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A note from argusthecat

Thanks to everyone in the Discord who kept me company while I dumped half my weekend into this one.  I think this is the length I'm going to aim for from now on, about 6-8k words.  It takes longer, but it's more satisfying. 

Today's music was mostly the album Wasteland, by Abney Park.  Not really relevant to the story or anything, but I like to share.

Special thanks again to everyone who comments and leaves suggestions.  Again, even if I don't use them, it helps me refine my vision for the world, and I love that you all care enough to put the thought in.

Anyway, on with the show!

"Oh hey, candy! Gummy Shrocks. Hey, want to bet this does not contain anything gummy?"

 

Anesh snapped his head up from the desk where he had casually popped the orbs he'd picked. He'd figured that James wouldn't mind if he'd taken the one blue one that sang to him, especially since James didn't seem to care, and was busy digging through mystery lunch. As a small wisp of blue dissipated between his fingers, the invasive thought lingered in his head.

 

[Problem Solved : Exercised Foresight]
[+1 Skill Rank : Fishing - Fly Fishing]

 

In a burst of motion, Anesh was up. Dropping the bag and his phone onto the desk, he took two big steps over to James, and deftly clamped a hand over James' mouth. "SSHHH!" He hissed out between clenched teeth.

 

From behind Anesh's hand, James spoke in a muffled voice, "if you wanted some candy you just had to ask." Though it came out more as a "eef oo annnted aandy, oo ust aad oo ask."

 

At this point, James had an equal amount of confusion to match Anesh's panic. From his perspective, his friend had either heard or noticed something, and snapped a hand over his mouth with no warning. It took his brain a second to catch up to the fact that he probably shouldn't actually be talking, but really, what did Anesh expect trying to silence a known wiseass? In the history of James' life, he couldn't really think of a time when someone telling him to be quiet had ever actually worked.

 

From Anesh's point of view, that one tiny blue orb had just let him see the future. He was still trying to figure out the relative strength variances in each individual orb, and for the blue ones, they only had two examples right now, but he felt like there was a *slight* difference between the one that took a trip four blocks to the bank on behalf of James, and the one that let him rewind fucking time.

 

Well. He didn't have time to dwell on how that worked right now. But he also didn't really have time for James to sass him when he was trying to save their lives. "We need a hole in that wall, now." He whispered. "As quietly as possible and *yes I know that's difficult just do it*."

 

James nodded, trusting his friend. He pocketed the cash from the purse he was rifling through, and grabbed up his axe. While Anesh called back Ganesh, they both moved over to the back wall and were about to start cutting. It was about then that both of them heard a soft shuffling from outside the door to the cubicle they were in.

 

"Okay, no time." Anesh said. "We're gonna have to climb over." He pointed up at the top of the wall.

 

James looked up. The cube wall here was well above head height, and a foot or so beyond that, several strips of the material curved inward, forming a staggered set of ceiling lines, maybe five to ten feet above their heads. "You are joking. I can barely climb stairs, even with all the gym time the last couple months. How the hell am I supposed to pull myself up there?"

 

Anesh ignored him, climbing onto the desk and trying to do exactly what James was complaining about and pull himself up. A cup of pencils went scattering onto the floor, a rack of neatly and randomly arranged folders and documents joined them a second later, victims to Anesh's scrambling feet as he tried to drag himself upward.

 

"Dude, neither of us has the upper body strength for that, especially not with how beat up we are." James commented dryly, standing passively in the middle of the cubicle, watching his friend. "Do you wanna tell me what's got you spooked?"

 

"Saw the future in a blue orb," Anesh gasped out as he let himself drop back down, "there's a copy machine outside and an ambush waiting for us when we run."

 

James nodded. "Okay. So, first off, I'm upset that you used a blue without asking first." He wasn't really upset, but he also didn't want to encourage either of them to sneak orbs. "Second of all, I believe you, but calm down. I know that telling people to calm down never works, but, like... calm down."

 

A memory flashed through his head of all the times his mom had angrily told him that he was too upset and needed to relax or calm down. Much like being told to be quiet, having someone else tell you that you needed to be less angry was, in James' opinion, the worst possible way to actually make someone less angry. Though, it was a fun trick to use on his younger coworkers when he wanted to get a rise out of them.

 

"And, C, why don't we just kill the copier? How bad could it be? Wait, does it have tentacles?

 

Anesh took a couple deep breaths, before realizing he wasn't going to be able to actually mantle over this wall. "I... hadn't thought of that. Okay. Okay, let's... figure this out." A stray thought struck him. "Why is it you're always commenting on or asking if things here have tentacles? Is this a secret fetish I shouldn't probe to much into?"

