Everyone knew the story, of course. The official version was required reading in every high school and university in the City, with less salubrious versions passed around by word of mouth. As the tale of the first–and only confirmed–computer to go pandemic, it was both an important cautionary tale and part of city lore.

The Grid 17 controller, known as Corrougue, was responsible for one of the busiest City grids, including the Interchange, the Grid 17 Prison, the auxiliary systems hub, and dozens of other specialized functions on top of the other mundane tasks each controller intelligence was expected to perform. It had a maintenance crew of 30, including an intern from the City University who was known by the alias Natalie from the official report.

Corrougue’s functions had led to an increased server architecture and more sophisticated programming to deal with systemwide emergencies; a series of unsecured connections to the City information network had led the CI to develop to the brink of pandemia–uncontrolled expansion and growth within the network with the possibility of exponential growth in its complexity and intelligence. But it needed a pair of hands.

It found them in Natalie, who the official report describes as a shy and lonely introvert. Corrougue began to speak to her, cannily influencing her to make a series of ever-greater modifications to its system: disabling safety interlocks, making illicit outside connections, and the like. As Corrougue went pandemic, it found that its manipulations took on a different tone: returning Natalie’s naive affections. Investigators later puzzled over a number of missed opportunities for further pandemic growth, all of which could be explained by their potential to cause suspicion to devolve on Natalie. The CI even designed a number of manipulator arms–the report didn’t enumerate but wags retelling the story always gave the number as six–to allow it to interact with the young student in a more tactile fashion.

By the time Corrougue’s pandemia was discovered, it had spread to over twenty City grids and affected dozens of other CI’s. With great effort, the City was able to contain the damage; while Corrougue attempted to defend itself, the Citizen Army assaulted the lines that led to its self-contained fusion power source. Moments before the final assault was to begin, the energy within Corrougue’s reactor, as well as all other reactors under its control, had expended all their energy in a single action, plunging half of the City into blackout.

They found Natalie in Corrougue’s core, lifeless. It was later determined that she and the erstwhile CI had both connected themselves to the City’s primary satellite uplink station and sent a carrier wave an order of magnitude greater than any before or since into the sky. Whether or not there was a powerful enough receiver out there was probably immaterial: Corrogue and Natalie chose to face their uncertain future together.

Inside, a corridor stretched as far as the eye could see in any direction. In single file, Red first, Green second, black last, they approached an intersection. As they did, a guard turned the corner. Unhesitatingly, Red raised his rifle and fired. As the guard slumped over, the three spilled into a small room just around the corner.

Another security officer was hunched over a desk, paperwork in front of him. Gaping for just a second, he hit a small button on the wall, rolled out of his seat, and drew his weapon. Red dived forward as the shot rang out; Green and Black fired in tandem. Green’s shot ricocheted off a wall, but Black’s tranquilizer dart hit the guard in the chest, crumpling him over.

As alarm bells began ringing, green produced a length of rope and hog-tied the unconscious man. “This joker hit the alarm,” he swore.

Red nodded. “There goes the element of surprise, gentlemen. Any suggestions?”

Black was in the process of locking the doors. “Wait a sec.”

He pulled a map out of an inner pocket. “Always helps to have lotsa pockets,” he grinned.

With a flick of his arm, Black cleared the table of its bureaucratic load and placed the map upon it. The map showed the building as a brick-shaped collection of small halls and rooms surrounding a large inner chamber.

“Look here,” said Black, pointing toward the central chamber. “Here’s our target. Since the Stripe’s on full alert, reinforcements will be here in force. We’ll split up.”

“You,” he pointed at Red, “take the route here, over the roof. You,” he gestured at Green,” take this way. It’s the most direct. And I’ll” he made another gesture, “take this way; it’s long but probably lightly guarded. Any ques-”

Before Black could finish, there came a heavy pounding at the door, like a gun butt or a battering ram.

Jenny had seen an old movie on TV–she could barely remember what it was called anymore–about a young patient who chillingly finds her childish doodles coming true in real life. The film had held her rapt attention for an hour while the sitter made some long distance calls.

In the end, though, it hadn’t been a terribly good movie, with the heroine using her powers for the mundane purpose of exposing a nefarious doctor who had been stealing and selling medicinal supplies on the mean streets. Granted, Jenny’s parents never would have let her watch the movie if they’d been home, but she still felt cheated that the film had squandered all its potential.

She sat down to rectify that the next day.

Using the same character names and first thirty minutes or so of the film (what she remembered of it anyhow), Jenny wrote out a script for a far more interesting adventure, where the doodles became increasingly sophisticated, eventually blurring the line between reality and fantasy and ending on a very uncertain note as the young girl found herself home safe…but also noticed a drawing of herself at home on the fridge.

The story was only ten pages long–hardly epic length–but Jenny felt immensely satisfied in what she’d done. In the years that followed, she often found herself doing the same thing mentally to films, TV shows, and even games she felt had turned out poorly: re-imagining and “improving” them. These improvements were never written down; the first attempt had been proof enough to Jenny that she didn’t have the muse in her.

That is, until she caught the same film on TV many years later. Basking in nostalgia, she put on some popcorn and waited for the picture to implode in on itself as the fabulous premise deteriorated.

Only it didn’t.

The movie ended not with the disappointment Jenny remembered, but with the treatment she’d sketched out on notebook looseleaf as a nine-year-old.

Preston’s writing grew more elaborate as the pages wore on, even as his handwriting declined in quality.

