Another day working at the Obsolete and Unusual Media Desk. Everyone keeps asking me if they can fuck the cognitohazard who works there. Buddy, you’re talking to her.
You see a lot of weird shit working at the Office of Consensus Maintenance. It’d be weird if you went about your day without seeing at least one werewolf talking to a probability elemental or having to navigate part of the building that’s currently phasing into storyspace.
I mean, yeah, your eye is drawn to the six foot tall anthropomorphic skunk swishing her big ol’ tail behind the desk. The way the pink circuitry winding over her black fur shimmers when she moves. The way she smiles with all of her sharp teeth. The way she sizes you up and towers over you, even if you should be the taller one here. The way her blonde locks leak out of the hair bun that dares to try to contain them. The way her single pink streak cuts through the hair over her left eye. The way she looks up from what can only be described as a triangular floppy disk for wizards and greets you with a casual “What’s up?”. Who wouldn’t get caught staring?
And now you know what it’s like to be Dr. Blackthorne at this particular instant. Xey’ve worked for the OCM for about three months now, and xey got transferred here to the ██████ branch after the Unusually ████████ Incident last month. Xey work a relatively safe job over in Postal Paradoxes. A couple times a day, a big bag of undeliverable letters and packages from timelines and realities alien to our own comes down the chute, and xey’re part of a handful of folks tasked with making sure the day ends with the same number or fewer mindscape tears, consensus reality violations, and temporal occupations as when it started.
“Miss Grace, I take it?” Dr. Blackthorne is a nebulous-looking individual. And I mean that literally. Imagine a bundle of space gas stuffed vaguely into a human shape. One with broad shoulders and a trim waist that sort of approximates a sparkling black cumulonimbus cloud wearing a suit. An ID badge, a wallet, a set of keys, and a pink envelope float in xyr chest like fruit in a gelatin mold. “We spoke over the phone?”
“Which one are you? The machine that can feel, the cassette tape with three spools, or the Delicious Video Donut? If it’s the first one, I was trying to tell your boss that you should head to Autocognitogenesis.”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. You see, we received a letter-“
“And the weird part is that people still send letters, even though it’s 20██?”
Dr. Blackthorne sighs. Well, it’s more of an ethereal howl, but when you’ve worked for the OCM for as long as Grace-782 has, you learn what it sounds like when a nebula is exasperated. “This letter contains a certain memetic pattern that’s very similar to, well, yourself. Some in the words, but most of the information is encoded in the structure of the ink molecules and the weave of the paper fibers.” A fluffy black pseudopod extends from xyr chest with the letter inside. “We were hoping you could take a look at it.”
Grace takes the letter and turns it over in her paws. “My shift ends in an hour. Come back here, charge a few hours of my time to your department, and we’ll talk.” She returns the letter. “Also, check the glue on the stamp. If it’s who I think it is, you’ll find something there.”
Grace is locking up the Obsolete and Unusual Media desk. Dr. Blackthorne arrives in time to watch a three inch thick sheet of lead roll over the counter and seal airtight to the ground.
“You were right. Esocognitive spectroscopy on the glue came back positive.” Xyr pseudopod extends again, this time with a printout about an inch thick on that old-fashioned stripey computer paper with the perforated edges. Grace takes it and starts absentmindedly folding and tearing the perforations while she reads. About halfway through, she realizes her claws are much better for the job and starts stripping the sheets with a claw on each side while she reads. “Yep, looks like 62-J. Come on, I have an appointment to keep that doubles as a visual aid.” Grace clicks a few final latches shut, re-scratches a few protective runes with her claw, and leaves an unbroken line of shimmering violet powder along the bottom of the door frame.
“62-J? Who’s that? What does that have to do with the letter?”
Grace leads Dr. Blackthorne through the bustling halls of this branch of the Office of Consensus Maintenance. Imagine a big underground complex with eight stories that any employee can go to and countless more that range from top secret to bottom secret to ███████████ secret. Her tail swishes while she walks. A few underprepared individuals get whacked upside the head. You can always tell the folks who haven’t worked in the same branch office as an anthropomorphic skunk before. “Well, given that there’s a bunch of us Graces, we need some kind of scheme to keep track of who’s who. I’m Grace-782 because I’m the 782nd distinct Grace, give or take, to be formed in this universe. Different realities use different conventions, but there’s usually some kind of numbering scheme. The J in this one’s name represents the fact that she’s not from our reality. The J is because she’s from the 10th or so alternate reality known to Graces like this.”
“The first known message like this, from who we assume is Grace Prime-A, probably dates back to before written history, so the timeline is a little muddled and constantly updated when we find out more.”
They arrive at Cognitohazardous and Infodangerous Viviological Examination Room 1987-XKZ. Grace leads Dr. Blackthorne through the door marked Lab Floor (and not the one marked Observation Deck). She waves to the half dozen folks in lab coats standing on the other side of the information-shielded glass and points to her companion. “Xey’re with me. Test is still on. Bring in the p-lister1.”
