Ourselves, Under Pressure

As the Washington Virion ravages the world, GAW's inner circle struggles under the GOC's brutal quarantine.

  • rating: +26+x

⚠️ content warning

For the third time that night, Jude jolted awake. He looked at the clock on his nightstand. It displayed 04:14 with bright red numbers. His mind foggy, he dimly remembered getting into an argument with the antiques shop owner who had sold it to him. He was reluctant to call digital clocks antiquities. But over the course of his lifetime, he had seen analog watches be phased out, digital ones replaced by smart ones. Then came the ones that incorporated demonic circuitry, which were somehow less volatile than the Samsung smartphones back in the day. Now, they were directly implanted into humans through a non-invasive procedure, along with a thousand other helpful gadgets.

It was 2049, and the digital clock with its red digits was almost as old as he was.

With a groan, he got up from the bed. He silently walked to the other side of the room and opened a drawer. In the dark he felt its insides, tapping everywhere.


He was out of weed.

Wordlessly, he shuffled up to the small window and opened it. A bit of fresh air (relative to Idaho) entered the room. He shivered, looking at the sky. It was clear, but the stars were blotted out by the ever-present pollution from the city lights.

The next stop was the bathroom. He was spending more and more time there each day. Even though the whole flat was still draped in darkness, he didn't look at the mirror when he washed his hands. The bags under his eyes had grown exponentially in the last months, and he didn't want to see them.

Lastly, he went back to the bedroom and sighed. Without weed, he wouldn't have a way to clear his mind and fall asleep again.

So, he grabbed his laptop, brought it to the bed, and started it up. It made a series of low groans, eerily similar to the sounds that Jude himself made when waking up.

jockjamsvol6: Rise and shine gays and thems!
jockjamsvol6: I don’t want to interrupt the sob story you are surely concocting in here last night, but do you know who has gotten the best sleep in years?
bones: Judging from your behavior, it’s fair to assume that the answer to that question is you.
jockjamsvol6: Damn right!
bluntfiend: Hey JJ.
jockjamsvol6: Hey Jude.
bluntfiend: It's 4AM. I don't think you can call it "the best sleep in years" if you wake up at this hour.
bluntfiend: It's literally the opposite of a good sleep.
jockjamsvol6: Well, you see, the zen masters all agree that waking up early is the key to a balanced karma.
bluntfiend: If you say so.
jockjamsvol6: What are your plans today bluntman?
bluntfiend: I'm out of weed, but I don't want to get out of the house to get some.
bluntfiend: I don't want the GOC patrol to catch me with drugs on me.
bluntfiend: It wouldn't go well.
jockjamsvol6: Yeah, I wouldn't want to find out the punishment for carrying spirits while we're under this staccato nonsense if I were you.
bluntfiend: It's Pizzicato.
jockjamsvol6: Whatever.
bones: Even with the current legality in place, it wouldn't be more than a 300$ fine.
jockjamsvol6: And a beating too!
jockjamsvol6: Maybe even they even hold you in a chokehold.
bluntfiend: Don't joke about that.
bluntfiend: The gocks have been getting more and more violent.
bones: Yes.
bones: 12 deaths only in the last two weeks.
bluntfiend: Jesus Christ
bluntfiend: Yeah, I don't want to be on one of those numbers.

JJ had made an art out of waking up early. Even after a month of quarantine, he was refreshed and ready to go each and every day.

Today was no different. He put down his astonishingly flat phone (they looked more like interactive glass panels these days), silenced Jude's whining, and got up from bed. With a half smile, he looked at his snoring companions and briskly walked out of the room.

This was his last day in Alex and Kolin's apartment before moving on to Charlie's, and he intended to enjoy it. He was proud of the life he'd managed to build, always on the move, jumping from one part of his polycule to the next. He paid little rent but was generous with gifts and other, more suggestive favors.

He stood at the threshold of the spacious balcony and basked under the first few rays of sunlight. He stepped onto the cold floor of the terrace, feeling the rapidly evaporating morning dew, and took a deep breath. With a practiced movement, he stretched his arms upward and his spine let out a satisfying pop. He then bent down, feeling his muscles activating.

He loved these little moments.

When he straightened his back again, his mind was empty of worries. With a flourish, he turned back and entered the kitchen. It was an immaculate modern thing, filled to the brim with the newest appliances. He stopped in front of a drawer and took out a cutting board, then grabbed a can from a shelf. "Druv'tuulian Elhrom fruit." JJ smiled. He loved these. And knowing that they came from community-managed Yeren farms warmed his cold communist heart.

The sweet, earthy smell of the fruit invaded his nostrils as he brought the plate to his companions in the other room. Kolin was the first to wake up, a young and promising Deer College professor of paralinguistics with a lithe body who ate a slice of elhrom in one bite. Back when the world wasn't exploding due to the Virion he would commute to college from regular Portland, Maine, to Three Portlands. But now, with all the Ways closed off, he was trapped here. JJ didn't mind. Alex, an anartist of little renown, was still mostly asleep but had mustered the energy to talk.

"Hey J, are you leaving today?"

"Yeah. Everything's packed and I'll be out of your hair just after lunch," JJ said, while he nibbled on a piece of fruit. "Try not to miss me too much."

"We'll despair like Achilles without Patroclus." said Alex jokingly, with all their artistic sentimentality.

"We'll cry ourselves to sleep" concurred Kolin, devouring another slice of elhrom in one bite.

"Well, if you are convincing enough, I might consider staying for a little longer," answered JJ, caressing his collarbone.

They all erupted into playful giggles.

"Oh, but you must leave." Alex declared rambunctiously while JJ kissed their cheek. "You're a free soul and we've kept you for long enough. Charlie misses you madly. I fear for what he'll do if he's deprived of your presence for another day."

JJ sighed and got out of bed, grabbing a pair of pants and motioning to put them on.

"You're right. Duty calls." He then located his phone, which had disappeared under the covers, and said, "If I won't manage to get to Charlie's place today, I think I'll crash at Dahlia's."

