The Not-Too-Distant Future
rating: +37+x


When he saw the shape, way off in the morning mist, Felix Arthur Kipp assumed that it was a deer and went about his business. It would be another four hours before he went to work, and he had a routine to go through, so he did. Felix ate breakfast, read the newspaper, brushed his teeth, and went outside to walk the dog, at which point he realized that there was a naked person standing in the field to the east.

Felix didn't know how to respond to this. It simply did not compute. His nearest neighbor lived a kilometer in the opposite direction and 78-year-old Brenda was not prone to naked somnambulism (thank God). Nor, in fact, did he recognize this person; they looked to be in their twenties, sort of pear-shaped, with a round face and curly hair hanging down to their shoulders. They didn't look like anyone he knew in Hornor's Crossing, and this was a very small town. It was as though this person had fallen out of the sky, which would certainly go a ways towards explaining why they were a total wreck: feet caked in mud, twigs and leaves in their hair, and shallow, bloody scratches all over their body, like they had just walked directly through brush. Also, no clothes at all. That was still sinking in.

Felix didn't react. The person — a woman, by the look of it — didn't react either. They sorta… stared at each other until the dog bounded over to say hi. Ben, the yellow Lab, who was always so excited to meet new people, made a beeline across the field and trotted right up to the girl and started licking her fingers, held limply at her sides. The woman recoiled, but did not lash out or step away. If anything, she seemed… confused. It wasn't as though she'd never seen a dog before, but… she clearly didn't know what to do with the sensation of wet slobber on her fingers, or the soil beneath her feet, or the cool misty air swirling all around her. Let alone what to do with herself.

Eventually, he asked, "Are you okay?"

The woman shook her head frantically. For the first time, Kipp recognized that her face was streaked with tears.

"Please," she said. Her voice was raspy and weak, like she'd been shouting for a long time. "Please… help."

He did.


Penelope Gore woke up. She laid in an unfamiliar bed, stared at a strange ceiling, and for a moment, she was profoundly confused. Then she remembered: this is a motel. I'm here in Ontario because of work. Her disorientation went away immediately, and she dedicated that mental energy to pondering the feasibility of five more minutes in bed. Gore glanced at the clock on the nightstand, next to her contact lens case. She rolled over, indecisive… then did a double-take. There was a folded piece of paper under the case. Unexpected. Penelope sat up, slid her contacts off to the side, and brought the document closer to her face so she could read.

Generally speaking, amnesticization works because of the flexibility of the human brain. Missing memories don't break the whole system; people just sorta fill in the gaps and go about their day, unless given cause to do otherwise. Like… a secret message from a forgotten version of yourself. In this case, a letter… talking about a crisis… and a crime… to which Penelope Gore may be an accessory… or even an accomplice.


"Oh, here we go," she muttered. How does this keep happening?! Gore was angry at first, then confused, then incredulous, and at the end of the message she almost burst into tears. It was too early for this. She hadn't even put her contacts in, for crying out loud.

Speaking of which… Penelope couldn't see the motel door very clearly, but she had finally realized that it was standing slightly ajar.

Someone is in here with me.

Researcher Penelope Gore was woefully unprepared for circumstances like these. She'd had some basic self-defense training, but she worked in sterile offices and cubicles and was (occasionally) asked to take a trip to some other similarly-controlled environment, so she could lend specific expertise. Tactical stuff is for Mobile Task Forces, not nerds, and under other circumstances, Penelope Gore would call the cavalry… but… given the content of the letter, that would probably be a bad idea.

If my "guest" wanted me dead, I wouldn't have woken up at all.

This was not particularly reassuring, but it was enough. Penelope opened the top drawer of the nightstand, exchanged the letter for her backup pair of glasses, put them on and scanned the room. No movement. Gore got up hesitantly, padded over to the motel door and examined the faint red smudges under the doorknob. Oh, that's definitely blood. It looks like Yesterday's Penelope didn't deadbolt it, and… "someone" picked the lock. Gore closed the door with one foot, then circled around, checked the closet (empty, aside from her baggage), pushed open the bathroom door, and stopped.

"Someone" was lying in the motel bathtub. They were wearing a black windbreaker, jeans, and boots. There was also an open bottle of whiskey (two-thirds gone) standing on the edge of the tub, next to a bloody folding knife.


Penelope Gore lunged into the room and yanked the shower curtain aside. Sure enough, it was who she'd expected: Mx. Wren Masterson.1 They were a total mess. Battered, bruised… and bloodstained. The mess was mostly on their shirt, but there was also dried blood all over their hands, and for one horrible second, Penelope thought they were dead. She fell to her knees next to the tub and started searching for a pulse. "Wren! No, no, what the-"

"What the fuck?" They were awake. Clearly uncomfortable, disoriented, but alive, awake, and staring her right in the face. Gore had a hand on their throat, which was… awkward, given the circumstances.

"Are you okay?" she managed.

Wren blinked. "Uh… no? Where the hell am I?" They paused. "When am I?" Another moment of hesitation. "You wear glasses, Penelope?"

"This is, uh, Wednesday. July 24. And… no, not generally." Penelope tried to find something to do with her hands and failed, so she just stood up instead. "This is Room 5. Cardinal Motel. Outside-"

"The Crossing?" All the blood drained out of Wren's face. "I'm in Hornor's Crossing?! With the Foundation investigating my fuckup?! No, no, no-" Masterson struggled to rise from their position in the bathtub and mostly just flailed around helplessly. "Oh God I don't remember anything about this place, no exits, I — Penelope, I trusted y-"

"Whoa, whoa, slow down! You're okay! Wren, I… I know this is all very strange, but I think we're fine. We're safe."

