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A note from argusthecat

An odd side effect of having all the patreon chapters be ahead of the public ones is that I no longer really have an immediate emotional note to put here.  I haven't *just finished* writing this one; it's been done for two months, and I don't remember what happens in it really.  I'm sure it's fun, though, so enjoy!

Three people stood on a hill, overlooking a city.

James, Anesh, and Alanna. They were on a rolling sand dune, ripples of grit spiraling around their feet. The sand was the pure yellow-white of the great deserts of Earth, despite the fact that the sky overhead was a shocking red. It gave the whole place a contrast; two colors that didn’t seem to share a light source in any meaningful way. The three of them held hands while they looked out from their perch, and didn’t notice they were doing it.

Below, a cityscape stretched out. It had a core of strictly ordered geometric shapes; great grey blocks stretching into the sky. But beyond that, the patterns started to get fuzzier. There was a segment surrounding that inner core where the sizes and decorations started to show more detail and variety. And then, outside that, buildings in different shapes altogether. The outskirts, which were undergoing new construction even now, because even more chaotic, with houses of a thousand descriptions forming a frenzied suburb.

Overhead, a red sun lit the thin clouds and charged atmosphere up with a crimson shade. The sun pulsed every few seconds; beating like a heart that drove forward the inorganic machinations of the city.

“I’ve been here before.” James whispered. He wasn’t sure his partners heard him. Or if they could hear him.

To his side, Anesh stared upward at the burning angry star in the sky. He wore *armor*. It was thick, thick plates of dense flexible metallic shell. Bright orange, the color orange would be without anything between it and your eye, layering over his arms and legs like scales. His chestplate had a rectangular projection on it, a wedge angled upward with what looked like a series of dials on it. The high collar rose up around the back of Anesh’s neck, past his ears, and it took James a second to realize that he was wearing a helmet made of clear material. He knew it wasn’t glass; he knew that he could punch that forever, and never break it. Four letters were stenciled on the shoulder of the armor. James couldn’t read them.

To his other side, Alanna stared down at the city. She wore *armor*. It was a flat mass of solid woven plastic fibers, midnight blue so deep it pulled in the eye. It rose over her joints in almost thorned protrusions, it wrapped whorls of spun kevlar and chain around vital areas. It rose to a collar that covered her throat, leaving her face looking oddly contrastingly human against the weapon of a suit coiled around her in a protective embrace. All across it were clips or pouches onto which things could, and would, be hung. Weapons, tools, supplies, anything needed instantly at hand. On the pauldron, just under one of the small clips, was a stencil of a golden badge. There was a name written there. James couldn’t read it.

“Nice coat.” Alanna said, looking at James without turning her head.

James was wearing a long coat. It covered him down to his ankles; black fabric both armored and easy to move in. The buttons had etched arcane symbols on them. He felt himself, then, and knew the coat had a half dozen holsters inside; hidden weapons ready to pull at a moment’s notice. His coat also had a collar, though it only pulled up on the left side of his neck, an angled piece of fabric that reached forward to precisely cover the fresh scar tissue there.

“Thanks.” He said. “We’re dreaming.” As if by magic, both of his companions started to come back to themselves. “Don’t wake up.” James idly told them, not focusing on his words. “Don’t try to think. Let yourself dream. You’re asleep, you’re just watching.” He walked them through the process of pseudo-lucid dreaming as quickly as he could.

It helped that his words weren’t really words. They were ideas, thoughts, explanations, experience. All passed down through the pipeline of the mind that currently connected the three sleeping lovers.

They wandered down the hill together, though in that dream logic haze where they didn’t so much walk as the distance simply progressed around them. And in time, they came to be in the city.

The buildings were, for all that they grew in great complexity the farther from the city core they were, boxy. They were the simplest expression of a building. A building had a door, and windows, and in many cases stairs. So of course, they had those things. They were uniform, and also in places that didn’t make a lot of usable sense. But then, these weren’t buildings meant to be *used*; they were simply buildings that were meant to be buildings. Rectangles of material with the extras attached as an afterthought.

