From the Journals of Agent Hopper: Home Bittersweet Home (or Free as a Bird)

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The post-shift nausea was worse than it usually was. Once the dizziness fell to a more manageable level, I actually had to take a step back and vomit for the first time in years.

I was numbly aware that I'd appeared in a town of some kind. But it wasn't until my last dry heave into a trash bin that I noticed I hadn't heard a single car drive by, nor any footsteps.

I turned around, but at the time I wish I hadn't.

I recognized the town I was in. Every pothole in the road, every imperfect brick on the brick-and-mortar store, was forever etched in my mind, from whenever I looked through the small window of my room in St. Christopher's.

But it was all wrong. Cars were abandoned, windows smashed, decals caked in months worth of bird shit. The post office looked like it had been bombed from the inside, and there was graffiti sprayed over the scorch marks on the sidewalk that made my head hurt and fill with a loud cawing

I had to keep moving after that. Whatever happened, the cause of it didn't want me here.

In the horizon, resting on a small hill infested with overgrown weeds and grass, I could see the faded gothic architecture of St. Christopher's Mental Institution. Besides the rusting scaffolding of an abandoned renovation, and the lack of the western tower, it looked exactly the same as it did back in my old home. There wasn't a single smashed window or dropping on it. And, more importantly, unlike the rest of the buildings in the town, the lights were on.

If there was any place to get some answers on what happened in this universe, as much as I hated my former cage, the asylum was my safest bet.

In the next few minutes, it was like my body was on autopilot. I weaved past the remains of shopping carts, burnt-out police vehicles, decaying road blocks. And just when my gloved hand just grasped onto the bars of the gate, a hissing sound stopped me cold.

Of any thing I expected to see when I jerked my head, a goose with a collar charging straight at me wasn't one of them.

I quickly backed away, my hands instinctively travelling to my holster, the peeved bird baring its "teeth" at me as a series of raspy honks flooded from its beak.

Even stranger, those hellish sounds were accompanied by a synthesized voice, that emanated from the collar.

"HEY! YOU! FUCK OFF OUT OF HERE! BITCH!"

My hand froze, the whole scene leaving me confused for the first time in months. Just as suddenly, the goose paused, closed its beak, and took a small breath. It glanced up at me. I swear, if birds had the facial muscles to pull it off, I'd say that it looked embarrassed. Brushing its face with one of its wings, the voice came back, quietly this time.

"Ah, shit, I'm really sorry about that," it drawled as apologetically as its artificial intonation could. "Territorial instincts, you know how it is with us…"

I could only nod dumbly, now having even more questions about this universe. The goose paused, scrutinizing me with its eyes. "Wait a minute…" it started, before hopping back, its wings fluttering. "YOU? I thought you were dead!"

I blinked.

"I think I'd remember meeting a talking goose," I remarked, my tongue no longer feeling like it had been replaced by a block of lead. "Or dying."

"…No, no, you're not the one from here," the bird commented, shaking its head. "I clearly remember reading the file. They double-tapped him in the back of the head, cremated him. They didn't want it spreading to other branches…" Its head snapped back to look at me, or more accurately, my uniform…

"Oh fuck me, you're with the Hand, aren't you?"

I blinked again.

"You're a Jailor?"

The noise that left the goose could've charitably been called a laugh. "Technically, you could call me that. We don't do much 'jailing' these days, though. We've got bigger geese to cook." "…" "Look," it responded defensively. "I'm allowed to make jokes like that—"

"Never mind all that," I cut them off. "What in the hells happened here?"

The goose didn't answer me at first, stepping away from the gate and hopping on a dilapidated mailbox. "…You saw that cognitohazard spray painted in front of the old post office, didn't you?" Warily, I nodded. "Technically," they continued. "What I'm about to tell you is classified. But that hasn't stopped the Hand before, has it?" Another barking pseudo-laugh left them. "Plus, well, look around you. Not like secrecy will change anything."

I waited, resting against the cold metal of the gate.

"Long story short, the Foundation fucked up. We pissed off an ancient Egyptian bird god. They took the Judeo-Christian, capital G God's place when one of our Overseers tried to bail. And they spread a meme across the collective consciousness in order to turn all of humanity into squawking, shitting dunces as vengeance."

