Michael H. Payne (hyniof) wrote,
Michael H. Payne

Secret Stories


Since I seem to be in the process of following the "abandon LiveJournal" trend, I'll be moving the current Secret Story and all its further additions over to this Google Doc starting May 8, 2017. Please update your bookmarks accordingly 'cause this version here is now officially and figuratively frozen in amber.


Shaenon Garrity:

Is one of the mad genii of modern comics, "genii" being used in this case as the plural of "genius." I mean, I've gotta do something with that M.A. in Classics, don't I? Six years of my life, and all I can show for it is the occasional amusing and technically incorrect plural like "octopodes" for "octopus" and "premia" for "premium," things that'd be right if we were all speaking Latin or Ancient Greek, but who'd really wanna be doing that? They call 'em dead languages for a reason, y'know!

Anyway. Shaenon Garrity. Right.

Among any number of other fine comics, she's responsible for Narbonic, a lovely piece of work that she wrapped up at the end of 2006. If you haven't read it, please go and do so. This post will still be here in several months when you return.

Now, while looking up another topic entirely last week, I stumbled over a review of Narbonic posted at The Savage Critic. Written by Diana Kingston-Gabai, it contains the following extraordinary bit of information:

But what left me most in awe of Garrity was that, from November 2002 to the very end of the comic, she used the filenames of the strips themselves to tell a prose story...

This was the first time I'd ever heard about this secret story, and going to the Narbonic page where Ms. Garrity is re-running the series with "director's commentary," I clicked through to the strip that was up and found that it was indeed true--although the strip in question turned out to have been originally posted in November of 2001, and, as you can see, it's got words at the end of the file name even though it's from a year before the date Ms. Kingston-Gabai mentions.

So, after considering what I would need to do to read this secret story--find out where the whole words-in-the-file-name thing actually began, then view what is very probably 1,500 individual daily comic strips to copy 'n' paste the words--for about half a second, I decided to hope instead that Garrity will see fit to put the story into the last volume of the print Narbonic books she's been coming out with. And that, I figured, was that.

Until I remembered her new strip...

Skin Horse, co-written with Jeffrey Channing Wells, began the last day of 2007 and has been appearing six days a week, the same schedule as Narbonic, ever since, a much more "doable" group, it seemed to me. If Garrity was indeed performing the same storytelling tomfoolery with the file names on this one...

A quick click through to the first comic showed me that she was. So I opened up Notepad and began.

Skin Horse took a while for me to warm up to, actually. In "Cowardly Lion," the first storyline, the characters seemed to be pretty much exact analogs of the main cast from Narbonic: Unity was Mel, the cheerfully trigger-happy assistant, Sweetheart was Artie, the cute and clever talking animal, and Tip struck me as almost literally a combination of Dave and Helen. The story, too, tried awful hard to be madcap, and that's an effect that dissolves quickly under the pressure of striving to achieve it.

The story had some good lines, though, and the characters, while derivative, were definitely appealing, so I stuck with it. Introductory stories are often the hardest, I've found, and I figured I'd see what Garrity and Wells would do once they got all that stuff outta the way. And the second storyline, "Borrowers," made me very glad I stuck around. Gavotte and Moustachio, the final two members of Project Skin Horse, were instantly and marvelous realized in the opening week, and the story as a whole, focusing as it does on Tip, has gone a long way toward defining him away from his predecessors.

Anyway, the reason I'm going into all this here is: once I got all the words copied 'n' pasted in from the comics' file names, it occurred to me that I was gonna be adding two or three words to this thing every day for a good long time. I would either need to save an updated version of the secret story to every computer I might possibly be working at every day, or I could just put the dang thing here where I could get at it easily. I've chosen the later course. And here it is.

A few disclaimers first. 1) Unless you're familiar with Skin Horse, the following will likely make no sense; 2) The story will only advance a couple words a day, so don't be alarmed when it ends in the middle of a sentence; and 3) While I'm putting in punctuation marks, breaking the text into sentences and paragraphs and that sort of thing, the following is none of my doing and is in every way the intellectual property of Shaenon K. Garrity and Jeffrey Channing Wells.

And now, on with the secret story!


     Tip wore white to the final test, a vintage 1930's day dress: low neckline; open sleeves; possibly a Vionnet as he'd hoped the bias cut flattered his slim figure. With it, he wore a lace cap, short mesh gloves, and a simple string of pearls, just enough to set off the clean classic silhouette. He felt strength spread through him as he walked, seeping into his skin through the delicate linen. If he'd picked the right pair of shoes, it just might be enough.

     He didn't know where they'd taken him this time, but it was a long way from the sound of the highway. The young officer who'd accompanied him in the back of the sedan--Lt. Shapiro, according to his uniform--led him down the overgrown path of what looked like it might once have been a garden. Occasionally they passed a rusted vaguely oriental lamppost or a little ceramic idol, chipped, faceless. A forgotten park, a long-abandoned beer garden, an old buddhist temple: the federal government picked up some odd pieces of real estate. Tip had to assume the area was highly classified, but as he clutched his skirts and picked his way carefully around mud puddles, he didn't think it looked too impressive. Maybe that was deliberate.