"Seems like a good idea." Kolin agreed, while also getting dressed himself. "Have you asked them?"

"I was just about to."

polaricecraps: thanks for the headsup, I'll never use VKTM+ again
lesbian_gengar: you can use it with a good memetic filter
lesbian_gengar: it's just that none of the ones you can find online are good
polaricecraps: I can just pirate it
jockjamsvol6: Hey folks.
lesbian_gengar: you can still get fucked up if you accidentally pirate a cognitohazard
lesbian_gengar: trust me, I know
jockjamsvol6: HEY folks.
lesbian_gengar: hey JJ
polaricecraps: hi JJ
polaricecraps: what do you want
jockjamsvol6: @hetcopogg you around?

Esther was tired of looking at screens. She loved her job. Getting the opportunity to work as a freelance memetic security specialist was one of the best deals that she would ever get, and she had ran with it since the Veil fell. Then she had gotten back with her girlfriend (now wife) following Vanguard's campaign to treat the victims of amnesticization. Life seemed perfect for a while.

Now she was old, and her knees, spine, and neck were killing her after having spent seven hours weaving digital incantations in the little room she worked from. Trapped at home, she didn't have much else to do.

"Get my television fix… Sitting on my crucifix… A living room in my private womb while the moms and Brads are away…"

And just like that, another anticoghaz string of code was ready to be sent to the small charity that had contracted her. She also sent the instructions to correctly implement it to their aid request page.

A gentle tapping took her out of her trance. She blinked rapidly and looked around, realizing that it was already dark. A hand touched her shoulder and she smiled.

"Hey," said Madeline. "I didn't want to bother you but it's late. You should eat something."

"Yeah, you're right. I'm gonna call it here for today"

"Good choice." She kissed her on her forehead. "Also, dunno if you've heard, but the DSA is moving strings to organize a series of protests."


"Yeah, apparently the Coalition is coming down pretty hard in LA. There's a big riot, and there's talk about getting something going in other cities too."


Madeline nodded.

"Well, look it up later. The soup is getting cold."

Esther flashed a tired smile and followed her.

Under the cold morning sun of Washington D.C., walked a man called Josh (known as polaricecraps by friends, enemies, and assorted motherfuckers who had had the displeasure of encountering him in the wild west of the internet). From his earbuds blasted IDLES. With his meager subsidy, he had managed to scramble some groceries with which he would survive for the next week: three cans of beans, a pack of some kind of liquid burger paste, a single carrot, six cans of cheap beer, and three packs of instant noodles of different brands. The rest of the store was empty, on account of the global shortage of literally everything. He dragged his haul in a cart, which rattled as it hit the irregularities of the pavement.

There was only one more GOC security checkpoint until he arrived at his apartment. He looked at his wristwatch. It was 9:12 AM. He had all the time in the world today to do nothing.

He continued his march, when his cart got caught on a large bump. He stumbled, and for a split second it looked like he was going to hit the hard pavement face-first. Fortunately, he managed to grab a lamppost in time, cursed, and checked if everything was okay. One of his earbuds had fallen, so he crouched down, grabbed it, and put it in his left ear. While he was getting up, a flash of movement caught his attention.

On a wall, in one of the alleys that branched off from the main street, something was being painted. He couldn't see whoever was doing it, so he guessed that there was some thaumaturgy or memetics or something else at play. Silently, he approached the scene, keeping himself at a safe distance.

Slowly, in the same manner a stage is unveiled, the street art revealed itself. Lines fell into place and quickly filled with colors. Then they started moving. The lines turned into President Crenshaw, with an exaggerated nose and a skull over his eyepatch, who was kicking a little Fae child, their wings slowly disintegrating under the politician's military boots. After six seconds, the kid went limp, and big red letters formed the word "MURDERER" over Crenshaw's face. Over the rest of the wall, an army marched against Crenshaw, leaving a fiery path behind. And flying over it, DC Al Fine, laughing maniacally as she dropped bombs on a city below.

A smile crept up on Josh's face. He missed doing things like this. If he had been a handful of years younger he would have run up to them and helped. But he was content with watching as the newer generations took the torch against injustice in the little ways they saw fit.

A truck with the GOC logo startled him. He was too distracted by the scene and "Never fight a man with a perm" playing on his ears to realize. He backed away, keeping an eye on things, but distancing himself.

Three soldiers got out of the truck. They were shouting something, guns trained at the empty space in front of the painted wall. Suddenly, two teenagers materialized, their invisibility spell lifting as they raised their hands. More shouts. A can full of magic spray paint fell to the floor. The gocks carefully approached the pair.

Once, long ago, a glorified internet troll had been in a situation not dissimilar to this one. Once, Josh had killed a man. He felt those memories rise to the surface, and time slowed to a crawl.

In a second that lasted an eternity, Josh realised that he could feel them. All of them. The two kids were scared, their hearts racing. He heard their blood pumping in his ears. The soldiers were struggling with the heat under their bulky armor. The leftmost one had a river of sweat running down her back. They, he noted, were also somehow scared of the two kids. Their fingers were trembling on the trigger.

Two kids. They had just started living. Finding themselves. Seeing the world for what it was. They had their youth taken away because of a government that hates them. And now they were going to die or lose the last splinters of their innocence in a holding cell in a GOC camp because of some glorified school bullies.

And he knew that the two children could feel this truth.

The second passed. One of them turned around and took a step.

A warning shot fired, hitting the face of the Fae child painted on the wall. The kid took another step.

Josh knew what to do. He reached through the air, feeling three grown children with extremely dangerous toys. And their stomachs, with the GOC rations they had last eaten still being processed by an ocean of acid and bacteria. And he touched those three stomachs.

Three soldiers buckled over, dropping their guns. He couldn't hear them but knew they'd need to clean the insides of their high-tech armor very thoroughly.

When he looked at the teenagers again, they were gone.