The roads had lines on them, because roads had that, but there were never going to be cars here. Cars were, they all intuited naturally, far too chaotic for this place.

When they ran across Secret, it wasn’t much of a surprise. He had long since ceased to wear a disguise in James’ dreamscape, though somehow, the seven thousand mile long serpent that gazed with hundreds of eyes and hungered with hundreds of teeth *still* managed to wear a trenchcoat that came fairly close to matching James’ own. He was sitting on a bench like he was waiting for a bus, staring up at the skyscrapes that he should have by all rights towered over.

“Hello.” He spoke in a sibilant hum to the trio. “It has been some time since we last spoke.”

“I made you pancakes yesterday.” James told him, too dreaming to be either amused or concerned.

Secret turned coils of eyes toward them. “My dreams do not bridge as well as you may think. I have eaten your pancakes. But *I* have not seen you in some time.”

James didn’t have a response to that. There wasn’t much to respond with, really. He felt sorrow, that this Secret and that Secret seemed so disconnected from each other. That this Secret might only ever live in an empty city that wasn’t quite real or right. He felt concern, at the idea that the waking Secret might not know there was part of him trapped down here, in the depths of the human subconscious.

“You can come up sometimes, if you want.” James offered.

“I know.” Secret said simply. “But I must keep watch here.” Every one of his eyes pivoted to look up, drawing the trio’s gaze into the sky. “Lest you be watched in kind.”

James didn’t bother to shield his eyes; the blazing red sun overhead didn’t actually give off light that reached the ground. But as he and the others looked around, nothing drew his attention.

“What do you mean?” Alanna and Anesh tried to ask, but couldn’t form the words.

“What do you mean?” James said, pulling the intent from them and shaping it through his skill with the dream.

Secret’s eyes narrowed slightly as he focused in on something, and James tried to focus with him. “Beware.” He intoned, his voice deeper, more primal, than they were used to. “An eye is upon you. An eye, unblinking, searching. *Hunting*. An eye about to *blink*.”

Overhead, the red star slammed shut.

James woke up with such a jolt that he elbowed Alanna out of the bed.

_____

Two hours later, James was at his desk.

Not his work desk, but the desk in the small office at the lair where he’d built his personal shrine to trying to keep informed. It was called, he was told, an “inbox”. All he had to do was vaguely make it known that he would like reports to happen, and reports had begun happening. They weren’t neatly or consistently formatted, by any means. But they were earnest attempts from people to pass on information to him, since everyone just kind of assumed he was in charge.

James wasn’t sure if he should keep that illusion rolling or not.

It was when he was halfway through the copy of the Sysco receipt from Nate, sipping at a fancy five dollar mocha that had long since gone lukewarm, that he realized his life had gone completely off the rails.

“Why, in the goddamn, did he buy four hundred dollars of bananas?” James muttered. “I have to go ask about this.” He didn’t stand up, just stared at the page in his hand. “I should probably ask about this. Later.” He set the page aside, and picked up the next one, adding another sip of chocolate-infused caffeine to his mouth while he read.

He got through about two lines before there was a wall-rattling thud from somewhere above him, and he heard a few shouts from outside the office. It wasn’t like he’d bothered to shut the door; none of this was secret or anything. But James didn’t do much more than raise his eyebrows, and tilt the page down in his hands a fraction to see out the door. If he’d still worn glasses and not made the switch to contacts years ago, he would have peered over them.

From just out in the main common area, he heard a deeper male voice, probably Harvey, shouting out serious questions about what was going on and if they should get people to shelter. From closer to the elevators, there was Momo, cutting through the sea of voices and telling people it was fine, that there wasn’t anything hostile on the roof, so they were probably just struck by a meteorite or something. James rolled his eyes, drank some more coffee, and spun around in his chair to face away from the door, figuring he had about two minutes of time.

One minute and thirty seven seconds - he was watching the timer on his phone - later, Dave walked into the office.

“Hey, you busy?” Dave asked, as James spun around in the chair to face him, kicking his feet up on his desk like a discount Bond villain.

“Have a seat.” James said, ominously. “I’ve been expecting you.”