"Safe?! How could I possibly be safe?! How did I-" Masterson started giggling. Or were they crying? Possibly both. "'Well, how did I get here?!'" They tossed their hands up dramatically, then let them fall back into their lap.

Definitely giggling. Manic, scared.

Penelope knelt down again and put a hand on their shoulder. "You are here, Wren Masterson," she said. "Doesn't matter how. You're here with me, steakshift, and you're safe, I promise."

They believed it, because it was true. So they calmed down a bit.

Eventually, Gore asked, "What's with the knife?"

Masterson glanced at it, surprised. "That's… mine." They started to pick it up, then saw where all the blood was coming from. "Oh shit. If that's a relapse it's a weird one."

Yesterday's Wren had left a message, too, carved on their inner left forearm. Not deep, but… painful. Memorable. Two digits: 2 3.

The two of them looked at the injury for a while. Neither of them said anything. Eventually, Wren declared, "That's meaningless, though."

Penelope grimaced. "Clearly it's not? You just don't get whatever it means. Yesterday's date, for one."

"No, that's just it, I get it too well. Genre-savvy, remember? This is… weird."

"Oh. Really. 'Weird'." Penelope Gore gestured around the motel room. "All the circumstances in play, and this is the weird bit, the self-harm?"

"Well, admittedly, I am really really hung over right now, and the last time I got properly smashed was… late 2016? I did some self-destructive shit then too. At least that was funny… relatively speaking." Wren Masterson contemplated existence from their current position, then realized that they were fully clothed and utterly wrecked in a bathtub. "Would you mind… giving me some privacy?"

"Oh! Not at all," Gore exclaimed, turning on her heel. "It's not like it's my motel room, or I have shit to do today. I'll just deal."

"Roll with them punches, babe. That's my philosophy." Masterson fought to remove one of their boots.

She didn't take the bait. Instead, Penelope read the letter three more times while Wren was in the shower, stashed it, and got dressed, thinking. How do you sign a message to your future self, remind her what she's all about? Seal it with a blow to the gut. Rebecca. Pow. There was no way she could share this with anyone, let alone Masterson. Too many variables in play already. Who knows what would happen if she dropped this bombshell. Yesterday's Penelope might have had a degree of trust in Yesterday's Wren, but those people weren't here now. She had to think very, very carefully about what she introduced to this volatile equation.

"Hey, uh… Penelope? Can I borrow a shirt?"

Masterson was leaning midway out from behind the bathroom door. They looked mortified. They had a towel wrapped around their torso, and their silhouette looked… different. "What?" Gore said.

"I got lots of blood on my old one. I don't seem to have a go-bag, which is… odd… so I need a shirt. Any shirt. I'll give it back, or even give you one of my nice ones. Quid pro quo."

"Sure. Absolutely. Don't worry about it." Penelope dug around in her own luggage and pulled out a hoodie. Then she paused. "Do you want me to, like… toss it over to you?"

"…yes. Thanks."

She lobbed it through the bathroom door and studiously looked the other way. A few minutes later, Wren emerged from the bathroom, drying their hair with a towel. All too late, Penelope realized that she'd provided an entirely inappropriate garment: it was webcomic merch, emblazoned with a dog in a kitchen on fire. The shirt didn't fit well, either. Too small. Unconstrained, Masterson's frame was not as slim as Gore's.

Penelope tried not to react and failed miserably. Wren noticed. They shrugged. "'This is fine.'"

"Okay." Gore navigated past her uninvited guest without making eye contact and stepped into the bathroom.

"It really is fine," Masterson said, but their voice was low and despondent. "I normally wear a binder but I'm not supposed to sleep in it. So I'm… giving myself some breathing room. It is fine. Please, don't make it weird."

"Okay. I'm sorry."

"Yeah. Well… me too." Wren plopped down onto the bed and jammed their hands into the pockets of the hoodie. "As someone who just sorta showed up, drunk, in your bathtub, I feel the need to apologize. This shit keeps landing on your stoop for some reason. I get distracted and diverted, lose my tracking, but this… doesn't happen, scene transitions are normally tidier than this." They bit their lip. "Hm. Not just hung over. Queasy."

Gore re-emerged from the bathroom with her contacts in. Finally. "Did you say 'scene transitions'? You mean like a movie?" She immediately regretted asking.

"Mmm, it's in that vein. Dissociation, derealization, that's sorta like a movie, because I feel one step removed. This is different. You know how Tarantino movies tend to be nonlinear, because he's only got a couple of tricks? It's like that, except… there's supposed to be continuity, a logical 1+2=3, even if it's in a wonky order. There's a pattern the characters follow even if they don't realize it. Here… there's a weight in my stomach. Like I've skipped a step, lunged off a cliff. I feel…" They stared off into the middle distance. "I did something. It's got something to do with this, obviously," gesturing at their bandaged arm, "but there's also something actually important. I don't remember it. But I'm supposed to remember it! It's not part of the plot otherwise."

"This is… pataphysics again." Great.

"It is absolutely that thing! Pataphysics! Fuck me, this is narrative inertia. I cheated somehow and it's just catching up to me the morning after. Newton's Third, except I went on a wicked reality-bend last night and reality is gonna whip my ass today in return." They paused. "God, I hope it's just today. This is bad enough! Depending on what I did/didn't do, this could be a really, really bad week."


Felix Kipp kept up the act until "Mr. Harris" left the house. He watched the alleged "government employee" get into his white car, pretended not to look as they departed, and only let his guard down when he was absolutely sure he was alone.

The signal device was hidden in plain sight, next to his cell phone. It looked like a pager, but wasn't; it didn't connect to a real network, and didn't even need batteries. There was no keypad, just a power button. Binary. On/off. He had called it a "narrative device" once, when it was new, and that had immediately clicked with his student. They had developed such an excellent rapport, over the years. This will be happy news, but… difficult. Kipp toggled it twice in quick succession, then waited. A couple minutes later, the device beeped and printed a message:


which was the code phrase he expected. Step one complete. Next: off to work.