He wobbled back to the cart and carried onwards.

jockjamsvol6: And that's why Kolin isn't allowed to speak in Polish anymore.
bluntfiend: That's wild, dude.
bones: It is an amusing story.
jockjamsvol6: Thanks, big man. Means a lot coming from you.
polaricecraps: hi my dudes
bluntfiend: Hi PIC.
jockjamsvol6: Hello
jockjamsvol6: You just missed my totally awesome story about my totally awesome boyfriend.
polaricecraps: sounds awesome
polaricecraps: but I have a question
bluntfiend: Shoot.
polaricecraps: you see, I went shopping, saw some things that I didn't like, and now I want to do something
bluntfiend: Okay.
bluntfiend: What do you want to do?
polaricecraps: do any one of you know of anyone doing a rally or some shit against the GOC?
jockjamsvol6: I sent a meme to their instagram account calling them cocksuckers.
jockjamsvol6: Does that count?
polaricecraps: what
bluntfiend: Like a "meme" meme or a meme?
jockjamsvol6: a meme
jockjamsvol6: maybe that's a "meme"
jockjamsvol6: idk man, one of the normal ones
polaricecraps: WHAT
polaricecraps: one of the normal ones?
jockjamsvol6: yeah, like "cocksucker, bottom text"
bluntfiend: Lmao.
bluntfiend: That shit hasn't been funny in the last 20 years.
jockjamsvol6: Still funny to me.
polaricecraps: see, this is why sometimes I get exasperated with you people
polaricecraps: you've lost the spark
polaricecraps: you've lost that drive to rebel that we had long ago
polaricecraps: we won't burn the world anymore
bluntfiend: Hey man, we got old.
jockjamsvol6: Speak for yourself.
jockjamsvol6: My skin is umblemished by the ravages of the ages.
bluntfiend: The younger generations are the ones who should decide where to go now. They're going to be here much longer than us.
bones: I will still be here for a long time.
jockjamsvol6: That's true, big guy.
jockjamsvol6: Tell stories about us when we're gone.
bones: I do not know how to tell stories.
polaricecraps: whatever.
polaricecraps: ping me if someone wants to do something against these fascist fucks

The clock in Jude Kriyot's nightstand wasn't working anymore. He had realised after waking up this morning. He didn't have the uncomfortable red glare of the numbers anymore to remind him of the unstoppable passage of time.

"Battery's dead," he said to the stale air of his empty apartment.

So he looked for batteries in all the drawers. They were full of different knicknacks, but no batteries to be found. And he didn't want to go out looking for them.

So he sat on his bed, grabbed the clock and concentrated. Video Killed the Radio star crackled. The only light in the room went out. With a groan, Jude got up and replaced the fuse. He went back to his room. The watch was upside down on the covers. He turned it over and smiled. It was beat up, but still working.

bluntfiend: Hey.
jockjamsvol6: Hey Jude.
lesbian_gengar: hello
bluntfiend: No Beatles lyrics this time?
lesbian_gengar: nah
lesbian_gengar: not in the mood
bluntfiend: @polaricecraps
bluntfiend: You awake?
bluntfiend: It's about that thing you talked about yesterday.
jockjamsvol6: PIC is probably either sleeping or cooling off.
lesbian_gengar: did something happen?
jockjamsvol6: Nah, just the usual polar crap
bluntfiend: Ok so, @polaricecraps, if you need to do something, like a peaceful sitting or throwing a brick like a Stonewall-type protest, you can always ask the New Gamers Against Weed, to see if they're planning a demonstration or something like that.
jockjamsvol6: what
jockjamsvol6: what do you mean by "the New Gamers Against Weed"?
jockjamsvol6: wtf is that
lesbian_gengar: pretty self explanatory
jockjamsvol6: aren't we the Gamers Against Weed?
jockjamsvol6: trademarked
jockjamsvol6: like, that's us
jockjamsvol6: that's the name of the gc
bones: The name of the group chat is "Shinji-Ikari-is-a-meth-dealer".
bluntfiend: We're the Old Gamers Against Weed.
bluntfiend: We're retired.
lesbian_gengar: yeah, and the younger kids took the mantle
lesbian_gengar: left them with Harmpit and C-A-N and the others
lesbian_gengar: they still do gay memes and activities and follow our golden path
bluntfiend: bones is still in contact with them.
lesbian_gengar: it's pretty sweet to know that we left some kind of legacy in this shitty world
bones: That statement is correct.
bones: Both of those statements, are correct, in fact.
jockjamsvol6: Fuck, man.
jockjamsvol6: When did this happen?
bluntfiend: I think it was back when you did that year-long spiritual retreat to Thornsborough.
jockjamsvol6: Why did nobody tell me?
lesbian_gengar: we thought it was obvious
lesbian_gengar: we could be ourselves out in the open
lesbian_gengar: we weren't persecuted anymore.
bluntfiend: Shitty that it didn't last.
jockjamsvol6: This is wild.
bluntfiend: Are you telling me that you seriously didn't know?
jockjamsvol6: Of course I didn't know!
lesbian_gengar: LOL
lesbian_gengar: I wonder what they're up to
bones: They are preparing to go to Camp Kenowhere to escape the Virion.
bluntfiend: Sounds like a great idea.
bluntfiend: As long as Mr. Destiny is still around, I guess.
bluntfiend: I would do the same if I wasn't confined here.
lesbian_gengar: same
lesbian_gengar: hey bones
bones: Yes?
lesbian_gengar: Please let us know how it goes
bones: Yes.
lesbian_gengar: and @polaricecraps I think you're still in D.C.
lesbian_gengar: just so you know, there will be an anti-Pizzicato in two days, ping me if you want details
jockjamsvol6: Have fun out there
jockjamsvol6: Don't do anything I wouldn't do
polaricecraps: just woke up
polaricecraps: @lesbian_gengar I'm in

JJ was restless. Being a wanderer felt natural to him. Always moving, traveling across the country from one lover to the next, never letting himself get too comfortable, never letting them get used to him. He was always full of surprises and always scared of boredom, though he would never admit that to himself.

