"Smile! You Are Being Watched!"
rating: +76+x

Wren rolled out of bed at 9:39 with the grace of a falling anvil. This was deliberate. Their alarm hadn't gone off, and without drastic measures, the entire morning would be lost. Instead, they were out of bed and on their feet at 9:40. Sore, disoriented, but moving with purpose.

Mx. Wren Masterson123 gazed at themselves in the mirror. Today, it was a face they recognized: doe-eyed, round and soft, save for faint traces of stubble. They kept their hair curly on top (a stylish compromise: brush and forget) and short on the sides (no maintenance needed). They had slept in a tank top, so their sole tattoo — an ouroboros inscribed with their personal motto — peeked out from their upper chest. They read it to themselves under their breath and grinned. Then they brushed their teeth.

Binder. Band tee. Vest. Leggings. Clompy boots. Mission control, we are almost ready for takeoff. Wren pulled a long black duffel bag out from under the bed, unzipped it halfway, and fished out a tiny homebrew computer with a cheap LCD screen. There was still time to check notifications over breakfast (or whatever passed for breakfast in this dump) before checking out.

Oh, new DMs.

bluntfiend: Hey, steakshift, are you okay?
bluntfiend: Your "insurance policy" went on/off/on.
bluntfiend: Several times.
bluntfiend: Still going!
bluntfiend: You done?
bluntfiend: @steakshift you alright?
bluntfiend: Helloooo?

"Oh… fuck."

Masterson screwed their eyes shut and tried to focus. What happened yesterday? Went to the swap meet. Sold and traded some stuff. Brought it back. Went to sleep.

No. Wrong. Wren always found energy to check their new acquisitions, even if it just meant plugging something in and falling asleep with it in the background. Yet yesterday's spoils were all set aside, next to the TV, and the room was pristine. Everything was where it was supposed to be, which meant that something was definitely amiss.

steakshift tried to claw through the fog of caffeine withdrawal and and retrace their steps. How did I get back to the hotel? They came up with nothing. Not even a hazy recollection, like their typical dissociative episodes. Instead there was just… missing time.

Blank tape.

"Fuck," they repeated.

steakshift: @bluntfiend uhhhh sorta?
steakshift: we should talk
steakshift: where r u

The nearest ReTerminal was thirty minutes away by bicycle. Wren fought the temptation to rush — Sudbury wasn't as dangerous as Toronto, but biking in urban traffic always felt like flirting with death, particularly with a large bag on their back. Instead, they took their time and signaled every turn, which actually made it a lot easier to spot the black sedan trailing behind at a cautious distance. MxMasters waited for an opening, then made two abrupt right turns, jumped the sidewalk and darted through an alley, going three blocks in the wrong direction before circling back again. No more tails. Nice try, officers.

Eventually, they made it to their first stop, which was (currently) a liquor store on Lasalle Boulevard. The signage was garish and overpowering, but didn't do much to disguise the architecture: the owners had set up shop in a former Blockbuster Video. Masterson didn't go in. They just circled around, approached the rear service door and knocked three times.


Wren cleared their throat and murmured, "I have to return some videotapes."

The lock disengaged. The door swung outward, releasing a wave of fetid air and exposing a dark corridor that was, very clearly, not part of the liquor store. This was something older. A rotted-out relic from a bygone era. The ReTerminal.

Mx. Masterson walked inside, bicycle in tow, and the door swung shut behind them.

"'Do you believe the condor is really an endangered species?'"

There was silence from the intercom. Then a burst of static. "Okay boomer, was I supposed to get that reference?"

"You fucker, we watched that tog-" Wren stopped mid-sentence and sighed. "It's steak. Get off your ass and buzz me in."

The voice on the other end cackled and hung up. Suddenly there was an electric thrum in the air, and both locks disengaged: the conventional lock, and the other lock, which unbound the spatial coordinates between Door A and Door B and opened the real safehouse. Anyone trying to bust through the regular entrance would get flung right out the back, straight into the trash cans. (Wren suspected that any janitors, tankfuckers or feds would be professional enough to breach from both sides of the house simultaneously. Would they plow into each other Three Stooges-style? Flashbang each other? That would be rad. Another one for the cop fail compilations.)

