Patreon Bonus: Face 2

Source material: Wildbow’s Samples: Face, chapter 2

Blogged: September 9-21, 2020


Yeah, I think that’s all the intro we need here, to be honest. Let’s face the podium!

(Although this chapter might be focused on the kids and maybe Roxanne instead, or even on the Symbols.)


The text on the screen changed.

Night 0

One night without festivities, a prelude.

To get to know each other and “have fun”?

Fifteen days.  Fifteen nights.

Each night, a game.

uu: I WANT TO PLAY A GAME.

A festival, a lark.

Prizes and favors to be won by the clever.

Punishment meted out to the dullest.

It really does sound like The Weakest Link, except with more “fun”.

I struggled to focus, and wound up shutting one eye to clarify my view.

Surely the rewirings tied to each mask are going to matter in the games. So some games will favor certain masks, for instance being easier to win if you can see in eight directions like the spider guy.

The numbers didn’t add up.  Twelve contestants… one removed each night, for fifteen nights?  With more than one contestant potentially being removed?

Hmm. Maybe it’s like the Norwegian reality show / contest Farmen and they add more contestants partway through?

(It’s not quite as unfair as it sounds on Farmen, because on that show you greatly benefit from being liked by the other contestants, and coming in partway through… the unfairness of dodging the first eliminations is partially balanced by having less time to get on your opponents’ good side and starting at a negative because of the perceived unfairness.)

“Hey, dumbfucks!  You can’t have twelve contestants and fifteen rounds!,” another voice echoed my thoughts.

(Proofreader mode: extraneous comma)

“Hey!  I don’t want prizes, I just want to go home!”  Someone else.  “Please take this mask off and let me go home!”

Yeeeeah no, that’s a prize in its own right, if available as an offer at all.

“What do you mean by punishment?” a woman called out.  “We die?”

“No,” I said.  I climbed to my feet, using the bars for support.  I ignored how my hands trembled as I tried to find a grip on the bars at chest-level and fumbled.  I willed it to go away.  I paused for a moment, making sure I had a grip on myself, and then very calmly stated, “That doesn’t make sense.  Unless they plan to bring in others.”

You’re forgetting that your author has a lot of experience in fates worse than death.

Wolf was standing by the bars, her arms sticking out straight through.  Her mask tapped repeatedly against the bars, as if she could vent that way.  She said, her voice eerily calm, “They intend to kill the losers after the winner is decided.”

That might be the case, though, yes.

That’s not impossible.

The text changed.

Night 0

We anticipate the evening’s entertainment.

Don your masks at day’s end, merry beasts,

to be whisked away to gardens and fields.

The cleverest creature will earn a favor.

Don your masks, it says, as though they can do anything else.

Or is this to be taken more literally and the masks can actually be taken off and the showrunners expect the contestants to put them back on and be teleported back here?? That sounds incorrect in so many ways.

It’s probably meant more as a “poetic” way of hinting at the first game’s setting.

To break a rule, or make a rule.

Oooh, kind of hope that one’s literal. That could be an interesting mechanic.

The whimsical nature of the words was at stark odds with our dingy surroundings, imprisonment, and the masks we wore.  I felt a little uneasy.  Maybe that was the point.

I haven’t seen the Saw movies, but I mean… I already quoted a character who was himself a reference to Jigsaw from time to time, including with that quote, so perhaps it’s a little late to point out the Jigsaw vibe here.

The vibe here is as though Jigsaw were presenting The Weakest Link in Next Sunday AD, and I think Wildbow can take that interesting places.

My one open eye fixated on the screen. In the periphery of my vision, I could see others approaching the bars of their cell.

Monkey.  He was wearing a glove with metal on it.  Almost a gauntlet.  His brown hair straight was slicked back from the edges of his mask.

Maybe that almost-gauntlet helps him climb?

(Proofreader mode: “brown hair straight” is either in the wrong order or missing two commas.)

A person wearing a fox mask was wearing some kind of shirt that hung well past his hands.  The eyes of his red mask were crescents, with the points facing downward.

Wolf, Rabbit, Fox, Monkey, Spider, and… me.  I touched my mask again.  The short spike was positioned somewhere between where my nose touched the surface of the mask and my mouth, centered.

I suppose if I hadn’t already known what the cover of this story looks like on Earth-Bet, it wouldn’t be quite as clear from the first chapter what kind of mask this was.

Was it a beak?

Sparrow?  Crow?

I’ve been picturing the mask as black ever since its appearance in Worm, but I’m not sure if that was actually explicitly stated?

“Break rules?”  Monkey called out.  “What do you mean?”

Not sure the screen is actually going to respond to questions.

But the screen changed, and it didn’t answer the question.

Night 0

Beasts slumber in daylight and twilight hours.

A safe place to sleep, to exercise talents,

to set the stage for the night’s events.

What if it’s an owl mask? A number of the other animals are nocturnal, and owls are the birds best known for being nocturnal.

(The monkey seems like an exception, but there is a nocturnal genus called night monkeys, also known as owl monkeys. Rabbits, meanwhile, are an exception, but it’s a popular belief that they’re nocturnal because they’re also not diurnal — they’re most active during dusk and dawn, making them crepuscular.)

And an owl motif would actually be pretty fitting for Wesley’s characterization as we saw it in the first chapter.

…and that just feeds right into his relatability. I believe I’m on record somewhere as saying that if I had a fursona, it’d probably be an owl.

An image was displayed below the text.  An overhead view of the city.  Bold lines were drawn along the edges, the area beyond the outlined area shaded dark and blurred.  The sharper, lighter section of the image was a square, three city blocks by three city blocks.  It included stores and a small mall, apartment buildings and a tract of houses.

Presumably there’s something in the masks preventing the beasts from escaping the game, if they’re to be let loose in such a large area.

I recognized the area.  I could spot my apartment, in the corner at the bottom of the image.  My heart was pounding, even as I remained very still.

Welp. That’s another way the kids could get involved.

None of the others spoke, but I could see some of them react.  Tells, as it were.  Monkey shifted his hands, gripping the bars of his cell door a fraction tighter  Rabbit, now kneeling on the floor behind her cell was apparently pretty high strung, almost jumping as she recognized the area.

(Proofreader mode: Missing period for the third sentence here.)

Of course Rabbit is high strung.

So I guess everyone was taken from this particular area so that their homes would be in the playing field?

The little boy with the snake mask leaned to one side of his cell, hugging his arms against his body, stopping, then jamming hands in his pockets.  Different manifestations of nervousness.

Snake has arms. Steven Universe can stop crying. For now.

This kid should watch out for potatoes, though.

I’d bet good money on the idea that we were all from the same general area.

“Th- they’re a-actually letting us go?” Rabbit asked, breaking the silence.

Hah. Depends on your definition of letting you go.

And they expect we’ll be willing to come back, I thought to myself.

Or, more likely, they have implanted means of forcing you to come back.

Night 0

Clever creatures obey the laws of the land,

The cleverest don’t get caught.

