I'll be a dreamer till the day I die,
but they say, “Oh, how the good die young!”
You remember very clearly the last time you felt like you knew what you were doing. You were younger, which in retrospect might have helped. You were also better employed, although you certainly didn't think so at the time. As the Managerial Kingsman's assistant, you were often sent on tedious errands that plunged you into the depths of Prospitian bureaucracy
You were getting into a fight with the Assiduous Secretary over redacted files when you heard the explosion. The secretary hung low and ran from it, right out the door. But you. You idiot. You dropped everything and ran towards it.
Your name is Problem Sleuth.
You have a lot of practice looking like you know what you're doing.
Smoke filled the building faster than the fire, although it was clear from the heat that it wouldn't take long for the situation to worsen. You covered your mouth with your tie and headed for the screams.
By the time you got down the hall, up the stairs, and around the corner, everything had gone horribly quiet. You were already trying not to vomit from the smoke even before you saw why everyone had fallen silent.
You braced yourself against the door and retched over the red and white labcoat wrapped around the nearest headless torso. A fleshy chunk of hair floated lazily towards a grate in the center of the room that was slowly draining a thick red sea. A mismatched pair of eyes was caught between the tines.
Your voice was caught in your windpipe, struggling against your collarbones to crack free. The harsh smoke pricked at your face, into your nose, and your knees ached, adrenaline locking up your legs.
“I-is anyone alive in there?”
Something answered with a groan.
You dashed forward, nearly slipping in the blood, and screamed when a hand wrapped around your ankle. It was attached to a whole person, though one covered in cuts and bruises.
“Come on,” You whispered, crouching, helping him to stand. He was trembling like a leaf. Every naked, blood-stained inch of him. “Let's get you out of here,” You coughed, leading him out. You did all the walking. His legs seemed to fold under his own weight.
It must have taken a long time to escape, but you honestly don't remember much of it.
Just the way the hairless, pale, skinny, bloody man looked at you.
By the time you got outside, there were emergency crews. You started to call to them, but the man emitted a high noise of pain and slapped his hand limply against your mouth. You looked down. He just looked up at you with those big bright eyes,
...and you realized you had maybe made a terrible, terrible mistake.
“Well, I couldn't hide him at my place,” you hissed.
“I don't understand why we're hiding him at all,” the Acerbic Debator hissed right back.
The subject of your conversation had fallen asleep, curled up in the bottom of AD's shower. He had said exactly zero words since you rescued him. His communications skills seemed to be limited to whining like an animal. And crying. He cried a lot.
“What else was I going to do?” You whispered, looking down at the mess of person you'd salvaged. “...he was the only survivor.”
“Probably,” AD's voice rose, his fists balled tight, “because he killed everyone else!”
You reached out to pap AD right on the face. “Shh, shut up-”
The mystery man shifted against the black and white tiles. His face seemed pinched together, as if he smelled something unpleasant.
“Do not shoosh me.”
“I'll shoosh who I please.” You turned to go. “C'mon, let's take this outside.”
“It's whom, you uncultured swine.” AD sneered, but followed anyway.
The Winsome Homemaker was lounging on the living room couch, a bag of Delicious Salted Corn Triangles tucked behind her folded legs and the television remote in her hand. She looked over at AD as he walked in. “Oh, you're home.” She noticed you, and her eyes roved. “...and you have your friend over.”
“H-hi, um, evening, Winsome Homemaker,” You were... quite unsure what to do with your hands. You folded them in front of you, like a total dork. “Sorry to bother you, so late.”
She laughed, a hard sound that showed off how very sharp her teeth were. “Adorable.” To AD, she said, “I like your little group of Pawns. They're always so polite.”
AD curled his lip, “We're going out. I'll be right back. Don't go in the hall bathroom.”
“Why, did you make a mess?”
“Yeah.” AD shouldered his way forward, dragging you behind him, “A real big shit.”
WH called after him, her voice lilting into something almost like singing. “One of these days, I'm going to leave you!”
“That'll be the fucking day,” AD muttered.
The official word was that there had been a tragic accident at Cloning Lab #16. There were no survivors. There would be a brief moment of memorial silence at 2:00:00 PM precisely to denote the important service of these faithful souls. There was no need to fear their loss, however, as their replacements were already gestating. In three days, the lab would be up and running again.
The word on the street was that something had gotten loose from the lab.
At least, that was what the Helpful Diagnostician told you.
“They're saying the Royal Guard is heading up the investigation,” She said, the two of you seated in your little corner of the refectory of Administrative Complex #4. Most of the tables had four seats welded to the table. This one only had three due to some processing error, but the building office drones had tossed it in the corner and called it a day. “They're desperate to find whatever got out, but nobody's saying what it was. Rumor has it that it might've been a new model of a Rook.”
“What do you think it was?” You asked, your insides like ice. Your mysterious man was too small for a Rook. Way too small. But maybe that was... ugh. Too many variables.
HD frowned in that way that made you want to smile. Her full lips tilted at the corners, her eyes deep in thought, her eyebrows knit fiercely. She was the kind of person to devote herself fully to her machinations, and analyzing data was her art form. Synthesizing gossip was poetry to her.
You miss her very much.
