Chapter 1: Side A
“So, and just to be absolutely clear here, you still haven’t gotten anything from him?”
The mailman looked for all the world like if there was anywhere he’d rather be, it definitely wasn’t here, handing a few scant envelopes to the man standing by the PO box. He blinked slowly, shaking his head, “Nah.”
“O-oh…” Jim Ingraham put his hand on them, scanning through a couple as they laid out on the counter. He glanced up again with a smile, “Just...you checked the back too, right? Nothing er… fell out?”
“Yeup. I checked.”
“Of course! I mean, of course you did!”
“Mm…” The postman turned to start putting more letters into boxes, his hand tensing when Jim started up again with, “But he’s probably shipping from some far off location, so, I mean it could’ve gotten-”
“Jim, it’s been a year.” The postman stuck a few letters in an open box and moved on to the next, “You got work to do, don’tcha?”
“Oh uh, yeah, heh...guess I do!...Thanks, as always.”
“Mm.” The postman gruffly replied, shutting the mailbox doors to head out into the cold. Jim waved his handful loosely, a polite smile on as the postman got back on the snowmobile, bringing it back up to his chest and turning through the door and back down the long hallway towards his new office. Tucking the bundle under one arm, he dug in his jacket pocket till he found the small device he was looking for, waiting till he had some good acoustics before starting the new tape.
“This is Agent Jim Ingraham, and uh…” He paused, giving a laugh as he walked on, “Wow! A whole year, huh? Has it really been that long since your last letter? I mean, I didn’t think my mixtape was that terri-” He stopped himself, breathing in for a moment, before his shoulders slumped, “No...no you’re probably just busy with...well with whatever you’re doing out there. And shipping has to be a bill and a half, right?”
“How am I doing? Well… “ He stepped into the office-the large open space tucked far back into one of the FBI hallways, a potted carrot plant on the desk the only clear sign the space belonged to him now, tucked by the heater and a sun lamp needed for all the staff here. “You know-surviving! It’s uh… bout fifteen degrees over here? Kinda hot for summer actually. You think it’s got anything to do with those ice caps melting? You, uh, kept up on that stuff more then I did.”
He walked around to grab a seat at the desk, leaning on it as he kept talking, “It must be exciting wherever you are, right? Over at the arctic branch it’s been the same old, same cold -bit of ah, arctic humor there for ya!...ahem! But uh… Same paperwork, same offices-oh! We did get a new coffee machine, that’s exciting, right?” He paused, expression staying hopefully positive before dropping to a small frown.
“...Kinda wish I knew where you were, I’ll be honest. My last letter came back to me, so… update me on your address? When you have a sec?...” He breathed in deep, sighing as he stopped the recording.
Jim rubbed over his face, leaning so his elbows rested on the desk, setting his chin in his hands and letting out a sigh. He probably should’ve seen this coming. At the end of the day, him and Nelson had probably been acquaintances at best. Coworkers who’d at least get each other a birthday card if they saw it coming up. And when you moved on from a job, there wasn’t much chance of you keeping a friendship going after it. Wasn’t exactly anything keeping you from just...making friends at whatever other cool place you started working at. Especially after getting transferred to the middle of the tundra.
He’d just moved on and it was probably about time for Jim to accept that…Or he could do what he usually did when he got bored and lonely.
“Just arrived in Scoggins, Minnesota… Population: 754. Temperature?...mm...it’s cold. And not much to look at.”
When the FBI had first caught wise to Nelson’s ‘vacation’ plan a while back, Jim might have taken it upon himself to save a few of the tapes and stash them away. You know, protecting the truth and all that. He really had just wanted to make sure Nelson’s hard work on the Scoggins’ case had been preserved somehow instead of just swept under the rug.
But...sometimes it was also just nice to hear his voice again. Folks were quiet in the arctic outpost and with the wind outside, sometimes it was better to avoid talking over folks or having private conversations. It brought a little smile to Jim whenever he heard Nelson stumble over what to call the case. The thought of that same guy going on to not only help the president but get a couple reunited seemed so far fetched if he’d only had the tapes to work off of.
“There’s a weird man staring at me… hopefully this won’t be a big waste of…”
“...” Jim blinked, his brow going up, “Was there always a pause there?” He hadn’t played the tape that much, right? It didn’t look like the tape had broken or gotten stuck inside the recorder. Yet the pause went on. It seemed to stretch for so long before a voice came back to it. It sounded like Nelson, it said the same lines he did, but he almost sounded...confused. As if he’d just read a part of a script he didn’t quite understand. “... time… Agent Tethers out. ”
Jim picked up the recorder and gave it a good once over. “Guess this thing is a little outdated…” He glanced to the office door, “Maybe I could see if the budget would have room for-”
He sat up straight, eyes looking over the office. His door was still shut, so nobody had poked their head in. But that voice...that...hadn’t been a part of the tape, had it? It sounded like someone standing right in front of him. “...Hello?”
“Jim??? Jim is that you?”
Now he got to his feet, the sense that something wasn’t entirely right prickling the back of his neck. He mostly ignored it, putting a hand back to rub his neck. He glanced down at the tape recorder in his hand, brows knit. It had been a while since he’d started off with the first tape. Maybe it’d just been different then what he remembered… Still, he could have sworn Nelson didn’t mention him. Not once, far as he recalled.
“Maybe I should check the other...ah...HAH-CHOO!”
Jim gave a laugh, rubbing his neck, “Thanks! Sorry I really need to duAAAAAAAAAAGUH?!” Before he could even reconsider, primal instincts had him flinging the recorder as far away as possible, which for an office worker like Jim with poor arm strength, wasn’t too far since he could lunge over the desk to catch it before it crashed to pieces on the floor, “Nelson?! That’s seriously you on there???”
The voice on the tape recorder gave a surprised laugh of its own, “I guess it is??”
Nelson Tethers?? That Nelson?”
“I’d have thought my voice was pretty distinct, but if I sound like someone else…”
Jim had begun to rotate and observe the tape recorder for all it was worth, trying to find out whatever magic trick was going on here. The only detail he could really find changed was the record button. The marking on it had gone from a square in red to a very simple eye he couldn’t recall seeing there before, “How the heck are you pulling this off?”
There was another surprised sort of laugh from the recorder, the man on the other end sounding just as shocked as Jim was, “I don’t really know??
Jim stares at the eye for a beat, squinting as he glanced at it “Are you… inside the tape recorder??”
“Wh-no!” Nelson paused, “...Least I don’t think so?” Another pause and Jim could hear a faint sound in the background-like ancient, creaking metal. “No, no, definitely not. But uh, wow! I honestly didn’t think I’d hear from you again! Things have been kind of… hectic, to say the least.”
Concluding that looking over the tape recorder hadn’t found him a tiny Nelson inside, Jim set it down on the desk with the speaker upright, fumbling for a pen and notepad, “You aren't in some sort of danger again, are you?”
There was another pause and the faint sound of a sigh on the other end, “...No. Not anymore, anyway. But enough about me here. How are
Jim couldn’t remember the last time somebody asked, the excitement of the situation almost making him forget to jot down notes, “Oh I’ve been good! Good as you can be over here, I guess! It’s a little hot for summer at 15 degrees but folks in the station near us are pretty nice! They got this lemon tree growing in the break room and sometimes they make lemonade for us with it! Kind of poignant all things considered, right?”
“They can pull that off in the Arctic?”
“Oh yeah, yeah!” He fumbled for the recorder, picking it up to show it towards his own carrot plant, “With lights these days you can simulate sunlight just about anywhere for growing stuff! Word is they’re gonna use it when they go into space in the future!”
“Have you tried anything like that?”
“Oh! Oh, I...guess you can’t see through it too. I saw the eye and I just thought-” Jim cleared his throat and tried to move on, “I’m growing some carrots in my office. Mostly a personal project. Guess it makes it feel a little more like the old setup, you know? Oh oh! And I’ve been working on those Puzzle Sensei magazines of course! Starting to run low on them these days.” He ended with a laugh, rubbing his neck as he glanced to the box in the corner. “Just a couple more issues to go! You haven’t...picked up anymore, have you?”
The voice on the other end had paused, silence and the creaking of metal going in the background of the tape.
“...Nelson? Are you still there?”
“Oh! Oh uh, yes. Yes I am. Sorry, I haven’t really been in a location to get anymore of those magazines.”
“Wow! They must have you traveling a lot, huh?”
“Yes, uh, they … Listen, Jim?” Jim heard a soft creak of wood, like somebody leaning on a desk, “I...I said how terrible I felt back then, but I don’t think you ever got the apology you deserved.”
“Oh! Nelson, I mean, it’s fine! It was for the good of-”
“The country, I know… but things got so crazy.” When Nelson spoke, his voice sounded tinged with regret then he’d heard in the man before. “I barely let you get a word out. Filing that tape started that whole mess but you still didn’t have to get stuck in the middle of it. So… I’m sorry you got transferred because of me.”
Jim didn’t expect the shaky exhale he gave, or the sudden feeling of relief in his chest. But he works past it, a more in character smile coming to his face, “Well...thanks, Nelson. I forgave you a while ago, so you really don’t have to worry. I promise.”
There was a small laugh on the other end that stretched into silence once more. The tape kept moving, as if it would never run out, that creaking sound echoing in the background, “...this should probably be the last time we speak.”
