By the morning of January 20th, 1969, the moon landing is a bygone memory, and the nations have once again started to sink their teeth into themselves. The skies and their trajectories are no more clear than they were twenty-five years earlier, but the oil has not yet started to burn. Within a city sprawling and stained, the yet-bomb-hollowed balcony of a fifteen-story commercial tower overlooks the factory district in all its rusted glory. A bell rings out in the mud-yards below, and the day shift trudges into place. With their round mouths tar-stained and dripping, the smokestacks that surround the tower begin their steady plastic billow.
And with one claw curled around the metal of the tower-rails, the blue and striped and twining condroni1 raises its head, and there is no sight or sound or sonar chirp that escapes its flat, fake eyes' perception.
The world spins, and this first stranger in over six hundred years2 listens in silence to the teary-eyed dramas, and the sports broadcasts, and the newscasters who cannot hide the tremble in their voices.
These waves and all other frequencies pass through the stranger's brain. And halfway across the city, in a row of houses dimmed by billboard-shade and lit by fluorescent flicker glow, the anchor's words crackle out through tube TV,
The audience stands by, none the wiser for the shift.
Deep deep down beneath the dead pipes and the rail-yard runoff dirt, long, yellow fingers push through a crack in one of hundreds of bricked-off corridor walls. The slick wet fingertips trace floppy trails across the scrapped subway tunnel's floor, then settle on the paint-emblazoned sides of a long-dead train. The bile-sticky print is not enough to sear off the paint; but still, it seeps in.
The ladroni3 blubbers and churns, and as it writhes, it laughs, and what spills out its mouth soaks up stomach-deep through the floors above. And so shuffling onto station platforms and through clogged walkways, the day's commuters taste the filth-monger's bile but swallow it down without question.
And so in the space between smoke and rust, the infestation waits, ready-lipped. It progresses at first with timid hesitance, several weeks elapsing before the garish haledroni makes its appearance, its knees scratched up on car wreck twists. It shakes as it grabs at side of the road doll-parts; it leaves its trail bloody.
Less than ten days later, the pale buledroni splashes its palms against a fountain-water surface that reflects the night-yellow clouds, but never the stars. The billfolds and confetti still scatter the streets, and the night sleeps soundly. The sad sad stranger cries and cries, but brings no comfort.
With their four humors4 now established, so the infestation unfolds, spreading through the cities of the earth.
These disparate and strained non-animals live non-lives; they are not living beings. In the gutters and voids they flourish, and grow more abundant each year.
Despite the violence with which they impersonate our thoughts and emotions, these strangers remain unseen. Should a human being wander near a stranger's territory, their physical connection to our world becomes disrupted, and the stranger shifts into an etherial form long before any intersections of the spaces can be observed.
The months and years pass, and in the greater arena of hands and words, treaties are signed, and bomb-planes are hijacked, and the payloads are never recovered. Twitchy-fingered authors pen stories of mazes and minotaurs, and artists mix their paint with glue softener to thin the poison fumes. Drip drip drip goes the trickles of the coming flood, and no one wants to ask why the factories make more mattresses than there are sleepers.
On the night before the morning of August 9th, 1974, the crowds have not yet swarmed the capital, and the first tsinidrinzi staggers jagged-legged towards a dead war monument, establishing it as the fifty-second and final strain to appear in the later (and aforementioned) hypertext work of Strangers: Primer. Yet, though the module will someday draw its fair share of readers, these are not the first audience to the spread.
And so, the first human witnesses are born in darkness and they are stolen in the night.
They are found murdered in stairwells and they are not found at all. They are born to be victims to claws and to hands and to the stare of mesmerizing eyes. They are dissembled like clocks, their ribs and phalanges lined up in clean rows on the empty train station floors. They drown in the oceans that only they know are black, and they hide from sirens that no one else can hear.
