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Wild Cards

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He wasn't really a caffeine kind of guy, but this was the sort of morning where Nelson needed all the help he could get. His limbs ached, his eyes were bleary, and his head was still heavy with jetlag. He took a careful sip of his coffee and winced. This wasn't the worst Monday of his life. He knew that the tired feeling had come from a job well done, and there was some relief to that.

He made his way through the front doors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and waved politely to the security guard as he passed. He was actually looking forward to a day of filing. He’d suffered enough field work to last him a lifetime. Today would just be him, his nice warm office, and a stack of puzzles to sort through.

He passed a few employees carrying boxes and waved to them as well. It looked like someone was being moved into a different office. A promotion, or maybe a demotion? He passed a few others, sleepily admiring the contents of an open box as it was carried by. It must have been someone else from the puzzle division, because they shared Nelson's taste in themed decor...

It was only when he got to the hallway that he realized something was wrong. There was no way that somebody else in their building had the same Doctor Thinkorium brain model that he did. The pleasant warmth from his coffee had curdled into a twisting, anxious weight in his gut. The cup fell silently from his hand as the man carrying his prized possession walked past him and continued with the other men into the lobby.

He was glued to the spot, torn between the primal urgency to follow the man and get his stuff back, or get his answers at the source. He ran for the elevator and hit the button for his floor.

As the doors shut behind him, he felt a pang of guilt for the janitor that would have to clean up all the coffee that he'd spilled. His life may have been unraveling around him, but he would rather not spoil somebody else's day at the same time.

There were even more movers at the door when the elevator opened. Of course, now that he was wide awake, he could see that these men weren’t normal movers. They were agents. They were near identical; all decked out in black suits, black glasses, with slicked back hair and indiscreet earpieces. A chill shot down Nelson's spine as he sidestepped them into the hallway. They could have been the very same agents that he encountered in Scoggins. He ducked past them and ran for it.

He burst through the open door into his office, and by now it was nearly barren. The agents had torn through it like a swarm of sharply-dressed piranhas. The only people left in the room were himself, his superior, and a straggling agent who was taking down his posters. Nelson yelped as he watched the agent pull one, ripping the corners that were still stuck to the wall.

“Oh, Tethers. Didn't hear you come in,” the director said.

He sounded bored. Nelson wanted to scream. He wrangled his nerves back into some sort of composure.

His voice cracked anyway.

“D-director Jennings! What on earth is going on here?”

“Hm? Didn't you get the memo?” he asked.

“No!” Nelson said, sidestepping the last agent as he exited.

“Oh. Well, hrm. This is awkward,” he said, mustache twitching up into an emotion that Nelson couldn’t pin down.

A moment of excruciating silence hung between them.

Jennings cleared his throat, stating finally: “You’re no longer a puzzle agent.”

Nelson froze. “I- I’m-”

“Fired.”

The word didn't process right away. Nelson's brows knit in confusion. His thoughts slowed, trying to piece together each detail of the morning. The agents, the director, his empty office... He had been warned about this. He crossed a line back in Scoggins, and he had somehow never considered the consequences. He'd committed treason. He felt dizzy.

As he attempted to recollect himself, to say something, the stars aligned in a stroke of perfect, cosmic, comedic timing. The last agent had come back and literally pulled the rug out from under Nelson’s feet, leaving him to fall flat onto his back. All he could do was stare up in shock at the ceiling.

This was not how he wanted his week to start.


He needed to relax. And he had tried, in every way that he knew how. Tea hadn't helped. Soft, pleasant music hadn't helped. Even his favorite jigsaw-patterned pajamas hadn't helped!

Well, maybe a little, actually. They were his favorite, and they were comfortable.

But they couldn't comfort the source of the problem, the things going on below the surface. There was a nervous buzzing in his head and in his heartbeat. He knew what that was about. Unemployment seemed like a decent reason to be anxious.

What he couldn't place, and what worried him far more, was the headache. The steady, low thrum had clung to him for days now. It was there even before he had come back from Minnesota, so the plane flight couldn’t account for it. It had ebbed and flowed, almost invisible by this morning. Now it was back with a vengeance, leading him to turn off lights and draw the curtains around his modest home as he paced, trying to think of what to do next.

He was stressed. He had been stressed for a while. And now he was stressed about being stressed! It was an endless loop of self fulfilling prophecy with no way out.

He needed a break. Maybe being fired was a good thing. Certainly better than jail, he thought.

He collapsed face-first into his bed, muffling a despondent moan. Changing altitude from standing to lying down had made his brain hurt. He squirmed his way into a comfortable position on his back and sighed. He crossed his fingers together over his stomach and felt the rise and fall of his own breath.

He wasn't in any state to help himself right now. He would rest as much as he could today, and try again tomorrow. He’d start job hunting.

He painfully opened his eyes, scanning the bedroom. Like his office, it was filled with more puzzle-themed decor; bright colors and neoplasticism patterns. On his wardrobe sat a collection of trophies and medals, from chess matches and sudoku championships he had bested over the years.

He had always surrounded himself with the things that made him happy. He had built his career around it. What was he going to do now?

He shut his eyes, frowning as the headache dug deeper.

As difficult as things had become, he didn’t regret what he’d done to arrive at this point. He had destroyed something dangerous. He had ended a long series of disappearances. He had helped send those... creatures home. And, somewhere out there, he knew that a former astronaut and his wife were together, starting over.

He sighed, expelling the tension that had built up in his body. The headache abated by a fraction. His visit to Scoggins had felt like a lifetime ago, but he could still feel the physical toll. His legs ached from all the running. Maybe... his headache...

He barely had time to consider it before his thoughts drained, becoming muddy, slipping deeper...

But his sleep was dreamless and short. He woke, sitting straight up in his bed. What had startled him? He looked around the room. It had turned dark from the hours that had passed.

Nothing had changed. Nelson began to lay back down when he was violently jolted again by a loud bang. It crashed against the wall, knocking things off of the shelves and splintering through the wallpaper. A low rumble followed, something moving backwards... getting ready to charge again.

Nelson yelled, leapt to his feet, and ran for cover. He pressed himself as close against the wall as he could. He barely had time to brace himself before the second thunderous crash. The wall exploded, showering the room with bits of debris and broken belongings.

He cracked open an eye and gaped at the surreal sight before him.

A tank had smashed into his bedroom. Light poured in through the opening in the wall, casting a blinding halo all around it.

It was like no tank he had ever seen... not that he had seen many. It’s construction was odd, angular, front-heavy, and sported spiked treads. It lacked a turret, and was instead topped with a green, glassy dome. It was filled with glowing liquid and... something else. Nelson squinted against the glare, making out a small floating mass within.

The top of the dome popped open, spilling some of its contents onto the carpet. The tiny mass sprang out and landed triumphantly on his bed. Nelson could only stare at it, brows drawn in confusion.

“What in-”

“SHUT YER MOUTH, SOLDIER, AND LISTEN UP!” screamed the brain. “We got us a war on our hands!”

The brain didn’t have hands. It didn’t have a mouth. But it did have two little legs, and a pair of cartoonish, dot-like eyes.

Nelson drew his mouth into a flat line and continued staring.

“That’s BETTER!”, it barked. “But not good enough! What’re you doin’ in your PJs, private?! Why aren’t you prepared!”

“F-for-?”

“Who told you you could talk!”

“Sorry, I-” Nelson balked. “Permission to speak freely?”

“Hm. Granted!” the brain said. Still terse, but it sounded pleased.

“I’m a little, uhm, confused. What war?” he asked.

“The big one! The one we’ve aaaall been waitin’ for! And what’re you doing!? Lollygagging! Straighten up, soldier! It's time to get a move on!”

Nelson watched the brain stomp around his bed, transfixed. “I’m dreaming.”

“Darn right you are! Now get it together and WAKE UP!”

Nelson sat up, gasping.

He was in bed. The tank was gone. And his headache was back.

He barely had time to wonder about the bizarre dream before he was startled by another noise. Someone was banging on the front door. He groaned, running a hand down his face. It started up again, louder than before.

“I’m coming!” Nelson called, painfully rolling out of bed. He yawned, kicking on a pair of slippers as he made his way.

The banging didn’t stop. “I said I’m coming!” Nelson yelled.

He nearly tripped over the pile of boxes by the entrance. He opened the front door and flinched against the morning sunlight.

“How can I help... you..?” he asked, slowly.

There was nobody there.

“...Down here,” said a gruff voice, barely holding back its frustration.

Nelson looked down and staggered back. There was a very short, stout man standing right in front of him.

He was tan skinned and dressed in a military uniform. He had a long curling mustache, and a scar that traveled from his temple down his cheek, crossing over a glass eye in his right socket. He was striking, hard-featured. And visibly annoyed.

“Oh! I-I’m sorry, I-” Nelson fumbled.

The man inhaled sharply through his nose and sighed.

“Don't- worry- about it,” he hissed, strained. This clearly wasn't new to him, and he was quick to move on.

“Are you Nelson Tethers? The ‘puzzle agent’?” he asked.

“I... was. Uh, I mean-! Yes, I'm Nelson Tethers. But I was... Let go, recently.”

A guilty expression crossed the small man for a moment. He bit it back, returning to his grim professionalism. “Yes, about that. I believe we're partially responsible for that, actually.”

“We?” Nelson asked, brows turning upward in confusion. “Who are you with?”

“Er, right-” The man stood up straight, heels together, as though he were addressing a fellow brother in arms.

“Special Agent Morceau Oleander, at your service! I come representing the Psychonauts Headquarters. And... we offer our apologies.”

Nelson blinked. He wasn’t sure that he had totally woken up yet. Oleander took Nelson’s silence as an invitation to continue.

“A few weeks back, we received reports of disappearances and mass hallucinations in the area of Scoggins, Minnesota. Two of our finest agents were sent out to gather intel and find the missing people if possible. They didn’t find them. What they found was you, Tethers.”

“Me?” Nelson asked. He held back a wince as his headache spiked again. Where had he heard of the Psychonauts before...?

“Yeah! Not only were you going after the same information that they were, but you were miles ahead of ‘em! They could barely keep up!” Oleander said, his voice taking a tone of awe. “Literally, in some cases... They said you’d take off running into those forests like you had ‘em memorized!”

“Needless to say, we were impressed! ...But, er, that’s where some of the trouble is. See, we got so busy trying to figure out where you’d even come from that we didn’t notice your friends from the FBI til they were already there! They confiscated our agent’s findings- the same stuff they’d picked up from following your tracks, so... we, uh, have reason to believe that the FBI might’ve thought you were working with us.”

Nelson’s mouth dropped. “They thought I was a spy?”

“Can’t confirm, but seems likely. The Psychonauts and the FBI have a bit of history. And well, cover-ups like this... it doesn’t exactly paint the nicest picture of the US government.”

Nelson looked away, unable to hold back a disappointed frown. No, he thought, no it doesn’t.

“There’s also the fact that you yourself happen to be psychic, so-”

“I-? Sorry, what?”

“Psychic! An unregistered one, to boot! It’s no wonder they thought you were workin’ with us!” Oleander said proudly, placing his hands on his hips.

Nelson shook his head. “No, sorry- I’m not psychic.”

It was Oleander’s turn to be confused. He stared up at Nelson and laughed.

“What’re you talking about? We saw you!”

This was going too far. Nelson rubbed a hand across his temple, trying to smooth away the ache within. This whole situation was too surreal, too dreamlike. In his mind’s eye, he could still picture the hole in his bedroom wall somewhere behind him, leaving him vulnerable.

“Look, I don’t know what your agents told you, but I’m not. I know I'm not,” Nelson said.

“What, you don't b-...? You never knew? No kidding! Well look, kid, I’ve got the proof if you need it-” Oleander said, reaching into his jacket.

Nelson lifted his hand from his head, expression souring. He remembered where he’d heard of the Psychonauts. He’d seen the name on comic books. On grocery store shelves, wedged between sudoku magazines and untrustworthy newspapers. He’d seen it in conspiracy theories, heard it joked about in FBI hallways.

He always thought that he’d been under the radar at work. Had he really made so many enemies? Was he so deserving of such an elaborate prank?

“Sorry, but no thanks. I think I’m done,” Nelson said, reaching for the doorknob.

“But-”

“No! This is crazy!” he yelled, slamming the door shut.

Thunk. It hit something in the doorframe, stopping it short.

“Ah!” Nelson let go and stumbled back. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

His stomach dropped. He hadn’t hit the man’s face, or caught his foot in the door. There was a glowing green hand curled around the door’s edge. It was translucent, paw-like, with long, sharp claws.

The hand pushed the door open once again, revealing one particularly aggravated psychic agent. One of his hands was holding onto what he had reached for, a thin manilla folder with Nelson’s name on the tab. The other was pressed to his right temple, honing his mental focus. As he let it drop back to his side, the phantom hand dissipated.

“Crazy like a lunacy ray, Tethers?”

Oleander took one step forward and Nelson staggered back by five.

“Psychics are real,” he said with a bite, “-whether you like it or not! And there are plenty of people out there who’d want to turn that kind of weapon against us!”

Nelson’s heart raced, not only at the display of very real supernatural powers- but at the fact that Oleander seemed to have heard his doubts plain as day. In fact, he even seemed to catch on to Nelson’s fear... Something changed in the way he looked up at him. A new understanding. He stepped back.

“Look. I get that this must be hard to believe, but it's the truth. See for yourself,” he said, tossing the file down at Nelson’s feet.

Nelson bent down to pick it up, not entirely taking his eyes off of Oleander. He took a quick glimpse at what was inside- photographs, reports. It looked legitimate.

“HQ didn’t just send me down here to say sorry, you know. They wanted to offer you a position in the agency,” Oleander said, sizing Nelson up with a glare.

“I...” Nelson said, looking back down at the file in his arms. “I don’t- Can I look this over, first? I need to think about this...”