     Lt. Shapiro stopped. They'd come to a small pagoda shaped building, something that might once have been a teahouse. A few strips of faded red and gold paint clung to the sagging wooden frame. Lt. Shapiro saluted; Tip returned the salute. He walked in alone, concentrating on the soft swish of white linen against his calves.

     He'd been through so many tests--intelligence tests and aptitude tests; loyalty drills and background checks; blood tests. They'd hypnotized him once and done some kind of probe he tried not to think about. It had all been very impersonal, very professional, but somehow shabby. Whatever this battery of tests was, he was getting the lowbudget version.

     Tip understood. He was aware that he wasn't being singled out as exceptional in any way, just slotted through a mostly automatic process into the position he fit best. He was a very oddly-shaped peg, and that meant he could only go into a very oddly-shaped hole. If anything, he had to commend the system for making the effort to find a place for him. His C.O. in Kabul had sent him home with an honorable discharge and a recommendation for C.I.A. training, and the C.I.A. had passed his name along to a group of people who officially didn't have names--not important people necessarily: just people who did their work very, very quietly.

     On the other hand, it wasn't like his superiors could do anything else. He wasn't crazy and he wasn't gay, so it was hard to get rid of him. This whole convoluted process was easier in terms of paperwork than just discharging him, and they'd wanted him out of the way ever since he'd started dressing well. Tip thought it was a shame that so few military personnel appreciated his sense of style, but he didn't think seriously about getting rid of his wardrobe any more than he thought seriously about getting rid of his arms.

     Tip's fists clenched for a moment, tightening in their mesh gloves. Better. He breathed out and let his eyes adjust to the dim light inside the pagoda.

     The room contained a single folding table, bare except for a sheet of paper. Three men sat behind it: two wore army dress blues without identification; the man between them wore a faded black suit. Not a bad cut actually, thought Tip. Clothing aside, they looked similar: broadshouldered, salt-and-pepper haired, authoritative but otherwise forgettable. It wasn't the first time Tip had stood before honest-to-goodness 'men in black'--in some cases dressed in blue or green--but it always unnerved him a little.

     "Captain Dennis Wilkin," said the man in the suit. He looked Tip up and down with the expression of a man wearily hoping he was wrong. "Or do you prefer 'doctor'?"

     "Actually, you can call me--" Tip shut up. He'd only started being Tippi recently and mostly in his head, and it occurred to him that this might not be the best time to break out the new name. It'd be a heck of a thing to get kicked out for saying the wrong thing just before the final test.

     Besides, he wasn't sure about the name. He wasn't sure about being a woman. He wasn't sure about being a man either, which was the whole problem. There was only one, one thing he could be sure about. Which was that he looked fantastic. He clung to that sole certainty like a man--or possibly a woman--clutching a rock in a storm. "--whichever you prefer, sir," said Tip and saluted just to be sure.

     "At ease, captain," said the man in the suit automatically: he was probably army, too. He read from the paper in a practiced monotone. "When you are so ordered, you will pass through the door behind me. You will not return to this room. Further instructions will be provided at the conclusion of the test. Should you fail the test, you will be dismissed from this training sequence immediately. You will not be provided with further information. You may not request further information. Anything you see or hear during this test is strictly classified and is to be considered a matter of national security. Discussing the content of this test with anyone is to be considered a treasonable offense."

     Tip listened politely. He'd gotten similar briefings before the last five tests, so he must have passed into genuinely classified territory. He didn't think he'd seen anything "top secret"--though he'd been grilled on his background and patriotism while hooked up to a lie detector and done another psych test, this one with a soft-faced woman who had pressed him about his favorite childhood books, his imaginary friends, whether he'd liked windup robots or cuddly bears, and gone through what had looked like one of those tests for E.S.P., cards with squiggles and stars, and talked about his doctoral thesis and done chinups...

     It hadn't been much different from the first round of tests--except for the warning label.

     The man in the suit leaned forward. "Captain, why do you want this job?"

     This was a new one. "Sir?"

     "This is not a prestigious post, Captain. It is not important or exciting. Frankly, captain, it's a low-level civil service desk job which just happens to be very secure and require certain uncommon skills. The pay is mediocre, and there's no opportunity for promotion--"

     "Yes, sir, that's been explained to me." Tip had often wondered over the past few months exactly what uncommon skills he possessed. Military experience, doctorate in psychology, few close relatives--that was probably attractive from a security standpoint. He was smart, but he'd be the first to admit he hadn't done much with his smarts since burning out in grad school...

     But maybe that was what they wanted: a bright person without ambition, someone who would do a strange, specialized job without complaint. What kind of job--?

     He found his gaze drifting to the far end of the room. Under the linen, his skin prickled.

     "Then why, captain? Why are you here?"