Good thing Wesley has some experience with not getting caught in breaking the laws of the land, huh?

So presumably this ties into the “break a rule or make a rule” thing. As the game progresses, the victors get to either add a rule they must all follow the rest of the game, or a free pass to get caught breaking one of the existing rules at least once without consequence?

The stupidest beasts are reprimanded at dawn,

and shan’t be invited back.

Get caught breaking “the laws of the land” without a free pass and you’re out.

Those that lose the games or tell tales are dumb beasts,

The ones who don’t play stupider still.

And of course, a “no telling” rule.

But seriously. If you wanted your game to be secret while also taking place out among the general populace, why would you surgically put masks they can’t take off on them? At that point it doesn’t even take someone being loose-lipped for people to notice something’s weird around here.

But no beast is so foolish as a dead one.

“Try not to die. If you die, you’re out of the game, after all!”

The nature of this little exercise was becoming clearer.  Over and over, an emphasis on wit.  Two phases.  Night to force our hands, to use us for sport or entertainment.  Bloody, apparently, so violence was in the cards.  Then a day phase to let us rest, sleep or…

…follow the rules set by the victors of the night phase.

I looked around me.

We couldn’t get caught.  That wasn’t to say we weren’t allowed to sabotage each other.  If we needed our masks to enter into the Night phase, then a mask could be taken away.

If you can do that, sure! You can probably get someone eliminated by taking their face… off.

(look patron the first time around i said “face… on” and that’s the opposite so surely it counted as -1 reference and this brings me back to 0… right? riiight? yeah no i don’t buy that either)

There was a chance that one of these people might be capable of murder.

The day phase was when we’d search for each other, sabotaging one another to take someone out of the running and remove any need to play in the game that night.  Or, if anyone out there was crazy or desperate enough, the phase where they’d try to kill others.

Hm, okay. So I guess the masks automatically come off in the day phase, is the thing, and that’s why they’d need to search for each other — can’t just track down anyone wearing a mask, and you don’t know their faces.

That makes a lot more sense for the secrecy of it all, too.

Night 0

Thus ends our introduction.

A question from each.

This should be enlightening, if people use their questions wisely.

A mask floated on the screen, rotating around so that the backside of it was shown, blank and featureless, then slowly turned to face us.  An owl.  The eyes were overlarge, the beak hooked, and the ‘feathers’ crested into points at the edges of the forehead.

Oh, hello. Is this to indicate that Wesley asks first?

There was a series of bangs as the locks for the barred doors came loose.  My eyes traveled over the rest of the crowd.  I could see everyone I’d missed.

I looked for the wearer of the mask, and I found a heavyset man with a large belly.  He wore a blue jumpsuit that wasn’t flattering to look at.

Oh, okay, I guess Wesley isn’t an owl then.

I… don’t think I actually know any other nocturnal birds.

The others I hadn’t yet seen included a tall man, broad shouldered, with light brown skin wore a cat mask, orange-brown with white and black stripes.

(Proofreader mode: These are two sentences fused like the sentence-level equivalent of a portmanteau, with “a tall man, broad shouldered, with light brown skin” acting both as object of the first and subject of the second. Switching “wore” out for “, wearing” should fix it.)

A sheep, apparently, a girl, crossed the open space to Spider’s side.

And, finally, a woman, pale, with startlingly vivid tattoos of flowers up her arms.  Her mask was supposed to be a deer or a gazelle, at a glance, but had only stubs for horns.

I swear if they just cast a cis woman or a pre-transition trans man as a dik-dik

Also sheep are definitely not nocturnal.

As near as I could figure it, it was Owl, Wolf, Rabbit, Rat, Spider, Sheep, Fox, Monkey, Cat, Snake and Doe.  And me.

Ah, right, of course she’s Doe. A deer. A female deer. RAY A DROP OF GO–

Maybe Wesley should just ask someone what he is. Though he should wait until after the twelve questions round, so it doesn’t get counted as his question for the Box.

“Hey,” I said, greeting the group to my left.  Rat, Doe and Monkey.  “What mask am I wearing?”

I said wait!

“Does it matter?” Rat asked.  “Damn it.  I just want to get out of this getup and go home and let this stop.”

The ones who don’t play stupider still.

“I don’t think it’s going to stop that easily,” I said.  “The more information we have, the better.”

“Like the Wolf said, we’re not your allies,” Monkey told me.  “Figure it out for yourself.”

The Rat wants to get out, the Monkey is unhelpful, the Wolf hostile…

“Right,” I said.  Suspicion.  I could try to find leverage, to coax and wheedle, but I wasn’t sure it was worth it at this juncture.

By the sound of it, the mask will be off soon enough. You might be able to see it then, if it doesn’t transform back to its blank appearance.

“Alright, I’m ready to ask,” Owl called out.  “Why the masks?”

Question:  Why masks?

Answer:  To allow Clever beasts to hide in the day.

Yeah, that tracks at this point.

“Why attach them like this?” Owl asked, but there was no response.  The mask on the screen wasn’t his.

One question each.

It wasn’t a good answer.  Or, more to the point, it wasn’t a good question.

Frankly you’d expect better from an owl.

Wolf’s turn.

“I guess you’re going to tell everyone the answer, which eliminates a bunch of options.  Fine, let’s get it out of the way.  Who are these ‘handlers’?”

Question: Who are the handlers?

Answer: Seventy individuals from twelve enterprises, to assist you and reap fame and fortune from your successes.

So kind of like the Hunger Games’ sponsors?

Seventy, that’s a lot.

The screen flickered, and it showed the series of our masks, one second to each, with a series of symbols beneath, one per sponsor.  It was almost over by the time that I saw my mask, my eye traveling to the list of sponsors, recognizing Sunny, Ascent and Heart, then darting back up to only glimpse the mask itself.

Which was?

A bird, after all.  A soft brown at the edges and forehead, white elsewhere, with a yellow beak.

I don’t know enough about dinosaurs to recognize this by description.

A differing number of sponsors to each of us.  Cat had none.  Spider had fifteen.  Most had four to six.

Oof. Sounds like Cat got the short end of the stick.

Rabbit’s turn.

Rabbit asked, “Why do you need such clever people?”

Question:  Why do we need clever beasts?

Answer:  To find a worthy winner.

Alas, that doesn’t at all answer what I think she was going for, namely what would happen with the worthy winner or why the game was being held at all.

“Fuck,” Wolf said, at the same time the word crossed my mind.

“What?”

We have to be careful what we ask.  It’s going to be as vague as possible, I thought.

Yes. It’s truth, but what you read into it is your own problem.

Think about what you ask,” Wolf said.

“It wasn’t a bad question.”

Phrase it better.”

Rat’s turn.

Wolf clearly has a brain on his shoulders. And he’s probably going to use it to stir up trouble later.

Well. Would if this became a full story.

“Tell me all the rules,” Rat ordered.

Nice try, but that’s not a question.

Maybe “What are all the rules?” could work, but this might just give the Box an excuse to call the question forfeit.

Nothing.

“It has to be a question,” Wolf said.