But whether he wanted or not, boredom was creeping up on him. Andressa had tried to keep him occupied, but their heart wasn't into it. And JJ couldn't blame them.

"I'm sorry for all the issues I'm causing." He said, mechanically for the umpteenth time, looking up from the rug he was sitting in.

"It's not your fault," they answered from the kitchen, again, for the umpteenth time. "You were out of a place to stay, you're a comrade, we welcomed you. You can't control a sudden change in whatever law that's keeping us locked in." They were fumbling with something out of his eyesight.

"In days like these I feel like I truly should be the center of the universe. The world would be so much better."

Andressa let out a dry laugh.

"When do you think Dahlia will be back?" asked JJ.

Silence. He turned to look at them. They were staring at something on the table, their face unreadable, their hands trembling. "Andressa?" Then they met his gaze, and he saw horror in their eyes.

"I'm infected."

"One, two, three four! Pizzicato no more!"

"One, two, three four! Pizzicato no more!" Esther repeated the slogan, her voice blending with her fellow activists. She never thought she'd find herself returning to protesting at the ripe age of sixty, but here she was, standing with a few dozen people and shouting at the Coalition's peacekeeping forces in Washington D.C. It was nostalgic in a sense. It really had been so long.

"Five, six, seven eight! Abolish the surveillance state!"

She shouted along again, immersing herself in the steady rhythm, occasionally glancing at Josh "polaricecraps" Melbourne. He seemed to be enjoying himself. So was she, she realized. It felt good to be out on the streets again, even though the demonstration was blocking a road which had no traffic anyway. Then again, she wasn't in her twenties anymore…

"United Nations GOC, fascists we don't wanna see!"

"We probably shouldn't stand so close to the water cannon." She broke the rhythm, nudging Josh and gesturing at the giant police vehicle in front of them.

"Eh, it's not like they're gonna do anything. Fifty angry leftists are not exactly threatening their law and order tee-em."

"Suit yourself, I'm gonna back up a bit. Maddie won't forgive me if I get hit with the stinkshot." Esther turned away, wading through the tightly packed group. She was halfway through when she jumped at the sound of shattering glass behind her.

She spun, looking for whoever threw the bottle, but instead saw the water cannon blast the first row of protestors at point-blank range. Time slowed as her friend was hurled by the force of the blast. For an instant, Josh's body was flying through the air, his hands flailing, his legs lurched upwards while his head neared the ground. Time resumed, and the wet crack of the impact was lost amidst the screams. But she heard it. She could see blood on the asphalt, people rushing forward while others fled. She was among them, she realized, sprinting towards him and crying for help, until she collided with someone running in the opposite direction.

She lost her balance and crashed into the hard asphalt, her knees exploding in sudden pain. She couldn't think. She felt a foot pressing down on her back, and all the air left her lungs before whoever it was tripped and fell as well. Foul-smelling water rained on her from above as she tried to stand up, but no. The pain was overwhelming, she could barely breathe. Her eyes stared ahead, at the man lying on the pavement in a growing pool of red. She felt like she was about to pass out.

Later, Esther would wish that she had.

bluntfiend: This is just what happened to that SAPPHIRE Void guy.
bluntfiend: Like, the social media manager.
jockjamsvol6: No clue I don't use Void.
bluntfiend: That's a lie.
jockjamsvol6: I have risen beyond such petty cesspools of internet drama. I prefer to spend my time in more productive ways.
lesbian_gengar: Guys, shut up for a moment
bluntfiend: Like whining to your polycule about your twink death?
lesbian_gengar: Please
lesbian_gengar: Josh is dead
jockjamsvol6: fu
jockjamsvol6: Fuck
bluntfiend: I
bones: I am so sorry to hear that.
lesbian_gengar: he's the one the GOC killed at the protest
lesbian_gengar: with the water cannon
bones: You were with him, right?
lesbian_gengar: yeah
bones: Such events can be very traumatic. I am always here, if you wish to talk. This extends to all of you. I know you were all very close.
lesbian_gengar: I'm alright, I've seen people die before
jockjamsvol6: I… I think I'm going to take a break from socials for a while.
lesbian_gengar: same, I need to talk to Madeline.
lesbian_gengar: call me if you wanna talk
lesbian_gengar: jude?
bluntfiend: Yeah I'm gonna takea break too
bluntfiend: I'm fine.

Staring at the screen, Jude wondered if he hit rock bottom.

He wanted to feel grief. He wanted to feel sad, to cry. At the very least he wanted to feel rage at the fascist motherfuckers who took yet another life for no goddamn reason. But he felt nothing. Like someone took the Five Stages and chucked them out of a window and instead proceeded to pour concrete in his veins. Or something.

He was lying on a couch in what must have been the most horrific and embarrassing position possible for a sixty-year-old man, torso folded over the armrest with his head and arms hanging in the air. Staring at the screen. The couch itself stank more of his own sweat than weed. He could barely remember the last time he'd had the energy to smoke, let alone roll. He wondered if he smelled like old people. He probably smelled far worse. Like a corpse, maybe. Some long-forgotten carcass left to rot in a moldy hole.

His phone vibrated in his palm once. Esther saying she'll update them about the funeral. He'll have to attend. It'll be outside, probably. Unless they'll host it in his apartment. Which they won't, because that's A) Stupid and B) Result in everyone catching leprosy or something.

He'll have to go outside, where the virus lurked. Maybe if he'll get infected he'd finally have a successful attempt. Probably. He's kept hell waiting long enough. And yet…

The Washington Virion terrified him. An overwhelming, almost primal fear. A knife pressed against his throat. A predator lying in wait. If it got to Andressa, he knew it could get him as well. It was practically the only thing he could feel with any real clarity these days. That and the loneliness. The cold, creeping loneliness that caressed him lovingly every night and every day and dragged him down every time he'd check his notifications and come up empty.

He tapped his phone and opened Void.

