“So they’re dangerous then.”

“No, not all of them.” Dr. Vellie Dee Antonacci spoke with authority, twangs of her formative years in the Mississippi Delta bubbling up when she grew excited. “Think of it like a virus. We tend to think of a virus as universally bad, when in reality the vast majority of them are benign or inconsequential–computers or human bodies.”

“But still requiring a living host.”

“Yes, and being functionally immortal,” Dr. Antonacci said. “But otherwise the analogy is only useful as just that–an analogy. Take this, for example. A memetic entity that was catalogued in 1967, one of the earlier ones in our records.”

A few clicks on the Institute’s computer, and the projection changed to an image of a child’s drawing with three eyes and three arms.

“Looks like something my Briley would draw,” laughed Thomas.

“Yes, and that is one of the reasons why it can be so hard to see memetics when they express themselves through the very young,” said Dr. Antonacci. “Of course, they can take the form of any organized, coherent information. Drawings, a melody, even a memory.”

She clicked, and the image was replaced by what looked like a high schooler’s notebook. Its margins were filled with the same three-eyed, three-armed entity, now drawn with a much more authoritative hand. Often, the doodles had advanced art techniques like chiaroscuro shading and graphite smudging for texture.

“This was ten years afterwards. Note how the expression is very similar, even though the subject has clearly learned more about art. This subject, in fact, later became a professional artist, which allowed the Institute a very thorough paper trail.

More clicks, revealing the triple-being in increasingly sophisticated renderings in the margins of a standardized test, as a part of a pattern fr textiles, as a background element in a children’s book cover illustration, and across lined paper. By now colors–a clashing and unpleasant rainbow hue–had been added.

“Why is that last one just on notebook paper?” Thomas said.

Dr. Antonacci cocked her head. “Are you sure you want to know the answer to that question?”

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From the time she could hold a pencil, she would create fantastic creatures in the margins of books, on napkins, and even carved into living wood. These demonic little characters didn’t just occupy her thoughts; they kept her company. With her family ever on the move, the dark fantasy that unfolded in pencil upon her leaves was her constant companion, for good or ill. For while the creatures were sometimes benign and friendly, with compassion in their claws and feeling in their fangs, at other times they were anything but. The fantastic demons were sometimes haunting, terrifying, and even maddening, but they and their minder brethren had one thing in common.

It was her obsession to draw things that couldn’t draw themselves. And these were things that needed to exist.

Thus she has found that her soul rests with art, from her earliest days in school, surrounded by kind and understanding souls and speaking to rats in eldritch tongues, to the harrowing time when the demons briefly brought her to a boarding school for wayward children. To do anything but art is monstrous, unfulfilling torture.

Her creations, her things that need to exist, relentlessly pursue their goals, regardless of the obstacles, even when it seems like they’re on a doomed quest. They fall in love so quickly and easily, but they have to devour the ones they love to be truly satisfied. Perhaps her heart is the same way; she loves horror and the fantastic, but her imagination brings things to life that have a powerful, vibrant need to be wanted. Some wanderers understand; they have that same incredible creative fire. Identities wrapped up in their ability to make art, they suffer the same agony of creation and ecstasy of making.

Whether seeking enlightenment and dark secrets abroad, crafting characters and campaigns for the twisted world of Dungeons and Dragons, or gyrating herself to a beat that only she can hear, she brings the same dark passion to every project she undertakes. Let her inner fires burn for your project; put her continued striving to improve to work for whatever fantastic purposes you have.

For her creations will always need to exist.

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I did not know
The stars’d aligned
Until it was
Well past that time

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“Masks are a hoax,” Cynthia said. “You can take it off.”

I shrugged in what I hoped looked like a helpless manner. “They make me wear it at work,” I said. “I’ll get fired if they find out I took it off.”

“Typical.” Cynthia pulled a long, slim cigarette out of her purse and lit it with a flower-patterned pink Bic. “But I get it. I’m not allowed to smoke inside, you’re not allowed to take your mask off. I’m not surprised that a liberal paper and a liberal university are both in on the scam.”

“Scam?” I said.

“Oh yes. The orders to close things? They’re using that Chinese virus as a trojan horse. First thing they did was close churches–government trying to squeeze them out. But did they close bars? Restaurants? Hell no, because the politicians are getting money from ’em.”

“My church back home gives plenty to our local politicians,” I lied. Hadn’t been to church since college, and even then it’d been for daring purposes. “Pretty scared of them voting too. Isn’t this a pretty solidly Republican state?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” sneered Cynthia. “But our governor’s a worthless potato, letting people bully him. The mayor too. I bet they’re both secret atheists. They oughta open the churches back up at the very least.”

“You think?”

“The Spirit will cover them and protect them,” Cynthia said. “It’s a test of faith, see?”

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Q: What do you call the strong desire to see pigeons?

A: Squab goals.

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A world in a fog
Lost amid sleepwalking
I stumble through a day
Sinking into hostile sheets
Wide awake
Is it the world that keeps me up
Or do I keep up the world
As crickets sing
And light fades
Into the west

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Join or Dye Furniture
Whether you want ready-to-use heirloom-quality furnishings or prefer to land the finishing blow yourself, Join or Dye has you covered. Fine local joinery, in both stained, upholstered, and naked varieties, has been its watchword for over three decades. Try one out, and you’ll agree: their chairs rock!

