Austin “Aggy” Genadew
rating: +16+x

A girl in one of my liberal arts classes tells me that I am a penny-pincher, but with paint. I have to turn around to look at her and ask if making apples flat is an especially esteemed use of acrylics. She tries to give me the same pill everyone gets, the one about not trying to make everything a masterpiece. I don't say anything to that. If I'm being honest, I shrug and let her win the conversation.

But in reality, as I turn back to my easel, I am thinking up that phantom argument that would floor her. Without making eye contact, as cavalier as I can, I'd tell her that if I am going to be practicing my ability to shade rounded objects, I would rather they be custodian helmets on mannequin heads, with the caption: "BABY STEPS". I can hear the rebuttal, too. Something about how I am trying to bring the goal closer to me instead of letting myself get closer to my goal. Then, I do the same thing. I shrug and let her win the conversation.

I can't even continue an argument past one more back-and-forth in a fantasy. I'd kick myself for it, but that would seem too harsh, so maybe, instead, I'd get halfway through a yell, see that I made myself cry, and then soften my expression, purse my lips, backpedal as best I could, and treat myself to some ice cream and a TV show I'm not supposed to like.

I console myself with the reminder that ninety-five percent of all animals are invertebrates.

I just want what the robotics majors have: results. When they make their machines, they can take them home and use them. There is immediate gratification. There is power in their work. Me?

What am I supposed to do with apples?

There is nothing to rally behind. When someone gives it a distasteful sideways glance, I can't persecute them in my head. The result, if it deserves recognition at all, is this unwieldy, apolitical rectangle. What room would be so poor as to have a basket of fruit be the thing to tie the look together? And if I can't picture a scenario in which these very apples would continuously create an atmosphere worth beholding, what strength is there to draw on when it came to putting hog hair to canvas? This red paint could be better served as the blood of a protester, as the red cross on an ambulance, as the ambiance from the police cars parked outside a window.

But that's just how it goes. At lunch, I sit down with my white bread sandwich. It has ham, swiss cheese, mayonnaise, and nothing else. I haven't had a different lunch for two years. I tell myself I'll switch it up if anyone ever takes me to lunch but that hasn't happened yet. For now, it is a comfort.

I watch a protest livestream on my phone. They are protesting new laws surrounding protests; the requirements for acquiring a permit to protest have been increased to such a degree that their very existence is only enough that you can technically say they are attainable. They are a lie. And now, unplanned protests are considered "unacceptable public disruptions" which are met with "acceptable force". Considering they are treated almost exactly the same as riots, people have felt no need to hold back. One is going on at any time. Property damage is rampant. It makes me sick, but I can't not watch.

I bring a napkin to my face to wipe off some crumbs that caught in my peach fuzz. I look like a teenager, because I have a deficiency of HGH, or Human Growth Hormone. I lost my last baby tooth at 17 and only by chance did I end up tall enough to not immediately give away that something's wrong. That said, I look a lot like a girl. My voice doesn't help.

And that's why I can't go participate like I want to. My skin is thin. My energy is so low that I become winded from the muscle tension it takes to make straight lines. Walking can only be done in bursts. I would carry a backpack if I could stomach it, but instead every class requires a trip to the locker. I am weak and I will forever be weak. I've come to terms with it, for the most part. But that is why I watch the protests and the riots. I am jealous of their strength. I fight with myself. Is this just another excuse I feed myself? That a rubber bullet could open a hole wide enough to end me? If the police are kind enough to use rubber bullets, that is.

No laws say they have to stop there. Not anymore. Not that I was around when they did. I was too young to appreciate even that artificial sense of safety. By the time I had a brain enough to care, protesters weren't people enough to be filed under "murder".

We have, by this point, at least absorbed the term Social Justice Warrior and killed its insult potential. It simply is real, now. We are warriors. We have weapons, and we need armor.

No. They are warriors.

I finish my sandwich. I watch the front line of people get hit with a flashbang. The drone doesn't suffer the same consequences as the crowd, which are then beaten and handcuffed. The severity of the crime of protesting has gone up and up. Some of these people won't ever see the light of day again, just to make a point. They'll pick out the poorest ones. The ones with no chance of bail. The ones with previous criminal records. This could happen to you. The majority of Warriors still make it back home, but you're at most three degrees away from someone who's been either put away for good, maimed for life, or worse, killed.

But that's not the worst of it.

Once I get to my apartment, I enter the door, and drop my phone off in the blackbox. That's my name for the room where all the electronics stay. It's soundproofed, so as long as they're all in there, no one can listen in from them. One of the three laptops I have is the only thing I allow outside and that's because a friend of mine helped me remove the camera and microphone. I know that put me on a watchlist. They watched me do it. You can access your criminal record, now. The police like to look "benevolent" by showing you what it is they could act on but don't. Old dystopian novels liked to play up the fear of not knowing. What they didn't think of was that, in the ironically named information age, knowing is frightening. Knowing what's going to happen, and that you can't stop it. Knowing, in this case, that you have a bad day coming, and the police can act on it as soon as you become enough of a nuisance. For me, I have a couple cases of petty theft, a fender bender that the other guy said I didn't have to pay for, and, the one that makes me cringe the most, sexual assault. The story behind that one is long and awful but the real point is that I apologized profusely and we're still amicable, if not friends anymore.

