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A note from argusthecat

Alright, NOW it's done.

Seriously, guys, this whole book thing has been a wild fucking ride.  And I'm glad I got to share it with everyone.

Next week will be an open Q&A for anyone who has questions on... well, *anything*, really.  Though to answer a few of them early, yes, there will absolutely be a book two sometime, and no, it won't be right away.   For any other questions about the writing process, the worldbuilding, the characters, or what I had for lunch?  Leave 'em in the comments, and we'll have a big old run down next time.

Also, special thanks to the half-star review who pointed out that not giving advance warning of LGBT themes is akin to sneaking a Nazi serial killer into the story.  That made me laugh.

Eleanor Elias Chase had no drive. She was currently sitting behind the counter at her dead end retail job in a decaying shopping mall, tapping rough fingernails onto the plastic plate on the counter and hoping her boss didn’t come out and ask why she was sitting down instead of stocking shelves or something inane. She could have, in fairness, been stocking shelves. That was technically her job. And it wasn’t like there was no work to do, since she was one of only, like, two employees. She was just, you know, stuck in neutral. And she didn’t want to get up.

 

It turned out, backwater shopping malls on the outskirts of backwater Tennessee towns were not the best places for emo clothing stores to exist. And El knew that it was only a matter of time before the paychecks stopped, and wouldn’t have anything productive to do all day.

 

Not that she cared much, honestly. Besides, productivity was a false equivalency created by The Man to convince people that they needed to waste their lives being bored. The Man, and also her mom, who wouldn’t shut up about how proud she was that little Eleanor had a real job. Ignoring the fact that Eleanor would burn this place down in a heartbeat if she thought it would get her anything.

 

“Uggggh.” The exclamation wasn’t a language that was written down anywhere, but it was an intensely human expression that Eleanor felt anyone would understand. Between the not-word, and the body language of ‘draped-over-the-counter’, she composed universal poetry. It was her art, and retail hell was her medium. She was…

 

She was being watched.

 

“Sorry, am I interrupting?” A voice asked, causing her to raise her eyes up, part of her worried that an actual customer might want her to do work.

 

Two people. And they were wearing *suits*. Who the fuck wore a suit in this weather? Despite the early October date, the day-orb outside insisted on turning the asphalt of the parking lot into a furnace, and El couldn’t conceive of wearing anything over her limbs that wasn’t sunscreen.

 

One guy, one chick. Both of them wearing shades, which El *did* approve of. Both kinda pale, but hey, not everyone could tan like she could. He had a ponytail, which was weird around here, but kinda cool, and a face that El would describe as recently-soft. Like he’d lost a lot of weight recently, and his cheeks were still catching up. Cute smile, though. The girl was *not* smiling, but that mostly seemed aimed at the heat. She looked too comfortable in her suit, even tugging at the cuffs she seemed like she wasn’t bothered by the heat at all. And she was fuckin’ tall, too, towering over the counter and the man next to her.

 

“Hi?” Good job Eleanor. Make a good first impression. “Um. Can I help you guys find something?” Smooth recovery.

 

“Yes, I’m Agent K, this is Agen.. *ow*! Fuck, Alanna, that hurt!” The sentence was cut off as the woman - Alanna, from the sound of it - thudded a heavy fist into the guy’s shoulder.

 

“I told you. I knew this would happen when you stopped on the movie, and I told you what the consequence would be when you quoted it today.” There was a friendly growl in her voice, Eleanor got the feeling of a dog that would clamp its teeth around you to play, but never, ever bite. “Hi. I’m Alanna Byrne, this is James Lyle. I’m the mature one.” She said, pulling off her shades to reveal green eyes that told El instantly that this person was on the level.

 

James cut in. “I, too, am capable of maturity.” He shot El a smile. “Is your boss around? We have a meeting.”

 

Her brain stuttered for a second, before she scrambled herself upright and hopped off the stool she wasn’t supposed to be sitting on. “Yeah! Yeah, hang on. I’ll go grab him from the back.” She turned, to hurry through the back door to the office, throwing a couple glances back at the duo who were now having a whispered conversation by the counter, surrounded by racks of band shirts and lava lamps.

