Phreaked Out
rating: +7+x

1968, a year of great societal unrest following years of similar unrest that would likely be followed by even more unrest.

From the Cold War almost straight into the Vietnam War, people were displeased as the g-men once again got up to their antics. There was something more upsetting about this one, jumping from proxy wars to direct engagement. Multitudes of like-minded, peace-loving Americans around the country were calling for the troops to drop their weapons.

Paul Nashville, sitting in his mother's musty basement, was dropping acid.

He was vaguely aware of the world around him, enough to know why the people that kept him from getting to his job at Winn-Dixie on time were crowding the street in front of an army recruitment building. Apparently they were protesting the war overseas in some Asian country he couldn't remember the name of, all he knew for certain was that they blocked the road, stopping cars and trying to get people to roll down their windows so they could preach at them. Paul had rolled his window down the first time, hoping they were passing out free grass given their appearance, but they only handed him some kind of pamphlet and a plastic button with a peace symbol on it, both of which ended up being tossed out his window a mile down the road.

Down in his cavern, lit by old Christmas lights he found in a buried box, he hid from the world. As he lay on the mattress that lay on the floor, the fuzzy, reverb-soaked sounds of Surrealistic Pillow droning from nearby speakers, his mind warping and twisting, Paul decided to make some calls.

Despite what many would say of Paul, he had hobbies and interests. Paul had been phreaking for a few years now and had built a red box, a black box, and a blue box. He'd begun the process of building a beige box, which was basically a jerry-rigged telephone repairman's test kit, but was still missing some things he needed.

Leaning over to a small coffee table that sat by the mattress, Paul picked up a phone and its cradle, sitting it down next to him on the mattress. The phoneline it depended on ran into the wall via a hole Paul dug into the drywall with a screwdriver, from there it spliced into the landline that rested on the kitchen wall. His mom didn't know he'd done that, but if all kept going well she never would know— barring her actually reading a log of calls for once in her life.

Reaching back to the coffee table, Paul grabbed one of the electronic amalgamations that sat on it, his precious blue box. The mechanism had the base of a normal telephone keypad with various wires and chips poking out of it awkwardly. The cradle was empty, a wire leading to a small speaker took the place of a phone. Setting the thing on his lap, Paul took the phone from its cradle and dialed a random number from a yellow pages he'd picked up a while back while traveling with family, being sure to pick one that was both across the country and toll free. As the phone rang, Paul held the speaker from the box up to the phone's receiver. When it was ready, he hit a key on the box, a shrill tone playing loudly playing.

The phone quickly responded to the tone with a ker-chnk! Primed and ready to go.

Still holding the speaker to the receiver, Paul stopped the tone, letting the silence rest. Then, he punched a random long-distance number with the same area code into the telephone-amalgamation's keypad, varying tones sounding out through the speaker, communicating to the tandem what number to route him to. The phone began to ring again, Paul quickly dropping the speaker and putting it back to his ear.

A few seconds later, the weary old voice of a grandmother came over the line. "Hello?"

Sitting with the phone to his ear, Paul realized he hadn't thought about what he was going to say. Gazing over at a table sitting against the opposite wall of the basement, littered with various scrap electronics and unfinished projects, he decided he'd get a little funding to get parts for his project. If it was going to work, he had to be quick and he had to be clever. The answer came to him immediately, one so obvious that he wondered how he'd never tried it before with his previous scams.

Paul cleared his throat, putting on a faux-stern voice. "Hello, ma'am. This is Sergeant Hollis with the…" he quickly checked the phonebook, "… Cassia recruitment center. May I have a moment of your time?"

"Oh, well of course!"

"Thank you, ma'am. As I'm sure you're aware, the war overseas is as tumultuous as ever."

"That's what I hear on the TV from that dear Mr. Cronkite! Those poor soldiers, fighting the good fight against the Reds."

Paul grinned, jackpot.

"Well ma'am, would you be willing to make a small donation of fifteen dollars to the cause?"

"Doesn't the army get funding from the government?"

"Oh yes ma'am, we do, but the funding is divided between every division." Paul had no idea what he was saying, he just hoped it sounded good. "So, as you can imagine, the money gets a bit thin by the time it reaches us. That's why we're calling concerned patriotic citizens such as yourself, hoping to procure more funds to aid our boys overseas."

"Oh, I had no idea! How very stingy of them, especially when those soldiers are doing the Lord's work."

"Yes ma'am, we agree, but right now we're more focused on winning the war. What good is reform if there's no freedom to back it up?"

"What do I need to do to get you this money?"