Not to mention it happened when I was 14.

Not to mention she never pressed charges.

But that's not what matters anymore. There is no such thing as being tried as a child versus as an adult anymore. And nobody cares if charges are pressed. The fact of the matter is that it happened on camera, and they have the audio. If they want to convict me of it, they can. So there it sits. On my webpage. For the world to see. As soon as I join a protest, that all gets acted on. If I survive the court system, the social stigma of being a sex offender will follow me no matter what. Every place where I swipe my credit card will know, though it might become a debit card as the banks (along with every other business on earth) begin to distrust me.

Why does the cashier have to know that I committed sexual assault?

Only so that they can give me that look. That hateful look. So that there's nowhere I can go that doesn't react to me. That's the system currently in place. And what's worse, as far as anyone can tell, about half the country is fine with it.

But that's not the worst of it, either.

That's the world I have grown up in. That's the world I am now a part of. Where everything looks exactly like it did in the 2010's, but only if you lead the most inoffensive life you possibly can. If ever I begin to make the art I want to make, I will become a sex offender as well. But at least I will be doing something.

And that is the worst part. That I was once, and continuously since then, given the opportunity to actually do something, and there is another force at play that stops me. Wherever I turn, things stop me. This time, I found something magical. No, actually magical.

As far as we know, dreams are one of few things that are safe. That's how we recruit. Yes, we, because I am now recruited. We're not exactly sure where it's going but it's the best chance we have. The issue is that when you enter the world of magic, you end up against bigger limiters than even the police. The government wants to suppress protests as they happen. The Jailors and the Bookburners ensure that such protests don't happen in the first place. They use magic to suppress magic. They are the barrier between us and a peaceful world, as far as I see it. The barrier between being trapped by my useless body and powered by my mystic mind.

From a couch I have safely confirmed is outside the view of any camera or device, I retrieve my Library card from between the cushions. It's an anchor, and from it, I transport. Suddenly, I am surrounded by tall, rich wooden shelves that are packed so tightly with books that they act as insulators. My couch was connected to this bench after a long conversation that happened one night, with someone I thought I was making up. He interrupted a recurring dream I have. One where I'm waiting outside the principal's office at my old elementary school, looking at the clock and trying to not sweat the entire time, but no one ever calls me in to give me the talk.

He sat down next to me, and told me that there was a secret resistance I could join. Now he's my mentor.

He's an old man whose told me that the Serpent's Hand is older than all the modern problems. He claims it's been a subtle influence for centuries, though as far as I can tell no one knows exactly when it was founded. The Wanderer's Library, at least, has existed as long as written language, though then again, when the Serpent itself was brought into being is a foggy subject.

Despite the name, the Serpent's Hand doesn't get special treatment from the Serpent. In fact, most of us have never seen it, though its existence is far from simply mythological.

I make my way from the bench through the ceiling-less passages, up and down the unsupported staircases, waiting until I hear the familiar voices. The Librarians ask that people stay quiet in the Library, but the Hand has a very amicable relationship, and there are now rooms for our organization. Generally, we are split between continents, but none of the rooms are far from each other.

Rounding the corner, I see the many circular tables placed along the platforms of varying heights within the cordoned off square. No electrical lighting exists in the Library, and there is no "outside" from which any natural light could seep. So, each table has its own set of implements, depending on the characters who sit there. Many have candles, many have lanterns: some electric and some analog. Some people are magical enough to create bulbs of glowing gasses that hang above their heads, and others can turn a book into its own light source.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I enter the only place I feel safe anymore. I meet my mentor, Adolf, and sit down. He's told me that he was born long before that name had stigma. He usually avoids bringing it up by introducing himself as Mr. Wegener.

He's been teaching me more and more about the history of the anomalous. He's having me read up on the creation of the Jailors. I'm currently learning about the numerous small organizations that eventually collapsed into them, and when, and why. The SCP Foundation itself is a modern invention, as recent as the late 1800s, but the roots of it all extend far and away, deep into the soil of time. He reminds me, over and over, that the most important element I should take away is the very human reasons why such an organization would be created. He compares them to the Third Reich. He wants me to know just how easy it is for a person to become evil. He wants me to not think of the enemy as "inhuman", because we're all just as fallible.

"Sometimes, the line between good and evil is luck. That's why everyone deserves your respect."

I understand it but I don't grok it. Putting it into practice is especially difficult. The most I've been able to do is talk amicably with Faeowynn.

She's a regular at the North American Atrium. To my knowledge, people weren't particularly fond of her. At least the former Dr. Wondertainment, Holly Light, had the presence of mind to stop showing up once the company nosedived into relations with the enemy. I guess the idea is Wilson's Wildlife Solutions is different, because they started completely under the thumb of the Jailors and have been slowly distancing themselves.

