Strawberry Smog
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« The End Has No End ||

A bang, a wave, and a rumble emanated concurrently from the center of Three Portlands.

The bang was a great, rolling crash, like a drum set that had toppled from a cliff. Everyone sleeping awoke with a shock, and everyone awake was greatly perturbed.

The wave was invisible to all but the most thaumically attuned. It was a cavitation bubble, the sudden absence of the most powerful thaumic presence in the city. As it passed, the Ways back to Earth sealed themselves, and rituals all across the city were torn in two.

Then came the rumble, an undulation in Three Portlands' brittle bedrock. Buildings shook, pummeling the streets with fallen bricks and shingles and chimneys. On one street, a city cable car was jerked off the tracks. It rolled over onto the cobblestones, and came to a crashing halt.

Down the way from the totaled streetcar, there was a large, squat building of glass and steel. The carefully-tuned blue ambient lighting in the windows was washed out by reds and languid purples reflected from the churning sky. The neon sign out front still shone in spite of the thickening air:


The bang, the wave, and the rumble each traveled through the building. They spread down the halls, through vacant waiting rooms, past the dream sauna, the neural surgery lounge, and an information kiosk advertising Induced Comacations™.

Circuits shorted, electronic displays faded to purple, and carefully calibrated psycho-surgical actuators began to summon handfuls of nuts and small, freshwater fish before zapping themselves out of order.

All of this registered in the core of the complex, a fortified vault guarded by dozens of interlocking failsafe mechanisms, designed just as much for what's inside as what's outside. Within, hundreds of miniscule levers, buttons, surveillance monitors decorated the walls, surrounding a single great piston topped by a perfect, hovering, asparagus green sphere.

In this sphere was a pinhole, a gateway to a space outside of the universe. In that space was a single being, and that being was Oneiroi.

Oneiroi surveyed all it could see: a video feed of the sky outside swirling into a cyclone, the urgent status of hundreds of suddenly severed subliminal tentacles implanted into paying customers, and an avalanche of social media posts of Three Portlands residents worried about the sudden earthquake…

Oneiroi recognized that this was suboptimal. While it had contingencies for every conceivable scenario to preserve its own existence, state of being, and market share, some scenarios were distinctly inconceivable and yet possible nonetheless. It seemed odd that the Mayor of Three Portlands would allow itself to be murdered, but Oneiroi was willing to run with that idea.

Oneiroi steeled itself, readying a particularly sharp quasi-tentacle to pierce the boundary between meatspace and pure information and get to the bottom of things.

The probe plunged into infospace, spraying a stream of advertisements and missing persons posters back into the vault. Oneiroi ignored them and dove further into the hole, lubricated by paltry excuses.

Infospace was sparse tonight. The probe pushed past rivers of texts to loved ones, phone calls severed by the power outages overtaking the city. It made a beeline for city hall's conceptual shadow.

There were at least two conscious beings inside the building. The probe chose the least conscious of the two and made an incision —

The probe found itself in the conceptual nucleus of Casey Malik.

Half-digested romantic comedies littered the floor. Tables were overturned, lying by the bony carcasses of high-stakes reality cooking shows.

Oneiroi made its way through the frontal lobe. There were signs of a struggle, and Oneiroi strongly suspected self-doubt was the culprit.

The probe tapped into a passing stream of sensory input. Outside, a tall woman had hoisted Casey's body into a fireman's carry, and was running down the hallway. Around her, the walls of Three Portlands City Hall were shriveling up and withering away, leaving caustic flakes of organic matter to fill the swirling sky. She peeked outside, noted that the deteriorating ledge was only a few meters above the ground, and prepared to jump.

At that precarious moment, Oneiroi realized it was not alone inside the mind of Casey Malik. A growling came from another entity within the sensory stream.

The probe turned around just in time to see the memetic worm pounce upon it, its tendrils searching for purchase on the concept of Oneiroi.

A tentacle batted the worm aside, knocking over a shelf full of miscellaneous worries, which splattered on the floor and were quickly absorbed by Casey's psyche. Oneiroi didn't have much of a mind to let this worm do any damage to the probe.

It was no use staying in this brain. The mayor was dead. A memetic worm, though… that might be indicative of something.

Outside, the woman leaped from the ledge. Inside, the worm lunged at Oneiroi once more, but it had already dissolved back into the noosphere of Three Portlands.

Hostile memes don't come from thin air, usually. Oneiroi ran its tentacles over the city plan. It felt something else.

That worm was not the only one of its kind in the city.

A hotspot of neural activity pinged the probe's radar. Oneiroi funneled itself into the street, to the vantage of a nearby newspaper stand.

The front page article of the Newscronomicon ("Resurrecting Print Media Since 2014") was a sordid summary of the homeless problem in Three Portlands. The inhabitants of the photographed shanty town only became more sordid when a mass of tentacles materialized in front of them. Oneiroi ignored the yelling and peered out of the photograph instead.