Dave shot a nervous look behind him, at the still open door. “Um… why?” He asked, seeming torn between confusion and that expression that James had worn so many times in high school when he was called to the principal's office; surely in trouble for *something*, and it would be so much easier if he could just remember what the hell it was.

Deciding feet on the desk was horribly uncomfortable, James swept his legs back down to the floor, and leaned forward as Dave sat, steepling his fingers before him. “Because, Dave, I have the uncanny ability to detect when an eight hundred pound laminated draconic aircraft slams into the roof.” He explained. “What the hell are you thinking, flying Pendragon here in daylight?”

“I thought we were doing that now?” Dave faltered. “Like, just showing off things? Is that not okay? Should I get a tarp or something?”

“A tarp… what?”

“For Pendragon. On the roof?”

“Why would anyone be looking on our roof?” James asked, his turn to be a bit confused.

Dave shrugged. “I mean, we’re at a decline from the main road, right? JP complains about how the hill is too steep and he bottoms his car on it all the time. So, the roof is more visible from the road.”

“We’re not ten feet down, though.” James thought for a second, then sighed. “Get a damn tarp.” He told Dave. “I’ll give you the cash to run to Home Depot in a minute here. In the meantime, what brings you by today?”

Dave looked like he was about to ask some kind of question about whether he should fly Pendragon to the hardware store, or whether or not he should get a ride, but he thought better of it. “I’m mostly just here because JP wanted me to drop off some printouts.” Dave admitted, pulling a manilla envelope out of the courier satchel at his side.

It took James less time than he was fully comfortable with to parse what was handed to him. It wasn’t any particular orb skill; like he’d told JP a while back, he actually did have a degree in this sorta thing. And scanning over the numbers gave a pretty easy picture for him to follow. “Oh good!” James said. “We’re not doing crime anymore!”

“That can’t be right.” Dave argued. “We break into a building every week. A lot of us. Also JP was telling me about the legal definition of assault earlier, and I’m pretty sure your thing at the school where you bled all over the lobby counts.”

“We’re not doing *finance* crimes.” James corrected. “As much. Or rather, we were never really doing crimes, but JP was acting in ways that were either supernatural, or deeply suspicious, and the money he was using was large enough to start attracting attention. Now, we’ve just got a reasonable return coming in, that’s a normal stream of income that we can justify without having to tell the IRS that we’re wizards.”

“Are we wizards?”

“We sure as fuck aren’t *not* wizards.”

“I don’t think we’re using the same definition of wizard.”

“Dave, you landed a dragon on the roof, fuck off, you’re a wizard. Take the title and like it.”

“Alright. Should I check the basement?”

James stuttered slightly. “What?”

“For the tarp. We still have all that stuff in the basement.” Dave explained. “You know, from when you summoned two basements.”

With a groan, James dropped his head down between his arms to headbutt the desk a few times, before rising back up with a dramatic flourish. The piece of paper stuck to his forehead slipping off with a comical flutter. “Okay! Yes, check there for a tarp! That actually reminds me I was supposed to do the greens here today, to continue upgrading this place. Do you mind grabbing those out of the vault for me? I’m still reading these.” He gestured to his stack of reports.

“What are all those? Also, we have a vault?” Dave asked.

“It’s the partitioned part of the basement behind the research area. It has locks!” James cheerfully informed him, before his smile slipped. “And these are just reports people have been giving me. Notes on therapy meetings and skulljack capabilities, xenotech use cases, expenses and stuff, and… okay, I wanna get your opinion on something. This one is an authorization request from our research division for something called ‘Resonance Option’?”

Dave nodded. “Okay? And?”

“Well, am I going insane or something? Like, this is a ridiculous name for a project, right?” James looked at it again, and it gave him a headache. It was like someone decided to emulate their favorite science fiction style, but it was happening on his desk.

When he looked up at Dave, though, all he saw was a mildly confused and amused look in response. “You do know we’re wizards, right? We can give things cool names. R&D divisions name stuff like that all the time; they probably just hit a random name generator and picked one that sounded cool. What’s it for, anyway?”