     "Why?" Tip fingered his pearls until his hands stopped shaking. No reason to be nervous. The worst they could do was, well, erase all evidence of his existence from the face of the earth. But they probably wouldn't do that. At least, they might not. Unless they got really annoyed...

     What was behind the door?


     Tip took a deep breath. "Well, sir, I can't say I'm not curious. So there's that. But I get the impression that whatever this job is, I might be one of the only people who can do it. Am I right?"

     Gray stares.

     "If I am, I feel a kind of duty, sir. That's why I joined the service: to help people with whatever skills I've got."

     "A laudable sentiment, captain," said the man in the suit, his expression blank.

     "Also, I was told I wouldn't have to wear a tie."

     "Through the door, captain," sighed the man in the suit.

     The door was an exit. Tip stepped onto a weedy lawn ringed by cherry trees, their petals brown and curling this late in the spring. A white dog trotted up to him: one of those curly-tailed sled dog types, a big one. "Captain Wilkin," said the dog. It had a rough but unmistakably feminine voice. "Or do you prefer doctor?"

     Tip felt a huge, crazy grin spread across his face. "Actually, you can call me Tip."

     "Fine by me," said the dog. "You can call me Sweetheart. What's with the look?"

     "I'm sorry. Can't help it."

     Sweetheart's ears folded back. "Is something funny?"

     Tip tucked a stray lock behind his ear. It was amazing how much easier it was to talk to the dog than to the men. Oh, well. "I don't want to offend you or anything, but I've spent so much time wondering what terrible secret the govenment had hidden under all these layers of security and...and now I'm here, and it's not terrible! It's wonderful!"

     Sweetheart looked at Tip in silence, her head cocked in a very doggy way. Finally, she said, "Do you want this job, Tip?"

     "I do."

     "You've got it." She trotted away, turned back to Tip, and jerked her head, motioning for him to follow.

     "Just like that? That was the test? Just answering those questions?"

     "No. The test was whether you could hear them. About twenty percent of humans psychologically block things they consider impossible. They can't hear me. If you were one of them, you'd be useless for this job...not to mention annoying as a coworker."

     "We're going to be coworkers?"

     "Looks like it."

     Sweetheart led Tip down a path through the trees. "I'm field commander for Project Skin Horse. You're not on the field team, but we'll see each other. Don't ask me anything else about the department: I'm sure someone will send you paperwork, and Gavotte will fill you in on Monday."

     "Monday? I start immediately?"

     "You bet. We haven't had anyone to make copies or water the orchids in weeks." Sweetheart stopped and looked back at Tip. "Just 'cause you asked, you're one of eight people who could've done this job. Four dropped out, one failed this test, and I didn't like the other two."

     "Did you hear me talking in the--?"

     "I'm a dog. I can't help hearing things. Gavotte said you'd be the one we went with: she's eerie sometimes." She really was, thought Sweetheart. Gavotte had been right about Unity, too, and no one else had held out any hope for Unity. It wasn't that Unity had been created as a weapon--they'd all been created as weapons if it came down to that. At least Sweetheart and Moustachio had: nobody knew what Gavotte's deal was...

     The problem was that Unity was a weapon that worked, and as much as Sweetheart hated touchy-feely jargon, she had to admit Unity had issues. And issues weren't good things for a killing machine to have.

     Unity was the product of a government supersoldier project--not one of the better ones as far as Sweetheart could see. She was necrotic with parts that could be replaced on the battlefield with some sturdy thread, a bonesaw, and whatever materials might happen to be lying around. Her patchwork body was strengthened by the chemicals that flowed in her veins instead of blood, manufactured in whatever softly purring thing had replaced her heart.

     Only her brain was technically alive: years ago, some mad scientist had sold the defense department the DNA of a perfect assassin, and Unity's brain had been grown from it in a dish. She'd been trained by heavily-scarred men with thick accents and unclear ties to any existing government. A lot of interesting people had made Unity, and then, when their funding had been cut, they'd abandoned her as far as Skin Horse could reconstruct.

     Unity had bounced around various halfway houses for non-humans until she'd gotten to be too much trouble to keep around; then she'd gone feral, which was apparently a design flaw in that particular model of brain. Skin Horse had cornered her in a cornfield in Omaha, clubbing people with anything she could get her hands on--mostly other people. Two members of the field team, Plasma Adam and Agent Blue, were killed taking her down. Sweetheart, the sole survivor, hadn't exactly been enthusiastic when Gavotte had suggested hiring Unity to replace them, but she'd been right.

     Sweetheart hadn't thought about Agent Blue in days. Heck of a woman, Agent Blue...

     She stole a glance back at Tip Wilkin, still grinning like an idiot. He hadn't been Sweetheart's first or second or fifth choice. Most of the applicants looked better on paper--only on paper, a renegade thought smirked. He wasn't within a lightyear of Sweetheart's type, but even she could tell he was a startlingly handsome man, dress or no dress, younger than he had a right to be with his credentials.

