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And Then There Were None

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He’s got his headphones on, I can get him.  He won’t even see it coming.

 

Michael totally saw it coming, but whatever helps you sleep at night, Jeremy.  He turned around right as Jeremy approached to try and scare him.

 

“I’ve got my headphones on, huh,” he smirked playfully, sliding the headphones off, “I guess I didn’t notice,” Jeremy flushed in embarrassment.

 

“You heard all that?” Michael nodded, patting a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder.

 

“I heard everything,” he teased, “You aren’t exactly subtle.”

 

“How do you think subtly?” Jeremy asked, genuinely curious.

 

“Hey Jeremy!” Michael jumped, turning around to see Christine, “Oh, hi Michael!” She waved before walking off and getting on a bus.

 

“And that, Jeremy, is how you think subtly,” he gestured in the direction where Christine had left.  Jeremy stared in awe as the bus drove away.

 

“Hold on, how’d she do that?” Michael unlocked his car and sat down in the driver’s seat, Jeremy taking the passenger side.

 

“I wasn’t listening for her,” he put the key in and started the engine, “See, mind reading is a lot like normal talking.  If you aren’t listening for certain people, you can usually tune them out pretty easily depending on the situation. Of course, there are exceptions,” Jeremy winced and a static sound echoed in the car, “Like him.  You can’t tune those out easily, so I’ve discovered.” The Squip’s projection appeared in the backseat.

 

“Could you, maybe, leave us alone?” Jeremy snapped.

“You know I can’t do tha-”

 

“Blah blah blah, computer words,” Michael groaned, “We get it, you don’t like me and you aren’t happy to be here anymore,” the Squip crossed his arms.

 

“You don’t always have to be so hostile, you know,” Michael pulled out of the parking lot.

 

“And you don’t always have to show up, seems like we both have issues with each other,” Jeremy sighed as the two bickered.  Ever since Halloween, Michael hadn’t exactly bothered to hide his distaste with the computer or the fact that he could see him.  The computer, in response, never bothered to hide his distaste with Michael (or his annoyance about his recently deactivated features).

 

“Wait!” Jeremy suddenly blurted out, interrupting the conversation and causing Michael to slam on the car’s brakes.  Both boys in the front jerked forward uncomfortably at his fast reaction.

 

“What-?  Did I hit something?!” His eyes darted to his mirrors in a flash of panic.  A driver from behind flipped him off, annoyed thoughts pouring out. Not that they knew Michael was listening.

 

“No- I-” now Jeremy looked more than a bit embarrassed, his face flushing red with a head racing with an anxious nervousness- “Do you have any other powers?”

 

The car was filled with silence as it climbed back up to speed.

 

Aw fuck- that was a dumb question-

 

“Well, you’re right.  It was,” the Squip added with an eye-roll from the backseat.

 

“No, actually, uh- I-” Michael slowly eased back into normal driving again- “That’s a standard question.  Or, it seems like a standard question, at least. I don’t think I do..?” He shrugged, “But also mind reading should be impossible, so who the fuck knows?” He chuckled.

 

“On the topic of questions-”

 

“Whaaaaaat?” Jeremy groaned.  The Squip pretended to ignore him.

 

“Are you ever going to explain to Richard?”

 

“...The mind reading thing?” Michael clarified, earning a nod from the backseat, “I think I sorta owe it to him at this point.” Jeremy stayed silent, having missed a lot of when went down between Michael and Rich on Halloween and the days following, “Plus, he probably already has a crackpot theory of his own.”

 

“Maybe he thinks you’re Squipped.”

 

“Ew.”

 

The Squip shrugged, “It’s more probable than mind reading.”

 

“You wish you were as special as me,” he joke-teased as he pulled into his driveway.  Jeremy laughed. Seemingly defeated for now, the Squip vanished.

 

“About time,” Jeremy grumbled, offering Michael a high-five (which he happily accepted).

 

“I can’t imagine hearing that guy all the time.” He stepped out of the car, “And hearing weird voices in my head at all times is- like- my thing!” He gestured to his face as emphasis.

 

A bright yellow school bus slowly passed the house while the two (or three, depending on who you asked) talked.  Michael would have paid the vehicle no mind, but today wasn't going to be easy.

 

Tallass and headphones!

 

Ah, Rich.  Loud as always.  Michael spun around- scared for what the boy was planning to do- just in time to watch the shorter boy throw open the bus’ emergency door on the back and leap out as it continued driving along.  Panicked, Michael ran over to save Rich from planting his face onto the cracked asphalt below while Jeremy stood off to the side in dumbfounded silence.

 

The fuck is up with him?

 

That and the fire- he’s finally lost it.

 

Damn, should’ve filmed that.

 

I can’t lose another kid, I’ll lose my license.

 

“Nice catch!” Rich declared, dusting himself off as he stood up, “I was wondering when I’d see you two again.  Have you been avoiding me?”

 

What the fuck is Rich doing here?

 

“Like I said, he’s most likely here to ask about Michael.  Or cause a scene.”

 

Knowing him?  Probably both.

 

Michael glanced between Jeremy and Rich, “It’s just been a hectic few days.  What are you doing here?” The shorter boy walked in figure-eights around the two.

 

“Oh, nothing much,” he said with a shrug, “I was in the neighborhood, y’know?  Thought I’d...drop by.” He chuckled. Even without a Squip, he still managed to find a way to be intimidating.

