Not My Sloths, Not My Pit
rating: +22+x

2021


January

Site-87: Sloth's Pit, Wisconsin, United States of America


"Ryan, you know you can beat this."

"Bet?"

"No." Merrick Palmer leaned forward. "No, I am not going to bet that you can beat your gambling addiction."

Ryan Melbourne shifted on the couch. "You'd deny a man his last cigarette, huh."

Palmer nodded. "Yes, I'm definitely a doctor against lung cancer."

"You know what I meant." Melbourne sat up. "And you know what I mean. What's the point? Why should I bother? I keep trying to be better, day after day, and the world keeps trying to make things worse." He fiddled with his Gamblers Anonymous chip.

Palmer made a note: Fatalism. "What makes you say that?"

Melbourne laughed. "Come on, doc. Isn't seeing patterns your whole job? And mine, too, kinda. Memetics is all about patterns, and here's the one I see: the minute I stand on my own two feet, dear old nexus pulls the rug out from under me. You can't say it's all in my head. Not with a straight face."

Palmer raised one eyebrow. "You've never tried me at poker."

"True." Melbourne stood up, and stretched. "But you know I'm game."


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The day hadn't started well for Dr. William Wettle. He'd been pulled out of bed — literally — far earlier in the afternoon than he was used to. He'd been patronized by the All-Sections Chief, who had laboriously explained the nature of Sloth's Pit: an unseen but powerful force manipulated events within Nexus-18, crafting a cohesive and satisfying "narrative" out of the events occurring therein. This narrative was an entity, intangible but omnipresent, always to be reckoned with carefully. He was warned at length against "tempting fate" and "antagonistic behaviour," and briefed on the practical applications of "deux ex machina." He was lectured about literary theory. He ignored almost every word.

Then he'd been patronized by Sokolsky, who had given him a backpack, told him it was only to be opened during an emergency, and set him waiting outside the Site like a child waiting for a schoolbus. Worst of all, he now faced an interminable car ride with an amiable Foundation agent. He felt like the butt of a joke he didn't quite get, and he was torn: should he sulk, or should he fume?

Agent Nicholas Ewell's first question settled the matter. "What's your story?" he asked, with a knowing smile. Wettle hated knowing smiles, so he scowled and said flatly, "I don't do stories."

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Ewell grinned. "Well, you're headed to the wrong place."

Two hours in the car with Wettle made Ewell much less amiable. The trouble started with some bad news: nobody at Site-87 knew who had requisitioned the password, and so they had no idea what Group of Interest was involved. "You're going to have to do some detective work," Ewell remarked.

Wettle hadn't intended to do any work. He'd intended to pass along the password, then palm off the rest of his duties on the security staff. This worsened his already glum mood, and he spent the rest of the ride complaining about anything that came in range of his dull senses. By the time they crossed the town limits, Ewell's mouth was set in a thin line and his skin had taken on an unhealthy yellowish hue. "Carsick," he said.

A welcome sign swung past on the driver's side. Wettle didn't have time to parse the visuals, but the motto stuck with him: "Stories Create Possibilities." He'd be mulling that over for the next few hours. If he'd been clever, he'd have gotten the in-joke.

If he'd been cleverer, he'd have been shocked at its audacity.

The land rose up in front of them as they drove along Plastics Circle, and Wettle examined the four-storey brown rectangle which perched like a voxel vulture atop the hill. There was an unlit neon sign on the building, big and bold: "S&C Plastics — It's Fantastic!"

"Why?" Wettle whined. "I hate that song."

"That's why. It said something different when I left." Ewell shrugged. "Welcome to Sloth's Pit."

There was a red-haired woman with an eyepatch and a portly, dark-skinned man with dreadlocks standing on the lawn beside the building. They were tracing thaumaturgical symbols on the grass around a colourful, persistent series of starbursts in the rough shape of a man.

"Happy New Year," said Ewell. "You should see what happens on the Fourth of July."

Wettle switched smoothly to sulking. "This place is already giving me a headache," he moaned. "That's not supposed to happen in real life, is it?"

"This isn't real life." Ewell pulled the car into an empty space in the parking lot. "This is Wisconsin."


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Wettle's contact was alone in his office. He looked like a thinner Dr. Phil with a kind of Einstein haircut, and a fuzzy sweatervest under his labcoat. He stood up when Wettle entered, and smiled encouragingly.