It's hard to keep secrets in a small town. Everyone shares the same landmarks, the same gossip, the same microculture. When the "normal state of affairs" is excruciatingly dull, like it is in Hornor's Crossing, every divergence from the norm is observed and relayed to an eager audience. One slip-up, and some good-hearted blabbermouth (like county clerk Myra Gibbons, bless her heart) will air out your laundry. One mistake. All it takes.

Felix Kipp had been keeping secrets all his life. Some were his own, but there was also information that had been shared with him in trust… a social contract that he took very seriously indeed. By his reckoning, a library is not merely a place to find books; it's a safe space where people can learn and build and ask for help if they need it. Oftentimes, that sort of help is technical. Sometimes it's more personal. The Crossing was small, but Felix knew many people who had needed help discovering who they really were, and as someone who had been outed a couple times in his twenties and thirties, he respected personal discretion above all else. Felix Kipp had been out of the closet a long time, but not everyone could live openly, and life in Hornor's Crossing had only reinforced the oldest lesson: people talk. Often carelessly.

That said… people don't talk about the things they don't see, and routine is exceptionally effective camouflage. If you do something conspicuous every single day, people will recognize that pattern, and so long as you maintain the broader outline of your routine, nobody will see the hidden step, because… well, what is there to see? It's just the town librarian, stopping yet again at the only gas station between his house and his workplace. Perhaps he's buying a lottery ticket, or a newspaper, or refilling the tank of his worn-out car. It doesn't matter. It's normal. People look past it. For this reason, literally no one in Hornor's Crossing had ever realized that Felix Kipp actually visited the gas station on a regular basis specifically because of the pay phone in the parking lot, which (as usual) started to ring just a split second before he plucked the handset off the cradle. Their timing was always eerily good, which was probably another function of the "narrative device"; he tried not to think about this too hard in the broader context of free will, cause and effect. Things just… work out, sometimes. When you let them.

Felix Kipp put the phone to his ear and listened: nothing. Then he cleared his throat and declared, "'I can't hear a thing'." Challenge…

A familiar voice spoke up from the other end. "'I have got no service'." Authenticated. Next: duress check.

"'You could call if you want'." Two paths from here: danger or safe, represented by "out in the club", and…

"'There's no one home'." Safe.

"'You're not going to reach my telephone'." Felix Kipp permitted himself a short laugh. The music references always seemed a bit on-the-nose, but they were fun and memorable, and given the forces they were dealing with… well, nothing wrong with whistling in the dark. "I had a visitor today. One of those, ah… custodians you mentioned. He was curious about the mess. Wondered whether I'd seen any trespassers."

On the other end, Wren Masterson laughed. "Have you?"

Kipp affected the reedy wheeze of an old man short of breath. "'Why, heavens, no, I just sit around and read books all day. Nobody walks in those woods!'"

"Did he buy it?"

"Well, he didn't point the finger. You think they'll stick around?"

"Yes. You'll have new neighbors soon. They'll want to take care of the yard. Let them. Don't go back, ever. Try to forget it exists." There was a long pause. "Felix… I've said it before, but I can never say it enough: thank you. You've done so much for me and you've asked for so little in return. I owe you, man. I owe you everything."

Felix Kipp smiled, but it was bittersweet. Eleven years. "No," he said, "you don't. This was the right thing to do. So I did it."

"Yeah, well. Lots of people wouldn't. Or couldn't. I just happened to meet the one man who would. You're one of a kind, Felix. You showed me the way. You healed me when I was broken. I… I wouldn't be who I am without you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart." Masterson paused again. "I love you."

Wren had made it clear that using their name over the phone, even a deniable phone, would be a bad idea. Kipp was inclined to agree; it was still hard, though. You're supposed to address family by name. Especially when they picked their own name. He wrestled with his words awhile before speaking again, and when he did, Felix spoke from the heart. "You're the strangest, most wonderful person I ever met, S. You are… incredibly unique, not to mention the best apprentice an old librarian could ever imagine. I know this journey has been very long and difficult, but you did it. The weight is off our shoulders, and I'm proud of you. I love you. Our time has been such a gift. I know you'll do great things." The librarian started to suppress his grief, but ultimately let himself cry. This is so hard. "Are… will you ever visit again?"

"I… wish I could. I don't think that would be… wise, what with the, uh, cleanup crew." Wherever they were, Masterson was obviously having a tough time with this, too. He could hear the strain in their voice. "Maybe… you can visit me, instead."

"I would like that. Until then…" Felix Kipp mustered a laugh. "Keep circulating the tapes."


He hung up.


Beloved librarian, historian and community activist FELIX ARTHUR KIPP (August 28, 1950 — July 23, 2019) will be laid to rest this Saturday, following visitation and memorial services at Reed's Funeral Home. As a resident of Hornor's Crossing since 1985, Felix is remembered by many friends, peers and patrons as a kind and gentle soul with a deep love of learning, culture, and a passion for true social equity. Everyone is invited to pay their respects and share their memories with the Friends of the Hornor's Crossing Public Library, who will be collecting written testimonials for a commemorative publication.

"Whoever and wherever we are, we are not alone." — Felix Kipp

Wren Masterson had some rules about funerals. Firstly, the most important question was whether the deceased would have wanted you there. It's a celebration of their life, after all, and you should respect their wishes, even/especially when they're gone.