“‘Course you can. But the way I see it, you’ve only got two ways to go from here. Either you keep it to yourself, forget this whole thing- Or you man up and use those powers to do some good! The world’s full of weapons like that ray you destroyed. We could use somebody with your experience.”

Nelson met his eyes, suddenly feeling self-conscious for how disheveled he looked. He was still in his pajamas and baggy-eyed from restless sleep. There were boxes of his former office resting by his feet, untouched since yesterday morning.

“I’ll think about it,” he repeated with a small nod.

Oleander made an affirmative grunt and turned on his heel to leave. Halfway down the steps, he stopped short and removed a business card from his jacket pocket.

“Call us when you’ve made up your mind,” he said, flicking it back in Nelson’s direction.

The card caught on a gust of wind that carried it directly in front of Nelson’s face. It hovered in the air for a few moments until he reached out and caught it.

It was a very professional card. On its front side was the name of the organization and a phone number, written in a glossy white ink that seemed to glow against the card’s surface. Its backside was emblazoned with a logo, a floating pink brain surrounded by three green crescent shapes covered in strange symbols.

Nelson looked up in time to see Oleander hopping into his jeep. If not for the existential shakeup that he’d just experienced, he may have laughed at the definitely-not-compensating-for-anything monster truck wheels. It drove off with a screech, leaving thick tracks in its wake.

Nelson stood there at the doorstep for some time, until the sounds of the jeep rumbling away in the distance were overtaken by the tranquil quiet of the morning. Normalcy returned to the world around him. Birds were chirping, sprinklers hissed, and someone was mowing their lawn the next street over. He wished that he could feel properly involved with this pleasant suburban peace, but he couldn’t. Not while he was still clutching a file full of papers that were about to reshape his sense of reality.

He took a deep breath and sighed. It would be better to deal with this now rather than later. He gently pushed the door shut with his foot and headed for the kitchen. He needed some tea.


Nelson sat cross-legged on the floor, hands to his lips, as he stared down at the assortment of evidence laid out before him. He’d set everything up on the crossword-patterned rug in his living room, placing each paper and photograph in the lined rows as best as he could fit them.

To his left, he had set out the official Psychonaut documents of the Scoggins mission. In front of him were half-filled forms and registration for him to complete should he accept the Psychonaut’s invitation. And to his right he had placed all of the photographic evidence, captured both from security cameras and candid photos of him taken in the field. (Which was unsettling, to say the least.) Some of the security photos hadn’t developed correctly, either overexposed or muddy and dark. He couldn't figure out why they'd bothered to include them.

Down by his hip, he had set a notepad and a tape recorder. He didn’t need to keep track of anything for the sake of the government anymore, but his tools helped him concentrate. To his far right, just out of arm’s reach, was a mug of peppermint tea. He didn’t want to risk accidentally tipping it over if he reached for something.

He was feeling much better now, having showered and eaten since his nightmarish whirlwind of a morning. The headache was light now, easy to ignore. He was dressed in his usual work uniform: navy blue slacks, a light blue button up shirt, and a tie. No need for the jacket.

He had read everything. Now he just needed to get his thoughts in order. He reached down for the notepad first. He wrote two headers on separate pages: The Psychonauts and Scoggins. Glancing over the layout of papers again, he steadied himself and reached for the recorder.

He cleared his throat, clicked record, and began. “Nelson Tethers, personal log. Today has been... unusual, to say the least. I’ve been offered a job among the ‘Psychonauts’. They seem to think that I’m psychic, like them, but-”

Click. He paused, frowning.

Click.

“Well, I’m not sure. I never had any reason to believe so until now.”

He stopped the recording and reached forward, grabbing some of the photographs and the Scoggins files. He set them before his crossed legs and flipped to the Psychonauts page on his notebook, nervously tapping his pencil against the first line below the header.

He wrote his first bullet point.

Spies

Click.

“Let’s start from the top... The Psychonauts had been following me. They were tracing my steps during my last visit to Scoggins. They saw everything. Or... at least, I think they saw most of it.”

He rearranged the candid photos before him, setting them in chronological order based on his memory and the clues in the images. They all seemed to be from the same two days... Most of them were grainy and zoomed in, taken from treelines or across the street. Some were even taken through windows. It sent a chill up his spine. Was it better or worse to know that his paranoid feelings of being watched were true?

He switched to the paperwork instead, busying his mind with what they found, rather than how they found it.

“These people clearly had more resources than I did. They were in correspondence with their other agents. They verified information and even ran a couple of background checks. Pretty impressive investigation skills for a group that claims to have “history” with the FBI.”

He paused the recorder again and wrote another bullet:

Enemies of the government?

He would have to look into that later. He tried to withhold any judgment, especially since he was likely under the same classification.

He thumbed through the case file again, scanning the pages quickly. They had more info on the astropsychologist Olav Velhaven, before he had gone off to study (and vanish) in the Sasimy woods. They even found the barest mentions of a failed, unnamed NASA mission that must have been the Hermes II; and a subsequent news story about a “shooting star” that flew low over Scoggins.

There was a background check done on him, but it didn’t turn up much. He had always kept a low profile. The most prominent thing they had found was a newspaper clipping about the reopening of the Scoggins Eraser factory a few weeks ago, and it didn’t even mention his name. He clicked record again.

“Their findings seem to have hit a bit of a dead-end as soon as those other FBI agents showed up. Some of their work got confiscated, I’m sure, but this report also mentions things that I don’t seem to have...”

‘See attached’ where there was none to be seen. If he had to guess, the Psychonauts probably had everything else that wasn’t here... including one detail that had made his heart drop.

“...it also mentions some evidence regarding the missing people. My suspicions were correct, they’re dead.”

Click.

He paused, wanting to say something more, but he couldn’t find the words. He set the recorder aside and rubbed at his eyes. He half-heartedly flipped to the “Scoggins” page and wrote:

missing = dead

Nelson got up from his place on the floor, picking up the mug of tea as he stood. All of the papers were starting to get mixed up on the carpet. He took a long sip and sighed as the warmth flushed through him, pushing his headache back into the dark.

Nearly a dozen people were dead. More than that now, right? God, had he ever bothered to see if Dr. Versteckt had made it back to his campsite? Had the Psychonauts identified his corpse too?

He shuddered, recalling the night that they had gotten lost in the forest. It felt like a nightmare. Every aspect became increasingly surreal as he tried to recall it. Wandering through the woods by the light of a full moon, trying to find the lost home of some ancient forest gnomes. Being separated in an instant, finding the astronauts... Still in their space suits, still by their crash site, untouched by time or space or logic. But worst of all was the mere glimpse of the remains he had seen there, scattered bloody clothes and skiing equipment...

And then he had been... attacked? But...

His eyes widened, simultaneously taking in the jigsaw of papers on his floor and staring straight through them, into nothing.

How had he survived? What had he missed?

He nearly dropped the mug, spilling a few drops on the pages below. He set it far aside and knelt back over the papers, picking up pieces from each stack and rereading them all. Something wasn’t adding up.

He flipped through the security photos again and his heart stopped. What he had mistaken for a blurry, darkened mistake was actually... Himself. It was a photo of him lying unconscious in the snow at night.

This was the closest picture that the agents had taken of him by far. He could even make out the vaguest details of his face, slack and exhausted. All of the other images were so distant, but this was more than close. It was a sudden invasion of personal space. And yet, here in his hands, it also felt like the first tangible proof he had of the agent’s existence.

With shaking hands he reached for his recorder again, never taking his eyes off the image of his prone form. His fingers fumbled to hit record, but the resounding click urged him on.

“I... The Psychonauts saved my life. That night, when I found the crash site in the woods, I... I remembered running into those astronauts, I blacked out... and I woke up in my hotel room. I never had time to think about how I got there. Why didn’t they reach out to me then?”

Well... Of course they couldn’t, he had still been with the FBI at the time. And by that next morning, the other agents had already put a halt to their work. It would have been too risky to make contact then. But the fact that they had stepped in the night before... He couldn’t say that he trusted them, not yet, but he no longer feared them.

Granted, the idea of psychic, shadowy agents following his footsteps was still completely terrifying, but he could at least understand them now. He would have done the same thing! Maybe that was why they had brought all these photographs along... to show that they had done more than simply follow his investigation. But what else did it prove, aside from their rescue? ...Hadn’t Oleander said that they had “found him”?

His eyes wandered and fell to the registration papers. Once again, a missing piece fit into place. His headache was regaining a foothold.

“Augh, I don’t understand! They think I can help them, but I’m- I’m not psychic!”

Was that really what this was all about? He groaned. Every answer was just piling up more questions.

He dropped everything and reached for the application forms. They read like an unpleasant mixture between government registration and medical paperwork. One sheet even resembled a list that one would fill out in a doctor’s office, but instead of symptoms and illnesses, it was filled with psychic abilities. Pyrokinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, premonitions... Just reading it made his head spin.

Someone had highlighted different sections of the registration pages. The application was straightforward; showing the places he was supposed to sign or fill out, but the markings on the powers list didn’t make sense. When he had first glanced it over, he thought that it might have been dividing up different kinds of powers, or something like that... but there were only three highlighted, and they were all over the place.

Telekinesis, mental firepower, and... reverse hypnosis?

Was he supposed to check them off? As ridiculous as it sounded, something about it made him feel uneasy.

He picked up the rest of the photos again, scrutinizing each carefully. The agents hadn't given him any mistakes, everything was in here for a reason. He pulled out the most obviously strange one, an image from the security camera outside the Scoggins police station. It was nearly blank from a blinding white glare that had overtaken most of the picture.

He pulled out the other three images that had come from that camera and laid them in order of their timestamps. There was one of him approaching the police station, one of him standing before the heavily locked door, and one of him entering the building, chains and barriers left discarded on the ground. The order seemed right, but where did the glare fit? The light had made the timestamp illegible.

He squinted at the muddy gray shapes at the picture’s edge. He could see his shoes in the middle, where he was standing in front of the door, and he could barely make out the faintest trace of the chains in the corner. He set the photo down between the photos of the door being locked and the door being open.

“... Oh. Ohhhkay. I- Um. ”

Well. That. Explained that. He stared down at the arrangement of photos, jaw falling slack. He had blasted the tangle of chains apart with his mind, apparently.

“What the hell?” he gasped, practically laughing. His brain was spinning with pain and delirium.

The light had come from him. He was looking at a picture of his own mind melting steel in seconds. And he had been standing right there when it happened!

He looked at the list of powers again. His heartbeat was racing, but he was starting to feel strangely disjointed, like he wasn’t really in his body. He just needed to keep going, finish his work on autopilot, and worry about himself after. He needed to solve this.

Mental firepower. That was one off the list, but what about the other two? He flicked through the other pictures, looking for more clues, more missing memories. There were no more strange lights, no mysterious floating objects, so he stopped and went again, slower.

There was another of him at the police station, but it was taken through the window. He was standing in the middle of the darkened office, the photograph barely catching him because of the large furniture that was pushed in the way. He remembered that. He remembered feeling watched, and wanting to cover up the windows, but now he couldn’t remember how he had done it- The couches and file cabinets were bigger than he was!

Ok, telekinesis then. This picture didn’t catch him in the act, but it was the best explanation he could think of.

Reverse hypnosis though, he couldn’t even imagine what that meant- What was the opposite of hypnosis? Telling the truth? There were so many photos of him talking to people.

He came upon another photo taken through a window, into the lodge of the Brotherhood of Scoggins. It looked like he was talking to the leader of the brotherhood, Bjorn. Nelson was shining a penlight into his eyes... And Bjorn... he looked terrified, his eyes glassy and skittish.

He was hearing voices. The whispers. Nelson had snapped him out of it.

Nelson’s body sagged, clarity returning to him now. He felt completely spent, his voice weak and barely audible by the recorder on the floor.

“How on earth- how does somebody go this long without knowing? How did I manage to do these things and not remember them?”

His living room looked like a tornado had blown through it. He picked up the tape recorder and sighed. He would have to go through and cut out all the dead air, he was usually so good about starting and stopping correctly. He cleared his throat and continued.

“I don’t have an answer yet. I think... I think I need to talk to them, at least. Maybe they can help me with these gaps in my memory. And if I can help them too, then... I might.”

Click.

Chapter Text

The muffled roar of the engines filled the plane with a droning hum. It drifted heavily through the air, pulling Nelson into the gentle clutches of sleep. He jerked himself straight in his seat to keep himself awake.

He didn’t know how he could be tired at a time like this. Well, no... he did. It was because of all the toss-and-turn sleep he’d been dealing with back home. Each attempt had only become more frustrating and desperate. Come to think of it, he hadn’t slept properly in almost a week. If not for the circumstances, he would have drifted off to the plane’s siren song in a heartbeat. But he had to be more professional than that. After all, this was something of a job interview.

Nelson straightened his tie and smoothed out his suit. He peered over to the front of the plane, but its pilot- the sole other member aboard- was not paying attention to him. His eyes wandered over the rest of the cabin. Everything screamed of style and modernity. He had never ridden first class before, but he had to assume that it looked something like this. The seats were placed spaciously apart, and there was plenty of room to move about the cabin. He couldn’t find a single hard edge throughout the interior of the plane. It all swooped and curled in decorative, circular shapes. The chairs floated lazily in the air like bubbles. He glanced back to the front, at the holographic screens that hovered at the pilot’s fingertips. It was all so futuristic. And hard to believe.

Taking in the scope of his circumstances was making it easier to wake up. He fished the memo book from his pocket and flipped back to the pages he’d started a few days prior.

The Psychonauts

  • Spies
  • Who followed me?
  • Enemies of the government?
  • Am I?
  • Brain Dream

Scoggins

  • missing=dead
  • Astronauts dead?

Psychic powers

  • Telekinesis X
  • Mental Firepower X
  • Reverse hypnosis X?
  • Can’t do it
  • ASK THEM!