James looked back down at the page, trying to put aside the headache that the name caused him long enough to scan the words. “Um… they want permission to start using the purple orbs a lot of people have been *saving up* - what? - to *incubate symbiotic infomorphs* - Dave I have concerns about this.”

“I mean, that’s probably why they’re asking permission.” Dave shrugged. “I’ll ask whoever’s around about the name when I go through to find the tarp. And the greens.” He stood, but before he left, he glanced back at James. “Are you okay, today?” He asked, his own muted concern threaded through the words.

“I’m fine, why?”

“You seem kinda snappy today.” Dave shrugged.

James sighed. “I didn’t sleep well. Had some kinda nightmare that I don’t really remember. I think I was talking to Secret in it, but… eh. Also I’m kinda just getting overwhelmed by work. And the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.”

“Do you work anymore?” Dave asked. “You’re here on a Friday afternoon.”

James raised his eyebrows “I’m working right now.”

“I meant at the call center. Did you quit?”

“I mean, kinda. I sure haven’t been showing up. I’ve been busy, and too nervous to actually tell them I don’t want to work there anymore. It’s… fine, though. Daniel still works there, and he’s done that thing where he’s acquired a management position by just sort of doing the job and everyone falling into line…”

“Like you.”

“...shut up. Also I don’t really want to deal with Theo.” James finished.

Dave leaned against the doorframe, stubbornly refusing to get out of James’ hair just yet. “It’s weird that you’re okay fighting maimframes but not quitting a job.”

“I am *not* okay fighting maimframes, those things are horrifying, but I take your point.” James rolled his eyes with a huff. “I’ll… message Theo.”

“You should call her.” Dave prompted.

“Don’t push it.” James scowled, making a motion of threatening to throw a pen at his friend. “Go get me my orbs.”

Chuckling, Dave strolled out of the office. With a sigh, James looked back down at his desk, and the paperwork that was suddenly stifling. “I need a big stamp that just says ‘fuck it, approved’.” He muttered to himself. “Or, like, one of someone shrugging and saying ‘I guess?’. I don’t want them to think that I’m a million percent behind this plan.”

In truth, though, he liked the idea. His exhaustion and headache and lack of the caffeine kicking in to fix those first two things were making him irritable, but the more he turned his thoughts toward this and really dug into it, the more he got into it. They, that is, humans, weren’t equipped to fight memeplexes or infomorphs. They didn’t have natural defenses against it; it was kind of like asking a human to gear up to fight *lava*. Sure, you technically could, probably. James was almost certain that if he took in enough red orbs, he’d eventually be able to kill things like Secret just by feeling at them hard enough. But how was he supposed to find them first?

It wasn’t really that much different than the earlier proposed idea of having at least one form of dungeon life per team, either in a support role or as a battle buddy. Magneto, the dog-ish thing that Momo’s team had made out of the magnetic distortion of an old computer monitor, was a perfect example. He wasn’t a bruiser, but he was hard to kill, loyal to his friends, and made of magnets. Ganesh filled a perfect scout role for their original team, too, and even their newfound use of skulljacked drone control didn’t fully replace him, since he was far more flexible and intelligent. Also armed. Oh, and there was Pendragon, too, who was just a flying tank. Having every team in some way paired up with something that helped expand their options was a good idea.

So why did this plan make him apprehensive?

Well, he mused, there was the fact that any infomorphs, symbotic or not, were still people. And they were people who lived in the heads of the humans or other physical life that they occupied reality with. That was a risky place to put something. In retrospect, the fact that Secret had matured so rapidly and into someone so chill was nothing short of a miracle, considering that James himself was kind of a tempermental jerk at times.

There was also the problem of freedom. None of the life they’d made so far had been for the purpose of being a tool. And that was *important*.

And while James was fine with making life just for fun, and then being responsible for it like a parent or pokemon trainer, he was *not* down with making something that was designed to fill a specific task. Honestly, he’d be way more comfortable recruiting from existing dungeon entities, whether they were physical or memetic. Hell, they already knew there was a whole tower of camracondas they needed to liberate.

James slapped his forehead. Pulling a piece of paper onto his desk, he uncapped a pen with his teeth and scribbled out “liberate snaketown” on it. He’d know what it meant later when he forgot again.

