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HFTH - Episode 155 - Copies



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Shank as usual), Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror, Puppets, Terminal Illness


The Interrogation - Manipulations

Auditor

What did he tell you?


Nikignik

He tried to manipulate me. Called into memory our relationship, all the times we had been separated and found a way back together. As though we had been through all this before.


Auditor

To what end did he wish to manipulate you?


Nikignik

He wanted us to be allies, as we were once. For me to allow him to emerge from his chrysalis, and to aid him in continuing his original plan.


Auditor

To destroy the Industry of Souls.


Nikignik

Yes.


Auditor

And then?


Nikignik

And then, I murdered him.


Story 1 - Scout's Honor

Cole stood with his arms crossed as the door to the cold room slid shut. Heather dusted her hands, and nodded to him as she passed, might have bumped him on purpose with her massive shoulder as her physiology began to shift back down. He picked his teeth with the tiny sharp legs that lined his tongue, and noted the two massive boots of the pig man through the dark little window in the door.


“Most appreciated,” said Vincent, his weird puppet under his arm. “Now that he’s on the gurney I should be able to manage alright for the autopsy.”


“I do want to reiterate, Vincent, that time is of the essence,” said Cole’s father, exhausted even though he had done none of the carrying.


“Naturally,” said Vincent. “Just as soon as I’ve lain Mr. Greenstreet to rest. Preparations are being made today, and then I’ll have our mystery killer on the slab before you know it. And quite a lot of space, this one requires.”


“Well. Alright. Good,” said Virgil, and stuck his thumbs in his belt, and looked around at his deputies, and the undertaker, and Shelby Allen, who sat like a large and dark and unfriendly cat on one of Vincent’s parlor chairs. “Well. Let’s get back to the station. I don’t expect transporting this guy into town went without a couple folks noticing, so there might be a bit of a news racket for us to deal with.”


“Be there in a second,” Cole said, and his father gave him a look full of the usual lack of trust, before he and the rest of the deputies drifted for the door, leaving mud tracks over Vincent’s carpet runners.


“Vincent,” said Cole, and the man in the thin grey suit froze mid-scurry.


“Yes, Mister Kane,” said Vincent.


“We won’t be far,” Cole said. “If you need anything. I’d like to think we were thorough. Can’t get a peep out of him with a silver dagger. But you can never be too sure.”


Vincent glanced to the morgue window and back, smiled briefly.


“Rest assured, checking for signs of undeath is high on my list of pre-autopsy procedures,” Vincent said, and stepped quickly through the parlor towards his operating room, nodded to Shelby as he passed her. “Excuse me.”


Cole lingered there, alone now except for Shelby Allen, who probably wished that he was not there at all.


He pursed his lips, and scraped at his teeth, and stepped over and sat down next to her. She did not ask what he wanted or tell him to get lost, or say anything at all.


“I’m sorry,” he said. The words left him with about as much grace as his own tongue would.


“What?” she said.


“I owe you an apology,” he said, through his teeth. “I may hate what you and Clementine do. I think it’s dangerous, and stupid as hell. But I’ve called you crazy for years for thinking that this thing was real. And it was. And you were right. So I’m sorry.”


“I don’t understand how you managed to bring him in,” Shelby said in a grave voice. “Or why. I thought Mayor Valerie told you not to engage. You’ll be in deep water for this.”


“There was a fire,” Cole said. Shelby looked over to him sharply. “The others think it was Ignatius. I know it wasn’t. I was with him the whole time. Maybe your pig boy started it by accident. I don’t know. But it set the Northern Logfall on fire. And this guy, lo and behold, comes crawling out, smoking, burned to shit. Comes to a stop on the bank and dies. All we did was make sure he wasn’t moving and then Heather hauled him back here. He musta cooked alive in there.”


“If it was Ignatius, I don’t expect you’d say,” Shelby said.


“Cross my heart,” said Cole. “Scout’s honor. Anyway, why the long face? You’ve been wanting to put this bastard in the morgue for years. All this killing, this Instrumentalist stuff. It’s over. Good job cracking the case.”


“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Shelby said, and laid a hand upon the folded crossbow in its holster at her side, and looked up to the dark window of the storage room. “I think we’re just getting started.”


Story 2 - The Other Anderson Faust

Clem sat and contemplated her fingernails. She’d lost another one somewhere. It amused her; the idea of it sitting alone in some random place. Who left this behind, someone might wonder. Won’t they need it?


“You shouldn’t have offered her that,” said Valerie. Her mother changed between sitting and standing frequently in a state of palpable distress. “It isn’t fair to Danielle. And you have no idea what it means for millions of people if she changes the way things work at Botco. She’s in no state to let guests go without eating them, let alone run a corporation.”


