CAST
CAST
By: Placeholder McDPlaceholder McD
PUBLISHED: 23 Apr 2021 05:22
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rating: +38+x

In Site-87's break room, the wide-windowed far wall allows the light of dawn to pour in, half-illuminating a light-blue coffee mug. The words "GET IT?" are visible on one side, though the other faces the wall. It sits, crooked and stained, among a myriad of tidily-placed cups and other dishes, the rest washed the night before.

It's not much later that the room's far door creaks open, the sounds of Converse on tile accompanied by a cursory yawn. A leather trench coat obscures the mug as its wearer steps up to the counter, taking hold of the coffee pot with one hand and reaching up to the cupboard with the other. After searching a bit, he looks down to realize his cup is directly in front of him; he'd brought it back late in the evening, so it hadn't been washed by janitorial staff. With a huff, he turns the adjacent sink's knob and proceeds to rinse out his mug. He pours it four-fifths full of dark roast, returns the pot to the counter, and turns to exit the room.

Early, as usual, the scientist walks the near-silent halls in stride. Bustling or not, he was accustomed to tuning out his surroundings, his mind always halfway-somewhere-else. As he walks, his coffee balances on a clipboard and attached document displaying a list of names. Some are circled, others are crossed out in another color — not in an attempt to color-code, but because he'd had a different pen at home than in his office. His pace slows as he picks up his mug, tucking the clipboard under his arm to free up his left hand, then fishing around his pocket for his ID card. He produces the card and taps it to a sensor where a doorknob would be, hearing the faint clicking of the lock prior to the door's opening.

He steps inside, and the door shuts behind him; a plaque reads: "DR. PLACEHOLDER MCDOCTORATE, PHD., DIRECTOR OF PATAPHYSICS". An apostrophe preceding the final word has been visibly scratched out. On the opposite side of the door, Place hangs his leather jacket and carefully sets his mug down on his desk. Documents resembling the one on his clipboard litter the desk in abundance, covering most of its surface sans the perfectly cup-sized spot in which his coffee sits. After placing his clipboard atop the mess, he turns to his whiteboard and grabs a dry-erase marker. The opposite side of the mug, now visible, reads "SYNECDOCHE".

Get it?

CAST

A few hours later, Place has exchanged an empty coffee cup for a full whiteboard. Following his prototyping of the Placeholder Exploratory Engine he'd taken a brief break for the holidays, though he'd spent it only half-relaxed and half-working; he'd rewatched Breaking Bad and its spinoffs while combing over the list of archetypical personnel he'd been provided. This had been in keeping with his New Year's resolution to be more thorough and methodical in his work, as his inclination was just to bring along the personnel who seemed the most 'fun' — or, as fun as a side-character could be, anyway.

Having just finished his vetting that morning, he sits at his desk with a contented sigh, re-reading the final list of names on his whiteboard. Receding from his state of focus, he hears the rest of the Site begin to hustle and bustle outside his office, watches one Dr. Zachary Saxon pass by his window. Place'd need to have a talk with him soon — after all, he thought, someone needs to hold down the fort during the mission, and who better than the guy attentive enough to complain about

He doesn't even get to finish his thought before Saxon returns to the window with a wad of Post-it notes and a pen. After scribbling for a few moments, he detaches the note and sticks it to the window, gesturing towards it with a glare before walking off. It reads, "SIGN OUT OF LAB TERMINAL BEFORE I RENAME ANOTHER FILE". Place rolls his eyes and turns to his computer to compose an email, intending to propose his final crew list to his project co-lead. No sooner has he typed Dr. Blank's email address before he's interrupted by his desk phone's ringtone. Upon picking up, he's greeted by a familiarly-unfamiliar voice.

"Place! You're back early." O5-8 sounds pleasantly surprised. Place, also, is pleasantly surprised, though instead by the lapse in his superior's stoicism.

"Yeah, I know I booked off another few days, but I felt spontaneously motivated today, y'know? That, and I finished getting the crew together early."

"Great to hear. Actually, that's what I'm calling about. See, I did some combing through the list myself."

"Oh?" He scans his SCiPnet storage for the digital copy of the list he'd been sent a few weeks prior, but its name doesn't come up in his search.