 

"Nope!" He looked away from Anesh and muttered, "I'm not *that* into tentacles."

 

Anesh chuckled. "Heard that." He knew what James was doing. It was how his friend diffused situations; get a laugh from someone, and you were halfway to getting them to stop being angry, stop being panicked, start acting more like a sane person, and make a reasonable choice. He was, mildly, annoyed that this tactic was working on him after he'd previously seen it work on other people in their friend group or even just random strangers. But he was also glad that James was, even if it was just by accident, clever enough to help him manage the fear that his vision of the future had sparked off.

 

James smiled as Anesh got himself back together, but that faded a bit as he heard another shuffling noise from outside. "So, what is that thing? How do we do this?"

 

He listened as Anesh outlined what he'd seen. Their attempt to run, finding the signpost, getting ambushed, the copier pinning them in with its army of James' hands.

 

"I'm not a fan of that at all." James said at that part.

 

When he asked, though, Anesh didn't have any information on the machine itself. "It spat ink at us, that's how it blinded you and scanned your hands." He said. "Aside from that, I don't know. It can clearly move, but I didn't see how. It probably has some other way to drag us in to make copies. It didn't start churning out anything until after it got you."

 

"Okay, well, that's not a problem," James commented, "we've got a hammer, right?"

 

"I lost the hammer somewhere."

 

"Okay, okay, that's still fine. We can... probably still break it? I mean, is the plan of 'just hit it a lot' somehow not a good one?" He asked. "Like, there are things that look like staplers, but they're clearly not actually staplers once we start hitting them, right? Like it's some kind of chitin."

 

Anesh took a deep breath. "Yeah, okay. Want to give that a shot? I mean, we have nothing to lose but our lives."

 

"You know we can just go the other way, right?" James asked. "Like, we don't have to walk into the ambush now. We can just... go left instead of right, and circle back on our circling back."

 

There was a long pause. Anesh had, in fact, not thought of that. Seeing his own death coming had shaken him quite a bit, and he didn't think that James really understood how hard it made it to think things through. "I... had not thought of that." He settled on saying. "Okay. Yeah. Let's break through then." He let a little more energy creep into his voice.

 

They threw their packs back on, made sure all the orbs were secured in one of the side pouches. Did a quick check of their armor, made sure the straps were set and they weren't going to lose more pieces. As they were doing so, there was a buzzing as Ganesh flew back into the ceiling, and crawled his way through to drop down and alight on Anesh's shoulder; his rightful place in the world. James took a couple practice swings with his axe as he and Anesh posted up on either side of the door.

 

"Ready?"

 

"Ready."

 

James reached out and pushed the curtain back a bit, peeking out. He slowly drew back, letting the paper fall back into place.

 

"Okay, I lied, I was not ready for that. It's right there. And it's got tentacles, because of course it fucking does." He whispered.

 

Anesh peeked out himself. "Yeah, those are tentacles. Looks like they're actually made of ink. What the hell does it make copies with, anyway? Like, where's it storing the material?"

 

James kept an eye on the machine as he answered. "We've been leveling up in random skills and pocketing extradimensional candy, and this the line where you start to question physics?" Anesh just shrugged by way of answer. "Heh. Okay. Well. I'm relaxed. My arms aren't that sore. No better time than now, right? I'll go first, after it shoots, you follow? Take the left, take it apart?"

 

"Aye, mon capitan." Anesh said. "Ganesh, wait in here. Don't come out until it's safe, okay?" The little drone whirred a reluctant assent.

 

The two of them shared a look for a few breaths. Both of them felt a tension in their muscles, and in their chests. This was, to James, the moments that were really starting to resonate with him here. These silent pauses before risking his life, throwing himself into a situation where he would be tested, and the stakes were literally as high as they could be. He grinned at Anesh, a real smile full of spirit.

 

He stepped out, and ducked almost instantly.

 

A spray of ink splattered against the paper and wall behind him, and he lunged forward, moving to the right. The copier rotated to face him, and from down low, he could see that it looked like it was mounted on the base of a swivel office chair. That must be how it was getting around, he thought, before there was no more time for thinking.

 

Rushing forward, he heard Anesh come through behind him, moving around behind the distracted foe. He brought his arms up in front of his face as one of the tendrils of congealed ink, and he could see now that there were eight of the things, all of them weaving out of the middle port of the copier, came crashing toward his face. The strike splattered ink across his arm guard, and the tentacle, much to his dismay, separated from the main body. The rest of the ink maintaining momentum, and splashing across the side of his face.