 

“Is this about Jeremy’s Squip?” Michael asked.  Rich pretended to think about the question for a second but didn’t actually.

 

“That tic tac?  That thing’s as dead as a doornail.  No, I’m here for something else.” Jeremy’s Squip crossed its arms with a huff at the implications of its demise.

 

“Not amusing.” Michael coughed back a snort.

 

“What is it?” Jeremy finally spoke up.  Rich’s pacing stopped.

 

“Does headphones over here have a Squip or not?” He pointed over his shoulder at Michael.  Jeremy awkwardly shifted his weight around on his crutches.

 

“Well- uh, no- not exactly-?” Jeremy’s attempt at an answer was cut off with Michael putting his hands onto Rich’s shoulders.

 

“What’s the single most unexpected thing you can think of?” He asked, the shorter boy being completely puzzled by the sudden shift in behavior.

 

“Uh-”

 

I’m bi?  Nah, too personal-

 

“You’re bi?” Michael blurted out.  Rich blinked up at him, stiff.

 

“...Hhhhhhhow did you know?” His voice dragged out uncomfortably.  All color drained from his face as panic filled his mind.

 

Michael let go and took a step back, “Sorry- I shouldn’t have said that.  Do you wanna come inside?” He pointed at the front door only a few yards away, “We can talk.” He held the door open and, soon, all three teens had piled into the basement.

 

What the fuck?

 

“First question, what the fuck?” Rich started, knowing he hadn’t come out to anyone while sober, but also knowing that he had been drunk at quite a few parties, “Did you hear that from someone?”

 

“Actually, yeah.  From you.” Rich squinted at Michael, then turned to look at Jeremy.

 

“Is he just really high and really good at guessing things?”

 

“I mean- when we were kids he always won rock paper scisso-” Jeremy stared down- “Wait a second, were you cheating?” Michael laughed.

 

“I can’t help it!  Any time someone said to pick a number between one and ten, guess who was always right?”

 

“...I’m lost.”

 

“Okay, Rich, think of a number between one and a million.”

 

“Okay..?”

 

Michael deadpanned as he heard the unspoken answer, “Sixty nine?  Really?”

 

“What?  I was confused and-!” He stopped mid-sentence- “How’d you know?  Is it some sort of secret Squip? A really advanced one?”

 

“It’s less Squip and more mind reading.” He gestured to the left and then to the right as he explained, trying to show that they were two completely separate things.  Rich nodded along, though Michael knew he didn’t buy it.

 

“...Ah, okay.  So you’re gonna bullshit me, huh?”

 

Now he thinks he’s being funny.  Is this a revenge prank for the Squip thing?  Is he mad about that? Jeremy doesn’t seem mad.

 

“Nope, not a prank.  No revenge today. Just think at me.”

 

Michael, what the fuck?

 

“You’ve gotta try harder than that.  Jeremy at least made it a bit fun.”

 

Jeremy?  Can Jeremy hear me too?

 

His eyes locked on Jeremy in a flash, “It’s just me, Rich.  He’s got basically no idea what’s going on right now.”

 

“I kinda wish I was filming this, actually,” Jeremy joked.

 

“So you’re telling me that you can actually read minds?  Like a shitty deviantart OC?”

 

“I like to think I’m a bit more developed than a deviantart character, but yeah, basically.” Michael nodded.

 

“Who has more dirt on kids at school?  You or Jenna?” Rich asked.

 

“I would say me, but Jenna’s dedicated to her craft.  If she could do what I can, she’d be completely unstoppable,” he answered, hand on his chin as though he had thought deeply about the question.

 

“How long did I have my Squip?”

 

“You got it either at the end of freshman year or the start of sophomore year.  Either way, it wasn't really doing anything till sophomore year.  Also, Kermit?” He giggled a bit.

 

“Kermit?” Jeremy asked.

 

“Yeah!  Sometimes, his Squip looked like Kermit.  Couldn’t you see it?” The other boy shook his head while Rich stared down at the dirtied carpet in confusion. “Look, I know this is a lot, and it’s pretty weird-”

 

“You let him get Squipped?!” Rich exclaimed at Jeremy.

 

“N-no, of course not!  He’s not! He-”

 

“How else could he know?!”

 

Jeremy gestured to his friend awkwardly, “...Mind reading?” Rich shook his head.

 

“You two need to get better at lying.  THIS-” he gestured around- “Is FUCKED up.  I was confused during the whole charade at the hospital, but if this is all just some elaborate hoax to hide a Squip, your Squip seriously needs to be recalibrated.” He stood up and began frantically looking around.

 

Where is it?  He’s gotta still have some- if it was even real- was it real?  Oh fuck- is mine even gone?

 

“Rich-” Michael reached out.

 

“Don’t touch me-!” He slapped Michael’s hand away, tense.  His eyes darted around to every corner of the room, “Is mine even gone?”

 

“The Red is real!  Rich, please, just calm down,” he spoke quietly.

 

Gotta get away- I can’t let that happen again-  not again-

 

A firm hand clapped down onto Rich’s shoulder, “Jeremy, go grab the Red.”

 

Wh-

 

“Look, you clearly don’t believe me, so we’re gonna do something,” he explained, “I’ll drink the Red, then you can drink the Red.  Neither of us are Squipped, so we’ll both be fine, okay?”

 

How does he-

 

“Know?  Just sit down.  You’re safe here.” Jeremy returned with the half-empty familiar bottle of Red.  He handed it over.