"Yeah, actually — I actually wanted to recommend a researcher for your mission, and it seems he wasn't included in the original version of the list."

"Uh-huh." Place responds absent-mindedly, searching for the file. He eventually realizes that his version wouldn't have the aforementioned employee, anyways.

"He did his narration exam a day late, but he's got the lowest protagonism reading we've received. His name's Dr. Jay Dune, senior researcher in metafictional anomalies."

He resists the urge to audibly scoff. Metafictionals, the department he'd been trying to absorb for a decade. They think they're so important just because they deal in one-dimensional narratives becoming two-dimensional. They'd argued to administrative staff that their multimedia expertise significantly differentiated them from Pataphysics, which typically deals in baseline or higher-dimensional narrative structures — as if every story doesn't have a damn medium

"Place, you there?"

"Shoot, sorry, got distracted looking for the list. Listen, I really appreciate it, Eight, but I worked real hard on choosing and vetting the current crew, and —"

"Hey, I know you've got your issues with the Metafiction Department, but give this guy a chance."

"No, I mean…" He huffs. "While you're not wrong, that's not my main concern here. If we bring an extra crewmember along, we've gotta add another room to the sleeping quarters, recalculate food and supplies, fuel, storage —"

"McDoctorate." Suddenly, O5-8's trademark stoicism returns. "I don't want to have to pull rank on you, but, as your project advisor, I'm telling you that Dune will be vital to the mission. I've worked with him on numerous occasions and, though they're classified, I can tell you that you'll want him on your team."

There is a pause. Place leans back in his chair, running a hand through his hair. "Uh… alright, I mean, sure. So, if I resubmit schematics and supply requests, you'll get them okayed with the Council?"

"You'll get everything you need from my end. Make it happen."

There's a click, and he's alone again. He blinks, surprised, and slowly sets down his phone. Jay Dune… Despite collaborating (not by choice) with Metafiction on several occasions, the name didn't ring any bells. Maybe he works at a classified location? Regardless, he'll have his work cut out for him today, unfortunately. Looking back to his personal terminal, he recalls he'd been searching for his archetypicals list, and decides to check his access history.

The most recently-accessed file has been renamed, "LOG OUT OF LAB TERMINAL".


Place sits in the Site's lobby on a strangely-sunny January afternoon, watching through the window as the white Wisconsin winter melts. He sits on a worn leather sofa, Rubik's Cube in hand, and practices his left-handed solves. This leaves his right hand free to press to his earpiece, which it does, following the sterile beep of a SCiPnet notification. He answers to the Site mainframe's artificially-intelligent conscript.

"Yeah, Moneta?"

Her voice retains the authenticity of 90's-era AICs, digitized and autotuned. "Director Blank is approximately three minutes away."

"I know he'll be here soon, you don't need to keep me posted. I'm not that impatient."

"Yes, Place, you are."

He scoffs, smirking at the remark. "As factual as that may be, I don't recall programming snark into you."

"I learn from the best, sir."

"Flattery won't get you anywhere. Have the other attendees responded to their emails?"

"Yes. The Site-43 recruits will arrive around the same time; the others' flights are two and two-and-a-half hours out, respectively."

He recognizes a blue beat-up pickup truck as it passes the Site's gates and enters the parking lot. "Thanks, Moneta." With that, he sets his toy aside, turning off his earpiece and getting up to greet his friend and colleague. Stepping through the revolving door, his eyes water at the difference in temperature, and he pulls his sweater's sleeves down as he approaches the truck.

Blank.png

Following a not-perfect-but-good-enough parallel parking job, one Dr. Harold Blank, Director of Site-43, steps out to greet him. "Ah, seems I've arrived on time, then."

"Good to see you too, Harry. How was the drive?"

He scoffs. "It's the first week of January, and I live in Ontario."

"That's the spirit."

Place chuckles as he leans back against the wall. Blank starts to walk past him, then stops, turning back and raising a brow. "Aren't we going inside?"

"Well, I figured we'd wait for your co-worker. He's bound to be here soon."

"Co-worker?" The scruffy-haired man crosses his arms. "There's another archetypical at Site-43?"