Felix Kipp probably would have appreciated the sentiment of going to his funeral, but he definitely would have pointed out that it was, "tactically speaking", a bad idea. Over the years, Kipp had assimilated a vast range of human experience, both real and fictive; he'd learned many lessons from Christie and Doyle, Hammett and Higgins, Ludlum and le Carré… a seemingly endless list of greats. (He also read a lot of harlequin romances, but those weren't really as 'reference', per se. Also Chuck Tingle, who he thought was hilarious.) Were Felix here today, he'd say that if Wren were scared of getting caught (which they were), and the opposition was in the area (also yes), then going to a mentor's visitation or funeral would be a profoundly bad idea. "That," he would say, with the confidence of someone who had never, ever shaken a tail in his life, "is how you get made."

Bless that old man, he'd had no idea what he was talking about. Things were so much more complicated on the road. Yet Felix Kipp had been right anyway, because he read… a lot of books. Like Condor, except a gay librarian. Wren had always been amazed at his speed: Felix could whip through just about anything in a matter of hours, yet he retained so much of it without apparent effort. Masterson wasn't wired for that. They had a massive book collection of their own, of course, but they read embarrassingly little of it, and it took a while for the content to sink in compared to video. Kipp had never judged them for this. "Different people learn differently," he would say, with a smile and a shrug.

"Different." Understatement of the decade.

Second question: would attending the funeral add anything to the community's process of healing? Answer: fuck no. What the hell was the dumpy, beat-up stoner burnout going to do to help this town? Magic tricks? These were small families and old people and Masterson had never, ever known any of them. First, that had been the point. Then… then it had been for everyone's safety. They would mourn amongst themselves and they would be better for it. Felix Arthur Kipp was dead, but Wren Masterson was alive, and they weren't going to endanger his community by paying homage to a headstone, a lump of carbon, an ex-human being.

Last question: would attending actually help you heal? Final answer: no. Unlike that poor, sweet old man, Wren Masterson never believed that there was anything after death.

Now, steakshift doesn't dump on religious types (except the real assholes); they respect that faith takes effort and practice, and they suspect said faith gives them… something, in the end. Contentment, hopefully, before an endless sleep. If they're lucky, maybe even something deep and vivid. But Wren knows that is not for them, because they've been there before, and while they don't remember exact details, they're certain that it fucking sucked.

The truth was that steakshift had been dealing with derealization, nihilistic depression and suicidality since long before they even contemplated being "Wren Masterson". It started when they were a preteen, and then life got even harder, and in 2008… the artist formerly known as Anna Bojarski went to Hornor's Crossing to stage an art exhibition. The Five, the ones who looked… Toni, Stich, Brock, Devon… Clem… their deaths had been a horrible accident, but when Anna realized the magnitude of their crime, they had decided to end it, too. They got their glimpse behind the curtain, and it was exactly what they expected:


The Nothing spat them back out.

Felix Kipp had found them, and he had nursed them back to health. He helped raise a new human being from the shattered wreck of Anna Bojarski, and he had kept it secret, because it had to be secret. Eventually, Mx. Wren Masterson emerged from the maelstrom… still absolutely certain they were/are dead/imaginary, on some level, but better at coping with it. At least on average.

They did not go to the funeral. They couldn't risk being spotted in the area, not when they'd gone to such lengths to keep their connection to Unwinding a secret. Instead, when Penelope signaled that the coast was clear, Wren went to Felix's house and stood in a den that was no longer familiar. Everything that should have been there was there but it looked too normal. Like a snapshot. Or a rendering. "Ce n'est pas la bibliothèque de votre ami."2 Some of those surrealists3 had it right.

The cross-stitch above the TV looked the same, too… at least, mostly? It was still a simple picture of an old pump, masonry and a book, with a line of text in a firm and friendly serif:

"A town without a library is like a town without a well."

It was the same, but it was wrong, because everything was wrong. The librarian was dead. The wellspring had run dry.

Supposedly, Felix had tripped on the carpet and cracked his neck on the head of the couch. This was… plausible. There was no sign of foul play. There was nothing in the house. Nothing suspicious. Nothing amiss. No precious artifacts were missing or damaged or different. They couldn't find any juice in the place (Penelope said something about 'Humes', but janitor talk didn't resonate with Wren). Just a simple slip-and-fall accident. One mistake. All it takes. They had no logical reason to doubt it, but Masterson doubted anyway, because their life was not ruled by logic: it was ruled by narrative inconvenience.

In their experience, plus the infinite wisdom passed down by their mentor… nobody just wakes up, 1) in an unfamiliar room, 2) adjacent to a place they dread, and 3) discovers that their oldest friend is dead. That is not an accident. If you insist that it's an accident, Ian Fleming might like a word with you.4 Synchronicity does not exist! …except when it does. Such things actually happen around Wren Masterson an awful lot, but not like this. They tend to be messier.

"Where's the dog?"


"Where," Penelope Gore repeated, standing over a blue plastic dish, "is the dog?"

This was a good question. Felix's dog had gone blind a long time ago and while he was not completely helpless, he generally stayed close by, in familiar and navigable surroundings. Yet Ben, the yellow Lab, was nowhere to be found.

"I don't know," steakshift replied, tonelessly. "I hope he's okay. But he's probably not. Not the way this week is going."

"Don't say that, Wren. You're trapped in a pattern of negative thinking."

"Oh, I'm trapped in a lot of patterns right now. Believe me." Wren had not stayed in the Cardinal Motel. That would be silly. They had retreated into an old bolthole and retrieved clothes from a long-forgotten supply cache. Flannel. Plaid. It did not look terrible but still felt like a cage. Their binder was clean though, so that helped a little.

"I believe you. You know how misery loves company? Well, you're very influential." Penelope waved her funny box at the surrounding area, then pointed it at Wren's torso. It made an angry noise. "You're like a black hole right now," she observed. "Your Hume count is very high compared to the environment. I'm concerned that you might just… suck the rest of the narrative in with you." Gore paused. "Not that I want to think about that."