Jim blinked a few times, “I uh, I think you broke up a bit there, Nelson.”
“You heard me, Jim. You can’t get interference on a cassette tape.” Nelson waited to make sure Jim stayed quiet before he went on, “A lot about me has changed since I left the FBI. I pulled you into my mess with the Scoggins incident, but this one is worse. Far worse then anything I ever dealt with in Minnesota. For your own personal safety, you need to cut all ties with me. Just forget you ever knew I existed.”
“Whoa whoa whoa! Hold on a second!” Jim had picked up the recorder now, eyes widened as he held it up to his face, “I thought you said you’re not in trouble anymore! Is something happening?”
The voice sighed, “It’s not me who’s in trouble here, just-”
“L-like is this a witness protection thing? You never told me about the next job but if it was like, assassinations or something like that-do assassins use a lot of puzzles?”
“What?? No, no I’m not an assassin! Just stop the tape and throw it out when you do! Better yet, burn the whole recorder! This is already a huge risk just talking to me now!”
Jim’s brows knitted, “Can you at least tell me why?”
Nelson gave a frustrated groan on the other end, “Jim for the love of Pete, would you just-”
Jim blinked. Was that...a voice? Was someone else there? It sounded so...wobbly. Something about it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. Nelson gave a startled gasp on the other end. “I told you not to sneak up like that, Gu-”
“ARe yOUuU taLKAING TO frIEnd?”
“I...I was just marking down a recording.”
“WAAanT TO viSiT?”
“Visit? What are you… wait. Guybrush what’re you… how are-wait. WAIT. STOP! ST-”
The recorder went still in Jim’s hands. He tried to press play again, to get any sort of connection back again, but the only thing that played was the tape he’d put in before. The calm tone of Nelson pointing out nearby details of Scoggins played in the office, leaving Jim something else to focus on as his thoughts raced. In times like these, an agent had an obligation to mark down observations to get a better picture of a situation. There were only a few he could pin point that he scribbled down while Nelson on the tape talked about strange little people sightings:
- Nelson was on some sort of metal craft judging by the noises. Most likely was a ship but a plane could be an option
- Nelson was in some sort of work-related(?) situation where he couldn’t get outside help
- He was not alone
- Whatever was with him might not be human
- Their name was Guybrush
Right as he finished the last bullet point was when the tremors began. At first nothing more then a low rumble, but it soon intensified to the point where the room rattled. Jim had only seconds to grab his plant and duck under the desk as the earth quaked beneath him, the yells and startled screams of his fellow researchers echoing through the small halls of the station. The lights flickered on and off, waving from their hanging chords, soon slower and slower as the quaking halted itself back down to nothing.
As the ground steadied, Jim set his plant under the desk (in case of any more incidents) and found himself coming out of his office with other agents, either rushing to equipment or towards jackets to get a look outside. It had only just occurred to Jim he hadn’t taken his off after getting the mail when he ran for the doors outside first. He couldn’t even say why. Maybe that odd conversation had given him a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. There’s only a few others standing outside when he arrives, all of them staring in a stunned silence out at the frozen tundra.
The landscape had been an open field this morning. What now loomed over their station was a ship. Planted firmly in the permafrost, the US navy ship stood taller then any of them. Its hull was stained and rusted, pocked with barnacles and scrapes from the sudden landing in the ground. Ancient metal creaked and groaned as the ship adjusted to being out of the water, crushing it’s lower half under its own weight like a beached whale.
While the few agents started to talk again-about where it came from, who sent it and why-Jim could only focus on one aspect and one aspect only. And that was how familiar that metal groaning sounded to him.
“Nelson...what’ve you gotten into this time…?”
Chapter 2: Side B
Every cassette tape has the functionality to be played on both sides.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Coming up with a name had been the trickiest part with the ship. It didn’t exactly need a name in Nelson’s book. It felt a bit like coming up with a name for the bus you took into work or a train you preferred above others going the same route. But that hadn’t stopped everyone else for debating it for weeks during the first few voyages.
Eddie’s suggestions had all sounded like names of bands he’d been in. Max had thrown out a couple along the lines of “SS Murder Frenzy”, which Eddie had completely put his foot down on. Manny had floated the idea of reformatting the whole structure, turning it into some sort of floating casino-but with his habit of destroying whatever place he set up, that was quickly veto’d. The Party Boat had been the first and constant suggestion by Guybrush, ignored up until everyone else had used up a possible name. Guybrush steered the ship anyway, so it probably was fair he picked the name for it.
The Party Boat was outfitted with all the amenities a haunted boat could ask for and more. There were numerous rooms, both for storage and sleeping quarters. There was a ship kitchen where they could cook or dine together if they needed to. The command center couldn’t be considered a working by any stretch, and yet it did as they absolutely needed it to. The nice thing about setting so many rooms was they each had a space, a section of the ship they could call their own and fill with whatever they desired to make their bunk space feel like somewhere they could be at ease ‘off the clock’.
Nelson didn’t need to sleep much anymore, but the bunk had been appreciated and shoved to one corner to make room for his actual necessities. The water that seeped through the hull cracks meant he couldn’t hang up any posters here, but he could have a nice wooden desk, some smaller puzzle trinkets he had picked up during his travels, and a sturdy, metal cabinet. Set up on the desk was a two way radio: when he didn’t feel like leaving but was still fixing for a quick job, it was an essential tool for his line of work. His new job wasn’t one he’d ever expected, but with his office space set, it was one he’d grown comfortable in. Like a pair of new shoes-it would be too tight, giving you blisters and make your feel bleed. You just had to break them in till they fit right.
And that’s what they’d done to Nelson.
Course, Nelson had come to accept that he was a monster now. He’d even say he took pride in it, because he was damn good at his job. Other fears would thrive off of a quick, painful end. They didn’t grasp true horror like his did. You couldn’t just kill someone and be satisfied! They needed to remember. They needed to think about your face, your eyes, your voice-wake up in a cold sweat as the sight of you sent them spiraling. The euphoria felt at becoming a living nightmare in a person’s mind was something that sent goosebumps over Nelson’s skin, made his lips twitch and twist into a smile he couldn’t get off his face.
Hoo...just thinking about it now got his fingers drumming on the desk and shocks of static dancing over his skull. Nelson took a deep breath, reaching for a bowl on the desk to grab a piece of gum and pop it in his mouth, wheeling his chair over to the filing cabinet. “Lets see...I should probably pick one at random...third drawer.” The drawer rattled, the click clack of cassette tapes bumping together as he rifled through till finding one that looked particularly satisfying. The label put this one as Officer Phillips, May 14th.
He remembered it distinctly. The officer always had been a paranoid man. He had a constant fear of people sneaking into his house at night in an effort to kill him and his family ever since he’d been a child. The creeping shadow on the walls at night, a harsh wind thumping at the windows, and the scratch of animals outside had compounded into a terror that kept him up at night. Really, thinking back on it, Nelson hadn’t had to do much to push him along. And he hadn’t made his son drop by unannounced that night. If Phillips had been a wiser man, maybe he could have avoided the tragedy, just waited a few seconds longer to see who the shadow creeping up the stairs was exactly…
He was looking forward to listening to it again, and he needed a snack till the next port they were set for. So it’s especially confusing when he sits down, pops it inside, hits play and hears...himself. Not his current self, but who he’d been. A confused FBI agent who’d just arrived in the frozen, tiny town of Scoggins, Minnesota and was on the lookout for his hotel room. “What the…”
Had Guybrush been rifling through his tapes again, mixing up the contents? He had a habit of looking through things that didn’t belong to him when he was bored-called it searching for treasure-so perhaps his touch had warped some of the contents. But the tape didn’t sound like it’d been warped or damaged at all. Far from it-he sounded clearer then he ever did outside of a recorder now. Nelson felt a nagging sensation in his stomach, his brows drifting low, reaching to turn off the small device, before he noticed a change in the quality. A jump up in the sound of his own voice.
Somehow without even noticing, he’d begun to perfectly mimic it. “ According to the agency, there’s some kind of situ...incide...THING happening at the local eraser factory.”
These days, it was becoming much harder for something to catch him off guard. Having his own voice lasso him in was definitely one of those somethings. But he’d be damned if he didn’t try to get a grip on himself. “
There’s a weird man staring at me...hopefully this won’t be a big waste of...”
There! He cleared his throat on time, doing his best to shake off the sudden chills running up his back. He was seconds away from hitting the eject button when a new voice speaks up. One he hadn’t expected to hear ever again.
“Was there always a pause there?”
time...agent Tethers out.”
Nelson’s wide eyes stared at the recorder, the tape still rolling. The only thing he could hear on the other side was the shuffling of somebody moving around on the other side. That...can’t have been who he thought it was, could it?
“Guess this thing is a little outdated…” There was a soft crackle, like the device on the other end getting picked up and slightly muffled, before the voice started again, “Maybe I could see if the budget would have room for-”
The line on the other end was quiet for a moment, before crisp and clear like a spring breeze, there he was: “...hello?”
“Jim??? Jim is that you??”
The line went quiet for a moment. He could hear a muffled sound in the background, like winds against an old building. When he’d...made his deal, he’d expected to never hear from Jim again. Not like he could regularly send letters in the middle of the Atlantic.