Shit, he hadn't sent Harry the final crew earlier. "Uh… yeah, I meant to tell you earlier, but some stuff came up."

"Who?"

Oh, boy. Place shoots him a cagey glance.

"You're kidding."

Their standoff is interrupted by the resonant ding of metal against metal; looking towards its source reveals the dented rear bumper of a tan Sedan, having contacted the pole of a large sign reading "Visitation Parking". Its driver attempts to pull away and park, but the vehicle has apparently chosen this exact moment to run out of gas.

Blank looks back to Place, wide-eyed, and gestures towards the show of incompetence in the parking lot. "Seriously?"

"You guys have prior working experience!"

"If you call failure experience, sure."

Place opens his mouth to retort, but quickly shuts it as they're approached by a stout, blonde-haired man. "Well, the car's not exactly in the way, so I'm leaving it for now, but I will need gas from one of you later."

He's greeted by a blank stare, and a Blank stare. "I know fucking up is your entire personality, but come on," exclaims his exasperated superior.

Dr. William Wettle, Site-43's Chair (by some miracle) of Research and Experimentation, ignores Dr. Blank, instead producing a cigarette and lighter. He attempts to light it, with no concern for present company, only to find that the wind won't allow it.

Place pinches the bridge of his nose, then extends his hand with a sigh. "Dr. Wettle, I've heard, uh… well, your reputation precedes you."

Wettle scoffs as he pockets his lighter, refusing to reciprocate the gesture. "Coming from the guy named McDoctorate. At least my name doesn't convey my idiocy."

"It does, actually," Blank retorts. "And you told me you were going offsite for lunch."

"I did, and then I came here. Not sure why you didn't arrive earlier."

"I… also had lunch."

"Oh? How'd you fit the whole restaurant in your car?"

"Guys, please," Place interrupts, rubbing his temples. "Listen, Will, just hook into the Site's mainframe and Moneta will show you to the conference room. We'll get started with the seminar when the rest of the crew gets here."

"Oooh, another piece of tech to piss me off. This place just loves to hate me." Wettle returns his unlit cigarette to its carton, producing his phone instead. "What's their ETA?"

"We're looking at around three hours."

He rolls his eyes, proceeding towards the Site's revolving door. As he steps inside, his computer bag gets stuck behind him, stopping the door's spinning and causing his face to smash into the glass.

Blank runs a hand through his long, silver hair. "You want to spend a month in space. With that guy."

"Any good story needs comic relief, buddy."


Place steps into Site-87's Conference Suite, a semicircular room possessing a large table of the same shape; it'd been built that way so there wouldn't be a fourth wall to break, or so he'd been told. Around the table's long side, seven seats are situated equidistantly, six of which are occupied. He turns to Blank, watching his oft-disgruntled friend slowly realize that the only remaining empty chair is next to his unpleasant acquaintance. With a sigh, Blank trudges over to the table and takes a seat.

Place steps up to the center of the room, running a hand through his hair. The suite's flat wall possesses a large whiteboard — as do most rooms Place uses — which doubles as a projection surface. He glances back to the meeting's attendees, who glance back to him expectantly. After a pause, he paces to the back of the room, taking an extra chair and pulling it in front of his podium and laptop. He sits on it backward, facing the table.

"Hey, all, good to see you. Provided everything goes well, we'll be spending quite a bit of time cramped in a giant tube together over the next couple months, so I think it'd be cool if we all got to know each other." Place gives them a reassuring smile, opening his mouth to continue before —

"I'll go first," barks Wettle from the table's left end. "My name's Will, and this is my babysitter, Harry." He gestures to his Director, who lets out an exasperated sigh, eliciting a chuckle from a brunette woman across the table.

"I'd prefer Director Blank, for the time being," he retorts. "This is my pet idiot, Dr. Wettle."

Place removes his glasses, staring pointedly at the pair. "Got it all out of your system?"

Blank crosses his arms, apparently satisfied. Wettle silently mocks Place's words, retrieving a coin from his pocket and beginning to flip it over his knuckles.