He closed the book and rubbed at his eyes. He’d had no luck in trying to practice his own psychic abilities at home. And he was very, very grateful that nobody had been around to see it. However, he did make sure to tell the Psychonauts about it over the phone.

He told them how nothing had felt different from before; how he hadn’t noticed the gap between not having powers, suddenly having powers, and then not having them again. They didn’t seem concerned, but it didn’t stop him from worrying. Was this normal? Well, normal by psychic standards?

Nelson picked up the folder laying on his lap and opened up to the registration papers. The signatures and print were all where they were meant to be, but he still wasn't sure about how he’d filled out the list of abilities. He’d checked off the ones they’d suggested, but had marked his control over them as “very poor”. “Practically nonexistent” wasn't an option.

Despite his apparent lack of skills, he had also checked off another ability: Premonitions. Maybe it was a stretch, but he had no other explanation for the strange dreams he'd had before and during his time in Scoggins. And after that dream with the brain in his bedroom... He wanted to chalk it up to coincidence, he really did. Coincidences didn't keep him up at night. Coincidences were safe.

But he couldn't bring himself to disregard things just because they seemed impossible. Even if it scared him, even if he didn't want to know, he had to be careful. Being caught off guard could mean being dead.

“Are you alright, darling?”

Nelson jumped.

The pilot was staring at him.

He swallowed and offered a weak smile. “I'm fine?”

“You don't sound sure,” she said kindly.

Her gloved hands tapped at the controls and the plane made a soft chime as it settled into unmanned autopilot. She rose from her chair and floated toward him. Nelson tried not to stare, but all he could think to do was look at his shoes.

She settled into the seat opposite him, leaning forward with interest.

“You can tell me,” she said in a conspiratory half-whisper. “I won't bite.”

He looked up to meet her gaze. Her eyes were warm and inviting. Her hair fell in long, swooping tresses down her back. Silver earrings jingled about her neck and bracelets hung loosely around her gloved wrists. Her clothing was as stylish and upbeat as the decor around them. She seemed perfectly at ease and in her element. Nelson looked down at the file folded in his lap and cleared his throat.

“It's just this new job. I'm a little nervous, that's all.”

“Well, don't be,” she said. “I know you'll do fine.”

He ran his thumb along the edge of the folder, not quite meeting her eyes again.

“I’m, uh, guessing you read the report then?” he asked.

“Even better,” she said.

She gestured for Nelson to lean forward and he did, cautiously. She placed her hand beside her mouth and whispered again. “I wrote it!”

Nelson sat back, eyes wide. “You?”

She grinned. “I thought you knew!”

“Well... I did think it was strange when you hugged me at the airstrip, but I didn't want to say anything.”

She laughed joyously. He couldn't stop himself from laughing with her, swept up in absurdity of the whole thing. This wasn’t how he pictured the agents in the paperwork.

“I... I guess I should properly introduce myself, then,” he said with a suppressed laugh.

“Hmm. Yes, I think so,” She said, recomposing herself.

He straightened and held out his hand with a smile. “Hi. My name is Nelson Tethers. And you are?”

She took his hand, giving it a firm, professional shake. “Special Agent Milla Vodello. But please, call me Milla. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Agent Tethers.”

“Ah... former agent,” he corrected.

“I didn’t mean FBI,” she said. “What did I tell you? You’ll have no trouble getting this position. Sasha and I have already put in a good word.”

His smile fell fast. He should’ve been glad to hear it, but-

“You don’t believe me?” she said with a sly grin.

“No, I...” he said, frowning. “Well... It's just a little hard to believe. N-not that you've spoken well of me, just the... ‘me being psychic’ part. I haven’t been able to do any of the things you reported in Scoggins since then. I’m basically a dud.”

Her eyes widened. “What?”

“Milla, I didn’t even know I was psychic until I read this report.”

He opened to his registration forms and handed the file over. She read it in silence and he wished that he could sink through the floor.

No, wait. That would just drop him out of the sky.

“Oh, darling. No wonder you were nervous!” she said. “But you know, this isn't an uncommon thing. We've recruited plenty of agents with little- even no control. You're in good hands.”

He blinked. “Really?”

She nodded and handed the file back.

“If it helps... I didn't know how to control my abilities when I was first recruited, either! It can be... jarring to find out all of these things at once, but it will get easier. I promise.”

Nelson made a small hum of agreement, nodding.

“How did you find out?” he asked.

“How to control it?”

“No, I mean... How did you find out you were psychic?”

Milla's playful attitude vanished.

She looked pale.

“Sorry-” he blurted. “You don't have to answer that.”

She smiled weakly. “It's alright, dear.”

The plane’s controls chimed.

“Maybe some other time,” she said, her voice soft. She stood and walked back to the pilot’s seat.

Nelson wanted to smack himself. He made a mental note to not ask any questions like that again. It wasn't like he would have had an easy time answering it, either.

He could hear her speaking into the headset up front, relaying their position to the ground control at headquarters, "The Motherlobe". He glanced out the window and sighed. The world below them was distant and blue.

There were more trees outside than he was expecting. The technology they flaunted made him think that the organization would be stationed in some affluent city, but apparently not.

The longer he looked out at it, the more uncomfortable he felt. He wondered if he was having second thoughts about the Psychonauts, but that didn’t seem to be right.

His balance tilted out from under him, as though the plane had suddenly tipped onto its side. Staring down at the trees below, Nelson was struck by a chord of fear that he'd never felt before. The forest reached up at him like an angry ocean and his thoughts were consumed by terror. It crescendoed into a bolt of pain that struck deep into the back of his skull like an axe.

He pulled away from the glass, and the feeling was gone. The world was stable again.

He stared into the middle distance of the plane in a breathless stupor, trying to recollect himself without catching Milla's attention. She hadn't seemed to notice any of it. From what he could see through the windows (without looking directly, just in case), the plane hadn't tipped. It had been nothing but his own vertigo.

But what had caused it? Motion sickness? Jet lag? Sleep deprivation? ...A previously unknown fear of heights?

He placed one hand over his pounding heart and felt it thrum its way back into a steady rhythm. He took slow, even breaths through his nose and tried to force himself to relax. His throat burned. The initial stab of pain may have faded, but now he was left with an unpleasant dull headache in its wake. He was having trouble shaking them lately. It might take a whole day for this one to go away, but if he was lucky it might pass before his interview.

He needed to calm down. He would feel better once they landed. It was probably just his nerves.

“Still nervous?” Milla called from the front, pulling her headset off.

“I’m fine, I think,” Nelson answered numbly as he sank down in his chair.

Mind reading... He didn't think he would ever get used to it, or at least not comfortable with it. There was no sense of privacy.

“Sorry, dear. I didn't mean to intrude,” she said, clearly intruding again but at least sounding apologetic about it. “You're giving off a bit of an energy. I couldn't help but notice.”

“...Oh.”

Oh no.

“I didn't catch much of it, if that helps,” she said hurriedly. “But I thought you should know. This sort of thing is common with inexperienced psychics, especially when they're not feeling well...?”

Her words took an upward tilt, mirroring his own confusion. He didn't have a clear answer, but he didn't want to come across as a jumbled mess either.

He could picture his thoughts like a cloud that had been drifting away from him, but now he tried to imagine it coming back to his body. He corralled his nerves like he had learned to do with his breath and with his pulse. He strangled it down with gentle concentration and sighed.

His headache refused to budge, but the lingering panic was gone.

“Just... motion sickness and stress,” he said, sounding more sure with each word. “It might've been something I ate this morning.”

The explanation seemed to be enough. Milla looked back and smiled sympathetically.

“Well, the good news is that we're almost home. Hold on tight, we're going to be dropping altitude soon, ok?”

He nodded, wiping sweat from his brow as she returned to the controls. “Thank you, Milla. “

The plane began its descent and Nelson noted that it felt nothing like the earlier drop.


The Psychonauts were different from the FBI. Very, very different.

The lobby bustled with agents coming and going. Some talked amongst themselves in small groups while others strode onward to their next task. Maybe he was imagining it because of the supposed psychic powers, but he could almost feel electricity in the air around him. It was difficult to not become completely engrossed in people-watching.

He tore his eyes away from an agent levitating over a small set of stairs and turned to look at Milla. She was a few feet away, still deep in conversation with two younger agents. He had missed most of their discussion, but it sounded like they were working on a long intelligence mission and they wanted her opinion on what they should do next.

He couldn't help but be mesmerized by her effortless social skills. She was more than a mentor or a coworker, she was an honest friend to these women. It seemed like she had known them both for a long time. The three of them smiled the whole way through their conversation despite the somewhat serious subject at hand.

The front door to the lobby opened up behind them, and Nelson was temporarily blinded by the rays of sunlight bouncing off the quarry and straight into his eyes. He winced and turned away, gritting his eyelids shut until the worst of the sting had faded. He opened them cautiously and groaned. Why couldn't it just go away already?

He stepped away from the others and made his way further into the lobby, paperwork in hand. He couldn't really go anywhere while Milla was busy, and he didn't want to rush her. He moved to a darker edge of the room and hoped that he looked like he belonged there.

That didn't seem to be very difficult, as there was no singular ‘look’ for any of the Psychonauts that he could see. Not only did the agents dress in a wide range of clothing styles, but he was honestly shocked by the diversity of the people themselves.

They were all adults, aged from their early twenties and well into seniority. They seemed to come from a variety of different national backgrounds. He could even hear scattered conversations in other languages around the room.

He had never had anything to compare it to before, but the vibrancy of the Psychonauts made the FBI headquarters feel incredibly lacking. He had largely kept to himself during his time there. There was never this much intermingling between the different departments, and certainly no casual joking in the lobby or clothing that spoke of each individual’s personality.

The Psychonauts were not tied to any singular way of life, it seemed. They weren't just agents of the world, they were participants in it. Their lives informed their ability to help people. And if they were all as kind and engaged as Milla had been, then he was certainly in good hands.

Nelson exhaled, releasing the air that had caught in his throat.

Maybe he was getting ahead of himself, but he hadn't felt this passionate about working since he had first joined the FBI. He just hoped that he could be what they were looking for.

Something hard clapped him on the shoulder and spun him around until he was eye-to-eye with a blonde haired man.

“Quick, pretend like you’re talking to me!”

Nelson gaped. “I- What?”

“Perfect, just like that!”

The man released his grip on Nelson's shoulders and shifted into a relaxed, conversational posture. He rested his right hand on his hip while the other gesticulated loosely in the air as he began talking about -

“And it really made me realize, yknow, how underappreciated it is as a genre. An art form, even! Sure, it’s cheesy sometimes, but any movie genre can be. It’s just, for some reason rom-coms get this low-brow reputation-”

-Romantic comedies?

Nelson didn't say anything, but the words were clearly written across his face.

What the hell?

It took him a moment to process what was happening, and he was still left with no idea of what to do about it. All he could do was stand there dumbfounded while the strange man held a one-sided conversation in his direction.

“-And that ending? What a tearjerker. But, a happy tearjerker! It’s in my top 5, easy-”

He was a younger guy. Bright eyed, with a clean smile and long wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looked like he’d seen a lot of sun. His suit was bright blue with red trimmings down the front, the edges of the lapels, and the lining of his cuffs.

He was doing a very convincing job of seeming like he knew him, to the point that Nelson briefly wondered if they actually had met before. But that thought was quickly dashed as he watched the man peer over his shoulder. There was no break in the flow of conversation, no falter in the friendly facade; but it clued Nelson in to the fact that the guy thought they were being watched.

As if he hadn’t had enough worries about that lately.

He tried to remain calm, but the whole situation was getting more bizarre by the second. It was probably best to stay where he was and wait for the man to leave. Maybe Milla could come bail him out of this.

“-I personally prefer the sequel to Hearts in Twain, but most people think the first one’s better. I dunno, what do you think?” the man said, looking expectantly at Nelson.

He had never seen either of those movies. Why did this guy need his participation? What was this about?! The longer he waited, the longer the pause stretched out. He bit the bullet and went for it.

“I, uh, I like the first one best. It’s the one that makes you care about the characters in the first place, so... It’s harder for the next one to compete with that.” he said.

The other man grinned. There was a pleased glint in his eyes that made Nelson feel nervous.

“Yeah, that’s a good point! But-”

A high voice yelled out across the din of the lobby, cutting his point short. “GUYBRUSH!”

Nelson, along with half of the other agents in the room, turned to see a very frustrated teenage boy storming in their direction.

Nelson turned to the stranger at his side. The guy... ‘Guybrush’ looked guilty as sin for flash second.

Ah.

Even as the boy beelined in their direction, Guybrush had jumped right back into his romcom spiel where he’d left off. He was pretending to be too engrossed in their conversation to notice the younger agent.

It was a hopeless plan, and it was falling apart right in front of Nelson’s eyes. The only thing that was halfway selling his lie was the acting. Within moments the teen was standing right beside Guybrush, fuming silently with his fists on his hips.

He was no older than 18, red-haired, bespectacled, and obviously fed up with this harebrained bullshit. Nelson grimaced in guilt.

“-it’s really cute! Elaine thinks it’s hokey, but-”

The boy cleared his throat loudly, glaring daggers at the back of Guybrush’s head.

“Hm?” He turned around to face him, smiling in fake-innocent surprise. “Oh, hey Wally!”

“Threepwood. I need your files on the Bayview mission. And your status report on the Thornburton case! They’ve been due for weeks!”

Guybrush’s smile twisted askew at the oncoming tirade, and Nelson took a half-step away from them.

“You can’t keep going off and coming back with no updates. We need to know what you’re doing out there! ‘Cause what we’ve been hearing isn’t good- collateral damages, unaccounted costs- What did you need a trampoline and a wooden nesting doll for, anyway?!” he said.