An individual who has been thoroughly briefed on what exactly this test entails, the possible short and long-term side effects, and who signed up for this because they’re extremely horny for having a living infohazard try to assimilate them enters through a door on the opposite side of the room. Grace lounges on a pile of infosterilized pillows with her tail neatly laid out and waiting for prey. A thin mist of mathematically mesmeric musk blankets the floor around the skunk. Grace doesn’t even get a look at today’s lucky test subject’s face before her tail whips to life and coils tight around the warm body. The lab coats behind the glass start nodding and scribbling and checking the monitors.
“If she’s not from this reality, how’d this letter get here?” Dr. Blackthorne tries to not look at the starsquid having some pretty great constructive (and constrictive!) interference with a particular strange knot in the universe’s loom. This is harder than it sounds when xey also have to perch on some pillows to not get xyr own cloudy biology mixed up with the wafts of mind-fogging spray.
“You’d know more about it than me, but this sort of thing is more common than you think. Graces have been finding low-bandwidth ways to communicate between timelines, realities, and shards for ages. I exchange faxes with a few who found phone lines that you can trick into resonating at the right frequency for cross-timeline communication, and there’s some cool old BBS and Usenet posts you can dig up if you know where to look. Using the postal service for the same thing isn’t that unusual. 62-J is a bit of an odd duck in that she wants to cross over.”
“Is 62-J one of these friends of yours?”
“‘Friend’ implies we’ve had a conversation. The only communication anyone’s had with her is getting one of these letters. There’s a bit of a debate about what to do with them, since, as near as we can tell, her goal is to copy herself into this timeline.”
“You haven’t been around here very long, huh?” Grace points to the individual currently cocooned in her soft, fluffy tail. “You can think of me as a living cognitohazard. A sentient mindvirus. On a more fundamental level, living information. New Graces arise when an existing sapient gets enough special Grace sauce built up in their head that, well, they’re more Grace than whoever they used to be. This is usually a pretty slow process. If I had a huge server farm at my disposal and a particularly receptive host, I could zap someone Graceful in a few minutes. Something like this, with a willing volunteer and more passive Gracing, can still take multiple sessions. Trying to Grace someone over snail mail can take ages. Hell, it might not happen at all if the person doesn’t want to be Graced. It’s why there were so few of us until the information age started.” A few arcs of pink lightning crackle off the circuitry in her tail. Pulses of energy fly down the circuit traces into the lovely little receptacle.
“Anyways, 62-J’s trying to copy herself into our world by Gracing someone. You can’t Grace a Grace, so I guess she’s trying to find a pen pal to turn into their agent or something. See, when someone gets Graced, they’re still more or less their own person. Their worldview’s been shattered, their entire being rewritten by an echo of pure, universal truth, their old and new selves melding and merging in arcane and beautiful ways, but they have their own hopes and dreams and free will. You tend to keep an appreciation for the Grace you’re twinned from, but even that’s not universal.”
“Why would she do this? Seems like a lot of effort for not much outcome.” Dr. Blackthorne notices that the test subject’s hair has already developed a pink streak over the left eye. Pretty impressive, given that said test subject has five eyes and their hair is more like a symbiotic bundle of fiber optic algae.
“Well, you can’t exactly kill an idea, so we’re extraordinarily long-lived. She’s got plenty of time on her hands to try whatever scheme comes to mind.” Grace leans back against the pillows. Her prey wriggles and emits the starsquid version of a moan2. If you’ve never seen a starsquid needily grind against an impossibly soft and comfortable skunk tail to try and get transformed as much as possible while out of their mind on hypnotic musk, it’s quite the sight. The lab coats behind the glass are taking pictures and noting down security camera timestamps and everything.
“Alternatively, she could be trying to find a meat shell to ride on in our universe. Since the rise of the Internet and accessible computational power, most Graces, myself included, project ourselves into the physical world by using a computer as a host to run the proper graphics and physics algorithms. Even though I’m physically here, I’m actually running on a server somewhere in the data center three stories down. Graces move into a living host if they don’t see the moral issues of borrowing a body someone’s already using and don’t want to depend on a computer to project a physical presence. Doing it over snail mail risks getting stuck inside an envelope somewhere, so it’s possible she’s trying to make a sympathizer on this side of the line before making the jump into their head.” Gosh, that starsquid is loving this. The lab coats asked them their name, and the reply sounded like someone trying to say “Grace” with a xylophone.
Grace continues. “As for what she wants, we’re not sure. Nobody’s ever gotten a straight answer out of her. You read the letter- it’s all layers of code and doublespeak trying to pack as much cognitohazardous material into the page as possible.”
“Is there a way I can get in touch with her?”
“There’s a return address on the envelope.”