Course, maybe this was just a fluke and some previous recording he’d made at some point had ended up mislabeled in his collection.
...Whales had pretty big flukes, so it was possible!
What wasn’t was the sudden sneeze on the other end, and the startled scream that flowed into the first of many questions. Jim was full of just as many as he was, and despite knowing he was more professional then this, Nelson couldn’t help the smile that had come to his face. A genuine, relaxed smile that kept up the longer he talked. Him and Jim hadn’t exactly been best friends back at the FBI. Friends had never been much of a thing for Nelson until the Psychonauts had come around and he still considered those as the best he’d ever made, friendships worth dying for. But…
To hear a real, human voice. Someone who just sounded so excited to hear from you… it was something that couldn’t be described. Like hearing back from a relative you just assumed had passed away ages ago or the fateful call that a lost dog or turtle had been found and was coming home. It was also comforting that the news of Nelson’s actions hadn’t reached the tundra division. It made lying to Jim about his current situation sting just a bit less. It wasn’t lying exactly if the other party just didn’t know it after all.
He thought he was doing okay, all things considered, when something warm dripped onto his hand. Nelson could hear Jim going on about his plants, could hear the eagerness in his voice-the bright, happy tone he had while talking with Nelson.
And he only realized now that he couldn’t stop drooling.
Since turning, he didn’t feel sensations like thirst, exhaustion, or hunger like he might have before. For the most part, he recognized that he was still a mortal man. He could feel he had a pulse and enough of a stomach that it growled if he didn’t give it anything. Eddie would often have to grab him sometimes and sit him down for a meal before he fainted unless he figured out otherwise. Hunger was more of the mental variety now, and the cravings pulsed behind his eyes. There was a voice turned feeling, a muddled sense of general confusion that wanted to close over his mind like a warm blanket, tighten and constrict it, till the only thing he could do was ask the questions nobody wanted to hear.
“...Nelson? Are you still there?”
“Oh! Oh uh, yes. Yes I am.” He wipes off his mouth as quietly as he could, “Sorry, I haven’t really been in a location to get anymore of those magazines.”
“Wow! They must have you traveling a lot, huh?”
This was supposed to be the part he liked. The twist. Seeing, hearing the realization that the person was getting messed with in some way. That their perception of reality had gone askew and he’d stepped forward while they weren’t looking to fit comfortably in their vision, as if he’d always been there. It was so easy to see a man in a suit and assume he was a figure to be trusted and listened to. There was a beautiful, dramatic irony in the betrayal that followed.
“Yes, uh, they …”
He was so hungry. So hungry compared to normal. He wondered to himself what his fear must taste like. Jim didn’t seem like the type to terrify easily with how positive he was.. He could feel that pulse behind his eyelids, the craving clawing at the back of his skull. He could already think of questions that would trip him up and get him exactly where he wanted.
And he held himself back by a thread. “Listen, Jim?” He leaned forward on the desk, grounded by the soft creak of wood beneath him, “I...I said how terrible I felt back then, but I don’t think you ever got the apology you deserved.”
“Oh! Nelson, I mean, it’s fine! It was for the good of-”
“The country, I know… but things got so crazy.” He sighed on ‘crazy’, his fingers idly tapping, nails digging into the desk as he went on. “I barely let you get a word out. Filing that tape started that whole mess but you still didn’t have to get stuck in the middle of it. So… I’m sorry you got transferred because of me.”
The other line goes quiet for a moment. Nelson can hear Jim let out a shaky sigh before he speaks again, “Well...thanks, Nelson. I forgave you a while ago, so you really don’t have to worry. I promise.”
Nelson felt a laugh bubble up. Did he feel relieved about being forgiven? He didn’t think he’d been hoping for one, but it felt good all the same. The pulse in his brain had become a throb, the silence starting to feel so stifling in the small room as it stretched on. Now was his cue. Now was the time to hit him hard. “...this should probably be the last time we speak.”
“I uh, I think you broke up a bit there, Nelson.”
Wait, what? The throbbing in his head stopped for a split second before a sensation like an axe swinging down cleaved through his brain. He grit his teeth with a sharp inhale, waited till it lessened before he began again.
“You heard me, Jim. You can’t get interference on a cassette tape.” Nelson gripped his head and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, breathing in deep and reaching down to adjust his tie. “A lot about me has changed since I left the FBI. I pulled you into my mess with the Scoggins incident, but this one is worse. Far worse then anything I ever dealt with in Minnesota. For your own personal safety, you need to cut all ties with me. Just forget you ever knew I existed.”
He had to get him to hang up. Stop the recording, never touch it. He had to, but god the difference that was with what he wanted.
“Whoa whoa whoa! Hold on a second!” Jim had picked up the recorder if the muffled quality of his voice was any indicator, “I thought you said you’re not in trouble anymore! Is something happening?”
Nelson let out a breath, “It’s not me who’s in trouble here, just-” Jim interrupted, giving him a chance to breathe-or try around the feeling of his skull tearing itself in two.
“L-like is this a witness protection thing? You never told me about the next job but if it was like, assassinations or something like that-do assassins use a lot of puzzles?”
“What?? No, no I’m not an assassin! Just stop the tape and throw it out when you do!” The ache got worse, a frantic pitch coming to his voice as he spoke, “Better yet, burn the whole recorder! This is already a huge risk just talking to me now!”
“Can you at least tell me why?”
Nelson could give a million reasons why. At least nine hundred thousand were pounding at the back of his skull and threatening to jump out his eyes. He was starting to leave long nail marks on the wooden surface of his desk, a frustrated snarl coming up his throat., “Jim for the love of Pete, would you just-”
A startled gasp came out of Nelson, turning back to see the wobbly hand on his shoulder. Guybrush must have sensed his distress, if the sad look in his eyes had any indication, his arms twisting themselves nervously together as he moves back, “I told you not to sneak up like that, Gu-”
“ARe yOUuU taLKAING TO frIEnd?”
Nelson blinked. How long has Guybrush been listening? He wiped off his mouth again, giving his best effort at a reassuring smile. “I...I was just marking down a recording.”
Guybrush had his eyes between the recorder and Nelson, as if he was considering something for a split second before his grin turned just a bit more manic on his already twisted face. “WAAanT TO viSiT?”
“Visit? What are you…” The ambient metal freaks of the ship had turned into a deep, drawn out groan like a tankard coming into port wrong. Nelson wobbled as the floor went uneven, squinting at the tilt to the floor. “Wait...Guybrush what’re you…” It clicked when Guybrush had quietly giggled, winking at Nelson. “How are-wait. WAIT. STOP! ST-”
It was a little like the drop on a roller coaster, Nelson feeling his stomach flip as a feeling of weightlessness briefly took over and sent whatever wasn’t bolted down up in the air a few inches. For just a split second it helped him forget the migraine he’d gotten.
Then came the crash.
Nelson landed flat on his stomach, whacking his funny bone on the desk along the way and sending all the air out of his lungs. He could see the outline of the file cabinet tilting towards him, threatening to crush him until Guybrush had shot out one wiggly arm to shove it back, the groan of the ship fading back to its natural ambient creaks. Nelson let out a soft breath, sitting up till he could inhale properly and bring himself up to a shaky stand, “What...what was that?”
“YOuR’E frIeNd!” Guybrush grinned, coiling his arms around himself, looking slightly pained as he gripped his head. “I BrOught Us there! SO wE canVISIT!”
“You brought us…” Nelson’s eyes widened, “Oh no. Oh no no no Guybrush you have to take us back to the ocean.”
Guybrush blinked, tilting his head as a confused, sad look came to his face, “BuT...YOu’R fRieNd…?”
“Yes, he’s my-...he was my friend. But I can’t see him like this!” He brought his hands to his head, starting to breathe heavily as the reality of the situation began to take hold, the cold prickle of fear spreading in his stomach, “I could barely hold myself back talking over the tapes-if I got too close. If we were face to face, I-“
“-I can’t do that to him, Guybrush! Strangers are one thing but I...I know Jim. Mostly. I mostly know him, but I know him enough!”
“Y-you have to take us back, please Guybrush. Please, please, please, I can’t do this, I can’t -“
“Nelson!” He felt the strong arms wrap around him before he saw them, the snake-like grip releasing the tension he’d been building in his chest. “Breathe.”
Nelson hadn’t even realized he’d been spiraling until he felt how limp and heavy his arms were in Guybrush’s strong grip, coils of the thin, paper like limb sitting draped over his friend’s arm. He breathed in-tight, tense breaths through his mouth, until he could properly move his arm to return the hug. “You...you have to take us back Guybrush. I’m okay, I’m not mad but you need to move us now...Guybrush?”
He leaned back when the pirate didn’t respond. Whatever he’d used, psychic powers or the reality-bending side of it, it had been far too much at once for the man. He’d sagged against Nelson like a heavy boa constrictor, out like a light as his coils loosened their grip. Nelson let out a soft sigh, a part of him still wishing he worked out more as he hefted Guybrush to let him sink down on the bunk, heading for his desk next.
If Jim wasn’t lying, they were at the tundra research outpost of the FBI. Which meant chances were very likely he wasn’t alone at his workplace and he wasn’t the only agent who’d be more then a little curious about the ship suddenly crashing near them. He looks up as heavy footsteps approach, loading a fresh clip into his gun when Eddie pokes his head in, “Hey! You see Guybrush anywhere? Think he crashed into some...thing?”