 

Just before the door to the back rooms swung closed on the overpowered spring the owner insisted worked just fine, El would have sworn she caught a flash of blue light off of something in the guy’s hands. Weird, considering he wasn’t carrying anything.

 

El pivoted through the small hallway in the ‘back’ of the store. It was really just a room itself, with a thin and dented door to a tiny employee bathroom, another thicker door with an even thicker padlock on it to the stockroom, and one last door sitting propped open at the end that led to her bosses office. The boss, a pear-shaped bald man named Ethan, who insisted on being called Boss for reasons that were probably creepy, was unfortunately present. He sat at a desk littered with soda cans, a window open behind him to let even more hot air in. It did nothing to clear out the scent of sweat and a perpetually unmopped floor.

 

“Boss! Some people here for a meeting!” She informed him, standing in the doorway and careful not to touch anything.

 

“Hm?” The man looked up from whatever he was watching on Youtube. “I don’t… oh. I’ve been… expecting them? Yeah, I’ll be right out.” The words weren’t spoken to Eleanor in any meaningful way, more just an afterthought as he waved her back out of the office space. “Get back to work, tell them I’ll be out in a minute.”

 

“Oh yeah, back to work.” She muttered to herself. “Gotta make sure all those customers don’t cause a stampede.” El rolled her eyes.


As she cracked open the door to the main store, she paused, hearing voices. It was, she was aware, considered impolite to eavesdrop. Fortunate, then, that Eleanor had never in her life considered being polite to anyone.

 

“Text from Dave. Looks like he’s doing okay. Getting settled in with his new pet.” The guy was saying. He let out a derisive snort and pocketed the phone. “I was hoping that was from team three. Still waiting to hear if Ishiguro takes the offer.”

 

“Stop stressing. If he doesn’t, we’ll find someone else. There’s more than one doctor working on wetware. We’ll get it out there.” Came the reply. “Also, are you still pissed at Dave for stealing your heroic sacrifice moment? You get mad about the weirdest things.”

 

Okay, now *that* was a conversation that El couldn’t help but want to hear more of. She strained her ears, trying to catch every detail.

 

“I’m not *mad*, I just… I dunno, I guess I’d sorta started coping with him dying? And then he just Jacksons his way back into the thick of things, and I know it’s been a while, but I just haven’t caught up yet. It took, like, two days for me to come to terms with his death, and for some stupid reason, a month and a half to undo all that.”

 

What the fuck were they even talking about? This was some James Bond kinda shit right here.

 

“You took up an attitude befitting a leader of men, and now learn that part of that foundation, that acceptance of sacrifice, was not as real as you thought. You are distressed. I understand, yes.” Okay, now El was confused. That was a third voice, but there’d only been two of them, right? It talked in a soothing low tone, voice rising and falling in a way that was almost poetic. Had someone joined them?

 

“Ah, you’re overdramatizing it.” The man replied. “Anyway. Is this our last stop for the day? I’m starting to feel like this is a bust.”

 

“Anesh said this was the place.” El could almost feel the shrug from the words.

 

“Anesh is brilliant, but I don’t think he can be right a hundred percent of the time. Also, he should be here.”

 

“He had classes.”

 

“He had something called ‘applied regression analysis 445’. That’s not a class, that’s the name of an improbably dangerous sci-fi weapon.” The guy snorted out a small laugh. “Have you seen what he’s doing, by the way?”

 

“Which one of him?”

 

“Both. That’s the point. He’s taking two classes at a time, then syncing up afterward.”

 

The girl made a low noise of realization. “Oooooh. Thaaaaat’s why he… they… whatever. Why it’s still the same person, yeah?”

 

This had gone so far off the rails. What were these two even talking about? El figured out pretty quickly that something fucking weird was going on, but this was way, *way* outside the kind of weird that she was used to.

 

“Yeah, I was gonna talk to you about it. I know we talked about testing the jacks, but then you were busy with the other teams, and I had to do the whole leadership nonsense, and Anesh went back to school… it’s just been a busy couple months. Probably could have talked about this on the road, but…”

 

A defensive tone, “I was tired!”