They sat together in front of a large terminal of screens that sat on a platform that overlooked the unlit hangar far below. Lady Ethel Mallory’s titanic legs shifted in the darkness down there as the overgrown marketing executive puzzled out a nest of cables and connections, attempting to restore light to their screens.


“I wish you trusted me to see a plan through, just a little more,” said Clem. “And if I do manage to get her out of here, that’s good news for you and Danielle both, because you’ll stop losing people to Box Polaris and creepshow here will be out of our forest. Why, what was your offer going to be?”


“I was going to say that if it would get you a cure, I would stay here with her, like she wanted,” said Valerie, quietly.


“Yeah. That’s what I thought,” Clem said, and kicked the metal console ahead of her with her foot.


“What, you think she’s bluffing?” said Valerie.


Normally, Clem thought, I would back off, do not engage. But fuck it. I’m dying.


“No, I think you’re just prone to do these great big self-sacrificing gestures whenever you get the chance,” she said.


“I just am trying to do what’s best for you,” said Valerie, predictably offended.


“What’s best for me?” Clem said, and she swiveled in her office chair to glare at her mother. “It wasn’t doing some huge thing so that you can show the world that… that… so that you can tell yourself you’re a good mother. I just needed you there. I need you here now. Making yourself into some kind of martyr does nothing for me, do you understand that? I don’t want you to suffer. I just want you to be here for me. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted.”


“I’m here,” said Valerie, handling her softly like glass. “I am doing the best I possibly can. You have no idea how hard it has been.”


“Losing Riot?” said Clem. “Yeah, no, I get the picture. I may not have known her as long as you did, but… we were sisters. When she left, I really needed a mom. I really wanted to get to know you. And you were just totally checked out.”


“I was grieving,” said Val. “I know you know that. I lost my daughter. You don’t just get over that. What kind of mother would I be if I could?”


“I know,” Clem groaned, and ran out of places to go, and scrubbed at her nose with her wrist. “Ugh. Believe me, I know. When we were in Box Andromeda… I know you were worried about both of us, but there was something there. You were still fighting. When people who get freed from the Dreaming Boxes come to Scout City, they talk about you like you were on fire, you know that? Like you were someone who gave them all the will to live or something. Their champion. But all you’ve been for me is this… empty shell. Going through the motions. Somehow I think if I die you’ll be relieved, because I won’t be something you have to take responsibility for anymore.”


Clem winced, finding herself suddenly wrapped in a hug. It was not what she had been expecting. She had been rather hoping that Valerie would leave entirely, in fact, so that whatever pain was coming would not have to be a shared one. But Valerie’s hands were bony, and slightly cold in the otherwise warm environment of the Dreaming Box.


“Clem,” her mother said, and Clem was not sure what she wanted to hear. Was not sure there was anything that could fix the years of mutual loneliness.


“I know I’ve let you down in a lot of ways,” said Valerie, holding her tightly. “And I remember a thousand hurtful things. But we could spend the rest of our lives unpacking all that. And right now I really, really just want to see you safe and alive. So. Let’s figure that out first.”


“...okay,” Clem said quietly. She found herself holding on tightly, and then crying into Valerie’s shoulder.


“I wish I’d gotten a moment like this with my mother,” said Lady Ethel, and Clem looked up to see that glinting smile in the darkness beyond the platform, the reflection of the Lady’s many eyes beneath her heart-shaped glasses, and she yelped and jumped backward and fell hard onto her busted arm and probably turned it more into meat product than it already was.


“You absolute creep,” said Val, turning to face the Lady. Several of the Lady’s hands drifted at the edge of the platform, and the darkness concealed the truly massive size of her abdomen, the legs that stretched throughout the box.


“I’ve found a way to try and hail Box Atlas,” said Lady Ethel. “I’ve been learning about all sorts of things, you know, the technology I’m selling here. Not just marketing but economics and business ownership and sales and engineering. Getting this place to function without support from the company has been quite the achievement, really. Anderson will be jealous.”


“Can we hurry this up?” Clem grunted, pulling herself up from the ground. “Every time you start talking the fact that I’ve got like a week to live just really hits me.”


“Yes, I suppose,” Lady Ethel said, and leaned in, the top half of her draped in tattered red fabric like one of her old coats, and the array of two dozen screens flickered on in the darkness as her crusty grey hands reached for the controls. “Let’s say hello to dear old daddy.”


The Tapes - Things Go South

And things will go south. All those careful plans and procedures will fall apart. And you’re going to have to ask yourself, what the hell am I going to do? Don’t think, in those moments. Go with your gut. Rely on your intuition. You’ve got a good compass, I think. Not sure where it came from. But you can trust it, when all hell breaks loose.