Guybrush nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. But it's under control! I’ve got it all written up in my dream journal. Can't you just give me a minute?”

He side-stepped and tossed an arm around Nelson’s stiff shoulders.

“I’m clearly busy catching up with my good pal-” They stared at each other blankly, “...Ned.”

Wally glowered, clenching his teeth. “Guybrush...”

“Look, I’ll get it to you before the end of the day, OK? Promise! You should go take a coffee break in the meantime. I think you’ve earned it!”

The boy ran a hand under his glasses, trying to wipe away the dark circles. He grimaced.

“Fine. But you’re not leaving this base without those reports done, you hear me? ”

Guybrush grinned and gave an OK with his fingers. “Read ya loud and clear.”

Wally shuffled off toward an exit, defeated. As he turned a corner and vanished from sight, Guybrush let Nelson go and dusted off his shoulder.

“Phew! That was close. Thanks for the help, uh... not-Ned. ” He shrugged and smiled a newer, honest grin. “I can tell I got it wrong.”

He stared back at him in surprise. “You were close. It’s Nelson.”

"Nelson, huh? Why does that ring a bell...? Hey, you’re not the new agent they’re hiring, are you?”

Had word about him really spread? He shuffled the paperwork nervously in his hands.

“It’s nothing official yet, but... Yeah,” he nodded. “I think so.”

“No kidding! I heard about you! You’re the puzzle guy!”

“That’s me. Uh, shouldn’t you...?” he trailed off, pointing in the direction that Wally had gone.

"Oh, don’t worry about it. I really do have it handled! He’s just a bit of a worry wart, poor kid.”

Nelson could relate.

“Anyway, it’s great to finally meet you!” Guybrush said, beaming. “I’m Guybrush Threepwood, mightyyy... uh, Psychonaut!”

A fittingly bizarre introduction for such a bizarre name. Nelson thought he’d been mishearing it the whole time. Guybrush held out a hand for him to shake, but offered the left hand instead of the right. Nelson faltered for a moment and reached out.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Gu-”

He missed. Nelson looked down at their hands in confusion.

“Uh, sorry...,” he mumbled and tried for it again.

His hand whiffed past Guybrush’s without making contact. He tried once more, slower, and watched his hand pass through flesh and bone like air.

“Augh!” Nelson flinched back with a yell. His papers landed in a flurry across the floor and Guybrush laughed loudly.

Milla excused herself from the other agents and began walking in their direction. “Guybrush! Don't do that to people!” she called from across the room.

He was getting in trouble with everyone today, apparently. Milla started to pick up the scattered documents with telekinesis, and Guybrush stooped to pick some up with his right hand. Nelson watched in horror as the left hand faded away like a mirage that had finally been witnessed head-on.

“Sorry, do you know how often I get to do that?” Guybrush laughed. He gave the loose papers to Milla and reached into the breast of his jacket. He pulled out a small white sock and a large silver pirate hook with a golden cupped base. He slipped the sock over the empty wrist, and adjusted the latched base until it had found its proper fit.

“Too often. One of these days somebody is going to faint!” she said.

“Yeah, but not Nelson here,” he said, gesturing with his hook. It turned on a ball joint at its base, rotating fluidly. “He’s an FBI man! I’m sure he can handle plenty. Right, buddy?”

Nelson struggled to find his voice. “H-how did you…?”

“Hallucinations! Or illusions, if you wanna make it sound less creepy.”

“Guybrush is very talented,” Milla began, sounding slyly unimpressed. “He is good at influencing people's perceptions. But he should know better than to use it for things like this!”

She punctuated the remark with a light bat against his shoulder with the papers. Guybrush cowered as though he had been struck.

“OK, I get it! Sheesh!”

“Can... everyone here do that?” Nelson asked, still a bit shaken.

She shook her head. “Not quite to that level. At best, some of us can sort of.. suggest an idea to people. And even then, only if they're open to it. But that's not an issue for Guybrush. His suggestions are nearly always accepted.”

Guybrush shrugged. “Oh, shucks.”

“Is it just visual hallucinations, or more than that? I thought I felt it earlier.” Nelson asked, touching his shoulder.

He was having an easier time keeping himself together by asking questions. It made him feel more grounded. He rubbed the back of his head and discreetly searched for the most sensitive point of his headache. His skull felt tender.

“Hey, I’m surprised you noticed that!” Guybrush said. “Yeah, just about all of my illusions feel real. It’s kind of the same thing as moving stuff around with telekinesis. It’s not that complicated.”

To showcase, Guybrush put his fingers to his temple and concentrated on the open air between them. A golden light appeared and shifted into the rough shape of a human hand. This one lacked the realistic appearance of his earlier prank. It was translucent and warm like a soft, incandescent light bulb. It reminded Nelson of the sickly green claw that Oleander had summoned at his doorstep.

It hovered in Nelson’s direction and poked him square in the chest. He looked down only to be flicked in the nose as it shot up and Guybrush made a ‘boop!’ sound.

“Oookay, that's enough of that.” Milla said, stepping between them and gently shooing Guybrush away. He stepped back with a chuckle.

“Alright, alright, I'll get out of your hair. Don't you two have somewhere to be, anyway?”

“Yes, about that…” Milla said, looking sidelong in Nelson's direction. “It seems there's been a bit of a delay.”

“What's wrong?” Nelson asked.

“We're still waiting for a few more agents to arrive for your interview. It seems that some of them are having a hard time getting back.”

Probably because of all the trees, Nelson thought. He frowned, surprised by his own reaction. It was sudden and didn’t really make any sense. Thankfully the others hadn't seemed to ‘hear’ it.

“Uh, how much longer will it be?”

“A few more hours,” she said with a sigh. “I’m sorry for the wait, Nelson. I should have checked with one of our more forward-thinking agents before I brought you all this way.”

Nelson stopped her, shaking his head. “No, no, that’s ok! I’m fine with waiting.”

Maybe he could find somewhere to close his eyes and get rid of the headache… Being sedentary for a few hours sounded like a great idea. Milla seemed to brighten a bit.

“Yes, maybe we can make the best of it… I’ve heard there are a few agents who were hoping to see me today, I could catch up with them while we’re waiting. If we have enough time, I might even be able to show you around the Motherlobe!”

“Orrrr I could give him the tour while you're doing that?” Guybrush offered with a wave. “Two birds, one stone?”

“Oh, I-” Nelson’s response died in his throat as he spotted the pleasantly surprised look in Milla’s eyes.

“Why Guybrush, that’s a great idea!” she said. She sounded like a teacher congratulating a clever student.

Nelson withered internally. He did not want to go wandering around an unknown facility with a pirate man who could make him see things. But he couldn't think of a polite way to turn him down now, not without revealing his true desire for rest, and the inexplicably shaken state that he’d been in for the past hour. He didn't want to give off a nervous first impression. He remembered Milla’s psychic reading in the plane, and made sure to keep his thoughts (and his pain) close to himself.

“Sure.” he managed. “It would be good for me to get a better idea of this place…”

Milla nodded, seemingly satisfied with how this had all turned out. Nelson felt a silent pang of betrayal. He had hoped that she would guide him away from this sort of situation, and now he’d been fully handed over to it.

“Wonderful! I will have someone come and get you when the other agents have arrived. And Guybrush?” she asked, turning to him.

“Yes?” he asked, smiling innocently.

“Behave.” she said with a laugh. Before she left, she stepped forward and gave Guybrush a tight, affectionate hug.

There was a short moment of eye contact between them before they parted. Nelson watched the quick, subtle changes of facial expressions they shared. Two times for Milla, three times for Guybrush. And just as he noticed it, it was gone, and she departed with a smile.

Mind reading.

Something worried and sick was coiling in his gut. It was prodding at his headache. A reminder.

Calm. He needed to be calm.

This was his only shot.

“Ready Neddy?” Guybrush asked with a grin.

He nodded, feeling a slight beading of sweat down the back of his collar.

“Lead the way.”


After what felt like an hour of wandering and incessant one-sided chatter, Nelson was beginning to truly appreciate what a bad idea this had been. His headache was getting worse.

Any changes in light or sound were creating a rising tension in his brain. If he turned his head too suddenly, or was jostled into a different direction by his not-so-helpful tour guide; a sharp, blinding stab would strike deeply into his skull, like a knife into a butcher’s block.

But Guybrush had been right about one thing: He had been an FBI agent, and he could handle quite a bit.

He was resolved to make it through today without falling apart, and he had plenty of experience in keeping his composure. Even among the FBI, he had been told that he had an unnaturally quiet disposition. It was unlikely that Guybrush would be able to notice his discomfort, especially since they'd just met.

He was also mindful of the “energy” he had given off on the plane earlier. As he had done before, he used the mental visual of a cloud circled around his head to help keep himself grounded and (hopefully) unreadable.

He didn’t slump or wince as they walked through winding building. He simply watched as Guybrush explained every minute detail of each room to him, offering small “mhmm”s and “I see”s where appropriate. At times he would close his eyes for a few seconds longer, take in a slow breath, or allow himself to zone out when the tour discussion drifted off into a tangent.

It was happening more frequently as they went on. In fact, he felt like he was learning more about Guybrush than the headquarters.

He gathered that Guybrush had worked here for a long time, or at least had a lot of psychic experience. He liked anything pirate-related, obviously, but he didn’t bring any further attention to his pirate hook or how he got it. He had a strange eye for details and had memorized things in the building that were either bothersome or useful. (“Avoid this water fountain, it’ll get you in the eye!” or “If you get the chips out of the E4 slot on this machine, it gives you two bags! But don’t tell anybody else, ok? Don’t ruin this for me.”)

The strangest thing that Nelson was picking up on were Guybrush’s social skills... if they could be called that. It reminded him of Milla, but it was as if the friendliness only went one way. He knew everyone’s names; but most agents didn’t greet him back, and the ones that did had misremembered his name. Some people even gave Guybrush a sour look before they ducked into their offices. The negative reactions were worrying, and even made Nelson feel a bit embarrassed.

Considering how they’d met, he could understand why other people might not tolerate him. Maybe he’d made a joke that had gone too far, or his personality was too abrasive. But Guybrush didn’t seem to notice... Was he ignoring it, or was he genuinely not catching on?

Guybrush came to a halt in the middle of the hallway, his stream-of-consciousness chatter ending abruptly mid-sentence. He stayed like that for a moment before raising his fingers up to his temple.

Nelson froze behind him. Had he heard all of that?

No... Thankfully not, judging by the wide grin that spread on Guybrush’s face. He suddenly bolted down the hall ahead of them, leaving Nelson in his tracks.

“Hey, wait!” Nelson didn’t have enough time to catch up, and only managed to jog a few steps before stumbling back into a walk. Running was a no-go in this condition.

Nelson groaned and rubbed his forehead. He was grateful that Guybrush had already turned the corner and couldn’t see the unrepentant pain in his body language. It was becoming more difficult to cover up. He was tempted by the idea of cutting his losses and asking for help, or even delaying the scheduled interview further.

But it felt so unprofessional. And these were psychic agents, what would they think of him if he couldn’t handle a headache? It’s not like he was going to be running around or doing anything extraneous, he’d probably just have to sit there and answer some questions.

He took a deep breath and relaxed his posture from his head to his toes. “Come on, Nelson,” he muttered to himself, taking one step at a time.

There was an excited commotion going on in the direction Guybrush had run off to. His overly loud voice was intermingled with another man’s, a relaxed baritone. Aside from Milla, this was the first time he’d heard someone respond to Guybrush in a way that wasn’t perfunctory. His tone even sounded positive.

Nelson slowed his walk and let his fingers trace the walls of the hallway. He listened ahead as the conversation grew clearer.

“So where’s the big guy?”

“Ah, he won’t be here til tomorrow,” the other man answered cooly. “You know how he is. Always busy.”

He had an unmistakably spanish accent.

Guybrush laughed. “He’d better be careful! One of these days he’s going to work himself to bone!”

“Yeah yeah, har har.”

It must’ve been a private joke. Nelson could smell the faint burnt-sweet smell of cigarette smoke nearby.

“So, they find somebody to deal with you, yet?”

“Actually, yeah?” Guybrush said, his voice sounding surprisingly candid. Quieter.

Nelson stopped mere inches from the edge of the next corridor.

“There’s a new guy they’re evaluating later today. Sasha thinks he might be worth a shot.”

Evaluated? ‘Worth a shot’? ‘Deal with you’?!

Nelson got the swooping sensation that he’d missed something big.

Guybrush’s tone took an uptick again. “I was actually showing him around a second ago!” he chuckled, “But I, uh, kinda left him back there. Hang on, I’ll go-”

He needed to find out what exactly was going on before this got out of hand. As if it hadn’t already! Nelson quickly turned the corner and stepped into the next room. It was a slightly wider space leading off into more rooms and hallways, a bit like a lobby. The decor was made up of the usual sparse office fare, a few large potted plants and bland paintings. But the room wasn’t important.

What really caught Nelson’s attention was the skeleton standing next to Guybrush. It turned its skull to look at him, blowing a plume of smoke out between its teeth.

“Hey, speak of the devil!” Guybrush cheered.

Nelson froze. Whatever he was going to ask had completely vanished from his memory.

Guybrush gave a sweep of his hook between the two of them. “Manny, this is Nelson; Nelson, this is Manny!”

Manny regarded Nelson.

Nelson regarded Manny. He was dressed in a white dress suit and black bow tie, a striking complement to the gaping darkness between the creases of bone.

Manny gave an acknowledging tip of his head. “¿Cómo estás?”

Nelson should have said he was fine. He should have stepped forward to shake his hand. He should have held it together a little while longer.

Instead, he swayed and fell backwards like a plank of wood. He was unconscious before he’d even hit the floor.


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


It was cold. His whole body ached.


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


“Easy, easy.” Manny said softly. He helped Nelson up into a sitting position and guided his back to rest against the wall. “You hit your head.”