"Well ma'am, we accept various forms of payment, but since time is off the essence we would prefer credit card. Do you have one?"

"Of course, dear! It's the twentieth century after all!"

Paul feigned a hearty laugh, "Of course, ma'am! Time sure does fly, doesn't it?"

"Yes, yes it does," came the old lady's response as quiet shuffling could be heard in the background. After a brief moment presumably spent searching through a purse or pocketbook, the old lady spoke up once more. "What do I do now, dearie?"

Paul snatched a pen from the coffee table. "From here it's very simple ma'am. All I need is your first and last name, the long number on the front, the expiration date, and the three numbers on the back labeled 'CCV.'" He scrambled around for a piece of paper, pulling the curled phoneline straight, but quickly gave up, choosing to roll up a pantleg of his sweatpants and write it on his calf instead.

The kindly old woman slowly read off the information, Paul copying it all down onto his hairy calf, murmuring uh-huhs as he went to assure her that he was keeping up. When she was finished, Paul grinned widely as he pulled out the hammed up macho-man voice again. "Your country thanks you, ma'am," he said with his whole chest before hanging up.

Paul leaned back against the wall, folding his arms behind his head. Now all he had to do was put the information on some magtape, attach it to a plastic card that looked vaguely like a credit card, and go on a quick spree a few towns over. Simple as. Paul looked over to the coffee table where the other two telephone bastardizations sat, thinking about the fourth he wanted to add to his collection— the elusive beige box— now that he had the means to easily afford the alligator clips he needed.

He licked his lips, his eyes darting to the sheet of tabs sitting on the floor next to the mattress. Oh what the hell, he thought, I earned it, and reached out to the sheet, tearing off a second dose and laying it on his tongue. But his work wasn't done yet, he had started strong and needed to keep going while the iron was hot. He leaned back against the wall once more, letting the trip wash over him as he planned out his next call.

Paul pulled the telephone back to his side and sat the blue box on his lap, setting himself up with a tandem like before. As he punched a number into the blue box he found himself wading through a sudden wave of nausea, losing his focus a bit in the haze. He was fairly certain he hit the right number. Did he accidentally hit an extra number or two? Hard to tell, but he decided he'd just roll with it and restart if the call failed.

Holding the phone to his ear as it rang, Paul rehearsed his pseudo-script in his head.

Click! Someone picked up, an androgynous robotic voice piping up on the other side.

"Grüße Wanderer. Sie haben das neue Callcenter der Wanderers Bibliothek erreicht, etabliert als Teil unserer Bestrebung für so viele Wanderer wie möglich zugänglich zu sein! Zur Vereinfachung haben wir eine Anrufer-ID aktiviert, so dass dieser Anruf am besten für Ihren Genus geeignet ist."

Paul sat in confusion. He was fairly certain he'd called an English line.

The voice continued on as Paul checked the yellow pages and compared it to the vague memory he had of dialing, trying to figure out who he'd called. "Es scheint, dass Sie von Deutschland, Erde, Dimension 2-23-10-27 aus anrufen. Angesichts dieser Information wurde geschätzt, dass ihre Muttersprache Deutsch ist.

"Allerdings sind auch andere Optionen verfügbar. Hinweis: Die Optionen werden automatisch auf der Grundlage der gespeicherten Daten für den Bereich ID'd generiert.

"Für Deutsch, bitte bleiben Sie in der Leitung.

"For English, press one.

"हिन्दी के लिए दो दबाएँ।

"Para Español, pulse tres.

"Voor Nederlands, druk op vier.

"Chik-yajh Qualie-um, duria jila-ohkhan.

"01000110 01101111 01110010 00100000 01000010 01101001 01101110 01100001 01110010 01111001, 00100000 01110000 01110010 01100101 01110011 01110011 00100000 01110011 01101001 01111000.

"..-. --- .-. / -- --- .-. ... . / -.-. --- -.. . --..-- / .--. .-. . ... ... / ... . ...- . -. .-.-.-

"Ack! Ack rack! Ack ack!"

The last language offered came out much louder and harsher than the others, like it was yelling at him, and shocked Paul out of his stupor. Wishing to move on and away from whatever disorienting, LSD-induced nightmare he was experiencing, he pressed one.

"You have selected: English. Please wait."

"Greetings, Wanderer. You have reached the Library's new call center, established as a part of our dedication to being accessible to as many Wanderers as possible! For your convenience, we have run caller ID so this call is best suited for your genus. It seems that you're calling from the United States, Earth, dimension 2-23-10-27," it said, turning more robotic and monotone than before when it relayed specific information.

"What do you need help with today, Wanderer?"

"Uh… front desk, please?"