Still. It's not as if they don't get funds from the enemy. It's hard to keep a level head when interacting with her. She'd learned to stay to her own table and have people who want to talk to her approach her, instead of walking around. It was made clear that the latter led to outward hostility instead of the apparently more bearable passive aggression and judgmental glances.

And that's exactly why I sat at her table. To practice respect. I let her talk if she wants to. I'll do most of my reading within her proximity. That is, when she's around. When she's not, I have other, real friends.

After grabbing my book on the American Secure Containment Initiative from Adolf, I head on my way towards a dimmer corner of the atrium. We'd worked out our schedules to basically always be here at the same time, but, as Faeowynn has seemingly no consistent schedule for visits, I am absolutely the third wheel. Well, they were also dating, which made me the third wheel by default. But I didn't mind so much.

They came to me first, actually. I think it was because we were the same age group and ended up here around the same time, but whenever I bring that up Gina says there's more to it. She won't tell me what that "more" is, though. She and Chris just share a look. The first thought that came to mind whenever I remembered that was one I tried to get rid of. It felt like a very regressive instinct to say the least.

"Hey," I say as I sit down.

"What's up, Aggy!" Gina says as enthusiastically as usual.

"We're allowed to talk in here," Chris drawls. "You're still not supposed to be loud."

"Then they shouldn't have given me a Library card in the first place." Gina sticks her tongue out at him. He pulls her into his chest and kisses her head. She giggles uncontrollably as she tries in vain to escape from his grip. They've never seemed to mind the looks people give them for being so publicly affectionate.

"You seen the protests?" I ask.

"Who hasn't," Chris mutters at the same time Gina says: "There're always protests."

"I mean the ones in Chicago. They're new."

"Speaking of new, or in this case not-new," Gina finally pulls away from Chris, "does anyone know if the protests in Hong Kong are still going?"

"No one's gotten updates on that since the media blackout."

"We have other ways, don't we?"

"Check the Southeast Asian Atrium for yourself," Chris groans.

Attendance has been pretty sparse recently. It seems the Chinese government had found a way to block any passage to the Wanderer's Library. It really was a blackout; they'd covered all their bases.

"Is anyone going to do anything about that?"

I clear my throat. "Mr. Wegener says that it's better to do things where you are."

"You mean like Planet Earth?" Chris immediately bites.

"No, I-I mean, he says —"

"Don't use 'he'. Be more convicted. Frame it like it's your own opinion." Gina raises her eyebrows. "Isn't it?"

I massage my left palm with my right thumb. "I don't know if it is."

"Then stew on that." Gina rolls her eyes. "I don't know why you hang out with Mr. Wegener. I don't think he knows where he is. I have my suspicions that he lives here."

"R-right." I'm not sure what that has to do with anything. Well, I tried to voice my thoughts twice. That's twice as much as I usually manage. It must be because I feel comfortable with Gina and Chris. That's what friends are for, after all.

"I'm feeling sour," Chris says, with that croak in his voice that guys get when they're especially tired. "Want to join me in Oneiroi West?"

"Sounds perfect. Wanna come with, Aggy?"

I swallow. I don't have much experience navigating the dreamscape.

"Uh, sure," I say. Chris smiles, and Gina smiles wider.

"Alright then, let's go!"

A lot of people describe their first journey into the dreamscape as a jarring, alien sensation. Something akin to the thermal shock of suddenly falling into water beneath a layer of ice. Not me. The liberation from my frail body is an ecstatic, spiritual experience. It's like I've been cursed with carrying around a sack of lead bricks all my life, which suddenly builds a warm, comforting mantle.

One does not immediately emerge within Oneiroi West; there is a process to journeying there. But it's not based on objective coordinates, of course. Everything within the dreamscape is psycho-reactive; that is, it reshapes in accordance with your emotions and perceptions. I start out within my ego, which is less of a building than some others have. It is closer to a white void of unspecified dimensions, whose details and denizens are made of clay, paper and ink. Once my avatar forms and my consciousness falls into place, I instinctively scan my surroundings. Nothing out of place, no eyes I haven't made myself. I am free to go.

Appearances can be deceiving. That's especially true on the oneiric planes. My ego might seem tranquil, but if you look closely, that impression quickly goes away. The clay is full of cracks, the ink is clotted, and the paper is soggy. Just about the only things which don't have some structural flaws are the series of statues within the central chamber. There are many such statues in that Parthenon-like section, all of them depicting artists I've come to admire from throughout history. Most of them are probably inaccurate embellishments, but that doesn't matter. The idea within the marble, that immortal principle embodied inside fragile vessels… that is what mattered.

Progressing through the membrane that separates the self from the wider dreamscape is matter of symbolic association. I am travelling to the city of Sweeney, which catches hope and aspiration like flies to a web, so I have to find and resonate with its wavelength. Easier said than done, but the possibility of being late to the rendezvous spurs me onward.

I sit in the center of the marble chamber in a lotus position, and focus on my own hopes. I start with the realistic ones, and edge out into the more improbable.

I hope to become recognizable as a good artist. I hope to be an influence on my world. I hope my influence is inspiring. I hope my influence inspires justice. I hope to see a better world. I hope to see a good world. I hope to see a great world.