Nelson struggled against the light in his eyes and the horrible pounding in his brain. His eyesight had gone completely fuzzy. He could barely make out the soft impression of Guybrush standing behind the skeleton next to him. The dark, gaping holes of Manny’s facial features were nightmarish in his altered vision. Nelson shut his eyes and groaned.

“You alright? How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.

Nelson grimaced and looked again. It was hard to make out the white bones against the white suit. Reality took another grip into him and he shuddered.

“You- You’re a-” he mumbled weakly.

“Yeah, dead. How many am I holding up?” he asked again.

Nelson squinted, unsure. “It's not a trick?”

“No, I'm not an ass.” Manny said dryly, sending a quick look over his shoulder at Guybrush.

Nelson wanted to laugh, but the huff he made was more of a sob. The pain was all-encompassing. It was as if the injury to his head was seeping down into his heart and out to his heavy limbs. He took a deep, wavering breath and tried to look once more. His vision softened and sharpened alternately as he tried to focus on Manny’s bony hand.

“Three.” he mumbled, shutting his eyes in exhaustion.

This was worse than any headache he’d ever known. He reached a hand up to wipe the sweat off his forehead. The slight darkness that passed over his eyelids was such a relief that he brought both hands up to darken his sight entirely. He used the last of his strength to sit up and curl in on himself, and rested his head against his knees. He could feel Manny stand up and step aside to huddle with Guybrush.

Nelson’s perception of his surroundings was dwindling. When he tried to focus on anything other than the pain, everything was blotchy and abstract, like a thermal scope that had gone out of focus. His point of consciousness was a bright red burst of writhing agony, but the other two were like soft gold and blue lights in the dark. They sounded like they were far away.

“He’s not doing good. This might be something serious.” Manny said in a hushed voice.

“What, like a concussion?” Guybrush said nervously.

Manny nodded no, dim light trailing in the motion. He reached forward and took Gubrush’s hand. With his other, he reached toward Nelson’s curled body.

The bolts of pain that hovered over Nelson’s mind shot toward Manny’s outstretched palm like lightning to a conductor. The jolt burst through him and into Guybrush, and they both let go of the connection quickly.

“Oh, ow!” Guybrush gasped, sounding both shocked and relieved. “It’s just a migraine!”

“Just? This might be a migraine, but it sure as hell isn’t anything normal. Where’d they find this guy?”

“Same as usual, a ditch in the woods.”

Lights surged as Manny punched Guybrush hard in the thigh.

“Ow, hey!” he whined. “I wasn’t kidding!”

Manny sighed, and the blue light dimmed. It took him a moment to respond, voice quieter than before. “They sure know how to pick ‘em, huh?”

Silence stretched between them.

“What are we going to do?” Guybrush asked.

“Do either of you,” Nelson muttered suddenly, “have painkillers?"

He wasn’t used to the sound of his own voice under that level of pain. It sounded strangled.

“Yeah?” Guybrush said, immediately kneeling to his side. “Yeah, we can probably get you some of those. Manny?”

Manny took in a breath before answering. “We can. I’m just not sure how much good it’ll do him.”

He gestured loosely as he spoke, and walked over to a nearby ashtray to snuff out his cigarette.

“This feels like one of those... ‘sleep for a day' kind of things. And if we want to get him the strong stuff that will kick in faster, we’ll have to sneak em out of the infirmary.”

“No,” Nelson coughed, waving a hand dismissively. “No, we’re not doing... that.”

He was hoping they wouldn’t have to get anyone else’s help, but it disturbed him that Manny had immediately jumped to taking the painkillers. Asking was out of the question, but stealing was completely unthinkable to him. Manny sighed.

There was another pause as the three considered their options.

“You know, we could...” Guybrush looked up to Manny, tapped the side of his own temple and whistled two quick notes. “Pop in?”

Manny snorted, and Nelson distantly wondered how he was able to do that. In fact, how was he able to talk at all?

“That’s a stupid idea. If he’s got an evaluation later, they’re going to notice-”

“Yeah, and they’re gonna notice that he’s got a super migraine, too. Lesser of two evils, Manny! Besides, if I don’t touch anything, nobody’s gonna-”

“Hold-” Nelson started, raising a hand weakly. “Hold on... What are you talking about?”

He chanced a quick glance up at them between his pain-tightened eyelids. They looked at each other, then back at him.

“They’re going to enter your mind.” Manny said, failing to sound casual. “Just to take a look around, that’s all. Make sure you’re not a serial killer or anything like that.”

“They’re- Wait, like mind reading?” Nelson asked helplessly.

“No, no, it’s a bit more than that,” Guybrush cut in. “Imagine your brain is a place, they’re going to look around to see you’re not hiding anything. It’s like a really in-depth background check!”

Nelson’s mental pain flared and zapped the other two again. They jumped, and Manny even took a surprised step back.

“Jesus,” he muttered.

“Sorry,” Nelson said, covering his face again. “Ok, we... Ughh.”

He felt sick to his stomach.

He had underestimated what a job interview would be like with these people. He had underestimated his headache. He’d even underestimated himself... and everything he was apparently capable of.

He couldn’t leave now. He couldn’t fix this alone.

But by the sounds of Guybrush’s suggestion, and Manny’s reaction, their help might just make everything worse.

“It’ll be quick.” Guybrush said immediately. “I’ve done this plenty of times before, honest.”

He doubted it.

“I won’t mess with anything. I’ll just find the source of the problem and clear it out! You’re new to this whole thing, so it might just be something in your mindscape that isn’t settled right. They won’t even know I was there!”

Nelson scrubbed a hand over his eyes with a grimace.

He didn’t like this at all. But he was running out of options.

“Ok.” he muttered.

He reached a hand out blindly, and Guybrush helped him to his feet.

“But we have to be quick, I- I don’t think we have a lot of time left.”

“Oof, yeah, that’s right. Somebody’s gonna come looking for us any minute now.”

Guybrush looped Nelson’s arm over his shoulder and shifted so he could rest some of his weight against his side.

“Oh, Manny?” Guybrush asked sweetly.

Manny groaned. “What?”

“Think you could keep an eye out while I’m in there? Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes!”

There was a considerable pause before Manny finally answered, “Fine. But you owe me.”

“Duh! Always.” Guybrush said cheerily.

Nelson could barely stand as Guybrush dragged him into a nearby room. The lights were off, and the darkness was so soothing that he sighed audibly. He slumped into an office chair like jello.

Guybrush wheeled a chair opposite him and sat down, while Manny kept watch through by crack in the door. For something that was supposed to be so straightforward, they sure were acting shifty about it. Nelson looked around the small room blearily, surprised to find that his eyes were having an easier time adjusting here.

Guybrush reached into his jacket and fished out a small block of wood. It looked like a door that had been knicked off of a doll house. He set his fingers to his temple and began to levitate the door into the air. He glanced at Nelson and frowned.

“You haven’t seen one of these yet, huh?”

Nelson didn’t want to shake his head. He hoped the blank stare was an answer enough.

“Well, don’t worry about it,” he said, floating it through the air. It landed softly on Nelson’s forehead and stuck there, like a magnet to a fridge door. It felt cold.

“Just relaaax, close your eyes, and it’ll be over before you even know it. You might not even be there yet.”

"What?"

The door opened.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Something was dragging. He could hear it scraping against the ground.

He was freezing, his feet worst of all. Icy needles were cutting against the back of his heels, getting caught under the leg of his pants and soaking through his shoes. He was being pulled. Arms were hooked under his shoulders.

Nelson tried to struggle, but his movements felt sluggish and heavy. The dragging stopped and he slumped forward.

He was released and started to slip to the ground, landing softly on his knees. The ground was covered in drifts of hard, tightly packed snow that bit through his clothes.

Something warm and heavy was draped over his shoulders and he was lifted again. The dragging continued, but he couldn't fight against it. His body fell limp again, consciousness slipping back into the ether.

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 

"Psst! Hey, time to wake up!"

Guybrush smacked the round end of his hook against Nelson's cheek, startling him out of his apparent sleep.

"Did it work?" he gasped.

Guybrush's smile was wry. "I, uh, think I should be asking you that. How's your head?"

It was completely clear. The pain was so distant that he could almost cry.

"It's gone!" he said, bringing a hand to his forehead. "How did y-"

Manny shushed them both. "Sasha's coming."

"I'll tell you about it later," Guybrush whispered. "Nothing exciting."

Guybrush reached over and flicked the lights on. Nelson was relieved to find that the light didn't bring any new pain with it.

"Alright, lets just act natural," he said. "We were just giving you a tour, like before!"

The oncoming footsteps were right outside the door by the time they realized.

Why on earth would they be showing off a room with nothing in it? All it had was a table, a few chairs, and a white board. 

The agent stood in the doorway and stared for a moment. Nelson couldn't see it through the reflection of the agent's glasses, but he could feel a scrutinizing look pass over each of them.

"Ah, there you are," he said flatly. "Nelson. Manny. Guybrush."

“Oh, hey, Sasha!" he said. "Finally taking him to the interview huh?"

"What are you up to?"

"What? We were just showing him one of the conference rooms!”

In a poorly executed attempt to act natural, Nelson picked up a whiteboard eraser and nodded at it thoughtfully.

He got the feeling that Manny wanted to smack it out of his hand.

Sasha didn't leave them to stew in the awkward tension, thankfully. He gestured for Nelson to follow him. "Let's go. They're ready to see you now."

"Y-yes, sir," Nelson fumbled. He handed Guybrush the eraser on his way out. They shared a quick side glance before Nelson was already out the door and following Sasha's brisk footsteps.

Guybrush and Manny lingered behind in the hallway.

Manny lit a fresh cigarette with a flick of pyrokinesis and sighed. “Seems kind of skittish.”

"You'd think, right? I dunno, though. He's quicker on the draw than I thought."

"Where'd you say he was from, again?"

Guybrush grinned. "Used to be an FBI agent. But I hear he went rogue."

"Really?" Manny said. He looked down the hall, feeling a newfound appreciation.

And there was still that bizarre jolt from before...

"Well. Who knows," he hummed. "Maybe this will work out."

Chapter Text

"Why don’t we start with the easy questions... Where are you from, Mr. Tethers?"

"Do you mean where I grew up, or where I've been living recently?"

"Both, please."

"Yes, sir. I was raised in Weatherly, Pennsylvania. I moved to DC to go to school, and I've lived and worked there since."

"What were your studies?"

"I received a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice. After that, I spent a few years working as a federal cost estimator."

“That’s a... form of accounting, yes?”

“That's right. Most agents go for a more hands-on career in criminal justice first, but it's not strictly necessary in order to join the FBI. I did do some independent cold case research on occasion, but it wasn't my main focus. I knew from the start that I wanted to do specialized work.”

“So I’ve heard. The one-man ‘Puzzle Research Department’. What inspired you to specialize in... puzzles?”

There was a slight- not a murmur, but a silent shift among the other agents in the room. No one aside from Mr. Zanotto had said anything since the interview had begun, but he could feel their heightened attention turn on him. It was a bit like being caught under a microscope.

“Well, I... I’m good at it,” he said, overcoming their scrutiny with true, informed confidence.

“It’s not like I was solving crosswords for a living. Puzzles are everywhere. Clues are puzzles, investigations themselves-” he caught himself before he went on a tangent. “Wh-what I mean is, I’m good at making sense of things.”

“I see. So you were in high demand?”

“...Not really, no. I was mainly there for solving any puzzles that the other departments couldn’t, breaking codes, and the occasional bit of accounting when things were slow. They, uh, usually were.”

“Could you tell us about your last mission?”

Nelson thought for a moment, cleared his throat, and tried his best.

“I was sent in to investigate the closure of an eraser factory in Scoggins, Minnesota. That sort of thing wouldn’t normally catch the attention of the FBI, much less my division, but the factory supplies erasers to the White House. They hadn’t sent in their usual shipment, and the only responses we were getting back from them were cryptic messages and puzzles. So, I was the most qualified to find answers and get things running again.

“When I arrived, it was difficult to figure out exactly what had happened. The local rumor was that the factory was shut down because of an explosion that killed the foreman. But the building was locked from the outside, and no one was going in to make repairs. I started hearing about people who might’ve wanted the foreman gone, and possibly even killed him to get to his wife.

“But... instead of finding any clues about a murder or an accident, I just kept finding more and more people suffering from puzzle-based hysteria. It was causing strange... violent behavior. A loss of self-preservation and clear thinking. In one case, death by exposure. The local law enforcement was no help... he even tried to convince me to leave. I decided to stick around until I could find a way to open the factory door, and maybe figure out what was happening to everyone.”

He hesitated to explain the next detail, but it was necessary.

“The people of Scoggins believe in a race of small, hidden people that live in the surrounding forest. It’s a holdover from their Nordic traditions... They believed that the Hidden People spoke to them in secrets, and were the cause of all their problems, their mania. The foreman was intended to be a sacrifice to them.”

“Do you believe in these things?”

“I'm... not sure anymore. If this experience did, uh, kickstart any psychic powers, then it's possible that I was being affected by the mass hysteria. I may have been seeing the things they were telling me I would see.”

To his relief, they went on to the next question.

“Did you have any other psychic experiences during this time?”

“I think so. I had dreams about Scoggins before I’d received my assignment. While I was there, I dreamt about the missing foreman and uhm, astronauts. I didn’t know what that meant until I came back to Scoggins, a few weeks after opening the factory. I think it’s covered in the report.”

He looked over Zanotto’s shoulder, and he could see the silhouettes of Milla and Sasha in the dark room. They were shrouded in shadows like the rest of the visiting agents, but he was able to find their eyes immediately. It sent a shiver down his spine.

“Yes, our agents uncovered information regarding the Hermes II while tailing your second investigation. We'd like to hear your perspective. What was your reason for going back to Scoggins?”