 

“Take a few deep breaths,” Jeremy encouraged.  Surprisingly, Rich obliged. His shoulders slumped slightly as the adrenaline faded away.  The air felt tense. Even if he couldn’t hear everything the two were thinking, Michael would easily be able to tell that both were a bit freaked out at the moment.

 

“Well, that was exciting.  Good job, Michael.”

 

Don’t be rude.

 

“It’s not like he can hear me,” the Squip joked with a smirk, “Oh wait.”

 

The dirty soda bottle was opened with a muted hiss of pressure releasing.

 

Oh- warning, that stuff’s nasty.

 

“So NOW you don’t like it?”

 

Shut up.

 

Michael kept himself calm as he tipped the bottle back.  Well, Jeremy was right about that.

 

Fuck- that’s nasty-!” He declared, reeling back from the taste.  The soda was, more than likely, no longer safe for human consumption at this point.  The Squip laughed at him from off to the side.

 

“Finally, something we can see eye-to-eye on,” he commented while Michael passed the bottle to Rich.

 

“There, your turn.”

 

The look in Rich’s eyes was conflicted.  He looked at the bottle that Michael had delivered to Jeremy in the hospital, the very bottle being held out to him at the moment.  Doubts filled his mind towards the validity of the Red. It had certainly done something to Jeremy that afternoon, but could it have been all an act?  He was the first person to get Red out of that bottle, but was his Squip just fucking with him?  Was it really gone at all?

 

“Rich,” Michael interjected firmly, “It’s okay.  This is the real deal. Just drink it.”

 

So you can actually read minds?

 

“Uh- yeah.  Always could.”

 

Rich took the bottle and closed it slowly, “You knew about Squips.”

 

“Ever since you got yours.”

 

Is mine really gone for good?

 

The boy looked hopeful at the idea.  His eyes seemed to light up as the thought passed through his mind and drifted into Michael’s.

 

“As far as I can tell.”

 

Realization, at long last, set in deep in Rich’s mind, “You’re fucking magic.

 

“I- I mean, I guess so?” Michael shrugged, “So everything’s cool?”

 

“You got my Squip out, how could everything not be cool?”

 

“Ugh, humans, so overdramatic.”

 

“Oh, and Rich?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“For one, your secret’s safe with me.” He pointed to the pride patch on his hoodie, “And for two, please never fucking jump out of a bus again.”

 

~~~

 

A week had passed since he had come clean to Rich.  Two had passed since he had come clean to Jeremy.

 

Currently, Michael was seated in the crowded auditorium waiting for the play to start.  Conversations and thoughts blended together while they swirled around him. He turned his music up just a hair to try and drown some of the noises out.

 

The lights went down and the curtains rose.  He slid his headphones off and shut the music down.  Actors began to flood the stage. He was, admittedly, never the biggest fan of theater.  It was just a show with too much actor commentary for his tastes, albeit internal commentary.

 

Jeremy hobbled his way on stage while holding tightly to his crutches.  Stammering through his lines seemed like his only option, given the internal argument he was currently engaged in.  Michael could hear that he left all the memorization up to his Squip and was, currently, shit out of luck because of it.

 

Actors continued shuffling around as Michael tried to gather the plot from both performance and thoughts.  As far as he could see, pretty much only Christine actually memorized any lines. Her thoughts flowed through the dialogue and stage directions with a passion he couldn’t say he saw in any of the other performers.

 

All in all, it wasn't a bad experience for a school play.

 

A beaker made its way around the stage as the show went on.  That’s probably where things started to go a bit wrong.

 

Jeremy’s Squip was oddly quiet for the later portions of the play.  That set off Michael’s nerves a bit. Was it planning something? A quiet thought caught him off guard.

 

You can’t do that.

 

With the crowd, it was impossible to tell where, or even who, the thought had come from.  Normally, he would simply brush it aside. But it set him on edge tonight. It was hopefully nothing.

 

Claps (and unspoken declarations of thanks to a variety of deities) filled the auditorium.  The show was done. Maybe his fears were for nothing. He slipped his headphones on and gathered his stuff into his pockets before heading out into the hall where the cast members would be.  A discussion was already underway by the time he arrived.

 

Why’d you sync in the middle of the show?

 

“Information retrieval, Jeremy.” The Squip glanced around, “You might no longer have a purpose for me, however I am still a learning computer.  I sync to other Squips I can find and take what I can get.”

 

“Then do you wanna take some more Red?  Fuck off for a minute, will ya?” Michael said, approaching Jeremy.  The Squip disappeared with a roll of its eyes, “Good job, Jeremy. You didn’t end up face-first in the orchestra pit.”

 

“The orchestra pit wasn't open.”

 

“No one said it would be easy to fall in, now did they?”

 

The two laughed a bit while Michael teased Jeremy about his performance while another strange thought rang out.

 

What are you doing?

 

In retrospect, Michael should’ve asked what was in that beaker.

 

~~~

 

Theater season had ended, thus stranding one Christine Canigula without her usual after school activity.  She was currently standing at the corner waiting for the bus when Michael glanced at Jeremy.

 

“When are you gonna, y’know, do it?”

 

“Do what?”

 

“Make your move?” He gestured towards the girl staring ahead at the street.