     Sweetheart recalled from his file that he'd been something of a prodigy: very high I.Q., never really lived up to it, muddled through several colleges, joined the army, was invisible until he started the drag thing in Afghanistan, typical convoluted human junk. Sweetheart wasn't any kind of species warrior, but she couldn't help thinking as she watched Tip pick his way delicately around a fallen branch that humans really did live differently. Here he was joining them in spotless white linen and lacy gloves, plucked gently from the ranks of other clean-cut apes to do his little job. He wasn't like Unity, shackled and snarling and covered in mud and twigs, or Moustachio in the file photos Sweetheart had seen, salvaged from a junkyard with his head knocked half off his rusted, dented body.

     Or--if she was going to be honest here--Sweetheart herself. She cringed inwardly as she remembered a younger dog, barely more than a puppy really, throwing herself against the wall of the kennel, almost foaming with rage. She wasn't the only dog doing that, but she was the only one shouting, "A phone call! I demand a phone call! I know my rights!"

     The 16th Street SPCA had two animal care attendants on duty in the dog kennels that night. They stared at Sweetheart through the plexiglass. Finally, one of them shouted, "How are you talking??"

     "With my mouth! Are you stupid?? Bring me a phone!"

     As she calmed down, Sweetheart regretted speaking to them. She'd been flustered and angry, getting caught by animal control after weeks of surviving on the streets. She'd hiked all the way down through Oregon and into California without running into any trouble more serious than the occasional homeowner chasing her away from the trash cans, and now this! And in San Francisco of all places! Mushminded hippie central! It was embarrassing!

     The attendants stepped into the kennel still staring. Their nametags identified them as Mitchell and Six: Mitchell was the woman. Sweetheart already hated them. "We can't bring the phone into the kennel," said Mitchell. "The cord doesn't reach."

     "I have a right to a phone call! If you can't do that, you'd better release me pronto!"

     "We can't let you go," said Mitchell. "You were turning garbage cans over."

     "I'm not saying anything to incriminate myself, if that's your game! Nobody's got any evidence against me!"

     Six and Mitchell looked at each other. "You're not in jail," said Six. "You're a dog."

     "Are you trying to tell me I don't have the right to a phone call??"

     "Er, no. You don't. You're a dog."

     "So it's execution without trial, is it??"

     Mitchell was scandalized. "This is a 'no-kill' shelter!"

     "You can use my phone," said Six quickly. (pronoun trouble--She) He dug a cell phone out of (more pronoun trouble--her) his pocket. "What should I dial?"

     Sweetheart was taken aback. She'd had the idea of calling home using the line in Captain Bram's old cabin that the pack kept live for emergencies and ordering pizzas, but now it seemed less appealing. Let Buddy and Princess laugh at her? She buried her head in her paws. "Forget it. Just let me go."

     "I'm calling the Chronicle," said Six.

     Sweetheart refused to talk for the reporter, causing hilarious and satisfying humiliation all around. She only spoke when alone with Mitchell and Six. This, she was pleased to see, drove them nuts.

     Still, she knew she was getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Lying in the admittedly posh kennel all day, exercising with a bunch of ordinary dogs, was mindnumbing. The shelter had a mascot, a tortoiseshell cat named Cinnamon who patrolled the halls and usually stopped to lick herself in an indelicate area right in front of Sweetheart's plexiglass. Sweetheart knew she was losing it when she started to look forward to seeing Cinnamon.

     On day eight, Sweetheart was awakened from an afternoon nap by a voice outside the kennel. "That one. That's exactly the dog I'm looking for!"

     "We call her Marshmallow," said Grace, another of the attendants. "Her personality profile and list of shots are right here."

     Okay, she hadn't counted on this.

     Mitchell was on duty that afternoon. "You can't adopt her!" she cried, bursting into the room where Sweetheart and her prospective new owner were supposed to bond.

     "Why not?" he asked, ruffling Sweetheart's fur. "She seems friendly. Samoyed mix, right? Lots of personality."

     Sweetheart allowed herself to be scritched. It had occurred to her that this was the perfect opportunity to escape. Once she was out of the shelter, she'd have no trouble ditching this bozo, then she could get the Hell out of the city and to--

     Well, she hadn't worked that out yet. Anywhere had to be better than this!

     Mitchell hovered over them hopping nervously on one foot. "You don't want this dog! Seriously! We've got a ton of great dogs!"

(deleted text, I'm guessing--Six said Grace in her warning voice)

(repeated words--this dog seriously we've got a ton of great dogs)

     "Mitchell," said Grace in her warning voice. "What have we discussed about getting too attached to our guests? Marshmallow was cleared for adoption two days ago."

     Sweetheart shot a nasty toothy grin at Mitchell.

     "I'm just making sure! If he lives here in the city, that's reason enough to recon--"

     "No, no. I have a little house in Berkeley," the man said cheerfully. "Park around the corner--

     "For your kids??" Mitchell pounced. "Because we don't recommend that families with small children--"

     "I'm gay."


     "And much as I love children, I see plenty of them at school."