His eyes had trailed to the sleeping noodle in the middle of talking, blinking for a second till the click of ammo sliding into place got his attention, “We sort of crashed onto something. I’ll explain it later.” Nelson tucked the firearm in his jacket and fixed Eddie with a grim look on his face, “Just stay calm. We’re about to be boarded.”
I also want to give a huge thank you right now to @crankyteapot on twitter who drew an absolutely incredible series of pics based on my fic handiwork. Seriously they're so good and it just brightened my whole day and made me want to doubletime it on this fic. CHECK 'EM OUT! https://imgur.com/Xz8tRqS https://imgur.com/NqlnNtb https://imgur.com/EeJSI7o
Chapter 3: Reversal
Sometimes, tapes can even play an entirely different message when played backwards.
Tapes are funny that way, aren't they?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Jim had fired a gun three important times in his life.
The least important had been to get certified. It was a necessity of the job, and the course had been standard. He’d passed just well enough to get his license.
The second had been too complicated to remember right. The main things he could remember was saving a coworker, making a man limp for the rest of his life, and that somehow connecting back to illegal beet trades. Another agent had taken the credit for his shot.
The most vital had to have been when he was a child. His father had taken him hunting when the deer population had exploded in the Washington mountains. He hit the deer square in the chest and the family had had venison for months after thanks to the deep freezer in the garage. What stood out most to him was the eyes. He had expected the deer to flinch when it was hit, to blink at some point. Those blank eyes instead just...stared. They stayed open until his father shut them for it. For years he’d wondered what that deer must have thought, seeing this smaller human lining up the shot that would kill it.
Looking up at the massive vessel in front of their outpost, holding his jacket tight against the freezing wind, he thought he had an inkling now.
He was armed with only a flare gun and a standardized glock, as was most of his other fellow agents and researchers. Everyone had come outside once the first crowd did, and they were doing their damndest to study the thing that had planted itself outside their home and workplace. To them it was a stubborn weed, it’s roots buried deep in the earth, a pain to get rid of.
To Jim it meant something entirely else. He hadn’t said a word about the conversation he and Nelson had mere moments ago. He had to keep quiet if he wanted any chance of finding the man himself on there. He didn’t know who this Guybrush was, but his buddy was clearly in trouble, and this massive ship had something to do with it. He’d bet his collection of Tibet’s Digest on it any day.
The main contention had been finding a stepladder long enough to climb aboard, ending up roping two together end to end to finally make their way onto the main deck. It had just started to get snowed on by a coming summer shower, and half the crew got to work testing the metal or barnacles that littered the area. Jim and a team of roughly ten others were picked to investigate the interior. Lucky for them, the door down wasn’t locked.
When coming to the Tundra, one of the main things to keep in mind was the air. It was often so cold it could be hazardous to breathe for too long. Dry out your lungs. The look on some of the group’s face as they entered told Jim they’d much rather breathe in a blizzard.
It reeked of rust and seawater, the smell nearly overpowering as they ventured inwards, flashlights (and some glocks) up and ready.
“Jesus...this thing must’ve sunk...what, fifty years?”
“Try sixty. It’s gotta be a WWII relic, at least.”
“Ugh...whatever it is, somebody should open a window, eh?”
A few of the group laughed at the joke. Jim was one of the few who didn’t. He was more focused on details they might overlook. For as rusty and waterlogged as the ship was, someone had cleaned it recently. The floors were free of debris and obstructions. The stock room contained new boxes. And missing bolts and panels had seemingly been fixed up with new pieces of metal or soldering.
It couldn’t have been just Nelson and one other person piloting this. It had to be a crew at least. If they were here, they were very good at playing the quiet game growing up (Jim would know as a champ nearly twenty years running.)
As the crew went in deeper and the stench became all the more powerful, it was growing harder to focus on checking every room and hall. Jim didn’t mean to lag behind, but before he’d even realized it, he’d looked out of another storage room to find he was entirely alone.
...no. Not entirely.
The room he had checked was at a fork in a series of halls. The path going off to the right was surely where the rest of his team went. Down the left was where he came. And at the very end of the center path...there was a dog. He could see its breaths reflecting back when he shined his flashlight down, and it made a pained whine before creeping back into the corner. It almost looked like it was tangled up in something...a leftover net?
“H-hey lil guy…” he still had his glock in his hand, but he lowered it, just a little as he went down the hall, inch by inch, “I’m not gonna hurt you...kinda scary on here, huh?”
He could see the dog perk up, as if it took notice of him for the first time. Jim couldn’t help but give a cautious little smile when it’s tail began to wag slowly, “That’s it. Just you and Jim here…that’s uh, me if that wasn’t clear. For the record.”
He was halfway down the hall. His flashlight had begun to illuminate a little more of the dog. If he had to take a wild guess...it was some sort of hound, with brown floppy ears and a grin on its face as it’s tail kept wagging, faster now. It was also then that he noticed what it was ‘stuck’ in.
Jim gave a laugh, “Well! Pardon me, sir!” He approached the dog, “Someone must’ve considered you really fancy to put you in a suit huh…” he glanced over the cut of it, “A very...very custom suit…”
His mind was assuring him this was normal. Folks liked to dress up their dogs!
His brain also said it was perfectly normal for dogs to slowly get up on their hind legs too, tail still wagging as solid, black eyes looked down on him.
His brain even went so far as to justify it as an itch or a some random flick of the paw when the dog fixed its tie in front of him.
His much more sensible body was shaking like a leaf in the wind as the hound loomed over him, grinning rows of sharp teeth and wagging its tail furiously, a line of drool dripping from its lips. The breaking point for mind and body was when it spoke to him.
“Well thanks pal! I’ll have to recommend the guy to your mortician!”
He could feel a sharp, searing pain hit his ankle, and the shock of it was enough to finally get him to turn and run, ignoring the burning sting of the injury to slam the back of his ankle into the wall and take off back down the hall in a sprint. He could only just hear the dog speak as he ran.
“Max! Nelson doesn’t want this guy dead!”
“Hey! One bite won’t kill him, right?”
“You do got a point there. Think he can take another nine?”
“One way to find out!”
Course Jim didn’t hear the rest of this because he was well out of earshot, grimacing as the bite on his ankle left a bloody trail as he went. Good, least it meant he wouldn’t get lost. But what had that Thing even been? A man? A dog?...a dog man?!
Whatever it was he could hear a growl from it behind him and it got him to pick up the pace, lungs burning as he slammed into a corner before skidding to his feet again to keep on running. The stairs to the upper deck would be just past the stockroom on the way in. If he just retraced his steps, he’d find it. He had to find it.
He passed the stock room and crashed into a wall. He staggered back, looking at the fork that had sprung up in front of him. Jim panted, looking between the halls, hearing paws on metal, and ran down the right before he could think twice about it.
Okay!! This was like...like a randomizer! He doesn’t know why it shocked him that a ghost ship that fell from the sky with talking animals was also a randomized maze, but boy it sure was a surprise! And not the good kind like finding out the birthday cake you ordered had ganache instead of frosting. More like the “you just found out you have cancer and you’re shit out of luck” kind of surprise.
Well, it could have been worse!! At least the animals weren’t armed-
A bullet pinged off of the wall and left a neat little cut across his face, staggering him for only a second. He looked back in time to watch a white rabbit load up a second shot before deciding he would just stop thinking for a bit and focus on running instead.
His legs had started to go numb, vision blurring from the lack of air. Jim was starting to regret not keeping up on morning exercise. He made a quick mental note to start up again, maybe even throw in some yoga for good measure, before realizing something. He slowed his pace, hissing when the blood rushed to his ankle, forcing him to a complete stop. The ragged gulps of rusty air felt good in his lungs, stumbling over his words as he leaned against a wall and breathed, “You’re...you two...can’t hurt me...not enough…”
The dog scratched under his cap as he slowed down to a stroll, talking despite his tongue lolled out the side of his mouth, “Well sheesh. I kinda figured you knew that with how slow we were going…”
Jim wheezed a laugh, “I only...figured...cause of the rabbit…” He waved an arm loosely over the space in the hall, his fingertips easily brushing the other side, “Hallway… this narrow...you’d have to try in order to...miss…”
The white rabbit glanced out from behind the dog, and seemed to snap it’s paw somehow, an irritated look on his face, “Dammit! He figured me out!”
“Kinda your fault on that one, lil buddy.” The dog looked back over as Jim slid down on the wall, breathing shakily, an unfocused look to his eyes. “Hm...you think we chased the guy down enough, Max?”
“Absolutely not! But Nelson did want him alive, so…”
Jim blinked, his vision blurry, “W-wait...Nelson...Nelson, where…where is-”
“Hup!” The dog picked him up like he was a sack of potatoes, “Easy pal. Let’s just get you to him before you bleed out all over the place.”
“Ooh ooh! If he does, I get dibs on his leg! I already marked it!”
“You crack me up, lil buddy.”
Jim didn’t know how long they walked. Time seemed to swim together in the ship, with no windows showing the sun or stars outside, whichever one was out. He must have bled from his ankle more then he’d thought, or he’d suffered some sort of pulmonary risk just from his heart beating so rapidly, because he felt like he could barely move. He was conscious, but only just, his vision still fuzzy when he’d gotten control of his breathing and could feel his pulse beating normally enough.