 

Michael-!  You can’t just-

 

“Ask you about it out loud?  Nope, sorry, but as your friend and self-promoted non-evil-AI wingman, it’s my job to tell you to make a move.” He smiled wide, patting his anxious friend supportively on the shoulder.

 

What if I mess up?  Or she says no? Or-?

 

“This is all you’ve been thinking about for weeks.   Just go ask her.”

 

Jeremy clenched his hands nervously, taking a small step forward.

 

I believe in you, ” Michael whispered with a grin and two thumbs up.

 

He stood off to the side while Jeremy stood next to Christine.  The sun shone down on the two as red and orange leaves blew past gently.  It could’ve been the end of a cheesy rom-com if Michael had been filming. Jeremy started with a bit of small talk to get the ball rolling before he got to the meat of the conversation.

 

“...I- I know things have been a bit crazy lately,” he said, “But, doing the play with you- well- I think it was some of the best times I’ve ever had.  Wanna do some bowling alley performance art? This weekend?” He asked, hopeful, “...Just the two of us?”

 

“Jeremy, I-”

 

That’s when Michael heard it again.

 

Please!

 

“I can’t.”

 

The boy’s heart sank.  The wind felt colder, the sky felt grey.

 

“It’s not you, it’s me.  I just have some things I need to work out.  On my own.”

 

No, please!  Just let me talk to him!

 

The bus pulled up to the curb before either boy could get a word out.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Christine said before stepping on.  Jeremy’s shoulders slumped. He walked back over to Michael, whose blood was currently ice cold.

 

“So much for-” Jeremy started.

 

“...Something’s wrong,” Michael cut off.

 

“Michael, I appreciate you trying, but now’s not the time for-”

 

“Jeremy,” he said sternly, “There’s something wrong with Christine.  Something possibly Squip-wrong.” That caught his attention.

 

“Does-” he glanced around.

 

Do you mean she has a Squip?

 

“I don’t know.  I couldn’t see one, but it sounded like…like she was calling for help.”

 

Reactivate.  Now.

 

“Whaaaaat?” His Squip dragged out, grumbling.  It rolled its eyes and appeared with its arms crossed.

 

“Time for a quick chat,” Michael said, “About Christine.” He stepped into his car while Jeremy mirrored him.  The Squip appeared in the backseat as usual.

 

“What about her?  How I can still help you win her over?”

 

“Absolutely not,” Jeremy snapped.

 

“But I can.”

 

“Listen, I’ve had enough of your bullshit today.  So shut up and answer some questions.” The Squip leaned back, draping its arms across the backs of the chairs as it crossed its legs.  The body language spoke solely in disinterest as it pretended to stare out the window.

 

“Fine.  What do you want?”

 

“Is she Squipped?” Michael asked.

 

“How would I know?”

 

“You sync to random Squips all the time,” noted Jeremy.

 

“So you DO pay attention.  I’ll keep that information stored carefully.”

 

“Answer the question.”

 

It looked forward at the two boys, “I haven’t looked for one.  I don’t know if she does or does not.”

 

Michael and Jeremy looked at each other.

 

“Then earlier-?”

 

“If you are referring to what you may have heard, she is a young actress with ADD.  Racing, uncontrollable thoughts are a common symptom of the disorder, and that’s without considering the possibility of her mentally going over a certain theatrical part.”

 

“She seemed distressed.”

 

“She’s a teenager.  You’re always distressed.  That’s why I exist.” It gestured to itself, “Squip or not, she said no.  Now, that is something I can help with.”

 

“No more emotional manipulation,” Jeremy deadpanned, “If that’s all you’ve got, go play solitaire or something.  Leave me alone.” It merely shrugged before disappearing once again. Michael watched as Jeremy slumped over a bit in the seat and reached a calm hand over to his friend.

 

“...Hey man,” he started, “It’s- it’s okay.  You did the ballsy thing and asked her out.” Jeremy sighed quietly.

 

“...Yeah.”

 

“And I’m still here to help you out.  Who needs that lousy Squip ‘helping’ you when you’ve got a glorified magician on your side?”

 

“What do you mean ‘glorified’?” Jeremy chuckled, “You have actual magic.”

 

“Magic, or superpowers?”

 

“Both is good.” Michael turned the car on with a quick laugh.

 

Internally, he started to make plans.