Play’s the Thing Toyshop
If you think that the best toys don’t have flashing lights, batteries, or wireless internet connectivity, you’ve come to the right place. All the shop’s toys are handmade in the grand santaclausian tradition and guaranteed to put up with decades of roughhousing and chaos.

Scoop! Creamery
This just in: Scoop! Creamery is a cool place until you fudge it up and have to split. A local favorite for decades, with everything from hand-dipped shakes to legally distinct copies of flavors from national brands, everyone has a soft spot for Scoop!

Vol-Au-Vent Fine French Dining
This tidy little Gallic bistro has been catering to sophisticate tastes since the 1970s. Reserve a table and get ready to receive the full brunt of French gastronomy; we’re talkin’ snails, veal, and everything in between. Be sure to leave room for dessert and try one of the famous “fin d’eclair” pastries.

Pollywanna’s Caribbean Cuisine
If you’re looking for tempting treasures from the south seas, then look no further than the fabulous golden horde that is Pollywanna’s signature fried fish. Plunder up a plate from the all-you-can-eat buffet, but be warned: it’s rated arr!

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City Hall
This impressive structure is from the late 1800s and was originally the pavilion of the River Heights Regional Progress Fair, intended to show off the sophistication of local industry at the end of the century. After being rebuilt in stone rather than painted paper-mache, it has served faithfully as the municipal building for over 100 years, except for the period 1954-56 when it was closed due to a one-two punch of black mold and potato bugs.

St. Kilda’s Church
There is no St. Kilda in the General Roman Calendar or the Martyrology, but the deacons of St. Kilda’s just say that proves the church is for everyone. The current edifice dates to 1880, replacing an earlier wooden church on the site that was burned down following a lightning strike. When asked if this was a sign of displesure from above, the then-minister replied that if they build a prettier church, it would be less offensive to the heavens. Indeed, the current building hasn’t been hit by lightning since opening across the street from City Hall, which coincidentally incorporates a lightning rod.

Graveyard
St. Kilda’s Churchyard features the final resting place of many of the town’s founders and luminaries, from the first mayor to the first street popcorn vendor. Rumors of buried treasure have led to occasional vandalism, and some of the oldest tombstones are enciphered, but that’s probably perfectly normal for a small-town graveyard, right?

Bowlsley Florists
Named after its original proprietor, long since passed away, Bowlsley mixes the old and the new like a fresh bouquet of pansies and Tudor roses. Its longtime success stems from an enduring eye for arrangements, a passion for peonies, and of course its signature heritage rose breed, Mr. Prickles.

French Flap
This charming booktique invites you to turn over a new leaf with its generous selection of contemporary authors, local favorites, and of course a mystery section loaded with an unknown number of genre thrills. If you feel the need–the need to read–and you prefer the novel idea of shopping local to sending your money to line the pockets of e-commerce billionaires, French Flap has got a timely tome for you.

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Le Clinique Chic
Just because you’re unwell doesn’t mean you have to be unfashionable, and Le Clinique Chic here to make sure that your recovery is as stylish as possible. Come and see why this is River Heights’ fastest growing medical practice, and the only one with a Michelin star.

Old Post Office Public Library
This former house of letters now houses belles lettres, with the dead mail office now given over to the works of dead males. With much of the original architecture preserved even after the post office left, this library is a real package deal. Come in today to get some stamps (on your date-due cards)!

River Heights Boardwalk
What better way to see River Heights than by strolling along its river heights? This chic and eco-friendly area rises to the occasion where other boardwalks, without either rivers or heights, are all wet.

The Barrel Fish Market
For the freshest fish, cleanest crustaceans, and curliest kelp, look no further than the Barrel. Stocked with sushi every Tuesday and Thursday, you’ll know the quality of the bycatch by its fresh odor! With seafood from small-time fishmongers all the way to the massive Happy Fugu zaibatsu, finding what you need is as easy as fish in the Barrel.

Pancake City
You’ll flip for the wide selection of flapjacks at this local rise-and-shine diner. Become a citizen of Pancake City and build a towering skyscraper short stack, or plot out a syrupy zoning ordnance on an award-winning* waffle. Open 24 hours for every meal from breakfast to brunch to breakfast-for-dinner.

*River Heights Breakfast Battle (formerly the Flapjack-Off), 1997.

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That explained the wild rumors, about aliens and assassins and other wild things.

Again typing, because there was no air left in her lungs to make the question: “How did Dr. Quiria die?”

“Suicide.” The database’s tone was cool, chilly. “Dr. Quiria had volunteered for many experiments to find a cure. Dr. Burton oversaw the procedures.”

That explained the marks, then, and the appearance of murder. He must have been truly desperate, to turn himself over to those butchers.

Ashtar’s fingers trembled on the keys. “Where is Dr. Burton?”

“Dome D, in his lab.” A pause, as data was collated. “He is alone in the complex.”

“No guards?”

“He has been abandoned by his guards.”

There was only one other thing that she could ask. “Am I infected?” she whispered in a breathy rasp.

A pause. “Insufficient data to determine at this time.”

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