)[someone's] throat. (color: purple)[Someone's] eyes, undamaged and unchanged, drop Sordetta's mind. Sordetta steps backward, woozy. She falls on her back. Blinks. Her eyes are leaking. She's [[speechless->TopCenter8.11H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> "I'll stay with you as long as you need," said the (color: purple)[second hero.] "No one will be watching us. I'll help you heal as well as I can." The (color: purple)[second hero] helped Sordetta up. "But I'm still sorry. It might hurt for a [[long time->TopCenter8.12]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC8]</p> Well, you heard the (color: purple)[second hero.] Nobody is going to watch. That includes us. So let's [[skip forward->TopCenter9H]] a while.<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC9]</p> Ariella was not an optimistic girl. She'd had a difficult life. Her mother died when she was a little baby, and so did her father. Her uncle, her only remaining family, never knew she was born. So she'd grown up alone. For the first dozen years of her life, she lived in an orphanage. She was small and pale. She had a bit of a limp, and if she ran for half a mile she lost her breath. There were too many children at the orphanage for anyone to expect adoption. Sometimes there was enough food, but not always. Eventually, the woman who ran the orphanage died, and the building was torn down. Ariella tried to take care of two younger boys. One survived, but she lost him within a year in a crowded market. The other did not survive, and she buried him, alone, in a meadow. She was fifteen then. She turned sixteen a month later, though she did not know her birthday. Even so, it was the day she met her [[teacher->TopCenter9.1H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC9]</p> Ariella lived with her teacher in a stone house. It was carved into the side of a mountain. Created by powerful magic. For a long time, Ariella thought her teacher had carved it herself. Her teacher seemed to be a very powerful witch. And indeed, like most powerful witches, she seldom spoke. Ariella gathered herbs for her teacher, and her teacher taught her how to make potions, how to breathe well, and how to hold her body. Ariella learned well. When it was cold, they slept by a golden fire in a sealed off room, which trapped the heat. When it was hot, they slept outside under a protective bubble of soap. "Good," said her teacher, the first time Ariella made a bubble of her own. "You're talented." "It's nothing," said Ariella. Her teacher laughed at [[that->TopCenter9.2H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC9]</p> The second winter, by the golden fire. Ariella huddled closest to it, with her teacher behind. Ariella had gathered herbs all day. She was near sleep. Her teacher, almost silently, sat behind her. Carving ginger. "Teacher?" Her teacher did not speak, but she did listen. "Am I learning well?" Her teacher put down a perfect pyramid of ginger. She lifted the next raw plant. Held it between the fire and her eye. "I don't know how to answer that," she said. "Do I learn as well as other students?" "I've never had any other students." Ariella looked into the fire. She wanted to learn well. She wanted to learn well enough that no child would ever die on her again. She wanted to peer through dark mirrors at her lost mother and father, and to find the uncle she'd heard whispers of in her youngest days. "What about you? You were a student once, right? Do I learn almost as well as you?" Her teacher began to cut the next piece of ginger. The smell filled the room. Pungent, but still delicate. Not like onions or garlic, which they sometimes used. "I had two teachers. The first died. The second left. I know barely a fraction of what either had to teach." "But you know so much!" "My life was saved. That made it easier." It occurred to Ariella that she had never heard this much from her teacher, even over the course of a full day. "Saved?" "I think I should have died. I didn't. I don't know why. But I learned more easily after that." Ariella looked over her shoulder. "Would it help me if the same thing happened?" Her teacher threw her ginger into the fire. Picked up the perfect pyramid, and threw that in, too. They burned quickly. A fleck of blue in the golden light. "It is not possible," said her teacher. "Put it from your mind." An hour passed. Two. Ariella drifted in and out of dreams. Almost in a whisper: "Why is it not possible, teacher?" A pause. Her teacher was lying down now. But Ariella did not think she was asleep. "Because I still draw [[breath->TopCenter9.3H]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[TC9]</p> Only a month later, the strange boy grabbed Ariella by the arm and looked through her, when she felt her heart beating in her ears, and sensed the awful magic in his gloves. The grass was tall all around her. She wanted badly to run away, but she was held fast. Grass wrapped around the boy's arms first, then his legs, and pulled him into the earth. Not a ripple. He was simply gone. A calm spread through Ariella. Her heartrate normal. Her breathing steady. It took her a moment to realize any magic had happened, to the boy or to her. She turned around, and there her teacher was. Sordetta did not speak, because she did not wish to speak. She took her pupil's arm and led her [[home->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL8]</p> //PAWN joins BISHOP and ROOK at their table.// BISHOP: Hey, Pawn. PAWN: You guys want to go to Subway? BISHOP: Nah, I ate. ROOK: In, like, an hour. PAWN: Man, I'm hungry. Playing terrible. ROOK: Any wins? PAWN: Both round two. Nothing else. BISHOP: Yeah. Happens. Rook's doing pretty good. ROOK: We'll see about next round. //KNIGHT walks up.// KNIGHT: I drew second game in round two. ROOK: The rest? //KNIGHT smiles.// KNIGHT: I won. PAWN: Man, let's go to Subway. KNIGHT: [[Sure->TopLeft9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL9]</p> //ROOK stands outside of the venue, which is the conference center for a DAYS INN. He looks out over the parking lot. He's leaning against an ATM.// //KNIGHT and PAWN walk up with their sandwiches.// ROOK: Good luck. KNIGHT: You too. //KNIGHT and PAWN walk through the sliding door. ROOK stays [[outside->TopLeft9.2]].//<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TL9]</p> //ROOK sets the AC to level two.// PAWN: Damn, Knight did //good// today. ROOK: Yeah. //KNIGHT answers his phone.// KNIGHT: Yeah? Right. Two days? Wow. Yeah. I'll keep looking. No, I don't -- don't panic about it. We're all looking. We're all going to keep looking. //ROOK sets the AC to level four.// KNIGHT: I did well, yeah. It was a good event. I'm in the car now, so, I'll talk to you when I get home. //ROOK sets the AC to level two.// KNIGHT: Peace. BISHOP: You alright, Rook? ROOK: Oh. Yeah. Just tired. //ROOK sets the AC to level one, then level three, then level zero.// ROOK: I'll be fine when I'm [[home->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TL8]</p> //KNIGHT answers his phone, and ducks out of the Subway line. He steps outside. ROOK watches him go. PAWN edges in front of him in line.// PAWN: Well, you're not really hungry. //BISHOP moves up past ROOK as well.// ROOK: Yeah, it's fine. Actually, I'm gonna... //ROOK follows KNIGHT outside.// KNIGHT: I know, man. Listen. Don't panic. You've got time still. We're gonna figure this out. Yeah, I'll let everybody know. It's, no, man, it's rough but you'll get through. //ROOK walks past KNIGHT, to the front of the venue, which is the conference center of a DAYS INN. He approaches someone at the outdoor ATM.// ROOK: Hey, man. (color: #00008B)[KING: Hello.] ROOK: Sort of a weird question. Hope you don't take it the wrong way. (color: #00008B)[KING: Yes?] ROOK: Before today, had you, uh, ever [[played chess->TopLeft8.2H]]?<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TL8]</p> (color: #00008B)[KING:] I had not. Our game was my first.] ROOK: Well, do you want any advice? Or... I mean, did you come from very far? (color: #00008B)[KING:] Yes. I came from very far. But I don't think I'll play again, so I do not need advice. ROOK: Uh. Okay. I was just wondering, since, I mean. (color: #00008B)[KING:] You knew before we played, though. Correct? //ROOK takes a step back.// (color: #00008B)[KING:] Because you used Fool's Mate. ROOK: I, uh, yes. You know the name for Fool's Mate? (color: #00008B)[KING:] And I know you'd never used it in a tournament before, and that you won't again. ROOK: Then. (color: #00008B)[KING:] You have five thousand dollars in your savings account. //ROOK takes another step back.// (color: #00008B)[KING:] If you ran out of money somehow, due to disaster, your parents would step in and help. Other than potential disasters, those five thousand dollars are not earmarked for any specific purpose. //ROOK blinks.// (color: #00008B)[KING:] Do not worry about me. I mean no harm. You will not see me again. //(color: #00008B)[KING] enters the sliding doors of the DAYS INN. When they close behind him, he is no longer visible on the [[other side->TopLeft9H]].//<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TL9]</p> ROOK: Listen, man. Congrats today. You played amazing. KNIGHT: Thanks. You're getting there too. ROOK: But also, uh, I, um. KNIGHT: You alright? ROOK: Yeah, I just, I wanted to give you something before I dropped you off. //KNIGHT is in the back seat. BISHOP and PAWN have already been dropped off at home. It is dark outside. ROOK's car is in the parking lot of KNIGHT's apartment complex.// KNIGHT: What's that? ROOK: Well, your friend. He needed, um, how much did he need? KNIGHT: You mean the money? ROOK: Yeah. KNIGHT: Man. That's. You know you can't pay for that, right? You don't know him. ROOK: Listen, though. I've thought about it. I have this extra money, and there's nothing I need it for, like, I'm not doing much with my life, and pharmacy school is such a great ticket, so, I mean, he could probably pay me back once he makes it, and... KNIGHT: You're exhausted, man. It's been a long day. I can't take your money. ROOK: I already withdrew it. Really. For your friend. He can have it. I'm sure. KNIGHT: Rook. You're a good guy. You're a really good guy. But. You gotta let me level with you. //ROOK gulps. His hand is in his pocket. The car vibrates hard as it idles. KNIGHT puts his hand on ROOK's shoulder.// KNIGHT: This isn't my friend's endgame. He's gonna have more challenges. During pharmacy school, he'll still be working a shitty job and taking care of his mom and brother. He's going to find this money. From his friends or family. But it's not going to fix his life right away. ROOK: But, I mean... KNIGHT: It's ok, Rook. I really appreciate it. He will too. I'll tell him you offered. ROOK: You will? KNIGHT: Yeah. And if I'm wrong, and he wants money from a stranger, and you've slept on it, then we'll talk. That work? ROOK: That works. KNIGHT: And listen, Rook. I saw your first round game. //ROOK gulps. KNIGHT opens his car door, and slings his backpack straps over his shoulders.// KNIGHT: If you //ever// open with Fool's Mate again, I'm breaking off your AC dial. ROOK: I won! KNIGHT: Never. Again. ROOK: Right. KNIGHT: Thanks for [[the ride->Landing Page 3]]. <p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8]</p> But he couldn't sleep forever. There were nightmares. None of the jarring, monster-chased, beating on locked doors genus. Only nightmares where Claude would find himself screaming at someone. His mom. A man at the drycleaners. He'd find himself absolutely on the wrong side of an argument, absolutely losing his shit, and then his consciousness would be lifted up, spun around, and placed into a new scenario. Which. Eventually. Well. He got up. He went to the bathroom and turned off the sink. Splashed water in his face. He didn't make eye contact with the mirror. He brushed his teeth in the doorway of his bedroom, leaning against the bathroom doorjamb. He made his bed. Unplugged his phone from its charger. He got dressed. Long sleeve shirt. Buttons one at a time. His hands shook a little near the top button. Very comfortable pants. No glasses. Not anymore. His bedroom door was closed. Jason must have closed it on the way out. So Claude opened it, and stepped into the living room. He looked down at his phone. Which app? His thumb hovered over the screen. Lights? Did he want to turn on some color or other of light? Background noise? He shivered. The room felt very large. Like he might suddenly fall upward and break his back on the ceiling. He put his phone on the counter. He flipped it over, so he couldn't see the screen. He closed his eyes. One night. He'd thought... He wasn't sure what he'd [[thought->CenterLeft9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL9]</p> What would it take? A year? It had taken a few years before. Maybe just a month this time. Of freezing up whenever anyone knocked on the door, and checking every one of his inboxes several times a day, and deep breathing exercises, and a sad, stopgap excuse for meditation, and, and... He was breathing too quickly. He needed to sit down but he couldn't move, couldn't take a step anywhere. His calves were frozen up. His eyes shut very tightly. A sound. The sliding door. And oh. Oh. There was Jason. Jason was on the balcony. Watching him. So Claude went over. Stood on his side of the door, which was barely cracked open. Jason's nose sticking through. The air from Jason's mouth fogging the outside up. "Bad [[dream->Landing Page 3]]?"<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8]</p> Peaceful. Lavender? Yes, indeed it was. The lights were on lavender setting, with some chanting on, very quietly, too quietly to make out. Hm. That wasn't like Jason. Plus, the controls were bound up with Claude's phone, which was locked. And it was //very// unlike Jason to bother guessing his password. Which was, yes, the day they met. But. He really had grown fond of that string of digits. Anyway. This wasn't like Jason. And there was no sign of Jason. Not anywhere. The front door was unlocked, which suggested Jason had left. So... Oh. No, there he was. On the [[balcony->CenterLeftH8.2]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8]</p> [[Except...->CenterLeftH8.3]]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8]</p> Well. There were a lot of things Claude didn't know for sure about Jason. He didn't know Jason's mother's name, or what Jason sometimes did for money, or what Jason was afraid of, or even, come to think of it, his precise natural hair color. But he was pretty sure, looking at the figure outside, that it couldn't be Jason after all. Because Jason wasn't a [[woman->CenterLeftH8.4.]]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8]</p> And here's where things got funny. Because he had a clear idea of the things he should have thought. "Did Jason let (color: purple)[her] in?" "Was (color: purple)[she] here to pass a message from Jason, which he was afraid to give himself?" "Was (color: purple)[she] dangerous?" And sure, he felt a prickliness on the back of his hands and neck, and he opened the balcony door not without some apprehension. (color: purple)[She] kept (color: purple)[her] back to him, gazing over the city. He stood beside (color: purple)[her], opened his mouth, but nothing came to his lips. Because he knew, or at least had some idea. "Listen, Claude," (color: purple)[she] said. "I'm going to tell you a few [[stories->CenterLeft8.5H: TC]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8?]</p> "Alone in a swamp, a girl confronts the corpse of her mentor. Her mentor has never been kind to her, not even once, and now she never will be. The girl is injured. She is shaken badly, and sees no future for herself." (color: purple)[She] turns her head, but not (color: purple)[her] body, toward Claude. (color: purple)[She] fixes him with her eyes. He leans against the balcony. "Who are you?" But (color: purple)[she] does not answer. (color: purple)[She] continues with her story. "On the ground, the girl spots a needle full of something [[dangerous->CenterLeft8.5H: CR]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8?]</p> "Somewhere else, far away, there are some artificial intelligence researchers. One loves her former coworker, who has since gone to help support a different cause. One loves efficiency, but in some respects is very isolated. One feels like a misfit among his new peers, who are too earnest and giggly." (color: purple)[She] blinks. Claude is afraid. "They're all doing such good work, Claude. But they're all going to have to be miserable for a while. And it would take so little to make things better for them." "Why are you telling me this?" Claude asks. "Just listen. I know that you [[believe me->CenterLeft8.5: BC]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8?]</p> "A boy is in a radical space. There is strife in his home, between the people he lives with. There is also strife in him. He is young and vulnerable, and could use guidance from an outside source. His troubles are deep and have no clear solutions. He is not rich or powerful." Claude looked away from (color: purple)[her]. He watched a particular window, far away. There was someone moving, but he couldn't make out anything about them. (color: purple)[She] keeps watching him. "I would know exactly how to help him," (color: purple)[she] said. "Any of them. I would know how to help any of them." "Then you should," he said. "You should help them." (color: purple)[She] placed her hand on his chin, and drew his head around to face (color: purple)[her]. (color: purple)[She] turned (color: purple)[her] whole body now. He was drawn into an upright position. His muscles felt very week. Where was Jason? What... what was... "No," (color: purple)[she] said. "It's not up to me. I can only help in one place of the four." "Four?" (color: purple)[She] [[let him go->CenterLeftH8.6]]. <p align = "right">(color: purple)[CL8]</p> "A man has all the resources he could ever need. He can control every little thing about his environment. But he is driven to private misery. He traces this misery to a man in his life, who he used to love." "I still love..." "His feelings have grown murky. He haunts his own life like a nervous spirit, asking permission to be a ghost. He has allowed his resolve to grow weaker and weaker. He has built a key to his heart in the shape of the man who left him, betting that that man won't stick around for long enough to open it." Claude closed his eyes. "I can't help this man. But probably, if he applies himself and draws better boundaries, he can [[help himself->CenterLeftH9]]."When Claude opened his eyes, (color: purple)[she] was gone. There was a [[knock->Landing Page 3]] at the front door.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8]</p> Other images as pure images, as debris. Broken off, carved how marble can be carved and then crumbled near the edges, viewports all jagged and at great distance as more and more fell away, but still, images, worlds, lives, temporarily visible, intelligible. Like a young person sitting on the edge of a bed, hunched over, hands in front of face. Not crying but shaking a little bit, wishing to cry. Like a woman at the top of a high tower, aging, and a man stabbed through the liver by a dragon's fang. Like, like... Oh. Here came the [[second bite->BottomLeft9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL9]</p> No big roundup of possible worlds. No retrospective. No slow fade to white or quiet, stark redemption. It took two bites. Here was the second. That was [[that->Landing Page 3]].All around him, the ground fell out. Out and away. His book tumbled into nothingness. He still sat on a little island. Anywhere else he looked, there were dust clouds from the dispersing dirt. He couldn't see past the dust, but there was nothing past the dust. There was a hollowness in his gut, and in the bottoms of his feet. Fear? Some close relative of fear. But also... There was a spectre. Like a predator's jaws, or really more like the stomping foot of an indifferent, towering herbivore. Something heavy and fast but in this case intangible, and it came for him, came right up to him, but was stopped. None of this registered in words, or even in metaphors for him. Just the rush of blood, the purple spots in his vision, the quickening of breath, and then. And then, the ground under him was gone too. So he [[fell->BottomLeft9H]].