However much time had gone by, he started to come to when he felt himself get sat down on a chair, feeling alert enough to shake his head and look around when he was cuffed to it. He saw the brief swish of a brown tail leaving before the door shut behind Sam, leaving Jim to look around. It was a small office space. The darkness of the space made it hard to make out anything beyond the desk and shadow of a filing cabinet, his eyes slowly adjusting as his head throbbed, pretty upset with him for all the running around earlier. His ankle felt like it was on fire, if not from the bite then definitely from twisting it wrong during his run, but someone (or something) had bandaged it during the brief moments of lucidity.
“Okay, that’s taken care of…”
Jim sat bolt upright at the voice, “Nelson??” His voice had been so clear when he spoke on the recorder though...this one sounded scratchy, not deep but physically rougher, like a layer of white noise had formed around it. It was so dark, he wouldn’t have spotted the man if he hadn’t turned to look his way.
Nelson Tethers. Former FBI Puzzle Agent, commended for his work on Scoggins. Booted for daring to finish it. He looked about the same as he did before. He had the same hands sticking halfway out his sleeves, the same average build that made him blend in with others, the same pale complexion that others might have worried about but Jim knew was mostly from an indoors life.
In the black suit, the only details Jim could make out on his friend were his fingertips, his tie, and his face. But he couldn’t see his eyes thanks to the dark sunglasses he wore. It made it so much harder to tell what Nelson was thinking until he saw the almost relieved smile on his face, “Good, you’re up. H-how’s the ankle feeling? Sam said he’d treated before, but you know-lack of thumbs and all that.”
Jim brightened, just a little bit that Nelson at least seemed concerned, “Oh! It uh...stings, honestly. But it’ll probably be okay, right?” He gave a soft laugh, “Not like I really go for runs, you know?”
Nelson gave a laugh of his own, “Ah, yeah. It’s hard to get into when you’re older, huh?”
Jim breathed out a sigh, “Yeah… I’m just glad you’re okay.” He glanced around the room, “It’s so dark in here. How long have they been keeping you?”
He couldn’t see his eyes, but Nelson was making the face he would when something surprised him, which quickly passed as his voice started again, “Yes, its uh...hard to tell, sometimes. How long it’s been.” His hand reached up to rub his neck.
“Well don’t worry, I learned this trick at a seminar once.” With all the knocks he’d taken just running into walls, it took him a minute to recall it. “Though I’m uh, kinda sure I can only do it once?”
Nelson startled at that, quickly waving his hands, “Wait wait! Don’t-don’t dislocate your wrist, Jim. That’s not gonna help you out any sooner.”
Jim puffed out a relieved breath. He hadn’t exactly been eager to do it himself. It couldn’t be that simple to just pop it back in, right? “Okay...but I do have to get you out of here! And...they left your hands free-that’s great!!” He tugged, pulling till he could slowly get the chair to hop in place, turning so his hands were facing Nelson, “You can use the glock in my jacket! I’ll pull my fingers in and it should snap the chain right off!”
“What about the sound?”
“...Mm...I guess I didn’t think about that part. That would get them over here pretty quick, and even with the two of us…” He sat up after a second of thought, “Oh god. The rest of the search crew!” He hopped a bit more on the chair, “Sound or not, we have to get out of here! Before something-”
That was when the first scream sounded. Jim stopped moving, head turning quickly to try and figure out where it came from, try and make out if he recognized it. Gunshots had started to fire, and another shriek sounded, further under them then he was sure the other team would’ve gone. He did his best to look to Nelson, “Nelson, please! I’ll be fine! It’ll just be some hearing loss, m-maybe a finger or two, but-” He heard someone cry out, and the heavy thud of something meaty hitting metal. Jim swallowed, “b-but we can’t just sit here! We have to get out! We have to help them!”
“T-this tanker, it’s randomized-if anyone can figure out a way off, it has to be you, right?” He wobbled the chair to turn more Nelson’s way, “You’re the Puzzle Agent. If you can’t figure it out, then nobody can!”
It was dark.
In the dark, people often mistake what faces look like. The shadows and the contours mask the true intent something even as simple as an eyebrow raise or a smile. It was why the fear of a shadowy figure stalking someone was so primal and universal, anyone could understand being scared of it. A faceless being would always be something more terrifying then seeing a human face clearly.
Jim wished it was darker. He wished it was black enough in here that he didn’t have to see Nelson’s face. Off to the side, watching the door, his profile letting Jim see the deep red of his eyes and that twisting, turning pupil in the center. Or that unnatural, curving smile that stayed in place as a cry for mercy above them was suddenly silenced.
“...” Jim stared at him. He sat up fully, eyes locked onto his face until Nelson had taken notice of him, till he could watch as his face fell. It wasn’t genuine-it was like watching a kid getting caught with his hand in the candy bowl. A momentary, fleeting guilt that’d be forgotten about as quickly as it was felt. It was then that Jim did the only thing he could think to do.
Nelson’s eyes darted between him and the walls, like he couldn’t quite look at him, “J-Jim? What’re you laughing about?”
Jim’s shoulders shook, laughter dying down to softer giggles, tilting his head back with a smile, “Oh! Oh, just, you know… laughing at myself, really!”
“Yeah!” He snorted, leaning his head to rub his face against his shoulder, “Just...wow! I really fell for it, didn’t I?” Jim leaned the other way, eyes up at the ceiling, “Here I thought I was rescuing my best friend from certain doom, and it turns out, well...he’s not even on this boat!”
“Yeah!! Hilarious, right?” Jim felt another giggle fit coming on, clearing his throat to try and stop it, “I mean, just think about it. Some FBI Agent I am, right? I can’t even tell an audio tap apart from a real strange recording, right?” He looked over Nelson, “So, CIA I’m guessing? Or the secret service? Gotta get the president on stopping that carrot growth in Antarctica, right?”
“Ooh ooh! Or maybe it’s the men in black?? You got that cool new suit and this spooky ship and talking animals, so that has to be it, right?” Jim sputtered, and laughed again, “God!! What am I even saying? Oh, what’s next, you’re going to “probe” me for information I bet, huh?”
Nelson still wasn’t looking right at him, his mouth having shut into a thin line.
“What, not even a little laugh? Come on, that can’t be the least realistic thing to happen on here, right?” He looked up at another heavy THUD and the sound of something getting dragged across the floor, “Oh, yeah, while we’re at it-Just listen to that!!” He pointed up with his fingers, hands still handcuffed together, “Could you imagine? Nelson Tethers, just...letting people die on his watch and smiling about it? I mean, how wrong could you get his character?”
Nelson had finally focused on him. He was staring now, an edge of his red eyes showing when the sunglasses slipped slightly down his nose.
Jim saw it and just snickered again. His breathing hitched as he laughed and laughed, and the tears started to roll down his face. “It’s just...it’s just so stupid, right?” He sniffed, breathed in, and coughed when his lungs ached, “I go through...all this effort. Get all the way down here. Find you...and you’re not even the right guy!” He took in a shaky breath, wheezing when he laughed, his face soaked in a matter of seconds. “Some idiot I am, aren’t I…?” His earlier tremors had become full-body shakes that rattled the handcuff chains, “A-and now...I’m probably gonna die! And I’ll never-ever-know what happened to him…”
He heard two more screams, and the ship had gone quiet beyond the soft creak of metal around them. Jim strained to listen, sniffled and swallowed. A lone gunshot followed by a heavy thump was heard from a room just above them. Jim gave a soft puff of a laugh, “There goes ten…” With the last laugh out of his system, his face fell, contorted to a grimace until the only sound in the room was the deep, muffled sobs as he leaned his head against his chest to get the rest of it out of his system.
All the while, feeling Nelson’s gaze on him. The man rubbing his neck after a moment, as if he was trying to apologize for just...stealing a parking space, or forgetting to sign a birthday card for an office party. He could hear him approach, looking up when he was eye to eye with Nelson. He’d taken off his sunglasses now, and his eyes were two deep, deep pools of blood red. He could see just an inch of regret give on his brow, before the man had leaned forward and embraced Jim. He breathed in, letting out a sigh, “I really thought I could just keep you safe in here.” He smiled, “Well, physically you’re mostly okay…”
Nelson trailed off at the sound, his brows going up. He leaned back, holding Jim at arm's length, his eyes traveling-searching, searching-landing on the hand limply dangling off of Jim’s side before he even thought to look for the butt of the glock coming hard to slam into his skull, a reverberating crack sounding from it as Nelson staggered, clutching the bleeding side of his head with a complicated expression on his face. Surprise? Betrayal? Anger? Jim could barely see through the pain in his wrist but he could stand at least, clicking the safety off, “Tell me. Where he is.”
“J-Jim, this...I-I’m not pretending to be Nelson, I a-”
“You’re not him.” Jim looked over his sights at him, “I haven’t fired this once since I entered the ship. That’s about...seventeen rounds in the chamber. I can and will put all of them into you if you don’t tell me where he is. Right now.”
Now he could finally see some fear in his eyes. He took a step back and Jim shot where his foot wanted to go, keeping it in place. “Sixteen shots.”