The rowhouse seemed bigger on the inside. They'd just traveled between Sudbury and Pittsburgh in ninety minutes, so Mx. Masterson didn't give this discrepancy a second thought. They propped their bike against the nearest wall, started to kick off their boots, then reconsidered; the place was a mess and they didn't want to step in anything wet. They scanned from left to right — a den layered with meme art (nothing juicy; no magical boobytraps in this safehouse yet), messy kitchen, mercifully clean bathroom, stairs — and saw no one.


Then they heard the distinctive roiling bubble of a bongrip, and a noxious pink beanie bobbed into view between TV and couch. Jude Kriyot straightened up in his seat, leaned back, and kept leaning, tipping his head back over the couch to make upside-down eye contact with the new arrival and raise his eyebrows in silent acknowledgement.

"Hey, man," steakshift ventured. "You're looking great."

"I'm feeling great," bluntfiend wheezed. He exhaled an improbably massive cloud of smoke, giggled, then broke into a coughing fit. "You?"

"I mean, I thought I was good." Wren used one foot to clear away some of the surrounding debris, then set their duffel bag down in the empty space. "It was a busy month. Found some new/old stuff for the collection. Then…" They touched their temples and pantomimed an explosion. "Poof. Here I am."

"Here you are." Jude maneuvered his tall, soft frame off the couch, rose unsteadily to his feet, then hefted the bong and wiggled it encouragingly. "You want a hit off this thing?" If he was at all self-conscious about the faded, stained, torn shirt (three-wolf-moon, lmao) he didn't show it.

"Later, maybe. After we get this sorted."

"Suit yourself. Got your gadget right here." Kriyot set the bong on the coffee table, then picked up and offered Wren a familiar device: their old Sony DCR-TRV17 Handycam, wrapped in its A/V connector. Scribbled across the top, on a strip of red duct tape, were the words "HAN-DY SEE WHAT I SEE".

steakshift handled the camera with something approaching reverence. It felt… warm. Like cupping their hands around a candle flame, but for the heart. They had reunited with a little piece of their essence. "Thanks again for helping me with this," they said. "Not just for holding onto it. I don't think I could have made it work long-range without you and JJ lending me some juice."

"Don't thank me yet. Linking up to this thing to snoop on yourself was a neat idea, but…" Jude pulled a face and shrugged expansively. "I don't know whether you actually caught anything."

"You didn't check?"

"Nah. Figured I'd wait, in case it was mundane. Respect your privacy."

"Such a choirboy. Bless you, Jude." Wren laid a palm over the Handycam and concentrated. A moment later, their eyes snapped open. "Janitors!" they exclaimed. "Janitors got me off the street."

"Oh shit! Swept up and tossed out." Jude clapped them on the back reassuringly. "Welcome back, fellow trash."

"Hooray. Only slightly mindfucked."

"I'd say 'been there', but… I haven't, really." Kriyot shrugged awkwardly. "At least you got something out of it, right?"

"Guess we're gonna find out." MxMasters walked back to their duffel, rummaged around, and produced a stack of DVD cases bound together with elastics. "Quid pro quo. For services rendered, Papa Smoke: the first Jojo OVA. It's not a perfect set; no box, no cards, but the discs are in good shape."

"Holy shit. Aren't these super rare? How'd you find them?"

Masterson grinned. "That's the power of my Stand."

"Sick. Uh, I have food… somewhere?" Jude cast an uneasy glance towards the kitchen. "Pretty sure there was pizza, earlier."

"See what you can find. I'll hook this up to the TV."

"Movie night!"

"blunt, it's not even noon."

SCENE: INTERIOR, DAY. The image resolved into a fuzzy white hallway, with bright directional arrows painted on a concrete floor. The camera tracked forward at a walking pace, flanked on either side by vague shadows.

"Looks pretty bad," Jude observed.