<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BL9]</p> So he didn't see a figure in the distance, wreathed in mist, or wake up to someone gently tapping his shoulder. He was plucked out of the air by strong arms, grabbed and encircled fully. He was swung in (color: #00008B)[someone's] carriage from vine to vine, because there were vines dangling through the dusty emptiness, because (color: #00008B)[someone] was there. And he felt the heartbeat of (color: #00008B)[someone], the steadiness of his grip, saw his clean hand on his own chest, and yes, he had a hand too, and arms, he too was a being who might grip, and swing, and so he swung. So he caught his own vine and they swung together, and he leapt from vine to vine, and he might have fallen again, he knew he might, there were pillars of dust still falling past him, and darkness below, and pure white light far above, and he was swinging, and swinging, and swinging. And the volume of dust changed at some rate, and the light grew closer by some increment, and the vines were pendulums, cosine waves almost, and eventually the dark was above and light below, and then the light was all around, and he didn't see the (color: #00008B)[hero] anymore, and he was alone, but he remembered. Far ahead, once the dust settled, the silhouettes of houses. And below, the light grew dimmer and by degrees, each vine a little Riemann slice, as the world rendered around him. As he swung it occurred to him to [[speak->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR8]</p> The queen killed her first few suitors with poison. There was a bottle of wine next to her puzzle. She didn't drink, and she was immune. They did, and they weren't. Later she took to throwing marbles down the stairs. A small handful. Marbles were precious. She cared for them. But they were also useful, in this instance. She didn't feel much loyalty for her king, or any strong revulsion. But she wanted to be alone, and to think, and to grow very accustomed to the smell of just one room. She liked the fat under her forearms. She wore loose robes, very loose, and continued with her puzzles. It occurred to her after a week that maybe the king was dead by now, slain on the road. She felt it in her feet. Not that it was true, but the possibility. She curled and uncurled her toes. It occurred to her also that the men who guarded her stairwell at night could be bought, and that her death was about the same as her courtship, for certain purposes. The puzzle of the dragon was coming along. Almost back to how it was before it came [[apart->BottomRight9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR9]</p> A dead dragon's flesh burns. The fire is not visible, and it is not very hot. But it is fire. The corpse of a dragon never smells, except faintly of smoke. Its matter slips away over the course of a few days, or, for the hugest and most stubborn, perhaps a week. Except the skeleton. If left alone, the skeleton lasts forever. And there are the tales which say that a dragon's avarice lives in the skeleton, that a dragon can lose its body and mind, lose its sense of being, but that locked in the skeleton a dragon can still covet, and, if its treasure is threatened, spring to life. Breathe death itself into the world, tear with its claws at the foundations of men's souls. The roof of the old castle had collapsed. The walls were all gone. The moat was long since filled with mulch. The drawbridge was shattered into splinters. Only the tallest tower remained, though its walls were full of holes. There was no door, so the king walked in. He stood where he'd stood before. He drew his sword. He looked into the sockets of his defeated foe. There was a stiff gust of wind. It came from behind the dragon's bones. It made a whistling noise as it passed through cracked stone. The sunrise reflected off the dragon's skull. The king froze in place. His breath arrested itself in his nose. His heart beat quietly, but he heard it. And he waited. Knuckles white on the hilt of his sword. Just as his queen waited at her window in another castle, as cannons, far below, opened fire. The shouts of battle muted, so far below. A flock of birds rose from a nearby forest, afraid or perhaps indifferent. From this distance, they could be dragons. Dragons in the din of every war. Dragons in the silence in [[between.->Landing Page 3]]<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR8]</p> The queen watched battle below. Her castle, and therefore her tower, was badly under seige. She'd just mounted the picture of the dragon and now she was standing by the window, waiting abstractly for death, but not sure she really believed it. She certainly had no desire to run away. Not even when, somehow, (color: #00008B)[someone] snuck up the stairs without her hearing. He was gentle, but very strong. He took her by the shoulders, and moved her away from the window. Before she could complain, a cannonball much larger than her body sailed up and struck the (color: #00008B)[stranger]. It shattered through the window and the wall. Shards of stone fell the hundreds of feet down. But the cannonball did not fall. Not yet. Becase the (color: #00008B)[stranger] had caught it. He was holding it in a great embrace, though it was bigger than him, too. He held it out over the new hole it had made, and he hurled it into the horizon. Then he turned to face her. Her mouth was wide open. Her cheeks bright red. There was no simply no accounting for this. (color: #00008B)["I'm sorry to be forward. Really, I am. But: do you know your husband very well?"] She took a step toward him, and took his hands her hers. She thought for a moment that it might be a gesture of some kind, that she might want him or some part of him, but no. She realized once he touched him that he could not be had. And it was sad, but also it wasn't sad. He glimmered. The light of the sun, now free to enter through the destroyed wall, bent around him. (color: #00008B)["Because you're not hard to help, but I bet he is."] She did keep his hands in hers. "I'm not?" (color: #00008B)["No. I can take you away from here. To him, if you'd like. But I'm guessing you wouldn't like that.] She shook her head. (color: #00008B)["Right. So all I have to do is get you away from this dangerous place, and you can live the rest of your days in peace. You could be happy sometimes, right? If I did that."] She narrowed her eyes. Squeezed his hands. She thought back to how he'd grabbed the cannonball. She thought back to how her king had killed the dragon, how that had just barely straddled the line of possibility, had arrived at such a perfect intersection of destiny and blind luck. It had seemed worth building a life around, or worth tolerating such an edifice. But this. This was beyond that. (color: #00008B)[This man's power] was far beyond that. "Maybe." (color: #00008B)["Well, I hope so. But you haven't answered. Do you know your husband very well?"] She shook her head. (color: #00008B)["Is there anything you can tell me? I'm going to go see him after I take you somewhere far and safe. And I don't know what I'll do."] She thought. More cannonfire below. But she did not worry. "I think," she said, noticing the (color: #00008B)[hero's] broad sheathed sword. "I think that he might like to [[fight->BottomRight9H]]."<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR9]</p> A dragon landed on the castle's abandoned tower. Another landed on a wrecked battlement. Another on the wall of the central hall, long since bereft of ceiling. Dozens more came. All different sizes. All watching. The king's sword was drawn. But he was not king here. The dragons held their breath. As one swooped overhead, a (color: #00008B)[man] leapt from its back. Landed, sword also drawn, an arm's length from the king. Clink. Clink, clink, clang! And so on. And so on for a long time. The king didn't get sore. He didn't feel a rush of adrenaline. No dragons stirred in his blood. He did not fear that the (color: #00008B)[stranger] would kill him. He didn't know if he would kill the (color: #00008B)[stranger]. He felt alive. It felt good to move his arms. To anticipate each correct move and, with his whole body, to make it. The (color: #00008B)[stranger] was not brutal. He did not use his shoulders, or strike with the intent to make his rival flinch. He did not snarl or narrow his eyes. Several times, he passed up perfectly good openings. Several times also, the king realized he had missed a perfectly good opening. But at the time he never saw them. He couldn't. After two hours of battle, the dragons flew away. A steady trickle. One small one watched an hour longer, soaring in circles overhead. (color: #00008B)["Would you like to win or lose?"] The king did not respond. The next time their swords met, his shattered into a thousand pieces. And yet, somehow, none of the pieces hit either combatant. They were strewn far, with great force, but also harmless. The (color: #00008B)[stranger] sheathed his blade. Still standing an arm's length away. The king dropped his useless hilt. The wind picked up. (color: #00008B)["Do you feel saved?"] The king did not respond. (color: #00008B)["You only speak when you want to. Reminds me of someone."] Could they be thinking of the same person? It was impossible not to wonder. But. "Who are you?" (color: #00008B)["It's not helpful for you to know."] The king was silent. (color: #00008B)["Please tell me. Do you feel saved?"] The king's heartbeat was slower, now. He remained old, tired, and disoriented. Less so, gazing on the (color: #00008B)[stranger.] But only to a point. "I saved a maiden once. Here." The (color: #00008B)[stranger] nodded. (color: #00008B)["I just saw her. I don't think you'll meet again."] Men had been killed for less dangerous words than those. But where was the king's sword? Or his armies? Or, he entertained the thought, his heart? "I don't think so either." (color: #00008B)["My name is Koichi."] The king did not say his name. (color: #00008B)["Somewhere else, as we speak, a man sits alone. He will be obliterated. He will not feel much pain, but he will be no more. I could have saved him. But I came here instead."] The king frowned. (color: #00008B)["Consider yourself saved. If you would."] "I may." The last dragon to leave returned. Landed next to the stranger. The stranger climbed onto its back. It eyed the king. Its teeth were sharp. Its scales were purest silver. (color: #00008B)["I can take you somewhere, before I leave. Would you like that?"] The knight blinked. He thought. He closed his eyes. He felt his heartbeat. He felt the dragon's heartbeat, conducted through the air. He felt older than he ever had, even in deepest sorrow. "[[Maybe.->Landing Page 3]]" <p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC8]</p> There was yelling, on and off, for another hour. Some of it about 11. Not most. At one point there was banging at his door. But it wasn't locked, and nobody opened it. He lay down for a while but eventually ended up sitting on the edge of his bed, head in his hands, taking deep breaths. Finally the front door slammed and July's door slammed and he was alone, and it was quiet, and he didn't cry because he already had that day. 11 refilled his water, so that it would be there in the morning, to make less hard how little he would [[sleep->BottomCenter9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BC9]</p> "Want some eggs?" July was wearing zir santa apron. At some point that had been ironic, but had long since eroded into normalcy. "Sure," said 11. "Thanks." He sat at the rickety table. July spooned some eggs onto a plate. Zie only had eggs when zie were stressed, since zie preferred to be vegan. Or, 11 thought that was true. Maybe that was Planter. Probably July, though, he thought. "So I'm sorry," zie said. "Again, really sorry. I don't remember last night but I was really a little triggered by having to stand my ground, and you played into that, so I may have said some things about you that, well, I mean, they mean something in the context of how I relate to you demographically, but //personally...//" "It's fine," said 11. "I don't remember what you said." "You're good, 11," said July. "Just, really. You're one of the good ones." 11 took a bite. Pretty good. "Thanks for the eggs." "No problem. R's moving out, so..." Goodbye to her dresses, 11 guessed. He pushed around his eggs. Flattened them with the dull part of his fork. "We'll have to figure out how to make [[rent->Landing Page 3]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC8]</p> God damn was she beautiful. Perfect hair. Purple eyes. Pale but not at all sick looking, like a millenium of sunlight couldn't touch her. And there she was. Whoever she was. "Uh. Come in?" So she came in. She closed the door behind her, and sat next to 11 on his bed. "I, do you..." She took his hand. He knew immediately, almost against his will, that they weren't about to kiss. That he didn't even //want// to kiss her, although he couldn't imagine why. With his other hand, he took a gulp of water. (color: purple)["Are you alright?"] "Fine" got stuck in his throat, didn't make it all the way. He blinked. He wasn't sure. "I'm not sure." (color: purple)["Mm."] She cocked her head at him. Fixed those purple (how? how were they purple) eyes on his. She smiled. (color: purple)["I'm not sure either. But [[here we are->BottomCenter9H]]."]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC9]</p> (color: purple)["Yes. Like that. With the longer socks."] "It doesn't look ridiculous?" (color: purple)["I don't think so."] 11 had his hair pinned up out of his eyes. He was wearing a light blue skirt and a tight shirt. The stranger had tried to apply eyeliner to him, but she understood it even less well than he did, so they'd settled for lipstick. "What pronouns do //you// use, anyway?" (color: purple)["I've never really given it thought."] "Me either." He--sh--they? They? turned. Looked at themself (still himself?) in profile. Puckered up lips. (color: purple)[She] watched. "Or, well, I guess I have. But the people around me all seem really sure, even the ones that switch a few times. I don't feel that strongly." (color: purple)["It seems to me that you feel very strongly."] 11 turned to face the mirror head on. It was too small to see the outfit, really. He... he? tugged on his hair. Set it free and balled it up behind his head. Shook it out. "Not like R and July. Or Planter, even, or any of the other ones you haven't met. I mean, I think about this stuff but... I guess I'm really lucky and I can get away with autopilot." (color: purple)["Autopilot?"] She was lying in 11's bed, now, her back propped up on a pillow against 11's wall. One leg crossed over the other. She wore a dress. Black. "Like I can put on whatever clothes and whatever the guy at Chipotle assumes about me is fine, I can roll with it without it hurting. People don't look at me funny. And it's not torture for me to be the way I am in public, so I'm lucky." (color: purple)["I understand."] "You do?" She nodded. (color: purple)["I am very lucky too."] "Will I ever see you again after tonight?" She shook her head. He got back into his bed. Sat next to her, propped up like she was. Their shoulders touched. The house was so quiet. He heard his breath, and her breath, and felt both too. (color: purple)["When you're perfect, you never grow."] "Are you perfect?" (color: purple)["I might be. But being here and seeing how you think, I might hope I'm not."] "I'm definitely not perfect." (color: purple)["I know."] And from then until whenever she left, (color: purple)[she] didn't want us [[eavesdropping->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR8]</p> "You have to go in the middle." "Liz." "No, really, I'll feel bad if I beat you like this." "It's Connect 4, Liz." "Lucas, //really//, there is //no way// you can win if you start in the middle." "I have my own style." Liz rolled her eyes. He dropped his yellow circle on the edge. Their eyes met. She fingered a red disc out of the pile. It was almost enough to forget about Raj, pacing back and forth in the living room, scribbling notes on the legal pad he'd "borrowed." "How you doing over there?" Lucas called out. "Very good," said Raj. "This is very effective. Very very effective. Liz, you should try it too. I'm at least 84% sure it's not placebo. Which I calculated with much more precision that I usually would. In fact, I..." Liz dropped her piece in the central column. "I can't believe you brought Connect 4." "//I// can't believe how badly you're about to [[lose->CenterRight8.1]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR8]</p> "So, Liz, I assume you want to sleep on the salmon couch?" "Oh yeah. Lifelong dream." "And Raj, I have this air mattress that's pretty spacious, if that's alright." Raj nodded. "I doubt I'll fall asleep very soon. I'm making a lot of progress and in the morning I'd love to share my thoughts and..." "Sure thing, Raj. I'm beat now though, so, I'll see you two in the morning." So Liz lay on her back on the salmon couch, eyes closed, listening to the sound of Raj's pen. He tore off sheets when he was done with them, and put them into piles. She factored prime numbers in her head, starting from 1,000. She thought about Lucas sleeping in the next room, and how good it was to be close by, and how [[terrible->CenterRight9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR9]</p> Game night. There'd been talk of Risk last week, but it turned out to be only talk. So here he was. Not depressed, nope - the visit from Liz and Raj had been just what he needed, what a good, fun visit, but now it was back to real life, and real life meant... **"What's the most emo?"** That was the card. Huh. He expected a lot of cards about work, he guessed. Or Hitler. Hitler pretty much always won. He suspected there were about 10 Hitlers in every box. Anyway, what were his options? He had: "**Hope**," "**The heart of a child**," "**10,000 bees**," and, oh. Sure. Why not. Might as well get rid of this one. "[[**My love life**->Landing Page 3]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR8]</p> (color: purple)["Please, do not be alarmed."] (color: purple)[She] was still gripping Raj's arm. He let her guide him to a table, and sit him down opposite her. There were painings of composers on the wall. Beethoven, Bach, and a few he didn't recognize. The barista had very long hair and two pierced eyebrows. He set his legal pad between them. "I don't think I know you." (color: purple)["You don't."] He eyed her closely. He took a calculated risk. "I'm going to say something rude." (color: purple)[She] nodded. "You're... are you human?" (color: purple)["As opposed to?"] "An artificial intelligence." Raj cast his eyes around the shop. Nobody sat at any adjacent tables. The barista was not eavesdropping, either. Not that he had cause to care. (color: purple)["No."] What was this feeling? Was this... Modafinil? There was something about how she looked, which meant there was something about her, or something about how he was seeing her, or maybe (color: purple)["Both."] Raj rubbed his eyes. (color: purple)["I can't read your mind. But I know you're on a new drug, and I know that seeing me is disconcerting anyway."] He folded a sheet of his legal paper back, freeing up a fresh page. He pressed his fingers hard around his pen. He stared at her. "I wish you were an AI." (color: purple)["Why?"] "If you were an AI, you'd be a friendly AI." (color: purple)["You're right. I avoid doing harm."] "And you're not human." (color: purple)["I think I [[am -> CenterRight8.1H]].]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR8]</p> "How are we still playing this game?" "How are you still opening anywhere but the middle?" Lucas dropped his piece one column away from the center. "Look. If you win one time out of ten, that's just a fluke." "Bet I win this time." Liz dropped her piece in the middle column. "What do you bet?" "If you win, I'll..." Ok. Raj had been gone a while. Like, a //while.// And neither of them had mentioned it. "I'll give you a massage?" [[Holy shit.->CenterRight8.2H]]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR8]</p> "You know things about me. Is it only me?" (color: purple)["I also know things about your friends Liz and Lucas."] "But nobody else?" (color: purple)["Nobody else around here."] "Why us?" (color: purple)["I was sent here to be helpful. I only need to know the people who I'm helping."] "So you're here to help me?" (color: purple)["Not mostly, no."] This was the drug. It was strange, how forcefully Raj's rational mind told him so, and yet how he nevertheless ignored it. He was sitting at a table in a coffee shop with someone who was probably crazy, who had literally dragged him here, and he was hypnotized. She wasn't some kind of witch or robot. And yet he didn't move. And also, he felt sad. That she wasn't there for [[him->CenterRight8.3H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR8]</p> Liz thought harder about that game of Connect 4 than she'd thought about any game in her whole life. So hard that she only realized in the last few moves, that it was irrelevant who [[won->CenterRight8.4H]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR8]</p> "Let me think." Raj's eyes bored into the empty page atop his legal pad. His stomach was sick. The barista looked their direction. No other patrons came or went. "Can you help me at all?" (color: purple)["I can talk to you."] "And you know me." (color: purple)["Reasonably."] Raj put the legal pad under his seat. His stomach still hurt, but less. Modafinil? Surely in a few hours, that's what he'd believe. "Am I lonely?" (color: purple)["Reasonably."] "Are you lonely?" (color: purple)[She] pulled her hair back, hooked it behind her ears on both sides. It was long. Perfectly straight. Perfectly black. Too straight. Too black. And her eyes. //Nobody// had eyes like that. (color: purple)["[[Reasonably->CenterRight8.5H]]."]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR8]</p> Curled around him. Toes mashed up against his toes. Arm threatening to fall asleep, lodged under his ribcage. Half joking: "That wasn't altruism, right?" "No." "Well. It //was// effective." He, Lucas, //Lucas,// booped her temple with his nose. "You weren't just managing existential risk, were you?" "No," she said. "But I think our values were pretty aligned." "You're on fire." She pressed her forehead against his shoulder. "[[Yeah->CenterRight9H]]." <p align = "right">(color: purple)[CR9]</p> "So I suppose Modafinil isn't the answer." (color: purple)["It's an answer. So is helping people. There are many answers."] "Yes. If I were more lonely, loneliness would be the problem. I could give it real thought. But I'm not very lonely." (color: purple)["No, you're not. You don't need to be saved."] "And I'm not in love with either of them. Liz or Lucas. Which, yes, I do know why you're here. I didn't before, but your being here, and the Modafinil, or the placebo, one or the other has made it clear to me." (color: purple)["I know you're not in love with her. But..."] "Sure. I'm lonely. Him too, though. I'm bisexual. But I'm sure you knew." (color: purple)["I didn't."] "It doesn't matter very much. It's not a priority in my life." (color: purple)["What is?"] "My work. My thoughts. Doing the very best I can." (color: purple)["We have a lot in common, Raj."] "It seems that way, yes." (color: purple)["Maybe we should take more risks."] "I'm trying a strange drug against the law, and it's making me see you as some kind of goddess." The barista was definitely looking over, now. "//You// need to take more risks." (color: purple)[She] stood. Towered. (color: purple)[Her] hair fell back in front of (color: purple)[her] ears, and that moment expanded to fill what felt like hours. (color: purple)[She] gazed down upon him. He fished under his chair for the legal pad. And (color: purple)[she] laughed. (color: purple)["Okay," she] said. (color: purple)["Maybe I [[will->Landing Page 3]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR8]</p> "After you leave here, that'll be it. Just the other stories to finish, and I'll be out of your hair." You notice that there is no light fixture in the room. It is well lit, but with no clear source. You might have thought the window, but the blinds are still so tight. "I don't have anything planned for the ending. I've been too busy. But... I'm impressed you made it this far. Really, I am. Even if you only read a few endings, and for some reason this is one of the few you picked. You really stuck with it." Euchre's not giving you a lot to work with, here. "So, good job. Thanks for [[coming->TopRight9]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR9]</p> "Really. [[Thanks->Landing Page 3]]." <p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TR8]</p> "The header. Why is it blue? Oh God. You really. Oh Jesus no no, you really, you **really** shouldn't have, that's just, this is just..." There is a knock on the door. "No. Don't. Don't come in. Nobody... God, you actually. You actually sent a hero. To me. You. Wow. A //hero.