"Transferring you to the front desk, please hold."

Paul stared forward at the wall across from him, stunned in so many ways by what was happening, overwhelmed by questions.

There seemed to be some kind of complex, futuristic automated answering system.

What was caller ID? Did they somehow siphon his personal information?

They didn't even say the library's name, like it was something he should already know. And why "Wanderer?" What kind of pretentious, liberal arts institution was this?

As all of these thoughts raced through his head, he slowly became cognizant of the soft, twinkling melody that was being played through the phone, probably the on-hold music.

It was a strange little tune. The instruments sounded foreign, something he couldn't place, but it was pleasant for how different it was. It reminded him a lot of some of the psychedelia he'd heard while buying drugs from a backwoods tripper a while ago, but more… electronic? It was hard to tell. It seemed to fluctuate between leading instruments, the layers gently fading between one another, making it difficult to keep track of it all. Most striking was just how calm he felt, no trace of irritation for being put on hold. Was it the LSD or the music? Some combination? It was getting too out-there for Paul, someone had better pick up quick before he fell down into some esoteric nonsense.

And his wish came true.

"Hi, what do you need help with?"

Paul shook away the errant thoughts, focusing back on task. "Hi, uh, is this the front desk?"


"Is this the front desk?"

The voice on the other end snickered. "Is that what they told you you were getting?"

"… yes?"

"Wow! That automated system sucks! I mean, we used to be 'front desk' if you wanna call it that. They're talking about the Main Hall when they say that though."

"So this isn't the front desk— or, the Main Hall?"

"Oh not at all. See—" The voice cut itself off, leaving the call in silence for a moment.


"Hold on, Ayman's being a buzzkill. Again," the voice responded before everything was silent again.

"Sorry about that. Apparently talking about innocent jokes I may or may not have had a hand in isn't what this system is for."

"No worries, now—"

"What? It's called, uh, 'possible deniability!' No one saw me!"

"Excuse me—," Paul interjected, trying to break into the conversation, but was ignored.

"Yeah, 'possible!' I read it recently."

"Can you please—!"

"'Plausible?' It's 'plausible?' Are you sure, 'cause I'm pretty sure it's 'possible.' Whatever, I'm still right!"

Paul let loose a groan under his breath, momentarily giving up on butting in.

"That Page is a liar! I made sure no one else was there when I did it! … Okay, plausible deniability with others, of course you know I did it."


"Don't get your fingers all tangled up yelling at me, Hands! That'd just be a whole 'nother mess!" Paul still couldn't hear this "Ayman" speaking.

The speaker addressed Paul in a whisper. "Sorry, again, just a little bickering between two coworkers, kindhearted bickering."

"No, no, I understand."

"Yeah, he's a bit upset that we're still not back in the Main Hall. Which, y'know, fair enough."

"Well I'm sure—" Paul managed to eek out before being cut off again as the man on the other line began lightheartedly arguing with someone again.

"Okay, yeah, maybe if I chilled out a bit we mighta already been put back, but you can't say for sure! And when would you have fun if I did, Mr. Wet Blanket?"

Paul was getting irritated trying to get through to the aloof airhead on the other end. "Sir, can I please—"

"Oh, oh, oh! You're right! My bad, hold on." The man on the other side seemed to suddenly remember that Paul existed. "Hey, it's me. I forgot to ask earlier, but we gotta keep track of who uses the system, something about seeing if Patrons will actually use it or whatever, so… what's your True Name?"

"Excuse me?"

"Your True Name. Y'know, the one on your Library Card?"

He knew he didn't have a card for this library, but he had to keep going, maybe his luck would keep up. "Paul Nashville?"

"Nashville… Nashville… Nnnaassshhviiilllle… Huh. You sure that's right?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. Maybe a bug in your system?"

"Oh I haven't seen any bugs recently. Ayman likes to keep things clean and tidy."

Paul went silent, trying to figure out what to say. Was he being pranked?

"Hello? You still there?"

"I guess I don't have a card then."

It was the other side's turn to go silent. Paul heard the person tending to the desk whisper to their compatriot. "I thought only Patrons had access to the system?"


"Yeah, yeah."

Silence, again.


The voice came back in full, this time a bit more upset. "Is this a prank call?"

Something in Paul jumped, sending his brain into overdrive. "What? No, I just—"

"You're lucky I still haven't figured out how to gleam through this… thing."

Sweat was beading on his forehead and the phone in his hand shook. "Gleam? What—"

"You do realize you're in big trouble for doing this, right?"