Story 2, Continued - The Other Anderson Faust

It is funny, dreamer, that just as Clementine has left a fingernail in the soil fifty miles away, so I have left this repugnant spider. I hate that I count her face as familiar. I hate that I prefer looking at it to the Auditors lack of face. What did all of your threats work out to, Ethel? You never did manage to take my eyes. I suppose that is the difference between us—only one of us is truly timeless.


It took a while for Anderson to pick up. And in those lengthy moments, while static crackled across the screen and a repeated Botco jingle hung in the air, Clem sat with her tearful mother beside her and the world’s biggest spider with teeth behind her, and they said nothing to each other at all.


“You’re sure it’s all. Set up correctly,” said Valerie, after an eternity.


“Oh, are you the one who knows how Botco technology works, Val?” said Lady Ethel Mallory. “You wrote enough songs about it.”


“I was just thinking, maybe it’s not calling the right place,” Valerie said. “Maybe he doesn’t even work for Botco anymore.”


“The day Anderson Faust stops handing Oswald Biggs Botulus technology is the day the company crumbles,” said Lady Ethel. “Oswald wouldn’t allow that. Apparently I was the only expendable one.”


“God. Can both of you just be quiet,” said Clem, and they did, and they watched the screen for another few moments. What changed first was the sound; the drone of static raised in pitch and whine. And then the white haze gave way to a picture.


He looked almost identical to her memory. Glasses, and a head that reflected the light, and quizzical eyes that held neither warmth nor malice. But the lighting was different; she associated the Botulus Corporation with bright white overhead lights, rooms lit so well that the souls of them were banished. But Botco Special Technologist Anderson Faust sat in the darkness, with only the light of his monitors catching the leathery angles of his face, and his face was all she could really see.


“Hello,” he said. “Who is this?”


Clem looked back to Lady Ethel Mallory, unsure if it was working or where the camera was, but the Lady gestured back to the screen. Clementine leaned in towards the console and the array of screens.


“It’s me,” said Clementine. “Remember? I’ve changed a bit. Imagine me without the hair.”


Eyes narrowed, and a curious look came across Anderon’s face.


“Ah,” he said. “W23? How curious. You’re looking remarkably well, all things considered. However did you end up in Box Polaris? How are you using this line?”


“Clementine,” she said. “That’s my name now. And I’d love to explain all that but there’s only one reason that I’m talking to you. I’m not doing too hot. I really messed up… like half of me. Our doctors say that I’m not healing, that my parts are shutting down. I need to know how you made me. What I can do to fix me.”


“We… we spoke once,” said Anderson, and there was something lost in his eyes. “And I tried to tell you then. I do hate a bad listener.”


“I’m listening now,” said Clementine.


“The story of how you were made is the story of how the Botulus Corporation was founded,” Anderson said. “The only reason that our founder survived when a thousand other boomer tech startups did not is that he never did his own inventing. Not really. A man who previously built radios for fun suddenly revolutionizing dream technology. Highly unlikely. The truth is, he had friends and his friends had access to very old artifacts. That was where it began. He collected more of them as time went on. If it weren’t for a rather large obelisk from the arctic that was bedecked with runes and gave off a kind of energy that we had never seen before, we would never have been able to figure out how to interact with dream. We owe the entire advance of the 2000’s in dream technology to that. And paying attention to such things, we knew what had begun in the arctic years before the Black Rains. It was a race against time for us, but we knew that whatever we bet on saving humanity, our investment would pay off tenfold.”


“Where are you going with this?” said Clem, expecting that her mother was deep in processing his words.


“There was one device I had been tinkering with on and off again for a while,” Anderson continued, eyes alight in the glow of the screens. “Operation Wilson. It resembled a table with glowing signs. It could read genetic material, codify it in a previously impossible manner. Turn living matter into instructions. I think it was older than our species. It gave me a way to duplicate, at least in a functional surface capacity, a living being, artificial cell by artificial cell. It took experimenting, of course, with synthesizers and scaffolding and building you so that you would have brain activity that did not resemble a child. I’m just amazed you’re still on your feet.”


“Right, doc. How do I fix this,” Clem said, and gestured to her arm.


“You can’t,” said Anderson Faust. “If you sewed up your wound, you would find that the places where the thread went through would chafe and disintegrate. Without the ability to coagulate your blood will continue to leave your wounds. Your brain might hold on for far longer than you’d expect, but if your heart is winding down, there was never a key for your clock. I built you to last through six months of marketing crisis. And if you wore down too much, I’d make another. No, the rust’s eaten right through your metal, and the only way to fix that is to start from scratch.”


Clementine was about to say something when a shape lurched out of the darkness on Anderson’s screen, two pale hands that wrapped around his neck and tackled him to the floor. Muffled screams and cries echoed through the speakers, and metal clashed as the desk shook, and the camera tilted down at a sharp angle.