"Andressa?" JJ stood outside his friend's door, a good few feet away. He was wearing a mask. "I asked if you needed anything. You alive in there?"

No response. Should he speak louder? Maybe Andressa was sleeping. They hadn't answered his texts, but that had been true ever since they caught the virus a few days ago. Providence urged JJ to stay away from the door, and he heeded it. If not for the Impasse, he might never have been afraid of the Virion at all. But he would never forget the vulnerability it taught him, even so many years later.

"Andressa?" He felt unhelpful. This was Dahlia's job, not his! But she was still waiting on clearance to leave the World Parahealth Summit in Geneva, and he was still stuck here due to the whole city being under quarantine. If he'd known his one-night-crash was going to turn out like this, he'd have brought a tad more than his phone and an extra shirt.

lesbian_gengar: you're at Dahlia and Andy's place right?
lesbian_gengar: can you tell them about Josh?
lesbian_gengar: please
lesbian_gengar: i'm very tired
jockjamsvol6: Sure.

Eyes still watching the closed door, JJ leaned against the wall and cursed.

Esther turned her phone off and tried to stand up from her chair in the ER waiting room. The drugs they gave her dulled the pain from her knees to a tolerable ache, but it still hurt like hell when they had to support her weight. She checked the time, then began to walk out of the hospital.

Suit yourself. Shattering glass. Shouts.

Madeline was waiting for her in a car outside the building, and Esther shuffled into the front seat. Her wife looked at her bandaged knees but didn't say a word as she began to drive. The empty streets of D.C passed by them quickly. When it became clear Esther wasn't going to say anything, Madeline broke the silence.

"You know it's not your fault."

"I'm not stupid."

"Don't blame yourself."

"I'm not!" She said far louder than she intended to. They paused at a red light. A GOC vehicle moved past them at the intersection. "I'm sorry, I- fuck." Words caught at her throat and it contracted in that choking way that heralded tears. She leaned her head against the window. Madeline put her arm around her shoulder.

"It's alright. Take your time. I'm here."

Esther cried. The light turned green.

bluntfiend: Hey.
bluntfiend: Is anyone there?
bones: Hello Jude.
bluntfiend: Heya bones
bluntfiend: How are you?
bones: Same as always
bones: And you?
bluntfiend: I'm not good. My bones hurt.
bones: It is something that comes with age, If my knowledge serves.
bluntfiend: Yeah, I sometimes forget that your “bones” don’t hurt.
bones: That is a correct assessment.
bluntfiend: But mine do.
bones: You already said that.
bones: Are you alright?
bluntfiend: I need to stretch a little.
bluntfiend: Run a little.
bluntfiend: I would kill for a smoke.
bluntfiend: I haven’t been able to go outside in a long while.
bones: You will be able to go back soon.
bones: The models show that the virus is receding.
bones: According to my sources, the work on the cure is going well.
bluntfiend: That’s not the issue.
bluntfiend: The cute couple that lives downstairs caught the virion.
bluntfiend: I didn’t even know spiders could be infected.
bones: I’m sure they’ll be fine.
bluntfiend: I’m scared.
bones: I understand.
bluntfiend: Do you?
bluntfiend: You’re an immortal satellite from god knows when looking down on us from space and you don’t have to worry about the same things as us.
bluntfiend: And the hate.
bluntfiend: You've never had people look at you weird and treat you weird because you're different.
bluntfiend: You've never experienced having to be mortal
bluntfiend: And how FUCKING scary it is.
bluntfiend: Fuck
bones: I try.
bones: I will never be human. Neither will Lyris even if she also tries to be so, through her media consumption.
bones: But I empathize.
bones: This is a first for me, but it hurts to be isolated up here while those who I call friends are suffering.
bones: And I can't do anything to help them.
bones: Are you still there, Jude?
bones: Jude?

The sky is a lonely place. One would be forgiven for thinking that the everpresent stars give some company. But they had always been cold for Eli. Even now that the humans lived closer than ever to it and Lyris, the sky still felt devoid of life. She chatted with her thousand million friends from thousands of screens set up by Vanguard. While her moirail languished.

Under Eli, the world kept on turning. It could implicitly feel that the Earth was somewhere down there, beyond the Moon and a wall of slowly decaying satellites and space debris. And somewhere in that pitifully small blue orb, its friends were suffering.

And it could do nothing but watch.

Alone among the stars, Eli cried.

Andressa was dying.

Not literally — the Washington Virion was non-lethal for most people. No, their magic was dying. Their magic which defined them as much as their queerness or their friends, perhaps more. Their magic, which was them. It was suffocating. They were suffocating.

It was slow, of course. This was by design. A quick death was far too merciful a punishment for those who had dared to be born different. The virus gestated within them, taking root in vein and bone. Like a spider weaving a web within their blood, crawling inch by inch, sealing off their throat and nostrils and ears and eyes. Laying eggs within their lungs, nursing children in their stomach.

In their mind they wailed, screamed, and tore at the walls of the prison which pressed down on them from all directions. Their hands clawed at the tendrils of silver silk, trying to tear them away as they stuck to their skin. It got under their fingernails instead. And it was hot, so unbearably hot. Wrapped in a woolen cocoon dripping with their own sweat. The air felt thick, moist, every breath filling them with more water than oxygen.

Andressa's phone buzzed. They didn't answer.