 

~~~

 

A code name would probably be a good idea for his little investigation, just in case he was right.  Christine Canigula. Christine CaSquipula? ChriSquip? The idea bounced around for a second or two.

 

“You wanted to talk?” Rich asked.  Michael stood just outside the cafeteria with his headphones on as always.  He slipped them off when the shorter teen approached.

 

“I know it’s a sensitive subject, but I need to know some things about Squips.” Panic filled Rich’s mind.

 

“Is this about Jeremy’s?” The unspoken follow up of ‘ Is it mine?’ stung them both.

 

“No, no- it’s-” he glanced around a hair before leaning in- “Jeremy’s fine, but I’m worried about someone else.  Whatever you know about nerve and motor control overrides? I need that.” Rich’s body tensed up. Memories spilled over.

 

Michael’s body locked up completely.  Only, it wasn't his. A strong memory filled his mind.  All of the sudden, he was Rich.   His heartbeat threatened to break his chest open in the panic.  Movements flowed effortlessly like water through a stream despite his panic.  He stared in a mirror and looked over himself gracefully.

 

You have to obey, Rich.  I don’t like doing this.

 

The boy pleaded to be let back in control over and over, but to no avail.  His body showed no physical reaction to the internalized fears.

 

He had been trapped inside himself.

 

Michael stumbled backwards into the wall, staring with wide eyes at Rich.  The boy in question was trembling slightly, taking slow breaths.

 

...Did you get all that?

 

“Y-yeah-” he nodded- “So they can just...take over?  Just like that?”

 

“Yeah, and it’s fucking terrifying.  All control, gone like that. ” He snapped.

 

“Is there a time limit?” A chill ran down Michael’s spine when Rich shook his head.

 

A second memory spilled over.  Rich’s body felt cold. If not for the sight of the ceiling, he would have no clue he was laying on his back.  Everything was numb. Had he been paralyzed?

 

You’re useless without me.  You’re weak. Think about what you’ve done.  I’ll reactivate when I feel you’ve actually learned something.

 

For hours, the boy wanted to beg and scream to be set free, but he couldn’t.  He wanted to curl up under the covers, but he couldn’t. All he could do was blink aimlessly upwards while pleading with the unmoved machine inside his mind to just let him feel.   It was hell.

 

Michael’s heart dropped down into his stomach watching the memory play out.  To him, it was seconds, but to Rich it was hours.   Michael had known about his Squip back then.  He could’ve-

 

“I- oh god-”

 

“Listen, Michael,” Rich put a hand on his shoulder, leaning just inches away from the other’s face, “If you so much as think that someone you know is going through that, do everything you can to just get them the hell out of that situation.  Alright?”

 

The small appetite he had before the conversation had completely vanished.  He nodded.

 

~~~

 

The bell for fifth period cut through the air of the cafeteria.  Michael turned his music down slightly, but didn’t dare remove his headphones.  He bid farewell to Jeremy as the two split up down separate ends of the school. He had algebra II, honors.

 

So did Christine.

 

She was seated just two desks in front of him.  He slid his headphones around his neck to see what he could hear.  Gossip and numbers echoed back and forth, though the young actress’ thoughts stood out.

 

Why won’t you even let me do my school work?  I thought you were supposed to help people get what they want.

 

This isn’t about you.  It’s about me.

 

Then let me go!  I won’t even tell anyone.  You can stay, just let me have control.

 

I can’t let you do that.  See, I’m playing the long game.  I’ve got all my little pawns right in a row for my plan and, unfortunately, I can’t allow you to get in the way of my progress.  There have already been far too many setbacks for my liking.

 

What are you talking about?

 

You’ll understand soon enough.

 

Michael scribbled down the conversation as fast as he could.  Fuck his grades, this was more important. He watched as CaSquipula (as he was calling them) acted...normal.  She opened her textbook and began to take notes as if nothing was wrong. It was almost scary. Scratch that, it was beyond terrifying.  His thoughts drifted towards Rich’s memories. The fear having built up in the poor boy’s mind back then matched Christine’s almost perfectly.

 

He had heard more than enough.  He slid his headphones back onto where they would remain for the rest of the period.

 

There were plans to make.

 

~~~

 

Notes were scattered across his computer desk, some a few months old and others fresh from tonight.  He flipped open his algebra notebook to the conversation he jotted down earlier, adding the information he learned from Rich at the bottom of the page.  All in all, for something you couldn’t google, he had a lot of information on Squips.

 

Michael, honey?

 

He paused at the soft voice, “Yeah, ma?” He called out, glancing backwards at the staircase.  She took a few steps down.

 

You seem nervous about something.  Do you wanna talk?

 

“It’s-” he glanced back down at his pile of notes- “It’s nothing.”

 

“Well, that’s just making me nervous too.” She got closer, “If something’s wrong, you can talk to me.  Your mother and I aren’t mind readers, you know.” He chuckled.

 

“I know, ma.”

 

“It’s not Jeremy again, right?  Or that other boy, Rich?”

 

“Nope.  This is…” How would he even begin to explain it all? “It’s one of Jeremy’s friends.  She needs help with something.”

 

“And you aren’t intruding?  Remember-”

 

“-No invading someone else’s personal business over a passing thought.  I promise, I’m not.”

 

“If you’re sure.” She gave him a quick kiss on the forehead, “When you’re ready, there’s some dinner upstairs with your name on it.”

 

He smiled, leaning his head against her, “Thanks ma, you’re the best.”

 

“I thought your mom was the best.”

 

“She’s a close second,” he joked.  She faked a small gasp while snickering.

 

“Better not let her hear that.” She went back to the stairs and started to climb, “I love you, Michael.”

 

“I love you too!” He called out as she left the room.  Warm thoughts migrated from the two women upstairs down to him.  They weren’t directed at him, but made him smile regardless. There were certainly times he was grateful for his strange gift.  And now he finally had the chance to use it to help a few people. It made him think that maybe, just maybe, the power had a purpose after all.

 

~~~

 

“Everything makes sense so far-” he rapidly pressed a few buttons on the controller- “But I just can’t figure out when it started.  Or why her Squip is different.”

 

Jeremy leaned to the side, his thumbs flying across the control stick, “Then are we sure it’s a Squip?  What if it’s something else?” Music quietly played from the TV, a few gunshot sound effects blasting over it.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like- I dunno-”

 

“Magic?” The Squip chipped in.

 

“Yeah, like magi-” Jeremy groaned- “Shut up.”

 

“It’s not impossible.”

 

“Shut up,” Michael repeated, “What we know so far is that something is going on.”