“What are the rules?”  Rat asked.

Damn it. All the rules, Rat! All of them!

“No,” I said.  But it was too late.

Question:  What are the rules?

Answer:  The rules are guidelines,

made to moderate the Day/Night cycles,

and to keep the process manageable.

Ahahahaha I love this

“I think I’ve figured it out,” Wolf said.  “They do want us to kill each other.  Putting me in here with idiots, so I have to listen to you fuck up.”

Ahaha

“Fuck you,” Rat said.

Snake’s question.

Snake’s a little kid, so this oughta be interesting.

Monkey spoke, “Hey, buddy.  Pick your question carefully.  We can’t keep wasting them.”

“I don’t need help,” Snake said.  “Hey, terminal.  What were the locations of everyone but me, at the time you picked them up?”

Excellent. It was either going to be an extra childlike question or a question that clearly establishes the kid as not to be underestimated. I’m so glad Wildbow went for the latter here. He’s good at child characters who are more devious and thoughtful than they seem at first glance.

He’s clearly ready to play and cause some mayhem. Let’s see if Box allows this.

The overhead map again, with blinking lights.

It stayed there, on the screen.  I could see my blinking dot.

“Hey, kid.  Why the fuck do you need to know that?”  Wolf asked.  “This doesn’t help our situation.”

Well, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he just wants all of his opponents to know each others’ locations so they’ll take each other out quickly while he can sit back.

But Snake didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  He waited a few moments, then said, “Thank you.”

Okay, definitely took the time to memorize those.

“You little fuck,” Wolf said.  “You’re going to try something?”

“I wanted to see if there was any pattern,” Snake replied.

A lie, probably.

Someone who gets branded a snake in this is likely a silvertongued little devil.

The next question was Spider’s.  The sheep was kneeling beside his limp form, holding his hands as his fingers and legs periodically twitched and jerked.  They made a stark comparison, with her overdone dress covered in ruffles and lace, young, her hair a white-blonde, curly, cut to a boyish length.

Spider has lots of sponsors but may have struggled to catch the rules.

He was half-dressed, elderly, with longer hair, shirtless and wearing pyjama pants.  His mask was the only one with red eyes.

Sheep’s hand swept over his hair, pushing it away from his ‘face’.  “They want you to ask a question.”

Roll credits.

“Leave me alone,” he said, his voice weak, but it carried.

When I looked up at the monitor to see, I saw that the next face up there was Fox’s.  There were angry and stunned mutters.

So “Tell me all the rules” was ignored, but this is interpreted fine. Meaning Box can definitely be a bit selective about it.

“Damn it,” I muttered, along with them.  He’d passed, likely unintentionally, and we needed answers.

Fox was trying to adjust the sleeves, avoiding eye contact with the people that were warily observing him…  Observing her.  I realized it was a woman, with straight black hair.  The shirt with overlong sleeves was a straightjacket.

Well then. Is there an asylum in the playing field?

“For the record,” Fox said, “The straightjacket is a joke.  Not everyday wear for me.”

Uhh. If you say so.

“Nobody asked,” the heavyset Owl said.

“Fifteen rounds,” Fox said, “Twelve contestants.  Why?”

Oh for cod’s sake. PHRASING!

Question:  Why?

Answer: Too vague. 

Come on, Box, the least you can do is answer that with “Answer: Because.”

Full answer would exceed scope of this window.

Cannot supply a response.  Please rephrase.

Oh, huh, she actually gets a second take.

“Full answer would exceed scope of this window”… I wonder if the AI thinks it would have to answer the complete why of everything in the universe.

“Why are there more rounds than contestants?”

Question:  Why are there more rounds than contestants?

Answer:  There aren’t.

Maybe the last round is a three-day thing? Or they’ve got three extra contestants somewhere.

Cat.

“Can we use the rule-breaking to drop out early without you coming after us to fuck us over?”

Question:  Can a favor be used to drop out

without punishment?

Answer: Yes.

Huh. That’s actually a very handy thing to know. Though there may still be more to it.

Yes?  I was suspecting a catch.  Too easy.  We win the game in one round and we get to live?

It didn’t fit.  It was one aspect of a lot of things here that didn’t fit.

Yeeah, Wesley and I are on the same page about this.

The Doe.  Deer or gazelle, I was going with the neutral label.

I find it amusing that the gendered “doe” is considered “the neutral label”. It’s not gender-neutral, but it is species-neutral.

“Okay,” Doe said.  She rubbed her hands together.  “You bastards.  Let’s see… Nine hundred and ninety-nine rounds before this batch, who won?”

Testing how far back this has been happening?

“The hell?” Rat asked, but the words were already appearing on the screen.

Question.  Who won 999 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

And yeah, this is the answer she wanted. Next up, 998. This could take a while.

“Who won five hundred games before this one?”

Question.  Who won 500 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

“Who won two hundred games before this?”

Question.  Who won 200 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

Five hundred bottles of beer on the wall
Five hundred bottles of beer
You take three hundred down
Drink them up
There’re two hundred bottles of beer on the wall

“Who won fifty games before this?”

Question.  Who won 50 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

“Who won fifteen games before this?

Question.  Who won 15 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

Getting closer. Maybe this is the first time, maybe not. I’m leaning maybe third or fourth.

“Who won seven games before this?”

Question.  Who won 7 games prior to this?

Answer: Bat.  Sodusco.

Alright, eighth to fifteenth. Been going for a little while, depending how often it takes place.

Doe nodded.

“Shit,” Wolf muttered.

“I’m good at getting mileage,” Doe said.  “I think that tells us an awful lot, for a two word response.”

Not bad.

The mask that rotated on the screen was mine.  Looking at it in more detail, I still couldn’t guess what kind of bird it was.

Chickadee?  Sparrow?  A hawk would have a hooked beak.

And so would a parrot.

It’s clearly not sparrow, he’s guessed that twice already and the type of bird is being made a thing out of.

“I’m not much for following orders,” I said.  “Not big on having people decide how I should live.”

“We’re birds of a feather,” Cat said.

“I know I should follow up Doe’s question with something along the same lines, weasel out information, but I’m not really up to playing along.  So here’s my question.  What course of action can we take that’s most beneficial to us and most inconvenient or damning to you?”

Hah, nice one.

Question:  What path would most benefit the beasts while setting us back?

Answer:  Too vague.  Please rephrase.

Aw.

“Yeah,” I said.  I felt a measure of satisfaction.  The damn thing wasn’t as easy to manipulate as my handlers were, but there were weak points.  “I bet it was too vague.”

It does actually give a piece of info: There’s an “us” to the thing. Maybe that means the Box and the sponsors, but probably not.

“Just ask,” Fox said.  “Some of us want to get home.”

There was restlessness all around.  As one of the last to be asked, I was in a bad spot.  It would be all too easy for them to settle on a target to vent their frustrations at, and this was a bad, bad place to be the designated target.  

Oof, yeah.

Especially if this really was something that would extend two weeks.

“What’s the biggest mistake we’ve collectively made so far?”