Feeling the connection to Sweeney strengthen but not manifest, I search for something more… simple.

I hope to one day be strong.

The stone around me transforms itself into a spiral staircase that reaches into the clouds. As I climb the steps, I tell myself that all of those historical artists are silently supportive. Today, the first names to come to mind are Francisco Goya and Jean-Francois Millet. I hope their spirits and blessings are with me as I depart — even if I wasn't sure I believed in such things.

I hope, someday, that I am one of those statues in someone else's Parthenon.

And with that hope and aspiration, I emerge out of the clouds and into a thorough change of scene. Though it is mercurial and often blurry, some identifiers remain constant. Sweeney is always a city of the heavens, its denizens are always friendly in demeanor, and the weather is always sunny. I'm told that only calamitous events ever change any of these characteristics, but whenever I try to inquire about details, people would do their best to avoid the topic.

Today, Sweeney looks humble. Not like a palace, not like a gold-encrusted capitol, but instead three separate hills of neatly layered single-story buildings, most of which are houses but some of which are businesses dealing in that lucrative endeavor of dreaming. It is propped atop the most perfectly shaped white cloud that one could imagine, likely because you were at all times quite literally imagining it. It's fluffy, it's round, it looks like it was made out of cotton and wool, and its soft white serves to make the pastel rooftops stick out even more.

I jump like an excitable rabbit from stratus to cumulus to stratocumulus until I finally find myself climbing the satin side of the city, reaching level ground, catching my breath, and starting down one of the lower roads. I follow the signs as a symbolic gesture, but know that I'll end up where I'm going no matter the path I take. I can't help but notice that Sweeney is eternally childish in aesthetic; all pastel and idealized. Lions gathered in the city hall are wise kings, owls working in schools are erudite teachers, and the dolphins offering street performances would not even conceive of doing anything real dolphins do (except chirp and play, I guess). This unrelenting cheerfulness and enthusiasm should infect me, but it leaves me wondering if the lives of those who dreamed this up are just as blisteringly positive or if Sweeney is an escape through and through.

This mindset festers and ferments until the psychic association between the emotion and taste of bitterness brings me to a tavern. The metaphorical had materialized in a more literal form, so I was doing something right despite my inexperience. I hear familiar voices coming from within: Gina's boisterous rallying, and Chris' brooding retorts. I enter the establishment, struggle momentarily to spot them, and then find the waving arm of Gina to follow to my seat.

The interior design has a certain Deco aesthetic, with a lot of black and gold angles elegantly intertwined with each other. The patrons listen intently to these vintage radios evenly spaced throughout the walls, which play everything from soothing jazz to enthusiastic swing.

Many tankards had already been filled, emptied and placed on top of each other on their table in a pyramid-like shape. Gina is having fun playing off the idea of the pyramid representing society. Something about the many at the bottom supporting the few at the top. She isn't making a lot of progress with recruitment, though… what with her avatar looking like a blood-soaked French Revolutionary. Chris' avatar is exactly the same as his real self, which is absurdly rare and always makes me a little uncomfortable.

I, for my part, am taller and healthier than in my waking hours.

Something in my imagination conflates heartiness with heat, and so my avatar radiates a sort of subtle warmth. Mirrors are fickle things on the oneiric planes, so I have never been able to corroborate this evidence, but many tell me that I've obscured my face somehow. Gina has come to recognize me by my facial ambiguity — which bothers me to no end, because I'd never made the conscious choice to have it that way. The most prominent thing, however, is the fact that I rarely speak. In the waking world, I have to make effort to sound alive and well. In response, my avatar communicates through speech bubbles made of ink.

A large question mark hovers next to my head as I stare at them, probably awkwardly, though I can hope whatever blurs my features also has some effect on my expressions. The speech bubble becomes rectangular and reminiscent of wartime propaganda with an Uncle Sam-like figure on it. I flag down a waiter and order plain old water, since any amount of solid or imaginary alcohol past a few sips does horrors to my judgment and coordination. The waiter seems to understand me easily despite my eccentric form of communication. They have likely seen much weirder things.

"We were planning on visiting the dominions which have a lot more active conflict going on, such as the ones linked to Hong Kong," Gina's smile grows three sizes and assumes an almost predatory aspect, like she's thinking of sinking her teeth into someone's neck and tearing out a chunk. "But since you're a newbie, we decided that Oneiroi East would be just a bit too dangerous." Her smile is gone, carried away with a dramatic sigh.

More question marks swarm around my head. An image of an idealized, superhero-like soldier wearing the colors of the USA flag appears, and I almost chuckle. It would have been a nervous and rather displeased sound. Do they think of me as dead weight, someone not worth bringing on important missions? I force these thoughts away lest they manifest as embarrassing speech bubbles. Chris keeps focusing on the doors like a hawk, not saying anything but clearly deep in thought.

"We don't go against Chris' intuition," Gina says as if that's a self-evident truth, akin to you'll feel pain if you shove your hand into fire. I shrug. The silence grows uncomfortable, so I conjure a deck of playing cards to pass the time, or at least some abstract measurement of it.