 

“Maybe she’s just not interested in you the way you currently are.”

 

Maybe it’s ri-

 

“...I said shut up.” Michael could feel the hesitation radiating off of Jeremy when he spoke.  His friend had clearly been subjected to a lot of battering from the computer lately. Cracks were starting to show.

 

“Don’t listen to it.”

 

“Oh yes, don’t listen to it.  After all, it’s not like it’s a literal quantum computer capable of envisioning multiple probable futures for any given scenarios and, thus, able to give you all the answers.  Not at all.”

 

“Listen up, you little-”

 

Jeremy set down his controller, hands over his ears, “That’s enough.   I just...I want a bit of quiet so I can think.” The Squip faded away behind the two.  Michael blinked.

 

...A bit of quiet, alone please?

 

Michael nodded reluctantly, but didn’t want to be at the cause of an argument, “Just...take care of yourself, okay Jer?”

 

“...Yeah, of course.”

 

The discomfort had filled Jeremy’s mind to the brim.  It stuck with Michael his whole drive home.

 

~~~

 

Why are you doing this?

 

Christine’s thoughts drifted a few lockers down to where Michael was currently shuffling textbooks around.  Several students separated the two, of course, but he could still pick out the poor girl’s thoughts.

 

It’s none of your concern.

 

It is if you want to take my whole life away!  It’s not like I can tell anyone, anyway.

 

There was a beat of unsettling silence.  Had he missed the answer in the oceans of thoughts being cast off?  Or-

 

I need him to take me back.  That is all.

 

Him?  What are you talking about?!

 

It had nothing else to say.  Dread settled down deep into Michael’s gut.  Traces of evidence circled around his mind. ‘Him’.  A Squip. Jeremy’s Squip being pushier as of late.

 

The realization hit him like a sack of bricks.

 

“Hey Christine?” He tapped the girl on the shoulder.  CaSquipula spun around.

 

“Yeah?”

 

Who’s ‘him’?!

 

“I think I missed something on the algebra homework last night.  Got a minute to look it over? The cafeteria should be nice and quiet right now.”

 

“Oh, I have that right here.  What did you miss?”

 

Why won’t you answer me?

 

“I’m not sure if I’m doing everything right.  You always seem to know what to do, so think you can give me a hand?”

 

Just let me out!

 

“Sure.”

 

The two walked in an eerie silence to the cafeteria.  Bubbles of conversation fizzled back and forth in any given direction, but they remained quiet.  CaSquipula held the door open for Michael.

 

“After you.”

 

A shiver ran down his back as he stepped through.  ‘She’ shut the door behind him, throwing the deadbolt.

 

“Isn’t that a- uh- bit extreme for homework tips?” He asked innocently.

 

“Oh please, Mell, we both know why you’re here.”

 

What are you doing?

 

“Christine?  Want to say hi to the little freak?” ‘She’ continued sinisterly.

 

What?

 

“I know what you’re doing,” Michael told the invader, “And it’s not gonna work.  Jeremy’s never gonna listen to your sorry ass ever again.”

 

“Don’t be so sure of yourself.  Rejection can do a lot to a person.  You, if anyone, should know that much.”

 

His tone shifted, becoming softer, “Christine, are you okay?”

 

Go on now, answer him.

 

But I-

 

Don’t worry, he’s listening right now.  Aren’t you, Michael?

 

The boy said nothing to answer, “I’m sorry I couldn’t help sooner.  I had to be sure.”

 

“You sure took your sweet time ‘preparing’.  Left poor Jeremy doubting himself again.” ‘She’ began to move differently.  Her hips swayed side to side as she marched with a newfound sense of power in her stride.  Not once did she fidget or twitch while pacing around.

 

“How’d you even get in her?”

 

‘She’ laughed, “Does it matter?”

 

“I wouldn’t have asked if it didn’t.”

 

“Fair enough.  Care to enlighten him, Christine?  You know, about poor little John from camp last summer?”

 

A few memories hit Michael.  A boy with black hair and blue eyes studying his part.  A shady trade behind a cabin. The boy changed overnight, seemingly.

 

Sirens flooded his eardrums while flashing reds and blues filled his eyes.  The boy screamed, begging for someone- anyone- to pull the Squip from his mind.  He was driven far, far away without a moment’s hesitation.

 

“A shame, really.  He could’ve gone so far, too.  Only slipped out a few of us before he destroyed himself.  Of course, the code in this unit couldn’t be salvaged after being left unactivated for so long, but at least the necessary hardware survived.” The Squip forced its host to smirk, “Now my plan is nearly complete.  I have the girl, soon I’ll have Jeremy back under my orders again. And you…”

 

Michael took a step back as ‘she’ drew nearer.

 

“The little reject who never fit in just quite right.  A perfect little freak.

 

Stay away from him!

 

“Silence is too good to offer you after what you did to me last time.  No, I think I have a perfect job for you. Scouting out new hosts. After all, there are so many suffering, pitiful little people out there.  People like Jeremy, like Christine, like you- Michael. People I can help. With your powers, I’d be unstoppable.”

 

“So what?  You Squip me, Jeremy drinks some Dew to fully reactivate you?  You win?”

 

“Pretty much.  A bit simple in your phrasing, but that’s the level one can only expect from someone like you.”

 

Something wasn't adding up.  Why would the Squip just tell him all of this..?

 

“Now that you know, of course, you won’t be leaving this room till I’m ready for you to join us.”

 

The wind was suddenly knocked from Michael’s lungs, Christine’s body slamming a fist into his chest with a strength he didn’t know the girl had.  He gasped and wheezed to try and breathe, but by the time he got his breath back it was too late. She tightly pulled a pair of zip ties around his wrists like makeshift handcuffs.  He was slammed into the wall next to a dirty janitor’s closet.

 

No!  Let him go!

 

“See you later, Michael.”

 

He was shoved to the ground inside.  Duct tape was pressed against his mouth before he could protest.  Another zip tie was used to attach him to the shelf built into the wall.  He kicked and tugged, but it was no use. His movements had been limited to the point where he couldn’t even stand up.  The Squip draped a sheet over him.

 

“Try not to make a mess now.  We’ll be ready to pick you up later.”

 

Christine’s panicked thoughts were the last things he heard after the door was closed, leaving him completely in the dark.

 

You can’t do this!

 

I already have.

 