Another very good question!

Question:  What is the biggest mistake made by the beasts?

Answer:  Assuming that dropping out would be beneficial.

Woop, there it is. Sorry, Cat.

“What?” Cat asked.  “I said… fuck, I can’t remember how I phrased it.”

“You asked if they’d come after you,” Snake said.  “Which they won’t, necessarily.”

“Damn it,” Cat said.  “Hey, Monkey, ask it-”

But Monkey was already speaking.

My impression of Monkey so far boils down to “unhelpful”, so yeeeah.

“To come out of this ahead, what course of action should we take in the next bit?”

Question:  Best course of action for the beasts.

Answer:  Study.

Not a bad question though.

Study… each other?

You should already know your natural-born talents.

Discover the ones we’ve granted.

Ohh, yeah, that should be fun. Wesley’s seems to involve sight, but given he’s a bird, maybe they somehow gave him flight too?

Know that talents vary from night to day.

Find the hints already provided to you.

This answer is pretty elaborate.

Talents vary from night to day… because of the masks?

“There’s a running theme, here,” Wolf said.  “But saying they’ve already provided hints?  When?  There’s been the introduction where my handlers said hi, and there was this.  That’s it.”

Sounds like Wolf’s first contact went a little more smoothly.

The last mask rotated on the screen.

“Hey.  Idiot.  Ask a question,” Wolf said.  “I’m done with this.”

“I know.  I’m thinking,” Sheep said, her voice small, as passive as Wolf was aggressive.  “I don’t see a time limit, and this might be our only chance.”

Wolf and Sheep at odds, naturally.

A minute passed.

Some of the others were very blatantly studying each other.  Studying me.  Trying to memorize body types and features.  Doe’s tattoos would be a dead giveaway, for one thing.

Study.

And others were less subtle.  Rabbit spoke up, “We can meet.  Right?  We all live in the same area.  If we go to the Rivermouth tea shop on Yonge, noon tomorrow, we could have a signal-“

Uh. You think that would be a good idea??

“And you poison us?” Owl asked.  He was fidgeting, nervous.

“What?  No!”

“Idiotic idea,” Wolf said.  She was more angry than anything.  Like Marlene, in a way, channeling stress into a kind of anger.  She was more casually abrasive, though.

Ah, shit, I forgot Wolf was established as female last chapter. Apologies for the continuous misgendering.

(If Wolf were a real person, I would edit the erroneous pronouns, but seeing as she isn’t, the liveblog’s locked-in-idiocy rule takes precedence.)

“We’re not friendly,” Monkey said.  “I wouldn’t mind finding a way to make it through this with everyone intact, but that doesn’t mean I trust any of you.  If anything, the fact that you’re here makes me wonder if you aren’t less trustworthy the average people.”

It’s not a stretch to suppose they may all have some criminal background. I wonder if Monkey’s deal is burglary.

Then again, maybe that’s Cat.

(Proofreader mode: “…trustworthy the average…” should be “…trustworthy than average…”)

“That’s called projection,” Owl said.

The debate and discussion continued.  In the midst of it, I withdrew my pocket watch from the vest pocket and held it out, catching the light of the spotlight above me.  The light found the lens of Rabbit’s mask.

What time is it?

I saw her head turn a fraction.  I ‘dropped’ the pocketwatch, catching it by the chain, and let it swing for a moment before I caught it.

Would she get the message?

I don’t.

She nodded a little.  When Rat looked her way, she said, “Fine.  I get it.  No meeting.”

Ohh, he was suggesting that as a signal for a meeting between just the two of them.

A potential ally.  I knew it could be a trap, but I was good at reading people, and Rabbit didn’t seem that cunning to me.  The biggest danger was that someone had caught what I was doing, or that they’d stake out the tea shop.

At least nobody’s wearing a bull mask.


It’s getting late and I need to get up early, so that’s tonight’s stopping point.


[Session 2]

Alright, let’s continue!

The sheep had apparently decided what to ask.  “How can we get through this without anyone dying?”

Not a bad question, unless the Box decides to just say “Survive.”

Question:  How to reach the end of Night 15 without any deaths.

Answer:  Don’t kill.

Close enough.

The distinction does imply the arrangers themselves won’t be throwing deadly traps and such at them, though. If everyone refraining from killing is supposed to result in everyone surviving, then the only planned mortal threats are the competitors.

That doesn’t mean the arrangers won’t encourage them to kill each other, but it does make things seem a little safer elsewise.

“So it’s possible,” she said.  She sounded genuinely relieved.

But Cat had seemingly found a solution, and it apparently wasn’t so simple.

Hm?

Owl was reacting.  The eyelids of his mask had flipped shut.  He was blinded.

One by one, the eyes of the other masks closed, all the way around the circle.

Time for the beasts to sleep?

The eyelids of my yet-undefined bird mask flipped shut, leaving me in absolute darkness.

Then I smelled that cloying medicinal smell, and perhaps because of drugs lingering in my system, or because the darkness was so deep I couldn’t tell when my eyes were open or shut, I succumbed faster than before.

I guess he’ll wake up back home.

I quite like the setup we’ve got here. It lets Wesley get roped into this weird and dangerous game without that immediately taking him away from the kids, and gives plenty of opportunities for them and Roxanne to get involved because a lot of the action will happen while he’s at home.

To begin with, Wesley probably tries to hide the whole thing from them, but as the competition grows fiercer, that becomes harder and harder until they’re undeniably in danger themselves and Wesley has to involve them directly. Plus Marleficent isn’t one to take “it’s secret” for an answer.

Back in my apartment, feeling like I hadn’t slept a wink.

And through all of this, Wesley has to try to take care of kids while these bastards turn his sleep schedule upside down.

I stumbled, making my way out of bed.  I was wearing only boxer briefs, my usual sleeping attire, but I was ninety percent sure they weren’t the clothes I’d worn to bed last night.

Which… suggests they didn’t pay attention to what he was wearing when they picked him up but had been paying attention to what he usually wears to sleep? Unless it’s a coinkydink that they decided to stick him in boxers.

Disorientation nearly overwhelmed me.  My recollection of the scene in that odd little prison was so fresh in my mind I was still adjusting from the warped vision.  It all felt surreal, in retrospect.

I’m sure a couple of the others think it was just a nightmare. Especially if they got fucked over on the sponsor front.

I had my regular eyes back.  They were the same.  No surgical alterations.

I examined myself in the mirror.  Eyes normal.  Hair a touch greasier from sweating than normal, but…

Most of the evidence points to a nightmare.

Those masks are really something, huh, being able to do and undo surgical alterations like that.

My fingertips found the points at my hairline where the mask had attached.

Caps, skin tone, were plugged into the holes.  Impossible to see without close investigation.  The spots felt more numb than tender.

But… which face…… is the mask………

I returned to my bedside and opened the drawer.  Sitting there, as though I’d put it away before turning in, was the mask.  Now complete with beak and the transition from white to brown, with tiny feathers painted onto the surface.