“Well, it wasn’t a formal investigation through the FBI by that point. They considered it a job well done once the factory was open, but the foreman was never found. I still wanted answers, so I went back on my own vacation time. Things were... different, by the time I got there. It wasn’t just the foreman, there were so many other missing people. Some of them I just hadn’t heard about, but the amount of disappearances were increasing.

“There’s... something else I should explain. About 15 years ago, there was a researcher in Scoggins named Olav Velhaven. He was studying the connection between the phases of the moon and the effect it had on the human psyche. His work was ignored by the scientific community, so he sold his research to the US Government instead. They used it to make a weapon. It was a ray that could harness the energy of the moon and induce lunacy in its victims.

“They planned to install it on the moon’s surface, where it could be controlled and fired at the Earth remotely. But the mission failed, and the ship that was carrying the ray crashed into the Sasimy Woods, near Scoggins. The government covered up Olav’s work and the Hermes II mission, but neither had ever been recovered.”

For the first time, he began hearing real murmurs as the agents talked amongst each other. Zanotto waved a hand to quiet them.

One of the agents commented clearly, “That must have been the source of the hysteria you witnessed.”

He hadn’t considered it, but that would explain a few things. Background radiation from the ray could have been making matters worse throughout the area, whether or not the Hidden People themselves were responsible. And he was still fairly certain they were.

“It's possible... Anyway, the surviving astronauts had completely lost their minds. They spent the next 15 years luring people into the woods and murdering them.”

Possibly even eating them, if what he'd glimpsed that night was any indication.

“But, by the time I'd realized what was happening, the FBI found out what I'd uncovered. I had been keeping an audio record. They tried to shut down my investigation and retrieve the weapon for themselves.”

“What did you do?”

The attention was stifling, and the question was loaded. They knew what he did. They knew why he was fired. He answered calmly, without any hesitation or uncertainty.

“I disobeyed orders. I found the ray and threw it into the Lake Sven before they could get it working again.”

“You destroyed government property. And I heard that you also attacked a few of your fellow agents in order to do so. Is that true?”

He couldn't remember all of it... The whispers of the Hidden People were still in his head at the time, and the full force of the lunacy ray had struck him immediately after. Everything was a bit of a blur. But he remembered the red bruises all over his shivering body when he came to.

The phantom feeling of cold air still pricked at his face as he answered.

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you do it again?”

The question shocked him. But unlike the Hidden People or the psychic dreams, this was something that he knew without question.

“I would. No one should have that kind of power.”

A soundless hush filled the room. He was overcome with relief at the pleased look in the eyes of the Grand Head Psychonaut, Truman Zanotto.

“Very good. I think we’re ready to move on to the mental portion.”

Right. He wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Truman reached below the table and pulled out a small green door, emblazoned with the same brain symbol he had seen on their business card.

“I’m not sure if anyone has had the chance to go over this with you yet. Are you familiar with Psycho-Portals?”

“No, sir,” he said.

If there was any uncertainty in his voice, it only succeeded in making him seem more confused, rather than a liar.

“This device allows psychic agents like ourselves to enter the mind and explore it from the inside. I understand that you’re still a bit unfamiliar with our work, but it’s our most efficient method for conducting a thorough background check.”

“There’s not an easier way of doing things?” he asked cautiously.

Truman laughed. “Afraid not. Papers can be forged, people can lie. The subconscious can’t hide itself.”

“What are you looking for in my subconscious, exactly?”

“We’ll mostly be checking to see that you are who you say you are. We’ve had a few people try to forge their way with... falsified credentials, in the past. And as you mentioned, if there are any negative side effects left over from your mission, we may be able to help sort them out.”

That was the most encouraging thing he’d heard all day. If Guybrush had managed to clear his headache by himself, then it seemed likely that multiple agents could completely fix whatever had been affecting him. They could stop the pain at its source.

“And- to be clear, this investigation will be strictly classified. No other agents will be privy to our findings.”

Nelson took a slow breath.

“Are you willing to move forward with this part of the process?" Truman asked. "If you would like to leave now, you can. No questions asked.”

“...No,” he said, shaking his head. “I want to see this through. Is there anything you need me to do, while you’re, uhm- in there?”

“No, not at all. In fact, it’s better if you don’t! We need to examine your mindscape in its natural state. In fact, your astral self may not be fully formed yet... Especially since it’s only been a short time since your psychic awakening began.”

“...Sorry, what does that mean?”

“Well, you may not be inside your own mind, as strange as that sounds. Sometimes you will be there, and sometimes you won't... as is the case with dreams. If you do happen to be lucid, you can speak with us and take a look around while we're there. We simply ask that you not touch anything.”

"R-right," he said. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably. "OK, I think I'm ready."

The small door drifted across the room and came to rest against his forehead. Nelson was more alert this time, and in the brief seconds before he passed out, he could see the room fully illuminated with bright light as the agents’ minds reached out and made contact with his own.


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The process of waking into a dream was not the same as waking into reality, or even falling asleep. It was somewhere in the middle. Nelson’s only other point of reference were his occasional visions, but even the most vivid of his dreams were never as sensory as this.

He was freezing. The first thing that hit him was the biting sting of cold air on his face, and the frozen, wet feeling that permeated his shoes. He curled in on himself and was shocked to find that he was already swaddled in a heavy fabric mass. He blinked the ice from his eyelids and was faced with a garish blue coat, embroidered with swirling gold patterns across its surface. He shifted the fabric to get a better look, and realized from the sudden cool draft at his side that it wasn’t a blanket, but a long coat that had been draped across him at an angle.

He came to his senses in a greater panic, and realized that he had been left curled up in the corner of an abandoned shack. No, that wasn’t right. He pulled the coat closer around himself as he took in his surroundings with new dread.

It was Olav Velhaven’s cabin.

He hurried to his feet and stumbled under a slight rush of vertigo. He felt like he wasn't aligned properly with himself, as if his seat of consciousness was just left-of-center of his body. His astral body? Maybe that was it.

He tried to keep steady as he adjusted the coat and put it on properly. He pulled his arms through the long sleeves and buttoned the front as far as it would go. The edged trim and cuffs of the coat were bright red, adorned with even more gold embroidery and bright, shining buttons. It was easy to guess that it must have been Guybrush's. It had a crisp, clean smell, but one that still was signature to Guybrush in a way that was hard to pinpoint. It was somewhere between cleaning solution and saltwater. He hadn’t noticed it until now.

Aside from the colorful coat, he was only dressed in his standard uniform, and it was doing a terrible job of keeping out the cold. His shoes, socks, and the ankles of his pants were soaked through with slushed snow. If anything about this were real, he might have had to worry about hypothermia. It was hard to find that comforting.

There was something else that didn't feel right. His body hurt. He ached as if he had run a marathon or lifted something improperly. His exposed skin stung with pain beyond the cold. He reached a hand up to his face and winced. He could trace a paper-thin cut along the side of his cheek, and his fingers brushed against a few more around it.

“What the heck...?”

He looked around for a reflective surface, and eventually settled on Olav's telescope. He wiped the frost off its surface, tilted the lens toward his face and gagged. He was covered in faint scratches and cuts, as if someone had delicately run sharp blades across his skin. He ran a hand over the back of his head, and could feel the raised, reddened skin. There was no rhyme or reason to the patterns. Some crossed over each other and drew blood, but those were already scabbed over. The injuries had happened recently, but not so recently to still be bleeding.

This was supposed to be his mind, wasn't it? Who would have hurt him like this? He considered Guybrush for a moment, but dashed the idea quickly. There was no way that he could have, and no reason for him to do so. In fact, it was more likely that he had fixed whatever might have caused it in the first place.

Nelson stepped away from the telescope and took in the sheer detail of the cabin around him. Everything was as he remembered it. One half of the roof was slanted and broken under the weight of a fallen pine tree, the walls were crooked, the scattered papers... were legible. He stepped closer to read the open pages of research notes, the diagrams of the moon’s cycle around the earth, and even the formula for lunacy immortalized in chalk. He frowned, recalling that it wasn’t supposed to be possible to read in dreams.

There was no getting around it, this wasn’t a dream. It was something far beyond that simplified scope. Everything felt solid under scrutiny, even if it wasn’t actually real- The cuts weren’t real, the cold wasn’t real, not even the cabin he stood in. Technically, he wasn’t. But they were all there anyway, brought to life by his own memories and sudden psychic awareness. Maybe it wasn’t that they’re weren’t real, they just weren’t physical...

It certainly felt physical enough. Nelson tried to warm his freezing hands with his breath and tucked them into the coat pockets. One of his fingers brushed against a smooth object inside, and he pulled out a gold doubloon stamped with a skull and the words “MELEE BOOTY PLUNDER 1687”.

That was a confusing marvel of its own- that Guybrush had been there, and even left his things behind. Just as he was beginning to wonder how he could possibly give them back, he heard something outside.

He held his breath and listened. It came again, a soft crunching noise, then another, sets of footsteps growing louder, and the indistinct mumble of two voices in conversation.

Nelson found himself in a predicament.

They were heading this way, and he would likely have to talk to them. He didn’t have a problem with that necessarily, but he didn’t look very presentable- covered in injuries, soaked with snow... And most troubling of all, dressed in a coat that obviously didn’t belong there.

He knew that Guybrush had something of a reputation among his coworkers. And according to what he and Manny had suggested earlier, it may have been against protocol to allow him into his mind before the evaluation. Even if he had healed his headache, there was no way of knowing what else he could have done.

And besides, it wasn’t like the other agents were necessarily expecting him to be there, right? They had said so. As long as he didn’t alter anything, it was fine if he avoided them.

That’s what he was telling himself as he crawled out through the shack’s broken window and tucked himself out of view below the sill. The snowy ground was uncomfortable even through the extra layer the coat provided, but it seemed better than the alternative.

“-t’s just been a lot to take in at once,” said a voice.

It sounded like Truman, but much more relaxed and informal than he had been during the interview.

“She’s growing up,” said another, a thickly accented woman’s voice that he didn’t recognize. “It’s normal to be scared of change.”

Their footsteps were growing so close and loud, he half worried they might come around the cabin. It was a relief to hear the two sets of boots make contact with the wooden floor inside.

“I’m not scared!” Truman said, affronted. “But she’s only eleven! Doesn’t this seem a bit... fast?”

The woman’s chuckle was low. “Some hearts find each other early... But if it helps, nothing is set in stone.”

Truman made a resigned sound of agreement, and the conversation lapsed into a businesslike silence. Nelson could hear the creak of floorboards and the light shuffle of papers as they searched the room.

He tucked his legs close to his chest and tried to make himself smaller. The slant of the cabin at his back would make it hard for anyone to see him through the window. He took shallow breaths through his clasped hands, both to silence the noise and keep his face warm against the chill.

He was starting to realize that everything outside was deathly still. There were no snowflakes.

Inside he heard a chuckle, and a shift of paper against paper.

“Bit of a literalist, wouldn’t you say?”

“They can’t all be free spirits.”

“Thank god.”

The forest was bathed in a clinical, overcast light from a sunchocked sky. The forest around him was made up of dark pines and a few bare-branched deciduous trees, but something about them felt distinctly unnatural. The earth was smothered in an unmarred blanket of snow that blended seamlessly into the horizon. It was utterly flat. There were no hills, dips, brush, fallen twigs or any remote signs of life.

It was silent.

Something scraped along the back wall.

“Ah, found something.”

Nelson strained to hear as a heavy object was placed on the work table. He realized with the signature click that it was Olav’s reel-to-reel recorder, once again unearthed from its hiding place behind the framed portrait of Galileo.

"-cucumber sandwich. Also, I've made a remarkable breakthrough: A direct link between the phases of the moon, and the disorders of the human mind! But seriously, about that sandwich..."

Truman spoke up over the rambling recording, “It’s not just spatial memory, then. If accurate, this is an astounding level of auditory recall.”

“I think it is safe to say that Tethers should not be taken lightly. Don’t you agree?”

There was a mild grunt of agreement. The audio warbled as the reels were spun forward and played intermittently.

“-ectrical energy within the brain of the lunati- VRR -a song, in celebration!- VRR -in astropsychology, and they claim me research has 'no scientific merit'. But, their loss. If NASA ignores my work, perhaps a private investor...”

Nelson could feel someone approaching the window at his back. He held his breath and tried not to move, desperately willing himself to be as still as the trees around him. Olav’s voice had not stopped, but it felt like the space between himself and the woman at the window was heavy, silent, and pensive.

She tapped her fingers against the sill. Seven small taps. They were leisurely, and Nelson would not have worried if not for the pattern of it.

Shave-and-a-hair-cut... Two bits.

“Ah, someone’s calling,” Truman said with a final click of the player.

He hadn’t heard a phone. A strange woosh came from inside, scattering some loose papers off of the table.

“Found anything?” Truman asked the open air.

Suddenly there was a third voice. Nelson wondered if he may have misheard the number of footsteps and missed a particularly quiet agent, but the sound of the woman’s voice told him otherwise. It echoed unnaturally, as if spoken through water.

“Yeah, I think we’ve found all there is to see up here. One memory vault, one Aspect, and what might be a haven. A bit of a slog to get into, but nothing nefarious inside.”

“Find any censors?”

“No, none here. But that might just be because of where we are.”

“Hm. We haven’t seen any either,” Truman said with a sigh. “That’s not good.”

“It could be,” said the woman at the window, leaning frightfully close to Nelson’s hiding place, “-that he considers us invited, and the censors are keeping their distance.”

“It’s possible...” the third agent conceded softly.

“Most people can’t control the distinction,” Truman said. “Especially not when they’re inexperien-”

A shrill, bloodcurdling scream cut through the frozen air.

Nobody breathed as the echo carried off into the still forest and faded away into nothing.

“Call the others and get down here now,” Truman said, a stern authority returning to his voice.