The radios suddenly glitch and skip. They go silent, play backwards, and transmit snippets of something that vaguely sounds like music from a children's cartoon.

I stop halfway into lifting my glass to take a sip of water, as I realize the liquid has been turned into a greasy black oil. Judging by some spitting and disgusted sounds I hear from patrons around me, I'm not the only one.

Quiet, wet slaps begin to increase in volume and frequency, until there is a drizzle of the same oily substance dripping from between the boards and out of the light fixtures in the ceiling.

Exclamation points begin to circle my head, and depictions of knives, guns, cups of acid, and various other types of weapons begin to pop into and out of existence around me.

"Aggy's right," Gina says as she suddenly stands stock straight and gently shakes Chris' shoulder. "Something's fucked. We'd better leave."

Chris' icy eyes hadn't moved an inch from the door, and he responds to Gina only by holding up one hand, open palm. Chris has spoken. Gina sits back down, and makes her best attempt to look comfortable. I suddenly wish I had a voice, so I could ask what exactly that interaction was supposed to mean, but even as I think it I know I wouldn't have the strength to ask it. Instead, I give her my best concerned look. I reach a hand up to indicate the exclamation points that have yet to dissipate, and she gives me a curt wave and a furrowed brow, before following Chris' stare to the door.

The natural light filtering through the windows is interrupted by a crimson fog. A half-real sniffle echoes — not throughout the room, but directly inside my head. I feel violated, and I reflexively begin to scratch at my scalp.

Jagged exclamation marks dart around my entire field of vision, but I quickly notice that everyone in the tavern has vanished except for Gina, Chris, and myself.

"Honey, this reeks of Bookburner, we've got to leave immediately." Gina says, standing again, this time conjuring a bayonet-tipped rifle. Chris grabs her arm and pulls her back down, his expression hard to read but as tense as steel cable.

"I have a good feeling about this one," Chris says nonchalantly. At some point, a smile had worked itself onto his face, and though it was milder, smaller, and humbler, it disconcerted me more than the wide, bloodthirsty grin Gina had given me moments ago. On a similar note, her repeat behavior of suddenly and unquestioningly bending to his suggestion makes me feel weak in my stomach. How the fuck is any of this a good sign? My head is full of a thousand questions, but all of them have to be silenced. Chris gestures for us to go below the table, and he sneaks around until he can peer outside just a tiny bit.

I tremble as I bring a hand to my face. The fear is such that the oil sticking to my skin didn't register until now. I feel like vomiting and crying, but Gina punches me in the shoulder and places a finger in front of her mouth. Immediately I feel awful in a completely different way. I am so fucking fragile.

Moments crawl by like hours, and I'm already questioning if this was worth getting involved in. Finally, Chris motions for us to leave the tavern, seemingly not bothered in the slightest by the thick coating of oil all over him.

Sweeney had changed. The streets are absolutely empty — I imagine that plenty of dreamers had suddenly decided that waking up was in their best interest. Everything is some shade of crimson, and the only sound is the howling wind. No, wait. I can hear something metallic, something clanking, like pistons pushing and steam hissing. I have no idea of what to do. I want to wake up, but then they will surely think of me as worthless. I start biting my fingernails and looking around, trying to identify what could be causing all of this.

I do not have to wonder for very long.

Something indistinct comes into view in the fog some distance away. Something which has a humanoid shape, but inhuman proportions.

Gina keeps her rifle aimed and ready to fire, but awaits Chris to give a sign. The figure gets closer and closer, the howling wind carrying the same sniffle from before, both inside my head and all around my body. I manage to clean enough oil from my face to see that there is a spherical region centered on this figure which retains the sunny and colorful visuals of the city. Chris stares like his life depends on it, and I hope to whatever God might exist that he's thinking of a plan.

I conjure a pistol, because my terror won't let me think of anything more complex. Suddenly I don't seem so hearty, with my hand shaking like I'm waist-deep in snow. The figure gets close enough that I identify it as a woman. Though the bubble of pastels should keep the oil off of her, she somehow seems the worst affected. She is covered from head to toe in grime and oil, shallow cuts and deeper gashes leaking more of the sludge instead of blood. Pigtails try to break from the layer of pollution but are matted to her head. It is impossible to tell exactly what colors she's supposed to be wearing, but a business-casual dress looks pink and yellow where it can poke out.

Like a snail, she trails the mucus-y excretions behind her. She plods forward at a glacial pace, using a closed red umbrella like a walking stick — the lady's legs bend and curve like limp rubber hoses, bending like slinkies until they are brought forward, literally increasing their length to reach a point too far in front of her. On closer inspection, her arms also bend into U-shapes as they sag.

"There's our new recruit," Chris huffs. "Stand straight. Don't speak. Don't react. Make eye contact."

Gina and I stare at him in shock and disbelief. Does he even know who that is? What that thing is? What if it's dangerous? What happens if you die in the dreamscape? Judging by Gina's worries from earlier, I can't help but think that the consequences are much more real than "dreaming" would lead you to believe.