Wren smacked their forehead with an open palm, feigning dismay. "Aw, shit! I should have set my eyeballs to 1080p! Gotta remember that, next time I try streaming my visual cortex to MiniDV, eight hundred klicks away, thanks dude."

"I'm just saying, far as spy video goes, this… this is not great."

"Look, it'll get better. Worst-case, I'll zoom/enhance some choice frames. Now hush."

As the perspective reached an intersection, the camera began to lurch and sway from side to side. A voice that sounded an awful lot like Wren Masterson's rang out: "So, uh, I get a lawyer, right? You'll let me call my lawyer?"

Faces swam in and out of view; the shadows on either side were both men in suits, but since the focus was on the background, their features were indistinguishable. Their laughter, at least, came through nice and clear. "You'll have to ask Tipper. I'm sure she's real eager to meet you."

"'Call my lawyer', that's cute."

"Yeah, what was I actually looking at?" Masterson stabbed the pause button, then advanced frame-by-frame until the blurry signage in the background became legible.


"Do you think Foundation guys carpool?"

"Probably? I always assumed they lived in dorms, out in the country," bluntfiend mused, cracking his knuckles. "Like, uh, Commie scientists. I mean, putting their junk in cities would be mad dangerous."

"Yeah, can you imagine? 'Welcome to your eco-friendly habitation cube, adjacent to Weird Shit Central. Please observe the difference between the fire alarm and the self-destruct.' Pchoom. Goodbye Toronto."

There was a burst of static, and the shot changed. Then changed again. Again. Each time, the image got a little sharper, and the angle shifted a little bit. White walls. Mirror. High, dark ceilings. Suddenly, the camera was looking across a desk at an intense-looking brunette with a lab coat and clipboard. "Alright, Researcher Penelope Gore," Yesterday's Wren said, enunciating the name very precisely. "Ask your questions."

"Damn." Jude punched them in the shoulder. "Names right off the bat."

"How long have you been able to create these anomalies?"

"Since, uh, high school I guess. 2003, 2004-ish."

"O-M-G, secret origin time!"

"You've heard it already."

"Yeah but I love the part where you piss yourself. Seven days, steakshift! Seven days!"

"Ha-ha, shut up." Wren thumbed the fast-forward button, scanned ahead until the janitor started talking, then rewound and hit play.

"-not into random violence."

"Then why make SCP-4581?"

"I mean, I thought the label was pretty self-explanatory."

"You don't consider SCP-4581-∞ 'random" or "violent'?"

"What is… Wait a minute." Masterson leaned forward. "She couldn't be talking about…"

"Your infohazard."

"Oh, you mean the Loop. It's the Loop and the Jam."

"God damn it!" they exclaimed. "They've got my Dead Kennedys album!"

bluntfiend blinked confusedly. "I thought you lent it to PIC."

"Yeah, but he said he couldn't find it. Fuck! I was hoping it was in the back of his van or something, not with the janitors!"

"C'mon, steak, chill out. This is a win, remember? You've got something incredible here." He gestured at the TV. "We've never seen anything like this."

"Yeah. I guess. I just… really wanted PIC to return it." Masterson chewed on a thumbnail and fretted.

steakshift considered themselves an anarchist, and there was nothing they despised more than fascists. While they had no reservations about knocking a Nazi's lights out, that didn't actually shut them up long-term; pigs and propagandists would just keep on pushing poison. The "Anti-Racist Audiocassette"4 had been their solution. It was counter-propaganda chaff: Side One (the "Loop") would blast onlookers with music, tagging targets with an infohazard and flooding their accounts with copyrighted junk; Side Two (the "Jam") would blank out local audio recordings, erasing evidence and untagging affected creeps. The initial run hadn't gone perfectly, but it had been clean. There had been no loose ends… until polaricecraps groused about a similar problem one month later. PIC was a comrade and steakshift had offered up the tape immediately. It had taken a while for Masterson to realize that they had neglected to remove their mundane alias. You crossed the streams, dummy. "mxm bootleg edition". That's how they got your ass.