“Yes, sir,” the agent answered hurriedly, and with another gust they were gone.

“Come on,” he said, and the two of them ran out from the cabin, knocking into the table as they went.

Nelson could only sit there in shock as they bolted away from him. Their bright coats stood out against the imposing white landscape, and he could see them running between the trees for some time. He did not dare to stand up until they were nearly out of sight.

He almost jumped out of his skin when the reel-to-reel hit the floor with a delayed thud. It warbled miserably. He took in a deep gasp of air that he desperately needed, and it burned in his lungs. The tape sputtered until it caught itself, at last returning to the soft, mindless babble of Olav's voice.

Something bad was happening. He could feel it. His body felt weightless and weak. Untethered.

A long, low rumble shook through his chest. It didn't come from him. It was the sound of something massive and glacial, a low groan that carried for miles. It was above him.

His eyes followed the trees up to their peaks, then higher still, at last catching the slow, titanic movement of a white mass in the sky. It was nearly lost among the clouds, save for the twinkle of colorful, lit windows dotting the structure's surface. He gasped in horror as his mind finally processed the full, surreal scope of it.

It was an enormous cube-shaped building, with rows of rooms twisting in slow, monstrous grace along one side. With a thunderous boom, it clicked into form.

Even without its signature colors, Nelson knew a Rubik’s cube when he saw one.

A tiny door opened on one of the smaller cubes that the structure was made of. Nelson could finally make sense of the building’s scale when he spotted a human shape standing in the doorway. They were practically a speck in comparison. He almost screamed when the person jumped, but they descended to the earth slowly and safely. Another agent followed after them, the duo floating off in the direction that Truman and his partner had run toward.

Nelson’s knees were shaking. The reel player continued muttering to itself inside, unaware of the chaos unfolding before them.

“-the moist, white flesh of the codfish. But enough of that! It is time to call my tiny friends...”

In a blind panic, Nelson vaulted himself back through the window and landed in a sprawl on the floor. His wet shoes squealed against wood as he tried to regain his footing.

The pan flute trilled, and Olav’s manic voice filled the air. “Come, speak with me, my friends!”

The audio had only just begun to warp and hum by the time he snatched it up and slammed the recording off with a loud click. He stood there, panting alone in the silent aftermath while his heart threatened to beat out of his chest.

His brain had done a pretty good job of recreating this place. He didn’t want to see what it would do about the Hidden People.

With a numb stiffness, he put the tape player back into its secret compartment behind the painting. His hands were shaking. His breath heaved.

The scream was still stuck in his head. He couldn’t shake it. It was the kind of raw, primal scream that made your throat hurt in the aftermath; when your terror was bigger than your body and it tore you apart in the struggle to get out.

It had happened to him only a few times, but each memory was as sharp as a knife. The fact that someone else was experiencing that level of fear made him want to weep with worry. He braced his hands against the wall and leaned there, taking in breath after breath and trying not to panic.

They would be fine, right? They were psychic agents. This was what they did, supposedly. And Sasha and Milla had already saved his life once before; against real, physical threats. Whatever horrible thing his brain had conjured couldn’t be as bad as that.

...But what was it? The uncertainty was the worst part. His thoughts immediately jumped to the Hidden People, but they... no, logically he knew they weren’t that bad. He had helped them, and they had helped him. They were unsettling for sure, but even at their worst they had never generated that scream, the one that carried.

The only things that had were... The Astronauts. The night terrors.

And then there was the worst possibility of all: That this was something unknown, something he had never seen or imagined before. The cabin was picture-perfect, but what was that giant cube? He couldn’t have even dreamed of something like that on his own, but there it was, right above him! His mind had looked so real at first, so grounded, but it was just a facade. Apparently his inner world was sitting on a razor’s edge between cold hard memory and utter lunacy.

His hand slipped.

He pulled back, staggered away from the wall and blinked the hot tears out of his eyes. He wiped them away and looked again, not understanding what he was seeing.

Half of the wall was gone.

It wasn’t that the wall had fallen away. He couldn’t see the snow on the other side. It was just gone.

Where the wall had been, there was only a deep, dark void. He stepped back, almost tripping when his foot sank below ground level. He stumbled sideways and into the wall in an ungraceful flurry, grasping for any kind of support. When he regained his bearings, he could barely believe what he was witnessing.

Most of the cabin was gone. Entire swathes of the walls were missing, replaced with unrelenting darkness. In their deepest depths, he could make out the twinkle of distant starlight. It didn’t make any sense. Spatially, it shouldn’t have been possible. He looked out over his shoulder, and he could see that the forest was still out there, white and unmoving.

Inside, the floorboards were beginning to drift and float. Some sank. Some vanished. It spread out like a disease, swallowing everything into gentle nothingness. He tried to turn to the window for escape again, but everything beyond it vanished like a light being switched off.

White rays of sunlight still reached him from the door. The world existed in that direction. He made a break for it, trying to keep his balance as the ground shifted under each step. His hope died by the time he reached the threshold.

The forest was vanishing too, and the sky was turning dark. His foot sank into the yielding snow, and he could see from the mounds drifting upward that there was nothing beneath it. He grasped desperately for an anchor- a wall, a floorboard, anything- but they were all slipping past him. The world sank and floated in kind, but Nelson could feel himself fall. He slipped past the surface of the snow, and all at once he could see the infinite cosmos hidden below his disintegrating world.

A gasp had only half formed in his throat before he was gone.

He no longer existed in his own mind. Only fragments of the earth remained, floating in space.

The moon turned.


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

He woke with a start.

Not a scream, not a headache, but a full-body jolt that practically pushed him upright in bed.

When had he gone to bed?

“Hey, you’re awake!”

Nelson turned to see Guybrush on the other side of the room, standing beside a desk lamp. Looking nervous.

“What happened?” Nelson asked, out of breath. His eyes darted to the corners of the room.

Save for the lamp, it was dark in here. It looked like a bedroom of some kind. No, more like a hotel room. A dorm? It lacked any personal touches or charm, but it wasn’t exactly sparse. There was a dresser, a small kitchen, a door that presumably led to a bathroom, and a small work desk.

Guybrush leaned against said desk with a pained grin and a carefree twist of his hook.

“That’s funny, I was gonna ask you the same thing! How’d it go?”

Badly.” Nelson said, eyes wide. His heart was still pounding. “What did you do when you were in my brain earlier?”

Guybrush’s face fell. “What? Nothing!”

“Why did you put me in the cabin?”

“I- Uh, it seemed better than leaving you out in the cold? You were totally out of it.”

Nelson stared. Guybrush looked away briefly, before continuing in a flurry of explanation.

“Well, you were just standing there with your eyes closed! I thought you might’ve been sleepwalking, but I hadn’t seen you moving at all when I found you, and then you just- pffth!- fell over! And you were all cut up, so I thought, hey, this looks really bad! Maybe a barn owl got him! I should go put him somewhere with shelter, like that creepy old shed I passed earlier! So I did that,” he said with finality. “And that’s all. And I let you borrow my jacket too! You’re welcome!”

Nelson blinked. “Thanks... Are you sure that’s all you did?”

Guybrush nodded, then winced. He rubbed his hook against his temple. “Yeah, I’m sure. I wasn’t there long, and I didn’t run into any trouble. I didn’t even touch anything except for all 140 lbs of your unconscious self.”

Nelson scowled. He turned around to face him more fully, moving his legs over the edge of the bed frame. Guybrush’s gaze darted aside.

“Did you... bring me here?” he asked, trying to sound a little less accusatory. He was still scared and confused by what had happened, but that didn’t mean that Guybrush was the person responsible for it. He needed to calm down.

“Nahh, I just wanted to check up on you. See how it went,” Guybrushed answered, sounding a little more open.

Worried, even.

Nelson considered this for a moment. “Are you alright?”

That pained grin flashed across his face again as he tried to answer nonchalantly, “Just a bit of a headache. I must’ve caught it from you!”

“You... I, what?” Nelson stumbled over his words.

He couldn’t keep sitting on the bed like this, he was having trouble concentrating. He stood and was shocked by the unexpected texture of the carpet under his feet. Someone must have taken his shoes off before they laid him into bed.

“The good news is, I’ve got the good pain meds for next time you need ‘em! I’m just waiting for them to kick in,” Guybrush continued.

“That wasn’t what I was going to ask-” Nelson groaned.

Great, they had broken into the infirmary anyway... That wasn’t the issue.

“You think I gave it to you? How?”

“I’m joking,” he said. “It’s just a bad coincidence.”

“Coincidences like that don’t happen. When did it start?”

Guybrush grimaced. He seemed very out of his element.

“20 minutes after, maybe?” he said with a shrug. “It took awhile for me to notice. But that’s not, uh... It’s not a bad sign, if that’s what you’re worried about. Sometimes weird things happen when brains are making contact! Headaches are normal.”

Nelson felt very tired. “I don’t think any of that was normal, even by... these standards. Do mindscapes vanish?”

It was Guybrush’s turn to stare at him.

He tilted his head with the faintest of confused smiles. “Huh?”

“Mine vanished. Under my feet- It was falling apart. And then I wasn’t- it was like I stopped existing for a while. I don’t know what happened... I think I’m missing time,” Nelson said.

Guybrush stared again, his brows drawing in concern.

“Thaaaaat doesn’t really ring a bell. I mean, mindscapes move around all the time, but that sounds... Huh,” he tapped his hook to his chin. “And I dunno if I’ve heard of someone dying in their brain and not just waking up or popping back into the dream again.”

“Dying?” Nelson gaped. “I didn’t die!”

“Didja fall?”

“Well, yeah, but-”

“Falling dreams! Heck of a way to wake up.”

Nelson sighed, rubbing a hand to his face. It was a relief to feel smooth skin under his touch.

Guybrush stilled, his smile dropping. He turned to look at the door.

“Aw nuts, I should’ve been looking-” he whined. “I probably shouldn’t have stopped by yet, don’t let ‘em know I’m in here.”

“What?” Nelson turned in time to watch Guybrush vanish before his eyes.

He stumbled backwards into his bedside table. Guybrush’s quiet laughter came from somewhere in the corner of the room.

“Sorry! Didn’t mean to scare you,” he stage-whispered. “Just pretend I’m not here!”

Nelson nodded dumbly.

The door opened before he had a chance to get any kind of act together. Nelson stood up straight, and held his own hands together nervously. Sasha’s impenetrable glasses met his eyes.

Sasha closed the door behind himself and simply said, “You’ve been accepted.”

“Oh-”

“Tentatively.”

“Oh.”

He didn’t know what to say. He opened his mouth to ask something, but Sasha cut him off.

“You’re being brought on as an Agent-in-Training for the time being. Depending on how well you can... control your situation, we will determine your duties from there.”

“That’s... That’s fine. I’m sure I need it.”

“You do.”

Nelson’s mouth dropped open in shock. He shut it quickly.

Sasha pulled out an itinerary from his coat pocket and set it on the desk.

“There’s much to be done. You will be meeting with myself and a few other agents in order to learn the basics.”

Nelson nodded. “Alright. I can do that.”

Sasha barely acknowledged him, and was already turning for the door.

Nelson had only had the chance to meet with him briefly before the evaluation, but he could still sense that something was very wrong.

“Are you alright?” he asked clumsily.

Sasha was unable to contain a bitter scowl as he gripped the doorknob tighter.

“I’ve got a headache.”

The door slammed behind him before Nelson could utter a word.

Guybrush let out a breath like a deflating balloon. He sauntered back over to Nelson, frowning with sympathy.

“Eesh. And I though Sasha was tough as it is! That was brutal.”

“He might not be wrong,” Nelson muttered. “I think someone got hurt.”

“...Y’think you hurt him?”

“No, I mean... Yes, probably, but there was something else. I don’t know how to explain it...”

He looked to Guybrush, who was staring at the sheet on the table with worry in his eyes. There was something about his concern that had been bothering Nelson ever since he’d first woken up.

“Did you hear anything about my evaluation?” he asked.

Guybrush’s face didn’t move, but he blinked, and the stillness told him enough.

“Weellll,” Guybrush said, drawing out the sound on his tongue. “Maybe a little? Just rumors! You usually can’t believe those kinda things, and it was all vague anyway, so I thought I’d... ask the source?”

“What did you hear?”

“No details. Just that one... maybe some of the agents conducting it had to be removed? There was a whole lot of hush-hush going on. And you might be right about that coincidence thing...”

He was glad that Guybrush had at least caught onto that detail, so that he wouldn’t have to say it out loud. His brain was spreading headaches. And to top it off, it sounded like someone had been hurt pretty severely.

“This is such a mess... Has anything like this ever happened before?”

“Not that I know of. But hey, it doesn’t really sound like it was your fault? Like I said, brains are weird.”

“You said that weird things happen when they-”

“Same difference.” he said with a chuckle. “Whatever it was, I don’t think they blame you for it. I mean, they didn’t kick you out of the building or lock you up, so that’s a good sign, right?”

Nelson sat down heavily on the bed. Guybrush wavered.

“Don’t feel too bad about it,” he said earnestly. “Brains really are weird.”

“I think I need to get some rest,” Nelson admitted. “But I wanted to ask you one more thing, before you go.”

“Sure... what’s up?”

Nelson wouldn’t have considered asking so bluntly, but Guybrush had been acting so off-kilter since he’d woken up. He wasn’t sure if it was from the headache, the painkillers, or the rumors; but if there was a chance that he could get a straight answer out of him, he was going to take it.

“I overheard you talking to Manny earlier today. It sounded like you expected that we’d be working together.”

Right on the money, Guybrush looked guilty.

“Oh, right. Yeah, kind of?” he turned his attention to the desk, and started pushing the itinerary around with his hook. “Psychonaut agents tend to work in teams of two. It makes things easier. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to work with somebody, so I said, ‘hey, if you see any new recruits-”

“They told you about me,” Nelson said. “When I was being followed in Scoggins.”