“I didn’t even want you to come here!” As Nelson spoke, he tried to fumble back, reaching for the door, “I told you not to look for m-” A bullet hole punched through the rusted metal of the door, Nelson pulling his hand back like he touched magma.
“Did you even like any of those men?” Nelson tilted his head, his expression becoming one of almost disbelief. “They didn’t care about you. They didn’t invite you to anything. Are you truly sad they’re gone-”
“It shouldn’t matter what I think of them!” Jim finally yelled.
Nelson’s mouth snapped shut.
“People are not just things you apply worth to! Who cares if they hated me? Or even if they couldn’t have taken one second to think about what I was doing or how I felt? Each and every one of those ten men was a life . And not a single one of them deserved to die above me!” Jim’s arm screamed at him as he brought it up to steady his aim, “You want to know how I know you’re not Nelson?”
Nelson’s eyes shifted, looking no longer at Jim, but past him. Above him, in fact. Once again, his expression looked relieved.
“Only a monster leaves a survivor."
The rope-like arms engulfed Jim in an instant. He could feel hands-too many hands or one very fast one-pulling and yanking on him like a chew toy. The slicing of razor-thin metal across his cheek and body as it struggled to maintain a grip on him, despite him kicking and screaming to be let go. Until it suddenly did.
After the pitch blackness of the boat, Jim nearly went blind as he was tossed face-first into the snow. He was out for just a second when he hit his arm on the way, snapping up with the glock in hand.
A snow field sits before him. It’s not pristine, thanks to the large divot centered in the middle of it, cutting into the permafrost like a jagged surgery scar. The only evidence that anything had ever been there at all.
Whatever researchers had been outside, confused for a moment, quickly spotted Jim in the snow. They were probably running to help him, is what he thought. That’s what he assumed anyhow as his vision wobbled and he fell back on the snow and ice in a semi-lucid daze. Between the dislocated hand, a fractured nose, the run and the bite on his ankle, the next few days were a complete blur of medical tests and recovery.
A total of twenty-three men and women had been aboard the ship when it vanished into thin air. Of the twenty-three missing persons, zero bodies would be found.
Jim spent a lot of his time writing cards to the families, thankful that he’d chosen his left arm to bust so he could at least get some work done in his spare time. A lot of people would ask him what he saw aboard the vessel, or if he had any idea about the whereabouts of the missing people. There was only one answer he’d give.
“Uh, actually, it was twenty-four people.”
“Okay, one more and...there ya go!” Sam snapped the thread off, “Good as new, eh?”
Nelson ended up staring in the mirror for a few minutes, gingerly touching the sore, swollen spot where the stitches went in. He didn’t consider himself a vain person. He figured he was about average looking and there definitely wouldn’t be anybody who’d care what he looked like now...but- “Were these...really the best stitches you could do?” Sam gave him a blank look, holding up the hand with rudimentary thumbs at best, and Nelson hissed as he winced, “Right, right.” He breathed in and let it out slow, “I guess I should just be happy you managed at all.”
Sam clapped a paw on his back, “There you go! And sides, it’ll heal up in no time, right?”
“R-right. Thanks again.”
“NOW ME NEXT! ME NEXT!!”
“Max, you already got your stitches, chowderhead.”
“Yeah and they look amazing! Cmon, lets go run on the deck and see if I can get another cut!”
“Alright, alright, slow down there pal!”
Nelson kept up the smile until he could hear their paws pad far, far away from his office, standing up to get his chair back behind his desk. One of the wheels bumped over a bullet hole in the ground, Nelson making a quick mental note to ask Eddie later for a patch job, when a knock came to the door.
Oh. Boy had he been dreading this. “...I’m not mad at you.”
Guybrush’s claw poked in before the rest of him flowed into place, a look on his face similar to a kicked puppy as he worked his way inside, “YOu’rE NoT?”
“You wanted to help me out, and…” He reached up, idly brushing the stitches, “In a way, I guess it did.”
Guybrush’s eyes went to the same bullet hole, stepping around it like he was trying to avoid a black cat, looking worriedly over the mark on Nelson’s head. “...DOes IT hUrT?”
“Only if you touch it-and you’re touching it. Ow ow ow -”
Guybrush pulled his hand back, putting it over his hook and rubbing the flexible metal, brows knitted up, “I’m STiLl soRRY. I SHouLD HAvE aSKed.”
“You should have, but...you just wanted to surprise me with something, right?” He gave a lopsided smile at his friend, reaching up to take his hand, “Well...I got surprised, didn’t I?”
Guybrush tilted his head to the left, to the right, in a full 360 loop, and brightened when he came to a conclusion, grinning ear to around where his ponytail was tied up, “YEAH! YEaH YoU DID, DIdN’t yoU?”
Nelson rolled his eyes a little, “Yeah, yeah I was.” Guybrush just grinned wider, poking the little smile that had sprung up on Nelson’s face, ending up coiling himself to drape around him in a sort of affectionate hug. “...” Nelson reached up, resting his hand on Guybrush’s arm, “...I think I know why you did it, too.” He breathed in slowly, considering if he should really say it. “I’m...sorry it didn’t work, Guybrush.”
Guybrush tilted his head, but Nelson could tell. Guybrush couldn’t keep his eyes on you if he was hiding something, even in his current confused state.
“I can’t just leave.” Nelson’s smile was small, sad, and tired, but it was genuine as he patted Guybrush’s arm, “How could I leave my partner behind, huh?”
For just a second, Guybrush’s face looked almost like his old self, leaning till it was out of view and pressed into his shoulder, Guybrush’s grip tightening on him, “It’s all my fault.”
“It was LeChuck’s fault.”
His face spiraled and contorted in an instant, a pained look of regret and guilt and a dozen other emotions smashing into each other like a wave on a rock, “My fault mY faulT My FAuLT MY FAULT-”
Nelson just gripped the man as he unraveled on him, letting Guybrush get it all out of his system, rubbing his back and watching the door for any other visitors tonight, eye centering on the hole Jim had left behind. “...We really need Elaine back.”
Quick update because I once again got some AMAZING art to share-another piece by @crankyteapot https://imgur.com/mxGRlPH and some stunning work by @genalovestoons!! https://imgur.com/CTViQTz https://imgur.com/mUzWgdp https://imgur.com/K5MbgoA https://imgur.com/QNbXYpN I was bLOWN AWAY by both of these and just how much love my buds have given the fic so I hope ya'll enjoy them too!
Chapter 4: Fast Forward
After so much had happened and so much time had passed, a blind man meets with an old friend to make amends.
(OKAY, I was debating putting this as a separate entry but honestly it's so closely tied to this fic I wanted to add it on as a sort of epilogue. Basically for TMA AU there's a 'good end' where most of the chars have the fears exhumed from their bodies at some cost to themselves. For Nelson, this meant losing his sight. Also Jim Ingraham is practically an OC by this point so he's gay and possibly a paranormal investigator and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. MY CITY NOW!!! And once again big thanks to @genalovestoons for coming up with the original AU that spawned this nightmare one. Please enjoy!)
“How’s the view here?”
It was a question the waitress was unprepared for. He could hear her clear her throat, the soft tap of an anxious foot, the quiet inhale as she finally noticed the cane in his elbow. “Oh! Well...there’s the lake by here! Sunrise is about over, but you can see a lot of the redwoods from here. And uh...couple of fishing boats on it, I guess?” She laughed, “Sorry, I’m not much good at describing landscapes.”
“Hey, don’t put yourself down. You did a fine job. I’m sure it’s a weird request anyway.” Nelson looked towards her voice, “Just a coffee for now. Plenty of sugar, please.”
“C-course! Coming right up!”
Nelson glanced towards the cooler area by him, carefully reaching until his fingers touched glass, the cool touch of the morning’s condensation leaving his fingers damp, trying his best to picture it. A quiet little place by a lake. Probably close to the campground. A few early morning fishermen drifting across the lake as the redwoods loomed behind them, the sun shining up on a sunny spring sky. If he reached down a little further, he could start to feel the wood making up the place, and the idea of it looking like a cabin helped paint a better picture in his head.
He couldn't even begin to imagine losing his sight growing up. The way it stood now, he had been incredibly lucky it had gone when it had. It made it easier to paint a picture in his head, one that couldn’t be tarnished by anything beyond what he thought. What would that picture look like if he’d had no idea, besides a sound, a description, a texture to go off of…
The coffee gets set by him loud enough for him to hear, and he thanks her and focuses on a view he can’t see, shutting his eyes and leaning on his hands as the coffee cools to something he can drink. It’s when he first sets some sugar cubes in the mug and stirs does the door jingle, and a voice reaches his ears, “Ah! Sorry Margot-gardening! Dirt on the shoes-I’ll hit the doormat on the way out, I swear.”
The happy-sounding man goes quiet for a moment, the silence undercutting the sleepy morning vibe of the place, a quiet “Talk to you later,” uttered, the soft sound of some easy listening artist crooning on the kitchen radio as the chair opposite him is pulled out, Jim Ingraham taking up the free space, “...Hey.”
“Hey.” Nelson takes a sip of coffee, seems to consider it, then adds a few more cubes of sugar. “The waitress was telling me there’s a lake around here. Doing any, ah, fishing these days?”
Jim gave a soft chuff of a laugh, “I mean, if anybody invites me along, maybe. Not quite at the “own a boat part of my life” yet.”