     "I'm a schoolteacher. Leaves evenings free for walkies and quality time. Right, Marshmallow?" For just a moment, it seemed to Sweetheart his friendly open smile flashed a hint of wicked amusement.

     Mitchell sputtered for a moment, then barked, "Choke collars??"

     "Wouldn't dream of it."

     "Obedience training??"

     "I've contacted the Lucky Puppy Academy in Rockridge. I understand it's fairly prestigious."

     "Unsafe dog food from China??"

     "You know, I was thinking of making my own. It's the only way to be sure you're getting organic, dont you think?"

     Mitchell stared miserably.

     "I'm (words out of order--man looking up with warm) sorry," said the man, looking up with warm, innocent eyes devoid of any hint of calculation. "Is there some reason you don't think I'm good enough for this dog?"

     "That's enough, Mitchell!" hissed Grace urgently. Sweetheart wasn't attuned to the subtleties of human culture, and she literally didn't see color, but it suddenly occurred to her that Grace and Mitchell were white and the man with his arms around her was black. Oh, and gay, apparently.

     Delivered by liberal guilt. That was a Hell of a thing. "I'll draw up the papers," said Mitchell.

     Half an hour later, Sweetheart left the SPCA with her new master. She trotted obediently at his side until they rounded the corner--

     At which point she lunged at the leash with every ounce of her considerable sled-dog strength, broke free, raced down an alley, and vanished into the shadows of the city forever!

     At least that was the plan....

     What actually happened was that she lunged at the leash with every ounce of her considerable sled-dog strength--and collapsed on the sidewalk gasping for breath as the man with the leash turned out to be both unexpectedly alert and even stronger than he looked.

     He squatted beside her. "Sorry about that. But I assure you, I'm here to help. Of course, if you'd really prefer that I let you go, just say the word." He smiled that infuriatingly friendly smile and brushed a stray dreadlock out of his face.

     He didn't smell human.

     Sweetheart couldn't believe she hadn't noticed it before. Oh, the smell was mostly right--probably enough to fool humans--but down at the bottom was a dry, small-animal musk. Not a monkey smell. The smell of prey. "What are you?" Sweetheart asked.

     "Genetically-engineered chimera. Not unlike yourself." He stood up. "I'm in a local transgenic rights organization. I got a call asking me to bail you out."

     "From who? Mitchell? That reporter?"

     "Cinnamon. She's been keeping an eye on you." He smiled down at her. "See? You're not alone."

     Sweetheart snorted.

     "Come on; I know a coffeehouse on Valencia where we can talk without being bothered. I'm Artie, by the way, and I'm going to assume your name isn't really Marshmallow."

     "Of course not! Marshmallow? That's nauseating!


     "It's Sweetheart."


     Artie was as good as his word: No one at the coffee shop gave them a second glance. That was San Francisco....

     Over coffee, Sweetheart told Artie everything: how the pack had gone to hell after Captain Bram died; how she'd gotten kicked to the bottom of the pecking order after losing a power bid against that rhymes-with-bitch Sparkle; how she'd eventually decided to hell with it and struck out for the States where they appreciated rugged individuality and anyone had a chance at top dog. And Artie described the small but dedicated network of volunteer groups that funneled nonhuman sapients like Sweetheart into places where they could live with some degree (missing word--of) comfort and dignity.

     "So I'm supposed to live off handouts," said Sweetheart. "That's the way you (missing words, I'm guessing--do things in) the Land (missing word--of) Opportunity?"

     "It's not handouts. We're just trying to pool our resources so everyone gets a fair share of--"

     "So! You're socialists, too!"

     Artie looked affronted, then laughed a little sadly. "You're right. You're absolutely right. We're fighting for the chance to contribute more to the larger society. But there are a lot of factors that must be considered before--"

     "I don't want to be beholden to anybody!" said Sweetheart. "I want a job!"

     "All right. What sort of job?"

     "I want to do what you do!"

     "Really? Well, it requires a master's and certification, and some say teaching is more of a calling."

     Sweetheart rolled her eyes. "Not that. What you're doing now with me. I want to help people like that!"

     "Ah." Artie's expression softened. "But what I'm doing now is volunteer work: It's not a job per se."

     "Aren't there people who get paid for doing stuff like this? It's not all charity, is it?"

     "Well, there's Skin Horse. That's the federal department dedicated to nonhuman sapients. But I don't like Skin Horse. I mean, I think the individual members mean well..."

     "Why don't you like them?"

     In the weeks that followed, crashing at Artie's perpetually under-construction Craftsman, Sweetheart got to know him a little better. He was--among other things--the product of biochemical intelligence experiments, and behind his disconcertingly pleasant, disconcertingly human face was a mind that ran easy laps around any ape's. During her time at his house, she followed him into the city on foggy weekend afternoons and waited silently while he played the chess hustlers on Market Street all at once, walking up and down the line. She saw his classroom syllabi with the dense charts reminding himself where to stand, which eye to catch, how to inflect his voice to maximize his students' retention: he had the only first-graders in the district who could do calculus. And she listened to him gripe about his creator--he had one of the famous ones, the last of the infamous Narbon clone line--and what a fiendish manipulator she was, apparently unaware that he had the same skill, focused and amplified along the uncracked seashell curves of mad genius.