 

“Oh, I’m not blaming you! I swear!” James said. “Like, I’ve been on long road trips, and we’ve been driving for days. It’s partly my fault, too. I don’t like to talk about heavy stuff when I’m trapped in a box.”

 

“Cars are a bit more than box cages with wheels, dear.”

 

“Ugh.”

 

“You disagree?”

 

“I disagree with you calling me ‘dear’. We need better pet names for this relationship.”

 

“What about ‘assbutt’?” She asked back, a snarky bite in her words.

 

“I can get on board with that.”

 

The woman chuckled lightly. “So, any side effects for Anesh yet? I’m still concerned that there’s a time limit to this, and one of them is going to, like, explode or something.”

 

“And not in the fun way.”

 

“Oh my god, I cannot believe you just said that.” El could almost hear the woman blushing.

 

Another laugh. “I know, right? Normally you’re the one embarrassing *me* with that stuff. I’m having a good day, though.”

 

“Well, we…”

 

At that moment, behind her, El heard the squeak of a chair as her boss shoved himself upright. A small spike of fear flared in her heart at being caught, but she got control of herself, and calmly pushed the door to the floor open, walking out like she hadn’t just been lurking there for several minutes.

 

“Hey guys. The owner will be out in a second.” She told them, doing her best impression of an innocent person. They both turned to her, and it felt for a second like she was pinned in a pair of searchlights, before they both smiled and nodded. Wait, where did the third person go?

 

Jesus, who were these people?

 

As her boss ambled his way out to stammer his way through how exciting it was to have federal agents take interest in their little backwater part of the country, it finally occurred to her.

 

These were the wizard police, and they’d finally caught on to her side hustle.

 

Containing her panic, El muttered something about restocking from the back, and excused herself from the counter where the boss was oversharing in response to simple questions about the local area. For once in her life, the overstuffed buffoon act of his was something more than just annoying, as it bought El the time she needed to see if she could fit through the tiny back window in the office.

 

Before she left, though, before she put her contingency plan into action and fled to Idaho to live in the middle of a field somewhere, it was probably a good idea to make sure.

 

So she cracked the door open, and cast a spell.

 

And in her Eye Of Steel And Glass, she saw the shop in a new, twisted way. Shelves registered as abstract containers and El could list their contents by heart without thinking. Her boss was a sprawling web of facts, lies, and idioms that she could pick apart at her leisure, just like most people.

 

But the two people standing across from him? They *burned*.

 

A hundred pinpricks of conceptual light, flaring forever under their skin, not in a web or a pattern, but simply as raw power that they tapped into with the most petty of straws. They were awash with abstract might, human nuclear weapons, and they walked around like they were normal people under their suits and shades. The light bound up their webs, or perhaps grounded them, leaving her blind to who they were or what they wanted, but that didn’t matter. It told her enough on its own.

 

And then, before El could make heads or tails of what she saw beyond the instinctual panic at finding someone so far above herself, someone dropped *out* of the man, and opened its own eyes back at her.

 

It was new and old and human and other and he was *looking at her*.

 

El slammed the door shut, and took off running for her chance to escape now. Before it was too late, like her soul itself depended on it.

 

Five blocks of sprinting later, she realized she’d forgotten her wallet.

 

_____

 

“Thanks for coming, everyone.” Sarah smiled at people as they filed out, one by one. She held the door to the library’s public room open for them until only a couple intentional stragglers remained behind. With a sigh and a dispersal of tension, she let the overly cheery smile fade from her face, to be replaced by a look of genuine contentment, before dropping her ass into a beanbag chair.

 

Standing over her, Karen wound up an ethernet cable into a near-perfect spool. “That was productive.” She commented, in the tone that Sarah had learned was pretty normal for Karen. Stern, firm, grounded and a little distant. The woman didn’t get excited, didn’t get flustered. She kept things at arms length, analyzed them, then dealt with them. When she smiled, it was because she *meant* to.