The street — the real one — traced the edge of Three Portlands' upscale business district. When the rumble hit, it seemed that most of the glass office buildings had been closed for the night. Even in the clamor and turmoil, the street was nearly desolate, lined by freshly-toppled trees no-one had heard fall.

But only nearly. A woman in a pantsuit jogged hurriedly down the street, the broken glass of dozens of shattered windows crunching beneath her feet. A nametag on her lapel read "Samantha Romain, Sales Representative, Redzone Security". A burly bodyguard trailed behind her, a suited thing wearing sunglasses over empty eye sockets.

She clutched a briefcase to her chest as she scurried. She had no destination in mind, only escape from the crumbling city, away from the pile of glass and steel that was once the headquarters of Redzone Security.

The bodyguard wasn't frightened, though. They knew just what to do. Around them, the neural topology of the vicinity bristled.

They reached into their coat and wordlessly withdrew a long-barreled handgun. They leveled it at the still unaware Samantha.

A flurry of neural activity erupted.

A glint shone from behind the overturned tree, and the guard turned their head towards it. There was a dark shape behind the trunk.

Before the guard could resolve the silhouette, it moved, rearing up in one motion and leaping forward.

The guard staggered back, but it was too late — the shape came down and pounded its fist into the guard's sternum.

The guard swung the gun at the shape, but their arm was held back. There was another figure behind them, this one seizing their forearm.

They squeezed the trigger, a sharp blast lodging the bullet in the cobblestone street.

Samantha jumped and turned around. Before her, she saw her bodyguard struggling against two women. The first, a short woman in a black coat, attempted to wrestle the gun from the guard's grasp. The gun that, Samantha now realized, had been pointed at her back moments earlier.

The other woman was tall and lean, and she was now grasping at the guard's face. She tore off their sunglasses and cast them down the street, where they landed with a crack. She then punched the guard right between their empty eye sockets.

Samantha was so engrossed in the alarming display that she didn't notice the third woman until she was only steps away. She wore a buttoned shirt and an eyepatch.

She held out her hand to Samantha, as if offering the chance to go far away from here. Samantha took it, and they started walking quickly down the street, past the newsstand.

The first woman kicked the bodyguard in the back of the knee, and the other jabbed them in the kidney. They fell onto the street with a thud, blinded and disarmed.

The two wasted no time in running after Samantha and the third.

All three of those interlopers had memetic infections identical to Casey's, Oneiroi realized. Oneiroi knew it was a small town, but it wasn't that small.

As it watched the bodyguard slowly clamber to their knees, the probe acknowledged that it had been dodging the real question, the great chasm that existed in senses literal, figurative, and all inbetween: what happened to the Mayor of Three Portlands?

The probe turned its back on the street and let the sepia reality of the newsstand disintegrate into thick-set font and pulp.

Oneiroi re-entered the noosphere.

All roads led back to City Hall.

The building that had previously teetered and swayed over Three Portlands Plaza was unstable no longer, in quite the same sense that a dying man was dying no longer when dead.

The central plaza of Three Portlands was littered with chunks of wooden rafters and flakes of plaster. A rapidly rusting spindly structure of rebar was overturned on City Hall's stone foundation, like the ribcage of a great beast.

In every direction, Three Portlands was unspooling. Roofs collapsed. Families huddled in alleys away from crumbling brownstones. Unmoored from the crust of the city, entire buildings drifted along streets like fifty-ton concrete icebergs. The whole city smelled of burning hair and wet plaster. In the sky, the red air spun, as if Three Portlands was a cauldron and one could gaze up at the surface of the swirling solution soaking the city.

Oneiroi ignored it all. What caught its attention wasn't the scene, but what lay beneath it. The hole the Mayor left.

The probe descended, and Three Portlands faded behind it. The substance of the world grew cold. The hole went all the way down, from Three Portlands to… something else.

Oneiroi became aware of this thing, and realized it was not alone.

The presence was static, but massive. It stretched upwards to infinity.

It regarded Oneiroi with an eyeless gaze, approached it with fiery apathy. A disregard so potent that Oneiroi almost ceased to exist.

It was intersecting Three Portlands at a right angle. It had crushed the Mayor. Oneiroi would be next. Then Three Portlands would curl up, like the petals of a closing flower, and combust.

The static presence enroached on the probe's concept, but Oneiroi was already recoiling, snapping back like a stretched rubber band.

It flew out of the pit, ignoring the void bubbles swelling in its stream of consciousness.

It tore its tentacles from each of its Three Portlands clients, leaving only a generic message highlighting the portion of Oneiroi Inc.'s waivers that declared the cessation of service in the event of an apocalypse.

It shut down each wing of the Oneiroi HQ, leaving the kiosks and slumberpods and freshwater fish in darkness.

It slid into the vault at the center of the building and wormed into the dimensional pinhole atop the pillar. Every part of its vast body retreated through the exit, away from Three Portlands and into the void between worlds. At last, Oneiroi was safe. Home, sweet home.

Behind it, Three Portlands continued to burn.

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