"Am I known to do that, Penelope? By accident?"

She hesitated. "…no. Typically, you either do things on purpose and there's a ripple effect, or you just…"

"Don't," Wren murmured. "I just don't."

"Let's not go down this road, steakshift."

"You're right, that's not happening, not today. I'm just… wallowing. I'll get past it. Buried family before. Never easy. But this isn't just difficult, it's… contrived. When I talked to him on Saturday, I knew it was possible we'd never meet again, because coming back here would be beyond dumb, and yet here I am! Very abruptly!"

Penelope looked around helplessly. "Local reality is stable, Masterson. This is a normal place, a normal death. It's sad, super sad, but random. Like you say, it happens sometimes."

"Not like this. Remember what I said earlier about Tarantino? He's a creepy asshole, but for the most part, those jumbled scenes do eventually add up. 3+2 still equals 5. But here…" They pointed at the couch. "Something is missing on the way to five. I haven't got the whole picture. That's not unusual! Not unto itself! If I saw everything that ever happened I'd be driven completely fucking insane!"

"Worse than you are now."

"Yeah! Way worse!" They paused, then glanced at Penelope, slightly hurt. "Please don't joke about my brain problems, whistl. Only I can do that."

"Alright. Fair." Penelope's mind finally caught up to Wren's meanderings. Tarantino + Ezekiel = 'Pulp Fiction'. But… how could they know that was in the letter? "Were you going somewhere with that rant?"

"God I hope so. I can't tell. Spinning in circles. Missing a clue. Because it is a mystery, and like Auster said, there's nothing that's not significant. Or close enough."

Penelope felt the bottom fall out of her stomach. Fuck. This is it, isn't it? If Masterson's outlook was even close to accurate (God help us all), this sort of circuitous logic was a big part of why she wrote the message to herself in the first place. Was she really trying to cheat the cycle, or was she helping fill the gap? Would the letter actually make things worse? Or was this just what was needed to keep things moving?

"This is a hazy shade of winter," she said aloud.

Masterson froze. "I'm sorry. What? What was that?"

"It's The Bangles."

"But… why?"

Gore laughed involuntarily. Nervous. "What, you're the only one who does references? It just came to me. It's, uh." She screwed her eyes shut and sung a few bars off-key. "'Funny how my memory skips, while looking over manuscripts, of unpublished rhyme'."

"Why is that on your mind?"

Penelope paused. She sighed.

She gave Wren the letter.


This will be a very strange and difficult day. I would say sorry, but I'm sure Masterson will be making their VERY SPECIFIC APOLOGIES in all due time, so I'll cut to the chase instead.

Something happened. Something real bad. We missed a detail somewhere: there was a crack in the seal and ██ people fell through it. The way they explain these things (or don't) Wren has a solution. They swear up and down that they're not changing what's already been done (which is, supposedly, everything? They quoted True Detective. So fucking tiring) but the more people know (including you!), the harder it is to rearrange. Meaning that even before taking these Class As, we don't know shit! They talked a lot but didn't tell us. Typical!

Except this is different. Aside from the aforementioned crack in containment, what we DO know is that this is retribution. Masterson had a friend here in town, someone "normal". Before they stormed out, all Ezekiel 25:175… Wren was pretty certain their friend had been murdered.

It's been 8 hours. They haven't come back. Pretty sure they were right.

steakshift was furious in a way I've never seen. Got no idea what they'll do, what they can do, under these circumstances. I bet it's going to be messy, and there will be blowback, because that's how it always works. BUT:

(and I swear I am not under duress in any way)

I trust them.

The "quid pro quo" they talk about isn't just a mutual aid thing. I think that's how they perceive the universe, the "narrative construct". Like karma, but… more direct? It's weird, possibly inexplicable, but they respect it above all else, and before they left, they swore up and down that they weren't tipping the balance. They were making sure people "didn't die like this". They called it "self-contained" and said "only the guilty will be hurt, including me".

Wren Masterson is trying to redirect some of the pain in the world. They think it's merciful, somehow. Maybe they're right. But from my (limited) experience, it's going to suck when they pop out the other side, and even if they think they can shoulder that burden… they don't have to. Not alone.

You remember Rebecca? It's like that. Never hesitate.

Love you, Pen. Try your best.

Wren read it. Then they said, "This explains a lot."

They sat down on Felix's couch, and they read the letter again. A few times. Then they set it down and put their head in their hands. They began to cry, softly. Relieved. "I thought I was losing it. Looking too hard. Oh, God. Felix, you poor guy, what did they do to you."

Penelope sat down next to them. "So… should I ask? You didn't tell me about him beforehand, and I know you're an… extremely private person."

"No, this is… I think it's gonna be okay. This is painful but doable. This is… normal. For him. Somehow." Wren laughed hollowly. Then they put a hand over their mouth. The next peal of laughter was earnest. "Holy shit. I did it. He died a normal death."


"Look around us, Penelope! You said it yourself! Normal place! I'm the weirdest thing in the building! But I was here! I saw something… and it must have been bad, because I fixed it, I fixed the living shit out of it. Clearly, whatever it was, no one knows, except for us."

"But even we don't know what it was. I mean…" Penelope smacked the paper, dismayed. "This is it, Wren! This is all we have to go on. This and your… scarification thing."

"Oh, this isn't gonna last. Although… I think I'm gonna get '23' as a tattoo, once it heals. To remind myself."

"Of what?! You said the number 23 was meaningless!"

"It is. All things are, on some level."

Penelope pinched the bridge of her nose. "Please, not again. I am begging you."

"No, no, this isn't narrative engineering, this is a regular ol' human thing. The number 23, it's a joke about confirmation bias. I can't remember the details offhand, but there were some bad disasters, and the number 23 kept popping up. Or 2+3, or other functions and derivatives, more and more elaborate. Numerology. You can reduce every detail to 23 somehow."