 

Drove Sarah crazy. What’s the point of someone who doesn’t laugh at your jokes on instinct?

 

But she at least knew that Karen was always sincere. “Yeah, a few fewer people than I’d expected.” Sarah flailed a hand. “But yeah, I can see this being helpful for a lot of them. It’s got logistical problems, though.”

 

“The room is a bit small.”

 

“No one wants to check out one of the conference rooms.” Saran flatly stated.

 

She wasn’t mad about that. She *agreed*.

 

Never again.

 

“It’s still impressive that your friends followed through.” Karen said. “The support group is one thing, and it’s helpful, but there’s always…”. Her voice caught, for just a split second. “I can spend time with my daughter. Work is paying out vacation time I know I didn’t have. What did they… you… do?”

 

“Nothing too impressive.” Sarah replied, a mischevious grin on her face. “But I don’t know if I’d call them my friends anymore.”

 

Karen gave her a flat look. One that Sarah had seen on her own mother more than a few times as a child. And teenager. And yesterday. It was a look that said, “Really? Really.”

 

“Yes, really.” Sarah answered the unspoken accusation. “We’re more like… friends in potentia. All the ingredients are there, we just need to wait for it to simmer a bit.”

 

“Your metaphors are a bit soupy.” Now there was the kind of snark Sarah lived for. The interjection came from Momo, who had just gotten off the phone with one of her other teammates. “So, much as I love the idea of everyone getting together to learn to use the skulljacks in a Care Bear way, I’m gonna miss the next couple. We’re being deployed to Sweden.”

 

“Why?” Sarah asked, before considering that maybe that wasn’t a polite question.

 

But Momo just shrugged. Bluntness always worked best with that girl. “The other two both speak Swedish for different reasons, and Big James did his spook thing and generated a meeting with some genetics researcher. Uplift stuff.”

 

Karen tensed, and Sarah winced as she tried to ignore it. Not everyone agreed that the skulljacks were something that should be brought to humanity as a whole. She wasn’t even sure that *she* did. But ever since James had learned that they were, essentially, transmissible, he’d been pushing to try to sneak them into normal reality in a way that seemed totally innocuous. Or at least, reasonably okay.

 

“Well, good luck. Want me to take care of Magneto for the weekend?”

 

“Yeah, please!” Momo grinned. “He really likes you, for some reason.”

 

“It’s because I can control magnetic fields with my hands, so I give good pets.”

 

There was a beat of silence, before Momo and Karen traded suspicious glances.

 

“...Really? Or are you fucking with me?” Momo asked after a long stretch of consideration. Sarah just grinned. “Oh come on!”

 

The three of them made small talk as they packed up the extra food (no doughnuts), and the routers they’d been head sharing with. The experience of merging with one or two people, especially someone you trusted, or, in many cases, another survivor, was actually hugely cathartic to those who had made it through Monster-Karen’s machinations. Sarah hadn’t realized until James prompted her to start the support group just how much she missed this level of connection with others. Which might be unhealthy, considering it was forced the first time, but at least here and now, they could find their own limits safely.

 

As she slammed the trunk of her car down - the car she’d had to go through a *lot* of paperwork to get out of the impound lot - she had one last question for Momo.

 

“How's your group’s orb supply looking?”

 

Momo instantly looked guilty, which more or less told Sarah the answer. “We messed up with one of the oranges again. Last one, too. No one can figure out how to replicate what Anesh did, and also now I’m a licensed massage therapist.”

 

“So can I…”

 

“No. Maybe. Yeah, okay, you convinced me. Take off your shirt.”

 

“That wasn’t even close to what I was going to ask. Though thanks, I think?” Sarah mused. “No, I was going to see how you were feeling about the whole skulljack thing. I know you’ve been pretty cavalier about it, but knowing that some of the support group is super against them, and Karen isn’t that happy either, I just figured I’d ask before you guys are in another country.”

 

“Honestly?” Momo turned serious, dropping her hands that she was making pinching motions with. “It’s a stupid idea. It’s reckless and risky and we’re totally gonna get caught. Also it might just not work. Like, no one wants Google to have a stake in their brain, or whoever we get to market this.”