Guybrush was shocked. “...Yeah.”

Nelson ran a hand over his eyes and sighed. Guybrush was poking around a small box of his belongings on the other edge of the desk. Now that he looked, the rest of his luggage was stacked nearby. At least it was further proof that they didn’t plan on booting him out, not without giving him a chance.

“Whoah, old school!” Guybrush said with a laugh. Nelson could hear him rifling through his things, and then a familiar, soft click.

“Nelson Tethers, personal log. Today has been-”

He jumped to his feet and held out his hand, crossing the distance of the small room in a second. “That’s private!”

To his credit, Guybrush turned it off immediately. Though he did shrink back with it in his hand as Nelson approached. He looked between the tape player and Nelson’s uncomfortable face before handing it over.

“Sure, sorry! I was just curious, I haven’t seen one of those in ages!”

Nelson sighed, curling his fingers around the edges of it. “It’s fine.”

“I’ll just... leave you to it, then? You probably need to take it easy.”

Nelson nodded numbly. Guybrush took his cue to leave. He paused at the door and flashed one last smile.

“But hey, you got in! Congrats!” He gave a quick thumbs up and shut the door brightly.

Nelson sat down and leaned his full weight against the wooden frame of the chair.

He ran his hand over his head, half expecting the cuts to still be waiting there.

He had kept his hair buzzed short for most of his life, but at times like these he remembered nervously carding fistfuls of hair in both hands as a boy, over and over again until whatever bad feeling he had would pass.

He pulled his hand away and curled it into an empty fist.

There was no way he was going to be able to go back to sleep like this. He tapped his fingers against the surface of the desk. He needed to get his thoughts in order. He reached down and fast forwarded the tape until it was back to clear static.

Click.

“I’m in. I was accepted, sort of, but I’ll need a lot of training. Something went wrong during the evaluation...”

He leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows against the desk and steepling his fingers together. His leg was bouncing.

“I feel like I’m in over my head. Whatever these psychic powers are, they’re hurting me and everyone around me. I want to get this under control, obviously, but I’m worried about the rest of it too. All the Psychonauts that I’ve met have been a bit... cagey. I never feel like I’m getting the whole picture, at least not without pulling teeth to get there.”

He exhaled, burying his face in his hands.

“Then again, it’s not like the FBI were all that trustworthy, either. Maybe all agencies are like this,” he said with a light, humorless chuckle.

“No, it’s not a question of whether I should stay. I need to. I need the training. But their work itself, it’s... It’s a lot to think about. I can barely handle my own mind, how am I supposed to help anybody else with theirs?”

He pulled over the sheet of paper with his schedule for the next week. There wasn’t quite as much to it as he expected. Perhaps he shouldn’t have, the other agents must have been busy with their own workloads, they couldn’t be guiding him the entire time. He glanced over to the first slot on the list, the training he would begin tomorrow.

“...Oh, come on.”

BASIC BRAINING: AGENT OLEANDER

Great! The agent he’d almost hit with a door.

“Ok, uh, recording over. I need to go... do something. I can’t think.”

Click.


Sleeping was out of the question. Not for lack of trying, of course, but he felt alert and clear-headed for the first time in weeks. Add in a healthy dash of nerves, and sleep became physically impossible for the time being.

It was late... or early, depending on your perspective. The evaluation had knocked him out for hours. He felt restless, but there was nothing to do in the dorm. He didn’t feel comfortable enough to begin unpacking his things.

And so he’d started wandering the Motherlobe. He hadn’t really had the chance to take in his surroundings while Guybrush had been at the helm. The building was entirely different in the early-morning darkness. Only a few agents were still up, and they were either too busy working or wandering off toward their own dorms to pay him any mind.

It was nice like this. The calm, quiet halls made it easier for him to relax a little. But he knew that it wouldn’t last. Everyone would be bustling again, and he would need to sort himself out fast in order to keep up.

Another turn, and he found himself in the main lobby of the Motherlobe. It had only been about twelve hours since he had last stood there, but it felt like a lifetime ago. The world beyond the glass doors was pitch dark, but it didn’t fill him with fear like he expected. Instead, it looked inviting.

He could just leave. It really was that easy. He knew realistically that he should stay and sort out his mess of a mind. And it wasn’t like he could really go anywhere... He didn’t have a plane, or a car, and he didn’t even know what forest they were stationed in...

But the temptation was definitely there. If he really wanted to, he could grab his necessities and walk out before anyone noticed. If his powers had only appeared because of Scoggins, and he was only hurting the people who entered his mind first, then maybe the best option was to avoid this psychic business altogether.

Maybe it would all go away.

Maybe he could.

Before he could entertain the thought any further, he spotted a hulking movement in the dark. Something massive was coming closer to the entrance. He jumped back when two of the front doors banged open; revealing an enormous, hefting pile of luggage and musical equipment.

Some people must have been trying to bring their things in, but they had underestimated the size of the doorframe. Things were catching against the edges, losing balance, and threatening to fall over as the movers pushed at it from the other side.

“Careful!” Nelson yelled, running to catch the guitar case that slipped from the top of the pile.

It hit him square in the chest, knocking the wind out of him and sending him sprawling to the floor. More bags and cases tumbled past him in a series of thuds and crashes.

“Oh, shit! Sorry!” a gruff voice called.

Nelson shook his head and tried to wheeze. “S’fine.”

“No, it’s not. Here,” the man said, reaching out a hand.

Nelson took it and gawked at the size of the man’s hand encompassing his. His eyes trailed up the huge, muscular arm; attached to the huge, muscular mountain of a man.

Nelson had assumed that everything had been carried by a team of three, or at least two. Lifting it clearly wasn’t the problem, but it wasn’t surprising that he hadn’t been able to maneuver it all in by himself.

Nelson let himself be lifted easily back onto his feet, still clutching the guitar case tight with his free arm. The guy towered almost a foot above him, and he was built wide and heavy like the trunk of a tree. He was frightfully imposing at first glance; dressed in a black leather vest, rugged black jeans, and a well-worn black shirt. One of his wristbands sported sharp metal spikes, but his hand was gentle as it brushed the dirt off his shoulder.

"Hey, you saved my life there. Don't know what I would've done if Clementine took a hit like that."

"Who...? Oh, the guitar!" Nelson held it out sheepishly.

"Yeah!" he said with a grin, taking it and swinging it over his shoulder by the strap. "That was totally my fault, man. I didn't see you heading out."

"I wasn't. I just... Do you need help carrying these?" he asked, pointing to the rest of the man's belongings.

He shook his head with a gritted exhale and said, "Y'know what? Yeah. Don't wanna crush anybody else tonight."

Nelson nodded and looked around for something to help with. Before he could, the man was holding a hand out to him again.

"Name's Eddie. Thanks again for the help."

"O-oh, it's no trouble! Nelson Tethers," he said, shaking his hand. "It's nice to meet you."

Nelson reached down and began to- oh God, nope. Scratch that, he tried to lift something a little smaller looking instead. Eddie laughed and picked up the heavy suitcase with ease.

"Sorry about that. I try to travel lighter than this, but some of the crew were running out of space. I offered to hang onto it for a while."

"Are you in a band?" Nelson said, trying to look unbothered by the weight in his arms.

He thought he was in better shape than this. He adjusted his hold and remembered to lift by the knees. He tailed a few steps behind Eddie as they headed back towards the dorms.

“Nah,” Eddie said, giving a quick glance over his shoulder. His voice was barely above a whisper, now that they were heading past areas where people would still be sleeping. “I mean, I can cover for people sometimes, but my real job is bein’ a roadie.”

“...Roadie?”

“Yeah, I’m on the road crew. We set the stage up, tune the equipment, make sure everything runs smoothly during the show...”

“But you’re also a...”

“A Psychonaut, yeah.” he said, disbelief seeping into the words. “I only joined up a little while ago, so... haven’t seen much real action myself.”

He tossed the long locks of jet black hair over his shoulder as he turned and regarded Nelson more fully. “Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve even seen you around before. You new, too?”

Nelson nodded, looking ahead rather than meeting his eyes. “Y-yeah, just got here today. Agent-in-training.”

“Well hey, welcome to the club.”

Nelson tried to memorize the path they were taking, and lay out the map in his own head of where he was. They weren’t far off from his own dorm. Eddie stopped before one of the doors, and it clicked open without a touch.

The mere idea that Nelson could someday do things like that without really thinking about it was...surreal. More so than the mindscape had been.

Eddie’s dorm had the same layout as his own, but the feeling was entirely different. The room was well lived-in, though a little dusty from his absence. The air had the faint, burnt-in smells of smoke, patchouli and body spray. There were personal touches around the room, guitar stands and small fantastical sculptures of skulls and dragons on the free surfaces. And there were posters on the walls. Lots and lots of signed posters with band names he couldn’t even begin to read.

“Do you live here?” Nelson asked, looking around in surprise as he set the armful of luggage down. Based on the room he’d been left in, he thought that they were intended for temporary use.

“Yeahh, when I’m not on the road. Some of us agents don’t have real addresses, so it just makes things easier to stay here when we’re not on missions or... out doin’ our own thing. Also means we don’t have to meet up off-site, which’d be a real pain in the ass. Manny and I can just get together here and head out-”

“Manny? The...” he trailed off, feeling too uncomfortable to just call him the skeleton.

“Hell yeah! You met him? He’s my partner!” Eddie said, beaming.

“Y-yeah”, Nelson said with an awkward smile. “I met him earlier today. I, uh- I wasn’t expecting... him?”

“Oh, right. Yeah, most people don’t. Everything go-?”

“I fainted.”

“Ahh.” Eddie nodded sagely. “Don’t sweat it. This place takes some time gettin’ used to. I didn’t do much better when I first got here.”

“...Really?”

“Oh, yeah. Not about Manny, or any of the other guys, it was the... the power stuff,” he said, running a hand through his hair. By the pained look on his face, Nelson suddenly had an easier time believing him.

He nodded sympathetically. “You seemed to do ok with the door.”

Eddie blinked down at him. “What? Oh, that’s easy! It was the big stuff that was the real problem.”

“Um. Like what...?”

“Let’s just say things were volatile for a while...” he said with an uncomfortable shrug. “I was kind of a firestarter.”

Oh.

Before he had known that any of this was real, Nelson had heard stories about “firestarters”. He had always chalked them up to arsonists with urban legends, not as a true classification for pyrokinetic psychics. He grimaced in sympathy.

Suddenly his own problems seemed much smaller in comparison.

“Don’t sweat it,” he said, clapping Nelson companionably on the shoulder. “The Psychonauts helped me get it figured out. ...Well, music was the main thing, but I wouldn’t have figured that out without ‘em.”

“Music helps?” he asked. His mind immediately went to ‘soothing CDs for concentration’, but something about Eddie’s entire aesthetic told him that wasn’t right.

“Yeah! Oh, here, let me show you-” he said, turning the guitar case back over his shoulder.

He opened the case with a pop and pulled forth a beautiful electric guitar. He didn’t bother plugging it in, (and Nelson was sure that the neighboring dorms were grateful for that), but even through the dulled tone Nelson could tell that Eddie was an experienced player.

He played a short, muted riff, and suddenly the room seemed to crackle with energy. It jolted around Nelson, suddenly finding purchase and igniting against the wicks of the scented candles around the room. It was a simple display, but it still left Nelson feeling breathless.

Eddie smiled softly. “You play anything, Nelson?”

“Oh, uh...” Nelson thought back, rubbing his arm. “Yeah, a little. I used to play bass, in college. But it’s been years, I haven’t picked it up since I started working at the FBI.”

Eddie’s brows shot up to his hairline. Apparently he hadn’t heard anything about the catastrophic new hire yet.

“No shit. Government work, a college band... Sounds like you had the all-American experience. Let me guess, you were a boy scout when you were a kid?”

“No,” he said with a wry smile. “But I did have a tree house.”

Eddie laughed with a booming, “Fuck off!”

Nelson was struck. He knew that words were weird like that, how they could be one thing and mean something else entirely. But he had never actually felt it in practice- never been told off with a jostle and a laugh and felt utterly heartened by it.

He had never heard the words “fuck off” and knew them to mean “keep talking, stick around, I want to know you”.

He smiled. Genuinely and widely, for the first time since he’d arrived.

“I mean it though, try playing something if you’re having any trouble. It helps with focus. I can even help you out some time! I’m sure I’ve got a bass lying around.”

“Thank you, but... I may have to rain check. I’m going to be busy for the next week. I need to-”

“Ohh, right, hell week. No sweat. I remember what that was like. Just, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it, right?” he said, giving a reassuring squeeze to his shoulder. “I’ve been there. Most of us have.”

Nelson nodded. “Any advice for the basic train.. Uh, braining? I don’t want to mess anything up.”

Worse than he already had, at least.

“Yeah. Don’t worry too much about the mindscape. Things always get a bit weird in there, but nothing’s gonna hurt you in the real world. Might feel like you’re dying sometimes, but you’ll be ok. Just think of it like... a trust fall, off the top of a building.”

Nelson’s stomach flipped. “Great.”

“Oh, and your dreams might get a little weird for a while. Don’t freak out if you can’t control ‘em. Sometimes you need to let the subconscious work out its own thing... And as for the powers... if it’s not working out how they tell you it should, sometimes you just gotta find your own way through it. Trust yourself, and it’ll all work out after that.”

Nelson nodded slowly, feeling much more hopeful than he had all night. “Thanks, Eddie.”

Eddie grinned. “Hey, you’re welcome. I’ll be seeing you, yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said. He faltered at the door before giving a quick, final wave and shuffling off toward his own room.

To his relief, he did manage a few solid hours of sleep before daybreak.

It was deep and dreamless. An endless sky with no light pollution.