"…guns are designed for killing. But with training and safeguards you can use a rifle to hunt game, feed a family, protect a community. It's all responsibility and intent. Mundane cameras kill people too."

"Wow, look at Mx. Second Amendment over here."

"Pfft. I don't need guns, I've got the Restricted Shelf. You know what I mean, though. Daytime news does more damage than the Loop."

"…always read as neutral. Even when they're obviously not."

"That's an absurd reduction," Researcher Gore retorted, gesturing with her pen. "There are extremes, yes, but there is such a thing as an objective, scientific view."

Wren guffawed. "Yeah, that's some bullshit. She sounds like a Redditor."

"A mundane object doesn't blow someone's eardrums out and then wipe them off the Internet. That was you. You built a bomb, and then you sent it to a child."

bluntfiend gasped. "How could you, steakshift? So irresponsible. Sending a bomb to an actual baby."

"I'm gonna tell him you said that."

Kriyot snickered. "Do it."

"I will!"

"Good." He kept on giggling. "You're such a grumpy old theydy."

"No lies detected."

"You don't have to share that salacious gossip, or that video of a dude getting his head kicked in. You don't have to profit from their pain."

"Whoa, wait. Look at that reaction." Pause. Rewind. Frame-by-frame.

"She looks… concerned? Guilty, maybe?"

"Maybe." Play.

"I have a printout here… chat logs describing your use of SCP-4581-∞…"

Wren's face fell. They glanced around, stood up and started moving towards an adjacent door. "I need to use the bathroom."

"Sure," bluntfiend said, his eyes still locked on the TV. "Want me to pause it?"

"No, you keep going," steakshift muttered. They closed the bathroom door, sat down on the toilet, put their head in their hands and listened. Outside, Yesterday's Wren was still speaking. Their voice wafted under the door, rose like a gust of hot air, and their consciousness floated up with it, lost in a haze of mounting terror.

Jesus, what did I tell them?

"It's done. Closed Loop. You don't need to worry about that guy." True. "I'm a responsible human being, Tipper." False. You know what you did, Anna. What a fuckup you are. No, that's "When I built this weapon, and yes" no "I acknowledge it's" not my "safety."

Jude laughed in the next room, very, very far away.

His channel went down and I walked up and I "asked for directions" liar "he said" fuck off "fuck off, he didn't have" time for your dyke shit, Anna.

Mx. Masterson shook their head. "That's not my name," they whispered. They wiped their eyes, and when their fingers came back wet, they snatched a few squares of toilet paper. "That's not my name. That's not my name." Not… Not my… No.

"He used his platform to hurt people. Now he can't."

Not anymore.

They stood up, flushed the toilet, and ran the sink just long enough to rinse their face. Then steakshift took a deep breath and went back to the couch.

As soon as they emerged from the bathroom, bluntfiend pressed pause, then rewind, then play. "I know you said I should keep going," he said, "but you gotta see this bit."

On the screen, Researcher Gore set her jaw and glared at her prisoner. "It trolled me," she said, "with Lady Gaga and Rick Astley."

Yesterday's Wren and Today's Wren both started to laugh. "Oh my god."

"Congrats, steak. You rickrolled the Foundation."

"What can I say? Love the classics."

"Afterwards, SCP-4581-∞ overwrote files with Rage Against The Machine."

"Interesting. You should quit your job."

Jude busted out laughing. "Bold!"

"That's my advice for everyone, actually."

"…reflection of the operator. It's based on the circumstances that led you to make the mistake of uploading it. If I were to guess, I'd say you were… conflicted, about your place in a bigger system?"

"Is that true?"

"I mean… mostly? It extrapolates from the values I implanted, and I'm hardly neutral." They considered. "Call it… 60% operator. Maybe 70%."

"So I guess you're fucking with her, here."

"Well, y'all keep calling it trolling."

"Want to hear a joke?"

"Not particularly."

"Two Oscar Meyer guys are on the highway…"

A wide, earnest smile spread across steakshift's face, and they suppressed a pre-emptive laugh. bluntfiend cringed. "Oh Christ, here we go. I can't believe you named yourself after this dumb, obvious punchline. When did you come up with this, '72?"