The Foundation operative cracked a cautious smile. "Like.. reducing everything to 42?"

"Yeah! It's all bullshit in the end! Because the numbers don't mean anything. It's… it's us. We're decently-advanced monkeys who like patterns. On some level it's no more than that. Everyone goes eventually. It's what we do with the burden that matters. The knowledge that something was… lost." Wren sniffled and wiped their eyes. "I'm gonna miss him a lot."

"I can tell. What was he to you?"

"Oh, jeez. Uh… surrogate dad. Cool gay uncle. Head librarian. Holmes to my Watson. Gently to my MacDuff."

"Master to your Padawan?"

"No. He wasn't an alien, or a Jedi, he was… brilliant, rad as hell, but normal. Felix Kipp had a completely normal life of utterly average adventure. Then he met me, and… well, he saved me. He didn't have to, but he did. He taught me so much. I owe him everything." Wren bit back another sob. "I gave him peace. I actually did something right. I gave him peace."

Penelope frowned. Something tugged at her mind, something dark and heavy. "But… who killed Felix Kipp, before you… tampered with the narrative to end up here?"

Masterson's grief pinwheeled into manic glee. "Who fucking cares? Clearly I beat the dude, or I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't have woken up alive in your bathtub. I won! Hahahaha. Oh, wow. That's hardcore." steakshift snapped their fingers. "Pakoosh! Eat it, Rorschach!"

"Wait… you committed murder yesterday?! Revenge-murder?"

"The perfect murder, at that. We don't remember it because it was never real. Rendered standalone, disconnected, and retconned without a trace."

"What the actual fuck! How am I supposed to be okay with that?!"

"Well, how was I going to be okay with you, like… jamming Darth Vader in one of your boxes? Dude needed to go. So he went. Thoroughly."

"You said Felix wasn't a Jedi."

"No, he was the gay uncle: the crispy guy." Wren caught themselves and winced. "Oh, too soon, me. Speedrunning the five stages of grief. Off-topic. No, this is good. This is fine. We will never have to worry about this, ever again." Masterson seized the letter and fished around in their pocket for a lighter.

"I'm not sure I'm comfortable helping you cover up a… locked-room… non-murder mystery."

"Strictly speaking," Masterson said, setting the paper on fire, "you already did."

"Oh, fuck off, steakshift. I'm gonna forget you said that."

"That's the spirit."

Penelope Gore and Wren Masterson went to the nearest major intersection, which — given the size of Hornor's Crossing and the surrounding area — still wasn't very big. All those spy stories, historical anecdotes and mysteries distilled to their essence, curated and passed on by Felix Kipp… they demanded that Wren have multiple exits. Silly old man. Too wise to be paranoid. Too right to be completely wrong. Tradecraft. Learn it, however you can, or die trying. Either/or.

"So what's next for you?" steakshift asked, putting on their helmet. They checked their bicycle headlamp. Broken. Fuck. How'd that happen?

"Back to, uh… Redactedland. Don't ask."

"Alright. Still feeling bad about the whole bathtub thing, so I'll respect your privacy if you respect mine."

Gore smiled. "Quid pro quo, right?"

Masterson beamed. "Hell fucking yeah, Pen, you are finally getting it." Their smile faltered. "It's… not just leniency, though. It's reliability. You've helped with a lot of my bullshit, and I will make myself available, if you need me. Like if you ever want to talk about your friend."

"My friend?"

"The one in the letter. Rebecca."

Her face fell. "I'm… not comfortable with that. I hope you understand."

"I do. In fact, I understand privacy and discretion better than… well, almost anybody. There was one guy, but he's gone now." steakshift straddled their bicycle. They'd have to replace the headlamp soon. "I'll see ya 'round, whistl."

The operative known as "whistl_stahp" nodded somberly. She put the key in the ignition, but hesitated. She looked back at the hacker and called out, "What happened to the dog?"

"Who knows? It's a small town. Ben might turn up, one way or another."

"Alright…" Gore bit her lip. "One more thing."

"Christ. Okay, Columbo."

"Why did you react like that, when I mentioned The Bangles?"

"Oh, I thought you meant Simon and Garfunkel."


"And… nothing, in particular, I just like music. That, and… during, uh, the bad times, with the 'collective'… some of us had a gimmick. Jojo."

Penelope squinted at Wren, three meters away on their bicycle. "As in… 'Get Back'?"

They laughed. "Kinda! But no. 'Jojo's Bizarre Adventure'. It's like a superhero thing, except all the powers — 'Stands' — are named after songs. Sort of an in-joke."

"That's… pretty silly."

"Oh, I thought so too. Then I actually read the comic, the whole thing. Absolutely killer. Mastery of creative form. Gave it a lot more thought afterward and now I know what my Stand is." They hesitated. "Forget I said that. It's rude to, uh… flaunt such knowledge."

Gore laughed despite herself. "Okay… so it's not 'A Hazy Shade of Winter'?"

"Nah, nobody has that Stand, IIRC. Nobody in the series. Nobody in the collective. Maybe somebody has a fan Stand online. Who knows." Mx. Masterson shrugged. "Who cares? Never really mattered, anyway."

Then they biked off into the night.


It took almost two hours to get the woman inside, cleaned up, clothed and fed. He wrapped her in a blanket, parked her on the couch and gave her a bowl of soup, which she didn't eat. Instead she stared at the clock. Or stared through it. Either way, she stared intently, as though she feared time itself would grind to a halt the instant she looked away.

Felix called in sick.