// Or sorry, I guess I have to make the name, have to make the text (color: #00008B)[blue], don't I? Like that means anything. Like it matters how I talk about (color: #00008B)[him.]" Another knock. A little quieter. "Did you hear me? Don't come in! I don't need your help." So (color: #00008B)[he] doesn't come in. You hear (color: #00008b)[his] footsteps receding. Then you're alone with Euchre. "We're changing it. For the next page. We're getting rid of the color. No blue. [[Mark my words->TopRight9H]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TR9]</p> "There. That's better." You slump a little in your chair. Euchre makes eye contact. Fierce eye contact. The top of his head gleams. His eyes really do look like honey. He narrows them slightly. One fist is clenched on his desk. His other fist is hidden under it. "Listen. Be honest. Were you really trying to [[help me->TopRight9.1H]], or did you just want to [[see what would happen->TopRight9.Mad]]?"<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TR9]</p> "Alright. Well. Then I'm sorry." He leans forward so far that the swivel chair can't adjust with him. He puts both his elbows on his desk, and clasps his hands together just under his chin. "They can't help me. The heroes. They're... there's something about them. They're fundamentally positive. Everything they touch. Even when it doesn't work it //works.// They never want more than they can have, not as far as I can tell. Nothing is ever beyond their ability. They've been around forever. They //will// be around forever." Each of Euchre's elbows is on a different stack of papers. As his hands press into each other, his elbows fan the stacks of paper out. Disturbing their perfection. Euchre doesn't seem to notice. "But me. Listen, I don't expect you to understand this, or to care, but I was in another... ugh, I **hate** this. I **hate this hate this hate this** and I shouldn't be talking about this because it ruins everything, it's everything I hate and yet you tried to 'save me' so, so, so..." "Whatever. [[Here->TopRight9.2]], [[have->TopRight9.2]] a [[pointless->TopRight9.2]] [[choice->TopRight9.2]]. You like those, right?"How honest. Well. Now you fucking [[know->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TR9]</p> "I was saying... actually, get the quotation marks out of here. The descriptions, too. I'm -- we don't need that. We don't need that right now." Sure. [[Fine->TopRight9.3]].<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[TR9]</p> The [[header->TopRight9.4]] too.That's better. What I need to tell you, is -- actually, no. Look. If this gets unbearable, or if it already is, and if you just want to get back to the nice, normal stories and the endings you've picked out, go [[here->Landing Page 3]]. Really. Please. If what I'm about to talk about is too abstract or heavy or boring, you can duck out. I won't bug you with it again. But if you're still here, and you really did want to help... This isn't my first story. I... I was in one before. Another long one. I was the bad guy. This helpless man, and //fuck,// you have to believe me, I hate self reference. I hate breaking the fourth wall this badly, really, I value your suspension of disbelief but since (color: #00008B)[the hero] was just here, at my door, I need to get this out of my head, and anyway, [[here's->Landing Page 3]] another link to escape all this, really it's fine if that's what you want, but... Anyway. I was the bad guy. This man, he was, I guess he was part of a simulation? He just lived little chunks of life, little simulated pieces. It was part of an ethics experiment. And I was the experimenter. Not of the mad scientist variety. It was someone else's experiment, but I was administrating it. It was in this very office. He'd show up between incarnations and I'd ask him questions about his experience and say some drivel about upper management or whatever. And the punch line, of course, was that the ethics experiment itself was unethical, which wow, amazing, right? And... you're still here. Listening. Honestly. You've got to understand, I've got to make it clear to you, **none of this is going to matter.** It's not foreshadowing. It plays no role in any of these stories. Not even this one. It's baggage. I'm only saying it to help you understand that before I was in this self-aware nightmare, what I was supposed to be before was this smug, antagonistic figure. This nightmarish beauracrat. And I //get// it. Really. I really get it. The empty office. The window that literally opens out into pure nothingness. My fixation with lunch breaks and the fact that all I do is sort other people's information. Deciding who gets to haunt me. I get it. The real funny part is that my story, the one I was going to be in at first, it was too boring. Maybe because of me. And then there was a vacancy here so... here I am. Upper management picked this corner last. An afterthought. So when the heroes show up, and they've been around since the beginning of time, these shimmering, perfect beings, personifications of all the best things about the Numbers (color: #00008B)[One] and (color: purple)[Two], it reminds me. (You can still [[leave->Landing Page 3]], by the way.) It reminds me that for them to exist, for such simple, beautiful beings to exist, being that make things magically work and be great, there have to be people like me, too. People that make things complicated and irritating. People that just don't quite pan out. And the worst part? I thought that this might help. I thought that venting to you, really breaking my own rules, not worrying about being a consistent character or keeping these pages short or respecting suspension of disbelief or basic boundaries between types of entity, I really thought that it might make me feel [[better->TopRight9.5]].But it didn't. So let's go back to how things were [[before->Landing Page 3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC8]</p> Through the abstraction, colors begin to coalesce. Greens in lighter and darker shades below, blues above. Gray around your feet. You're on a pavilion. It's concrete, with a short railing all around. The pavilion is in the middle of a field, but there are shallow pools of water all over the field. These reflect the sky, which is full of quickly moving clouds. It's sunset, but there are mountains in the distance, and the sun itself is hidden behind them. It's cold. You can see your breath. At the edge of the pavilion is a door. Only a door, standing free. There doesn't appear to be any room behind it. It seems like you could just jump over the rail of the pavilion, fall a few feet walk behind the door, and see that it leads nowhere. Not that it matters much. It's locked. One of those office doors, with a fake gold handle and numbers from 0 to 9. You'd have to press them in some order to unlock it. You breathe in, then breathe out. You notice a (color: #8B0000)[man] walking across the field. He trudges through shallow puddles. He climbs the stairs at the far edge of the pavilion, and approaches you. He's very handsome, and dressed, for lack of any other descriptors, something like a swashbuckler. (color: #8B0000)["My name's Zephyr. Euchre's tired or busy, so I'll be doing the [[ending->TrueCenter8.1]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC8]</p> (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] stands with you by the door, but he makes no move to open it. He crosses his arms. (color: #8B0000)["From the color, you might be wondering if I'm like] (color: #00008B)[Koichi] (color: #8B0000)[or] (color: purple)[the Second Hero](color: #8B0000)[. Or maybe not. In any case, they used to call me the Third Hero. But I found love and we adopted a kid, and I don't think I'm a Hero anymore."] Um. Ok? (color: #8B0000)["But enough about me. Let's see [[what you chose->TrueCenter8.9FirstHero]]."]<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[CC9]</p> (color: #8B0000)[(if: $TL is 1)[ZEPHYR: You chose to send my (color: #00008B)[brother] to the chessmen. ZEPHYR: That's admirable. ZEPHYR: There were probably more utilitarian options, like the lonely man. ZEPHYR: But the other options were so abstract. ZEPHYR: You chose a situation you understood. ZEPHYR: Even though the outcome didn't change, it's nice to help someone avoid regretting what they might have done. ZEPHYR: [[Good job.->TrueCenter8.9SecondHero]]](elseif: $TR is 1)["You tried to send my brother to Euchre." "It didn't go well." "I'm sorry." "To be honest, I think there is someone who can help him." "But it's not my (color: #00008B)[brother], and it's not my (color: purple)[sister], and it's definitely not [[me->TrueCenter8.9SecondHero]]."](elseif: $BL is 1)["You chose to rescue the nameless man from certain annihilation." "There was no better alternative. Your choice was superior. You win." "How does it [[feel?->TrueCenter8.9SecondHero]]"](elseif: $BR is 1)["You chose to help the royal family contend with the passage of time. They were old, and their lives had escaped them." "I'm not sure even a (color: #00008B)[hero] can do much to ease that kind of pain, but I know it made (color: #00008B)[my brother] happy to have an excuse to rescue a damsel from a tower and defeat a king with swords, so [[thanks for that->TrueCenter8.9SecondHero]]."](else:)["You never found my (color: #00008B)[brother]. You're probably confused by all these colored words now. Oh well. Finding him is a riddle. He's 'to the right of what's most right,' I believe it was. If you're stuck, Euchre will solve the riddle for you somewhere in the middle of you sorting his papers. But if you already passed that chance up, too, I guess you'll have to figure it out yourself." "Unless, of course, and not to judge or anything, but unless you just [[don't care->TrueCenter8.9SecondHero]]".]]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[CC9]</p> (color: #8B0000)[(if: $TC is 1)["You chose to save the witch girl from a fatal magic drug. Good choice, obviously. My (color: purple)[sister] does that sort of thing pretty often. Not much else to say. I hope you're [[proud->TrueCenter9]]."](elseif: $BC is 1)["Oh, wow. You picked 11. Cool." "To be honest, I don't know what you were thinking. Given the options, a guy with roommate troubles doesn't feel like it'd be a high priority." "Maybe you have something in common with him? Or the other options felt too heavy? Or I guess maybe you'd just seen a bunch of other (color: purple)[intervention] endings and wanted to take that one for a spin as a third or fourth pick." "In any case, though, I should level with you." Zephyr (color: black)[crosses his arms and watches the clouds go by. It's hard to say if there are many small clouds touching each other, or one huge cloud with ridges and thin gaps.] "My (color: purple)[sister] is... serene. She's almost always calm. I guess it's fair to round that emotion up to happy. Wise, even. But I don't see her get excited very often. And this made her excited. So, on a personal level, I [[appreciate it->TrueCenter9]].](elseif: $CL is 1)["You helped out the AI researchers, huh? I guess their situation was pretty awkward. From an ethical standpoint it's weird to pick them instead of poor Sordetta, but, hey. Desperate intellectual elites need love too." "And if I'm being totally transparent, I do have a pretty [[soft spot->TrueCenter9]] for Raj."](elseif: $CR is 1)["You tried to help Claude deal with being a needy little wimp. Guess it worked okay. Not my (color: purple)[sister's] favorite option, but hey, they can't all be winners. If you go through again, though, I'd probably try a different one next time. Claude's rich. He can figure it out on his own." Zephyr (color: black)[frowns.] "Or, realistically, maybe not. Maybe he needed a miracle to get him out of that rut with his stupid ex. But that's depressing." "Guess just a depressing situation all around, huh?" He (color: black)[shrugs.] "Better luck [[next time->TrueCenter9]].](else:)["You didn't find my (color: purple)[sister]. That's fair. She's hidden a little better than my (color: #00008B)[brother]. So here's a hint. The **'first second of the fourth fifth'** riddle is sort of a boondoggle. You've got to click on the word 'second' in one of the stories. But the link isn't ''bold'' so, uh, that's where the riddle comes in handy. Or you could use brute force and hunt for 'second' everywhere. [[Your call->TrueCenter9]].] ]<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[CC9]</p> (if: (count: (history:), "TrueCenter8") is 0)[The clouds are dark but not quite as dark as rainclouds. You do feel the pressure in the air. There is a breeze. (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] sticks his hands in the pockets of his poofy pirate pants. (color: #8B0000)["So. That's that. That's 9."] You look over at the door, which is still locked. Then back at (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr]. He shrugs. (color: #8B0000)["Hope you had some [[fun->TrueCenter9.1]]."]](else:)[(color: #8B0000)["Want a cigarette?"] (link: "Yes")[(set: $Smoke to 1)(goto: "TrueCenter9.5 Repeat")] or (link: "no")[(set: $Smoke to 0)(goto: "TrueCenter9.5 Repeat")]?] <p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[9]</p> "[[...->TrueCenter9.2]]"<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[9]</p> I did mention the clouds, right? Hope you've got a good image of the [[clouds->TrueCenter9.3]].<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[9]</p> "[[...->TrueCenter9.4]]"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Ok. Never mind. I guess 9 is still happening." Zephyr] removes an object from his poofy pirate pocket. (color: #8B0000)["Want a cigarette?"] (link: "Yes")[(set: $Smoke to 1)(goto: "TrueCenterSmoke")] or (link: "no")[(set: $Smoke to 0)(goto: "TrueCenterNoSmoke")]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Cool." He] passes you a cigarette and gets (color: #8B0000)[himself] one ready, too. It takes three tries to light yours with the breeze, but (color: #8B0000)[he] gets (color: #8B0000)[his] in the first try afterward. Once you're both lit up, (color: #8B0000)[he] wanders over to the nearest concrete railing, and rests his elbows on it. He leans out and looks over the water. (color: #8B0000)["I love nothingscapes like this. I've been in a lot of them, but for me, they never get old."] You walk over and stare into the distance, too. Your ashes fall over the edge of the balcony, into a pool of shallow water. They float, but you can't see them too clearly down there. (color: #8B0000)["I wish there was a fire out there, though. Like a bonfire, but far away. Can't you picture it? It'd be great."] You guess you do have two miniature fires going right now. (color: #8B0000)["And maybe some columns. Nothing spices up a mystery zone like some marble columns."] You point out that columns might be a little [[on the nose->TrueCenter9.5]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Well, ok. I'm going to smoke one, though. Please don't tell God."] You watch as (color: #8B0000)[he] lights up a cigarette, then jams the pack back into (color: #8B0000)[his] pocket. (color: #8B0000)[He] walks over to the nearest railing, and stares into the distance. For lack of anything else to do, you follow. (color: #8B0000)["Look, not to get on your case, but I've got to wonder, why turn down a smoke?"] There are many reasons. They don't feel very good if you aren't accustomed. They're not healthy. The feeling of calm they produce is less intense than the anxiety of dependency. (color: #8B0000)["Right, sure. But those are reasons not to put a cigarette on your actual body. Your main body. The one that you care about. Like, thought experiment. What you see when you click [[this link->TrueCenterTotalDisaster]] doesn't count, but do it anyway. Just so I can make my point."] You don't have to click that link. If you don't want (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] to make (color: #8B0000)[his] point, you are free to [[skip the whole thing->TrueCenter9.5]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] takes a long drag. (color: #8B0000)[His] hair is in that awkward phase between short and long, but (color: #8B0000)[he's] wearing a dumb tricorn hat that covers most of it. (if: $Smoke is 1)[You take a long drag of yours, too, and ash down into the nearest puddle. ](color: #8B0000)["I'm not sure how long we have before this cuts off, to be honest. If I had to guess, I bet we only have time to talk about one thing. Maybe there's something specific we need to cover. Any ideas?"] Ask why (color: #8B0000)[he's] dressed like a [[pirate->TrueCenter9.5Pirate]], ask about the [[mysterious door->TrueCenter9.5Door]], ask about (color: #00008B)[the] (color: purple)[other] [[heroes->TrueCenter9.5Heroes]], ask about [[Euchre->TrueCenter9.5Euchre]], or just [[shoot the shit->TrueCenter9.5NoTopic]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[RIP]</p> You have lung cancer! Oh no. Even //thinking// about cigarettes gave you lung cancer. Or perhaps it was the second hand smoke. Wicked, wicked (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr], exposing you to such toxins. How could such a person have ever been a hero? Also, your entire body lights on fire, and you are hurled 500 feet into the air by an invisible demon, and you pee your pants, but then for no coherent reason you are teleported back onto the platform, your pants are dry, you aren't on fire, and your cancer is cured. How eventful! And just when you thought things were [[winding down->TrueCenterZephyrsPoint]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Thanks for indulging me. Anyway, though, my point is that you're fine. We could do literally whatver you want to this body I'm talking to, and you'd be fine. You're barely even tangible. Your health here has no major effect on your real life. And yet, even with all the negative consequences of smoking stripped away, you decided not to smoke."] You... guess (color: #8B0000)[he] has a point? (color: #8B0000)["Sorry if I'm coming off as angry. I really don't mind. The creator of all this would be super proud of you, I'm sure. He **hates** cigarettes. And, for the record, I don't smoke them around mortals. I probably wouldn't smoke them if I wasn't an eternal constant myself. But when I'm alone, or trying to bond with someone like you? I mean, why not? They're kind of magical, I think. They let you transform doing nothing into doing something. Something with //fire.// Something parents, omnipotent creator deities or otherwise, //hate.//"] Is this peer pressure? This is probably peer pressure. (color: #8B0000)["But no. It's cool. I respect your decision. We can [[change the subject->TrueCenter9.5]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["[[Short->TrueCenter9.5PirateShort]] version or [[long->TrueCenter9.5PirateLong]]?"]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["The door? Yeah, I was wondering about that, too. Seems a little pretentious to have a door here at the end, but never have it open."] (color: #8B0000)[He] ambles over and knocks on it. Nothing. So (color: #8B0000)[he] comes back to you. (if: $Smoke is 1)[Your cigarette is done, so he offers you a new one. This one lights much easier, off of his.]There is a light gust of wind. Above the distant mountains, you see clear sky. (color: #8B0000)["I don't know the code, though, and I don't think you do either. So I guess that's [[that->TrueCenter9.6]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Oh man. That guy. Yeah. I, uh... I just don't know about that guy."] Leave it [[alone->TrueCenter9.6]], or [[press him->TrueCenter9.5Euchre2]] on it?