"Good. Some of you know me already; for those who don't, my name is Placeholder McDoctorate. I'm the Director of the Pataphysics Department, and I'm the founding Head of the Archetypicals Division, of which you are all prospective members." Place cleans his glasses absent-mindedly, his spiel apparently preconceived. "Aside from narrativism, my areas of expertise are astrophysics, particle physics, dimensional technologies, abstract mathematics, and AI research."

He dons his glasses, glancing up to a few confused gazes. "Right, yes, frequently asked questions. Am I using a fake name? Technically, yes, but not by choice; I'm bound by a CURSE to always be called some variant of Placeholder McDoctorate. Do I expect you to call me Doctor McDoctorate? No, I prefer Place. Is it contagious? Only if you ask too many questions." He gives an earnest smile, pressing his palms to the table.

He gestures to his left as he continues, "Now, since our friends from Site-43 have had some trouble introducing themselves, I have the pleasure of doing so, instead. Site-43's Director Harold Blank is an anomalo-historian, with secondary expertise in toxicology and memetics."

"Don't forget Optics," Blank grumbles.

"Right. Dr. William Wettle, here, is Chair of Research and Experimentation, with expertise in replication studies."

As Place's gaze pans right, a tall, red-haired woman clears her throat. She wears thick, clear-rimmed glasses and sits straight and poised, her fingers clasped together atop her work tablet. "Hello. I'm Holly Stern, Site-87's resident Systems Technician. My foci are computer science and electrical engineering. I'm excited to know exactly what the Archetypicals Division is," she states, with no visible excitement.

Place smirks. "Well, then, you've got the rest of the meeting to look forward to."

"Fair enough." She turns to her left, glancing expectantly at the next attendee in line.

"Oh! My turn, cool." The brunette woman presents a pearly-white smile to the room as her fingertips tap idly against a black three-ring binder. "I'm Madeleine King, Junior Researcher for the Mathematics Department. Really pleased to meet you all; I haven't been with the Foundation for particularly long, so I'm flattered to have been chosen for this! Whatever, er, this is."

"I thought the Maths Department didn't let Juniors into their cool kids' club," Wettle comments with a yawn.

King's pleasant demeanor gives way to apparent discomfort. "Not that it should matter, but I'm studying under the Director's supervision."

A red-bearded man speaks from the far end of the table. "Oh, shit, thought I recognized you. You're Everett's daughter."

Holly cuts in. "Sorry, who?"

"Everett King's the Director of the Maths Department."

Wettle smirks. "That adds up."

"Hilarious," King retorts flatly. "It's not nepotism — I passed entrance evals like everyone else."

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"Guys," Place interrupts, frustration building in his facial creases. After a pause, he sighs, gesturing to King. "Madeleine, you've got nothing to prove. You're here because you're as valuable as the rest of us. Now, let's keep things moving." He crosses his arms, glancing to a face he doesn't recognize on his right. It belongs to a blonde-haired man with square glasses, who, since his arrival, had not looked up from a yellow notepad he'd been writing in; Place surmises this is Dr. Dune, O5-8's sentry from Metafiction. With a squint, he oversees a line from the notepad reading, "TOO MUCH EXPOSITION."

Place's confusion is interrupted by the aforementioned red-bearded man as he clears his throat, leaning forward to place his elbows on the table. "Hey, all. Eli Forkley, Director of Miscommunications. I'm an expert in linguistics, as you might expect, as well as psychology and productive complaining."

Blank raises an eyebrow. "Productive complaining?"

"Yep. I once complained so productively that the Foundation gave me my own Department, heh."

"Ah, right. I'd heard that, but figured it wasn't actually the case."

"'tis. Anyway, yeah, Place and I go way back; I helped him with his name when he lost his old one." He turns to his colleague. "I'm glad to see you recall my talents, since I'm here."

"…right." Place gives a polite smile. "Well, I don't anticipate linguistic expertise will be particularly relevant, and I'd rather avoid complaints, but we're glad to have you aboard, anyway."

"Oh. Gotcha." Forkley glances downward dejectedly, placing his palms flat against the table. To his left is a man Place recognizes well, sporting jet-black hair and deep-set smile lines. The other attendees gradually turn to face him as he stares into space, his eyes apparently trained on the far wall. Place's hand waves across his gaze. "…Yves?"