There was something… profoundly wrong with her, but he couldn't pin it down to a single source. Kipp was very distantly reminded of a library patron who had suffered a stroke the previous year. In the process of healing, that man had been forced to relearn many old habits that once came naturally. This girl was moving a little like that. Slow. Careful. Uncertain of herself in her own body, not confident in her presence or perception. It looked… painful. If not physically, then mentally.

It took ages to get her talking. He had to be very specific. When he asked, "Who are you?" she replied, "I/me/us." Then she looked stricken. Then she started to cry.

The response to "What is your name?" wasn't much better. At first, she said her name was Anna Bojarski, but then… "I/we aren't real. Anna killed herself. I/we/us were/are dead. " She started to rock back and forth. "She died. Died, like… like Clem, like… T-Toni, Stich… Brock. Devon." The woman shuddered violently. "All gone."

Felix Kipp knelt down, took both her hands and made eye contact. "Anna… you are alive. You've clearly been through a lot, but you are absolutely alive, and you are going to be okay."

The woman started sobbing again and shook her head violently. "No!" she wailed. "Anna died, I/we can't be her, but… what…" She looked down at herself, dismayed. "Who else could I/we be?"

"Is… is there anyone who can help you? Anyone I can call?"

"No! No! Old friends would kill me/us. The others would hurt you and take Anna and make you forget and then she/I/we will be gone, erased forever, please, please, don't call anyone, the others, they'll just make it worse. Anna… I/we made things… worse. Anna did this. I… did this. It's my fault." She stared at him, eyes wide, bloodshot and frightened beyond belief. "This is all my fault."


Sorry, but no. Penelope Gore was not content to call this (non-)case closed. Instead of going back to Redactedland, she returned to the (non-)scene of the (non-)crime.

"Holmes to my Watson." What am I, chopped liver? (Worse, Lestrade?)

She wasn't sure where Masterson had gone, but she had a hunch she knew where they weren't: Felix Kipp's house. Having "solved" this thing, Wren was unlikely to return anytime soon. But Penelope hadn't solved it. She didn't know what she could possibly put in her report, if she filed one at all. She couldn't even see the murder(s).

What was this? What the fuck was she even doing? She wasn't a Field Agent. Penelope Gore had just sort of… stepped in a mess. She kept telling herself that she was trying to worm into GoI-5869's inner circle, introduce an element of control, turn an asset. Perhaps one day, "whistl_stahp" would obtain critical intelligence. Maybe even a line on Jude Kriyot and other high-value PoIs! This argument wasn't altogether convincing, in part because she was not merely getting played.

As of eight weeks ago, Penelope Gore is not a mole. She is a double agent. She is lying to the Foundation and helping PoI-6966 bury their connection to a Euclid-class anomaly. One with a body count.

"It sounds… so, so bad when I put it that way," Gore muttered to herself. But no, it would sound bad any way she wrangled it. That's why there would probably be no report. This was off-the-books, secret, but ultimately professional — like a therapist talking to a crazy person. Like Rebecca. She froze, and shook her head. No. Not like Rebecca. Never again. Never hesitate, not when you can do the right thing.

Which was why she was here, in Hornor's Crossing, assisting with SCP-4784. It was still very early in the containment process. Penelope Gore was involved because the initial lead had been in a photo album, surrendered by PoI-6966 as a gesture of goodwill to the big scary janitors; thanks to CLOWNFISH, any files even tangentially related to steakshift would become part of her caseload, if only in an advisory capacity.

Except… Wren Masterson had made the tip as a feint. It was a truth, buried in a lie, wrapped up in another layer of partial truth. They'd compared it to le Carré, but ultimately it had been Penelope's idea, and she didn't watch those kinds of movies. She had been thinking back to her teenage years: specifically, a period of profoundly stressful Livejournal drama and deceit. In an instant, Gore's mind leapt from a memory of young Pen at a keyboard to a vision of herself in a D-class uniform. She fought to banish it. No, this was not a betrayal, this was an arrangement. She was cultivating a source! They were building trust. Well… no, not really. This was… an alignment of circumstances. Wren Masterson was trying to clean up after themselves. Or at least, a former self.

The Foundation had absolutely needed to know about Anna and her magnum opus, because it was like an unexploded bomb waiting to go off. If the files Masterson had handed over were accurate (and Penelope Gore had read everything, every horrible detail, even the bits the Foundation didn't need to know), Unwinding was the oeuvre of a traumatized, scared girl who had hated herself with an incredible intensity, resented her existence, and wanted to go. She had sublimated that desire into her project, which was grotesque; manslaughter and suicide spelled out in correspondence and diagrams. Soon there would be a SCiPNet entry, and it would be filed away, neat and tidy, in a self-contained file. "Anna Bojarski (AKA 'The Developer') was a casualty of her own prototype at a closed exhibition facilitated by AWCY."

Only if the Foundation found out, they wouldn't see it that way at all. "Bojarski" wouldn't be a signature in an album, an alias, or a footnote. It would be the name atop MxMasters' rapsheet, along with the words, "art terrorist and fugitive".

Penelope Gore was conflicted. On one hand, Wren Masterson was a reality bender ("genre-savvy", my ass), and they were way too low on the threat index. Forget obnoxious mixtapes or bringing memes to life, this was a… an existential assassination. Christ.

That second tape, though.

"As much as I want to own my sins, make things right, I can't help anyone from inside a white box. If you'd nabbed me when I was younger, I would have given up and died in your gulag, but now… I have commitments. I have people who depend on me, and… I need to make sure they don't make the same mistakes Anna did. They need my help. You know this. In your heart, you know this."