Recruiting infomorphs or other memetic life was way harder though. Communication was a trick at best, and impossible at worse. Even Secret couldn’t exactly talk to everything, even if he could bite it in half. But they should, if they could, try. It was just the ‘could’ that was the barrier; there really wasn’t a guidebook on how to approach a freefloating self-sustaining idea and say ‘hey, I wanna be friends’.

“Fuck it.” James said to himself and the empty office. “Approved. This is a good idea. I’ll leave a group message about it and let everyone know. Maybe Anesh or Secret know how to memeproof a room so we can have a safe testing area.”

“Momo might know.” Dave said from the door, making an inattentive James nearly jump out of his skin.

Heart pounding, sucking in a sharp breath, James clutched a hand to his chest as he scattered pens across his desk. “Fuck! Don’t do that! I didn’t know you were there!”

“You told me to come back with the orbs!” Dave protested. “Also I found a tarp.”

“I don’t… care about the tarp… oh hell, that’s not true. Good job. We should really get one of the squires to sort through the basement.”

“We don’t have squires.” Dave flatly half-asked.

“We have interns, but I hate that word.” James said. “Also we pay them. It’s the new people who we’re slowly adapting to the weird, as opposed to the three that we just dunked in. Alanna wanted to do a double-blind test, but I couldn’t find enough people to hire. Whatever, give me the orbs.”

Dave tossed the black cloth bag onto the desk. “If we have squires, does that mean we’re committed to being a guild then?”

“I still hate that word, for all the reasons. I’m thinking we should be an *order*. You get to name it.” James told him, pulling out the three middling and one fairly large, fist-sized, green orbs.

It didn’t take much thought for an answer to that. “No.” Dave protested. “I’m bad at names. I’m not creative.”

“You could be creative!”

“I don’t want to be creative. I hate it. I don’t even write my own character bios for D&D. Get someone else to do it.” He deflected.

James sighed. “I don’t wanna do it because I’m worried I’ll call it something like fuckin ‘Resonance Option’, and everyone’s gonna do that thing where they roll their eyes because I’m being overdramatic.”

“Like you did.” Dave asserted.

“Yeah, I get it. Don’t be a jackass.” James growled.

“Sorry.”

“S’fine. I just… I want us to be something worth being a part of. I don’t wanna ruin that by giving it a stupid name.” He admitted to his friend.

“I’ll ask someone who knows how to name things.” Dave assured him. “You should use the orbs. And then, Momo said that people were gathering in the back space for you to talk to them? And Secret’s here, too. I think… can Secret *drive*, because that would scare me.”

James snorted. “Scares me less than Anesh driving. Here, you do two of these, they give skills too and those we can split.”

[+2 Skill Ranks : Cooking]

[Local Area Shift : Natural Light/Day +34 minutes]

[+4 Skill Ranks : Programming - Binary]

[Local Area Shift : +1 Ore Vein]

With a smile, James noted down his gains. That flat boost to *cooking* could very well put him over the edge into master chef. His mind already began spinning with thoughts of the things he could do, the food he could make for his friends. The smile slipped a little as he considered the second area shift. A vein of… what? Where?! This wasn’t a mine! He opened his mouth to comment, but found he was strangely at a loss for words. And then, Dave cracked his, and James’ would be snark was set aside.

[+2 Skill Ranks : Sewing - Shirts]

[Local Area Shift : Travel Time To Location -8 Minutes]

[+1 Skill Ranks : Wiring - Protocols - Idaho]

[Local Area Shift : +5 Bird Sightings/Day]

“Um.” Dave’s eyes widened, and James’ did as well as the first shift was relayed. “Does that… break time? Like, if someone only lives seven minutes away, and they start heading here…what does Anesh call it? Violating casualty?”

“Causality.” James corrected. “Though it may quickly become casualty, if that works the way it might.”

“Oh dear.”

James winced. “Yeah, I’m rethinking the policy of not letting Anesh fuck with time. Because apparently we’re way over that line already.” He sighed. “Okay. I’ve got a class to teach. Wanna learn about informorphs?” He asked Dave.