Never have I been more upset that my avatar couldn't talk. The first things I can conjure are images — raw emotion, faces of worry, distorted depictions of gruesome deaths, questions marks surrounding skulls and paintings of the three of us sleeping in our beds. I begin to focus it down into actual writing, placing the speech bubble directly in front of Chris so as to grab his attention. He merely steps to its side, but suddenly looks startled. He turns his head every which way, before turning completely around to give me a sour glare.

I cower, but he doesn't seem to notice. He looks directly above my head, and his expression softens. Gina follows his gaze, and then jumps back, raising her weapon, the muzzle of which Chris gently pushes down. I take the cue, and run for cover, which in this case happens to be Chris' body. Tilting my head up, the woman has made herself very much in our presence. In fact, she is laying directly atop my leftover depictions of Chris, Gina and I, the back of her hand on her head, like she is silently experiencing a great operatic tragedy.

There is a horrible, dissonant pause, where the woman splays herself out like she's been stabbed, her eyes passing intermittently between the three of us. I look to Gina to try and get a sense of what to do, and she only motions towards Chris. With trepidation, she disappears her rifle… and I, with even more hesitation, disappear my own.

"You people are interesting." Her voice is small but soprano, like she hasn't quite hit puberty yet. The thought bubble seems to deflate, bringing her ever closer to the ground, while she places a hand over her heart and twists her face into the most exaggerated form of agony she can muster — and what a face of agony it is. Her eyes seem to become less-than and greater-than signs, made of ink (or maybe oil) and extending beyond the borders of her face. The contortions of her brow and her mouth are beyond the capabilities of human muscle. She looks fake. She looks like she's drawn from colored pens.

"You're the first people who haven't run away," she continues, ponderous. The thought bubble hits the ground and poofs out of existence, and she rolls off of it fluidly, almost gracefully. The sudden fall looks choreographed. She literally bounces and tumbles like a barrel on a hill towards the three of us, streaking grime and flinging more into the air around her. Gina and I startle backwards, but Chris stands his ground, and she comes to a stop at his feet, looking up at him with a cocked head.

"Does that make you good guys or bad guys?"

"Good guys," Chris responds without hesitation.

He kneels down and offers a hand. The aura around this lady, the flood of pastels that she paints over her environment, serve to put herself and Chris in a kind of spotlight among the crimson fog and shadowy buildings. She takes his hand and peers at him with curious eyes, before taking turns looking at Gina and I.

"You recognize my plight? My struggle? You unquestioningly and instantaneously know the difference between right and wrong?" She straightens and slides dangerously fast from down-and-out to up-and-at-'em. "You know injustice when you see it, and you know when force is necessary?"

Chris doesn't flinch at the sudden volume of her voice, and the very real lengthening of her legs that puts her head and shoulders above everyone else, dripping little black spots onto his hair, face, and shirt.

"Of course."

"Of course?"

Chris nods.

She shrinks back down to the size of a normal person. Maybe even a little smaller. "I had to kill a god once. Would you do the same?"

"If I got the chance, I'd do away with gods altogether."

She smiles, and the corners of her smile reach past the borders of her face. All the more realistic features of her body melt into cell-shading and clear black borders, and in the process, all the oil starts to dry up like water evaporating off the bottom of a pan. Suddenly, she starts to look sweet, composed… pretty, even. She looks young. Right between 12 and 13. Her voice sounds slightly older than that, but her face portrays nothing of the sort.

Her business suit is not just pink and yellow, but green, purple, and blue. It's a horrible mashup of high saturation that doesn't mesh with itself at all, but something about all the polka dots is charming in its own way.

Her pigtails spring up out of the muck as it washes off of her into nothingness, but are soon hidden under a top hat that appears out of nowhere. As if to clash as much as possible, while her business suit is all bright, her top hat is a deep royal purple with a golden "W" on it, tilted to one side. Nothing fits together. It really does look like an outfit picked out by a 12 year old who got too excited after she learned how to sew.

The change of scene is so disarming, it actually makes me crack a smile, which alarms me in its own way.

Sweeney returns to normal, if still abandoned. The crimson fog clears away, the sounds of far away machinery retreat into nothing, the soft colors of the city return to their proper places and the sky is blue once more. Natural light fills the streets; the sun shines down like nothing went wrong.

I double-take as I literally hear a swell of adventurous music begin to play. Violins and drums, their source placeless and directionless, slowly build, gradually crescendo, scaling up to a—!

"Wait, do they agree?"

She motions towards myself and Gina.

I look to Gina, but she keeps her eyes on the woman. She nods.

Do all recruitments look like this? I turn back, and nod too, more enthusiastically than I expected to.

"Good!" The music bursts back into being. Glockenspiels, violins, big bass drums, and maybe some interjections of flute and brass. It's her theme song, I realize. She twirls to a spot in the exact middle of all of us, extends her umbrella towards the sky, opens it, and then brings it down so that if it were a cane it would point at us. It lets us read previously unseen golden text, written on the rim. Her title.

"You passed my test I guess! Greetings and salutations, dreamwalkers! I'm Dr. Isabel Helga Anastasia Parvati Wondertainment the Fifth, Pea Aech Dee. I have big plans, and we're going to be working together now. Any questions?"