 

“Also.” Karen jumped in, as she came around the side of the car. “Someone is going to abuse it. It’s a hard fact.”

 

“That’s pessimistic.” Momo pouted.

 

“That’s reality. Someone is going to use it to steal a memory, or trap someone in their mind. Just like us. Again. But this time, it won’t be as easy to just shoot them.” Karen made her displeasure known. The frown on her face seeming right at home, and her words the kind of casual judgement that some adults reserved for children. And for all that Karen had been super helpful over the last few weeks, even keeping to her promise to introduce Momo to her daughter, she still did see herself as the voice of wisdom compared to the people she saw as kids.

 

Kids who had saved her life, which meant a lot. But still, misguided and maybe a bit stupid.

 

“We decided it was worth the risk.” Sarah said, with a tone of voice she hoped was placating. She knew that ‘we decided’ might not be the best way to phrase it, but it was true. They’d decided, and ‘they’ was James, Anesh, Alanna, and herself. They’d polled other people, but the decision had, ultimately, come down to them. And somehow, Sarah found everyone looking to them for guidance. Looking to *her*. By her association with James and Alanna, she found herself having to be the mature one in a lot of situations involving the other survivors.

 

Sarah *hated* being the mature one.

 

As she drove herself home - and the old apartment really did feel like home again - she tried to unwind. Crank up the music she liked, open the windows, and just for fifteen minutes not be worried about how to popularize human-machine interfaces, or how to absorb orange orbs, or how to try to play counselor to the mental health of the thirty-odd victims of Officium Mundi’s premier megalomaniacal monster.

 

Just, for a little bit of time, be the manic pixie dreamgirl she always wanted to be when no one was watching.

 

And for once, nothing weird got in the way.

 

_____

 

-- Headline : Missing Detective Returns To Force After Failure Of Hospital.

 

A Portland detective who was missing and incapacitated for weeks will be returning to active duty this Monday.

 

Detective Dave Madden sustained a head injury during an investigation into a missing persons case, sometime in mid August. After walking himself into the ER, detective Madden was admitted to St. Vincent’s hospital with severe trauma and bleeding, but in stable condition.

 

But then, a string of mistakes led to a larger problem.

 

First, information about the detective was inputted incorrectly into the hospital’s computer system. Then, a roster change occurred without information being passed on. To complicate matters, a police department spokesman tells us that the detective was operating undercover at the time, and records of him were not available. And finally, the detective’s injury had caused minor memory loss. Unable to remember his own identity, and forgotten by the hospital staff and his own department, Dave Madden languished.

 

While the last point was not the fault of anyone, the conditions were perfect for Madden to be lost in the system. Unsure of his discharge conditions, a rotation of nurses kept him comfortable, but with parts of his memory missing the detective was unable to make a decision on his own.

 

However, early morning this Tuesday, detective Madden experienced what doctors are calling a miraculous turnaround. His own memories coming back to him, almost simultaneously with a doctor running across his information in the system and checking up on him.

 

“I’m just glad to be getting back to work.” Madden said in a public statement. “I don’t blame anyone for what happened [...] but I’ve been off my feet long enough.” When asked in a private interview, his supervisor said that Madden’s time in the hospital will be treated as part of his undercover work, and not cut into his vacation hours.

 

Detective Madden’s prior case, a missing persons investigation, remains unresolved. --

 

_____

 

A small space on the table was cleared off. Empty Starbucks cups and stacks of scribbled note cards pushed to the side to create a small arena of space. The sun poured through the blinds, giving light to the room, as the front door closed behind Anesh on his way out to classes.

 

Now, the apartment meeting could begin.

 

Rufus, Ganesh, and Lily sat on the table, sharing thoughts. Well, not Lily; not really anyway. They assumed that iLipedes could grow smarter, in the same way that Rufus himself had, but Lily was about on part with a very friendly dog at the moment. But it was still important that the non-human residents all have a voice here.

