I feel like we ended up back at square one.
Episode 75: Interview
[INTRO THEME PLAYS.]
“Thanks for meeting with me today. I can tell you’re nervous. Don’t be. This is a formality.”
It was a quiet afternoon at Base, with the rest of the group seemingly having gone home for the evening. The sun through the windows illuminated the dust particles in the living room. The mood was warm and sleepy, present situation notwithstanding. Anne was right, as per usual: I was nervous. I felt my jaw clenching and made a conscious effort to relax it, though it clenched again as soon as I stopped paying attention to it. Anne was collected and prepared and simultaneously relaxed, like a star pupil confidently giving a presentation they know that they did a perfect job on. Sometimes I could feel myself tense up when she was that put together. She reminded me of Ty Betteridge in those moments, superficially, through no fault of her own. This demeanor was a tool and they were using this tool to different ends.
We sat on opposite sides of the coffee table, which had folders spread across its entire surface. I took a sip of my coffee. It was bitter.
“My throat’s a little scratchy today. Can I get some honey for this?” I asked.
“From practicing the Michael voice?” she asked.
“How… dare you?” I slammed my coffee up on the table. Well, I didn’t slam it because I didn’t want to get coffee everywhere. But I sat it down as hard as I could, so the bit didn’t really work but at least I tried. And I had been practicing the Michael voice but only because Mike didn’t know how to do the Michael voice and it almost got him in hot water on one of the missions. [muttering/grumbling] And Edgar likes the Michael voice. But Anne didn’t need to know that.
“Anyway, we’re out of honey, I think,” Anne replied.
“Why’s that? Because we’re so far in the future that the bees are all extinct?” I asked.
Anne laughed. “Nice try, Mikey boy. That’s funny. I won’t rule it out though.” She winked. “You could be at any time, past, present or future. It is important that you don’t know for the sake of the stability of the conversation.”
I had looked around the living room in the Base in whatever time that I was currently in. It looked remarkably like the living room I was used to lounging around in when there wasn’t work to be done. Same television, same couches, same table, all of which didn’t look any worse for wear. Same picture of the whole Base at the corrections party that established the Base in this form. Everyone still alive, reality still being the one that I was familiar with. I didn’t think that she had moved me far from my native time.
“Of course,” I replied. “Can you at least tell me which Anne you are, though?”
“Nope, can’t do that either,” she replied. “For the same reasons. Anyone who would want to intervene in this conversation would have to figure out which Anne to compromise.”
I squinted at her, knowing ahead of time that I wasn’t going to be able to tell the difference. My Anne and the Anne sent from her organization weren’t like myself, Mike, and Michael. They were similar to the point of being indiscernible from one-another. They didn’t have conveniently placed facial scars. They didn’t go by separate names. They were both Anne. They saw themselves as the same person. I disagreed. There had been more Mike Walterses than I could keep track of at this point. I had watched some of them die. I knew that others had died. It didn’t affect me. It didn’t affect the Mikes in Latvia that came after me. They weren’t connected in the same way that the past is connected to the present is connected to the future. The Mikes were all different people, at least from my point of view. Which meant that the Annes were all different people as well, even if I couldn’t necessarily always tell them apart.
“And you are aware of the reason for these interviews?” Anne asked. She wrote something down in her notebook. “I know that you are, because you were present for the inciting incident, but as a formality I’m going through the checklist just like I’m going to with everyone else.”
“Someone killed Elder Hunter and we need to figure out who before the Hunters figure that out,” I replied.
“Ding ding ding,” she said.
“Do you think that’s going to work? Almost everyone at the current Base is from this time and the murder presumably happens in the future,” I said.
“Well, without letting on too much,” she said, “This is part of a multi-pronged approach to the situation. We are not the only group trying to figure things out.”
“The other Annes” I said.
“Even what I said is too much,” she replied. “But you could have assumed that, I think. True, the interviews in this present might not result in figuring out what happened, but it should give us a more holistic snapshot of the entire event. If we can get a good idea of what the circumstances might be, then that would be a good start, at least.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “I didn’t kill Elder Hunter, just to get that out of the way.”
Anne huffed. “Oh, you didn’t kill him? If you say so, I guess we can just skip over that question, huh? I’m not kidding, look. I actually wrote it down as the first question. No one’s going to say yes, but how silly would I look if they would have and I didn’t think to ask it?”