Despite the fear trickling out of my system, a pressure in my chest remains as Chris and Gina shake their heads and I follow suit out of habit.

My mind is other places, but I'm trying to bring it here, to the now.

I'm having my sandwich again. White bread. Ham. Swiss cheese. Mayonnaise. Habit is reassuring. I like having things I can count on. I take a bite, and lean back on the bench.

Very literally, I was dreaming. But that doesn't mean it wasn't real in a way that should affect me now. But my life is disconnected like that. I have reality, and then I have the Hand. The Hand is real. But it isn't reality like this is. Not in the same way.

There are all these people passing by. Going from one class to another. That's what I'm trying to focus on. I'm trying to look at people, and see how we're the same instead of how we're different. It's a lot more difficult than I at first expected it to be. Mostly, I see things people have that I don't. I see them walking with backpacks. I see them carrying conversations. I see them laughing. I see them kissing, hugging. I see them having friends. I see them running, sometimes.

But mostly, I see them.

The other. The disconnect. I see castes, and hierarchies. I see cliques. I see groups, I see associations. I start dreaming up a painting. I start imagining everyone as grouped into colors, some bigger than others, some even monstrously huge. Oranges, purples, reds, yellows, magentas, and gradients in between. One lone figure would be gray, and they would be the smallest of everyone. That's how it feels, right now, looking at all these people, and eating my sandwich, and sitting on a bench doing nothing. That's how it feels a lot.

"So the American Secure Containment Initiative formed not just in order to keep the magical out of the public eye, but to suppress scientific knowledge until the public could use it safely. It was an increasing amount of anxiety and mistrust that has made the original plan wither on the vine, and be replaced by the weeds of suppression and oppression that have since taken root. Do you understand?"

"I do," I tell Mr. Wegener.

"Would you repeat back to me what I said?"

"What? Why?"

He sits still, on his chair just outside the door to the North American Atrium.

I concede. "The SCP Foundation was originally created to monitor the progress of humanity, and then dovetailed into inhibiting it after losing sight of the original goal."



He sits a little straighter, taking in a deep breath through a very wide nose. "Your mind is elsewhere. I can tell. I thought you might not be listening."

"I started reading what you gave me. It's interesting, but I don't feel safe taking it out of the Library. I've found an empty shelf where I keep it and pick it up, but that's not very often. I haven't done as much reading as you wanted. Sorry."

"Mmm," he hums in response. "What else?"

"What else?"

"There is more."

I look at him with what I hope is an expression of confusion, but might look a little more pleading than that. I sigh. "Chris and Gina. I accompanied them on a recruitment drive to the Oneiroi. We unexpectedly met a dream… being. Her name is Isabel, and she claims to be a Wondertainment creation, but they don't know she exists. Now she's all Gina and Chris talk about."

Halfway through I am aware of how little resistance I put up before giving that information.

Mr. Wegener nods. "Tulpas are interesting beings. Your encounter was uncomfortable?"

"She's confusing." I meet his eyes. "And scary."

"Scary how?"

"On the most basic level. She's alien. I don't understand her. She's scary."

He nods again. "Dreamforms can think so differently from us that they feel inhuman. But it is precisely the differences between us and them that make their input so useful."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean to say that if you fear her only because you do not understand her, then make an effort to understand. Misunderstanding can easily turn into fear, then rejection and anger. Always be open to new ideas. Life is change. Those who are stuck in their ways will not be able to cope with change."

Mr. Wegener is full of little wisdoms like those. On one level, I think they come off as patronizing in their simplicity and with how much he felt like I needed to hear. But… I do also take what he says to heart.

"Alright," I say, even though I'm not sure how exactly that applies to my situation. I think I'm scared of her on a level deeper than simple… misunderstanding. She seems alien in a way that is incompatible with what I know. Her proportions, both physical and mental, are cartoony and theatrical. I'm finding it difficult to figure out why Gina and Chris are so taken.

"Well," Adolf moves on, "if you haven't read as much as I expected, I think now might be a perfect time to read." He gives me a nice, warm smile, which I return.

"I'll get right on it."

We shake hands, I with the book under my arms, and then part ways. I step inside the doors of the Atrium, into the slightly louder murmur of quiet voices. My eyes pass over the table where Faeowynn sometimes sits, and sure enough. There she is.

Slightly disappointed, I make my way down the brief set of stairs towards the center-west part of the Atrium, and set myself down opposite her. Her eyes meet mine, and we exchange a brief, colorless smile. I place the book on the table, breathing slightly heavier just from carrying this weighty tome from Adolf to here, and open it.

On chapter three, I'm reading about the first recorded anomalous phenomena captured by the group. They're rather mundane, relatively speaking. A trail that goes up a hill forever, and some monsters you might expect to find in your next blockbuster horror movie. It's beginning to detail the research element. I metaphorically roll my eyes at it. I've always been skeptical about research into the paranormal — magic seems to be just that: magic. I can't deny that there are those who seem to have some understanding that unlocks them abilities they never had, but I've met some of those people, and no one has been able to tell me how it works, just that it does.