Maybe there’s some hypnotic element to the transition. Like, the wearers are sent back home to go to bed by their own power and habits, plus the removal of the mask.

I tossed it back into the drawer and then pulled on slacks and an undershirt.

The names and faces were all a jumble.  Too many people at once, too many things to keep track of.

This was reality.  Quiet, still, with only two grieving children to worry about.  I made my way through the apartment, checking windows and doors.  The things I’d unplugged were still unplugged, and everything was locked.

I love the notion that this side of his reality is “quiet, still”, after Marleficent’s tantrum last chapter. 😛

Too many aspects of this didn’t fit.  Something told me it wasn’t necessarily them messing with our heads.  There was a bigger picture at work.

Perhaps not just messing with your heads.

Desperate for a kind of normalcy, I set about preparing breakfast, with a tall mug of coffee, orange juice, and pancakes made from scratch.  I was chopping up fresh fruit when Marlene emerged from the bedroom.

Good morning, sunshine.

“One minute,” I said.

“I didn’t say I wanted any.”

“Not the time for this, Marlene.”

“I said I don’t want any.  I don’t.”

Well he didn’t say you’d get any. Just that you should wait one minute.

“Then go back to your room and sleep in.”

“What?”

“Petulance, anger, grieving, whatever else, it’s fine.  I understand,” I said.  “But it’s going to have to wait until I’ve had my coffee.”

Hah. Yeah, you get that coffee, Wesley. You’ve earned it.

“Or?”

It had to be two different things, all at once.  They mingled in an ugly way.  What happened to the kids if I got dragged away at an inopportune time?  What happened if they were used for this nebulous ‘punishment’?

Yeeeah, might as well discard the notion that you can keep the kids out of this entirely right from the start.

Except there was nowhere for me to send them.  Even if I did send them away, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be found.

I hear there’s this one wardrobe you could send them through. Or, failing that, maybe this angelic monster in another universe would be willing to help.

I studied her, the glower, lower in intensity so early in the day.  She was a stranger to me, a face I only knew through a few photos.  I was a stranger to her, had been until only a few days ago.  Still, I felt a kind of fondness.  She was family.

She hasn’t had her breakfast yet. Gotta eat to fuel the glower, you know!

[El Goonish Shive panel]
Elliot: “She’s family. Help her.”
Elliot: Not that complicated.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “I’ve never really had someone push me to the limit.”

“Never?” she challenged me.

That… doesn’t sound right. We’ve heard the backstory, and that sounded like Wesley’s reaction to being “pushed to the limit” was to run.

“Not in recent memory.  I’m not saying I’ve never been stressed.  I have.  Believe me, I have.  But I adapt, I’d like to think I go with the flow, that I’m a willow that bends in the wind where an oak would break.  After I’ve had coffee.”

I try to be like this, but really I’m more of a– fuck, I don’t know enough about trees to make a good alternative comparison here.

A spruce, maybe?

*does some wiki skimming*

Lives in cold places, evergreen, belongs indoors when used as timber, used to make the nerdiest material (paper), used for soundboards in musical instruments… yeah, I’m cool with being a spruce.

I’m not going to claim that I can relate to being a preventative against scurvy.

“If that’s true, you’re nothing like dad.  Or mom or me or Leo.  None of us adapt or flow in the wind or whatever.  Kind of the opposite.”

…evidently.

“It’s been a while since I was around family.  Things were ugly when I left, so I made a deliberate effort to change myself.  To put distance between myself and everything I left behind.”

“And now you’re back,” she said.

Is he, though? Or has he just taken you across that gap as well?

“Now I’m back,” I answered.  “Maybe at a bad time for you, and apparently at a bad time for me.  But I can face the worst the world has to offer if I move forward with confidence.”

I said the words proudly, clearly, but the memories of those men breaking into my room were crystal clear.

Yeeah. How confident are you that you can protect the kids?

Just the thought made my heart do a quick double-beat.

I managed to keep the doubt off my face, my smile unflinching.  I added, “After I’ve had coffee.”

Heh.

“I’ve had coffee before.  It tastes like ass,” she said.

I haven’t and I’m still fairly confident I’d agree with Marleficent here. But also… why do you know that ass tastes like coffee?

“You can be here and be either quiet or pleasant,” I said.  “Or you can go to your room to be negative.  Those are my rules.”

She nodded, but she took a seat at the counter.  She twisted around on her stool to look at the cracked television and blinked twice in succession.  Nothing.  She did the blink again. “It doesn’t work.”

Oh man, the Lenses can be used as TV remotes? That sounds excellent for trolling potential.

No comment on the fact that she’d been the one to crack the screen.

Naturally.

Time to plug back in, huh?

“It’s not you” I said.  “One sec.”

(Proofreader mode: Missing comma at end of quote.)

I checked that things were okay on the stove, and then crossed the room to plug it in.

It was on a moment later, and I could see the three symbols flash across the screen.  Heart, arrow, sun.

The thought that this might happen did cross my mind, but I dismissed it because the handlers seemed to want to keep things away from the kids. But maybe they’re just flashing the symbols as a reminder and then leaving the screen alone?

Then it returned to a regular channel.  Marlene changed it to a kid’s show.

Yeah.

Any pink-haired pirates around this time?

My ‘handlers’ were there, watching.

I didn’t habitually put my lenses in when I woke up, which made me different from ninety-nine percent of the population in the first world.  I liked to shower early and then put the things in, rather than go back and forth.  I went back and got them.

Seems reasonable. Could be a problem later in the story.

I wasn’t adverse to technology, but I liked old things and simplicity more than needless complication.  Wearing the lenses often felt like a complication.  Still, I could pry my eyes open and slip them in, watching the little details I’d placed around the apartment coming to life.

…says the guy with a high-tech security door to his apartment.

Leo was sitting on a stool by the time I got back.  I greeted him, served up the breakfast, then gestured, bringing up a menu for my phone.  Anyone who was wearing lenses that looked at me would see the phone icon near my head.

So you’re telling me they made a way to look at your phone built into a thing directly on your eyes… and then added a “hey, this person is looking at their phone” indicator so you can’t do it covertly.

I mean by all means make that indicator a setting, I suppose.

At a loss for what to dial, I brought up a menu of symbols and selected three close approximations.

Heh. Sure, why not use symbols like phone numbers.

How closely were they looking?  How far did this extend, penetrating my day to day life?

“Hello, Wes.  Heart here.”

I would’ve gone for texting, personally. Even without the kids there.

“Ah, so you are there,” I said.  I smiled a little at the kids as I topped off my orange juice.  “I got your message late last night.  I take it you were upset?”

“We’re not your enemy, Wes.  We’re on your side in this.”

Riiight.

“I don’t know what this is,” I said.  I walked over to the living room, leaving the kids in peace, and started cleaning up more of the mess Marlene had made.  “A game?”

Now, to be fair, they tried to tell you. To some extent. They were pretty adamant about putting on the mask, which might’ve just knocked you out.

“In a way.”

“I don’t want to play.  What if I decide to sit things out tonight?  Will you do the same thing?”