LibraryOfAlexandria: And you've tried calling them?
jockjamsvol6: Obviously!
jockjamsvol6: But even if they did answer
jockjamsvol6: I don't even know what to say
jockjamsvol6: Where to begin
jockjamsvol6: How am I supposed to tell someone whose going through some of the worst torture possible that their friend is fucking dead?!
LibraryOfAlexandria: Are you *sure* you're okay? Yourself I mean
jockjamsvol6: Yeah
jockjamsvol6: Don't worry about me
jockjamsvol6: I realize this sounds really cliche in the "No don't worry about me I'm perfectly fine (dying inside)" sort of way but I am actually genuinely fine about this
jockjamsvol6: I'm sad, obvs but we were never really that close
jockjamsvol6: Not like Jude and Esther
LibraryOfAlexandria: Mhm
jockjamsvol6: I just
jockjamsvol6: I don't know what to do
jockjamsvol6: And that makes me feel like an absolute asshole
LibraryOfAlexandria: Finally the inside mirrors the outside
jockjamsvol6: lmao fuck you
jockjamsvol6: I'm out here opening up and shit
LibraryOfAlexandria: Seriously now, if they're not answering that might mean they're in a coma or something
jockjamsvol6: this is what I get in return
LibraryOfAlexandria: are they eating anything?
jockjamsvol6: I left the food tray at their door
jockjamsvol6: Hollon lemme check if it's still there
LibraryOfAlexandria: How long has it been?
jockjamsvol6: They took it!
jockjamsvol6: Really quietly apparently
jockjamsvol6: uhhhh 2 days? Three now actually that they haven't talked.
LibraryOfAlexandria: That's good!
jockjamsvol6: I just wish Dahlia would get here already
jockjamsvol6: I know it's selfish of me but I am *not* the right guy for this
jockjamsvol6: She'd know what do
LibraryOfAlexandria: Won't be long now, you just have to hold the fort.
jockjamsvol6: But I'm not *doing* anything!
jockjamsvol6: That's the problem!
LibraryOfAlexandria: Then think of something you *can* do

Jude stared at the ceiling. His back ached. His stomach pitifully begged for sustenance. What was the point of all of this? Should he call Esther again? It had only been half an hour. Maybe not. Maybe days had passed without his notice, he'd open the window and gaze out into a healthy world cleansed of bio-weapons. He twisted his neck to look at the clock, bones popping painfully, and sighed. Nope. Just depression, then.

He reached his arm out and picked his phone off the floor, opening his DMs. He should apologize to bones. But he couldn't bring himself to open that chat. Jude's eyes lingered on Faeowynn's offline status. Don't call her. She's on vacation. She doesn't deserve your traumadumping. He couldn't remember where she was vacationing and hated himself for it.

Esther's status was marked as 'away'. He wanted to talk to her so badly. But she didn't need to take his shit either, did she? She was grieving, because she was a functional human being who felt actual emotions. She was also largely in charge of the funeral, which had to be stressful as hell. He knew he was a burden on her mental health. Always a fucking burden. A colossal failure who couldn't even stop himself from dragging the whole ship down with him.

And Dahlia's still in Geneva. Probably deathly worried about Andressa. Both of them had it far worse than him, he would feel guilty just talking to either of them. That left JJ. The golden boy with his perfect life. At least he's not a twink anymore. That made his lips almost form a smile.

Then a ping.

lesbian_gengar: do you want to speak
lesbian_gengar: at the funeral, I mean
bluntfiend: Sure, I can do that
bluntfiend: There a date yet?
lesbian_gengar: no, still trying to figure out when everyone's available
lesbian_gengar: with the quarantine and whatnot
lesbian_gengar: are you doing alright?
lesbian_gengar: you called
bluntfiend: Yeah.
bluntfiend: Just bored.
lesbian_gengar: Jude
lesbian_gengar: please tell me if something's wrong
bluntfiend: I'm fine! Really!
bluntfiend: Are you?
lesbian_gengar: no
lesbian_gengar: not at all
lesbian_gengar: he died and it's my fucking fault
bluntfiend: I'm sure it's not.
lesbian_gengar: you weren't there
lesbian_gengar: I could have stopped ti
lesbian_gengar: I told him rightbefore it happened
lesbian_gengar: to head to the back
lesbian_gengar: I should have insisted
lesbian_gengar: grabbed him by the fucking arm and drag him back but i didnt
lesbian_gengar: I let him die
bluntfiend: You couldn't have known what would happen.
lesbian_gengar: I knew! I fucking knew everything!!
lesbian_gengar: I knew the numbers and i knew the gawekers and I KNEW what would happen
lesbian_gengar: fuck]
bluntfiend: Esther.
lesbian_gengar: what
bluntfiend: I lied.
bluntfiend: I'm not okay.
lesbian_gengar: I know
bluntfiend: Do you want to talk?
bluntfiend: In a call, I mean.
bluntfiend: We haven't talked in a while.
bluntfiend: Like properly.
bluntfiend: Ever since quarantine began.
lesbian_gengar: yeah
lesbian_gengar: I'd like that

Madeline sat in the living room, trying to read while listening to her wife cry in the other room. She wanted to be with her and to hug her tight and kiss her. But sometimes you had to accept that you weren't the woman for the job, no matter how badly you wanted to help.

After an hour or two, Esther opened the door. Her eyes and cheeks were red and glossy. "Maddie?"

Madeline closed her book and looked her in the eyes. "Yes?"

"Can you help me with all these stupid contact lists?"

She smiled. "I'd love to."

Through ears clogged with web, Andressa heard a knock.

"Andressa? You awake? It's JJ. I made some food for ya, gonna put it next to your door now. Baked everything myself, and got you a cup of some Nälkän herbal tea. It should help with your blood pressure— I think? Uh, don't let it get cold, and if you do, tell me and I'll put it back in the oven." A soft thump, then the sound of shuffling feet.

They wriggled in their cocoon. They were so hungry. But the tray, so far away… And how could they move like this? Andressa struggled, what little breath they could draw coming in hot and sticky through their mouth. They shuffled, twisting against their restraints, they had to eat—

Their heart jumped as they fell for a fraction of a second, landing on something hard and cold, a blessed relief for their burning skin. Huh? That didn't make sense. They were wrapped in web. How could they feel the floor? Whatever. They were moving now. Andressa rolled across the cold plane, at last reaching the source of the voice. But there was something in the way. A barrier, some greater prison keeping them in check should they break the first. They wailed in despair.

On the other side of the apartment, JJ heard a cry. He rushed to the hallway, pausing as he felt Providence's tug. "Andressa?" Something slammed against the door weakly. "Andressa? Do you want me to open the door for you?"