From my perspective, magic has been an ever growing art form with no hard rules and a lot of associations. If, for example, a red string has been used in three different spells that produce fire with no common elements except red string, likely experimenting with red string will bring about more fire in other ways. But that's looking at the most traditional side of magic. The Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons side of magic.

The other end of the spectrum is chaos. Sometimes, things just happen for no discernible reason. Sometimes, time doesn't work quite right. Sometimes, a baby's death is more than a baby's death, and it infects an entire building with… something. Beyond learning spells, there is a very select caste of people — no, beings — which have some kind of understanding of the chaos of the magical world. These things, then, are the most powerful things you can come across. The Serpent, deep in the Library, is one, and the only one I even have a chance of interacting with.

Needless to say, the SCP Foundation, or, at this point in the timeline, the American Secure Containment Initiative, is not anywhere near this level. Mr. Wegener tells me the modern version is getting close, though.

"You're reading Jailor history?"

I lowered the book just a little to see Faeowynn's eyes peering over the top of it. She's too immured within the Foundation, though 'immured' might be giving her too much credit. The point is that she only uses the title of Jailor to fit in. If she were honest, she'd call them the Supervisors, like she knows them.

"Yeah," I say, dry as I can get it.

"What sparked your interest?"

I take a deep breath. "Mr. Wegener assigned me it. It's part of… understanding the state of the world."

She nods. "Are you going to study the modern Foundation?"

"He hasn't said," I try to be evasive at first but think better of it. "Probably. It would be the natural next step."

She nods again, like she's proud of me or something. "When you do, tell me. I have very direct experience."

I raise my eyebrows. "Isn't that, uh, classified, between you and them?"

She smiles back at me, and leans towards me: "Nothing's classified in the Library."

She sits back in her chair, takes a sip of a tea she has with her, and then starts back up on her paperwork. Looks like the usual. Something to do with animals, schedules, feeding. She runs a whole organization. It looks like an enormous amount of work. She has with her a couple tomes; I've gleaned that's why she comes here. When she needs special information for keeping an animal healthy and comfortable.

My opinion of her changes, incrementally, towards something… nonthreatening. She didn't wait for a response, and I don't give her one, returning to my book posthaste.

But I'm interrupted.

"Hey," Gina taps me on the shoulder, "come with Chris and I, we want to tell you something."

I turn around, and see her leaning over me. What's with girls and leaning, today?

"Can't you tell me here? I'm in the middle of something."

"No," is all she says, and then she starts walking with a skip in her step towards the closest exit from the Atrium, expecting me to follow.

I wince as I watch her be completely unaware of the pace she is asking me to match, practically jogging towards her destination. I take a deep breath, pick up my book, and head in her direction.

She ducks between bookshelves, goes up and down stairs, sometimes passes out of the lit areas of the Library, and generally makes following her a chore like no other. I'm heaving and slowing down halfway through, keeping track of her through gaps in the books, scrolls, USBs, tablets, and all other forms of record-keeping. I eventually lose her.

"Gina?" I'm completely out of breath, my call sounds hoarse and strained. I suddenly wish I'd brought my water bottle. "Gina? Where'd you — oh!"

An arm reaches out and pulls me into a gap between shelves so slim I wouldn't have noticed it. I fit through just fine, but that's because I'm small. I can tell Chris and Gina would really have to squeeze to get in here.

And here is a nice little… grove type thing. It's a small, circular area, with a couple of chairs, a roof (not a guarantee in the Wanderer's Library), and several potted plants that look a bit on the yellow side of green, yet still lush. I wonder how they survive in a place with no sunlight, but quickly conclude that such considerations are easily sidestepped in places so mystical as this.

Chris sits on a chair — a simple, boring chair — like a throne, legs splayed out and arms firmly on the armrests, on the wall of the circle opposite the gap. Gina is there, having pulled me in, but there is also a third figure, this one decidedly more mystical looking than any of the three of us.

"Stay quiet, this is a secret place!" Gina warns.

I have trouble getting words out through heavy breaths, and drop my book with not even a modicum of grace. The sound first startles, then annoys Gina. "Secret… how?"

"Secret in that we like having privacy, come on. Sit down if you're so tired."

I don't need to be told twice. I take the seat closest to the entrance, because I don't trust my legs to carry me any further than that.

Gina momentarily pushed her mouth up in an expression of concern. "Sorry."

I give her a dismissive wave. I try to talk, but end up coughing all of a sudden. In the fit, I point to our fourth member, hoping that'll get across the question.

"He's going to help us," says Chris.

Sitting mostly in darkness, the figure is notable for its glowing blue head, made of a series of rotating concentric rings. The rest of its body is covered in cloth, boots, and gloves, which give no indication of what its surface might be like. His surface. I always do that, and I hate myself for it.

"What with?" I manage to get out, before covering my mouth again.

Gina looks giddy as all get-out, shaking her hands, and smiling like a shark. I imagine our guest can't speak, because Chris answers:

"Getting Isabel a body."

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