"Hey now," Wren complained, "my dad told me this joke."

"Figures. It's a dad joke. You see it coming from a mile away."

"…says, 'I'm sorry to let you down, man. I drive an automatic. I can't handle a steak-shift.'"

For a second, the researcher didn't react. Then Gore's eyes twitched, ever so slightly. She tried (and failed) to stifle a laugh, then quickly covered her mouth with one hand and cleared her throat. "Are you done?"

Jude's jaw dropped. "No way."

Wren hooted and clapped. "I told you! I told you it was funny!"

"It is not! She's just old! Like you!"

"Whatever, sonny. I made a janitor laugh. This is going in the highlight reel."

"…additional questions about your history, education, anomalous abilities, projects, personal enterprises and affiliations, particularly your relationship with GoI-5869…"

"Nice," Jude and Wren said simultaneously.

"…and the members thereof?"


"You were mostly compliant, before. What changed?"

"'Fuck you, I won't'-"

"-'do what you tell me!'" steakshift cheered. "'Motherfuuuucker!'"

"Alright. Alright," bluntfiend conceded. He gave the coffee table three sharp raps with his knuckles. "Put it in the highlights."

It came up eventually, of course. They were smoking some predictably excellent weed, and in the midst of their banter, bluntfiend asked an obvious question. "Does it feel weird," he said, "to see something you don't remember, from your own point of view?"

"No," steakshift replied, rather decisively. Then, "Not exactly. I feel like I'm just seeing life through a screen, sometimes. My mind wanders. That's probably why this Handycam trick works at all. It's manageable, but…" They shook their head. "Looking back on things I did or said, some of it doesn't seem real. So when I hear myself ranting on video, it's… embarrassing, but not unfamiliar."

Jude passed the pipe and exhaled smoke through his nostrils. "You mean the stuff about guns and cameras? The… gun-cameras? That was a little preachy."

Masterson groaned. "God, yeah. I think about that sorta shit all the time, but don't really talk about it unless I'm pissed off. Or stoned." They took another hit.

"You had a sort of fire-and-brimstone thing going on, near the end there. Asking the dude for directions was ballsy." Kriyot paused. Something shifted in his THC-addled brain. "Wait, you drive?"

Wren coughed mid-exhale and stared at Jude with red, bloodshot eyes. "What?" they wheezed. "Naw, I'm too gay to drive. You can borrow my bike."

"No, I mean — you said you drove to the guy's house. But I don't think I've ever seen you in a car, let alone in the driver's seat."

"Oh." Wren stared off into space for a minute, then sighed. "No. I don't drive. My dad died in a car wreck and it fucked me up real bad. Panic attacks." They let out a hollow laugh. "Turns out, I'm the one who can't handle a steak-shift."

"Shit. Sorry."

"Yeah." steakshift fell silent for a time. Then their head snapped up. "Oh no."


"I told them that I drove. If you picked up on it, the janitors are gonna pick up on it, they're superfeds, they're gonna know…" Masterson jumped to their feet and started pacing. "…and they're gonna dig, they're gonna dig until they find her, oh fuck. Fuck."


"Me!" Wren exclaimed, a lot louder than they intended. "The… ex-me, before I was steakshift, before I figured myself out. God, I'm so fucking stupid. I can't believe I…" They collapsed back onto the couch and covered their face with both hands. "I never should have shared that tape."

Jude gazed over at his friend, clearly uncertain how to react. He tried to speak, coughed a few times, then tried again. "Hey… you know I'm not good at this personal shit, but… you can talk if you wanna. I dunno." Wren didn't reply. "Uh, for what it's worth, your opsec is good? Your spy tricks seem effective. I mean, it took 'em this long to find you at all."

"I signed that cassette twice, man. Once with my handle. Once with your 'Stephen King, hit by car' joke." Jude clapped a hand over his mouth to contain his laughter. Wren sighed. "I can't believe this. I only marked it because I thought I was gonna keep that tape forever. It was…"

They trailed off.