“Fair point. Especially with me. There’s a chance that if it had been me, then I would’ve told you,” I said.
“Yep,” she said. “Moving along. Here’s a Mike-specific question: What do you recall about the night in question?
“Edgar and I were watching I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Elder Hunter fell into the cabin around 9pm. He was already dead when he got there. From there, there are two realities that I know about. One where I called Punished Hunter and he told me to kill Edgar to keep him from talking. I tried to send Elder Hunter away through the O.V.E.R. security program but Punished Hunter found me, roughed me up, and sent me back to my cabin and sent Edgar to Mesa, Arizona to keep him from talking. In the other reality, You and me showed up to the cabin and told Mikey and Edgar to mind our own business and to never mention this to any Hunter for any reason.Then we moved Elder Hunter using the calculator.”
“So, just the one that we corrected and the correction itself?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You don’t remember any other iterations of that event?” she asked.
“No.” I squinted at her. “Are there other iterations of that event?”
“That’s not for me to disclose,” she said.
“Are you saying that because you don’t know or because you do know and the answer is yes?” I asked.
“That’s the whole point of not disclosing, I think,” she said.
“You know, having recounted that night for the first time in some time, some of those things do feel like the Hunters issuing corrections on themselves. Punished Hunter didn’t kill Edgar though he definitely wanted to. He knew where to find me and kept me from using the security program. Who knows what would have happened if I did. So there were probably more than 2 ways that night played out. That sounds like a question for Michael. If anyone remembers, it would be him,” I said. “He’s got about ten different realities under his belt, from what I can tell.”
“I’ll ask him in his interview next week. By the way, do you know why he said he wasn’t available to do the interview until next week?” she asked.
“He didn’t say anything,” I said. “I don’t see what reason he would have. It’s not like he is doing anything else.”
“Anything else that we know about,” Anne corrected me. “You would do well to remember that he’s not a member of your Base. He’s a member of Base ten years from now. He takes orders from them first, not us.”
“Right,” I said. I sometimes found it easy to forget that Mike and Michael weren’t working with us, first and foremost. They were issuing corrections and those corrections were being handed down by a later iteration of Base with a better vantage point than we had. That was the entire reason that they were here. And by here I mean in Latvia.
I fidgeted with the coffee cup nervously. “Michael has been acting suspicious lately. Or, I guess more accurately, he did something suspicious recently.”
“Oh? What did he do?” Anne asked.
“As you probably know, relative to my time I just got back from a corrections mission with the Latvia crew regarding the Glacier incident,” I explained. “That mission went smoothly. We had some unexpected help, which Michael should detail in his report because he understands what happened better than the rest of us. But Michael is who I want to talk about. At the end of that mission, I brought up this very interview, as in you interviewing me about the death of Elder Hunter. Mike didn’t react but Michael got snappy with us as soon as I breached the subject. We were getting along fine. I remember the mood being really high after our action packed mission going off without a hitch. Then, his mood switched instantly and he wanted to get us all out of there and away from each other. At least, that’s what it felt like. It felt like a red flag to me.”
Anne noted what I said in her notebook, only looking up at me when she was done writing. “You’re right, Mikey. That is quite suspicious, I must say.”
“Do you think that he did it?” I asked.
“Michael is a hard nut to crack, as you well know,” Anne said. “The easy explanation would be that he feels guilty about killing Elder Hunter or is worried that I’m going to find him out and that’s why he snapped at you. He also could be aware that acting like that would make him look suspicious and is drawing suspicion onto himself in order to protect someone. That’s how he sees himself, as a protector. He calls himself a “sheepdog” and the sheep he’s herding are the Mikes and the Edgars. So there is a significant chance that he is trying to draw attention to himself in order to take the heat off of one of you. That being said, that self-awareness does not end one level deep. Maybe he knows that I would know that it would be too simple for him to be the culprit. Maybe he knows that I would suspect that he is protecting someone and that would take suspicion off of him. So maybe he did do it and by acting like he’s guilty he thinks that will make him seem innocent. Regardless, you did exactly what he wanted you to do and told me about it. That, at least, I am sure of.”
I stared into my coffee cup. “And how many layers deep do you think you should go before you find the level he’s on?” I asked.
“Dunno,” Anne said. “Roll a die maybe? Whatever number it lands on is however many layers deep his reasoning goes?”