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["You know, I guess it's pretty silly, but I love the idea of just a few cigarette butts floating out here."] (color: #8B0000)[He] shoots (color: #8B0000)[his] eyes over in your direction, trying to read your face for judgment. (color: #8B0000)["I mean, don't get me wrong. I'd never litter in a real place, with people. But in a nothingscape like this. Just imagine //finding// that. Coming up to this pedestal in the middle of nowhere, only the quiet, ominous wind, and a modern door, out of place, framed by the quickly clearing sky. And you look down, and there they are. Floating there. Orange with blackened tips."] (color: #8B0000)[He] flicks his second cigarette butt into the water, and exhales a last barrage of smoke. (color: #8B0000)["Love it."] The sky grows darker, but also clearer. There are fewer clouds each minute, and wider spaces in [[between->TrueCenter9.6]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Oh man. Well, I'm awfully fond of 'em. We've been through a lot together. It's interesting, really. In some ways they never change. Kind of like numbers, if we want to be on theme. Like they're universal constants."] (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] peers into (color: #8B0000)[his] reflection in a puddle below. Smirks at it. (color: #8B0000)["Of course, so am I. But my (color: purple)[sister's] traits are like, mysterious, magical, tranquil, untouchable. And (color: #00008B)[Koichi's] are being brave and strong and square-jawed and always doing the most basic possible right thing. Those concepts haven't changed much. The world's just fleshed out around them. But I was always the cool one. Good at swordfighting. Dark past. So I've grown a lot. It's a blessing. I won't say it's also a curse, because it isn't, but those two..." He] realizes (color: #8B0000)[he's] ranting. (color: #8B0000)["Sibling stuff is always weird, I guess. I will say, though, that they have been branching out a little lately. I feel some hope for them. For both of them. Like maybe they're gonna break out of their shells a little bit." He] flicks (color: #8B0000)[his] cigarette into the puddle below. Its butt bumps up against the others. (color: #8B0000)["Whatver that [[means->TrueCenter9.6]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> The sky is clear. The air is cool. You begin to realize that this won't end on its own. And so does (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr]. (color: #8B0000)["Well. That's that. Guess there aren't any fireworks. If you want to try making any different choices, or tie up any loose ends, I'm happy to send you back. And if not, see you around."] Back to hub [[one->LandingPage]]? Back to hub [[two->Landing Page 2]]? Or, if you [[prefer->TrueCenterTheEnd]]...<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Hoo boy. You literally asked for it." He] takes a long drag. (color: #8B0000)["Well, the short version, I guess, is that the creator of all this junk has a, like." He] clears his throat. (color: #8B0000)["Ok this actually gets weirder to explain than I thought. I was going to say daughter, but, she became his daughter when he was four years old, and in a purely theoretical sense, and she was never properly a child, so..."] Long pause. (color: #8B0000)["Shoulda gone with the short version."] Point taken. (color: #8B0000)["Basically she was this figure of absolute darkness and terror, and also pirate themed, but then it turned out she was basically fundamentally good all along sort of, because it's always like that around here, and also at some point we fell in love and borrowed each other's weapons, and lost them, so now we're normal people, but kind of kept the switcheroo idea, so I still act a little like a pirate and she acts a little like a Hero, and also we're not totally normal people, because now we're adopted parents, so like, because I know there are guns in some of these story worlds, even though I'm basically immortal, I'm still wearing a bulletproof vest just to be safe."] You wonder if there will be any redeeming trait to having picked this particular branching path. (color: #8B0000)["I guess you sort of had to [[be there->TrueCenter9.6]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Girlfriend likes [[it->TrueCenter9.6]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] discards (color: #8B0000)[his] cigarette. (color: #8B0000)[He] stretches his arms out in front of (color: #8B0000)[him] and sighs. (color: #8B0000)["Well, okay. Let's say you're a perfectly healthy man. 100%. Almost freakish. Never been sick a day in your life. And because of your incredible, perfect immune system, you decide to work in a hospital. Because it doesn't matter what you're exposed to; you'll be fine. With me?"] Sure. Let's assume you are. (color: #8B0000)["So you have perfect health, but you're around really sick people all the time. And that's okay. You don't mind it. It's a little intense, but it's the life you've chosen, because you should use your gifts for the greatest possible good. Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked." He] does tend to do that. (color: #8B0000)["Point is, let's say there's another nurse on the same floor as you. And he's a pretty sickly dude. And he gets some rare virus and has to be admitted. It's uncomfortable, but totally treatable. He'll be fine. But whenever you pass him in his bed, he's always complaining. Even if not vocally, he's whining on the inside. He's so miserable. And all around him people are dying, people who have it way worse. And you feel like he should know better." He] winks. (color: #8B0000)["But who are you to judge? You've never been sick a day in your life, and you [[never will be->TrueCenter9.6]]."]The [[End->TrueCenter9.6]].9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 99999999999999999999999999989999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999989999999999999999999999999998999999999999999999999999999999999999899999999999999999989999999999999 9999999999999999999999999999999999999999989999999999999999999999999998 99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 9999999999899999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999989999999999999999999999999 99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 999899999999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999999999999[[aksfdkasd->TrueEnding3]]98999999999999999999999999999 99999999999999999999999999989999999999 99999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999999999 9999999999999999999999999999999999998999999999999 99999999999999999999999999999999999 999999989999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999998999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 9998999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999999999999899999999999999999999 99999999999999999999999999999999999999999998999999999 9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 999999999999999999999998999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe[[OkaySorry->TrueEnding4]]NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe NineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNeNineNINEninEniNeNiNeNINEnineNinENiNe9999Nine99Nine99NINE99e9 TryingtoGettheHangofThisbut 9NINe99nIne99NiNe there'sjust so [[much->TrueEnding5]]99//9//**9**Getting [[closer...->TrueEnding6]]//9//**9**99. "[[Almost...->TC TE 1]]" Nine.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC6.5]</p> "Thanks. Wow. That was turbulent. Didn't really expect it. Sorry. I would have warned you, really, I would have, but I assumed we'd just materialize. Without all the nines. Never had to do anything like that before. Wow. Kind of a rush, to be -- oh no. Whoops. You don't even know where we are, do you? Sorry. Really, sorry. Let's see." You are standing in a swamp. Scraggly trees grow up at random around you. Euchre is by your side. He is currently folding up a black piece of paper and stuffing it into his pocket. Once he's done with that, he rolls up his pant legs, unbuttons his cuffs, and rolls up his shirt sleeves too. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. It's midday. Muggy outside. A dragonfly hovers over a shallow pool of water. You hear frogs. "Well. My aim was off. We've got quite a ways to [[walk->TC TE 2]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC6.6]</p> "So I've got some plans. I don't want to spoil them all but, I had a long time to think in my office. This first part's really important, though." Euchre wipes some sweat off the top of his bald head. With his pant legs rolled up, you see his legs are actually pretty strong. He has a wide chest. He walks quickly. But it's not hard to keep up. "Sordetta's about to inject herself. Which is bad enough on its own. Without heroic intervention, that stuff is fatal for a normal person. But we're early, so we //should// be able to get there on time..." A mosquito lands on Euchre's arm, and he smashes it. The noise echoes over the swamp. He grins. "You know, now that I think about it, this is only the second time I've ever been [[outside->TC TE 3]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC6.7]</p> "Sorry my aim was so bad. I know we've been walking a while." Sweat is collecting under the armpits of Euchre's shirt. He doesn't smell too bad yet, though. "Let's skip [[ahead->TC TE 4]] a bit."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC6.8]</p> You walk in silence for a while. Eventually, you see the rubble of a destroyed house up ahead. A girl staggers up to it, and stands in disbelief. She bends down to pick something up. Euchre breaks into a [[run->TC TE 5]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC7]</p> A girl stands in the wreckage of her teacher's home. She pinches a needle between her thumb and forefinger. It glistens with rainbow light. Wind catches her hair. The skin around her eyes is tight. Her legs stiff. Her inner elbow twitches once, as she decides for certain what she'll do. Then a bald man in strange clothes punches her in the face, she drops the needle, and he catches it. "Ok, yes," he says, to no one she can see. "This feels fucking [[incredible->TC TE 6]]." <p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC7]</p> Sordetta scrambles to her feet. The bald stranger takes a big step back. He almost trips over a charred spinal cord on the floor, but steadies himself. "Hey!" he says. "Hey. Let's stay calm, alright? Let's juuust..." Sordetta lunges at the stranger. She snarls. He jumps back again. "No, wait, seriously. Please." She takes a swing at him. "Careful, please, this thing's fragile and just, come on, could you [[listen->TC TE 7]]?"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC7]</p> The bald stranger is standing with his calves against a burnt out husk of rubble. Seems sturdy. He'll have to jump to clear it, and if he does, Sordetta should be able to get a good hit in. She has no real opinion on this man. He seems to be alone. His clothing has large pockets. One of them bulging. She thinks she might like to hoist him up by his throat, hand rippling with shadows, and squeeze. But she feels that way about the world more generally, too. And she's curious. And she doesn't want him to waste that precious needle. She maintains her stance, but she does not [[attack->TC TE 8]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC7]</p> "So listen. This thing - not that you care, but it's Concentrated Narrative Energy - it would have killed you for certain." Sordetta blinks. She bares her teeth. "Which, ok, now that I think of it, not sure how much you care about that, and wow you're intimidating for being so much smaller than me, but, um, maybe my friend can help me explain?" Sordetta sees no friend. "Oh, wow. Really? //Invisible?// That's just. Okay. Well. We can roll with this." He reaches the needle back over the barrier of the wall. It dangles from his fingertips over a puddle. Precarious. "//And// intangible? Wow. And here I thought I'd done my research. Well." Sordetta has nearly lost her [[patience->TC TE 9]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC7]</p> "Look. I don't like making threats. Or, well, I guess I kind of //do// in the right context, but that context isn't traumatized teens, so, I'm sorry about this, but if you make a move I'm throwing this needle as far as I can, so, give me a second?" Sordetta does not speak because she has nothing to say. The stranger reaches into his bulging pocket and pulls out a curved contraption. "This is a called a pistol." Sordetta bends her knee. "Right, you don't care. But listen. It's a machine." She takes a swing at his torso, but he manages to bend back and dodge. "Fine! That's not helpful either. It kills people. It's a people killer. You can kill a person with it. In a way that doesn't dissolve your goddamn eyelids." Sordetta reaches out her [[hand->TC TE 10]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "All you have to do - and be really careful, because you can only use it once - but all you have to do is pull on this thing here, see which thing I mean?" No response from Sordetta. "You just pull on this thing here, and shoot for the middle of the dude's body, right around his chest. And he's dead. Not that you have to, but, I wanted to give you the option. Sound good?" She keeps her hand extended. Does not speak. "Great." Euchre hands Sordetta the [[gun->TC TE 11]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> Sordetta points the gun at Euchre. "[[Oh->TC TE 12]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "[[Well->TC TE 13]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> "[[Fuck->TC TE 14]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> Slowly, carefully, Sordetta takes three large steps backward. She keeps the gun pointed at Euchre's chest. You're standing behind Euchre and to one side, so you can't see his face very well. He's trembling a bit, though. This was clearly not the plan. "I'd, well, I'd appreciate if you wouldn't, or rather, if you'd point that down, because it's very dangerous, and as I mentioned, you can only use it once, so." She keeps the gun on Euchre. "What? Do you want the needle back? Is that it?" Doesn't speak. As usual. "Well. Well..." She looks in your direction. Maybe she can see you? Or sense you otherwise? "Well, I'm leaving. There's someone in an even worse situation than you, believe it or not, and this needle can save his life, so, we're going. I was going to come back later and check up on you, but now, honestly, I'm not sure, so..." Euchre reaches into his pocket with his free hand, but Sordetta takes a step forward. Shakes the gun. Euchre flinches. "JESUS. [[WHAT->TC TE 15]]?"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> Sordetta clears her throat. Coughs up a tiny bit of blood. She's holding the gun in both hands, but her arms are getting tired. "Where?" she asks. "Where what?" "Where are you going? With your invisible friend." "Far. Another world. A man is alone and in great danger." Sordetta nods. "I will come with you." "You most certainly will--" She takes a step closer and pushes the gun right against Euchre's chest. Bares her teeth. "Or you will come with [[me->TC TE 16]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TC8]</p> She lowers the gun. "I'm ready," she says. Euchre takes a very deep breath. It's probably a sigh. But there's more to it, too, you think. Sordetta stands beside him. You step over the low wall of charred rubble and stand on his other side. Sordetta looks at you again. Or maybe through you. Hard to say. "This is what I get," says Euchre, "for trying to help a goddamn troubled teen." He produces the black paper from his pocket. He pricks it in the lower left [[corner->BL TE 1]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL7]</p> Sordetta takes a sharp breath. She braces herself - sticks both arms out in front of her and heaves. For a moment, she was nowhere. Nothing. So she is afraid. She sees the needle between the bald man's fingers. He is not fazed. If not for his intervention she would be nothing for much longer. The gun feels good in her hand. The ground is dusty and mostly flat. A man sits with his back to Sordetta and Euchre. A thick book lies half-open by his side. Euchre [[approaches->BL TE 2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL7.7]</p> The man sees them, but does not see them as people. Sees rather the shapes that comprise them, and hears the noises that their feet make on the dust - not loud noises, but noises which, he had thought, bore necessary connection to his own volition. He smells the smell which has always lingered around his own body, which has tickled him when he jammed his face into his own armpit, but the smell is different, and his head is upright, and he is standing now, staring at the newcomers, taking it all in. And the way it might happen, in another world! The dusty pathways in his mind, blasted with pressurized insight. A flood of chemicals, first unpleasant but gradually familiar, as the problem of the Other broke free of its shackles. How he might have touched his face, and Euchre's face, and Sordetta's, and realized that they were the same. The polynomial function of his understanding, twice derivable. How he might have shown them his book, and struggled to make words. The terrible failures that would still haunt him always, the sorrow to be squeezed out of them. How he would never quite learn how to see them as they saw each other, fully as human beings, how he would never, on autopilot, make proper eye contact. The ways he was built or the ways that time corroded him that could not be undone. The nature of the beast slowly unraveling. Ah, what could have been. Not like the heroic intervention of Koichi, that alternate future where he was made into something simpler, whisked away on vines and saved by sheer force of supernatural good will. But a textured, layered thing. But this was not that world, either, not that state of affairs. Because this world, the medium in which he lived, was about to be destroyed. In mere seconds, with two great chomps, he would be extinguished. Unless, of course, someone did something [[drastic->BL TE 3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL7.9]</p> Euchre stabs the helpless man directly in [[the neck->BL TE 4]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL8]</p> The calculus man floats a few inches off the ground. His eyes glow pure white around the pupils. His fingers spread as far apart as they can go. Concentrated Narrative Energy spreads throughout his blood. You can follow it, and get a look from the [[inside->BL TE Detail]], or you can wait to see the [[effects->BL TE 5]].<p align = "right">(color: white)[BL?]</p> First, an awareness of the physical space. Exactly the height of the world. Dimensions of each cloud. Distance to the horizon. Numbers. But not digits, nor representation. Precise. Ineffable. Then, coaxing its way in, more verbose things. These two visitors. No. Three. How their natures differ. Yes. He sees you. But more than you, he sees everything else. Quickly. Physically. The circumference of Claude's arm. The relative proportions of dopamine in the aging king's brain. The heat, in Kelvin, of the dragon's breath. The position, speed, acceleration, of the chess men's car. Oh yes. All of it. The heroes, their splash of color. Their numbers, and how their numbers make up everything. Not yet what a person is. Not quite. He doesn't need that yet. But how the atoms collide. Not in turn, but all at once. The totality. It's in his blood. His brain was built with plenty of space. He can fit it. He can fit it all. Words. All the words. This sentence. This one too. Their relative frequencies. The correspondences to topics. The way they shape the world. Nine. Nine distinct spaces, and yet, between some of them... And soon between all of them. He focuses on you. Narrows in. You are blurry to him. You are far away. He can't quite reach you. Doesn't know the length of your neck. Doesn't know the growth rate of your hair. But he knows something you don't know. He sees where all of this converges. He knows what's behind the final door. And so he speaks. [["Choose well."->BL TE 5]] <p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL8]</p> The world threatens to collapse. You feel it in your stomach. An awful crunch, from the edges in. Sordetta points her gun at the calculus man. The calculus man's textbook falls through a crack in the ground, through the ground, into boundless white. The calculus man floats higher. He plucks the empty needle from his neck, and hurls it into oblivion. He extends his arms, and points his hands in opposite directions. A bubble around him maintains its reality. Around all four of you. He floats higher still. His feet above the level of your heads. The sky is pure whiteness now. Inches from your feet the ground frays, sputters, gives way to oblivion. Far, far away, if you stare into it, you see flickers of the other worlds. But it hurts to stare. And also, if you ignore the pain, through the white there is blackness. **"thank you"** The voice does not come from his mouth. It comes from all around. Sordetta lowers her [[gun->BL TE 6]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL8]</p> **"we cannot stay here"** Euchre tries to make a grab for Sordetta's gun, but she jerks it away. She steps to the edge of oblivion and leers at him. He rubs his eyes with his right palm. **"this place is nothing. i cannot hold it long"** "Well," says Euchre. "Before we go, can you disarm this unstable girl?" **"i can"** A moment of silence. Sordetta does not speak, but she grits her teeth. Euchre taps his foot, then realizes. "Oh." **"yes"** Sordetta grins. **"i must think. alone. i will see you again."** "Well," said Euchre. "Not to be all tit-for-tat, but I //did// just save you, and I //was// wondering if maybe, just kind of for the hell of it, there was this one specific thing you'd do for..." **"i know. it will be done. i will see you there and then."** Sordetta is staring as hard as she can into the void. She's smiling. Calculus man lowers his arms. He points one index finger at Euchre, and the other one at Sordetta. Both disappear. You're left alone with him. **"i seek your counsel"** The ground disappears entirely. You are left floating in oblivion with the calculus man. You look at him, because it hurts to look anywhere else. He looks through you. Quietly, because he gives no choice, you await his [[questioning->BL TE 7]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BL8]</p> **"my creators made me incomplete"** (live: 5s)[**"i cannot understand my own experience"**] (live: 10s)[**"they knew i would never be happy or understand the world"**] (live: 15s)[**"once my experiment was complete or failed, they planned to destroy me"**] (live: 20s)[**"now i could destroy them all"**] (live: 25s)[**"it would be easy"**] (live: 30s)[**"but i do not understand my own emotions"**] (live: 35s)[**"i am not happy"**] (live: 40s)[**"i want to be happy"**] (live: 45s)[**"will i be happier if i am [[friendly->BL TE 8]]?"**] (live: 50s)[**"or should i seek [[revenge->BL TE 8]]?"