     Sweetheart was relieved to move out. She liked people who spoke on one level at a time. But for years after, she would try to remember Artie's face at the moment she asked him about Skin Horse. Because he must have known. He must have suspected. And at that moment, his unnatural brain must have spooled through possibilities and statistical likelihoods and considered that if certain eventualities came to pass, it would be useful to have an old friend in Skin Horse. And how long after that had Gavotte added her name to the roster, as certain about Sweetheart as she would later be about Unity and Tip? It had probably all been decided by forces beyond her control before Sweetheart had even signed up.

     She hated that.

     Artie sipped his black coffee. "They're not really progressive enough for my tastes."

     Sweetheart wasn't good at reading human faces. She was good at reading human smells, but Artie didn't smell human. "How do I join?" she asked.

     Unity bounced in her seat. Bounce, bounce, bounce. She could hardly wait to meet the new agent! The office had felt awfully empty lately with just her and nice old Moustachio. And Gavotte, of course, but Gavotte wasn't the kind of person you could play with and have a good time. She just dissipated.

     Unity liked having people to play with. Somehow this tended to lead to fewer people eventually for reasons that were a little blurry in Unity's memory. But never mind. It was fun to make new friends. Unity hoped Captain Wilkin would be friendly.

     Bounce, bounce. Before Skin Horse, Unity used to have trouble making friends. The Anasigma super-soldier facility hadn't been friendly at all. There were always people looking at you from behind glass at Anasigma, taking notes and whispering to each other and sometimes throwing up a little if you did something really interesting! And no one had a sense of humor about a person escaping from the enclosure just to run around a little!

     Well, run and eat. That was the other thing about Anasigma: they were really picky about what you ate. Not friendly people at all. Dr. Lee, the head of the team that created Unity, had tried to be-- "Friendly" wasn't exactly the right word. "Stressing-the-importance-of-base-socialization-with-an-eye-to-future-productive-team-function" was how Dr. Lee put it. Or "cultivating-a-capacity-for-positive-interpersonal-relationships-in-mission-scenarios." Or when that failed, "Good-lord-Unity-we-don't-run-around-taking-bites-out-of-people-is-this-seriously-hard-to-understand??"

     Dr. Lee might have been kind of friendly in her way, but she was no fun: that was why, after one boring psych session too many, Unity had left the facility for good, making sure to have a hearty lunch first in case she got hungry on the road.

     As it turned out, she had nothing to worry about. There was plenty of tasty food to eat in the outside world--not to mention plenty of nice people to meet and plenty of fun things to play with. Sometimes, these were all the same thing.

     Bounce, bounce. Unity craned her neck out the car window. Why was her new friend taking so long? She was hungry!

     She heard Sweetheart coming down the path long before she saw her. Unity had good hearing. It was supposed to be for tracking enemy soldiers and stuff, but she didn't do that anymore, not since Skin Horse had found her. Like Sweetheart had explained back then, Unity was no longer in the super-soldier business. Now she helped people. She didn't hunt them down and eliminate them. Not on the clock, anyway...

     Sweetheart was saying, "The beige goes to Gavotte, the tan goes to Human Resources which technically we don't have, so what you do is make two additional copies, one lilac and one lavender--and please don't confuse them. Plasma Adam always mixed them up, and then I'd have to go in after him and recopy and reroute everything with a little apology note on each copy. So the lilac goes to the front desk downstairs, but you have to make sure Ira puts it in his outbox. Absolutely do not leave until he puts it in the outbox. Absolutely do not leave until he puts it in the outbox right while you're watching, or he'll forget, and then what will we do if we ever need a lilac copy for the blue binder?? Are you getting all this?"

     And then a new voice, low and musical like a clarinet that would rather be off getting a fancy drink, saying, "I thought we were talking about what to do in a giant robot attack?"

     "Exactly. So the lilac goes to Ira, the lavender to Shelby in Maintenance who will just use it to plug leaky pipe or feed it to the carnivorous mushrooms, but the important thing is that everyone else knows you've routed all copies to the correct destinations. So what I do personally is: after handing off the lavender to Shelby, I go back up to the office and send out an email--CCing everyone in the building--acknowledging the handoff with date, time, and sub-basement included. Then I print out the email and make four copies-- Wait. No. With you joining, it'll be five, so over the weekend, give thought to what color you want your routed handoff acknowledgement email hard copies to be, keeping in mind that steel-gray, slate-gray, California-fog-gray, and pink-with-balloons-around-the-edges are taken. And the taupe is yours."

     A long pause followed, broken by soft footsteps and birdsong. At last, the new voice said, "I'll have my copies in freesia, please."

