Slow Animals

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"So, uh, for the record, if you are an actual murderer, it would be super uncool of you not to tell me now."

« A Confluence of Clandestine Conferences ||

It was early morning in Three Portlands. The skybox sun had just truly warmed up, sweeping away the muggy fog into the edges of town. The air was thick and hot, but the sky was cleared to blue.

Not far from the city center, at the base of a tall brownstone, in a cramped office sequestered from the busyness of the business it administrated, a man named Casey Malik had just murdered his boss.

Casey had not intended to kill his boss. Casey had not intended to enter the room, lock the door behind him, and, in lieu of providing an update on his most recent business trip, pull a handgun from his backpack and open fire. All of these things had been unplanned.

In fact, until Casey felt the cold metal in his backpack just a moment ago, he was unaware that he had a loaded gun in his possession. It was only when he touched it that he came to this realization, immediately prior to the aforementioned murder.

Like an automaton, he had lifted the weapon, pointed it across the desk, and pulled the trigger, holding down until the slide clicked back. Three bullets had flown across the room, through the suit, torso, and leather office chair of Nathan Regent, owner and proprietor of the Three Portlands headquarters of Iris Arts. The poor sap didn't have time to question why his assistant was murdering him, let alone call for security.

Security seemed to have caught on from the gunshots, though, and as Casey heard the thud of the gun dropping to the ground, and the pumping of blood in his ears, he additionally heard hard knocking on the office door.

He didn't have time to think. There was a ground-level window just to his left. He picked up his backpack, shoved it through, and stepped atop a priceless wooden cabinet, casting a last peek at his former boss before ducking through.

Through the cramped window, Casey scrambled into the alley, scraping his knees through his slacks. He scooped up his backpack with both arms. The alley was deserted, thankfully, just some discarded bikes and glowing weeds lining the gutters. Right led to a brick wall plastered with posters, but to the left was the street.

As he made his way to the clearing, it occurred to him that he hadn't the slightest idea what he was planning to do. Generally, formulating a plan comes after the step in which you gain some awareness of why you ended up in the situation you're currently in. Being completely in the dark, Casey intuited that he had skipped at least a few steps. Planning would have to be postponed.

As he strode from the alleyway, his head swiveled, scanning rows of bakeries and galleries, but not a single customer. In fact, the whole street was empty. There was the whole matter of gunshots scaring people off, but generally gunshots were among the least upsetting noises to overhear in Three Portlands. Certainly not worth scattering for.

The silence was then broken by a whirring noise, and Casey snapped back to see an auto-rickshaw speeding down the street.

Casey turned around, but the alley just led to a dead end. The rickshaw, bearing no insignia Casey recognized, came to a stop at the alley's entrance. The driver stepped out. "Hey, you. Did you just murder someone?"

Casey turned back to the interloper, stammering.

The man was undeterred. "You're who I'm looking for, then. Come on, let's get you out of here." He motioned to the vehicle.

Casey glanced at the office window behind him. He could hear shouting, and the crash of the office door being breached by Iris security personnel.

His options were limited.

Casey clutched his backpack to his chest in the back of the auto-rickshaw. The driver, a tall, blond man in sunglasses, seemed content with this development. He glanced over his shoulder, back at Casey. "So, uh, for the record, if you are an actual murderer, it would be super uncool of you not to tell me now."

"I- I swear, I don't know what happened, it was just-"

The man cut him off. "Alright, yeah, good. Don't worry about how things seem, I have your back. I'm Troy. I'm with the Chaos Insurgency, and I'm gonna help you out."

Casey blinked. "The what?"

"The Chaos Insurgency." Troy seemed convinced that this should be a calming development. It was not.

"Why- where are you taking me?"

The man turned back to look at the road. "Branch headquarters."

The surroundings, shopfronts and brick roads, all faded to a blur, and Casey could do nothing but sit silently and think-

Yesterday, Nathan Regent was still alive.

In addition to possessing hopes, dreams, a family, and a pulse, Mr. Regent also had an assistant named Casey.

The interesting thing about running an art supplies business is that you don't actually need to have any kind of artistic talent. Not even any managerial talent. Nathan Regent's talent was condescension. He had honed his smug tone and mismatched wardrobe into a weapon. He paraded it so confidently, it almost made one feel like they were missing out. One wanted to impress him, despite his thorough unimpressiveness.

