In the Manner of a Bad Apple

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Nonstandard Reality Acclimation and Preparedness
Final Certification Exam

1. Successfully recognize nonstandard reality environment (NSRE) within 5 minutes of exposure.
• Activation of circle-square trigger.
• Activation of mother-daughter-aunt trigger.
• Completion of full NFPOT checklist.

2. Successfully document NSRE effects within 10 minutes of exposure.
• Note divergences in physical, emotional, and logical environments.
• Note presence of non-sentient, non-real entities.
• Note presence of sentient, non-real entities.

3. Successfully alert one other individual to presence of NSRE within 15 minutes of exposure.
• External activation of circle-square and mother-daughter-aunt triggers.

4. Successfully create an action plan for combat, communication, or evacuation within 20 minutes of exposure.

Elizabeth Cooper-Hughes ate undercooked beans off a flimsy paper plate in the remains of a charred building. There wasn't much left but the corpses of structures in Chicago since starlight began falling freely. She huddled close to the fire with other children and did her best not to sob.

Something was wrong.

A newly-nameless recruit ran through the narrow corridors of the underwater habitat. Red lights flashed and sirens howled as the plated walls began to buckle, creases running from one to the next as if chasing her down. Squirming darkness leaked in through new gaps in the world's shell, spitting and hissing at the endlessly recycled air.

Something was very wrong.

Wren stood in a wide field of golden wheat. She had been reaping. She was reaping. She would reap. It didn't feel like a metaphor, it was simply life. Day after day, year after year. The sky never rained, the sun never set, and there was always more work to be done. Her parents would return when she finished the last field though. They promised.

Something was obviously wrong, because she felt confident a circle could perfectly fill a square.

Overseer-6's loyal dog played cards in a dingy basement somewhere under Bangkok. The rules of the game weren't clear, something where highs were low and lows were high. A loaded revolver with a single bullet sat at the center of the table. When they laid their cards down the final time, an old man snatched it up and shot her in the chest.

Something was obviously wrong, because the simplest family tree was no better than a knot to her.

Egret walked down the aisle of a gently rocking train, paused, and found herself cognizant of that wrongness. It wasn't a perfect recognition, something still buzzed angrily in the back of her head, but she had the distinct feeling that something wasn't quite right. She looked back and forth, eyes passing over gently flexing walls, vein-latticed windows, and seats covered in sheets of squirming cilia. The nagging feeling wouldn't pass, but it was hard to say why.

She looked through her backpack next for some hint of wrongness. Bottled water, energy bars, latex gloves, a glass jar full of pale worms, an assortment of unmarked pills, and a trashy novel she didn't remember buying. That wasn't unusual enough to be the source of her anxiety though, nor was anything else in the bag. If something was going on, it was too subtle for her. Even in Alpha-1 she had always worked more on 'people problems' than spending time with the weird shit brigades.

The train jerked to a sudden stop. A noise halfway between a foghorn and a guttural roar sounded in the distance. Darkness was the only thing beyond the fleshy windows. A hole in one wall opened with a wet squelch, and darkness started leaking inside too. The black sludge didn't look hostile, or even particularly alive, but it still didn't seem like very good company for a train ride. Egret started walking down the long aisle again, swiftly at first, but slower as the gentle rocking of travel resumed. No matter how far she walked, the far end of the corridor was little more than a pinprick on a shrinking horizon.

Most of the seats on the straight path were empty. Most, but not all. One held a shimmering figure of shifting symbols and ghostly light. Another pair of seats was occupied by a chitinous, many-armed thing whose head was locked away inside an iron box. A third rider was a normal dog, sitting and panting as though it was just where it wanted to be. Or, maybe it was a cat? It was definitely not some kind of lizard, scales aside, because it was clearly some kind of badger, gnawing at something unspeakable. Egret didn't linger to consider it.

It was harder to ignore the more human riders. Most were cursed with some aspect that would have doomed them to one of the Foundation's vast underground complexes. Forking horns, blurry faces, painful presences, there was plenty to condemn them all with. The train halted again, and something far behind Egret roared back in a tone of unabating, unquenchable, unrelenting impatience. They set off again soon after, rumbling down whatever tracks had been laid through the melting scenery outside.

A gray-uniformed woman with curtains of sleek black hair stared intently at Egret from her seat. She tenderly stroked a bare sword that lay across her lap, and the gnats in Egret's head were whipped up into a furor at the sight.

"What?" asked Egret as the woman turned toward her.



"▓▒░░▒░░▒▓▒░░░▓▒▒▒░░▒▓" The woman pointed a finger at Egret's backpack. "▓▒░▒▒░░▓"

Egret shook her head and kept walking. The nerve of some people. Footsteps followed behind her, but not close enough to be a cause for concern. That might change if she drew much closer, but even then the concern would not be Egret's.

The train stopped. A city of alien buildings drooped from the clouds outside, each inverted tower hanging like an icicle over a sea of endless white. The train's floor pulsed like a heartbeat as it moved, through a strangling jungle whose shadows were full of unblinking eyes, through a sketchy landscape of ash and ink. The bellowing horn sounded as it stopped, first in an empty plane of throbbing guilt, then in a crowded one of fire and serpents. Egret paid all of it no mind. The train would bring her to her destination eventually, wherever that was.

