“We have a rather…existential target for you, Voelker,” said Grinds. “Not so much a who, or a what, but a why.

“You’ll forgive me, Grimes, if I ask for a little more than that.”

“That’s just it,” said the station chief. “We don’t have it. Every time we have encountered this person of interest, they have looked different.”

“So a disguise fanatic,” Voelker said. “Like Kaminsky. Hardly what I would call existential.”

“No,” said Grimes. “The differences in height, frame…too great to be a single individual disguised. Other than the fact that we’ve has a similar range of eye colors reported, and never a sighting that was not a female, there are no similarities.”

“Then how do you know it’s a single…thing?” Voelker snapped. “Jumping to strange conclusions in a world that’s strange enough and all that.”

“We thought of that too, that it might be a network, directed individuals. Yet the behavior we’ve seen, the modus operandi…the similarities in the way our operatives have been interfered with is too striking. It has to be some sort of individual, maybe even a gestalt.”

Voelker sighed. “You’re not giving me a lot to go on here, Grimes,” he said. “If they always look different and we can never tell it’s them before they interfere, how will I know?”

“The bird,” Grimes said. “The bird is always with her. Not always the same bird, but always white.”

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The singularity of a black hole is a point of infinite mass, inasmuch as a layman is capable of understanding it. But what many fail to recognize is that infinite mass is also, essentially, infinite information. For what is information but mass, the arrangement of elementary particles in a certain way?

In this way, as a black hole grows, as it devours and compresses, it also is accumulating more information. Distorted, perhaps, by its consumption and compression below the event horizon, but information nonetheless.

One imagines that from such a cauldron of raw and seething matter and information, some sort of gestalt may–perhaps must–arise. One imagines a cold and calculated intellect arising, one nevertheless driven and bound by a primal need to consume more matter, more information. Not for any imperitive, not for any reason, but for its own sake, because that is how it must be.

Thinkers had toyed with this notion for a generation before it was put to the test. The surprising thing was not that they were right. Rather, the surprise lay in just how approachable and yet unfathomable the intelligence turned out to be.

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“Hello, old friend.”

I sat heavily on the park bench. It was mossier than the last time I’d seen it, with more scars and more initials carved into the back.

“It’s good to see you again…good to be with you again.”

The trees rustled softly in the light summer wind. Many of those same trees had been there thirty years ago, when as a child I’d spent many a long summer afternoon there. A few had fallen or been chopped down, but the rest…they were just as they had been at the very beginning, in my earliest memories.

“Almost like time has stood still,” I sighed. If I lost myself in the sights, I could almost pretend that I was a 5-year-old again, forever young, unwearied by the passage of time. I could almost look forward on a life yet to be lived rather than look back on one that had already mostly unwound.

A silly sort of thing, I know. But even as the years pass more quickly, their absence is felt that much more keenly. Is it the act of a foolish old man, I wondered, to sit and quietly weep on a park bench at the memories of those days that seemed to last forever?

Whether it was or not, I was glad that the park was empty. I sat there, tears streaming down my cheeks, as I watched myself run off, hand in hand with friends, into the park that had been, that was, and always would be.

If only in memory.

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To Eyon’s surprise, they came across a small group of goblin arquebusiers amid the tall grasses, apparently reinforcements that had been thrown in willy-nilly. With a cry of “Ane, ctonb!” one of the goblins wearing the White Smile swung at Eyon with an empty and crudely-made gun. Eyon was able to bring his own sword up in time to parry the blow, and with a twist of his wrist he was able to hurl the gun out of the goblin’s hands.

Disarmed, it glared at him. “Go on then, ctonb,” it muttered. “Finish it.”

“No,” said Eyon. “I’ve no quarrel with you, good sir goblin.”

“Young master,” said Gob. “As Gob is sure the elder master already knows, you must follow through and do as this gob asks.”

“What? Why?” Eyon cried. “The rightful king must be merciful. King Eyon IV won’t be called a butcher, or a murderer.”

“Which is more a mercy, young master: to let this gob die in battle, keeping its name or even earning one if a witness survives, or being cast down and nameless in defeat?”

“It is the Code of the Gobs,” the disarmed arquebusier said. His comrades, all of them wounded, nodded, even as some whispered about Eyon’s reference to himself as king. “The gytoh would show no mercy in his sparing.”

“Just ignore them,” Gullywick said. “We need to get out of here, Eyon! We’ve no time to bother with these twigs!”

“Live on and fight another day,” said Eyon. “No one would think less of you or strip you of your name for bad luck.”

“The gobs are stained with the sin of their creation and must therefore earn the right to all which they possess,” replied the disarmed gunner. “Gobs must earn names and pronouns for themselves through their actions. Only gobs who have earned a name will be remembered to their families and to history. The Code of the Gobs.”

“The Code of the Gobs,” the other wounded repeated.

“I won’t do it,” Eyon said. “I won’t strike down an unarmed foe, goblin or not.”

“Then you force me to do what the gytoh refuses out of cowardice,” snarled the goblin gunner. He snatched up the lit match on his shattered arquebus and tucked it into the vest he was wearing. It had looked like armor, but up close it became apparent that it was a simple leather harness with metal tubes in it, each with a charge of powder and shot for the goblin to pour into his gun to make reloading easier. With the burning charge, he limped out a few paces and seized the leg of a passing Ioxan attacker.