"Merrick Palmer. Site psychologist." He extended a hand from behind the desk.

Wettle scoffed. "Must be run off your feet, around here."

Palmer narrowed his eyes, lowered his hand, and nodded. "Yes, we've had some traumatic events recently."

Wettle shook his head. "That's not what I meant."

"I realize that. I was trying to move past it." Palmer frowned. "You seem… irritable. What's your story?"

"I didn't come here to tell stories, I came here to work." This wasn't precisely true, but he said it loud, so he expected Palmer to believe it. "Somebody faked up an application to use the password, and you people don't even know who did it. Why is that? Got a whole Site full of potential moles, do you? Sounds like bad management to me."

Palmer's genteel front solidified. It had been apparently genuine when Wettle had entered the room, but he now needed to shore it up manually to maintain decorum. "That's not fair. It hasn't been a great few months, because of the fear entity attacks last October. Everyone suffered differently, and everyone handles suffering differently. The only throughline is that trauma takes time to heal."

Wettle sat down, without asking. His backpack squished against the chair. "Whatever. I'm not going back until I know who wanted the password, or I'll like look an asshole in front of everybody. So, you and I need to interview suspects."

Palmer's eyes narrowed further. "I'm not about to break confidentiality, and I don't much like thinking of my co-workers or patients as 'suspects'." He sat down as well.

Wettle waved the objections off. "Please. You work for the Foundation, your professional ethics are flexible. All I need is help sorting the crazies from the liars."

Palmer tented his fingers. "If you use that word again, I wouldn't work with you even under direct O5 orders."

Wettle shrugged. "A psychologist who thinks 'liar' is a bad word, huh?" He took his PDA out of his labcoat pocket. "Well, let's get started. Unless you want to see if I can get O5 on the line, to test your big brag."

Palmer sighed. "Fine." He slid a printout across the desk. "The Director is going to announce that we're doing interviews to figure out who hacked into SCiPNET, omitting any mention of the password. We'll start with the names on this list."

Wettle glanced down his nose at it. "You've already got a list? I thought I was gonna have to do the heavy lifting."

Palmer did the only diplomatic thing he could do; he kept his mouth shut.


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Agent Alexander Carracos shifted nervously on his bunk. "Did I do something wrong?"

"You tell me," said Wettle, with a nasty smile. He was sitting side-saddle on a plastic chair which faced away from Carracos; he'd tried to straddle it, like he'd seen in the movies, only to find that his legs wouldn't open that far. He was too proud to admit defeat, and anyway it was still easier to sit this way without taking off the backpack, so he refused to rotate the chair again.

"You heard the Director," Palmer said cheerfully. He was sitting on an identical chair, the right way around. "Someone covertly accessed SCiPNET, and we're trying to find out who. Checking in on anyone who's been behaving unusually, these past few months." He shifted seamlessly to an expression of concern. "You've been uncharacteristically morose since October, Alexander. Anything you want to get off your chest? You don't have to say anything, I'll remind you."

"Yeah, if you're guilty, you'll want to keep that a secret," Wettle added. Palmer winced.

Carracos looked at each of them in turn, clearly wrestling with some inner dilemma. "I'm not a hacker," he said. "It was probably… maybe it was the Leet Phreaks?"

Wettle blinked, slowly. "The elite what?"

"The Leet Phreaks. New thoughtforms Ruby, Blake and Ray bumped into on patrol last week. Really ridiculous, not the nexus' usual style." He looked hopeful. "Are we done here?"

Palmer smiled kindly. "We're done here when you say we are, Alexander. But if something's bothering you, this is the perfect time to get it out in the open."

Carracos squirmed. He looked at Wettle. He squirmed some more. "You're here because all the other agents have gone for psych counseling since October, and I haven't. You think I have something to hide."

"I think you're upset, and it's eating you up, yes. But if you're not comfortable telling us what happened to you, we can talk later. Or not at all. It's your call."

Carracos blew out a breath, and Wettle jumped in his seat. "You know what? Fine. I don't want to sit on this any longer."


2020


October


He awoke in a strange place. A strange, yet somehow familiar place. The thread count on his bedsheets was wrong. What he was wearing was definitely wrong, because he usually didn't wear much to bed. The mattress was a little too hard, the air a little too stale, and when he opened his eyes and saw the padded walls of the humanoid containment cell he very nearly lost his mind.

"Good morning, Alexander."