“Edgar’s got a d20 in a drawer in our bedroom,” I said.
“We’d need more sides than that, I think,” Anne said.
I sat the coffee cup down on the table, gently this time. “Did that help at all?” I asked. “I feel like we ended up back at square one.”
“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “I thought it possible, but you have given more credence to the idea that Michael knows what happened. It does seem likely that he was either involved or he is protecting someone who was involved. Either way, he is not an unaware party.” She paused for a moment and I could see her studying my face, correctly deducing that I was deciding whether or not selling Michael up the river had been worth it.. “Do you feel… alright?… that you told me about that? I know that Michael is one of you and you’ve essentially implicated him. Is this hard for you?”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “No, it’s fine,” I sighed. “I think you’re right that he wanted me to tell you. Even if he didn’t, I think that I was right to tell you. Michael is a Mike– he’s one of us– but Mikes need to be wrangled every now and then, even the Mike who says that he’s a sheepdog.”
“You don’t have to explain that to me,” Anne teased.
“Besides, you’re not going to kill him or anything,” I said. “We just need to figure out exactly what happened and when in order to keep Base from violating the Hunter Hartley Agreement.”
“Who said anything about not killing Michael?” Anne asked.
“What? We’re not killing Michael,” I said.
“I mean, if he did it…” Anne trailed off.
I could feel a lump in my throat. I swallowed hard and looked at Anne, beginning to stand up unconsciously. I don’t know what my body was planning for me. Run? Run out of the door of the Base and then what? Go tell Michael what I’d done? Flee? It was not something on the conscious level. I felt like an animal who didn’t realize it was stepping on a trap until it was far too late.
She laughed. “Oh, Mikey! I’m so sorry. I was kidding!” she said. “I thought you could tell that I was joking. Oh no! You were actually worried. Mikey, I’m so sorry. I thought you would pick up on it. No, of course I’m not going to kill Michael or anyone else involved in this incident. There will have to be corrections and consequences and they might be pretty severe, but nobody’s getting the death penalty over it.”
“…I need to lie down,” I said after some hesitation.
“Be my guest,” she said. “Sorry. Bad joke.” I laid down on the couch that I had been sitting on. “I shouldn’t have joked about that. You’re him, after all, so in a real sense I was joking about killing you and… considering your track record… I could see you being touchy about that.”
“He’s not me,” I said. “I don’t know why I reacted how I did. Kill him for all I care,” I shot back.
“Alright, whatever you say,” Anne said. “We can talk about something else. I was about to change the subject anyway. I think I’ve gotten all I need to know about the Elder Hunter situation. You answered most of the checklist just by talking about it.”
“Change the subject to what?” I asked.
Anne did that thing where you sit up straight by bouncing onto the balls of your feet for a moment with your hands on your knees. It’s not half-standing because you never put your body weight over your knees but it’s also not just sitting up because you do take the weight off of your butt. I thought there might be a word for this so I googled it and now all of the ads I get online are for ball pit balls and knee braces. I hope you understand what I’m trying to describe. She put her weight on the balls of her feet for a split second and used this movement to get closer to the edge of the seat and sit up straight. There should really be a word for it. Posturebouncing. Anne posturebounced into a more upright position and changed the subject.
“I’ll start with the straight question, just like I did with the Hunter situation,” Anne said. “Are you mustardseed?”
“No, and I’m tired of people assuming that I am,” I said.
“And you’re not just saying that because you couldn’t prove that mustardseed has ever contacted you?” she asked.
“They never have,” I said. “What would I gain from being mustardseed?”
“Beats me,” Anne said. “But they’ve been messaging all of us and posting WOE.BEGONE guides on reddit.”
“Why would I post a WOE.BEGONE guide on reddit?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But their version had the hand thing. I never did the hand thing. But I know that you did. The hand thing with the song.”
“Yes. I know what “the hand thing” is,” I said. “I know that I was the only one of us to do the hand challenge. Ryan said that it was to score more points because I was in the lead and, yes, hearing that now I realize that was probably bullshit and he was just trying to fuck with me. Successfully, I might add. But why would I post a guide? I don’t want people playing. And if I did want people playing, then I wouldn’t want people to cheese that challenge by finding the song without putting in the work! Do you know how many hours I spent scrubbing through every song with the word “once” in it? I listened to 850 songs before I found the right one.”