The threat combined with the already strange and off-putting nature of the call was the breaking point for Paul. He felt like he was delving into a bad trip and wanted out of there as soon as possible. Besides, he had already been debating the moral implications of scamming a public library, if he could even figure out how to do that, so it all seemed to be a sign to him that it was time to jump ship.

"Look, I'm sorry for bothering you, I'm gonna go—"

"No, hold on! Give me your True Name, I need to file a report!"

Paul's adrenaline spiked again and he smashed the phone into its cradle before the person on the other side could get more threats out, breathing heavily. Quickly, he sat the system on the floor away from him and scooted closer to the wall behind him, pressing his whole back up against it, depending on it to keep him oriented.

As he stared at the phone, now silently resting as though nothing had happened, he pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapping an arm around them as he shivered despite the feverish haze that engulfed him. He'd been smart enough to bring a glass of water down with him beforehand, having experienced a dehydrated trip one too many times. Taking hold of the cool glass, Paul's shaky hand slowly brought it to his mouth, some water spilling onto his mattress.

Maybe it was time to take a break from phreaking. LSD too.

The little machine sitting on Owlpede's desk let off a faint click followed by a dull tone.

He grimaced in voice alone as his beak-face turned to Ayman. "I don't like this new system."

Some Librarians had discussed the possibility of implementing a kind of call system as a means for Patrons to get some surface-level information while outside of the Library, especially when it came to getting help with a book, dealing with paperwork of some kind, general inquiries, or some other matter. A large number of worlds the Patrons came from had some kind of long distance communication, so the system tapped into all of these and directed it to whoever would be most helpful. If the problem was too general, or they couldn't properly verbalize the issue for some reason, then they got sent to Ayman and Owlpede.

It was just another menial task for them to take care of while they served out their time in the West end of Hall One, in the Third Port Off Left. Another strange, fruitless project to watch get canned. Ayman couldn't talk through the device and the spaceships still weren't keen on Library Cards despite Owlpede's urging and cajoling, so he was given task of handling calls and recording who called.

Ayman's many floating hands quickly flitted about, signaling to Owlpede. "Well, I wouldn't worry about it too much. At this rate, it's doomed to be scrapped."

Owlpede just shrugged a few limbs. The massive creature looked down at a sheet of plain paper sitting next to the receiver-machine. It had only three calls recorded on it in what he found to be a very pleasant blue:

1. Main Hall — Testing system
2. Cedar Bardot — Asking about texts for an old relic, transferred to Page call center
3. Translator — Requesting refresh of texts, transferred to Main Hall

Reaching into a drawer, Owlpede pulled out a neat little pen Ayman had given him as a gift. The pen had multiple knobs at the top that could be pushed down, each a different color corresponding to the color ink it wrote in when pushed down. While still not as pretty as the waxy trail of a crayon, Ayman insisted that variety was the spice of life. Deciding it was time to shake things up a bit, Owlpede pushed down the purple knob and dutifully updated the log.

4. Unknown Patron — Prank call(?)

With a satisfying click, the knob shot back up into place. Owlpede gently placed it back into the drawer, before letting out a sigh.

"Sorry I couldn't get his name. I was hoping to win some kudos that'd get us back to the Main Hall sooner."

Ayman, who up to this point had been skimming through old documents to make sure some new ones were accurate, stopped what he was doing to pat Owlpede on the back with a few hands. "Well, you tried. I think you handled the situation well."

"I think I played up the anger too much. I wanted to sound intimidating."

"Maybe, but overall I'd say you did pretty good."

Owlpede huffed a bit, letting his continued frustrations in spite of Ayman's assurance be known. "That's the first call in, what…?"

Ayman stared forward for a moment, lost in thought. A few fingers began counting. "In… goodness."


"Well. Back to it, I suppose," Ayman signaled, his hands betraying a hint of weariness in his tone.

It was Saturday morning, the sun shining through the basement window, past the grass that grew in front of it, and rather than rising from a restful slumber, Paul was sitting at his little workshop table putting the finishing touches on his beige box. As he resealed the thick plastic, making sure the wires he'd attached to alligator clips were nested in the small dip he'd bored into the chasse, Paul realize that this was the first time he'd made a phreaker box that actually lived up to its namesake color-wise. With a small chuckle, Paul rubbed his eyes as the choice to abstain from sleep finally caught up to him. Standing up to stretch, yawning so widely that a muscle in his jaw cramped, he decided that he'd pour himself some coffee and then fully finish the beige box.

Paul stomped up the stairs with little care for the loud thumps that would run up the walls. His parent were out of town for the next week on a "business trip" but Paul knew they just wanted some time to themselves away from their "bum son." Pricks.