The daydreamer blinks, eyes wide as he glances at his friend. "Huh? Oh, right, sorry. I'm Yves." He sits up straight, adjusting the sleeves of his white button-up shirt. "Yves Isabi, Director of Astrophysics, with additional expertise in AI research and anomalous electronics. Place was my hotheaded Director back at Site-15, a lifetime or so ago."

"Hah, yeah, those were the days. It feels like I used to be a different person."

"Me too, sometimes. Anyways, I'm obviously happy to be here and to get some time away from the usual stuff." He glances around the other faces at the table. "These days, it's less about exploration and documentation of space, more about containment of anomalies therein."

"Well, you'll get plenty of time away in the next while, so look forward to that." Place smirks, recalling a recommendation he'd made a few weeks before. "Oh, hey, how's Researcher Adams?"

"He's been great so far, actually. Hasn't needed as much coaching as the usual Juniors."

"Glad to hear it." He turns, finally, to Dune, who continues writing in his notebook. Without looking up or stopping, he takes his turn: "I'm Jay Dune, Senior Researcher for the Metafiction Department. I've studied narrativism and other relevant fields as well, of course." His voice is little more than a monotone drone, apparently disinterested.

Place glances at Blank, who shrugs. He decides to move on. "Nice to meet you, Jay. I'd like to formally welcome you all to the Archetypicals Division: a specialized taskforce responsible for researching and handling anomalies that repel protagonists."

Forkley cocks his head. "Protagonists?"

"Yes. You all remember the narrative examinations last month?" He's met with nods round the table. "We were testing for 'protagonism', a measure of one's manipulation of surrounding narrative structures. As you hopefully read in your invitation emails, our universe is influenced by 'author-entities', beings from a higher narrative dimension. When an author-entity has an idea for a story, they can inject that story into our 'universal narrative', and it'll influence what happens in our reality."

"Most people aren't interesting enough to show up in these 'stories'. However, people with above-average protagonism are able to react independently to these stories and make their own decisions. They shape the story-structures to fit their own narrative, and so we call them 'protagonists' — literally the main characters in their own stories. As I explained to Blank a while ago, it's a form of low-level reality-bending."

"Harry's passion in life is reading history books," Wettle interjects. "You're telling me some eldritch entity finds that interesting enough to write about?"

Blank cracks his knuckles idly. "Beats a career in repeating other peoples' experiments."

"For Christ's sake—" Place starts, before collecting himself. "I'm telling you the exact opposite, Will. You've all been selected because you have lower-than-average protagonism. You're not just generic characters, but you're more susceptible to narrative influences. When a protagonist or author-entity initiates a story, we fall into place as needed, fulfilling common archetypes."

Blank leans forward, gesturing to the group. "We're side-characters. Archetypicals."

"Yes. Thanks, Harry." Place gets up from his chair, pacing around the podium to his laptop. "Now, most mid- to high-level Foundation personnel are protagonists. Archetypicals are exceedingly rare in our organization as we're focused on people who can combat anomalies and their associated stories, rather than be shaped by them.

"However, there are some anomalies that do not 'want' to be written about; they compel protagonists away, pushing them into other narrative structures. As such, our low narrative content makes us useful for dealing with such anomalies, as we're resistant to becoming more 'protagonistic'."

"Wait, wait, wait, just, hold up." Forkley raises his hands expressively. "Just wanna make sure I really understand this."

"Of course." Place boots up the digital projector, connecting it to his laptop as he listens.

"Protagonists can shape the world around them, on some level, so that they can, what, go on adventures?"

"Not necessarily. The 'shape' of our universal narrative is all about change — you can see this in simple abstractions of stories, like the Hero's Journey. It's actually a function of entropy; a hero has some ordered ideal, and that ideal is challenged over the course of a story, so their beliefs become more complicated and disordered. And, if an author-entity writes a story that requires a 'hero' archetype, an archetypical can fulfill that role. Protagonists are essentially able to make stories revolve around them and their change."

Forkley pauses, fidgeting with one of his tweed jacket's buttons. "Okay, fine. So, then, we have no agency? We're doing what we're doing right now because someone wrote it all out?"