“I think it's something else,” Her voice dropped lower, “Cloning Lab #16 has never produced anything according the records I've seen, and I know they have a separate budgeting committee. And I've heard rumors, about the recent battles on Skaia...” HD kept her eye on the cafeteria, watching for anyone drawing near. “...I don't think they make people. I think they make monsters.”
“He's a maniac! He won't eat dinner when I bring it, but he'll crawl out at night to drink all my alcohol!” WH screeched.
“Look, I'll talk to him-” AD tried, but WH continued over him.
“He stole all the candy in the house! All of it! He's got it in there with him! He's not even eating it!”
AD looked at you.
“...I'll talk to him,” You said.
“Someone better!" WH threw up her hands, declaring, "I swear, I'm going to burn this whole house to the ground!” and ran out. Her absence filled the room with silence.
“Sometimes, I wish she would.” AD said.
“Why are you two together? It seems...” You searched for a diplomatic description. “...kind of terrible.”
AD considered it for a moment. “Honestly? We're perfectly terrible for each other.”
He looked up at you, then past you. The naked man from the lab stood in the doorway of the kitchen, slightly less naked thanks to a t-shirt that, on his emaciated torso, looked like a disassembled tent, and a pair of boxers held up only by a zealous elastic band.
“...thank you.” His voice was like a dry, rickety door someone tried to open quietly in the dead of night.
“You can talk?” AD replied.
The man continued to stare at you. His hair had started to grow, you could see, including his eyebrows. ...why had they shaved his eyebrows?
“What's your name?” You asked, figuring you could ask about the eyebrows later.
He took a deep breath. His whole body rose and fell with the motion, his thin limbs poised as if about to jump into a run. “I'm... Peculiar Icarian.” He titled his head, which did not help make him look any more certain about his own name.
“What were you doing in that lab?” AD asked, crossing his arms. He projected effortless stern competence.
You did your best to emulate him, nodding, and fell against the counter when you tried to lean into the cabinet above it. You glanced around in a hurry but no one seemed to notice. The Acerbic Debater had his eyes locked on the Peculiar Icarian, who was staring down at his hands.
His hands shook with a violent tremor.
“I... I was working, there, w-with...” He pressed his hands against his eyes, teeth grit in pain. “...I,”
“Hey, you don't have to hurt yourself,” you said, before you knew what you were doing, and walked over to him. He opened his eyes to stare at you. You kept going.
“It's okay. You're safe now.” You touched his shoulder and he flinched, eyes round as dinner plates.
“...” He licked his cracked lips.
“...you can tell us when you're ready.”
“Sure. You can wait to tell us if we're committing treason or aiding a murderer until you're more comfortable.” He pointed at the liquor cabinet, “But stop drinking my booze!”
PI blinked at him, twice, and slow. “...I'm... s-s-s-sorry. Y-you have b-been v-very kind, and I... I d-d-d-don't know...”
“Hey, it's okay,” You said, but AD shook his head.
“No, it's not-”
“No, it is-”
Quietly, PI said, “I d-don't know h-how else to make it s-stop,”
You and AD stared at him.
“Make what stop?” AD finally said.
PI smiled, tilting his head. “...I can h-h-hear them, on the Outer R-Rim. S-screaming.”
“There's some kind of Royal Deep Science Experiment to connect consciousness to the Zoologically Dubious camped out in my bathtub, and you're telling me 'JUST LAY LOW'?” AD snarled, gripping the railing of the balcony with hands that could crack bones.
“Yeah,” You replied.
“...okay, great. Just wanted to make sure.”
You did not immediately reply.
AD leaned down, resting his head on the rail. “...we are so fucked, Servitor.”
“I don't think so.” You gazed out, across the dark of the night, up to where the bright blue ball of Skaia lay. On the other side of the planet's curve, you could see the low purple light of Derse. It was daytime where they were. Did they even go out in the day? There was so much you didn't know.
“Oh, really? You don't think we're fucked, despite having stolen and secreted away a valuable piece of Their Majesties Royal Experimental Military Project? In the middle of wartime? Please, share what intel you have gathered, oh mighty Personal Servitor.” AD spat, “I would love to hear why we're not going to be tortured to death and then hung in the square like the traitorous wretches we are.”
“I don't know,” You admitted. “I just... have a feeling.”
“A feeling.” AD repeated. “A feeling.”
“Well, you have a feeling. We're saved!” He shook his head, “I never should have spoken to you.”
“You didn't really have a choice. I did help you discover the identity of the real Dersite mole when you were accused.”
“I'm an Agent,” the Acerbic Debater replied, “I could have ignored a Pawn like you until kingdom come.”
You elbowed him, but your heart wasn't really in it. “Rude.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know...” He looked over at you. “...why did you help me, anyway?”
“What do you mean? There was nothing else I could have done.”
He didn't seem convinced, so you continued, "It was the right thing to do."
AD stared vacantly for a moment. Then, he laughed.
“Stupid question. I always forget who I'm talking to.”
“Well, you are going senile. In your old age. Because you're old. Old man.”
“Now who's rude?” He jabbed you in the shoulder. You laughed and pretended it didn't hurt.
You gazed out into the night and wondered if there were a pair of Dersites looking back across the darkness. If maybe someone else out there looked into the sky, towards the glow of Prospit, and wondered about you.