“If you make us, but then we’re in a bad spot.  You don’t understand everything that’s going on here.”

Well yeah.

“You’re not the contestant, Wes.  There’s a dynamic, there are rules you play by, we get that, but we’re the ones at the helm.  If you cooperate, we both benefit.  If you throw this, then, well, it’s thrown.  You wind up with the worst possible outcome all the same.”

The handlers represent “enterprises”. What’s at stake for them? Money?

“to reap fame and fortune from your successes”.

The Box said they need the clever beasts to find a worthy winner, but never that that winner was one of the beasts. Although it did say that “Bat” had won one of the games… and “Sodusco”. I thought at first that might be the name of that Bat, but it’s more likely the enterprise that won.

(It feels so weird not to capitalize “enterprise”, after all I’ve done with a character by that name.)

I lowered my voice.  “Or I cooperate and I wind up in the midst of a screwed up situation where people are trying to stab me in the back.”

“We can mitigate that,” she said.  “You reached out to Rabbit, somewhere along the line.  Making alliances with the right people can help you weed out the dangerous ones.  Safety in numbers”

(Proofreader mode: Missing period.)

How do they know about him reaching out to Rabbit, but seemingly not about how? Were they told about it by Rabbit’s handlers?

“You’re testing us,” I said.  “All of this, you’re testing us because you want us to meet a certain criteria.  Or because the people running this thing do.  Moving it all towards a singular purpose.  It’s the only thing that makes sense.  Except you’re also making us your enemies.  There are too many things here that don’t make sense.  I need explanations.  Answers.

(Proofreader mode: Final quotation mark is facing the wrong way.)

Perhaps it is a big test, sure.

“Damn it,” I heard her mutter, on the other end.

“What?”

“I can’t give you answers, Wes.”

I can get answers out of you, I thought.

Like the Box, the way she answers things may tell more than she wants to.

But not now, while her guard was up.

I worked in silence, leaving the line open.

“Wes.  Are you meeting with Rabbit?”

Doing so is implicitly playing the game…

“With the interest of covering all possible bases, yeah.  But I’m still not sure I’m putting on the mask tonight.”

“You’re proving fairly inflexible, for someone who supposedly goes with the flow, bends in the wind,” Heart said.  Her digitized voice was grating to listen to for any length of time.

Just about everything they were able to communicate out of last chapter (which I suppose was everything with a speaker, though who knows why the kitchen stuff would have them) was plugged out when he said that, so they’ve clearly got access to microphones separate from those things.

It’s not the lenses, as it was also before he went and got them.

“Polite of you to let me know you’re eavesdropping,” I said.  “Kidnapping, vague threats, unsolicited surgery, and nebulous promises of possible murder, or setting me up to be murdered… I think I’m allowed to be less flexible than normal.”

Yeah, that tracks.

“If you force our hand, we’ll do the same thing we did before.”

“Well, that’s good to know.  Thank you for being honest,” I said.

A bit of anger had slipped into my voice.  I saw the kids’ heads turn.  I flashed a bit of a smile at them to put them at ease.

Assuming the kids aren’t listening to what you’re saying here is a rookie parenting mistake, Wes.

Heart continued, “I hope you don’t make us.  You’ll try to be clever and stop the men that come to take you in, and it still won’t work.  In the worst case scenario, you get injured in the process, and it slows you down enough that you get hurt or killed.”

“Ah, a vote of confidence from the people who picked me.  Remind me again about how you’re my best friend in all of this?”

Okay, one moment.

I need you all to consider this next thought.

Like, really consider it.

This game.

But the handlers picked Kevin McCallister.

“Even if you don’t get hurt, our hands will be tied.  We get only a few chances to manipulate things here.  We have three moves, at the start, to help you out, and we’ve used two of them.  I’m genuinely afraid for you if you strip us of any ability to help you.”

I weighed her words.  I was usually pretty good at telling whether people were being honest or not, and I wasn’t getting a dishonest vibe from her.

One more shot, huh. So Wesley is mostly on his own.

Then again, voice modulation, and there was the whole kidnapping thing, the invasion of privacy, and the whole laundry list of everything they had pulled me into.

“I can’t figure you out,” I said.

“If it makes you feel any better,” Heart said.  “I’ve been studying you for months, alongside a few others.  I thought I knew you, and… I don’t.  There’s some part of you I’m not getting.”

[El Goonish Shive panel]
Diane: I’m complicated!

“That does make me feel better,” I replied.

“You need our help, Wes.  Once people start figuring out how this really works, it’s going to get messy.”

Yeah. So maybe you shouldn’t drag people into it.

“That so?  I can manage messy.  Sorry, but I’m not really seeing what you can offer me.  Explain the mask thing?”

“We can’t.”

“At least ring me up when trouble’s brewing and someone’s coming my way?”

“We can’t do that either,” Heart said.

Then what can you do?

In negotiating with people, a good tactic was to ask them questions, already aware of the answer.  I was already fairly sure she wouldn’t be able to follow through.  So I could hammer her on that front.  You’re useless, you’re useless.

It’s a solid rhetorical strategy.

Can we do a Wheel of Time crossover? I’d like to see Wesley up against some Aes Sedai of the Gray Ajah, or even better the Atha’an Miere. That’d be a sight.

It was rather satisfying, in light of everything that had happened.  I wasn’t one to consider myself mean spirited, just the opposite.  But these were special circumstances.

You’ve earned it.

It’s probably a bad idea in the long run, but you’ve earned it.

“Then explain the ins and outs of this whole thing?”

Now that she certainly can’t do.

“I can’t.  Wes-”

Here was the moment she tried to break the pattern of attack, my cue to move forward.  “You’re telling me you don’t have anything to offer me.  What are you handling, as my handler?”

Every action had an equivalent reaction.  What reaction would I generate, now that I was pressing her on this?

…I wonder if the patron had this moment in mind when he decided to send me that first writing essay…

Would she bounce back, desperate to please, or would she fold?  I opened the balcony door and stepped outside, then closed it.

“I- that’s complicated.”

He’s listening.

Ah.  She would deflect.

“Three hours until I need to leave for that rendezvous.  I’m willing to sit down and talk it out with you.  We’ll unravel that untangled mess.  I’ll be in a better place, and so will you.  We’ll be on the same page.”

Why would you need to unravel the mess if it’s already untangled?

Reasonable, calm, confident.  A steady pressure to drive the point home.  I rubbed my hands to help ward off the cold.

“It’s not that kind of complicated, Wes.”

Is it the Facebook kind of complicated, then?

Repeatedly using my name to try and build a kind of familiarity.

My eyes fell on the city below.  The street was choked with cars, and my lenses showed ads on every flat surface.

Because of course they do.

There were different channels,each with different focuses, from ones that would show sales in nearby stores to kids’ games that would show monsters wandering around, almost as real as anything else.

(Proofreader mode: Missing space after the first comma.)

That’s pretty cool!

In a city this big, each channel would be choked with advertisements.  People earned pennies each time they deleted one, but there were too many automated functions and paid shills who earned more putting the ads up.