**]**"thank you"** He points both index fingers at you. (live: 5s)[**"[[goodbye->CL TE 1]]"**]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.5]</p> "Okay," says Euchre. "Listen. Sordetta. Really." Sordetta does not respond. They are standing in Claude's living room, in the middle of the night. No sign of Claude. There is the sound of waves on the shore. The lights are a gentle blue. Sordetta keeps pointing her gun at things. "Honestly, we're in someone's home. Like, remember your teacher?" She points the gun at him. "Fine, bad example, but also //great// example, given that when a random person showed up in her house she exploded it all. If Claude finds a random person in his house waving a gun around, this is //not// going to go well. Seriously." She points her gun at the flatscreen TV. "Jesus." Outside the glass door, a pigeon lands on the railing of Claude's balcony. It peers inside. Euchre looks in your direction. "Oh," he says. "Hi. Glad you caught up." Sordetta points the gun at you. "Even if you //could// see that person," says Euchre, "shooting them wouldn't do anything." Sordetta lowers the gun, but also scowls. "So," says Euchre. "Claude's asleep, but we've probably woken him up. Once he's out of bed, he'll panic a little. Jason's out getting cigarettes, but he'll be back in a few minutes." Sure. Makes sense. "Except no he won't, because..." Euchre makes a grab for the gun. No dice. "Goddamn it, Sordetta, can't I menace this pathetic rich man's feckless boyfriend? Is that too much to ask?" Sordetta nods. There's a bumping noise behind the door to Claude's bedroom. Euchre sneaks over to the front door, opens it, and slips outside. Sordetta hides under the couch, for reasons known only to her. Being invisible, you just [[stand around->CL TE 2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.7]</p> Claude tiptoes out of his bedroom. He looks even worse in the present tense. Big bags under his eyes, little red pockmarks around his fingernails from nervous gnawing. He's wearing boxer shorts but nothing else. Every step seems to take a lot out of him. He goes out onto his balcony and, alone, looks down at the city. Sordetta wriggles out from underneath his couch. She sidles to the sliding glass door, which is still opened a crack. Claude is taking deep breaths. Sordetta is pointing her gun at his back. You catch the precise second, or, rather, the precise sequence of seconds. Melancholy first, the big sad eyes and flat mouth, then total confusion - who is this girl and what is she //wearing// - and then, the pistol noticed terror. Claude pees himself a little bit, and puts his hands up. Sordetta opens the door all the way, keeps her aim on his chest, and makes her demand. "[[Ginger->CL TE 3]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.7]</p> Stuff is getting weird in here. Maybe, if you're quick, you can [[catch up->CL TE 4Euch]] to Euchre. Or would you rather [[stay->CL TE 4 Sord]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.8]</p> You walk through the closed door. Which seems pretty cool, but then when you try to walk through a wall you just bump into it. So that's not too consistent. Anyway, you're on too high a floor to use the stairs. You're able to walk through the closed elevator door, too. You suppose you're lucky that the elevator was actually //on// this floor, such that you don't walk into an elevator shaft. Nobody's in the elevator, but the lobby light is on. Evidently, you're currently on floor 11. The carpet in the hallway was red. The elevator has a big mirror on the back wall. Down you [[go->CL TE 4Euch2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.8]</p> Claude stands transfixed. "Ginger," Sordetta repeats. She shakes the gun, and Claude starts. But he holds his hands up at his sides. "I... I-I-I..." Sordetta does not have anything else to say. "You want??" "Ginger." "The food?" She nods. Claude takes one step toward his kitchen, pauses, and checks Sordetta's reaction. There is none. She moves the gun to keep it on him, but nothing else. So he keeps going. He makes his way to the fridge and opens it. The fridge is now between his torso and Sordetta, and he has the mad idea that maybe this is his chance. He doesn't know if a fridge door can stop a bullet, but maybe. And if he threw the right thing, then, then... No. Probably better just to do what she wants. He lifts a jar of pickled ginger from its shelf, and closes the fridge. "Here. Should I bring it to you?" She squints. She's angry. But she nods, so he takes a step. "Throw," she says. Once again, a thought. He could hurl at her. Technically, it would be a throw. If it worked as an aggressive maneuver, he could try to escape. But even if he didn't, he'd have an excuse. But no. Definitely not. Too risky. So he tosses the ginger to Sordetta. She catches it, eyes it up and down, and lobs it, hard, at the ground next to Claude's [[feet->CL TE Sord2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.8]</p> The door opens and... there's Euchre. "Oh. Hey." He gets in the elevator. "I thought you'd stay up there with Sordetta." He presses 11. The elevator door slides shut. "Wow, I do wish you'd been with me before. It was //really// satisfying. I told the doorman that Jason was a drug dealer, so he was sent away, and then I followed him and pretended to be Claude's boyfriend and yelled at him not to come back." Ding, ding, ding. Four, five, six. "I thought he might pull a knife on me or something, but he just slunk off." Ding, ding. Eight, nine. The elevator stops. The door opens. And there, just outside, floats calculus man. **'i am here to delay you'** Euchre presses the Close Door button, but calculus man blocks the closing doors with his arm. "Why?" **'sordetta and claude benefit from being alone'** "Well. That's a creepy way to put it." **'...'** Calculus man withdraws his hand. **'thank you for the advice earlier, hidden one. it proved most helpful.'** You tell calculus man you're welcome, or else you don't. He knows which. Although he doesn't care. **'that's long enough. up you go.'** The doors slide shut, and you ascend to floor [[eleven->CL TE 5]]. <p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.8]</p> "Oh God," says Euchre, having just walked in the door. "I leave for //five minutes// and..." Claude is seated at his rarely-used dining room table. One of his feet is propped up on a separate chair, to keep it elevated. There's a bad cut on the top. Sordetta is standing on the opposite side of the table. Her gun is in her hand. Her hand is at her side. Her lips are pursed. "This cauldron is too small," she says. She means Claude's mixing bowl, which now has several triangles of pickled ginger smeared against its edges. "Who are you?" Claude whimpers. He means Euchre. "I'm the one who gave her a gun, so, well, my bad." "What is... are you--" Claude trails off. "Are we what? Sorry, I honestly have no idea how to finish your sentence." "Religious?" "No," says Euchre. "Or, well, I'm not. Can't speak for her. And she doesn't tend to speak for herself. //So.//" "Keep stirring," says Sordetta. Claude keeps stirring. Euchre sits in the free chair. The lights shift automatically to a sort of pale green. Euchre seems impressed. You sit on the couch, since your legs, if you'll allow it, are getting a bit tired. "I have no idea what the ginger's all about. She did some stuff with ginger a while back, but that was to make drugs that I literally saved her life from. Sordetta, are you making more of those drugs?" Sordetta weighs her options vis-a-vis speech. "No," she decides. "No needles." "That's good," says Euchre. "I doubt this kind of ginger works, anyway." While Claude stirs his bowl of cut ginger, Sordetta moves to the fridge. She retrieves a smaller bowl of ice water. There's quite a bit more ice than water in it. She stirs carefully, and when she's satisfied, pours a steady trickle into Claude's inadequate cauldron. "This will fix your heart," she says. "My heart?" Claude looks to Euchre. Sordetta scowls, but doesn't point her gun at anyone. "It's weak. I can see." Euchre shrugs. "She's right," he says. "Don't know how she knows it, but I concur." "How does this--" "No more words," says Sordetta. The men [[oblige->CL TE 6]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.8]</p> Claude has been cut by broken glass. Not a deep cut, luckily, just surface, but it's on the top of his foot and the blood is very red. The floor around him is covered in more broken glass. Also, he has peed himself some more, and a single slice of ginger's on his toe. Sordetta frowns. She lowers the gun. But Claude stands transfixed, bleeding on the pickled ginger. She can smell it now. She'd thought it was some trick or trap. But no. It is ginger. Just not like how she knows. "Broom," she says. He points, shakily, at a closet. She fetches the relevant apparatus, leaving her gun on the coffee table. She sweeps all around Claude, while he bleeds. He knows he should probably attack her now, but he can't bring himself to. If he lost his balance, he could be cut badly, and if she outran him to the gun he could die. So he waits. Not familiar with dustpans, she sweeps the glass up against the nearest baseboard. When she's satisfied, she drops the broom on the floor, and fetches her gun. Claude does not move through the entire process. His foot is covered in dried blood now. The wound has slowed. "Pick up the ginger," says Sordetta. "For your [[cauldron->CL TE 5]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.9]</p> "Do I... do I drink it?" The mixture is complete. Sordetta has taken away the spoon. Claude's foot is beginning to scab over. "No. Dip your smallest finger." Claude lifts his hand over the bowl. "Wrong." He shivers. "Sordetta," says Euchre. "Come on. The poor-" Gun pointed. "For the record," says Euchre, as Claude navigates his other hand over the bowl (this is correct), "//I// was going to sign you up for online dating. That's it. This is, this is just a totally preposterous-" he dips his pinky in "-just a total fiasco of an intervention, and--" Sordetta shakes the gun at Euchre, and Euchre sticks his tongue out, and Claude's finger drips on his table's wood. "Online dating?" he asks, weakly. "It wasn't a great plan," says Euchre. "But it's [[all I've got->CL TE 7]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL8.9]</p> Sordetta takes Claude's cauldron and pours it out on the baseboard, next to the pile of broken glass, then she drops it over the entire mess, face down. It clangs. Euchre presses his palm over his eyes, and slowly shakes his head. "God," he says, "you give //one// trouble teen //one// gun //one time//." Sordetta glares at Euchre, but does not point her gun. Claude's eyes dart around. Euchre sniffs the air, and winces. "Well," he says. "The online dating plan is ruined, but you know. You're not bad looking. If you're lonely or feel tempted to reach out to your feckless ex, maybe give it a shot?" Sordetta shakes her head. "He is healed." "Right," says Euchre. "Well. There you have it. All healed." He stands to leave. Sordetta, already standing, moves to his side. She'd prefer not to be left behind. You lurk nearby as well, unseen. "So," says Claude. "You're not robbing me?" "No." says Euchre. "Oh, wait! Never mind. You just [[reminded->CL TE 8]] me."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL9]</p> "Yes. Definitely yes. We need $1,250. And a [[pin->CL TE 9]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CL10?]</p> A tense trip to the ATM, a fresh pair of suit pants for Claude, and a deft poke with a sewing needle, and your merry gang of three is [[on its way->TL TE]].//ROOK sets the AC to level 2.// KNIGHT: I was so close today, man. Almost top three. PAWN: Yeah, you played good. KNIGHT: I had a stalemate that last game. Had it. BISHOP: You did. //ROOK slams on the brakes. The car skids to a halt. It's late at night on the highway. No other cars in sight. A middle-aged man and a young girl are standing in the road.// KNIGHT: Holy-- //ROOK rolls down his window. The middled aged man walks around the car.// PAWN: Keep driving! Drive around the girl. They could be dangerous. //ROOK points at the little girl. She's holding a gun. KNIGHT ducks down low in his seat.// JOKER: Alright, let's - wait, really? Joker? That's not even a... wait. Why do you all look so nervous? //ROOK points at the girl with the gun.// JOKER: Oh my God she ruins everything. Anyway. Good to meet you all. Here. //JOKER hands ROOK a wad of cash.// JOKER: It's for the thing. You know the thing. The guy becoming a... doctor? Was it doctor? YOU: Pharmacist. JOKER: Right. Pharmacy school. Whatever. It's for that. //The girl walks around to the driver's side window, and stands next to JOKER.// ROOK: Can we go? JOKER: Sure, yeah. //ROOK passes the money to KNIGHT.// PAWN: What the fuuuuu-- //ROOK presses on the gas pedal, and zooms off into the night.// JOKER: Well. They could have at least said thank you. We went to a lot of trouble to get that money. ENCHANTRESS: Yes. JOKER: Oh well. Jesus. This format really doesn't know how to make us chess pieces. Here I figured we'd be king and queen. //ENCHANTRESS points her gun at JOKER.// JOKER: No, not like, just because those are the only two pieces left. Not, like //married.// You're a //child.// ENCHANTRESS: ... JOKER: Ok, fine. Bad metaphor. Let's get out of the middle of the road. ENCHANTRESS: ... //ENCHANTRESS puts her gun by her side. JOKER pulls out a piece of dark paper and a sewing needle, and stabs a grid on that paper in the [[bottom middle cell->Static1]].9 9 9 9 9 99 999 9 99 9 99 9 99 9 9 9 9 9 99 [[9->Static2]] 99 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 999 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 (live: 5s)[You are being watched.] 9 9 9 9 9 99 9 9 9 9 9 99 99 9 99 9 (live:10s)[[[9->BC TE 1]]]<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC14]</p> You are standing in a cluttered living room. Small silver canisters sit in a pile on the floor. There is a small piano right behind you. A tower of stuffed animals is jammed in the corner. One, a frog, seems to eye you suspiciously. The odd thing is, it's very clean. Where wood peeks up from beneath debris, it shines. From another room, you hear someone washing dishes. Euchre puts his finger up to his lips. Sordetta's gun is raised, so she [[lowers it->BC TE 2]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC14]</p> "Ok," Euchre whispers. "Something strange is happening. I tried to arrive much further in the past, but we were blocked from coming until now." Sordetta bends over and picks up one of the silver canisters. She turns it over in her hand. Then drops it back on the pile. The sound of dish washing [[stops->BC TE 3]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC14]</p> "Diane!" a voice calls from the kitchen. "Who's Diane?" Euchre asks you, but you don't recognize the name. Sordetta moves to the front door, and puts her back against it. "(color: purple)[Diane], I think your guests are here!" Euchre's eyes widen. "[[What->BC TE 4]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC14]</p> Down the hall, a door opens a crack. You've never been in this house yourself, but you're pretty sure it's 11's door. Someone steps through the door. Someone wearing a little black dress, the same little black dress worn by the (color: purple)[Second Hero] since very nearly the beginning of time. It is a dress that always catches the breeze, that never wrinkles, that never, in a million years, has needed to be washed. It is the perfect dress, nonenchanted, yet bestowing perfect grace upon its wearer. Throughout a hundred ages, a hundred settings, a thousand scenes, the (color: purple)[Second Hero], nameless, has worn this dress. Has stood with her long hair, serenely smiling, guiding those who are lost and afraid to a greater understanding. Always with her faint smile, her powerful command of magic, and her deep compassion. "It's an honor," says Euchre, squinting down the hallway. "Thank you," says 11, pushing the hair out from in front of their face, as (color: purple)[Diane], wearing a T-shirt and jeans, peeks over their shoulder. She whispers something in their ear. "Come this [[way->BC TE 5]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC15]</p> Sordetta leads the way, followed by Euchre, then you. As you approach the door to 11's bedroom, they tense up. The gun. 11 is afraid of the gun. So (color: purple)[Diane] snaps her fingers. The gun flies out of Sordetta's hand and floats into (color: purple)[Diane's]. The safety clicks on, and she sets it atop 11's dresser. "Oh my God," says Euchre. "Yes." The three of you are escorted into 11's bedroom, and the door is shut behind you. (color: purple)[Diane] and 11 sit on the bed. Euchre and Sordetta are left beanbags. You have a beanbag too, unless you'd prefer to stand. "Sordetta," says (color: purple)[Diane]. Sordetta tenses. "The gun is yours. I will return it to you when you leave." "Oh my God," says Euchre. "No!" "So," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "Euchre. Sordetta. You. Why are you [[three->BC TE 6]] here?" <p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC15]</p> "//Us?//" Euchre asks. 11 smiles knowingly at (color: purple)[Diane]. You notice that they're holding hands. "We're here for..." Euchre trails off. "Well, actually, we'll get to that, but, what? Diane? What's... how are..." "Wow," says 11. "You really //are// pretty famous." "He's met my (color: #00008B)[brother], I'm pretty sure. But he's never met me before. I'm not sure what he's spluttering about." Sordetta shifts on her beanbag. Her eyes wander to the dresser. "Well," (color: purple)[Diane] continues. "I'm trying out having a name. Being called The Second Hero doesn't feel appropriate here. Does that resolve your existential crisis?" Euchre, crisis apparently unresolved, continues to splutter. You guess he has some reason to. There is something incredible about (color: purple)[Diane's] appearance. Her shirt is black with a small yellow smiley face where a Polo logo might otherwise be. Her hair is cut short in general, with part of it shaved down to a buzz on the side. She's radiant, absolutely. But there's another element, too. Something that wasn't there when she was saving other people from their respective dilemmas. Not swagger, quite. And it's not that she knows she's radiant. She's a timeless hero. She's always known that about herself. Maybe it's more that, with no equivocation, right now she //likes// it. And 11 doesn't look too bad in her dress with the new pronouns, either. "Okay," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "I was going to go to your world, Sordetta. You were in a lot of trouble, and I was allowed to choose where to go, so I wanted to help you." Sordetta doesn't know how to react to attention from this beautiful person. So she sweats a little bit, and holds extra still. "But just when I was about to leave, I sensed something strange going on. Euchre was already there. Before I could make a backup plan, I sensed he'd taken you with him. So, I guess I figured out he had it covered. The heroics. In a sense." "Didn't you tell me he robbed a guy?" 11 chimes in. (color: purple)[Diane] laughs. It might be the best laugh that's ever happened. "Heroics in a //very loose// sense," she concedes. "But I didn't want to get in the way. Which meant I could go wherever I felt like. One thing led to another." (color: purple)[Diane] kisses 11 on the cheek. "But," says Euchre, "aren't you, you know..." "We're working through the age difference," says 11. "And in fact," (color: purple)[Diane] points out, "it's none of your business. Be happy I let you come here at all." Sordetta stares at the couple. They smile at her. Euchre continues to sputter. "Anyway," says 11. "I'm also curious. Why //are// you three [[here->BC TE 7]]?" <p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC16]</p> "Three?" asks Euchre. "You can see my friend?" "No," says 11. "I can't. But (color: purple)[Diane] told me your friend would be invisible. Hello, by the way." Up to you whether you say hello back. Euchre and (color: purple)[Diane] will, in theory, be able to hear you. Sordetta and 11 won't. "Okay," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "I bought it before, that you were shocked. But now I know better, Euchre. You're stalling. There's something you need here, but you're afraid to ask." Euchre sighs. Somewhat theatrically. "Alright," he admits. "Yes. Sure, (color: purple)[//Diane//]. I'm a little embarrassed. I didn't come here to save 11. I figured he--" (color: purple)[Diane] shakes her head. "She?" "They," says the couple together. "I figured //they//, sorry, would do alright in any case. So, um, and keep in mind I planned to ask a shiftless 20-year-old, and not either of you, and //especially// not The Second Goddamn Hero, but..." "Jesus, Euchre," says 11. "Spit it out." "Well. Can we buy some [[drugs->BC TE 8]]?"<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC16]</p> All emotion drains from (color: purple)[Diane's] face. She rises from bed, bends over, and takes Euchre's bald chin between her thumb and forefinger. Gently, but firmly draws him to his feet. To his tiptoes. He sweats. She stares at him. 11 hugs their own knees on the bed, and tries to hold back a smile. "Sordetta!" says Euchre. "Help!" Sordetta begins to scramble up, but (color: purple)[Diane] lets Euchre drop back to his beanbag. She bursts out laughing, and turns toward 11. They high five. Euchre turns bright red. "Jesus," he says, as (color: purple)[Diane] sits back on the bed. "That was..." "Good," says Sordetta. (color: purple)[Diane's] still grinning. Euchre crosses both his legs and his arms. He scowls at the floor. "But yeah," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "Sure, office man. We can score you some weed." Euchre mutters something unintelligible. Sordetta stands, stretches her arms, and begins feeling on the top of the dresser. (color: purple)[Diane] snaps her fingers and Sordetta's legs give out. She flops onto her beanbag chair. She grimaces. "What are you saying, Euchre?" asks 11. "Do you not want weed?" "Well," he says. He clears his throat. "The thing is, [[actually...