They are one in a hundred thousand1, these sensitives2. It is this sensitivity alone that allows them to see and interact with3 strangers, as long as the space is not disrupted4 by the presence of a non-sensitive.
Though each sensitive believes themselves to be alone, the desire to express cannot be muzzled with such ease. Some of them write their journals on loose-leaf paper or leather-bound books, while others record their voices onto dollar store audio cassettes.
But there are still that great many who are cut down before the first word can be expressed, and for these next of many decades, they leave behind no record5 of the strangers' existence.
In the summer of 2008, the hypertext art installation most often referred to as Strangers finds its first presence online, when drawings of the condroni, ladroni, and lindroni (among others) are posted on various anonymous image boards. These designs depict cartoonish and surreal zooforms (often with accompanying concepts and world-building notes), and a website is soon launched. The project appears to be a bestiary – or, a collection of creatures – which catalogs and details the various "strains". As the years pass, the website receives continuous (if sporadic) updates and expansions, as well as a number of (oftentimes, years-long) hiatuses, followed by abrupt relaunches.
Still, it is not clear whether Goodbye Strangers is an an art project, a precursor to a novel, or an attempt to drum up interest in a line of products. It fails to gain mainstream traction or popularity, with criticism falling on its lack of accessibility, niche appeal, as well as the similarity of the designs themselves. Its intentions remain inscrutable, with little information emerging about the anonymous creator or creators, aside from what is written in the website's changelog or theorized in various online forums.
Though it remains an obscure piece of outsider media, the project does develop a small but dedicated following. Further, the project's structured and open-ended nature makes it a tool or a toy to engage with, and with no interference from the absent creator, fans are free create their own theories and personal canon, and as well as fanart, fan-strangers, fan-modules, and sensitive alter-egos. Projects such as Strangers: Mosaics represents one such community module, while The Strangers Adoptables Database acts as a hub for one of many sub-communities within the rapidly branching fandom.
Inevitably, the website is also discovered by actual sensitives.
Now, we return to the cities. There, the rails grow colder by the day, the red bricks crumble, and the strangers keep coming.
By the time Module 2 is released, the number of strains reaches the hundreds, and infestations can be found within every country1 on earth. Over time, a scattering of insular sensitive communities coalesce, as well. Both online and off, individuals band together and attempt to observe, catalog, and hunt the strains – and ultimately, rationalize and validate their experiences.
For those sensitives who discover it, the Strangers website proves an invaluable resource into the strangers' behaviours and effects, and saves many a sensitive from chancing an encounter with a dangerous strain. Nonetheless, it cannot be treated as an exhaustive source. Idiosyncrasies, stylizations, as well as outright contradictions add layers of obfuscation. Many strangers are missing minor details, with some lacking description altogether, or used purely for aesthetic effect.
Indeed, the author's intentions seem less focused on creating a guide for sensitives, and more on deconstructing systems of organization. Instead of providing resources for sensitives, Goodbye Strangers seems to function in a fundamentally impressionistic manner.
Banking on a lack of copyright enforcement, a group of artists and writers frame themselves as the project's creators by hijacking the original domain, utilizing duplicitous SEO techniques, and incorporating their own credits into the site – as well as, of course, links to "official" merchandise and ways to support the "designers". (Whether "official" or "fan-made", however, the subsequent stickers, pins, shirts, and toys help spread the project's visibility even further.)
Though most within the ever-growing fandom are unaware of the strangers' existence as anything outside of a fictional work, there are those readers who do begin to recognize their own sensitivity after reading the website's contents – and others who only believe they possess the trait. So these strays and other runaways slip into the deeper sensitive community, which can no longer escape public notice.
Spurred by a desire to both maintain an insular network, as well as sever their reliance upon a flawed primary work, several independent factions of sensitives construct their own third-party add-ons for the website. Developed by the North Mural sensitive community, The Known Unknowns is one such work. This same group of individuals is also responsible for a later add-on which allowed comments2 to be merged with entries themselves, in the hopes of creating a bulletin board-like resource3.