Penelope Gore knew a thing or two about living with mistakes. She knew how hard it was for people to change, but Penelope wanted to believe it was possible, because… well, she'd done it herself. She had learned, after Rebecca… went. Penelope refused to be a bystander and she wasn't going to let anyone else down, certainly not somebody trying to do right, and steakshift was not the same person who had built Unwinding. This wasn't an act or a deception. Anna Bojarski was dead. Mx. Wren Masterson was damaged, eccentric and unpredictable, but they genuinely cared about what they were doing! They was clearly trying to be better, they were just… screwed up. Like everyone, only more so.

At the same time… Masterson's outlook wasn't "just" depressing. It was ontologically terrifying. Penelope Gore did not want to indulge the paranoid interpretation that everything in the universe was just… narrative faffery. There was a vast body of historical, philosophical and scientific evidence that suggested otherwise, and the fact that steakshift saw the world though a warped lens didn't mean it was real… unless they were exerting in/direct influence on the situation, in which case it was way too real.

In this case… they were/had, and it was/is.

Alright, fuck it, let's get wacky.

If she were a character, a sort of Scully-type, hard-nosed-but-good-hearted investigator (which she is NOT, as much as she appreciates Gillian Anderson), would she be satisfied? Heck no! She was still in the dark. MxMasters claimed this situation was under control. They'd also said that their "ARA" measure was under control, and that was way before the clusterfuck at the diner. Now they were saying that this was "self-contained"? Two (non-)murders, a completely done deal, no loose ends? Fat chance! Penelope Gore had made a lot of mistakes but she was still a Foundation Researcher, goddamnit, and she was going to do her job. This was an anomaly. A known unknown.

Penelope started on the porch, swept down to the root cellar (jars, water heater, furnace), through the dining area, then up into the attic. She found nothing with the Kant counter, but then, she wasn't really expecting to — Foundation forensics had already been through this place, and hadn't found anything out of the ordinary. Luckily, she wasn't just looking for anomalies — she was looking for signs of habitation, hints of character. If the person now known as "Wren Masterson" had started rebuilding themselves here, with Felix Kipp's encouragement, whatever personal touches she found could be a window into steakshift's tightly-guarded personal history… or maybe even a bargaining chip.

Eventually, Penelope Gore found a mundane clue in the attic. There was a set of neatly labelled file boxes, arranged in chronological order. 1990s. The acronym on the side seemed familiar but she couldn't place it. She opened one of the boxes. Videotapes. Lots of them. Envelopes, too. Old paper, old handwriting. Love letters? Playful like that, but chaste… oh, except for that one, wow. "Whoops," she murmured. "Sorry, Mr. Kipp." Not my business, she started to say, then paused. Most of these letters were unsigned, or just initialed, but the more serious correspondence had an extended signature. "Your Mistie. Keep circulating the tapes."

Penelope had seen that phrase before, in Room 5 of the Cardinal Motel, when MxMasters had leaned in to ask about borrowing a shirt. It was tattooed on their upper left chest, above the heart, written in the silhouette of an ouroboros. "KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES." What did this mean? One way to find out. There's room in the trunk.

The rest of the house was clean… with two exceptions. The first, in one of the upstairs bedrooms (otherwise derelict) was a rather sinister painting. It was a depiction of a winter hunt, except one man had turned a shotgun on his partner, leaving them dead in a heap of wood. Wow, bleak. Penelope shined her flashlight at the plaque on the bottom and frowned, perplexed.


…just vowels? "John Madden, John Madden," Gore murmured, and giggled despite herself. The Kant counter emitted one solitary buzz. This was… weird? Maybe? Penelope squinted at it some more, then realized what she was doing. Nope! Nope nope. Investigate this one later. In daylight. Possibly with SCRAMBLE gear. She turned on her heel, walked out of the room, and wandered back downstairs, where she found something else in the den.

This artifact was very conspicuous, but she didn't feel bad about missing it earlier, because it hadn't been visible. Now it beamed like a night-light. It was… kind of a joke, the kind shared between friends in a safe space. Gore read the message aloud and laughed as it twinkled. Adorable. Wren would definitely want that someday, so Penelope took it. Secured, confiscated… "pinched".

She looked around some more. She didn't find the dog. Afterward, Penelope Gore spent a few more days in Hornor's Crossing, then went back to Redactedland. She forgot all about the painting, because it wasn't there in the first place.


Felix knew first aid. Had to, given the number of dumb kids and fragile seniors who went through the library in the Crossing. This girl's injuries were superficial. She didn't seem to be in physical pain. He didn't know psychology or therapy or anything like that, but he did know people, and this woman was genuinely scared for her life, all in the midst of the absolute worst freakout he had ever, ever seen… and he'd fucked around with LSD back in the day.

She believed what she was saying. Every word.

Felix Arthur Kipp paced in his kitchen. He couldn't call the police. He was a gay man in his fifties out in the conservative backwoods and he knew better than to hand a traumatized girl over to the cops. He couldn't call the hospital, either, because then she would be institutionalized against her will; God only knows whether they'd let her out at all, and that was assuming these former "friends" weren't going to hunt her down, like she feared. And the "others". Who were the "others" who frightened her so badly, the ones she claimed could erase her completely?

"What… is this?"

It was the first thing she had said without being prompted. Felix swiveled around and found Anna standing in front of the television, holding a VHS tape with faded handmade labels. The text along the spine read, "MST3K EPS 420/421".

Felix blinked. "That's… Mystery Science Theater 3000."

"What is… Mystery Science…?"

"It's a TV show. From, ah, Minnesota. I had a partner from down there, and when he moved back, we stayed in touch. He sent me some of these. Lots, actually. Funny stuff, but… niche."

"Can… I… watch this?" she whispered. She had stopped crying. She looked… hopeful?

"Yeah. Yeah, of course." Felix Kipp hesitated, then smiled. "In fact, I'll watch it with you."

So they sat down on the couch, and they watched it.

Eventually, Ben hopped up on the couch with them.

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