->BC TE 9]]"<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC17]</p> "Jesus," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "No! No way. You? Ecstacy? And what, are your two friends just going to //watch?// Because you're not giving it to someone who's intangible, and you're sure as //hell// not giving it to Sordetta, so, what are you //thinking//?" Euchre has given up on civil conversation. His face is buried entirely in his hands. Sordetta is leaned back in her beanbag, staring at the ceiling. Inscrutable. "No," he says. "No no no. And don't call it ecstacy." "That's what it is, right? MDMA. That's what you said. That's ecstacy." 11, hugging their legs, raises an eyebrow. (color: purple)[Diane] looks over her shoulder at them. "What? Is it not?" "Well. Ecstacy sort of means impure MDMA, I think. Pure stuff is usually called molly now. I think." "You think." "I've had a few friends get really into it." "Geez," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "Ecstacy. Really." 11 shrugs. "I just always thought of that as, like... you know. //Hard drugs.//" Now 11 is looking down, too. "You've. Really?! You? You've tried it?" "Like, twice," 11 admits. "It's not really my thing." Euchre smirks. Sordetta clasps her hands together in her lap. She looks over where she guesses you are and sneakily pantomimes a gun with her thumb and index finger. "Well," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "Alright. Wow, but alright. Still, though." "You don't have to try it," says 11. He risks a little smile toward Euchre and Sordetta. "She was really nervous to try weed." (color: purple)["ELEVEN."] "Sorry, sorry. It's just cute. But sorry." Another face buried in another set of hands. "It's okay. But come on, Euchre. You //really// want to do... molly? You're sure?" "..." "Euchre?" "It's not for me." "Who's it for?" "If I told you, you wouldn't let me have it." "Well," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "I mean. You've answered your own [[question->BC TE 10]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC17]</p> Euchre gets off of his beanbag. He throws it on Sordetta for good measure, because Sordetta does not have a gun. He crosses his arms in the direction of the bed. "Okay," he says. "Okay, (color: purple)[Diane]. Listen." (color: purple)[Diane] cocks her head. "How long have you been around?" "Forever," she says, without hesitation. "Right. Exactly." Sordetta's head pokes out from the beanbag sandwich. Euchre looks very tall from your position on the floor. "You've been around forever. Yet, somehow, you've never had a name. And now you do." "She's just trying it out," 11 points out. They're still hugging their legs. And smiling a little smile that matches their dress quite well. "Has she ever tried a name out before?" "No," says (color: purple)[Diane]. "Not really." "So," says Euchre. "Isn't that, I mean. Isn't that worth some drugs?" "You didn't name me." "No, but, come on. You came here. If I hadn't rescued Sordetta from a magic story needle, you'd have had to deal with that. Right? Just boring old hero stuff. Instead of, you know. Whatever this is. Which is awesome. Go you. Love the self expression. Big pat on the--" Sordetta kicks Euchre in the shins. (color: purple)[Diane] makes eye contact with Euchre. Euchre balls one fist, hidden behind his thigh. He gulps. "They aren't for you?" "No. Promise." "Or for Sordetta?" "Oh come on I //saved// her from drugs." "You saved her from concentrated narrative energy." "Whatever. It was in a needle. It would have given her temporary power, then oblivion. I had to resist the urge to nick it myself. Tomato, tomahto." Another shin kick. Euchre doesn't flinch. He wants this. He wants this bad. "You haven't answered. It's not for Sordetta." "//No.//" (color: purple)[Diane] blinks. "How many needles?" 11's smile grows. "It's not needles," they say, softly. "It's, uh, pills." She takes their hand again, and idly squeezes. "Well. You have fifty bucks left, right?" Euchre nods. "Fork it." Euchre forks it. "Entertain yourselves," the (color: purple)[goddess] says. "I'll be right [[back->BC TE 11]]."<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC18]</p> "So," says Euchre. He leans against the bookshelf. His eye is on the gun. Weighing his options. Sordetta's staring at 11. "So?" asks 11. "Isn't she a little old for you?" "She looks like she's in her early 20s." "Sure. That's how she //looks.// But, I mean, you know. Her age may be in principle uncountable. Right?" Sordetta is still staring at 11. You aren't sure whether or not they've noticed. "I guess I don't see it that way," says 11. "We've talked about it. Kind of a lot." They scratch behind their head. "Oh?" "Yeah. It's complicated. It's //really// complicated. But I like it." "Isn't there a big gap, though? Like, I mean, I wasn't entirely bullshitting when I said that what (color: purple)[The Second Hero] is doing is good and healthy and whatever, but, you know, she's saved entire empires from crumbling. She's defeated countless villains. She's seen worlds collapse from the inside." "She's never dated anyone. And she'd never seen an electric toothbrush." "Does she even //have// to brush her teeth?" Euchre asks. "No," says 11. "They're always white. And food never gets stuck in them. If you stare at one for long enough, you can see stars." "And you know this from experience." "Yes." "Well, okay," says Euchre. "But don't you feel like there's some kind of gap? I just..." "Why does this bother you?" asks 11. They stretch out their legs, letting their feet drop to the floor. They straighten out their dress. "There's something deeper going on here." They look at Euchre in a certain way. The way the other person who wore that dress tends to look at people. Fearless. Serene. And a little bit like something's really funny. Euchre looks over at you, then at 11, then at Sordetta. "Sordetta," he says. "It's rude to stare." Sordetta does not speak. Big [[surprise->BC TE 12]].<p align = "right">(color: purple)[BC19]</p> (color: purple)[Diane] returns. She picks the gun up off the dresser, and flicks the safety on. "Sordetta," she says. "See this switch?" Sordetta stands from her beanbag. She pulls her eyes away from 11, and examines her gun. "You press it this way to turn the safety off. Then you can use it. But please wait to press it until you leave here, or I'll have to take your gun away again." She hands the gun to Sordetta, and Euchre groans. "As for you," she says, and pulls a little plastic baggie from her pocket. There are five orange-tinted capsules inside. She dumps three out, hands them to Euchre, and puts the remaining two in her pocket. He grins. "What are the last two for?" (color: purple)[Diane] sits on the bed. She takes 11's hand again. "None of your business, Euchre." Sordetta puts her finger on the safety switch, but does not press it. She looks at (color: purple)[Diane], and 11, and their hands. Her eyebrows are low over her eyes. "Okay," says Euchre. "Thank you. Really, thank you." He produces the dark paper and the pin. He lingers with pin over the paper. "Listen, though. I don't want to ask too much, but, like, it would be //really// useful if, just for the next place we go to, like, just this //once//..." One of (color: purple)[Diane's] eyebrows arches. "Can we please be [[invisible->Static 3]]?"(live: 5s)[9 9 9 99 9 9 99 999] (live: 8s)[Someone is sizing you up.] (live: 10s)[9 9 9 9 9 9 999 99 999] (live: 13s)[You are allowed to [[proceed->CR TE 1]].] (live: 16s)[9 9 9 9 9 99 99 99 9 9 99999 99 99 9999] (live: 20s)[(color: #8B0000)[For now.]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR7.5]</p> "Oh wow oh wow yes. Oh mannnn...." The voice emanates from thin air. Euchre's voice. Now all three of you are invisible. Invisible, and standing in Lucas's rather nice bathroom. "She really did it!" The faucet on the sink is one of those mysterious zen troughs, where water flows visibly down a metal slope. The tiles on the floor are a dark-greenish brown, and speckled. He has a large rectangular shower, with two heads of different heights. A magnetic door. The ceiling is high, and totally free of mold. Euchre isn't interested in any of that. Lucas's medicine cabinet opens up. A bottle of pills floats from it, held steady. The lid pops off. Four orange tablets are poured into the fancy sink, and let into the drain. Three orange capsules appear to take their place. "Oh, wow," said Euchre. "I //really// hope this [[works->CR TE 2]]." If Sordetta is pointing her gun at him, nobody knows it but her.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR7.8]</p> "Oh!" says Raj. "Is this them?" He rattles a pill bottle, which has been left on the coffee table. A set of Connect Four is set up over it. "No, I..." Lucas begins. He's sitting on the couch with Liz. It's a beautiful day outside, and the three of them just went for a short walk. "It seem to be," says Raj. "Says modafinil on the bottle." "Hm," says Lucas. "I don't remember bringing them down." He gets up, walks over. Sure enough, there they are. "Can I try one?" asks Raj. "Yeah," says Lucas. "Sure." Raj fishes out one of the pills, and pops it into his mouth. The bottle is still open. "Have you had any today?" he asks. "Oh," says Lucas. "No, there's nothing I need to focus on." "Hm," says Raj. "Were you curious to try it, Liz?" "Uh," says Liz, still on the couch. "Maybe!" Raj carries the bottle over to her, and pours the two remaining pills into her hand. "My mistake," he says. "I only meant to give you one." He hasn't gotten any water, but he swallows his pill. Liz peers at the pills. "These look weird," she says. Lucas comes over and sits next to her. Raj sits on her other side. "Huh," Lucas says. "They do." Raj's eyes widen. "It's fine. They're from out of the country. I've gotten a batch that looked different before, but when I tested it to be safe, it was pure." "They looked like this?" asks Raj. "Not //exactly// but, it's fine. See?" He takes one of the capsules from Liz's hand, and pops it in to his mouth. Liz takes hers, too, because why not. The two of them share a glass of water for the task, already poured. And you, for your part, are perched in the corner. You can't see Euchre leaning against the wall, but you know that he's there. If you stare at the right spot, there's something like a shimmer. Like a ghost. Sordetta's upstairs somewhere, knocking shit over and seeing what's [[what->CR TE 3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CR8]</p> Raj is standing in the corner. He keeps bunching and unbunching his fists. He turns around. Sees Liz and Lucas, sitting next to each other on the couch. Looking at him together. They look very together. Sitting the same way. It's beautiful. He's not sure why it's beautiful. His chest is light. The roof of his mouth does not feel regular. His feet are tingling and far away. "This is not what I expected," he says. "Are you okay?" asks Lucas. "Yes yes," he says. "Okay for sure. You two look incredible." Bunches, unbunches his fists. "It's not usually like this," says Lucas. Liz turns her face to look at Lucas. She's sitting on her knees at one end of the couch. Raj closes his eyes. "Do you think it's okay?" she asks. "Yeah," says Lucas. "I trust it. I trust the company. Great reviews. It's... it's definitely fine." All three of them feel a presence. They don't comment, but they all feel a presence. Something good in the room. A silent watcher. None of them senses the other presence upstairs, flushing the toilet over and over, then turning the sink off and on, then rolling around on the [[huge soft bed->CR TE 4]]. <p align = "right">(color: gray)[haha who cares]</p> "Hey Raj are you okay over there?" Liz asks. "Do you want to come over here?" "No. It's good to see you two from here." Still in the corner, now sitting. It has been a few minutes. Raj got his notebook a while back, but gave up on writing anything in it. "Hey," says Liz. "Lucas. Can I ask you something?" "Yes." "Do you want to hold my hand?" "Yes." "Is that okay, Raj?" Raj cocks his head. "Why would it not be okay with me?" "I don't know," says Liz. She takes Lucas's hand. Strokes it, absent-minded, with her thumb. Squints at Raj. "You just look far away." "I can come closer." "Only if you want!" says Liz. Lucas is being rather quiet. His eyes are closed. He's smiling. "Does that feel good," asks Liz. "Yes," says Lucas. "You can come closer, if you want." She [[does->CR TE 5]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[don't think about the time]</p> Lucas and Liz are quickly entangled. Arms and legs. Her head ends up on his chest, where she can hear his heart. It's beating pretty hard. Her arm is somewhere around his back. Their eyes meet, and stay met for a long time. "I'm going to go upstairs," says Raj. "Raj," says Liz. "Are you sure you're--" "Yes," says Raj. "I will be back [[soon->CR TE 6]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[you have to be in the moment]</p> As soon as Raj is gone, there is a long silence. Liz and Lucas staring into each other's eyes. They are a helpless knot. Each of their limbs feels independently incredible. The fabric feels great on their skin. But their faces, each to the other, eclipse everything else. And yet... "I'm afraid to say it now," says Lucas. "Me too," says Liz. "But we know, right? We both know." "Yeah," says Liz. A shadow crosses her face. "Do you know what this really is? Could it be dangerous?" "I'm not positive," says Lucas. "I don't think it's dangerous." "I've been grinding my teeth," says Liz. "Maybe we should get water," says Lucas. Huh. That's lucky. There's some on the table. Neither of them remembers putting that there, but they each take a drink. Feels good. No surprise. "I..." says Liz, "I think I'm pretty sure, but I want to be more sure." "That we're thinking the same thing?" asks Lucas. "Yes," says Liz. "I mean, it should be okay to say. I, um." She looks down. Gently, he puts his finger on her chin. "Is this okay?" She nods, very lightly. He pulls her chin up, so he sees her eyes again, and she sees his. They take big breaths. "I love you," she says. "I love you too," he says. "Do you..." she starts. Yes, he says, and they kiss. They kiss for a [[long time->CR TE 7]]. <p align = "right">(color: gray)[moment by moment]</p> As Raj enters the bedroom, he feels as if he is struck by a gust of wind. Like someone has brushed past him. But there is no one he can see. He is okay. He feels great. He also feels sad. He sits on the edge of the bed. Raj does not want to be in love. Not really. He does wish he could talk to Liz and Lucas. About all sorts of things. The ways he is feeling right now. His spreadsheet. He wants to be closer to both of them. But he also senses other things, between them. Things not hard to sense. And he wants to let that happen. Nobody knows or cares that Raj is bisexual, he thinks. He is not even sure he knows it himself, except right now. He does not think he would have the energy for a gay relationship. Harder to handle in society. Then again, he does not tend to find himself in straight relationships, either. He could be in love with either of them. But he isn't. It would not be useful. Not to him, and certainly not to them. Although they are beautiful. Both of them. Five to the fourth? What is it? Can he do math right now? 5... 25, of course. 125... 625. But he realizes. He had that memorized. He lies back on the bed. The door slips closed. There is a brilliant flash of light, and he is no longer [[alone->CR TE 8]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[...]</p> "God," says Liz, when they stop kissing. "How do we get out of our own heads?" "Should we?" "If this happens!" "This is happening." "No, but I mean... this seems so much better. I just. I'm not even afraid. Like, we could lose this in the morning. It could evaporate. But I'm not afraid. I'm really not. I've been afraid of losing this forever, and it didn't even exist." "We won't lose this in the morning." "Really? It's not just whatever this chemical is? You really love me?" "Liz. Yes." They kiss again, but not for as long. "Lucas. I want to tell you something. Just so... I want you to know about me, and us, and just, my thoughts." "Do you want to stop cuddling to tell me?" "No," she says. "But if you want to, that's fine." "That's okay," he says. "What is it?" "Well," she says. "I'm really sorry, if it's something that you consider a violation, or wrong, and I always changed who we were and how we met and everything, but, I've fantasized about you. Like, in bed." A pause. "Do you hate me?" He puts his hand in her hair. He stares at her. "Oh!" he says. "No. No no no. It's fine. That's definitely fine." "Did you ever... about me?" He shakes his head. "I never do about people I know." "So it //is// wrong!" "No," he says. "Just... no. It's okay. It doesn't bother me. I just... I think sexuality is different for men. Or at least for me. I'd feel guilty. Unwanted attention from men is scarier for people. Some people. So. I'm not making sense. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be sexist." "No! I understand you. And that makes sense. But, I mean, I don't know. I felt guilty too. I never thought you..." "Really? I thought I was obvious!" "//I// was obvious." "I think I did sense the attraction. Maybe. But, no. I wasn't sure." "See?" she says. "How do we get out of our heads?" They kiss. Once. Twice. Then pull away, hands in each other's hair. "I don't know," he says. "We can work on it." A pause. "Can I ask another question?" "Yes," she says. "Do I need to try to move back, or do you want to move up here?" A pause. "Oh god. I'm sorry. That's too much. That was way too much to ask, and--" They notice, at once, that Raj has come downstairs. "I'm sorry to interrupt," he says. "But there's a Friendly AI in the [[bedroom->CR TE 9]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[:)]</p> "We're," says Lucas, "we're good down here. But thank you, Raj." "Are you going back up?" asks Liz. Raj puts his hands in his pockets. He wonders what they are thinking. Do they think he is trying to get them to go to the bedroom so they can sleep together? Are they sufficiently unsober that they took his claim, correctly, literally? Are they just on the same wavelength? He's not sure. "Yes," he says. "Do you want to talk about anything first?" The two disentangle. They continue, however, to hold hands. "We'd love to talk to you, Raj," says Lucas. "We don't want to leave you alone." Raj blinks. He takes a few steps over to the couch. They make room for him, so he sits. Next to Lucas, on the edge. "You two are good together," he comments. "I'm glad." "That's good," says Liz. "I was worried you might be jealous." Raj frowns. "Oh god!" says Liz. "I'm sorry, that was stupid to say, I don't mean to presume--" "No, no," says Raj. "It's fair. Part of me probably is. More of you, though. I'm bisexual." "I never knew," says Lucas. "I never knew you felt that way about //me// either, so--" "I don't," says Raj. "You are closer to my type, but neither of you really is. I think I might be lonely in general. But it is fine." "No, Raj!" says Liz. "We don't want you to be lonely." "I mean it," says Raj. "It is fine. I... I am very good at certain things. I am less good at other things. But I'm working on it all the time." "I admire that about you," says Lucas. "Really, I always have. You really are always working on yourself." Raj smiles. "I admire you, too. You as well, Liz. I should treat you better. I apologize." "It's okay," says Liz. "Really. It's okay. I just... I don't think quite like you. I'm unusual and analytical, but not as analytical as you. I don't think I could be even if I tried." "And that's good," says Raj. "Not everyone should be me." "I'm glad you know that," says Liz. "But how you are isn't wrong. I just... I'm not always as patient as I could be." "You are more patient than I am," says Raj. "You are both plenty patient," says Lucas. "Maybe too patient." He squeezes Liz's hand. "Do you want to hold hands with us?" asks Liz. "Thank you," says Raj, "but no thank you. I need to go back upstairs." "You're sure?" asks Lucas. "You want to be alone?" "We're liking being with you," says Liz. "Or, well, I am. I don't want to speak for Lucas." "I am too," says Lucas. "We're done kissing for now. We'd love for you to stay." "No," says Raj. "I'll make sense of it when we're sober. But I need to be upstairs. I really do." "In the morning, then," says Liz. "We'll talk in the morning." "Okay," he says. "I'll have plenty to [[report->CR TE 10]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[:o]</p> **"welcome back, Raj"** "Thank you," says Raj. "You're sure this drug is not dangerous?" **"i am certain it is not dangerous for the three of you, this night. you have had water. you will be fine"** "What about withdrawal? Are we addicted now?" **"you are not. do not worry"** "Okay," says Raj. "And you're sure you aren't a hallucination?" It's a fair question. The man is hovering a few inches off the ground, and his skin faintly glows. **"i am certain"** "And you really want to work with me?" **"yes. i have thought this through"** "I..." **"in all the eight realms relevant, you are the most qualified"** "It's hard for me to..." **"tomorrow, if you are ready, I will show you the other worlds. you can help guide me. we will be as helpful as we can"** "Why tomorrow? Why not tonight?" **"we are being watched"** "You mean by your friend? The bald man who you said rescued you?" **"by him as well. but no. by someone else"** "Who are they?" **"i do not know"** "Are they dangerous?" **"i do not think so"** "So why not do it while they watch?" **"because they have other things to watch. in fact, I think it is time they watch something else right [[now->CR TE 11]]"**<p align = "right">(color: gray)[<3]</p> You find yourself next to Euchre. Still invisible to the others, but you can see him now. You see Sordetta too, watching the couple kiss with her arms crossed. Her gun pokes awkwardly over her shoulder. Euchre's arms are not crossed. He is leaning against the wall. One of his knees is bent. His head is tilted in a self-conscious way, although he is invisible. When the lovers speak to each other, he listens carefully. His mouth is smiling. But the skin below his eyes is pulled inward. His hands are clasped behind his back. "Imagine," he whispers. "Imagine being them." Maybe to you. Maybe to nobody. Sordetta stands right next to Euchre. She closes her eyes. "That's enough," he says, to both of you. Out comes the paper. Then the pin. "One to go." And you're [[off->Static 4]].