Casey was very familiar with this quality. Each day, Casey would enter Mr. Regent's basement office with a coffee — black, but with altogether too much sugar. Mr. Regent would drink this coffee, and as he did so he would give Casey a list of tasks to perform. Fetch this, verify that, and be back by four, because that's when Mr. Regent will need another cup of coffee to take home.

Worst of all was when Casey had to negotiate with potential business partners. Casey was not good at negotiation, and Mr. Regent knew this.

In fact, he was counting on it: Regent's strategy was to send clearly terrible envoys to meet potential clients, so that those clients will assume that Iris Arts must be saving their good representatives for more important clients. Subconsciously, they would feel the need to prove themselves, and give their all despite the mediocre showing. It also saved money.

Casey had the privilege of being the sacrificial lamb in this game of economic negging.

One day before Mr. Regent's death, he had been on one such tour of shame. He went through the Isle exit from Portlands — Casey's least favorite, as it's even harder to maintain your dignity when you're sopping wet — and navigated to shore through the rain on the inflatable dinghy he had rented. From there, he settled into the brisk, three hour cab drive to Bristol.

After far, far too long, he found himself at the steps of his destination, a modern, cosmopolitan villa, the kind that looks like a giant child got a little too silly with their building blocks. Brushing off his slacks to at least convince himself he could be presentable, he pressed a square button he assumed was the doorbell. Moments later, the door slid laterally to reveal a middle-aged woman in a cleanly-pressed dress and apron, holding a glass of red wine.

Casey gave a weak wave. "I'm here for, uh, Mister Erwan."

She squinted at him.

He pulled his bag off his shoulder and began rummaging, trying to produce an air of authenticity. "I… have… an… appointment…"

"Right," she said, raising a finger and mercifully breaking his awkward stride. "He's on the balcony. Right up the stairs, take a left."

Casey nodded in silent thanks, and proceeded into the home. It looked brand new — some of the walls were only half-painted in a garish fruit-basket of colors, and white canvas was draped over much of the furniture. He tread up the stairs, careful not to brush against any wet paint.

Just as described, he found himself on the balcony. The rain kept coming down, but here it was deflected, bouncing off an invisible shield, keeping the balcony totally dry. Casey saw his target, a old man reclining in a geometric lounge-chair, clad in a grey suit and smoking something that glowed blue.

"Mister Erwan?"

The man's head snapped to look at Casey. He grinned, wrinkling his whole face. "Yes! Sit down, please." His voice had an engineered friendliness, with a tinge of an approachable Southern drawl.

Casey obliged, finding a spot next to Erwan. "I was let in by your wife?"

He let out a belly laugh, which was not an expected response to this admittedly shaky statement of fact. "Pah. Suppose I got my money's worth, then." He clicked his tongue. "Androids."


"Yep. Brand-new."

Casey searched for common ground. "That's pretty impressive, considering what happened to Anderson."

He grinned in that smug way, and sat back. "Anderson's old hat now. Destruction provides the perfect opportunity for brighter innovators to get their share."

Casey nodded, clinging to that thread of interest. "Well, that's a good point, and it's precisely why I'm here."

He laughed again. "Of course, of course. Let me tell you: I have always been a fan of Iris Arts. And it's a shame, a damn shame, that you all should be limited to dealing in the shadows. You want more, and I respect that. Migrating a business as prominent as yours outside of the pocket dimensions is hard work, and the Feds won't appreciate missteps. I'd certainly be willing to provide the cover, the resources, the manpower, to make the transition as smooth as it could possibly be."

Erwan had laid out the pitch, to be sure. Now it was time for the most essential part of the negotiation process.

Casey nodded, folding his hands on his lap. "Yep."

Erwan cleared his throat. "Hm?"

"Oh, uh, yeah, you got it. Hit the nail, right on its… right on the head."

The man sat up, eyebrows raised. "Surely you must have questions. The process of establishing a foothold outside the Veil is-"

Casey was already waving his hand. "Oh, yes, of course, we got the pitch. You just get in contact with Mr. Regent. I'm sure he can find time for you. Work out the plan a bit further."