"That's not really how it works," Stern says as she leans back to meet his line of sight. "Universes have narrative dimensions, the same way they have spatial and temporal dimensions. When a being in a higher-dimensional narrative universe has an idea for a story in our universe, that story transmits as an information packet down to our reality and latches onto it. The physics of our universe adapts to accommodate that story structure, and then the characters in our universe respond accordingly; beings in higher narrative dimensions have more protagonism, and have more 'free will', as it were."

Forkley blinks at her, clearly confused. She sighs, taking off her glasses. "Essentially, our universe is only partly fictional. We have a little less free will than everyone else, but we still have it. Plus, the universe is probably deterministic, so you probably don't have free will anyways."

"Didn't you say you were a technician?"

"So what? I work here; I read studies."

"Thank you, Holly." Place smiles genuinely, glad to know someone had been reading his work. "Does anyone else have a question, or can we move on?"

King raises her hand, to which Place and a few others raise a brow. "You, uh, don't need to do that."

"Oh. Right." She glances to her sides as she lowers her hand. "Yes, er, I guess I was just wondering… if we're archetypical, and we follow common types of characters… what actually are our archetypes? Are there codified character types? Does an archetypical always conform to the same archetype? Does that mean —"

"Woah, woah, woah, one at a time," Place requests as he holds up his hands defensively. "Archetypicals are a fairly new concept. Well, the concept isn't new — I came up with it around a decade ago — but the science proving it is. Point being, there isn't enough data to suggest there's a limited set of archetypes that can exist. If I had to guess mine, I'd say 'mad scientist', but they're probably much more conceptual and/or physics-based than that — they could even be like Jungian archetypes, based on values and ideals."

She leans back in her chair. "Huh, alright. Just would have been neat, to know if I were a specific type of character, or something."

"Psst," Wettle emits with a fake-whisper. "Ever heard of Myers-Briggs?"

King rolls her eyes. "Personality matrices and narrative roles don't necessarily match. And I'm an ESTP."

"Is there a grumpy old man personality?" The self-appointed comedian gestures to his left. "Asking for a friend."

"Nope," Blank states with a sigh. "But I've got a guess at your Jungian archetype."

"Oh?"

"Jester."

"Ha, yeah, right. And you're —"

"The next joke you tell proves me right."

Wettle's mouth closes. With hesitation, he glances toward Place, then down defeatedly. "Whatever."

"Hmph." Blank crosses his arms with apparent satisfaction.

"Moving swiftly forward," Place asserts, "the Archetypicals Division's assignments will likely be few and far between, so this shouldn't regularly detract from your other duties. For the foreseeable future, our sole task is to conduct a research mission regarding NGC 604, an extraterrestrial anomaly located in the Triangulum Galaxy." As he speaks, he activates the projector, resultantly dimming the lights and displaying the presentation on the far wall.

He steps aside to allow the crew a better view, noting that he still hasn't seen Dune look up. "This stellar formation appears to be an anomalous whitehole, noted for unusual patterns in its narrative energy emissions. There's reason to believe this object was directly written into existence by an author-entity, and its study could demystify our relationship with higher-dimensional narratives. However, the anomaly emits so much narrative energy that it would cause generic personnel to become protagonistic, compelling them to become more independent and leave to engage in their own story-structures. This is where we come in."

With a click of the remote, Place transitions to a diagram of which he's quite proud. "This is the Placeholder Exploratory Engine, a mechanism that harnesses narrative dissatisfaction to open a gateway between our storyline and other parallel narratives. The plan is to travel to a parallel story in which we're in sufficient vicinity of the anomaly to study it — and, as Archetypicals, we'll be able to withstand long-term exposure with minimal effect."

"Holy shit," Isabi exclaims. "We're going to space? Seriously?"

Place smiles. "That's the idea. I figured you'd be excited."

"Are you kidding? I've been waiting my entire career for this."

"Sorry to interrupt, again," Forkley interjects, unapologetic in tone. "You're bringing me — us — on a space mission to another reality to study some metanarrative phenomena, solely because we aren't interesting enough to run away?"

Place frowns. "Not strictly true — I had around forty personnel to choose from for this mission. You were selected for your work in parapsychology, since it's a lengthy mission in an isolating environment."