Ahaha it’s so prominent they gotta pay the public to clear the ads

One learned to deal with the visual noise, because the other features of the lenses were too convenient, otherwise.  They were rooted in too many things, from access to buildings to phones and shopping.  One learned to look past the ads, until they reached the safety of their homes and could relax.

I’ve lived on the internet since I was maybe 5-7, starting during the worst period of intrusive advertising, so yeah, I’m well trained in actively ignoring ads.

That’s what the advertisement industry did wrong. If the ads hadn’t been so intrusive in the 00s, there wouldn’t be this adversarial relationship between users and advertisers today.

I trust you guys will tell me if the ads I’ve enabled on this blog get too intrusive. The worst I’ve heard so far is that being used to skipping over ads caused someone to accidentally skip over a regular image I’d put in the post, though, which I feel feeds right back into the point of this paragraph.

It’s not like I make a ton of money on them, generally wavering between $2-10 per month (I haven’t actually received anything yet, because it has to hit $100 before WordPress pays it out — this month’s earnings should finally tip that over after 19 months). If they do become a genuine problem, I definitely value readability and accessibility over the ads. There are also options I can change for where they do or don’t appear.

Which only reminded me that I was talking with the person who had invaded that home.  In more ways than one.

Could I put her off balance?  I could move to the attack.

I do wonder if the handlers could mess with the lenses other than by calling him on it (how does he hear stuff from a lens? surely he wouldn’t have this conversation in front of the kids if they could hear Heart’s end).

I spoke slowly, my voice firm.  “Alright.  Let me unravel my untangled mess, then.

No, seriously, why would you ever describe this situation as an untangled mess?

I’ve been thrown into a situation that isn’t sitting right, it’s vague and the pieces don’t all fit together.  You picked me for that, right?  You’re the one that’s throwing me into this situation.  Except you’re terrible at this.  You’re obviously new to it, you’re clueless, you don’t have any direction.”

“And you’re so transparent, sheesh.”

All different ways of saying the same thing.  Continuing along those lines…

“You’re supposed to protect me or help me somehow, but you haven’t said what you do.  You haven’t inspired an iota of confidence.  The screen back there, last night, it said you’re an enterprise.  You’re in this for fame and fortune, but you’re doing nothing to deserve either of the two.”

There’s definitely more to it, but yeah.

She cut in.  “It… could have worded that better.  We’re here for research, to help people.  It’s amazing stuff, but we need funds, and-”

Oh, this is for science? Why didn’t you say so! In the immortal words of Ultra Fast Twilight Sparkle, nothing’s illegal if it’s for science!

“And throwing me to the wolves and spiders and hares is how you do that?  Come on, Heart.  What is this?  You’re a couple of amoral twits with a gimmick startup idea, operating out of your friend’s mom’s garage, and someone tweaks you onto… this?  A bunch of hackers and entrepreneurs orbiting around some screwed up kind of entertainment that’s never going to poke it’s head out of the darkest, scummiest parts of the deepweb?”

This is definitely the sort of thing that would be on the dark web, if someone managed to run it covertly enough.

“No, Wes.”

If I was completely wrong, she would have sounded more assertive than she did.  She would have been able to follow it up.

Had I struck a chord?  Landed my remarks somewhere in the right neighborhood?

Perhaps with the startup thing?

“Let me give you a tip, Heart.  You’re the one that’s supposed to look after me, right?  That’s your job in this.  Scouting me, keeping me in line, whatever?  You want me to like you, but that battle’s already lost.  Change tactics.  You need to be a jerk.  Be rude, be strict.  Threaten me instead of convincing me that stuff’s for my own good.  Act like that arrowhead guy was.”

Ah yes, because Ascent’s approach worked so much better.

“You mean Ascent,” she said.

“Him.  Be aggressive, be assertive.  Get my respect through fear and intimidation, if nothing else.  Come on.  Give it a shot.”

Honestly it feels like Wesley’s toying with her at this point.

“Wes…”  Her voice was soft.

“That was terrible,” I said.  “If you can’t fake your way through some jerkish behavior or come up with an actual offer you can make me, you shouldn’t be on the phone right now.  You need to be rude, even cold.  When I call you, you shouldn’t even pick up unless you’re absolutely, completely confident you’ve got things under control, with a way to strongarm me into doing what you need me to do, or something valuable to offer me.  Right?  I mean, it’s common sense.  You’re my handler, you need to take the reins here.”

I love every part of what’s happening here.

She didn’t immediately respond.

Prodding her, I asked, “Do you have something to offer me?  Bait?”

I waited, thoroughly enjoying the silence.

At least one of them is having fun!

In recommending a plan of attack against myself, the idea was to head her off.  She would inevitably realize that what she was doing wasn’t working.  By cutting her off well ahead of that particular point, I could pressure her.  I could leave her feeling lost and helpless.  I could handle the handler.

And then if she actually tries it, you can be like “bravo, bravo, so much better! still not enough oomph but you’re getting there, keep working at it!”

In the wake of that, I’d either see her true colors as she found a plan that did work, or at least worked better than this, or she’d fold and I would have leverage over her.  Something I could use to get information or help I otherwise wouldn’t.

Wesley would run circles around most Aes Sedai.

Pit him up against Egwene, maybe. A circlerunner against a circlerunner, let’s have a fucking show here!

“Wes, when you figure out what we set up for you, we’ll be able to work with you.”

“That’s thoroughly unconvincing,” I said, leaning back against the door to the balcony.  “I think maybe you should hang up.  Get your bearings, say something motivational in front of the mirror a couple times, maybe, to build up some confidence.  I’d love to hear a different, bolder, useful Heart the next time we talk.”

“Here’s your homework.”

Which I wouldn’t, most likely.  Which would make her feel worse, which would apply more pressure.

I listened to a long silence.

Wesley definitely grew up in the age of “don’t feed the trolls”.

The phone’s icon flashed and turned red.  A hang-up.

Victory.

Perhaps one that will cost him, but a victory.

If she was capable of watching and listening in on me, I couldn’t allow myself a smile.  A lifetime of training allowed me to keep my expression neutral as I let myself back inside and served my breakfast.

Don’t feed the troll.

And don’t let the troll know how satisfied you are to have won.

“Who was that?” Leo asked.  Guileless.

“Someone who thinks she’s in business with me,” I responded.  “Now, I’m not going to make you guys go to school, given you’re still early into the grieving process, but-”

You have a lot to learn about kids, Wes.

“I want to go,” Marlene said.  Too quickly.

Yeah, that’s fair. Whether it’s to get away from Wes or to have something to occupy her mind with or to get a chance to talk to kids her own age, if she wants to go she should be allowed to.

I hesitated.

“I want to go where Marlene’s going,” Leo said.

He, at least, sounded genuine.

This is good for Wesley, as far as keeping them out of his own hair while things get weird, but it does mean he won’t be able to keep an eye on them. If his enemies decide to go after the kids at school, things could get bad.