He sat bolt upright. There was a man with a labcoat standing at the foot of his utilitarian cot, looking down at him with an expression of benign disinterest.

Carracos took mental stock of his surroundings and resources, which didn't amount to much. He was wearing — no — an orange jumpsuit with no pockets. The containment cell was empty. The doctor had a clipboard, and a pen. Not much to work with. He tossed the thin sheet aside and stood up. "I don't know what you think you're pulling, here, but my unit will already be looking for me. It's in your best interests to tell me what's going on, and then get out of my way." His voice sounded strong, he thought; he hoped the stranger wouldn't detect the slight waver.

The stranger grinned. "Nobody's coming for you, Alexander. We've explained everything to them. Now, let me conduct the intake interview so I can reintegrate you with your… colleagues." He chuckled.

Carracos wiped his brow. "There's been a mistake."

The grin widened. "I should say there has! Do you know, our records had you down as an AGENT?" He chuckled again. "You. An agent. Ridiculous."

The tremble in his voice was obvious, now. "I am an agent. I've been an agent for—"

"Now, I think I've indulged you for long enough. We don't fraternize with the D-class."

Carracos felt faint. He'd recognized all the trappings of the position, of course; he was intimately familiar with them. But it felt like a punch in the gut to hear the man say it out loud. "I'm not D-class. I'm an agent! MTF Sigma-10! That's what your records say, right?"

The man glanced at his clipboard. "Are you denying that you entered this Site as class-D?"

"Of course not, but—"

"Well, even a criminal like yourself knows we don't select our agents from the cannon fodder pool."

"I can prove it!" His heart was racing. "I was on duty when the Black Autumn attacked! When the Pit Sloth attacked! Just ask anyone in my unit, they know me! Ask Director Weiss!"

The stranger scoffed. "I'm not going to bother her with trivialities. But I am impressed with your dedication to this fiction; it'll be a shame to lose someone with such an active imagination. There's such FEAR in you!" Carracos could see the man's gums, now.

"Ask my unit!" He was pleading. "Call them up! It won't take you more than five minutes."

"Come now, D-5474. You're not worth five minutes of a researcher's time. You're just unskilled labour. You live and die by our whims."

"Please," he gasped. It was getting hard to breathe. "Please, I didn't do anything wrong. I got a second chance!" He searched the man's eyes for even the barest hint of compassion. "I got a second chance!"

The doctor's teeth gleamed in the cold fluorescent light. "Well, you won't get a third one."


2021


January


Wettle was staring at him. Palmer was smiling supportively. "Thank you for sharing that with me, Alexander. I'm sorry you had to go through it. If you want to stop by my office later…"

Carracos nodded, blinking away the tears. "Of course. I should've told you earlier, it's just…"

Palmer nodded. "No need to explain."

"Uh," said Wettle. "Yes need to explain. This guy was a D-class?"

"This guy," said Palmer, standing up, "is an agent of MTF Sigma-10, and a recipient of the Foundation Star." He extended a hand to Carracos, who took it for a moment. Palmer smiled a tight, encouraging smile, then picked up his chair and turned to go.

Wettle saw one word written on the doctor's notebook as he passed: Insecurity. He followed him out of the bunkhouse, leaving the chair where it sat.


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"It's obviously him."

Palmer shot a look over his shoulder at Wettle as they headed for the barracks common room. "It's obviously not him."

"You promoted a D-class to agent? What kind of shitshow are you people running here?"

There were three more agents sitting around a table in the common room. Palmer gestured at them. "Agents Williams, Williams and February. They're the ones who encountered the Phreaks last week."

"What makes these freaks different from all the other freaks around here?" Wettle asked, heading for the refrigerator. He didn't see everyone else in the room frown at him.

"It's 'Phreaks,' with a 'p'," said Ruby Williams. "We know how dumb it sounds."

"Phreaking is the term for phone hacking," her brother continued. "We caught them at Sloth's Pit Telecom, listening in on people's private conversations, doing god knows what."

"We thought they might be part of the Union, our local Group of Interest of… ah… career-based weirdos?" Ruby picked up smoothly. "But judging by the way they ran, they were up to no good. Probably malicious thoughtforms, trying to raise their profile. There's two of them, twins like Blake and I. Black hair, cybernetic eyes—"

"—jumpsuits with LEDs, and utility belts full of old pagers and cellphones and stuff. I'd have thought it was just some townies playing a prank on us, but they straight up vanished when we pursued. What're you doing?"