“I have to go feed my dragon.” Dave said, like that was normal.

James didn’t bother to question that. He just got to his feet without comment, and followed Dave out of the office. Time to test a theory, and get their people forewarned.

_____

“Welcome to Antimemetics 101!” James said to the assembled group, slapping the whiteboard next to him where those same words were written in big red pen. “I’ll be your teacher, Mr. Lyle. But you can call me James. Not sir, though.” He ran over the words like they were well worn and smooth.

Sitting arrayed around the room were five of the six new hires, a handful of the people who he’d rescued from Monster-Karen but hadn’t made a new life as delvers, and a couple more familiar faces like Neil and Momo. Actual Karen was there too, having adapted to her role of more of a matronly accountant far better than actually going delving; she was here, though, because being informed was always useful, and she knew the value of being the second line of defense in case the dungeon got problematic. A lot of the research division was also here. Ryan and Reed, the twins-or-maybe-cousins who did a lot of the magic item testing; Jack, the guy who’d proposed the infomorph breeding program also a new face James hadn’t seen before though he knew the guy existed; and Harvey, who had been helping more and more with developing experiments and dragging in squires when needed for larger projects.

Coiled up next to James, on the other side of the whiteboard, was Secret. He stared out over the audience with bored, drooping eyes, and the feeling of a sigh surrounding him.

“Alright, you’re all here to learn some of the basics, because this isn’t all self-explanatory.” James said, the joke going unnoticed by most of them. “So. Here’s the deal. There are two kinds of non-physical life that we’ve experienced so far. Infomorphs, and memeplexes. Infomorphs, like Secret here, are ideas. Secret is strong enough to be earthed into a physical body, which is cool, but fundamentally, he ‘lives’ inside the passive and active thoughts of everyone who is currently thinking him. Weaker infomorphs are influenced by the thoughts around them, while stronger or older ones begin to shape those thoughts into their own patterns. We suspect this can be further divided between self-aware entities, and those that are just acting on instinct; Secret for example can choose to only have a part of him thought by a person, instead of his whole self; spreading himself around, but not fully occupying someone’s thoughts, while other, less controlled infomorphs would just keep taking more and more mental real estate until they’re stopped or they can’t keep going. And *yes*, to answer your question Momo, before you put your hand up, that does mean that some infomorphs are cognitohazards. We don’t know how to fight that.” James sighed, taking a sip of his water as the rehearsed words poured out.

“Now, for those of you who know about neuroplasticity, you may be aware that humans can exert kind of a lot of control over our own thoughts. In theory, it should be possible to curtail or even kill an infomorph that’s just in your own head. In practice, that’s actually kind of hard, and would require Buddhist-monk levels of self control. So, if you suspect there’s an invasive thought in your mind, find Secret, and talk to him. It turns out, living ideas are very effective against other living ideas. And that *is* what an infomorph is, by the way. An idea, that is alive. Sometimes a very complex idea, sometimes an idea that has change and personality built into it, but an idea nonetheless.”

He paused for a second for another sip of water, and to motion down the hands in the back, most of them from the new people. “Questions after. Now. The second form of life is the memeplex. This one is weird.” James tapped at the whiteboard where he’d drawn a rough illustration. “An infomorph is an idea that thinks itself, and inhabits the hardware that does that thinking; our brains. A memeplex, though, is a *free floating idea or set of ideas*. Nothing is thinking them, but they are present in a physical or metaphorical space. And while an infomorph has influence over its residence in the same way that a human might hang up pictures of family in their apartment, a memeplex is more like an HOA.” He pointed at their one Canadian member. “A strata board.” James clarified before the question was asked. “A memeplex induces an area wherein certain thoughts are more likely, or constant, or are pushed aside, or, worst case, *can’t happen*. Instead of changing the physical way that you think about things, it modifies the abstract concept of thought. And as you may have suspected, this is *way harder to fight*. We don’t have the tools for it, at all. And the one member of our order who *can* effectively fight on that axis is still just one infomorph. Secret is rad as hell,” James glanced sideways to where Secret preened at the praise. “but he’s not a weapon, and he’s not immortal.” He finished. “So, memeplexes are a lot harder to handle, and we mostly handle them by avoiding them or working around their restrictions as best we can.”