A moment later, the charges on his chest detonated. Goblin and foe vanished forever in the explosion together.

“Mabl eyp hame tnbe lopebep, tog,” his fellows, all too wounded to do the same, cried. “Your name will be remembered!”

“What?” Eyon cried. “Why did he do that?”

“There is no time for that, young master,” Gob said. “The young master had his chance to act and he did not. We must get him to safety in the trees.”

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“Get back,” said Nigel, unholstering his gun. “I’m going to give them a taste of The Australian.”

“The Australian?” said Laura as she was hustled away. “Why does he call it that?”

As if in response to her question, the massive pistol in Nigel’s hand sputtered fire at their pursuers:


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“I just…I haven’t seen her in so long,” bawled Vakt the Rosy into his cups.

“There, there. Tinuviel’s just not feeling well after getting scratched up by a jackalwere in the middle of a cavern infested with gibberlings,” said Iffy the elf. “She’ll be down soon enough.

“She’s just so short…so sweet…so tiny…so…so…” Vakt began bawling again.

“I think you’ve had enough,” deadpanned Chanel the elven cleric. “How much have you had to drink already?”

“It’s just root beer,” Vakt sniffed. “House blend. Iazgu’s still making my first tequila slammer.”

“Maybe you should go a bit easy on the tequila slammers,” said Adenan the halfling.

“HEY!” barked Iazgu the Flayer, demon of the Abyss and chambermaid/bartender for the Demon Arms Inn. “I’ll not hear a word said against my tequila slammers! It’s a recipe of the abyssal realms, strong enough to stun a quasit, and it’s the only thing close to a real drink that’s been served here in 10,000 years!”

Creeping up on the clearing, they saw Mercury the bulldog in the midst of a crowd of howling gibberlings, not unlike the ones they had fought in Ransack Cavern earlier. He was being ridden bareback by a gibberling while the others hooted and cheered at the spectacle. For his part, Mercury seemed rather resigned to this, accepting it as just a fact of life: the sky was blue, the trees were green, and he was ridden by tiny hyperactive monsters.

Adenan grabbed one of the scruffy horrors by his hair and yanked him backwards. “What do you think you’re doing?” she growled.

“Riding! Fun!” squeaked the thrashing gibberling. “I know you! You killed Gus! And Gus Two! I’m Gus Four!”

“Let the bulldog go,” Adenan continued, as menacingly as any halfling could, “or I’ll squash you into jelly before I throw you in the river.”

“No! Not jelly! Jellied gibbs can’t get into gibberheaven!” The gibberling seemed to steel himself a bit. “But dog is ours. Has been forever.”

“No he isn’t.”

“Is too! Used to guard cave! Hatched him ourselves!”

“No you didn’t.”

“Don’t know where dogs come from!” the gibberling wailed.

The library golem was impassive. “You must return the stolen book and pay the fine, or your life is forfeit. The fine is 50 gold. Pay or die.”

Iffy raised her hands. “But my library has an interlibrary loan program with the Elderbrary,” she said in her most convincingly scholarly tone. “We don’t have to pay any fine if we return it!”

Clicking and whirring as it processed this, the golem demurred. “Very well. Surrender the Monster Manual and we will consider your hold lifted.”

Longingly, reluctantly, Iffy gave up the tome. The library golem inserted the volume into its book drop slot, whirred some more, and departed.

A moment later, Iffy the elf turned on Mr. Funderberger IV, who throughout the conversation had been trying to back into the tick copse of woods surrounding the meeting spot. “YOU!” she roared. “THAT BOOK WAS STOLEN!”

“I gave you a good deal,” he whined.


“What exactly did you have to do?” said Chanel the elven cleric. “You still haven’t told us how much sugar you had to give.”

“I will neither confirm nor deny a specific amount of sugar given!” Iffy roared. “But he’s gonna pay!”

Mr. Funderberger IV had quite enough; he made to bolt. Iffy, in an uncharacteristic show of physical prowess, tripped him with her staff.

Then, she proceeded to pummel him senseless.

“Let’s see how you like THIS sugar!” she screamed, drawing her dagger. Casting Phineas’s Phun Phoam on Funderberger’s head, she used her dagger to shave off his carefully coiffed locks. Then she took everything of value in his pockets, even down to his phony tin sword.

“I think you’ve gotten your revenge, Iffy,” said Adenan.

“Hardly!” Iffy continued. “Mercury! Bulldog! Get over here and piss on Mr. Funderberger IV! We’ll see how much sugar you get after that!”

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The seas had risen, but through some trick of construction, #226 resisted the wave action and the intensely corrosive salt better than anything else. The time would come, surely, when it too would topple and be borne off into the deep as its neighbors had. But even as the apartment blocks on every side of it had been swept away, #226 remained.

Officially, no one was allowed to go near it, much less live there, for fear of collapse. But nobody enforced that, either…for fear of collapse. #226 wound up being a haven for squatters, free spirits, and ne’er-do-wells who wanted to make a go at living off the land and fish.

That’s what the lay of the land looked like when Mina Umbeyashi appeared on the top floor one day, followed not long after by Carlos Ramirez on the bottom. No one saw them come, but within a week the sight of their laundry out to dry and their long fishing lines.

Within a month, they would leave their mark on #226 forever.

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