"…your dad's?"


"Uh, this might be rude, but… if it was so important, why'd you use it for trolling?"

"Because I was going after his dad. My grandpa, Harold."

"Oh." Jude fidgeted in his seat. But he didn't say anything, and didn't look like he was going to leave.

Wren stared intently at their feet for a while. When they finally spoke, it was halting and awkward. "I went to live with Harold after my dad died. Barely knew him but it was okay at first. Misery loves company. We were both torn up, but didn't have much in common. He was retired. Cable TV, no Internet. Bitter old fart. He got bored and sometimes he'd take it out on me.

"I… was in a bad spot. Teenager with superpowers. Depressed, grieving, didn't understand. Didn't have the words. Hated myself instead. Found places online that celebrated self-loathing, turned it into a joke… God. So much hate in that house, and I told myself it was funny.

"Harold had opinions. Longer I stayed, louder he got. 'L-O-L, old-timey racism, who cares, amirite?' Got more important shit to do, like pranking people with Polaroids. Took candids, made 'em look funny or weird or scary. Fooled one guy into thinking he was haunted, then waved the picture around and quoted The Exorcist. Poof! Ghost disappears! He gave me everything in his wallet. Hundred eighty bucks. Blew it on weed.

"Harold kept getting on my case. I needed a distraction. So I gave him one of my old computers, and I showed him how to get online. That's where things really went sideways. The Internet didn't poison his brain; chalk that up to character and society. But suddenly he had a way to find people who hated the same things." Wren covered their face with both hands. "Fucking… guns and cameras, man. I didn't realize what I was doing.

"Went to college. Dropped out. Went to that other college, studied anart, dropped out again. Then underground. 2010, things finally started to click. Figured out I was genderqueer. Started readjusting my life. Eventually 2014 happened, and I realized how everything was truly fucked.

"Harold and I messaged each other on holidays, to be polite, but we didn't keep in touch. Sometimes he sent me links to his rant videos. I didn't watch them. Why would I? I thought I'd heard all his garbage already. How fucking wrong I was. While I was off doing, uh, other things, Harold got into full-on Nazi shit. Awful war stories about Korea turned into rants about Jews and 'western civilization' and sharia law. He started chasing people around, screaming at them, streaming it live. Eventually he got enough followers to make it a team sport. People got hurt. That's when I noticed what was up.

"Went back to my hometown and tried talking to Harold. That went nowhere, so I went up to my old room and dug through some boxes. Found the tape right where I left it, with the rest of my dad's cassettes. Dead Kennedys were always his favorite." Wren choked back a sob. "I spent a whole week tinkering with that thing. Put some juice into it. Then a bit more. The next time Harold and his buddies went out, I was ready. He was harassing people outside a Lebanese restaurant, calling 'em terrorists and perverts. I cruised by, on my bike, with my Walkman, stopped right in front of him, and hit record." Even through tears, Wren managed a chuckle. "Blasted him with Rock the Casbah. Harold was furious, but the music was louder than he could ever be, so he went home.

"Figured the Loop would take a while to kick in. Wrong. An hour later his channel was toast. Hell fucking yeah, I told myself, mission accomplished. I'd cooked up a hundred ways to chew him out. Then knocked on his door and, uh, choked. Harold screamed at me for destroying his work and I just stood there and made noises until he told me I wasn't his granddaughter. I told him he was right, I wasn't anyone's daughter, and he definitely wasn't my family.

"He slammed the door in my face. I just… reacted. I flipped the tape over and played the Jam. I closed the Loop.

"I fucked up.

"I lived on the road. Hid stuff here and there, but that was business. Magic shit. My dad's stuff was still in Harold's house. In my old room. I didn't just close the Loop. I nuked my dad's cassettes. All of them. Video, audio. Everything he left behind. Poof. Unrecoverable. Even for me." Masterson sniffed back a stream of mucous. "I wanted to go back in and grab the boxes. Get his old books, at least. But I couldn't face Harold again. So I left."

"With the tape," said Jude. He hadn't moved a muscle for a solid minute, which was probably some sort of record.