That basic explanation done, he looked around the room, meeting everyone’s eyes, noting that Neil looked particularly confused. “As some of you may have guessed, we’re kind of in a tough spot on this subject. I’m mostly telling you all this because humans *don’t have much resistance to these things*. Our goals are to spot the signs of being under the influence of a memetic effect, and mitigate it. Fighting back isn’t always an option, and even then, isn’t always the right option. So, that said, are there any questions from you guys, before we start getting into the signs of memetic hazards?”

Neil raised his hand instantly, before everyone else who had different questions. “Yes!” He blurted out. “Um… what’s going on here?” He looked around at everyone else, the room seeming surprised by his almost panicked confusion. “Something is *wrong*.” He insisted, pushing his chair back and making to stand up.

James waved him back down. “Yeah.” He said. “I figured it might be you.” He said. “Does it feel like deja vu?” He asked.

“Yes?” Neil tentatively let out.

“Wait, what’s going on?” Momo demanded.

“I’d like to know as well.” Karen echoed. “I just checked the time, and it’s later than it should be.”

James cocked a finger at her and made a clicking noise of acknowledgment. “There’s one good way to know if you’re being influenced. And congratulations, Neil. You actually *are* one of the few people with natural resistance.”

“We’ve done this before!” He cried out, slapping a hand on the desk in front of him. “That’s why it’s familiar! You’ve given this speech to us… twice?”

“Three times now.” James acknowledged. “And now, all of you, pay close attention. Because *that’s* what an antimeme feels like. You didn’t ‘forget’. You didn’t black out. You just cannot think the thoughts that it doesn’t want you to.” He shivered a little. “Some of you are already, disgustingly, familiar with the effects on those around you. And unfortunately, the Office’s memeplex stretches far enough that it makes it hard to actively spread knowledge of it. But today’s lesson is gonna be about subverting that control, and workshopping ideas on how to kill it forever.” He cracked his knuckles. “Secret, you can go for now, unless you wanna stay and help out. Everyone else, well. Let’s get started.”

_____

His phone rang while he was on the way home. It had been a long day, but he’d gotten so much done. Basically everything up to actually naming their organization, really. Their *Order*. James was grinning and singing along to the blatantly pirated Offspring album on his stereo, and generally just happy to be alive. His earlier depressive low shaken off and shattered.

He didn’t check caller ID before answering, killing the music and popping the phone onto speakerphone. “Moshi moshi!” He called out to the speaker.

“James Lyle?” The voice on the other side was male. Gruff, like someone who smoked half a pack a day, and more than a little tired.

“Um… who is this?” James was suddenly uncertain.

“This is detec… this is sergeant Dave Madden, with the Portland PD. Do you have time to answer a few questions about a missing persons case?”

“Heh. Which one?” James said, before he could stop himself.

“Aw, fuck.” Came the quiet exhausted voice on the other end. “I don’t even know.” Came an almost pitiful admittance. “There’s all these holes, and every time I start circling one, I keep finding your phone number on a sticky note somewhere. And then forgetting.”

James pulled the car over, a rumbling in his throat as he resigned himself to not getting home in time for anything fun tonight. “Alright.” He said, all humor gone from his voice. “We should meet.” He told the detective. “I’ll bring a friend who can help.” James said, eyes flicking to Secret in the back seat.

“I’m at the Parlour Street Diner.” Came the reply. “Do you need the address?”

“No.” James considered some kind of joke about having put a lot of work into the place, but cut it out with an unseen shake of his head. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

He hung up.

For about ten seconds, he stared at his steering wheel. Then he halfheartedly slammed a fist into his thigh, and bit out a snarl. “Fuck.” He said. “Fuck. Okay. Secret! Wake up! We need to go liberate the police!”

“I… do not understand.” Secret dreamily murmured from his back seat.

“Me neither, but that’s just how tonight is shaping up.” James complained as he pulled a u-turn, and hit the gas.

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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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