Nelson gave a guilty smile, “Probably a good call. It takes...a lot of work.”
He could hear the soft sound of papers shifting, fabric rustling as Jim sets a small object on the table. Nelson just gives his coffee a few more sips before the man seems to finish, feeling Jim’s stare on him before he set the mug down, “Okay we should, uh...get to it then!...You know what we’re doing here, right Nelson?”
“Yes.” Nelson reaches over, moving his cane to rest between his knees, one end of it leaning on the wall as he sits up a bit straighter, “What I want to know is if you’re okay doing this. The risk of re-traumatizing and all-“
He could hear Jim’s breathing go shaky for just a moment, then the quick puff through his nose, “I’m… aware of the risks. They uh, said this might get personal for me. That’s why I was the best person for the job.”
“Beginning audio statement of Nelson Tethers, regarding his encounter and subsequent disappearance caused by the influence of a higher power. Statement taken by Jim Ingraham for the Usher Foundation. The date is…” Jim faltered, pausing for a moment.
“Right! February 10th, 19XX. Statement begins.” But not before Jim clicked off the recorder for a brief moment to groan into his hands.
“They’re not even gonna notice, Jim.”
“They’re definitely gonna notice.”
“No, no. Forgetting dates is common. You’ll be fine. Never heard me leave any dates in mine, did you?”
“No but they have a whole system going on and...ughhhh…”
“Just keep it going.” Nelson reached until he felt a warmer elbow beneath his, the soft give of flannel under his thumb as he rubbed a spot. “You’re doing fine.”
For a few seconds his hand was allowed to linger, before the arm drew back out of touch, a tape recorder clicking on once again. “Mr. Tethers, tell me your occupations.”
“...right.” Nelson folded his hands together, “For most of my professional career, I served as an agent for the FBI. When I decided to investigate a closed case on my old time, I was eventually fired for my actions and picked up by an agency called the Psychonauts. For about one year I worked under their agency until the incident occurred.” Nelson looked up at where he hoped Jim’s face was, “Then for the last year or so, I served as an envoy for the forces of madness and paranoia.”
“I see…” Nelson could hear Jim scribble something down, “What did your...envoy job entail?”
Nelson rubbed his thumb along the rim of the mug, “It was...interesting, I’ll put it like that.” He looked up, brows raised, “Does...do the people getting this need an explanation about the whole “forces of evil” thing?”
Jim seemed to shuffle the recorder on the table, “I mean, it’s a little hard to believe, even with my department and all…Maybe just a refresher?”
“Do you just need a refresher, Jim?”
Silence for a moment.
Nelson gave a hum, “...Guess you do. Alright. Think of it like this.” He felt around the table until coming across his utensils, setting his fork and knife on the table between them, “We’re here, in the...fork dimension. Now, in the fork dimension, there’s people, animals, and minerals. Living things all working together in harmony. There are some inconsistencies-creatures like Bigfoot, Mothman, and… gnomes. Maybe. But it’s solid. We’re on solid ground, so to speak.”
He held up his butterknife, “Now the Fears-they’re over here, on the knife. The fears find little tears-little ways they can get over to our side. They act like a parasite and feed off of strong emotions. With this in mind, they go for people like me.” He took the knife, setting it in his coffee to slowly stir, “Let's say this coffee is my mind. They will find a crack to enter and from there, they’ll start to take advantage of those emotions. That fear. And the first one was the Eye.”
“The Eye is a weaker entity. If I had to put a name to it, it’d be like...comparing the DMV to the CIA or FBI. The fear of being monitored, of being watched-it’s common. It’s
Lots of people come into this world wanting answers. Lots of people feel like there’s someone looking over their shoulder or cover their webcams with tape just because they don’t want to risk it.” Nelson breathed in, letting it out slowly, and folded his hands together, “That’s probably why I fell into it so fast.”
“I was put into a situation where my last resource, my last line of defense, was to find some sort of answer for the situation at hand. Some sort of solution...it was an answer to a puzzle, and I willingly stepped up with my own pieces to shove into place.” Nelson chuckled, a sound that lacked any real mirth, covering his mouth with folded hands again, “I was so desperate for an angle, for something to hang onto… You don’t even realize it’s happening until you see others. How they respond to your questions.” His brows knit, “...how much it hurt them to hear it coming from you.”
“But you said you had two of these?” Jim had scooted his chair forward, just an inch or two, Nelson wincing at the idea of how the sound might transfer onto the tape but holding his tongue. “So...what was the other one?”
“I’m...I’m getting to that.” The other one was harder to talk about, admittedly. He felt around the table till he settled for his spoon again, holding it up, “When I couldn’t find any answers with the Eye, I began to think on it more. Started to consider that it was probably hiding things from me too. I needed more. I needed a better way to help the people close to me in a way I wasn’t accomplishing with the Eye alone.” He stuck his spoon in his coffee and stirred. “So I went to the Spiral.”
“The Spiral was simpler, but stronger then the Eye. The Eye wants to know everything about reality, while the Spiral does everything it can to break it. My fellow agent, Agent Threepwood was pulled into the Spiral partly out of his own power. It twisted his mind, caused him pain and confusion, and it made the other entities take notice of the Psychonauts. A building full of powerful psychics dealing through their own traumas...it was like setting the table for the buffet.”
“So...you knew that this...this Spiral caused your friend to become like this.” Jim started, Nelson listening to the soft clink of a spoon on mug as Jim stirred his own coffee, “Why would you offer yourself to it?”
Nelson gave a sad smile, “That’s a question I should have asked, huh?...why did I give myself to it…” He rolled his shoulders and leaned on the table, “I wish I could say it was a noble cause. I became so convinced that these were beings whose influence could be divided, who could be turned against each other, who could be controlled in any meaningful way-that I truly believed taking them on would spare my partner some of the hardship he faced.”
“...” His shoulders slumped, “It’s funny how easy it is to believe an idea is good. That it’s for some noble cause. Course it might have started out like that, but that wasn’t how it ended.” He folded his hands together, “I would say to myself, every single morning ‘I’m doing this for them’. I asked questions for them, I hunted for them, I fed for them and I was satisfied with them. And in a way, I was right. It was just the ‘them’ that changed. The ‘them’ that didn’t say consistent.”
“So...two entities...how did that affect you?”
“The eye enhanced my precognition, yet left enough pieces away from me that I’d ask for them from whoever I could find. When the Spiral came into play, it got...sinister. The questions became more personal, more damaging. I’d look at their idea of their reality and my job became asking just the right questions for me to flip it on its head.”
As Nelson spoke, his hands trembled, just slightly. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead, having to take a second to swallow and clear his throat.
“My body would often…twist. Unspool in ways it wasn’t supposed to. Mostly when I hadn’t fed for some time, or when I was adjusting after the deal went through.” He waved a hand loosely over his arm, “I can’t do it now and show you, but it was like...paper. Or thin spools of tape. I don’t know how I didn’t die from going through that alone...probably because they didn’t want me to.”
“...I guess they just...clicked. When I made the deal, I made it thinking I was doing something to drive a wedge in. I thought...well, I assumed that the fears had competition with each other. Rivalries to worry about...I thought that conflict might make it easier for myself and my teammates to eventually escape, long as we played up.”
“...And you guessed wrong?”
“Now you see the pattern.” Nelson sat back in his chair, “The fears aren’t warring governments or a cat and mouse. They’re not things that can be controlled or reasoned with. But they do have alliances. And it happened that their alliance in me was less like gaining a spy for the other...but more like an engagement ring. It fit together almost too perfectly-Seeking out answers and driving questions into a person so deeply that they’d go mad from trying to fight it. I didn’t outright kill for either of them, but I did cause many people to suffer.” He brought his hands back together and clenched until his knuckles began to turn ghost white. “At first I tried to go for people I assumed had dirty hands...but after a while, I gave up on that. I would go from one town to the next, find a person, and make their lives a living nightmare. And I would record every conversation, every detail, every little strained intake of breath until I’d had my fill of it.”
He heard a soft rattle of metal on China before Jim pulled his hand back off his coffee spoon, “You had these tapes when the boat was recovered, I understand.” Jim swallowed, “It was...a pretty big collection.”
Nelson nodded, “...Have you looked into any of the names yet?”
“Not yet. There’s...a lot to get through and not a lot of us to do it.”
Nelson could start to hear the quiver in Jim’s breathing, a few more swallows like he was trying to clear his throat of something in the way. “We can take a break if you need to-”
“No.” Jim swallowed a third time, went for his coffee to help clear his throat, and set down the empty mug. “I’m...fine. I’m fine.” He could the soft shuffle of hair moving, figuring Jim must be running a hand through his. “Just...it’s really a lot to take in.”
Nelson shrugged, “It is.” He rubbed his thumb across the handle of his mug, “There’s nights where I feel like if I go to sleep, I’m going to wake back up on that boat. When you got used to it, it could almost be...peaceful, in a strange way.”
“...” He heard Jim sigh through his nose, the slight creak of the table like he was leaning on it, voice closer when he spoke again, “I still don’t believe that was you.”
Nelson frowned, his shoulders slipping an inch lower, “You had my DNA on your glock. You didn’t test it?”