"Yeah. One last memento. Gone."

"Fuck. I'm… I don't know what to say, Wren. That blows."

Masterson sniffled again. "Yeah, it does, but it's done, right? It's in the past. Except. Now the janitors have the cassette, and they have me on video, and they'll start piecing things together. When they find that old fucker, and they will, Harold will blab, and when he runs out of dirt, he'll make some shit up." They shrugged helplessly. "Eventually the janitors are gonna figure out what I did, back in the day. Then they'll put me in a cage or drop me like a ton of bricks."

"What you — okay, wait." Jude removed the beanie and ruffled his hair. "steak… remind me, when did you meet JJ?"

"Uh… 2009? We kinda bumped into each other in a ReTerminal. He told me about y'all in 2014."

"Okay. Well. Not too long after you joined, I had to, uh… clean up some loose ends. I punished some very bad people a long time ago, and it was a reminder of everything I'd done wrong. I couldn't handle it on my own. So, uh." Jude coughed. "I called the janitors and I told them."

"You what?"

"Well, technically, I just talked into a phone, and they called me. But yeah, I tipped them off."

"…and they let you go?"

"Actually, their robot tried to fry my brain."

"Is this… supposed to be, like, a pep talk? Because it's not helping."

"No, it's a reality check. The janitors rolled me one time, let me go, and when they took another swing, they missed. They haven't come in for the kill yet, and y'know what? I don't think they're in any rush. Yeah, they've been hassling us, they're spying on our chats, but… we're young and weird and wild. We could be supervillains if we wanted to, but we don't. We've seen that act before and it sucked. Instead we clown on people who deserve it. Not the most disciplined or productive thing in the world, but at least least we're trying to be positive."

"From our perspective, sure, but-"

Jude shook his head. "Let me finish. I think the janitors have bigger problems than us nerds, and I think they know it. Even the biggest stuff we've done has been… well, relatively low-impact, globally speaking. Even with all the silly shit we pull, and daydream about building… if the rumors are even close to true, people like us have kicked up problems that could end civilization. The Foundation deals with that stuff. Like, every day. I bet you've heard those stories." He paused. "I originally thought they were bullshit, myself."

"I didn't."

"Clearly. You're always looking over your shoulder, for whatever reason, and I know that's a rough way to live, but… you're one of the most precise, level-headed people in our little family. You think everything through. You said it yourself, responsibility and intent. You saw a problem, you solved it. A little razzle-dazzle but nothing excessive. Nobody got hurt."

"That's not true, man," Masterson croaked. "Harold hurt people."

"That's on him."

"I gave him the computer."

"You were a kid," bluntfiend retorted. "You said it yourself, lots of pain in that house. You're better than that now. The lie you told them… it was an honest lie, you know? They might dig, but so what? You've owned your mistakes." He cracked a smile. "Hell, compared to all us kids in the chat, that Foundation dork might actually consider you the adult in the room. You were definitely trying to keep PIC in line."

Wren Masterson nodded silently and stared at the floor, trying not to cry. They could still feel the fear and anxiety rolling over and over in the pit of their stomach. They wanted to believe Jude, they really did. But the possibility of everything falling apart, the chance that someone would learn the truth, now that they'd finally gotten their life in order…

"Hey, steakshift."


"Did you notice… they called her Tipper Gore?"

steakshift blinked. It took a second for them to connect the dots. "Holy shit," they whispered. "Researcher Gore. Tipper Gore."

"The Foundation versus Jello Biafra."

"Everything old is new again."

"Oh, that must be such a relief for you, old timer."

Wren Masterson snorted. Then giggled. Jude Kriyot joined in. Before too long, they were both roaring with laughter. "You think," steakshift wheezed, "the Foundation has 'parental advisory' stickers?"

"God, I hope so." bluntfiend raised his hands, as though he were placing a sign. "Containment Advisory: Explicit Anomaly."

"Christ. Incredible."

"You want to start watching that OVA?"

"Yeah, absolutely. Dubs or subs?"

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