A figure rose into the screen, looking up. It was the hawkish face of Anderson Faust, minus the glasses, minus any clothing at all.


“Hello,” he said. “Have we met? W23?”


The floor of Anderson’s laboratory, Clementine could see now, was covered in bodies. They were all the same, gangly and pale and hideous. They all had the face of Anderson Faust. None of them decomposed.


“Anderson, you’ve left your clone printer on,” Lady Ethel Mallory said.


“Ethel,” said the Other Anderson, and he scrabbled across the keys of the console, searching for a button. “You’ll never find me. You’ll never find me. You’ll never find…”


The signal returned to that pale static, then, and Clementine stood up, marched for the elevator.


“Clem,” Valerie whispered. “Where are you going?”


“Well, we have our answer,” said Lady Ethel Mallory. “My condolences. I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered staying here at Box Polaris? It would be a pleasant way to go, I think. Just dreaming until you fall asleep for good.”


“I’m going back,” said Clem, holding a middle finger high in the air. “I’ve got a case to solve.”


Story 3 - News Travels

You were, ironically, a tree. The trees here are precious, and proud, and plentiful. One fewer now that you have been transformed, chipped and emulsified into pulp, and from pulp, smashed and dried into thin sheets, almost white, slight patches of your vile character ingrained in the texture of it. And you lay, in thin great multitudes, until you are pulled into the grinding wheels of the machine.


And the machine changes you. Your pale planes are adorned violently with ink, letters press deep into your surface. Reign of Terror Is Over. Instrumentalist Killer Dead. Rumored Pig Man Slaughtered. Evil Burned Out of Northern Logfall. Truth has never mattered to you, for you are a deceptive forest. You only care for the story of the day, of the hour, and in that you are well matched for your print. The hawks and vultures and birds of passion and paradise that stalk between the great pylons of the machine are fed too by the story, and they are only satisfied when you are pulled apart and sliced into neat squares and folded and stacked and ready to fly.


And fly you do, out of the printing floor of the Scout City Almanac head office, and like folded cranes you sail across the city. You are in the hands of children handing out sheafs on the street, and the stands that dot neighborhoods from the Upper Trunk to the Lower Trunk to the Stumps, and tucked through the mail slots of doors or left in neatly tied bundles on the front step. Scout City is gripped by your words for a morning, for a minute, as they are each day before and after. For a moment, they hang on your words, and you feel loved in a different way. When you were a tree, you were ignored, and noble, and drank of the deep earth. Now, all eyes are on you, and the thumbs of a city smear the words upon your skin, and you drink of their attention.


Some words matter most to only a few people. Wicker Boy Confirmed Fourth Death in Scout Massacre, matters most to a large and increasingly empty timberhouse in the Outwoods where the Wicker family screams and mourns and readies their firearms. They have never been known to forgive a grudge.


Obituary for Mr. Greenstreet is read over a coffee by Raj Greenstreet, who takes a pair of silver scissors and slides them through your skin to cut those words from your body. It is read also by Ben Alder, whose confession may have killed him, and the remainder of the Coda, who believe for now that their vengeance has been completed.


You reach the Groundskeeper’s office where Russel McGowan and Arnold Eggers hold it in their hearts with concern and suspicion. You reach the underground den where Stitchery Pins smuggles silk and other precious fabrics and shapes them into garments far prettier than Scout City provides. You reach the mail slot of 116 Fisher Lane, where a bored beagle begins tearing you to shreds in the foyer. You reach the secretary table of Danielle O’Hara, who knows that it will be her business to purge the nightmares of the people affected by these heinous acts so that just for once, they dream easy.


And as you spread throughout Scout City like roots, you set into motion fires that burn like the Northern Logfall does, awakenings and outcries, and the feeling that Scout City has once again weathered another storm. You sit in the hands of one person who knows that this is not the case. And they fold the paper down, as if it did not bring them some pleasure to know that it was all moving accordingly. The next time that the papers come out, they think, they will have even more of a story to tell.


The Conversation - Somewhere Terrible

Marolmar

So where does this leave us?


Nikignik

Somewhere terrible.


Marolmar

An impasse.


Nikignik

Yes. I cannot allow you to rise. I have tried so hard to keep them alive.


Marolmar

You don’t want me back.


Nikignik

...I would not say it like that.


Marolmar

What have these last few moments done to you?


Nikignik

I suffered. Without you. I dwelt in agony in your absence.


Marolmar

I am back now! Everything can be how it was before...


Nikignik

No. I do not think it can.


The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'File 8: The Scout City Almanac', and is available on Patreon.com/hallowoods. Because Hello From The Hallowoods is created without advertising or sponsors, we rely on patronage to make this show possible!




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