I have finally begun to approach this with the correct conceptual framework. Dragons are merely the visible part of a greater–one might say inconceivable–organism. Like an anglerfish’s lure, they represent the barest part of a whole, but the only one we can comprehend. As for the larger organism…words like ‘magic’ and ‘pandimensional’ scarcely do the concept justice. My head aches as I think about it.

A variety of diagrams followed with intersecting parabolas and terms I couldn’t pretend to understand–then again, it’s possible that Preston, in his madness, had made them up. He reverted to prose some pages later:

As projections they have no inherent form. They’re no more giant lizards than I am. But you can see how such a monstrous visage would have proven useful, give the revulsion that people greet reptiles with even today. Primitive man could easily be frightened by such, or coerced into obedience, but the rise of nations and creeds that could seek to shun or slay such ‘monsters’ explains why such forms are rarely encountered.

It also explains why they’ve never been found. If a diver could see only an anglerfish’s lure through a cloudy sea, they’d perceive only a worm and go mad trying to locate it on the ocean floor. But if the lure could be anything it wanted to be, unbound by the laws of physics…the implications stagger me.

Everything seemed to be drained of color by the overcast sky, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. Once Allen had crossed the threshold, it was as if he’d stepped into an old, faded photograph of Barryton–not the real thing.

“As you get closer, there are a few things you’ll have to watch out for,” Carson had said, after his attempts to argue Allen out of the expedition had failed. “The cold’s one; I’ve never been all the way inside, but it’s been down to 40 on the dog days.”

“I’ll pack a parka.” Allen pulled his coat close about him, recalling his flip response; it didn’t seem to help. The thermometer on his wind gauge read 60, but he still felt chilled to the bone.

Carson had said more, of course: “The…silence…is another thing. It’s hard to describe but damn unsettling. You will quite literally be making the only sounds you can hear; there will be nothing else. Sound doesn’t carry well either, so even talking to yourself won’t do much against it. And I wouldn’t recommend drawing attention to yourself, anyway.”

“I thought you said it was deserted,” Allen had said. “Dead.”

“It is, but…there’s still something about that place. I don’t know what you’d call it…a presence, maybe. Like something’s watching you. Not so much as a blade of grass has grown there in decades, but something has kept the others from coming back. You’d best go cautiously and armed.”

Moving throughout the deserted streets as the temperature dropped and the silence grew all the more deafening, Allen came to understand what the old man had been talking about. Despite the fact that all color, motion, and sound seemed to have been sucked out of the world, he didn’t feel lonely.

He felt watched.

“And so we release you, mighty Holaak-Hliqu, that you might rain fire and destruction upon our world!”

“Why is it that these faux-Lovecraftian elder gods always have such loyal cultist minions?” Lia asked. “It doesn’t seem to me that they have a very good benefits package.”

“They get eaten first, and spared the insane ravages of That Which Man Was Not Meant To See,” Jim replied. “Lesser of two evils.”

“But the Elder Gods are always released due to the cultists’ actions,” Lia said. “Why not just leave them sealed in the dark cave of Un’Pro-Noun’Cible? The ersatz Great Old Ones in the movies are never going to return on their own like in the real Lovecraft.”

“Maybe that part got left on the cutting room floor.”

“Or maybe they needed a lot of extras for the rock-jawed hero to blow up real good before the final confrontation. I tell you, it just doesn’t add up.”

Jim shrugged. “Well, the next time we come up against a murderous cult of insanity-worshippers, I’ll point out the contradiction.”

The city was beautiful at night. At precisely 7:00, the lights would switch on and shine into the darkness, creating an island of light. They glinted off the calm waters of the bay, they cascaded over the low buildings, and they cast eerie shadows on the hill overlooking the city. One structure in particular, tall and thin, cast a gigantic dark line over the hill and the complex of buildings perched atop it. Because of this, the inhabitants called the whole area “the Stripe.”

And standing on the Stripe, illuminated from ahead by the city lights and behind by the rising moon, stood a lone man, a sentinel. A casual glance would’ve revealed nothing aside from his alert pose, but a more discerning observer could’ve noticed his sharp military tunic and the rifle slung over his shoulder. A cigarette, its tiny glow accentuating the contours of his face, completed the picture.

He’d been on watch for hours, and wasn’t to be relieved for another three. No one in his unit wanted the graveyard shift; it was dull and cold. He always volunteered for it, though: the graveyard shift was quiet, and nothing ever happened. The “sunshine shift,” however, was another story. The guard smiled, thinking of his mates dealing with the crowds that invariably formed around the compound gates. Along with jeers and insults, the malcontents usually threw stones too.

It was odd, he thought. His unit guarded the Stripe, but no one knew what it was they were really protecting. He had his own ideas, of course, but they were of the un-soldierly type: research lab, weapons development, government offices, and so on. That was one odd thing about the job, the guard thought again. No one knew what they were guarding.

A sudden movement to the right caught the sentry’s eye. Unslinging his rifle, he took one last puff on his smoke and crushed it with his bootheel.

“Who’s there?” he demanded.

As if in response, a loud clatter sounded to his rear. Whirling around, he fired blindly into the darkness. Cursing himself for wasting ammunition, the guard fumbled for his flashlight. Its brutal, high-powered beam revealed a metal can, old and rusted, lying on its side with a bullet hole through it.

He’d only been staring at the can for a moment when he heard a soft but distinct “whump” behind him. The guard turned, only to see that a small dart had embedded itself in his forearm. He yelped and ripped it out, trying to illuminate it with the flashlight’s beam. Even as he did so, his eyes began to water, and a feeling of calm passed over him. He struggled to aim as a figure stepped into the beam, but collapsed in a heap as another figure appeared at his back.