Andressa's response was a low croak that could have meant anything, but JJ understood it as an affirmative. They're right behind that door, coughing up billions of tiny Virions. But they were also starving. And he worked on that pie damnit! He checked his mask and stepped forward. Providence's tug quickly turned to a grab, clutching tightly at his heart.

"God— Damn—" JJ paused. Providence didn't let go. "You know what? Screw this. I tried my best, okay? You're, what, fifty-something? I'm sure you can open a door on your own. You don't need me! If anything I'm the senile one." He turned to walk back to the living room.

He expected to hear a cry for help. Another wail, perhaps. A plea. He would have shut it out and carried on. Instead, there was only silence, interrupted only by sharp, wheezing breaths. And that gave him pause. The hell kind of friend was he? An asshole through and through, apparently.

Finally the inside mirrors the outside.

JJ turned a second time, back to the corridor. He took a deep breath, held it, and charged.

The call finished, and Jude's phone screen faded into blackness. It felt good, for once, to talk with Esther. He wondered why this was. He knew for a fact that their bond was one of the only things keeping his head above the water. Conversations with her were always a reprieve, like the first huff from a blunt. He tried to put his finger on it, then let it go. Only later would he recognize the feeling as the absence of guilt. For now, there were other things to worry about.

The funeral. Jude will be there. He had promised this to Esther less than a minute ago. He also promised that he'd give the primary eulogy, or at least something eulogy-adjacent. A few days ago the mere thought of the event left him petrified. He wasn't sure what changed, but he felt something he hadn't felt in forever. Determination.

Esther was counting on him. They were in the same boat, and each had their role. Jude wouldn't let her down. He couldn't let her down. And if getting off this couch was like finishing Celesteclimbing Everest, he wouldn't even need a second dash to reach the summit

bones: JJ, are you available?
jockjamsvol6: Yep, what's up?
bones: Andressa is not answering my messages. I recall you're staying at their apartment. Could you carry a message from me to them, please?
jockjamsvol6: Sure big guy.

The pie was incredible. Utterly divine. Andressa ate it whole in mere minutes, and downed the tea in one swig. The drink was the opposite, bitter and scalding, but it did at least slake their thirst.

They weren't entirely sure what had happened to the parts of the cocoon around their head, but they could see a fair bit now. Not that there was much to see, but their benefactor had apparently left them a note with the food.

Hang in there Andressa, Dahlia's on her way. In the meanwhile, I'm here if you need anything else. Text me. Or just scream. I won't judge.
Anyway, bones asked me to tell you this:
I am deeply sorry that you have been forced to suffer this plague. I have spoken to your wife, Dahlia. Rest assured that she is coming, and soon. Though I know not when you will read this note, she is to board her plane in less than a day's time. You are one of the strongest people I have had the pleasure to meet, and I have no doubt you will endure this virus.

I can only imagine how hard it must be, to feel such an integral part of yourself be taken away. Though a cure might be developed in the future, you must remember that you are more than your magic. You're a parent, a lover, a friend, and all of us care about you deeply. Stay strong.

As they slipped back into unconsciousness, Andressa smiled.

With Madeline's help, Esther made quick work of the funeral schedule. Josh had chosen cremation with his ashes to be cast into the ocean, cutting off a tradition of open-casket proceedings. They spent the evening calling every relative or friend he had, figuring out who could make it and who would have to attend remotely. It was exhausting, but only physically, as all of them had already been notified of their friend's passing.

It was well past midnight, as she exited the shower, that Esther realized something important.

lesbian_gengar: Jude
lesbian_gengar: you up?
bluntfiend: Yeah.
bluntfiend: Trying to iron a shirt.
bluntfiend: Way harder than I thought.
bluntfiend: Already burned one.
lesbian_gengar: what???
lesbian_gengar: yknow what I dont' wanna know
lesbian_gengar: there's a much bigger problem
bluntfiend: It's an old one with a chord and the chord ripped so I powered it with VKTRS but i put too much in and it burned the fabric.
lesbian_gengar: you live in Idaho
bluntfiend: What?
lesbian_gengar: and the Ways are closed by the goks
bluntfiend: OH
bluntfiend: Oh fuck.
lesbian_gengar: you could give the speech remotely
lesbian_gengar: there won't be that many people actually there anyway.
lesbian_gengar: quarantine and shit
bluntfiend: nononononoon
bluntfiend: This is the least I can do.
bluntfiend: Josh deserves better.
lesbian_gengar: he would understand
bluntfiend: I'll find a way.
bluntfiend: Don't worry about it.
bluntfiend: But if you're online do you mind looking over my eulogy.
bluntfiend: Very rough draft.
lesbian_gengar: tomorrow
lesbian_gengar: it's late
lesbian_gengar: gotta sleep
bluntfiend: No worries.

When Dahlia entered her apartment, there was only one thing on her mind. She was no longer the journalist, wondering why Iris Dark hadn't attended the Summit. She was no longer the activist, fearing what the Coalition truly wanted to accomplish with Pizzicato. She was Dahlia Pryce, and the love of her life was facing an unspeakable evil alone.

She opened the door calmly and stepped inside. She drew her phone, then tossed her backpack to the floor, giving half a wave of acknowledgement to JJ on the couch. He barely had time to pause whatever was playing on his headphones before she was standing at the hallway, pressing herself to the bedroom door.

"Andy? Can you hear me?" Her voice was calm, yet full of worry.

"Dahlia?" Came the croaking reply.

"Andy, please let me in. You don't have to go through this on your own."

On the other side of the door, Andressa's mind cleared, as if Dahlia's voice was a blazing torch against the fog that engulfed their thoughts. "No! I don't want you to get infected." In the years following Veilfall, Dahlia had self-taught herself quite a bit of practical thaumaturgy. She was no prodigy, but they knew she enjoyed it. "I'll be fine. No one else needs to lose anything."