To the greater public, however, the "sensitives" are a fringe and delusional fanatic group – a stigma that casts the fandom, as a whole, in a largely negative light.
Realizing the increasingly problematic reputation of both the fandom and any publicly known sensitive groups, a small community of sensitive writers, known as the Partisans, recedes further into secrecy.
This group, led by such otherwise well-known authors as Alex Muto and Jealous Fontaine, place veiled allusions towards strangers in their written works in the hopes of subtly shifting mainstream culture – notably, the academics – into a "primed" state for the eventual reveal of the infestation's reality. To facilitate this goal, the Partisans formulate their own internal add-on for the website, which embeds fragments of their writing into the page's contents, allowing other sensitive writers and media creators to see which passages reference the strain.
In this manner, the Partisans display a greater prudence than many other sensitive groups. Having seen the general public's negative response to the implication that strangers might be real, the Partisans' hope is that if enough sensitives within different fields focus on making the reality unavoidable on a subconscious level, it will wash over society in a way that cannot be ignored, and the world will have no choice but to WAKE UP.
The narrative in Goodbye Strangers tends not to play itself out through overt scenes and linear progressions, but rather, in expositive accounts that lead into more concrete details, events, and characters. This is not to say, however, that a continuous narrative cannot be inferred. By now, many readers know that (regardless of the Black Death and earlier supposed timelines) the story of Goodbye Strangers begins in earnest with the successful launch of the moon landing (and the initial fall of the deadhead spaceman, James Killjoy), and from there, only drifts further from the recognizable.
Despite its superficially contemporary trappings, Goodbye Strangers analogs familiar history1 and geography2 in only rough and warped swatches. Political events are alluded to, but rarely elaborated upon (even the Partisans' eventual martyrdom is told first through hasty aside). Though the huddled ten-millions will learn of the mattress camps and their drench first-hand, the reader is given little tangible entry to these scenes.
In addition to historical and contextual anchors, cameos by such media franchises as Final Fantasy VII and Sonic the Hedgehog3 also serve to place the novel within a nebulous modern day. Other in-universe media properties, such as the Meoms, do not exist outside the scope of the project (and in some cases, are represented both as characters from in-world literature or entertainment, and as entities which dwell in the same dominion as the strangers).
Furthermore, a distant future is alluded to with greater frequency – the static-buzz haze of the V.H.Z. era, which begins in the blink of an eye following the unspecified catastrophe known only as "the flood".
In this still awakening age, new discoveries allow strangers to be yanked into reality via a process known as extrusionʬ. Thus extrusion process leaves strangers in an inert and motionless state, and they become their former victim's dummy play-things. In the decades and weeks that follow, their helpless bodies are used as power sources for kaleido-machines, lullaby pits, and full auto-shred funhouses. It is insinuated that the populace is fascinated by the strangers, and a proliferation of mainstream media follows, with both Zeroworld and Matatown acting as examples of such works-within-a-work.
Using this limited amount of information, groups of readers craft theories about the contents of the allegedly pending V.H.Z. – with their enthusiasm even helping to fund several counterfeit works. In the midst of such excitement and speculation, the release Walltown further complicates both the timeline, and the layers of reality present within the project. Containing cryptic "interview" sections with an unnamed author, Walltown occupies a place one step removed from both other "canonical" modules (such as Primer), as well as more metatextual work, such as Zeroworld.
Through it all, the world keeps gnashing its rabid teeth; iron jaws stay clenched as the courtyard floors go Partisan-red, paint-red in the wake of the trials and all their forgone executions. The tide waters rise, and rise, and rise. For in all this mess, there can be no reconciliation; there is no truth behind it all. The fake-out climax crown is placed upon the head, and the voltage is raised. A flash of white lights up the sky, and the clouds break, and the rains pour down.
And from the fallout, comes...