“We had Chance reach out to the Hunters and they didn’t have to do the hand thing either,” Anne said. “And mustardseed has been trying to contact them as well. Chance reported that they’re a bit angry about it because they think that mustardseed is us. Well, they think it’s you.”
“It’s not me,” I repeated.
“I noted that you said that already,” Anne said, gesturing toward her notebook.
“Did you note that I mean it?” I asked.
“I noted that you said that you meant it,” she said. “It really seems like you, Mike. This person is sending weird messages and links to basically everyone at Base and the Hunters. How would someone who isn’t one of us even know that Charlie, for instance, is connected to all of this?”
“Charlie has been getting messages?” I asked.
“Yes,” Anne said. “And the messages to me mention things that only you would know about.”
“What kind of things?” I asked. I could feel my face flushing.
“”Stuff about the hideout from my third challenge. When I got hurt so bad and we had to wait it out for a week. No one else knows about that. Only you, Mike. You and your future iterations.” There was a distance in her eyes as she remembered her third challenge. I knew that look. There were multiple memories that gave me reason to have that expression when I thought of them.
“Anne, why would I do any of this? You have to know how seriously I take Base,” I said.
“I know. And I trust you. It might not have sounded like it just now, but I do trust you,” she said. “I’m just trying to understand what is going on. The evidence points to you, but you’re right: there’s no motive. I have no idea what you would be achieving by doing this.”
“Well, I’m glad that you understand that,” I said. “Can I see all of the messages sometime?”
“I don’t see why not,” Anne said. “I’m collecting them from everyone currently. I should have all of the transcripts soon. And I’ve been cataloging their public online posts. I’m going to see if there is a digital fingerprint hidden in there somewhere. But yeah, you can see them. If you’re him then you’ve already seen them, right? And if you’re not, then there’s no harm in showing you.”
“I’m glad the moral calculation has come out in my favor this time,” I said. I felt awful, being suspected of something that I honestly didn’t do. There were so many terrible things that I did do! I would like to be suspected of those at the very least, not this wannabe hacker nonsense. It’s childish. It’s below me at the point in my life. It wasn’t me. It couldn’t be Mike. He’s too mature for it, too. And it couldn’t be Michael, either. He’s not too mature to do some stupid shit, but there would be a cowboy western theme to the whole thing if it were him. His handle would be like “tumbleweed” or some shit. He’d get found out immediately.
“I’m sorry that changing the subject made things worse again,” she said. I looked out the window. A fuzzy bumblebee lazily flew past in the afternoon sun. The bees were not extinct.
“It’s fine. You had to ask,” I said.
Before any more could be said, the front door flung open. Anne was standing in the doorway, sweating, a frightened expression on her face.
“Anne, we have a problem. A big one,” Anne said.
“You can’t come in here!” Anne said. “I’ve got Mike with me. We’re not supposed to be in the same place and time right now.”
“I know,” Anne said. “Which is how you know that we have a legitimate emergency. I don’t want to be here. I have to get you and we have to get this resolved immediately.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We can’t talk in front of him,” Anne said.
“Okay, well then give me a minute to send him back,” Anne said.
“No time,” Anne said.
“Wait, so you’re leaving me here? I don’t even know when in time I am,” I objected. “At least let me have a calculator. I’m a big boy. I can make it back on my own.”
“No, because then you’ll know when you are,” Anne said.
“Anne! We need to leave! Pronto!” Anne said.
“Okay, fine, Mike. I didn’t actually move you through time,” she admitted. “I only moved you through space. It was a trick. It creates less contingencies if we’re not actually going back and forth through time just to conduct interviews.”
“I’m… still in the present?” I asked.
“Yep. Gotta run. Thanks for doing the interview Mike. I’ll be back… soon? I hope?” Anne said. She was already heading out the door.
“Bye Mike!” Anne added. The door slammed shut abruptly. I was alone at Base.
I sat in silence for awhile, wondering what the emergency could be, who mustardseed might be, how they could know so much about us. After awhile, I returned to my bedroom. I practiced the cowboy voice. How did Anne know that I had been practicing the voice/ Did she overhear me? I would have to be more careful from now on. Only practice the voice when nobody is at Base, on a day like today.
This has been WOE.BEGONE. Next time: who is mustardseed? Thanks for playing.
[END THEME PLAYS.]