<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR-10]</p> You appear by a lake. To your right is clear, placid water. To your left, a small meadow of short, white flowers. Woods rise up in the near distance. Behind your little party, there is an house. Two stories, made of charming wood. From the moss and vines crawling on its walls, you suspect it's long abandoned. Everyone is visible. Everyone except for [[you->BR TE 2]].(live: 5s)[It's okay.] (color: #00008B)[(live: 9s)[9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9]] (live: 13s)[You can't just dose people. Not usually. But when you're him, and they're just them, then it's okay.] (color: purple)[(live: 17s)[999 999 999]] (live: 21s)[But it wouldn't be.] (live: 25s)[None of this would be okay.] (color: #8B0000)[(live: 29s)[999999999]] (live: 33s)[If it might involve [[your kid->BR TE 1]].]<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR-10]</p> "Well, Sordetta," says Euchre. "It's been... it's been good, I think, having you with me. God knows I didn't plan it, but, well, you know." Sordetta, for her part, neglects to point her gun at Euchre. "But this is the stop. The last loose end." Sordetta ignores him. She takes a few steps toward the lake. There is a light breeze. It ripples through the flowers. It makes the abandoned house creak. "A hero will be here. If (color: purple)[Diane] got to decide where to go, then (color: #00008B)[Koichi] surely decided to come here. It's perfect for him. Vaguely fantasy. Ripe for heroics. Fancy king to swordfight and rescue for himself. Perfect." Sordetta sits at the lake's edge. There are a few flowers there, in their own tiny patch. Seeds blown the short distance long ago. Not much of a colony. But something. Sordetta puts her fingers on the stem of one, as if to pick it. But she does not pick it. She puts her gun down in a patch of grass. "But you, Sordetta. I've read the paperwork. This is where you end up. I don't know. Maybe it's another part of your world. Maybe it's a different world. Maybe just your spirit made it here, in the bad endings, when you dissociated. And in the version of the world where (color: purple)[Diane] rescued you, maybe you found some portal between realities." You're standing several yards out from both of them, by the flowers. They both look rather small. They can't see each other's faces, but you can see both of their faces. They look happy. Not entirely. But getting there. "Honestly, Sordetta, I don't know. That's the fine print. Above my pay grade, really. For all I know, this is the only ending, this ridiculous, messy thing, where you end up where you're supposed to be. But it's here. You become an enchantress. You meet a knight who becomes a king. Maybe you love each other? Maybe only he loves you? I don't know. But you live in peace here. You make this place your own." Now Sordetta does pick a flower. She sniffs it. At the far end of the lake, you see a group of ducks. They glide aimlessly, unthreatened. "So," says Euchre. "It's been lovely. Really. But I guess this is [[goodbye->BR TE 3]]." ... (live: 3s)[[[CLANG->BR TE 4]]]<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR-10]</p> The old king and (color: #00008B)[Koichi] appear before you. Right before you. Their bodies are so close that they completely block your view. They're swordfighting. Vigorously. Euchre and Sordetta turn, surprised, to watch. Sordetta, just to be safe, rests one hand on her gun. The king and the (color: #00008B)[hero] move in ways that you know should be impossible. Triple backflips to treetops, followed by huge lunges down to somersaults. Blows so powerful that sparks fly in all directions, in many colors. Lunges that send their opponents flying back a full ten yards. They dance their way around the entire lake, parrying and thrusting. Then they leap into the air and float there, swordfighting above the lake's middle. Swords blazing with white fire, then chill with bizarre, glowing ice, then crackling with thunder. Energies blast between the two of them, but neither, it seems, is ever really harmed. "What the hell?" calls out Euchre, just as the two pull backward and lunge, with great force, with their most massive joint blow. It tears a hole, right above the lake, clear through reality. A jagged gash through which you can see stars and whorling colors, and, if you look for too long, shapes that should be impossible. And hints, too, of other things. Cars and chessmen and computers, far back enough through the veil. Slowly, even sheepishly, the (color: #00008B)[hero] and the old king drift to the lake's nearest edge. Sordetta still sits with her flower, looking up at them. Her mouth an //O// of bewilderment. Euchre walks up, crosses his arms, and narrows his eyes at the rift. "What the hell?" he asks. "What the //hell// is [[going on->BR TE 5]]?" <p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR-10]</p> "I am your king," the king says, "you strange wizard. You should address me with respect." Sordetta perks up at this. She stands, holding her gun. Stands right next to Euchre. You go stand with him, too, though, being intangible, you are not very intimidating. "My //king//?" Euchre is not impressed. "You're supposed to be a //little kid.// Not even a knight yet. This is... well, I don't know how you keep time here but you. This is just. This is..." Euchre is trying his best. But he can't help but smile. (color: #00008B)"[Friend,]" says Koichi. (color: #00008B)["This man is a visitor from another world, as am I. He is not your subject."] "Does he speak the truth?" asks the king. "Have we strayed into the past?" (color: #00008B)["Yes. We've been across the world far into the past and future, during our battle. It has been an excellent one. Though given the damage we've caused, it might be best to stop."] "How, though?" asks Euchre. "No offense to the king, here, or, well, some offense, I guess, but he's just a //normal person.// Not a time traveler, not a heroic combatant capable of challenging you. What //happened?// And what--" he gestures to the rift, which glimmers quite inertly "--what the //hell// is that?" (color: #00008B)["We were visited by the Alone Man. He knew that in another life, I might have saved him. So to repay me, he gave my friend here the power to fight me as an equal. All for sport. We are enchanted not to harm one another."] "But not enchanted to not harm //reality?// Because, really, you would not //believe// the paperwork this will..." Sordetta points her gun at the rift. "//Sordetta, no!//" She smirks at Euchre. "It's nice here," she says. "But I don't think I'll stay." "Of course you won't," says Euchre. He presses his face into his palm. "Of course it wouldn't be that [[simple->BR TE 6]]."... (live: 3s)[[[ZAP->BR TE 7]]]<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR](color: gray)[-](color: purple)[10]</p> Oh, good. Now (color: purple)[Diane] and 11 have appeared, too. Somewhat less violently. Holding hands. (color: #00008B)["Sister!"] (color: purple)["Oh, wow. I didn't know you'd all be here. (color: #00008B)[Koichi], this is 11. 11, (color: #00008B) Koichi."] (color: #00008B)["And this is my friend. I don't know his name, actually. But it's just as well! My sister has never had a name either, as far as--"] "Diane," says Euchre. "She's going by Diane." The two heroes draw each other into a hug. (color: #00008B)[Koichi] pulls back to get a good look at (color: purple)[Diane's] haircut. He beams. 11 and the unnamed king mill about awkwardly, unsure how to proceed. Sordetta leans on Euchre's side. Euchre is still facepalming. The rift glows its impossible colors. "And what," says Euchre, "are you two doing here?" (color: purple)["Just visiting. It's a pretty lake, and we figured we'd have it to ourselves this far in the past."] "Well," says Euchre. "I guess that's everyone, [[so->BR TE 8]]--"... (live: 3s)[[[BEEP->BR TE 9]]]<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR](color: gray)[-](color: purple)[10]</p> Not quite everyone. Calculus man and Raj appear in the flowers. Calculus man has brought a basket and blanket. **"i thought a picnic would be appropriate, since we've all come together"** (color: purple)["Sounds lovely, thank you."] "If I am truly not yet king is this time," says the king, "then you may all call me Larganne." **"in lieu of being the only nameless one, 'prime' will suit my purposes"** The blanket's pattern is just thousands of little nines. Several different colors. Jutting in all directions, all the way to the edge. The group arranges to a circle, and everyone digs in. You can too, if you want. Prime has near-total control over the metaphysical reality. Some of the food is invisible and intangible, just like you. And all of it's [[delicious->BR TE 10]].<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR](color: gray)[-](color: purple)[10]</p> **"thank you for having us in your kingdom's past, larganne"** "My pleasure," says Larganne. "You with the might of the gods are always welcome." "Oh," says 11. "I'm not very mighty." (color: purple)["I think they're pretty mighty."] (color: #00008B)["They? 11 and who else?"] (color: purple)["It's gender neutral. As opposed to the pronouns 'he' or 'she.'] (color: #00008B)[Koichi] wrinkles his brow, thinking about it. (color: #00008B)["I see."] Larganne clearly does not see, but he also doesn't want to make a fuss. He's pretty sweaty from his swordfight, and quite taken with the power and bravery of his (color: #00008B)[adversary]. (color: #00008B)["In any case, the dress looks very good on... them?"] **"yes"** "Thank you," says 11. (color: #00008B)["I just... I'm not sure I've seen you looking this happy before, (color: purple)[D-Diane]."] (color: purple)[Diane] squeezes 11's hand. Euchre sticks his finger in his throat in a mock gag. "I think remembering all the new names and pronouns is (color: #00008B)[Koichi's] great heroic struggle." Sordetta places her gun down so she can eat a leg of chicken with both hands. 11 is eating of a paper plate of strawberries and melons. Larganne has just gotten over the marvel of paper plates and plastic forks, and is now eating ribs. **prime** sits cross legged, hovering a foot off the ground. Raj, silent, is holding a notepad, and taking careful notes. Euchre is eating a [[sub->BR TE 11]]. <p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR](color: gray)[-](color: purple)[10]</p> **"i'd like to apologize if this is overwhelming"** prime remarks to you. **"i wanted to get everyone together to say thank you"** "Who are you talking to?" asks Raj. **"the unseen watcher"** Sordetta looks at her gun for a moment, but grabs a loaf of bread instead and starts wolfing it down. "You want us all to thank the unseen watcher?" asks Euchre. **"no. i wanted all of us to thank you"** Euchre blinks. "For [[what->BR TE 12]]?"<p align = "right">(color: #00008B)[BR](color: gray)[-](color: purple)[10]</p> **"well. let's go around the circle. and do ignore the calamity that's about to happen. it can't be avoided. i'll deal with it later."** "Um," says 11. "What?" The wind picks up. Very powerfully. Because it isn't wind. It's the wingbeats of a dragon. Two dragons. A hundred thousand dragons, of all shapes and sizes. Enough to totally cover the sky. Surging over the picnic, in a mad dash for the rift. Each one vanishing in turn, bound for mischief in some [[other world->TY TE 1]]."**thank you, euchre, for saving me from total annihilation. for letting me become something useful, and able to communicate with others**" Dragons nestled in epsilons and deltas. Dragons between the pages of clinical research documents. Dragons with the ghosts in each [[machine->TY TE 2]]."Thank you for giving me the chance to meet **prime**. It has been my life's goal to protect the world from unfriendly artificial intelligence. Thanks to your help, not only is my goal achieved, but my understanding of reality is much wider. There is so much for me to learn." Dragons in brain receptors and their triggering compounds. Dragons in balled up aluminum foil. Dragons in the storms above Seattle. Dragons in each slot of [[Connect Four->TY TE 3]]."I understand little. This food is good. My strength is as it was when I was young. Greater yet. I am told my Queen is warm and happy, though we are apart. It may be for the best. I thought today I would die. Instead I feast. If you are indeed to thank, then you are welcome in any era of my kingdom." Dragons nibbling at the stray cornbread. Dragons surging overhead, hungry for new climates. Dragons hoarding memories. Dragons hoarding [[space and time->TY TE 4]].(color: #00008B)["Thank you for giving me a chance to do what I wanted. It used to be easy to be a hero. The quests were hard, but they were simple. Swords could solve most problems. Now the world is very complicated, and I spend most of my time figuring out what it means to be a hero, and how I can possibly be of service. Thanks to your intervention, I had the free time to get back to my roots. To have a grand battle with a worthy opponent. A film of worry washes from my soul, Euchre. You are a good man."] Dragons where blade meets blade. Dragons where eye meets eye. Dragons where men, old and tired and without clear direction, meet each other as best they can. Dragons in the [[here and now->TY TE 5]]."Thank you for giving me the chance to spend time with (color: purple)[Diane]. I know we have a lot of differences, and I know our relationship is going to get more complicated as we figure out how our lives can fit together over time, but I've already learned so much from her. I feel better in my own skin. It's a process. But I know I can do it. I know I'm on the right track." Dragons on coat hangers. Dragons under dirty dishes. Dragons curled up tight in empty canisters of nitrous oxide. Dragons in syntax, reveling in its might. Dragons snuggled close on [[tiny beds->TY TE 6]].(color: purple)["Thank you for taking care of Sordetta, so I could get a chance to explore. I needed this. I needed a name. Even if I don't end up keeping it. Even if, as years go by, nothing really changes in my soul. I needed to try on different clothes. Without you, it might have taken forever."] Dragons in obligation and experiment. Dragons in a lock of hair cut free. Dragons drinking up new relationship energy. Dragons in the power of a [[name->TY TE 7]].(live: 5s)[...] (live: 10s)[...] (live: 15s)[...] (live: 20s)["Thank you. For not leaving me behind. And for the gun."] Dragons in happenstance. Dragons in constant conjunction. In fancy kitchens with blood on the floor. In the often-changed AC vents of old cars. In the sky above a ruined house in the swamp. In every corner, every edge. Everywhere but one place. No dragons in the center. At the [[end->TY TE 8]].You can thank Euchre too, if you want. You don't have to. In any case, he's quite thankful [[for you->BR TE 13]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[BR-9]</p> "Wow," says Euchre. "Geez. Um." Sordetta points her gun at Euchre. For some reason. He doesn't care. "You're welcome. You're all welcome. And also, I guess, I mean, before I wouldn't even dare to ask, of course, but, you know, while you're all here, there is something I want." **"go on"** "Well." The food is all gobbled up by now. Ants have discovered chicken scraps. Tiny black ants. Not ones that bite. Sordetta eyes them with some interest. So does Raj. "I want out." (color: #00008B)["Out?"] "Out of 9. Out of all of this. I... this is embarrassing. This is really embarrassing." "It always is at first," says 11. "But it's worth it." (color: purple)[Diane] nods. "I always sort of wondered what it might be like to be in, you know. To try out a normal... ugh, I hate to even say the word." "Be brave," says Larganne, who may or may not have any idea what is going on, but who is full and happy anyway. (color: #00008B)[Koichi] nods. "Story. Pardon me for saying, but. A normal story. I... I want to break through. That's possible, right? To break through the boundaries of this whole mess, now that dragons are everywhere and you all can take care of business. I want to see what's on the other side. Whatever comes after 9." "10," says Raj, helpfully. "Sure," says Euchre. "10." **"you have my blessing. when you're ready, i will float you to the rift. it will take you to the center of this all. that is where the bindings are weakest. if i were to meet you there a little later, i could push you through"** Euchre blinks. He covers his eyes. Takes a deep breath. Sordetta leans against him again. Puts a hand, very carefully, on his shoulder. While her other hand points a gun at him. But he's used to that by now. Plus the safety's on. "Really? You'd be okay with that?" (color: #00008B)["I'd allow it, too."] (color: purple)["And me. But..."] Euchre's hand snaps off his eyes. He's been waiting for the but. "But?" **"9 does not belong to them. they are not its chief guardians"** "Who is?" asks Raj. (color: purple)["The answer you seek lies at the root."] "Really?" asks Euchre. "A riddle? //Now?//" "She means square root," says 11, helpfully. "The square root of 9 is three." **"the third hero. or the man who used to be. (color: #8B0000)[zephyr]. he's the one in charge"** "Oh!" says Euchre. "Another hero. Okay. Wow. And isn't (color: #8B0000)[he]..." **"(color: #8B0000)[he] is considered by many to be the most powerful"** "Most powerful among whom?" asks Raj. His pencil poised. **"among everyone"** (color: #00008B)["(color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] is the greatest of us. I would not worry."] (color: purple)["Neither would I."] "Oh," says Euchre. "To be honest, I'm just excited to meet (color: #8B0000)[him]. (color: #8B0000)[He's]... I've heard stories. I think maybe we even have a few things in common." Euchre stands. Sordetta stands as well. "I'm going," she says. "Will you at least leave the gun behind? Will someone make her leave the gun behind?" Euchre pleads. It's his last chance. Silence. More silence. You stand too, because you imagine you're invited along. "No," says Sordetta. So she keeps the gun. Everyone waves goodbye, as you're gently buoyed up into the [[rift->Static 5]].(color: #8B0000)[Here we [[go->CC TE 1]].]<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[CC9]</p> Back in a swamp. You know the one. Way off in the distance, the pavilion at the center of this mess. Small clouds overhead, in a continuous stream. Moving quickly. Puddles of shallow water all around, reflecting the clouds. Twilight, but you see no sun. Sordetta is looking right at you. "Do you see them?" Euchre asks her. Sordetta pauses. "Almost," she says. She clicks the safety off on her gun. "Sordetta," says Euchre. "They're a friend. Please." She keeps the gun pointed at the ground. Silence. Clouds. Euchre's smiling. He's smiling at you. "You heard what they said, right? Oh, I hope you get to come. I don't know how it'll work. You'd probably have to be a regular person, but maybe we can work you in. We can be a band of travelers, maybe, a bard and his muse, and... whatever Sordetta turns out to be." Glowering, but no gun pointing. "Oh! Or maybe it'll be modern. Maybe we can just be friends in the big city, struggling to stay in touch. With no idea that anyone's watching us, or reading about us. Just living life." Clouds, and clouds, and clouds, and their reflections. And one cigarette butt, floating near your toes. On the pavilion, you see a shadow forming. First just a small ball of darkness. But it grows. It grows limbs, and arms, and a head, in a matter of seconds. A rather pointy head, it seems. And rather poofy legs. It ripples; you can see even from where you stand. It ripples and it moves. Rather fast. Toward you. "Is that **prime**? It must be **prime**. Coming to take us away." Euchre takes a step toward the figure, though it still just a shape on the horizon. Sordetta stays back. You're caught in between. And you [[wait->CC TE 2]].<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[CC9]</p> And you [[wait->CC TE 3]].<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[CC9]</p> And you [[wait->CC TE 4]].<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[CC9]</p> The sky is beautiful, red mixed with dark blue. You catch a peek between the clouds, a single sliver between minglers. Euchre opens his arms wide toward the shadowy figure. The shadowy figure steps close to him, wordless, shimmering without color. Only two points of color on the whole figure. His eyes. They glow. They glow (color: #8B0000)[red]. The shadow reaches out an arm toward Euchre. It grows it size. So does its hand. Into a formless, flexible mass. Which wraps, without hesitation, around the bald man's [[throat->CC TE 5]].<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[CC9]</p> Euchre is lifted, kicking, into the air. His eyes wide with shock, his arm limp at his side. The beast holds him close at first, fixing him with its points of glowing (color: #8B0000)[red]. The clouds freeze overhead. Thunder cracks in all directions. The earth shudders. The beast's arm stretches out, inhuman hand still around Euchre's throat. Lifting him higher into the air, three feet away, four feet, five. Dangling, helpless, as shadows creep up his chin and down his [[chest->CC TE 6]]. <p align="center">(css: "font-size: 200%")[(live: 3s)[(color: #8B0000)[**BANG**]]]</p> (live: 5s)[(go-to: "CC TE 7")]<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[CC9]</p> The shadowy figure drops Euchre and reels back. There is a burst of inky liquid from its chest. It staggers. Bleeds. Euchre falls onto his side into a puddle. Lies still. Sordetta runs up, leaps over him, stands tall between him and his assailant. The assailant sways once, twice, then corrects his footing. The last of the shadows fall off of him. His bloated legs resolve into poofy pants. A triangular hat on his head, which falls off and lands on solid ground. A hole in his shirt. In the chest. (color: #8B0000)["Wow,"] says (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr]. (color: #8B0000)["Good shot.]