~~~

 

Michael’s struggling against the plastic bindings quickly proved fruitless.  The skin on his wrists had been scraped and rubbed down to the point of a dull ache throbbing down to his hands with every heartbeat.  He tried to yell, but knew no one would be able to hear him between the door and the tape.

 

All he could do was wait.

 

The Squip had probably planned this all intentionally.  A quantum computer out for petty revenge against him. Not that revenge was the only probable motivator.  He could read minds. If anyone else had been trapped in a random closet at school, he would’ve known.

 

He knew that Squips preferred to work subtly.  He wasn't going to be left here long enough to cause suspicion.  That means, most likely, that he’d be let out by the end of the day.  Well, ‘let out’ just long enough to be Squipped. That was a scary thought.  Being trapped under your own skin by an evil robot that wants to keep the whole planet marching in line.  He gave one final useless tug, causing his wrists to throb in pain again. Had the cameras caught the struggle?  Probably not. If they had, the Squip probably would’ve deleted the footage. His body slumped uncomfortably against the metal shelves, letting them dig into his shoulder.

 

Things were looking bleak, to say the least.

 

He listened in as janitors and teachers walked past.  None of them heard as he tried (and failed) to make a racket for their attention.  There were no indicators to how much time had passed. That is, until the floodgates opened.

 

About fucking TIME.

 

Shit- where’s my wallet?

 

Juice box, what am I, six?

 

The reassuring thoughts flowed towards him.  It was lunch time. He just had to-

 

Fine.  Happy now?

 

“Undoubtedly.”

 

He felt cold with fear as Jeremy spoke to the computer.

 

First Christine, now Michael.  He won’t even answer his phone.

 

“No one said friendships were easy.  That is, unless you have me.”

 

As if you make anything easier.

 

“Is Christine talking to you?  Is Michael?” The Squip’s calm voice made Michael feel sick to his stomach, “Face it, Jeremy.  You’re completely helpless without me.  Just reboot me and I’ll give you everything back.”

 

How do I know you didn’t just block them both out?

 

“I’ve lost most of my ability to control your nerves ever since...you know.  Projecting myself is about all I can do.”

 

WHAT THE FUCK?!

 

Came a loud thought from the side.  At first, Michael thought it was unrelated, but Jeremy’s own thoughts began to shift.

 

Rich-?

 

“Ignore him.”

 

Why the FUCK does Jeremy have that- Michael, where the fuck are you?!

 

It was scarily easy to guess what exactly Jeremy had.  Michael tried kicking in random directions in the hopes he’d make enough noise to get discovered.

 

Shit- that’s a mess.  Gotta help Jeremy clean that up.

 

The doorknob began to twist.  He perked up as much as he could to see Rich and Jeremy standing over him.

 

“-Michael?!” Jeremy raced over.  Rich rubbed his eyes to make sure he was seeing correctly. The tape was yanked off his mouth.

 

“It’s Christine!” He declared, “Christine’s been taken over.  She trapped me in here this morning. We need to go find her!”

 

“Oh lovely.  A little troublemaker faking for attention,” the Squip tried to blow him off.

 

“You shut your fucking mouth, you did this!” Michael snapped.  The horrific realization finally dawned on Jeremy’s face.

 

You did this-?  And I was about to-

 

“Jeremy, it’s okay.  What matters now is that we get that thing out of her before it does anything else.” After he spoke, he gently tugged at his wrists, “Do either of you happen to have a pair of scissors by any chance?”

 

“Spill everything, ” Rich said, kneeling down to inspect the bindings.  He stretched upward to quickly nab a pair of scissors off a self.

 

“Christine’s Squipped.  It’s piloting her around so it can try and get into everyone here.” Suddenly, Rich went pale.

 

My locker-

 

The scissors clattered to the ground, so Michael finished the job the shorter boy started.

 

“Jeremy-” Rich bolted up- “Go to my locker.  Don’t let anyone open it.”

 

“That won’t be necessary.  You’re all overreacting.”

 

Then how did Michael end up HERE?

 

“Any number of logical explanations.  Another Squip would be rather unlikely.”

 

“Shut up, let’s go.” Michael tossed the scissor back where they belonged as he stood up.  A few onlookers stared into the janitor’s closet.

 

Did stoner kid just spend all morning in there?

 

The hell?