"I don't care about my magic. I care about you, Andy. I was never good at it, it was never really part of me. But you are, you're my other half, as cliche as it sounds. So please Andy, let me be there with you."

At the other end of the hallway, JJ watched the bedroom door open. He caught a glimpse of Dahlia stepping inside, right into Andressa's open arms. They stood there for some time, wrapped around each other, breathing in each other's air.

"I missed you." They said.

"I love you." She replied.

"Are you… sure about this?"

"As sure as I'll ever be. I always was the normie."

And then the door closed behind them.

"Well," he said to himself. "Double kitchen duty it is, eh?"

lesbian_gengar: are you sure that's safe
bluntfiend: Well.
bluntfiend: Last time I tried this it went fine.
bluntfiend: But that was literal decades ago.
bluntfiend: Fucked up how that isn't an exaggeration .
lesbian_gengar: it really is huh
lesbian_gengar: certified internet olds
bluntfiend: God even that meme is ancient.
lesbian_gengar: back to the point if you will
bluntfiend: Yeah so.
bluntfiend: I'll do a test run in like an hour.
bluntfiend: But since it's only me this time around it really shouldn't be an issue.
lesbian_gengar: I'm mostly worried about you ending up somewhere else
bluntfiend: Good point.
bluntfiend: Do you by chance have an extra phone lying around.
lesbian_gengar: oh dear
lesbian_gengar: yeah, obviously
bluntfiend: Alright, here's what we'll do.

Esther held her friend's ashes in her arms, watching the Anacostia river flow slowly below her. Madeline watched it with her in silence. They'd settled for it, as the quarantine forbade them from leaving the city. But the river would carry the remains to the Atlantic Ocean eventually. It will do.

She glanced around, watching the attendees slowly come into view, clumping up in small, quiet groups. Her eyes fell on the telephone pole on the sidewalk. She couldn't see where she placed her spare phone, but she could see the large signs she had plastered on it. Not quite antimemetic - just enough power to make folks look away without noticing. And her expertise allowed her to circumvent the Gawkers own memetic filters, leaving the thing practically invisible to the agents keeping an eye on the gathering from afar.

There was a flash of yellow light as sparks crackled into existence at the top of the pole, quickly descending to the ground. They jumped to Esther's phone, which lay at its foot, and then coalesced into a humanoid form. Jude Kriyot stepped forward, then lost his balance and fell forward.

"Jude!" She rushed to him as fast as she could, which wasn't much considering the state of her legs. Madeline came to his aid instead.

"Oh god, fuck, my back— Jesus Christ." There was a series of loud pops as he stood straight.

"You're alright?" Esther finally caught up.

"Yeah yeah, just miscalculated a bit. I'm getting old."

"Aren't we all." Madeline said gently.

"You're dressed well." Esther noticed. "And shaved too!"

Jude blushed slightly, straightening his polo shirt. "Josh wouldn't forgive me if I didn't." He dusted off his clothes, then began to walk with them to the grassy riverbank. "Everything's ready?"

"We still need to set up the remote attendees." Esther replied, nodding towards two canvas bags lying against a tree. "Got some holodiscs in there, should only take a few minutes." The other, physical attendees began to come forward. She didn't know most of them apart from the calls she'd made a few days prior. Co-workers and family - Josh, Madeline and her were the only Gamers living in D.C. Just the two of us, now.

"Well then." Jude stretched his arms, letting out another series of pops which made everyone but Esther cringe. "Let's get started."

Dahlia and Andressa lay in bed together, the latter fumbling with the holodisc. On second thought, they probably should've turned the lights off after setting up the connection. And then it clicked, and the room was bathed in illusory light. Their bed was now on a grassy riverbank surrounded by figures in (mostly) dark clothing. Jude, whose holographic body was half obscured by the real bed, waved to the two.

In the living room, JJ watched the proceedings from Dahlia's laptop, which she'd left in her bag. "What can I say, guess I'm just old-fashioned." He said to no one in particular.

"Nah, you're just old as hell," Jude replied, watching familiar and strange faces blink into virtual existence around him. He looked at Esther, who gave him a quiet nod, and took a deep breath. He was only a little high.

"I'm going to say a few words, then let anyone who wants to do that as well. Then we'll scatter the ashes. That alright?" Nods and murmurs from the small crowd.

"For the first few years I knew Josh, I didn't even know that was his name. To me he was 'polaricecraps' - PIC for short - the token cishet guy in the chat. He was young, he was rash, and he was angry a good chunk of the time. He reminded me of myself, ten or fifteen years younger, only much more straight." A few bittersweet chuckles. "I would see him in chat, say hi and what's up, but I didn't really get to know him until, like all of us, he fucked up with his magic and hurt someone. Badly.

"We talked for hours that day, probably longer than all the days beforehand put together. I learned his real name when I helped him get a new ID, and managed to get him to my place for a few days. He was an absolute wreck. Hating himself for what he did, terrified of what the Foundation or others would to do him for it. Again, he reminded me of myself."

Jude paused. He was trembling. He could feel the tears building up. Esther offered a tissue and he accepted, noticing that she was crying too. "Sorry— One moment." He drew his phone from his back pocket. "I'm gonna— read the rest from my notes, if that's alright." He swallowed hard.

"Our relationship afterward slowly grew from mentor-student to general, equal friendship. I watched him grow so much as a person since then. I know it's selfish and wrong, but in many ways, I'm glad he went through what he did. I'd probably never have become his friend otherwise.

"We're all of us fucked up in one way or another. And tragedy— tragedy can— tragedy has to make us embrace what we still have." And then he was crying, weeping, and Esther was hugging him and Madeline was hugging them both. And then Dahlia and Andressa's phantom forms crawled over and hugged them too, and then JJ realized that Dahlia's laptop still had the sticker Josh had gifted her more than two decades ago, and with a nudge of his own magic he pushed his arms and head through the screen and joined in.

It was a long, long time before any of them let go.

rating: +26+x

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