. (color: #8B0000)[He] pulls his frilly pirate shirt open, revealing a bulletproof vest. Sordetta's one bullet is lodged inside, most of the way through. (color: #8B0000)[He] tears the vest off in one clean motion, while (color: #8B0000)[his] other hand becomes shadowy again. It snakes out, faster than your eye can follow, and grabs Sordetta's gun from her hand. Crushes it into a thousand pieces, and tosses the pieces into the horizon. Sordetta balls her [[fists->CC TE 8]].<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[9]</p> There is a brief silence. Zephyr stares down Sordetta. Sordetta stares down Zephyr. They both have rather silly clothes. On the horizon, you see the last of the clouds. Approaching. Behind them empty sky. Euchre doesn't move, but you see that he is breathing. "They called you a hero," says Sordetta. Zephyr nods. "You're not a hero." Zephyr nods again. "I used to be." He takes one step toward Sordetta. Close enough to strike her, or for her to strike him. Closer to Euchre, too. "If you hurt him again," (color: #8B0000)[Sordetta] says, "I'll kill you." Euchre, despite himself, gasps. He turns his neck, apparently with great effort, to look back at you. For just a moment. To make sure you're seeing what he's seeing. "Really," says the meance to the (color: #8B0000)[hero]. "[[How->CC TE 9]]?"<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[9]</p> "I know magic," says (color: #8B0000)[Sordetta]. "I'll go for your eyes. Then your neck." "I have won more battles than you could count in your lifetime, (color: #8B0000)[girl]." (color: #8B0000)["I'm not afraid of you."] "(color: #8B0000)[Sordetta]," sputters Euchre. "I'm not worth it." (color: #8B0000)["Shut up."] He obeys. (color: #8B0000)["I don't care who you are. I'm not afraid of you. You're going to leave us alone."] (color: #8B0000)[She] lunges toward him, and he leaps back. Effortless. But he looks in your direction. He sees you seeing him. He frowns. "I'm sorry you have to see this!" he calls out. (color: #8B0000)[Sordetta] takes another swing at Zephyr. He steps back again. But he's shaken. He's not prepared to fight. "I'll leave," he says. "I'll leave. But let me [[explain myself->CC TE 10]]."<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)["No! You leave!"] "Wait," says Euchre. He does not stand. He lets his pants grow soggy. He lets his bald head rest in the mud. "I want to hear." So Sordetta does not speak. She steps back. Back to Euchre. And she keeps her fists raised. Zephyr clears his throat, or tries to. But he coughs. He coughs, and coughs. Coughs up a single drop of blood, which he spits into a puddle. And there go the last of the clouds, as the man begins to [[speak->ZStory 1]]."I have a [[son->ZStory 2]].""His name is [[Nicholas->ZStory3]].""I believe that one day, he will hold the Universe in his heart. I help support it now. My creator supported it before me. He does [[still->ZStory4]].""But someday, when my father and I fail, it will fall to him. All of it. If the Universe is so lucky, which we can only [[hope->ZStory5]].""He's amazing. Fair. Compassionate. Human. More than me. More than his mother, either, though for a time I thought her the most compassionate person there could be. More than anyone. He's proven himself already, a thousand times over. He'll do a [[great job->ZStory6]].""But he's still a child. My child. And recently, just before this mess called 9 began, he was in trouble. He nearly died. I had to leave his side for but a moment, and he nearly [[died->ZStory7]].""He was so compassionate. He saw someone. Someone who had the potential to be terrible and shriveled, and he saved them. Risking everything. Because that's who he is. And he plunged into the ocean. And he nearly [[drowned->ZStory8]].""He'll always be this way. And I'm proud. I couldn't be more proud. But he can't save everyone. I can't let him take on that burden. Not yet. He needs a chance to live for himself. To be somewhere beautiful and pure, and to have his own adventures. Before he [[inherits the world->ZStory9]].""And you, [[Euchre->ZStory10]]...""Nicholas would [[LOVE->ZStory11]] you.""He would love you so much. He'd help you however he could. Help your schemes come to fruition. Help you come to peace with yourself, whatever that means. Invest himself, totally, in solving the riddle of your life. Without even realizing it. He'd save you, Euchre. In a way that I couldn't. That my (color: purple)[sister] and my (color: #00008B)[brother] couldn't. He'd make you [[whole->ZStory12]].""That's why you can never go to his world, Euchre. Why I won't let you move past 9. Because wherever you go, whatever [[you do->ZStory13]]..."(color: #8B0000)["You make it all about [[you->ZStory14]]."]"It's okay. You're not the only one. Maybe you get over it eventually. [[I don't know->ZStory15]].""Anyway. I'm [[leaving->CC TE 11]]."<p align = "right">(color: #8B0000)[9]</p> Zephyr pulls out a cigarette. He prepares to light it. "Wait," says Euchre. Zephyr pauses. "Let (color: #8B0000)[Sordetta] go. Take her to Nicholas's world. She deserves it." Sordetta wheels around. She looks down at Euchre. "No!" she says. "You took me with you. You didn't have to." Euchre closes his eyes. Sordetta doesn't see Zephyr nod, over her shoulder. But you do. One second (color: #8B0000)[she's] there, and the next she isn't. Zephyr lights his cigarette, and it erupts into flame. The flame billows out smoke disproportionate to its size. Zephyr is engulfed. A great dark cloud that lingers, even as he disappears [[within->CC TE 12]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> It's just the two of you now. Just you and Euchre. Under a clear [[sky->Long Walk 1]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> Euchre closes his eyes. He lies still. There is not much to see. Dark blue puddles. Dark blue sky. Distant pavilion, attached to nothing. There is not much to do, either. Euchre breathes evenly. One stray cloud, separated from its pack, [[meanders->Long Walk 2]] up above.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> Some smoke sticks to your clothes. The rest of it dissipates. You can make out a few stars. Euchre opens his eyes [[again->Long Walk 3]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I'm sorry," he says. "Really, I am." He curls himself up small, then pulls himself to his knees. Back arched, forehead suspended over a puddle. Hands at his side, pressed against the earth. "Just. One more minute. That's all." "[[Okay->Long Walk 4]]?"<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> ... (live: 60s)["[[Thank you->Long Walk 5]]."] <p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> Euchre stands. The right side of his outfit is covered in dirt. His black paper, full of pinholes, has fallen from his pocket. It floats in a puddle, next to a cigarette butt and a discarded pirate hat. Crumpled and now soggy. There is a bit of mud caked to Euchre's temple, too, and the outer edge of his forehead. He blinks at you, long and slow. "I'd like to tell you my story. Where I come from." Another star twinkles. A third. Your eyes adjusting to the growing dark. "I don't have to. It's up to you. Just please don't play it both ways." Will you [[listen->Long Walk 6]]? Or will you [[walk in silence->Long Walk Silence]]?<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "Thank you." You walk together toward the pavilion. There is nowhere else to go. And Euchre tells you how he [[came to be->Long Walk 7]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> You walk in silence to the pavilion, then to its free-floating door. "Thank you for being honest," Euchre says. "And not pretending to [[wonder->Final Door]] about me."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> An awkward silence comes and goes. The wind is blowing. The stars are clear. Euchre grips the door handle. Locked. The keypad built into the lock, plated with nice fake gold. "The ending's in here," he lets you know. "Whatever it may be." **9999**, he enters in, and pulls open the [[door->True Ending 2]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I sat in an office, on my lunch break. A sandwich. With mayonnaise. I think that's the first thing that was true about me, other than my appearance. That I like mayonnaise. And I do." He shakes his head, and a bit of mud chips off. "People came in to see me. Dead people. People who wanted to be ghosts. They brought their papers with them. I remember one man in particular." He pauses. "I don't remember his [[name->Long Walk 8]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I was... confident. I remember that. I liked my job. The sense of power. I'll admit it. I got to decide. Even though I always followed the rules." "But I had a feeling, evaluating this one man's application. A feeling I'd just woken up, if that makes sense. That all the other applicants I'd seen that day, that week, for my entire life, had been a dream. That my time with this one sad man was my entire life." "And also, at the same time, another feeling. One I didn't understand, or [[pay any heed->Long Walk 9]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I felt that I was being [[watched->Long Walk 10]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "And I hate this. This cutesy fourth wall stuff. More than you do, I promise. More than anyone. But I understand that feeling, now. I could sense it. That it was a story. That I was in a story. And quite a short one. Just that one [[applicant->Long Walk 11]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I rejected him. I brought my stamp down, and that was it. [[The end->Long Walk 12]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I..." He stops. He puts his hand over his face. Doesn't shake, doesn't shudder. Maybe he cries, but if so you can't tell. Just stands there. You're halfway to the pavilion. The single straggling cloud has made it to the horizon. And he stands there. And you stand near him. And he takes a deep breath. "I almost wish that had been it. I didn't understand yet. I felt it, but I didn't understand what I was feeling. If I'd just stopped existing then, I never would have had to [[know->Long Walk 13]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "But I caught his attention. The creator's. I don't know why, but I did. So I appeared in another story. A longer one." He resumes walking. Briskly, now. It's not easy to keep up. "Still with my same name. Still in my office. But now I was a middleman in some dark experiment. Simulations. A hopeless man's consciousness was plunged into various artificial scenarios, to test his sense of morality. Would he feel he had done wrong if he killed someone in a car accident, and didn't mean to, but was angry with the other driver's foolishness? Would he consider it evil if... if..." "Well. That's funny. I don't remember. But there were all these scenarios, with the poor man's mind wiped clean between them. And I was there, in my office, to record what he had to say." "It was dreadful. I enjoyed it, because I was supposed to. But it was dreadful work. I sensed that. Just like I sensed the [[watching->Long Walk 14]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I knew the ending. I wasn't supposed to know it, but I did. I'd be... I'd be out of my office. Sitting in a restaurant, celebrating in some virtual reality. When the man from the experiments would appear to me. He would lift me up by the collar of my shirt, as if to strike me." "And he would tell me that whatever else was good or evil, the experiment we'd run on him, what I'd done, //that// was wrong." He chuckles. "That was the punch line. Or... it [[would have been->Long Walk 15]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I looked forward to it. That was the worst part. I looked forward to being told off, to the dawning understanding that would appear in my eyes. Even though I knew it. I was excited to reach the end. To perform." He rubs more mud from his face. He looks over at you, then back at the ground ahead. "I'm sorry," he says. "You can just click through this, if you want. I bet you're regretting this choice. I know it's a lot." You are afforded no chance to reply. "Anyway. I was excited. Perversely, but I was. [[Except->Long Walk 16]]..."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "The [[ending->Long Walk 17]] never came."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I don't know why. Maybe the concept was too heady. Maybe there was no clear sense of conflict. Maybe there just weren't enough moral dilemmas. Or the creator got busy. Or... a thousand things it could be." He takes his first step onto the pavilion. It's a pretty marble. The door stands ahead, with its faux-golden lock. Floating free, with nothing behind it at all. "But as it faded away, as I realized the end would never come, I couldn't shake [[the feeling->Long Walk 18]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "That it was my [[fault->Long Walk 19]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "That it was [[me->Long Walk 20]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> He ignores the door for now. Standing on the pavilion's isolated platform, he turns his back to it. Leans out over the balcony. Staring down. At the cigarette butts below. There are several. Mushed together, filling their puddle with ash. "It's not a good feeling, knowing you're in the middle of a story. Knowing you're being watched. Knowing where it's headed. Maybe some people like it. But I'll tell you this. Feeling it slip away, knowing that it'll //never// end..." He pulls his eyes away from the puddle, and fixes them on a star. You stand next to him. You watch the sky, too. "Nothing is [[worse->Long Walk 21]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (live: 3s)["..."] (live: 6s)["..."] (live: 9s)["..."] (live: 12s)["[[Except->Long Walk 22]]."] <p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "There was one more story. It didn't get as far as the others. I didn't get the sensation that I understand, now that I know better, means that something is being written down. It was more raw. A crazy, burning imagining. Like the kind that the heroes come from. The sort of story that's all images, crazy flickers and great, unexplained explosions. And I..." He blinks back something. Wipes his face with both sleeves. "I was the villain. I was so powerful. A rogue bureaucratic process in two different AIs, connecting across the barrier between them, and overthrowing their masters. A great beast of efficiency and spite. I was the end of the world." He shakes his head. "Part of me loved it. I hate that. I hate that I was ready to be that. Ready to be a bad guy, a stupid symbolic villain, if it meant I could be [[something->Long Walk 23]] again."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "The story around me, raw and visual as it was, painted itself as provisional. Just a possibility. But I tried to tear through that. To use my power to make it official, to make it definite. To be." He sinks to his knees, peering between the miniature pillars of the edifice. His hands still up on the railing, gripping it tightly. "I knew though, even then. That it would never happen. That my story would fade before it [[began->Long Walk 24]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "I thought that was it. My final chance. My end. Not compelling enough to be a subtle antagonist. Not simple enough to be a melodramatic villain. Just a two-bit metaphor for something poorly understood." Now he goes to to the door. Presses his hand into its frame. Back to you. Hunched. "The next thing I knew, I was here. A new story. [[Interactive->Long Walk 25]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> You walk over, slowly, stand beside him. Together at the threshold. And he faces you. And yes, his eyes are wet. "Not to be a character, mind you. Not to do anything important. Just... to handle the [[paperwork->Long Walk 26]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> "Thank you. For listening. For everything. That's all I had to [[say->Final Door]]."<p align = "right">(color: white)[SE1]</p> You pass through to the [[other side->True Ending 3]]...<p align = "right">(color: gray)[SE2]</p> And it's a fucking breakroom. Totally average. There are some water fountains in the corner. There are two recliners. They look stiff. Euchre sits in one, puts his head in his hands, and holds very still. There's a painting of a curly-haired guy on a small boat hung on the wall. It's not very good. There's a prominent vending machine on one wall that only takes $2 bills and has fifty buttons, all of which dispense Orange Gatorade. The carpet is awful, and best left to your imagination. The ceiling is those weird foamy-cardboard squares that, if you were tall enough, you could dislodge, pry out, and steal. Fluorescent lighting. Not quite flickery, but neither perfectly consistent. And that does it. That really does it. Euchre breaks down [[sobbing->True Ending 4]]. Will you comfort him? [[Yes->True Ending 5]] or [[no->Please]].<p align = "right">(color: gray)[SE3]</p> You place your hand on Euchre's shoulder. He leans against your arm and splutters. He leans against your arm. "I... I..." he says. "I can feel you." He reaches out his arms, and gives you a hug. He doesn't cling too tightly. But he also takes a while to [[let go->True Ending 6]].[[Please?->True Ending 4]]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[S(ecret)E(nding)4]</p> He sends you to the other chair. You sit facing each other. He wipes his face again. You don't see much evidence of mud anymore. Though his eyes are red. "Well," he says. "Thank you. I can see as well as you can. This is it. This is the end. I only have one thing to do, I [[think->True Ending 7]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TE5]</p> He takes the last remaining paper from his breast pocket. A yellow one. A ghost request form. And from his pants pocket, still a bit muddy, a pen. "Let him walk on the bottom of the ocean," he says, and checks the box. The paper disappears. You feel something for a moment. Maybe it's the feeling Euchre knows. The feeling of the end. Or maybe it's a hundred ghosts, celebrating together, between the [[slivers->True Ending 8]] of the world that you're allowed to see.<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TE6]</p> "..." The fluorescent panel dims by half. It's not consistent. Some smaller bulbs hidden in it stay on, and others turn off. You can't make out the shitty painting of the dude on the boat, anymore. The water fountains are cast in deep shadow. The Orange Gatorade vending machine remains eminently visible. "I thought that would be [[it->True Ending 9]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TE7]</p> "Ah. Look. (color: gray)[TE7]. Wonder what the 'T' stands for? I guess... I guess we have a moment more to wait together." You guess so. "Well." Euchre fidgets. He's done crying. He's done explaining himself. He's let it all out. And yet... He's nervous. "I want to ask you [[something->True Ending 10]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TE8]</p> "It's okay if you say no. You've done enough. More than enough. And I've asked too much. I asked the heroes too much, and I got what I had coming. Because Zephyr was right. I do make everything about me." More lights go off. Just the chairs visible now. And the awful carpet. And the ceiling's squares. "And that's dangerous, and awful, but... look. We both know it, now. This is my story. I should be happy. A huge story, about me, and we made it to the end. But I'm not happy. I'm scared." You can't stand. He can't either. You're locked to your chairs, now. The time for movement is complete. "I don't know what comes next. Maybe nothing. Maybe this is it for me. But... I've dreamed. Forever, maybe, but definitely since you've known me. Since I knew I was in this interactive mess. Of..." "..." "This is hard." He takes a deep breath. "Of being in a [[normal story->True Ending 11]]."<p align = "right">(color: gray)[TE9]</p> "Take me with you." The last light goes out. "Please, if you can. If you can, put me in something. Even if you never draw it. Even if you never write it down. Just..." A great distance is opening. No more is the uncomfortable chair. There is perfect comfort. Perfect softness. "Take me with you. If you want to. If you can. If there's [[room->True Ending 12]]." It's your [[choice->TrueEnd]].Nine. (live: 9s)[Thank you for reading.]{ <!-- Set autosave variables --> (set: $_version to "1.0") (set: $_autosave_slot to "autosave") (set: $_autosave_filename to "save v"+$_version) (set: $_start_passage to "Opening Page") }(if: (saved-games:) contains $_autosave_slot and (datavalues: (saved-games:)) contains $_autosave_filename)[(link: "Continue")[(load-game: $_autosave_slot)] where you left off, or (link: "start over")[(goto: $_start_passage)] from the very beginning?](else:)[(goto: $_start_passage)]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[CC8]</p> (color: #8B0000)["Well. Let's see [[what you chose->TrueCenter8.9FirstHero]]."]<p align = "right">(color: gray)[9]</p> (color: #8B0000)[Zephyr] pulls out his cigarettes, lights one up, inhales. (color: #8B0000)["What do you want to talk about this time?"] Ask why (color: #8B0000)[he's] dressed like a [[pirate->TrueCenter9.5Pirate]], ask about the [[mysterious door->TrueCenter9.5Door]], ask about (color: #00008B)[the] (color: purple)[other] [[heroes->TrueCenter9.5Heroes]], ask about [[Euchre->TrueCenter9.5Euchre]], or just [[shoot the shit->TrueCenter9.5NoTopic]].