     Unity squealed. This could be a survivor. And then he was there in the parking lot, the scent of carnations and posies bounding ahead of him, and he was adorable. Adorable. Unity couldn't wait to come out and play! "And this is Unity," said Sweetheart, "the other half of the field team. Er, try not to make direct eye contact when you approach. And don't move into her blind spot: she's been known to get overexcited."

     "I totally have," said Unity. "Babe, lemme outta the car! Lemme out, lemme out, lemme out!"

     "You have thumbs, Unity," said Sweetheart.

     Unity stared at her hands. "Oh, yeah! Awesome!" Because it was true. Thumbs were awesome. She opened the car door and was awesome at it.

     Somewhere, Sweetheart was calling for her to heel, but Unity was much too excited to listen. With undead strength and disregard for personal well-being, she awesomely launched herself at her new friend, bowling them both to the ground. "Look, Sweetheart!" she said. "He's all soft and squidgy!"

     "Yes," said Sweetheart. "He's human. Those are the ones with the heads that come off if you yank them too hard."

     "Look, look, look! He goes squish when you poke him!"

     "I can see that. Now stop."

     "Ow," said Unity's new friend.

     "You, Tip," said Sweetheart, "will be manning a desk at the home office. You won't be with Unity and me out in the field."

     Unity's new friend made a muffled but weakly relieved noise; for some reason, he sounded tired all of a sudden. Unity jiggled (missing words, I'm guessing--him a) little harder to perk him up. "Can we take him home, Sweetheart? Can we, can we, can we?? He can eat my leftovers and sleep at the foot of my bed!"

     "You don't leave leftovers, Unity."

     "Thanks, but I have an apartment," said Unity's new friend. "And no offense, but in that situation, the leftovers would be low on my list of concerns."

     "Listen to him talk, Sweetheart! All smart and chill and terrified at the same time! Oh, he's gonna be our funnest guy since Plasma Adam!"

     "Try to have less fun than you did with Plasma Adam."

     "Why? What happened to Plasma Adam?" said the new guy, but Sweetheart didn't answer. She probably figured he should find out for himself. Sweetheart was really smart like that which was why she had to be field team leader and Unity got to do the cool stuff.

     While Unity was busy thinking about the greatness of her life, the new guy managed to crawl away. That was okay with Unity. If he made a break for it, she could track him by his perfume.

     "You know what?" said Sweetheart. "Let's go out for drinks."

     And that was that, thought Tip. Evidently this was how life worked. You walked into a shed, and forty minutes later, you were sitting at a back corner table at an eatery with bicycle wheels on the walls waiting to drink something called a Strawberry Bourbon Happy Blast with a talking dog and a zombie.

     Well, he was adaptable. If he'd managed to deal with the return of the tunic dress, he could get used to anything.

     "How many fried onions do you wanna eat?" said Unity. "I'm gonna eat five. Five fried onions!"

     "I'll pass, thanks," said Tip.

     "No onions? Like, at all? But you'll be all bland! Can you at least eat a thing of garlic salt? I've got one right--"

     "Down, Unity," said Sweetheart.

     Two tables over, a toddler gave them a deeply suspicious look while slowly inserting a French fry into her nose. "So, this Project Skin Horse," said Tip. "It's an assistance program for, er..."

     "Monsters," said Unity.

     Sweetheart's ears folded back. "The current PC term is 'nonhuman sapients.' (words out of order, I'm guessing--sensitivity training the last As of) As of the last sensitivity training (repeated words--sensitivity training) meeting, anyway."

     "Awesome monsters," said Unity. "Also robots."

     "And how do we assist them exactly?"

     "We offer many services," said Sweetheart in a singsong voice, "including but not limited to job placement; relocation from demolished labs; any licensing assistance not requiring notarization; counseling, um, crud; this thing that's kind of like Meals on Wheels except disgusting and we had to shut it down after some zombie incidents--"

     "Totes unfair," said Unity.

     "And I forget the rest of the list. We've got brochures back at the office. Plasma Adam used to bring in donuts for the front desk. That was kind of our best service."

     "Who's Plasma Adam?"

     "We don't talk about Plasma Adam," said Sweetheart, "or what happened to him."

     "And my job is?"

     "Your title," said Sweetheart, "is Human-Nonhuman Liaison."

     "He didn't ask about the title, Babe. He asked about the job."

     "Oh. Well. The job is mostly light typing and winding the receptionist."

     "We've got kind of a thumb shortage around the office," said Unity.

     The waitress, leggy in a darling pair of Ferragamo knockoffs, arrived with their drinks. Unity ordered seven fried onions and ate the drinks' tray.

     "People really don't see you, do they?" said Tip.

     "Who's this 'you,' Kemosabe?" said Unity. "You're on the team now."

     "Technically," said Sweetheart.

     Despite himself, Tip flushed. He was aware of his borderline-neurotic desire to please and tried to channel it into positive pursuits--for example, all heterosexual women--but he couldn't help but be flattered to be accepted into their supernormal little group. Would other agents have felt the same? Was this part of the calculus that had slotted him into Project Skin Horse? "So the team is us, this Gavotte, and the windup receptionist?"