Wettle was rooting around in the fridge. He didn't answer the question. "What's a thoughtform?"

"A living legend," said February. "A story come true. Like Chapman-342."

"I'm gonna assume that's an ice cream flavour," said Wettle. He glanced up at the freezer for a moment. "Wait, do you guys have ice cream here?"

"Chapman-342 is Sinning Jessie, a sort of one-eyed, genital-consuming banshee," Palmer explained.

Wettle banged his head on the top of the fridge as his stance tightened reflexively. "What-consuming?"

"We use the Chapman system to denote nexus anomalies," Palmer continued, ignoring him. "Anything of purely local interest and subject to frequent change."

February nodded, though Wettle wasn't looking at him. "Legends in Sloth's Pit are sensitive to alterations in their mythology, and when that mythology fades from the public consciousness entirely, they get carried along with it. Take Chapman-392, the Hum. A disembodied voice in the woods. It never really caught on, and it always had a low profile to begin with. Nobody talks about it, so nobody's seen… heard it, for a long time. It might not even exist anymore. When people stop telling their stories, thoughtforms dissipate."

Blake looked rueful. "But even with the occasional flash-in-the-pan, we've still got a full stock of thoughtforms. They're usually… no, they're never as ridiculous as the Phreaks; I don't know what's going on there. I guess if you get enough identity-stealing robocalls, and some townie writes a creepypasta, this might be the… first draft, of what you get? I'm an agent, not a nexologist. But the town is so weirded up as it is, we could fill the main database to capacity in about a week."

"And then we'd spend all our time fielding calls from Site-19, asking if we were shitposting," Ruby added.

Wettle finally pulled a promising-looking sandwich out of the fridge, and ripped off the cellophane. "Cool, whatever." He took a bite; it was turkey, and it wasn't bad. "So you think an urban legend hacked your computers to get famous, huh?" He started opening the kitchenette cabinets, looking for some salt. "I still think it was Maracas."

That took a moment to register. February spoke up first. "Carracos? Does that mean Carracos? You think he phreaked SCiPNET? Why would he even do that?" The man was positively vibrating by the end of the sentence.

Wettle opened a McDonald's packet of salt onto the turkey, then took another big bite. "He was D-class," he mumbled, through a mouthful of bread and spiced fowl. "He's capable of anything." He swallowed. "Bet you didn't know that. Your incompetent headshrink didn't seem surprised, guess he's been keeping secrets from you all."

February actually stood up at the table, like he was going to walk over and punch Wettle in the face. "We all know where Alejandro comes from," he snapped. "And we all know who he is. You're wrong."

"And we all know Dr. Palmer's got our backs," Ruby added.

"Speaking of which, we never made our followup appointments," said Blake.

"Can we do next Thursday? We've got—" Ruby began.

"—drills in the morning, but the afternoon's free, yeah," Blake agreed.

Wettle dropped the wrapper on the floor and stalked out of the room.

"Jeez, buddy, what's your story?" February called after him.

"I DON'T HAVE A STORY," Wettle shouted from the hallway.

Palmer shrugged apologetically, picked up and binned the wrapper, then headed out to join him.


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Ryan Melbourne, memeticist, stood at the edge of the bottomless pit where once had stood Jackson Sloth's manor. He twiddled his Gamblers Anonymous chip between his fingers, and stared into the blackness below. This had once been his go-to example of the all-or-nothing nature of protagonism in Nexus-18: everyone got one chance to stumble upon it, nestled in the heart of Sloth's Forest, and they'd never be able to find it again afterwards. Then narrative convenience had required that rule to be broken, and he'd learned the arcane steps to circumventing it, and he'd started making surreptitious return trips to ponder the nature of life in a living work of fiction.

A faint hum in the air got his attention, and he looked up sharply. The moment passed, but he'd long since learned not to ignore such obvious cues, so he scanned the distant treeline and…

…he froze. There were two figures standing in a copse at the opposite end of the pit, conversing. They had long, black hair. They were wearing garish jumpsuits. And one of each of their eyes, the same eye, shone bright in the gloom.

He heard, very faintly, like whispers on the wind, two ragged scraps of conversation. First, "We do look good." Second, moments later, "…at the Site in three hours."

He backed away slowly, then ran until his breath became laboured, then jogged as best he could the rest of the way back to his car.

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