Erwan's flow was broken. "I'll do that."

Hook, line, and sinker.

Casey stood up, cracking a smile. "Glad to meet with you. I really should be getting back to my hotel, though."

Erwan tried to reciprocate, but his smugness had been drained. "I won't keep you, then."

Casey turned to go, striding down the stairs. He had almost made it out the door when he heard someone call his name. He turned back. It was the android.

She smiled at him, more naturally than before. "Mister Erwan wanted me to give you this. It's a gift for your employer." She was holding out a skinny white box, about the length of her hand.

Casey nodded to her, taking it in his hand. It had a surprising heft for its size. "Thanks. I'll make sure he gets it."

"Perfect. Have a nice night." She gave him one last wave, and then the door closed, and Casey set off back home where he would soon, against his own will-

"Hey. Hey. You okay?"

Casey shook his head, jarred from his daze. "What? Where am I? What's going on?"

Troy rolled his eyes. "We're here. C'mon."

Casey scanned his surroundings. The rickshaw was parked in front of a squat white building, evidently near the edge of Portlands, as he could see the streets continuing on into emptiness, the buildings beginning to repeat and grow indistinct, imitating an infinite sprawl. This was where you lived when you wanted to not be bothered.

He got to his feet, nearly stumbling onto the pavement. Troy grabbed his arm, keeping him steady, and sighed.

Together, they entered the building. Troy flashed some sort of badge at a hidden camera, and the doors slid open. Through a plain corridor they went, and then into a room with a label Casey didn't bother to read.

The room would have been a revolutionary office workplace thirty years ago. Filing drawers were inlaid to the walls, studded by blank video screens. A handful of desks with curvy chairs were scattered about the office, their surfaces burdened by piles of files, books, tomes, tablets, and sometimes the other kind of tablets.

Troy swept some dust off a chair, and guided Casey to sit down. Once he was positioned satisfactorily, Troy stood up once more. "Welcome to the archives of the Three Portlands headquarters of the Chaos Insurgency."

Casey squinted. "What is any of this for? Why did you bring me here?"

"This," the man gestured around himself, "is the nucleus of our intelligence operations in this city. With all this info, I think we can help each other. Some mutual exchange."

Casey nodded, slowly. "Where is everyone?"

"We're a bit understaffed. Most of our regulars are pulled in for errands at the beehive Earthside. But what we do perform here is very important."


"Well, Command is quite fond of Three Portlands. It's a rich city, an admirable anomalous community. They have a great respect for its people. I have a great respect, too. We want them to feel the same way about us."

"So you surveil them?"

"I was not aware you had a moral high ground, mister manslaughter."

Casey blanched.

"Okay, that was harsh. Sorry. Look. We collect this information because if we don't, we'll get caught off guard when things happen. And I think you'll agree that things are happening."

"Besides what happened to me?"

Troy leaned in and lowered his voice. "Look. There have been 'incidents'. Like yours. Absence of motive, planning, coordination. Perpetrator dies immediately after. Someone's getting people to take the fall for their dirty work. Look here."

He stood up straight again, and started rummaging through a file drawer. He pulled out a plain white file folder, and dropped it in front of Casey. He gently picked it up, thumbing through it. Proprietors of coffee shops. Artists. Performers. Politicians. Police. All murdered by people who worked near them. Closed cases, all of them.

Casey settled on the last image, a forensic photograph of a man spread-eagle on the floor of his study, his head clearly having been pummeled by a blunt object.

Troy looked over his shoulder. "Thoughts?"

"Uh, I doubt it. I mean, look at the state of his-"

"I meant your thoughts."

"Oh. I think he's dead."

Troy sighed. "Yes. And the person who killed him had as little control as you did."

"How do you know?"

"Well," Troy managed to smile to himself, even now, "the funny thing about complex data analysis is that it's more of an art than a science. Oneiroi is hardly the only corporation capable of applying it to meatspace. You'd be surprised what you can do with moxie and a sufficiently advanced supercomputer."

He continued, "Whoever did this wanted to appear unpredictable, which is totally predictable for a conspiracy. You pump enough background data into a machine, and you can have a list of the most expected places for crime to happen. Then you wait at the ones where it's least likely to happen. Those are the expectedly unexpected locations."