Reaching the top, Paul sauntered over to the half-full coffee pot that had been sitting on the counter for the past few days, poured some into a mug stained by years of use, and shoved it in the microwave to warm it up again. As the microwave droned out, Paul realized that he hadn't checked the mail in a few days. He was expecting the arrival of a Sports Illustrated of the swimwear variety, so if it was in there he wanted it as soon as possible.

Walking out to the mailbox, Paul cracked it open, the rusted hinges squealing in protest. To his great disappointment, no magazine awaited his retrieval, a manila envelope sitting in its stead. Paul pulled the envelope out, assuming it to be some kind of government tax form or another red tape trap for his parents, but was surprised to find that it was addressed to him. He inspected the unexpected letter as he walked back into the house; the flap at the top wasn't held down by a lick-and-stick seal or a set of metal tabs, but with a piece of twine tied to a metal ring that wrapped around a small metal button on the body of the letter. He came to rest at the sink in the kitchen, leaning against the counter as he gazed at the strange mail.

Paul unwrapped the twine, slowly circling it around the metal button until it came free, and opened the top. Inside was a letter written on what seemed to be thick cardstock, its borders decorated with gold leaf stamped into elaborate patterns and headings. In contrast to the fanciful décor, the body was written in green crayon.

From the desk of Ayman and Owlpede

The Wanderers' Library


Just writing to let you know that after your prank call a few weeks ago, Ayman figured out how to read who used the automated system and what their ID was, so now we have your address!

As a creature of mischief, I don't have an issue with you, who doesn't love a good joke? (btw, you need to up your prank game, it wasn't actually all that funny)

But Uncy isn't very happy with us so we need you to pay a fine. :(

But don't worry! I asked around and it turns out there's a Way near you! :)

I also found out how to open it! I wrote it down on a note, but I don't have any tape or glue right now so I'll just write it down again.

Go to the nearby old mill, find the grain grinder, turn it three and a half times, put your left foot behind your head, whistle a nursery rhyme, hop around the mill five times (with your left foot still behind your head), and then spin like a top on your head for twenty straight seconds (with your left foot still behind your head!)

Your fine right now is pretty cheap, better to pay it now before Uncy sends someone to collect!

Have a wonderful continued existence!

— Owlpede

Your total fine due: 3 apple seeds, a yo-yo, 25 ounces of badger urine, and a hug for Uncy :)

Paul's hands shook as he held the letter. It'd been weeks since he'd made that call to the strange library. He thought it'd been a nightmare, a bad trip, but here it was, back to haunt him. His mind ran rampant, trying to rationalize it. He hadn't taken any hallucinogens since then and he certainly wasn't tripping in that moment.

As far as he knew…

Were all those PSAs right? Was he having some kind of acid flashback? Was his mind so warped by drugs that he was in a permanent trip? The thought of his brain being truly fried, split and frayed wires poking at the interior of his skull, terrified him, his palms wetting with sweat. No, no, no, there was no way. This was the only thing he'd experienced that was out of the ordinary in the weeks since his last dose. Of course this brought with it an even more terrifying prospect: this was cold, hard reality.

How they'd gotten his personal information, he didn't know. They'd said something about a "caller ID," but he'd not known the extent to which it had recorded the data that was his life. If they knew his address, what else did they know? His face? His social security number? His banking information? Paul felt hot tears welling up in his eyes, the fear beginning to overtake his whole body.

Working on panic-fuel instinct alone, Paul shoved the letter into the garbage disposal and flicked it on. The machine let off its loud growling as Paul began pushing the letter into its maw, the paper quickly catching and beginning to shred. As he was pushing it down, a frightening thought creeped up in his mind from the bog of denial: if this is real and they have your information, they could actually be out to get you.

Just as quickly as he had shoved it in, Paul yanked the letter out of the garbage disposal and turned it off. Thankfully he had started shredding from the top, so the bottom half was intact. The instructions were ridiculous, the payment even more so, but rationality had gone out the window. Paul resigned himself to the fact that the absurdity of life was truly unmatched, even in the most heinous of drug-fueled fictional works. Datura, eat your heart out.

What other choice was available? The part of him that wanted to fight "The Man," whoever that may be, was suddenly being drowned out by fear for his wellbeing. All he had left to do in this act of acceptance that this was all real was to get to gathering the payment and hope for the best. Maybe he'd have a word with whoever took the payment, this "Uncy," but for now he just wanted to ensure he would even be able to make those comments in the first place.

Paul opened the junk drawer, pulled out the phonebook that lay under a few empty lighters and tape, and began calling wildlife control facilities.

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