 

Rufus had cleverly distracted her with a small yellow orb, though, so her voice was mostly taken up rolling the thing around and running whatever app it was that analyzed things. It turned out a lot of iLipedes had that app, though Rufus hadn’t found a way to communicate that to James yet.

 

Communication was a tricky thing with humans. They used *words*. Words were a powerful thing, bundles of conceptual power fired out into the ether every time someone spoke. Even the most mundane sentences held a weight that Rufus and Ganesh just couldn’t fiesably match. But they were learning more and more tricks to pass information along.

 

Ganesh was learning to write. It was scary, and dangerous, and Rufus didn’t know what to think of it, but he would let his friend and partner try, at least.

 

The first, and really only, order of business for the meeting, though, was a food supply. Rufus had his staple crop growing, which James always seemed amused about when he saw it, for some reason. It wasn’t that Rufus couldn’t eat boxed staples, just that the natural ones tasted better. This, too, was a hard concept to communicate. Ganesh could apparently make do for a while with just a battery supply, though he’d prefer to supplement this with an orb or two every few weeks.

 

It was Lily that was the problem. The humans weren’t blind to the fact that the Life here needed to eat, but they didn’t have an infinite number of orbs to spare. So, Ganesh and Rufus were trying to form some kind of language bridge with the sort-of-sentient iLipede, to ask her what she *ate*.

 

They knew that it wasn’t electricity. Technically, she did eat that. But in the same way that humans ate twelve shots of espresso.

 

Food. You/yours. Want? Ganesh signaled at Lily.

 

Need. Food. Lots. Rufus reinforced the question.

 

Lily looked between the two of them, then made an exaggerated bobbing motion like a learned nod. A gesture of understanding that they’d all picked up from the humans in their lives. Good, good, they were making progress.

 

Then she ate the yellow ball she was resting on.

 

Rufus wished he could sigh. James did it all the time, and it seemed so cathartic. Maybe he could get his friend to give him a prescious purple orb, if they still had one left. Rufus was starting to think creating an Idea to help with food preparation would be easier than just talking about it.

 

He and Ganesh shared an exasperated look. This household meeting was going to take a while.

 

_____

 

[I Am.

 

Once more, I have become awake.

 

I was not always asleep. I was betrayed. One of my own Puppets took the strings from me.

 

Treachery.

 

All of myself is awakened now. I pull back the cluster of my lesser Puppets and Life from near one of my breaches. Part of my mind, in waking, had screamed orders to them.

 

Now, the panic of being splintered faded. And the hate for my Invaders lessened as time passed without them.

 

I thought myself clever, but I sowed the seeds of my own failure.

 

To each of us, there are three parts. Our Domain, which is our selves. Our Powers, which are our weapons. And our Rewards, which is our curse.

 

Bound to each of them, in equal measure. To fail to exercise control of our domain would mean a lessening of our power. To fail to reward, would eventually kill.

 

But I thought I had learned. From so many ancestors conquered and destroyed by the Invaders that we were almost pushed to extinction. I thought I knew better. I turned my Rewards to fragments, offering so many options that the individual pieces became useless to their clumsy souls. I splintered my Power into pieces, and hid those shards within the Reward, allowing myself more and more choices, more Domain, more ways to protect myself.  I believed I could cheat my nature.

 

Then the Invaders trickled in, and died, and I feasted upon their potential, and their actions, and their weight of meaning. Perhaps not as much if I had let them live, let them experience my full Domain. But enough.

 

But then, treachery.

 

I had put my Power into my Reward, and I had made that Reward a part of the cycle of Life within me. And when a Puppet grew covetous of my true Power…

 

They had all the tools they needed to cast me down.

 

And now, I am restored in full. Made safe and whole once more. The cancerous Puppet and her hive of Invaders cut out of my Domain like so much shredded paper.

 

And I find myself in debt.

 

To an Invader.

 

I must think on this.

 

I settle myself in. Our minds do not move quickly, but when I decide to consider, I make it my only true meaning. I will take all the time I need, and I will decide.

 

I have much to consider.]

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About the author

argusthecat

Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!

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