Casey furrowed his brow. "You just bet I was going to kill someone in Iris Arts today?"

"Not necessarily you. But someone."

"Then what am I doing here?"

"See, you, you are different from the others. You didn't kill yourself. Because you didn't take the murder weapon with you."

"Wait, they killed themselves here?"

"Oh, god, no. They didn't make it nearly this far."

Casey gulped.

Troy only doubled down on his cheer. "But, look. You're here now. Whatever meme, hazard, whatever, is in your brain, we can study it. We can fix it. I can take you to the bunker, Earthside. We have some of the best memeticists in the business. And trust me, if things keep going how they're going, you'll be glad to be out of here."

Casey flinched. "No, I- I can't just get up and leave. I have people here."

Troy's smile faltered. "I understand that, but you're caught between a rock and a hard place here. You stay, at best, you won't make any difference. At worst, well, once the word gets out, the authorities aren't going to take you on your word that you didn't mean to murder your boss."

Casey squeezed his eyes shut. His head was pounding. "I can't. I'm sorry."

Troy sighed bitterly. "I guess I have to try again. Do you think I was close to convincing you? Or should I try a different tactic?"

Troy was turning around, but he had something in his hand. An aerosol can. Every soul in Three Portlands knew what that meant: amnestics.

Troy clicked his tongue. "I suppose I'll play it by ear. Always have time." He undid the safety clasp on the aerosol can, and began to turn back around to face Casey—

—but something knocked into him from behind, nearly pushing him over. A round metal object pressed into the small of his back. He inhaled sharply.

Casey enunciated slowly. "I didn't leave the weapon behind. Hands behind your head."

Troy gritted his teeth, complying. Casey pulled the can from his grasp.

"You know this can't work, right? What do you think the chances are that the bug in your head wants you to do this? To go back into public so you can self-destruct?"

Casey didn't respond.

"What are the chances that you're not even you right now? That you wouldn't even attempt this if not for that thing worming around in your brain?"

"You've manipulated me all day," Casey said, "and now you're concerned I'm not acting authentically?"

"Well, you see, the thing about that is-" A spray of amnestic gas cut Troy's excuse short. Casey held down the trigger until nothing came out.

Troy's body collapsed, limp.

Casey dropped the stapler he was holding. And then the newly-empty can of amnestics.

He dropped to kneel next to the downed man, listening carefully for a moment. He was still breathing.

Casey held his head in his hands for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the files on the desk, all the hard data the Chaos Insurgency had on what was going on in Three Portlands. He grabbed the file, and made his way to the outside.

It was dark out. How long had he been in there?

At least, if he was on this side of the city, he couldn't be too far from a certain sort of shelter. So he started walking.

Casey stood on the steps of a building, built like a courthouse, on the outskirts of Three Portlands. Ornate pillars surrounded the home, almost enveloping the front door entirely. Through the darkness, he could still make out the bronze nameplate over the door, which read "E. Rowe".

The home of his boyfriend's father was perhaps not the best safe haven. But it was the best option Casey had.

Hands shaking, he pressed the doorbell, and waited.

On the slick linoleum floor of the Headquarters of the Three Portlands Cell of the Chaos Insurgency, Agent Troy was jarred to consciousness by the tune of Come On Eileen.

He shot up to a sitting position, coughing up air tasting of battery acid and lemon. He had no idea how he got here, or what he had been doing for at least the last few hours.

As he blinked his eyes open, he saw the forgotten backpack and ringing phone of an unknown person who clearly appreciated 80's classics. Lying haphazardly in the corner of the room, he saw an empty can of amnestics.


On the other side of Three Portlands, a woman in a pantsuit closed her flip-phone, her call having received no response.

Minutes earlier, she had been in the parking lot of a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Portland, Oregon. Now, she was wreathed in unfamiliar scents, dazed by the winding streets and flashing strobe lights of a city that didn't seem possible.

She put away her phone, and fished out her wallet, for the picture she had of her target. The easy way had failed, but she had become accustomed to doing things the hard way anyhow.

Vera K. Garcia cracked her knuckles. Time to get to work.

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