"But how come I'm not affected?" I questioned, looking down at myself. If the goose had shoulders, it would've shrugged. "Who the fuck knows?" it responded drily. "You could've came from a reality where the human genome evolved slightly different than ours and it has no effect. Or you could be like those boxing fetishists from the other universe, who were pumped so full of mnestic antitoxins it gave the cawing bastard a headache instead."

"I'm sorry, the what now?"

"Never mind," the goose hurriedly changed the subject. "We both know you might not be in this world for long, and I highly doubt you want to sightsee. So tell me, why does this building," it gestured at the Institution with one wing. "Interest you?" I glanced over to it, that reluctance to go there returning to my mind.

"My job is to catalogue as much of the World Tree Yggdrasil's Branches as possible for our Library," I started, measuring how much information to give them. Bird or not, the goose was a Jailor. "We don't have the same resources or luxuries as the other versions. They were lucky to find me when they did."

"The Hand hasn't been seen around here for a long time," the goose commented. "Just our luck that one from another world from ours shows up…"

I nodded to myself, pushing the gate open and wincing as the rusted hinges squeaked against one another. All the more reason to make me hate the place, no matter which reality. "Okay, let me ask you this," I said, starting my way up the faded gravel pathway. The goose followed. "What is a Jailor…bird doing in the middle of an abandoned Podunk town like this?"

"The Avian Division's duties are multi-tiered," the goose explained; either it was happy to talk to someone who also didn't have wings, or it just didn't care about being clandestine anymore. "While the others are working on seeing if—I'm sorry, when they'll be able to get rid of Old Rustled Feathers, we have scouts that are traversing the globe. Looking for humans who are, for whatever reason, unaffected by the meme, or anything else anomalous that's cropped up in the chaos. In my case, I found this place while travelling back to headquarters, and saw this decrepit place somehow still had power."

The goose shook its head again, as we pushed open the doorway to the Institution itself. "There was no paratech involved," the bird continued, while I masked my distaste for the sterile grey walls that now surrounded us. "Just a backup generator that hasn't ran out of fuel yet." Suddenly, the goose stepped in front of me, making me have to stop on my heels so I didn't trip over them. "What's with you, looking all green in the face?"

"Let's just say this place and I have a history and leave it at that," I tersely responded, swerving past them and slipping into the chair of the receptionist's desk. Luckily, with just the wiggle of a mouse, the computer began booting up, and without a password screen, too.

I slipped my hand into my backpocket, fishing out the reverse-engineered zettabyte flash drive one of the Archivists had given me for these tasks. I'd just inserted it into the USB port when a feathered wing smacked against my arm. "Hold it, bookworm," the goose butted in. "You might be inoculated against this bird-brained bullshit, but chances are your fellow Librarians aren't. And trust me, that crowing dickhead caused a lot of dumb people to spread a lot of hazardous shit onto the internet. I can give you memetically scrubbed documentation from our database…"

Once more, I blinked.

"You'd help me like that? But, you're a Jailor…" I said, confused. The goose just "grinned" at me. "Yes, but above all else, I'm a goose. And we don't play by the rules." "Alright, alright. You can help. Just…don't ever do that again in front of me," I conceded, getting up from the chair as the goose made that not-laugh of a sound, taking my place. In a flurry of motion, it began tapping against the keyboard with its beak, pulling up command line after command line until the monitor had that familiar pronged circle in the corner.

I pressed the button on the flash drive, and it immediately began downloading as much information as it could acquire. "You can call me Agent Goslyng," the goose prompted suddenly, jerking my head and making proper eye contact with the bird for the first time. "For whatever report you need to file whenever you get back."

"…Agent Hopper," I replied. Goslyng snorted. "Serpent's Hand is as subtle as ever when it comes to code names, I see." "This coming from a goose named Goslyng?" I quipped dryly. The flash drive beeped, indicating that its task was finished, giving the device a quick yank before slipping back in my pocket.

"Har har, touché," the goose stated, hopping up off the chair and onto the desk. Just as its webbed feet touched the mahogany, I felt the pang, indicating that my time in this universe was coming to an end. "Just be glad I don't have my amnest—"

And then I was gone.

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