"░▒▓▒░" shouted the woman from behind. Egret reached for the pistol holstered under her arm and found it missing. The gnats in her head buzzed loudly. The train stopped in a dim night lit by furious stars and surrounded by the thundering beat of artillery fire. "░▒▓▓▒▒▓▒▓▒░" Egret reached for her pocket knife and found that missing too. The gnats howled. The footsteps came quicker and closer. "▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓"

Egret scrambled out of the hissing sword's swift arc and ran. The swordswoman pounded after her. She passed by a group of robed figures who reeked of pulped oranges, by a giant moth that recoiled from her presence, and by a man in the same uniform as the woman chasing her. He too turned to watch her passing. Were it not for the sight of her fellow travelers, Egret would have thought herself to be running in place. The distant end of her path stayed distant. The footsteps remained close behind her. The outside world changed from one brand of nonsense to another, rhyme and reason absent from its shifts.

The train stopped again, howling in its manner. A hole stretched open in one wall of the train next to Egret, showing a flash of something that might have been English on a distant wall, and the buzzing reached a fever pitch. She leaped through the fleshy doorway, skidded across the hard stone platform, and crawled to her feet. She turned just in time to see the tail end of a great worm slithering into a stone tunnel.

Egret stumbled through the empty subway station, head aching and knees bleeding. She had been wrong about the signs. They were a fair approximation of English, of any words, but an approximation all the same. Ignoring those, the station could have been anywhere on Earth. A wide complex of concrete pillars, glowing advertisements, and vending machines. All that, and no people. The buzzing calmed to a deep purr as Egret climbed the long stairway up toward the surface.

The city above was still and quiet. Skyscrapers towered, streetlights shone, and cars sat on the road. The wind was dead. The city was dead. Egret followed the buzzing as it led her to the mouth of a wide alley lined with dumpsters. She wasn't sure why she should be heeding the noise, but she wasn't sure what she was doing there in the first place. Perhaps she had gotten off at the wrong stop? Egret shook her head and rubbed at her eyes with both hands. The things she did had purpose, and the Overseer didn't allow for mistakes. She was there for a reason. Some reason.

The alleyway twisted in on itself, left turn after left turn never intersecting with any other path. Two white moons overhead stared down like the eyes of an unusually attentive god. Egret's boots splashed in the briny fluid leaking from the dumpsters lining her path. The slow river flowed down into a squat stairway, leaving small waterfalls in its wake. Something like sound leaked out from around the door at the bottom, and something like light poured out as she opened it.

The nightclub was not so different from any Egret had done business in. Formless shapes writhed to the tuneless song of collapsing stars. A bar ran along one wall, a small stage along the other. Light was sucked from the fixtures above toward the event horizon of a dark eternity. Something that was inhuman in every way stood behind the bar, staring at Egret with peaceful blue eyes.


"Yeah, I've got it," said Egret, unsure of why the words were coming from her mouth. "Do you have my boss' share?"


Egret put her backpack down on a barstool, unzipped it, and pulled out the jar of worms. They crawled in a circular, squirming tide as she placed it on the finely polished bar. The bartender, whose nails were filed immaculately, placed a heavy book with two spines next to it. It seemed a fair exchange to the gnats, who voiced their pleasure in the same way they voiced their objections.


"A pleasure doing business with you too," she said before stowing the book away. Politeness was key when the Overseer's reputation was in question.

"░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░" The bartender extended its open hand, sending the gnats into a senseless frenzy. Egret swallowed hard and grasped it tightly. Warm, soft, and terribly unpleasant. Like sitting next to a crackling fire on Christmas morning, surrounded by the empty silhouettes of her family, and having her fingernails ripped off. Her eyelid twitched uncontrollably as they shook hands, but she stopped herself from pulling away all the same. Politeness. The Overseer's reputation. All that.

The alley outside was still all left turns as she walked away, and the brine flowed back into the dumpsters. She dared not look inside. Back through the city streets, back past the still cards, back down the station stairs. The train arrived the moment she sat down. Inside, Egret found the gray-uniformed woman. Sitting. Waiting. She stared, bare sword laying across her lap again, but made no further move. Egret smiled, and took a quiet pleasure in her look of revulsion.

Egret found herself in another subway station some time later. She couldn't say how much time later, because she couldn't say what exactly she had done since her last meeting with the Overseer. Not that she couldn't remember, they just happened in no order and carried no sense. She stumbled through a crowd of commuters, ignoring the odd looks they gave her as she stooped to pick up loose change.

It took at least an hour to find a payphone with a coin slot. It was stuffed into a dark, dusty corner of the station next to a closet with a lock but no doorknob. Hànzì flashed on the screen as Egret stuffed coins in, waited for a tone, and dialed the international number for Slithering Cherished Pets. Someone picked up after exactly two rings.

"Hello?" said a tinny voice. "How can I help you?"

"Yeah, uh, abject three four updraft nine nine honeydew sincere. Dropbox six, high priority. I'm in China, otherwise aggregate green." Egret hung up the phone and sighed.

She rubbed her eyes, then her temples, then both at once. This nonsense was the worst part of her job, no question about that. All she could do now was hope she had succeeded. That, and figure out how to get back home with no money, little fluency, and a backpack full of something that probably didn't belong in this world.

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