“I didn’t need to because that wasn’t you , Nelson.” He shifted in his chair, “I’m talking to you right now, I know that, but that man on the boat wasn’t Nelson Tethers. These...things, they gave you a choice, but...I can’t buy it! You’re the guy who couldn’t let one missing person case slide by just cause there was somebody out there who’d miss him.” He shifted papers across the table again, “This person who took all these recordings was not you. It’s just...not possible, Nelson.”
Nelson had thought it over since that day. While his head stung and all he could think in the moment was how relieved he’d felt seeing Guybrush. It had taken a bit for the thought to seed itself and sprout, rooting its way through him. Had he really become someone else? Or did he choose every action and victim himself? Had he always been a bad person and just...waited until he had the opportunity to take full advantage of it?
“...” Nelson shut his eyes a moment, reaching up and taking off his sunglasses to set and fold on the table, knitting his fingers together as he looked up towards Jim’s face, “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who that man was, does it?”
Jim had thought about those red eyes from the moment he saw them. Concerned, maybe even a little worried for his friend, but mostly just inconvenienced. Like a parent trying to soothe a child having a meltdown over something so small, it was almost laughable. They’d pierced into his dreams like a chilled ice pick, staring him down as he ran through metal corridors and rusted doorways in a panic. But Nelson didn’t have those eyes.
He didn’t have any eyes.
There was still a bit of red in there, but it wasn’t an overwhelming amount of it. Just two, small pin-pricks that stuck in the back of his sockets, and it took Jim a minute to realize they were veins: star-like little points that twitched and moved when Nelson spoke again. “It was still my body. So...it had to be my choice.” He leaned his face into his hands, speaking into his palms, “At least stopping it for good was also my choice.”
“...Did it hurt?”
Nelson considered it, looking towards the slight, cool draft off the window, “Not as much as I would have thought. They ran some tests when I first got back.” He moved a hand to wave in front of his face, “Reportedly, they’re still in my head. They should still function as eyes, but...my mind locked them down.”
Jim blinked, “Can uh...you elaborate on that?”
Nelson tapped the side of his head, “I say my mind but I guess I mean my powers.” He rubbed his temples, eyes shut a moment, “From what I gathered, it’s a sort of advanced invisibility. Trauma-induced... The way eyes work is taking light and reflecting it in order to make an image you can understand. But if the eyes in this case are transparent, well…”
“Nothing gets reflected back?”
“Essentially making me blind, yes.”
“But…” Jim leaned on the table again, Nelson feeling some air hit his face, the close proximity of Jim’s hand before his eyes, “If the eyes are still there, they can still fix it, right?”
“They could.” Nelson took his mug and sipped the last of his coffee, making a face when a few grinds mixed in at the end, “But I won’t let them.”
Jim’s chair gave a loud creak when it scooted back a bit, “Huh??”
“You were talking about choices and...well, this was mine.” He dug around in his shirt pocket, finding a piece of gum and unwrapping it as he continued, “I made a choice to hurt people. And now I make the choice to keep them safe.”
“Nelson...if these fears were that powerful, you can’t take all the blame onto yourself! You weren’t fully in control!”
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Nelson put a hand to his mouth, brows knit as he nodded to himself, “The fact that I lived is all I should be thankful for, frankly. I’m a very lucky man.”
“If they could do something to help-“
Nelson hated how his voice sounded for a moment, clenching his eyes shut, and opening them with a soft sigh, “I said I made up my mind…”
He could hear the other man struggle with such an idea, with Nelson feeling like he had to sacrifice so much to make amends. It took a few good minutes before he could finally offer something as a rebuttal, “But…” Jim paused for a beat, “...what about puzzles? You need your eyes for those...and you love puzzles!”
“I do.” Nelson gave a half laugh as he popped the piece in, “I really do… But there’s more to life then just puzzles.” He glanced up towards Jim’s face, “Was there anything else you needed to ask?” He took a half glance down towards the still-running recorder, blowing a gum bubble in the meantime.
Jim had gone quiet again, drumming his fingers on the table now, the sound of idle cafe chatter and the running tape going on in the background. “I guess, just...motive.” Nelson could feel Jim now, offering a hand to him across the table, one arm folded across his chest for table support. “Why did you go through all this?”
Nelson popped his bubble, chewed, and seemed to think it over, “...Do you know why it doesn’t bug me that I can’t do puzzles anymore?” After a second or so of thought, he’d taken Jim’s hand to squeeze lightly. “When we got out of the medical ward, we all needed some form of rehab. Mine was mostly physical, learning to walk with a cane and reading braille. But most of my friends needed something to ground themselves after so long, dealing with isolation and being constantly confused.
Eddie needed someone close by to know he couldn’t hurt anyone, so I gave him one of my old riddle books to read for me. When Manny quit smoking, it was my concentration games that gave him something else to focus on. I still have my old Rubiks, but Sam and Max needed something to give them that rush of success like a chase would, and I usually got pretty thrilled with my sudoku.
And Guybrush…” Nelson had a fond smile on his face now, “Crosswords helped him put together the words he still lacked. I don’t need to see his face to know how happy he gets when he figures one out without me butting in.”
Nelson blinked when Jim had gone quiet again, giving a more nervous laugh, “That uh, went on a bit...but my point is, I guess I’ve got people to do the puzzles with now. So...I’ll take being blind if I can keep them smiling.”
Jim was still quiet. Nelson’s smile dropped as he rubbed across his hand, “Jim?...Are you still there, Jim?” He blinked as he felt something cool on Jim’s hand, rotating it idly for a moment before something warm and wet dripped onto his hand, followed by Jim giving a hard sniffle.
“T-that’s…” He sniffed hard, and gave a choked laugh as he began to cry, “That sounds like the Nelson I know…”
Nelson found his smile coming back, patting Jim’s hand as the fellow former agent hiccuped and rubbed his eyes with his free hand, rotating that one spot on his finger again and knitting his brows in concentration. “...” He straightened up in alarm, eye sockets seeming to get a little wider as he sat up, “You got married???”
Jim nodded quickly as he gave another sobbing laugh, “Y-yeah! We uh...met after the whole thing happened!” He moved his hand back, Nelson startling when he blew his nose loudly and laughed again, “He’s really, really sweet!”
Nelson gave a surprised puff of a laugh at that, leaning back to rub his wrist against one of his empty eyes, “Well! Guess one good thing came out of it...that’s...wow!”
“Y-you should meet him sometime!” Jim whimpered, “You two would get along g-great!”
“I-I mean...long as you’re inviting me!”
Jim blew his nose again, gave another soft hiccup, and stayed quiet a moment longer. After a minute or two, he gave a soft groan, “Ughhhh Nelsonnn…”
“There’s no way they’re gonna get any use out of this tape, is there?”
Nelson heard the familiar sound of a tape ejecting, Jim wagging it in the air, “This tape just has us giggling on it. And with my whole date slip-up at the beginning, there’s no way they’ll consider it professional enough, right?” He heard a soft hiss as Jim breathed in through his teeth, “I don’t even know what they were gonna do with it. Probably put it in some sort of vault or something, but, like...if it’s got all your friends names on it too…aghhhh it’s just REALLY unprofessional.”
Nelson blinked, “...But...this is your new job, right?” Nelson gave an unsure smile, “Reporting on me was a big case, right??”
“It waaaaaas ssssssss…” Jim hissed again, rotating the tape in his hand, “But...mostly because they had the biggest leads where you were. Now that I know where you’re at, well…”
“No reason they have to listen to me bumbling on some tape, right?” The broken cassette found its way under Nelson’s palm, “I’d just be wasting their time if I stuck around and kept asking folks a bunch of weird questions about spooky monsters, so it would be better if I give my notice now then get fired down the line.”
Nelson rubbed his thumb over the cracked plastic, looking up towards Jim with that widened look on his face. The small smile that came up was one of relief as he closed his hand over the tape to stick in his pocket. “You know, I was really sure I was at least getting arrested by the end of this…”
“Well...not exactly a cop, am I?”
“I guess not!” Nelson tapped a finger on the table, bringing his hand up to his face a moment, then finding Jim’s hand again, “I’m going to make things better.”
Jim gave a laugh, “I figured that much, special agent Tethers.” He stood up when Jim gently tugged on his arm, “Course, I’d definitely stop whoever that weird guy was if he shows up again, right?”
“R-right…” Maybe it was bad that Nelson could count on that, leaning on Jim while he got his cane set up, “I owe you a lot more then one this time around.”
Jim made a “pssh” sound, patting Nelson on the back, “Listen, we got time to make up for as is. We’ll figure it out, right Nelson?” From this close up, he could hear Jim shuffle his feet, his elbow bumping his shoulder as he moved to rub his neck, “Although...I still got your Puzzle Sensei magazines...and they’re pretty tough when you get to the later issues…my husband is a teacher too, so maybe you know...the two of you could help uh, yknow…”
Nelson smirked, “You need help solving them again, Jim?”
The other man laughed, “I mean, if you’re willing!”
Nelson started for the door of the cafe, “Seriously, you have to be faking not knowing some of those equations, right Jim?”
“H-hey! Look they really do get hard!”
As the two step out into the early morning chill, the birds chirping their songs from the pines and a quiet cafe becomes even quieter without the sound of nervous laughs and friendly ribbing now going on outside, a lone tape recorder sits forgotten and empty on the cafe table.
As the door shuts with a jingle, the recorder clicks off.