“You’re not going to run away on me, are you?” I asked.  “This is serious, and I’ve got a lot on my plate.”

Besides, I can’t leave the ‘safe’ territory, or unspecified horrible things will happen.  I can’t drive all the way to Uncle Peter’s to fetch you if you run.

Oh right, forgot about that rule. Is the school within the playing field?

“It’s been a while since I’ve gone, and it has to be better than being here.”  Marlene said.

That’s not what he asked.

“Alright,” I said.  “Go wash up and dress.  I’ll call the school to see if I can’t arrange a tour or a quick class assignment.”

Hopefully with enough time for me to meet the Rabbit.

The Rabbit seems to call your name
You’re late, so it’s time to move
Oh Wesley, you know it’s your fate
Tick, tock, no time to lose

I was late.  I’d dressed down, with a button-up shirt and more moderate shoes, no tie or vest, a jacket folded over one arm.  Even knowing I might have missed her, I took my time, getting in line.

He literally used his pocket watch as a signal to the Rabbit, how did it take me until now to realize it might be an Alice in Wonderland thing?

Wesley goes to meet with the Rabbit… and that might drag him further into the depths of what’s going on here?

Being in line let me observe.  Rabbit had red hair, but a wig wasn’t impossible.  Nor was a hat.  It was spring.  The others… there were traits I could look out for.  It was more a process of elimination, scanning the crowd.  No kids under thirteen, which removed the possibility of a Snake.  No fat men, so that meant no Owl.

No overenthusiastic but neurotic high school principals…

Wolf and Fox were more dangerous.  Too many possibilities for who they could be, but I could scan the collection of people that crowded the tables and counters, and I could eliminate those who were in groups with others, happy, clearly distracted by their own lives and their own things.

True. This would be more of a loner job.

I was pretty sure that the others weren’t that good at acting, at slipping into a role.

I found a spot at a counter by the stools, once I had my bacon sandwich and coffee.  The shop’s window showed a scrolling advertisement for the desserts and music.  I withdrew a pocket watch and spun it around with one hand, catching it before it fell.  I ate and drank with my free hand.

Let’s hope she hasn’t given up and left.

“You’re going to break that, if you keep abusing it,” a young woman commented.

Hello there. Would you perhaps be a rabbit with an interest in pocket watches?

“It’s one I keep for more rugged use,” I said.  “I’ve fixed it so many times I could repair it blindfolded.  Rabbit, I presume?”

Rabbit squeezed herself between my neighbor and me, leaning over the counter.  Her hands were trembling, despite her apparent confidence, and the corner of her lip was folded like she was chewing on it.  Her chin-length red hair was in her face, and yet she wasn’t brushing it out of the way.

This was definitely a risk for her too, plus they’re both in an overall stressful situation, so yeah… this is very understandable.

“Mr. Bird?” she asked.

“It’ll have to do,” I answered.

Love how neither of them seem to have any clue what bird he is.

She nodded, a tight motion.  “Hi, Mr. Bird.  You’re the only one who came.”

Thaaat doesn’t sound right. He was the only one who was supposed to come, so the nervousness plus specifically stating this… it feels like she’s being forced to tell him this by someone.

“I thought I might be.”

“Have you figured it out?” she asked.

What, the game?

“What?”

“What they did to us?”

I turned my head, studying her.  I could see the fear on her face.

Ah, the surgeries… yeah, that’s a bit of a weird one. I suspect it plays into the night phase primarily, but the Box did imply they have abilities — different abilities — in the day phase too.

“Invaded our privacy, our homes, they kidnapped us… but you’re not talking about that,” I said.  My eyes fell on her hands, which were still shaking.  “That’s not fear.  That’s a tremor.”

Skittishness for the Rabbit… And perhaps speed?

“I was born with that,” she said.  “I’m talking about something else.  But I can’t talk about it here.  They said they’ll punish us if the wrong person hears.”

I nodded.  “Want to go for a walk?”

I wonder if Rabbit is also the type to pull tactics like leaving trails one way, then going backwards a bit and heading off another way.

She bobbed her head, another tight, jerky motion.  Under her breath, she whispered, “F- fuck.”

I took my time getting my jacket and the remains of my lunch together.  We made our way to the door.

Fuck? Take it slow, I know you’re rabbit-themed but he just asked if you’d go for a walk. You’re not quite there yet.

Meanwhile it suddenly popped into my head what kind of bird Wesley might be, and looking up what that bird looks like…

A bird, after all.  A soft brown at the edges and forehead, white elsewhere, with a yellow beak.

I think Wesley is the Nightingale.

Known for beautiful and creative singing in the night, and consequently used as a symbol for poets. Also associated with the Greek myth of Philomela, who was raped and muted by her brother-in-law, got her revenge by getting her sister to kill her own son and feed him to his rapist father, and then prayed to the gods for herself and her sister to be transformed into birds (a nightingale and a swallow, with some uncertainty as to who became which) to escape the bastard’s murderous rage.

…what the fuck, Greece.

She whispered, “Why do you sound as unafraid as I feel afraid, Mr. Bird?”

He’s good at acting, even to himself.

“Not to worry,” I said.  “I’m very good at faking it.  So good I fool myself sometimes.”

At least he’s self-aware about it!

She nodded as we made our way onto the sidewalk.  I pointed to suggest a direction, and she turned.

“I guess that’s your particular talent?” she asked.

Acting? Among others.

“A part of it,” I agreed.

“Lying so well you trick yourself.  Not being afraid when you don’t want to be afraid.  That’s a good talent.  H- how does it hold up when you’re at gunpoint?”

Yeah, that’s not a suspicious question or anything, person who I believe may be doing things at gunpoint saying this right before the end of the chapter.

But judging by his behavior so far, I’d say probably pretty well.

An odd question, odd phrasing and timing.  I glanced at her, and she glanced down, furtive.

Her hands were jammed in her pockets.  The angle, the shape of the resulting bulge…

Dammit, was it her trap all along?

“I guess we’ll find out, Ms. Rabbit,” I told her.

It’s hard to take this line seriously as a cliffhanger, but at the same time I kinda love it.

(Maybe the gun is just a precaution, one Rabbit decided to bring into play because Mr. Bird / Nightingale / Dread Pirate Roberts practically admitted to being good at lying?)


End of Face… for now

Characters established, rules established to some extent, fun with carefully worded questions (which went a long way towards the characterization, too), Heart thoroughly on the back foot, and a Rabbit who might not have the best intentions for our Alice… Fun chapter. Not as fun as the first, but very good in its own way.

All in all, Face has a pretty solid setup, and some excellent characters to play with. I do wish there were at least one more chapter so we’d see a bit more of how this plays out in practice, but what we do have is excellent.

I particularly love Wesley. Quirky and confident and super relatable in some ways, watching him deal with both the mundane and the, uh, beastly, is very entertaining. Honestly this story could be just about Wesley, Roxanne and the kids without any of the mask stuff and I’d still want a continuation.

I’m glad to have checked it out. 🙂

See you soon for more masked Wildbow mayhem over in Worm!

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