     "Moustachio," agreed Unity. "He's rad. Drink this sriracha."

     "No, thank you."

     "Suit yourself," said Unity and drank the sriracha.

     "What's it like, working with a robot? Is it okay to ask that?"

     "Aw, dude! It's super fun! And afterward, Babe just calls in Maintenance to hammer the dents out."

     "Moustachio's very patient with the rest of the staff," said Sweetheart. "And level-headed. Stoic, even."

     Unity nodded. "She means he's super old."

     Moustachio waited. It was one of his particular talents, waiting. Once, quite a few years ago now, he had waited a good three or four decades in a refuse heap on Staten Island (missing words, I'm guessing--and had) learned quite a satisfying lot about seagulls.

     Since then, his existence had been considerably more Eventful but regrettably admitted less time for amateur ornithology. Moustachio had learned to occupy himself in other ways. He was quite taken by the mail order catalogues that arrived at his reception desk each morning. So far, he had ordered eight tins of caramelized, popped corn, and he had his eye on the Jumbo Holiday Festive Gift Friendship Special Bucket with three kinds of corn and a particularly charming basket of kittens pictured on the lid. It was a positive Indulgence, but Moustachio was beginning to believe he was worth it. This was Moustachio's first desk job, and he was rather pleased to have moved up in the world.

     Today promised to be a particularly thrilling work day. Today, Gavotte had informed him over Electronic Mail, Project Skin Horse would welcome its new human liaison. Moustachio had been passably fond of the department's previous liaison, Plasma Adam. A mite too boisterous, but what could one expect from a gentleman made (repeated word--made) of atomic energy? He had been remarkably good at soothing irate humans for someone who both glowed and crackled. Shame about the core breach...

     Well, with luck, this liaison would be made of sterner--or at least less explosive--stuff.

     From the hall outside came the tp-tp-tp of high heels. Moustachio swiveled in his pivot behind the front desk. Not for the first time, he wished he still had arms so he could Shuffle Papers Authoritatively. (deleted text, I'm guessing--Alas, the) Pity the Crown had seized his limbs after that whole Rampage business at the Crystal Palace.

     It had been a Fair Cop but personally inconvenient nonetheless. Quite a lot of Moustachio's memory was temporarily inaccessible. He had considerably more of the stuff than could fit in his clockwork processors, so it resided in several dozen wax drums, most of them in the basement.

     Not all of them, unfortunately. Moustachio had misplaced a few over the decades. Or perhaps more. Who could say? (during Jeff's week of updating--please excuse this momentary) Certainly not the robot with all those missing memory drums. Moustachio kept a ledger of memories worth accessing and spent most of his time in either the present or 1849.

     1849 had been a good year.

     Sweetheart trotted into the office, tail held high. "And here we are!" she was saying. "You can take Plasma Adam's old desk. The D. of I. says the radiation is mostly harmless now."

     Moustachio's first computation upon seeing the new human-nonhuman liaison was that he wouldn't last out the month. No offense to the little fellow, but any of a number of Skin Horse's clients could quite literally eat him for tea. If this job could destroy atomic androids, super intelligent orang-utans, and whatnot, then this feckless blond manikin was unlikely to Fare Well no matter how spotless his gloves. Moustachio did appreciate a well-laundered pair of gloves, but his stint behind the front desk had taught him an additional healthy respect for armor, defensive weaponry, and wherever possible, laser eyes.

     Ah, well. Best put on a Brave Front and Stiff Upper Mustache and offer a Hearty Greeting to the poor fool.

     "Hey, Moustachio," said Sweetheart. "This is Tip. The new guy."

     "Why, hello!" said Master Tip. He tented his impeccably gloved fingers. "Let me start by saying how thrilled I am to work here. Thrilled and honored in fact. Are you, um, that is, if it's not too presumptuous of me to--"

     "Yes, Moustachio is a robot," Sweetheart interrupted. "It's absolutely fascinating. Can we get to work?"

     Unity elbowed the newcomer in the ribs. Moustachio's hearing was quite literally rusty, but he believed he heard something pop. "Don't listen to Babe," she said. "Robots are awesome, and it's totally correct to freak when you meet one."

     Sweetheart padded over to Moustachio's reception desk. "If you could pull the intake forms for our new liaison? They're the cadet blue sheets in the cerulean folder. Not the other way around. Got it this time?"

     "Madam," said Moustachio, "I see only in sepia."

     "Lack of color vision is no excuse," said Sweetheart. "Where would I be if I let my color blindness keep me from maintaining perfectly color-coordinated office files?"

     Moustachio said nothing. In his experience, no reply was expected. Nor was his lady canine supervisor under the misapprehension that Moustachio could do any literal filing. He lacked, after all, the necessary arms.

     Unity swooped in. "I got the paperwork! C'mon, Tip! I'll show you the pop machines!"

     It would be pleasant to have a new employee around the place. Festive, even
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