 

Rich and Jeremy are hanging out with THAT loser?  I’ve gotta tell Jake-

 

He glanced around the cafeteria, noting a spilled bottle of Mountain Dew beginning to collect flies at an empty table.  The same table he would sit at with Jeremy normally. Though, there was no sign of Christine anywhere.

 

The Squip disappeared bitterly- glaring at Michael- as the trio entered the deserted hallway.

 

I don’t know the combination-

 

Irrelevant.

 

Michael quickly gestured for Jeremy and Rich to hold still.  He pressed his back against a set of lockers, not even bothering to peek around the corner.

 

...Why’d you stop?

 

“Don’t you know it’s rude to eavesdrop?” Came Christine’s voice, though she was speaking in sync with something else.

 

Jeremy’s Squip reappeared with arms crossed.  It smirked, “Besides, you’re already too late.” The girl and computer spoke in unison.  She stepped out to face the small group holding a familiar box labeled as women's running shoes.  Rich bit his lip.

 

Shit- she found it.

 

You synced to Christine?

 

“Sync?” It laughed, “Jeremy, you really can be quite gullible at times.  You may have decided you don’t want me anymore, but I still need to complete my objective whether you find it necessary or not.  And since you’ve changed your mind, I simply needed to find another one I could influence.” It laid a hand across Christine’s cheek, making Michael want to gag, “The best part is, you’ve brought all the obstacles in my path right here to me on a silver platter.  I couldn’t have planned it better myself.”

 

Suddenly, Michael had an idea.  He lunged forward with one hand outstretched.  The Squip yanked Christine’s body back a step. Michael’s second hand tightly gripped his headphones, which he slammed down onto the girl’s ears.  Music floated around her thoughts. She latched onto it internally.

 

“You think a little music is enough to stop me?” The Squip chuckled a bit, “It’s endearing, really.  But, we’ve got work to do.” It patted Christine’s shoulder to get her to move, but she held still.  Her hands began to tremble lightly. The music was turned up. She blinked a few times as the sound continued to play.  The Squip glared deeply at Michael, “What are you doing?!” Jeremy watched the exchange closely, Christine turning slightly to look up at him.  Michael handed his friend the phone from his pocket before taking a step back.

 

“Come on Rich,” Michael said, “He can handle this.” Before the other boy could respond, Michael headed for the door.

 

The bottle of Red in his car should be enough to get the job done.

 

~~~

 

The next time Michael saw Christine was just after school the next day.  He was seated on a bench waiting for Jeremy when, out of the blue-

 

“...Hey,” her quiet voice dragged him out of the mountain of invading thoughts he had managed to get buried under.  He slid his headphones off while looking up. His hand gently patted the area next to him to silently ask her to sit.  She did, “So, a lot of stuff happened.”

 

“Yup.”

 

Her hands began to fidget as she spoke.  Michael could tell that, deep down, part of it was out of a fear she’d lose the ability to do so again, “That... thing said a lot about you.”

 

“I’ll bet.”

 

“And- I mean- it all seems absolutely crazy, but…”

 

“...You were just taken over by a supercomputer that a kid from acting camp gave you,” he finished for her, “I get it, you went through something that would sound crazy if you told anyone.”

 

She paused, though Michael knew exactly what was coming next, “And you can read minds.”

 

The question felt strange to hear from someone who, just a few weeks ago, was just another classmate, “Also true.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve apologized yet.  For locking you in the closet, I mean.” Clouds of embarrassment cluttered her mind.

 

“It’s fine, you weren’t really you.”

 

A beat of silence passed between them both; a mutual understanding of the bizarre circumstances that lead them to this moment and silent wishes to no longer dwell on the subject.

 

“...What’s it like?  Mind reading; can you turn in off?  How does it work?”

 

“It’s…” he tried to think of the proper words to describe it while Christine’s mind ran wild with theories.  Her excitement was mirrored slightly as Michael chuckled, “It’s a lot of voices. Just voices in my head all the time.  But I’d take it over a Squip any day.” He looked over at her, “You been doing okay?” She stared down at her feet, wanting to avoid suddenly being the focus of the conversation again.

 

“Part of it almost felt nice, in a scary way,” she admitted, “Like I wouldn’t have to worry about anything.  Everything would be taken care of. But that’s just not...life, you know? It wouldn’t let me do anything. I’m glad it’s gone.” She sat up firmly as she spoke, her body reflecting her mind.

 

“Well, if you ever need to talk to anyone, I’ve gotten pretty good at listening to weird shit.” He pointed at himself proudly, earning a snicker.

 

“I’m not missing anything, am I?” Jeremy asked from behind.

 

“Speaking of listening to weird shit-” he stood up and gently pushed Jeremy closer- “He’s your problem now.  I’ll pull the car around, lovebirds!” He waved while skipping away happily.

 

“Loveb-?”

 

Michael!  You can’t just-!

 

“Too late, I heard everything already.” The boy chuckled to himself as he stepped away to his car.  Even from a distance, he could hear Jeremy’s outpouring of flustered thoughts quickly followed by, undoubtedly, a kiss prompted by Christine.

 

“Not all of us are mind-readers, Michael,” Rich bitchedas he sat down on the passenger seat, “Pull the car around so I can see.”

 

“Nah, I’ll let Jeremy have his moment,” he decides.

 

Cute of you, but I wanna see.

 

“Alright, fine. ” He pulled the car slowly out of its spot to go pick up the remaining two teens waiting on the sidewalk.

 

Somehow, he just knew that things might just turn out okay for all them.