"Oh, cool, I get to be a shrink." He replies sarcastically, drumming his fingertips against the table.

Isabi turns toward him, incredulous. "You get to go to space."

"I guess," Forkley mutters.

"Beats the view from my quarters," remarks Stern.

Dune looks up from his notepad for the first time, and Place gets a clear view of his face. He swears he recognizes the metafictician, though he knows this to be unlikely. "You get used to it," he states. "Space is easier to comprehend than a lot of what we deal with on a daily basis."

King's eyes light up as she leans forward. "You've been to space?"

"Classified." With that, he returns his attention to note-taking.

Blank clears his throat purposely. "Speaking of which: information you've learned in this meeting is classified to B-Class personnel and below. You can inform relevant parties that your services are needed for a confidential assignment, but it'd be best if most personnel weren't aware of their potential protagonism, or lack thereof."

"I'll tell everyone you gave me two months off," Wettle appends with a smirk.

"I don't anticipate anyone will complain about seeing you less."

Holly rolls her eyes, seeing fit to interject. "So, what do you need from us, Place?"

"Glad you asked."


The session continues fairly smoothly; each of the attendees are informed of their necessary preparations and resources to do so. Dune demonstrates interest on a few more occasions, asking primarily about mission specifications and failsafe mechanisms — odd questions from a Metafiction researcher. Place thanks them each for their time, addresses additional concerns as they leave, and discusses his next meeting with Blank. Soon after, he heads back to his office, though his journey is held up by the sight of his well-kept colleague.

"Place," Dr. Saxon warns, the sound of his leather shoes quieting as he approaches. "If you don't sign out of that terminal, I swear —"

"I know, I know; I will. I've got something more pressing to discuss with you."

"Oh?" Saxon raises an eyebrow, sliding his hands into his pockets disarmingly.

"I'm leaving next month. I can't talk a whole lot about it, but it's the project we built the Engine for."

"Er, that's neat, I spose. How long?"

"A couple months. Point is, I'll need an acting Director — Sloth's Pit isn't going to contain itself."

"Made a decision, yet?"

Place blinks at his second-in-command. "Yeah, I'm looking at it, doofus."

Saxon's eyes widen in realization. "Oh — quite right. I, uh, need to prepare, obviously —"

"I know you won't let me down." Place pats him on the back. "We'll talk more later, I've got some top-secret stuff to do."

"Right, sure thing. Thanks, Place." Saxon runs a hand through his hair, collects himself, and offers a polite smile before turning and proceeding down the hall. He'd seemed less excited than expected, to Place's confusion.

Regardless, the Director turns back toward his office, resuming his course. He'll soon have to finalize the project resources requests and send them through the bureaucratic tubes, though he first plans to retrieve his mug and make himself a coffee. He swipes his ID card and opens the door absent-mindedly, his mind expectedly elsewhere.

As he enters his office, he's taken aback. Before him stands a poised blonde woman dressed practically; she wears a backpack, a light jacket, and gloves, as if she's been travelling. She appears young, but her eyes look old, though not tired.

"Hello, McDoctorate," she greets firmly.

Place sighs. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."

"Have you met me yet?"

"I don't believe so. I could just be forgetful, though."

"You don't seem too worried about me being in your office."

"I'd guess you're with Temporal." He'd encountered the Temporal Anomalies Department more than a handful of times in the past, often to ask vague questions and deny him knowledge of gaps in his memory. "You've got the usual gear on."

"Always prepared," she says, reaching out. They shake hands, and Place steps further into his office. He's suddenly aware of a large tarp in the center of the room, presumably supported by a tarp-shaped object. "I'm Ilse. I worked at Site-43. Well, your version of me still does, anyway."

"Sounds fascinating," he says flatly, gesturing to the tarp. "What's this?"

She gestures for Place to close the door, which he promptly does. With dramatic effect, Ilse pulls the tarp aside to unveil a wheel-shaped machine. It whirrs and clicks faintly, and several small indicator lights flash in tandem. Its design immediately strikes Place as interesting — the kind of thing he'd normally do.

Ilse crosses her arms. "There is no canon."

He blinks. "Huh?"

"The REISNO Cannon," she repeats. "I need you to invent it."


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