 

He reopened his eyes from reflexively slamming them shut to see more tentacles coming in. Throwing himself backward onto his ass, he slammed into the ground hard enough to bruise his tailbone, and rolled to the side, flattening his body out as he covered the width of the hall and pressed himself up against the wall of the cubicle. As he rolled, behind him, lash after lash of ink struck out at the floor, leaving black splashes with the sound of sharp snaps. When he hit the wall, he prepared to fling himself back to his feet before he could get hit again, but as he started to jump up, the machine lost focus on him and the attacks stopped.

 

The reason was, Anesh had pressed the advantage of a distracted enemy, and struck at its other side. With only a couple of the tentacles focused on him, he'd shouldered his way through the first strike, letting the surprisingly forceful hit splatter across the side of his armor. Stepping through the spray of black ink, he spun forward, putting the full force of his body behind his axe, and letting it smash into the power port on the rear side of the copier hard enough to bury the blade inside the plastic and chitin shell.

 

The reaction was almost instant. It let out a scream, like the sound of a document being scanned, only at a much higher pitch. The lid of the copier tilted open, exposing its glass pane radiating a brilliant white light.

 

James kept in a low crouch. He remembered what Anesh had said, and he didn't want that thing able to copy any part of him. As the machine started turning, whirling around on Anesh, he endured a trio of hits from it, stinging, but not harming him. At least, until the third one clipped his helmet and sent him sprawling on his ass again. He scrambled up to his knees as the copier turned to 'face' Anesh, and was intent on taking advantage of its lack of focus the same way Anesh had.

 

While he moved in, though, Anesh was having a problem. He was too close, now, and between the disorientation of the light and noise, he was having trouble blocking or dodging anything. So, he simply set about trying to shut off the problem at its source; bringing his arm up and cutting down with his axe repeatedly, leaving scratches and gouges on the lid and front, before the lid sprung up and knocked his hand, jarring the axe out of his grip and into the air.

 

Coming in behind it, James reached forward and grabbed one of the paper trays. At first, he was going to use it to drag himself up, but as soon as he touched the handle, it sprung out, splitting in half down the middle to reveal a distended maw, filled with conical teeth and with a single red eye right in the middle. He let out a scream, that he would later explain to Anesh as a totally-not-fearful battle cry, and with a spike of adrenaline flooding his blood, ripped the tray out in one smooth move, black inky ichor spraying and fleshy strands tearing as he tore it wholly from the main body and backhand threw it away from him. The teeth leaving scores of torn skin down the back of his hand as it left his grip.

 

Anesh wasn't doing nearly as much damage, trying to clear his vision and find where his axe fell. He made a mistake at just the wrong moment, looking away from the still weaving tentacles as one of them lashed in. James pulled himself up to see the ink wrapping around Anesh's head, and with a jerk, slamming him down into the flat surface of the copier, the lid hammering into his head once, before James caught it on the upswing and dropped himself backward, snapping it off in a clean break.

 

The scanner fired off, white light bathing Anesh's face as it was held pinned down by the tentacles behind him. "James! Help!" He called out as his hands tried to find purchase on the tendrils. But every time he grabbed at one, his fingers just sank through the ink, clenching into a fist with no grip on anything.

 

Abruptly, the tendrils let go. Anesh scrambled backward, hand falling on his axe, which he brought up in a fast smash at the base of the machine. James, standing up on the other side, slamming his own axe down in a double handed overhead strike, shattering the scanner glass into shards that the machine sprayed from side to side as it thrashed back and forth between the two of them. Lashing out with a foot, Anesh kicked into the side of it, leaving a hairline crack in the plating and sending it rolling back into the far wall of the hallway.

 

James quickly reached down and lifted his friend to his feet. Bruised and dripping ink, breathing heavy, the two of them faced off against the copier, which shuddered on its own against the wall. And then, a whirring noise started from within it.

 

"Oh, hell no!" James spat out as he stepped forward, stomping on the small tray that copies should come out of, bending the plastic down to the floor as he chopped in sideways with his weapon. Anesh moved to the other side and made repeated hits against it, even as his arms started to tire, but neither of them were able to stop the copier from opening the front panel, and a mostly smooth copy of the right side of Anesh's face, expression locked in a snarl, from falling out onto the floor.

 

Mostly smooth because of the dozens of tiny fangs that ran along the uncopied sides, which it used to pull itself upright, and lunge forward at James' ankles. "James. Help." It flatly muttered as it tried to punch its fang-legs into his boot, or find purchase with its actual teeth on his shin.

 

"Oh, HELL no!" Both James and Anesh chorused, James stomping down with a violent thud that shook his leg to the bone, pulping the copy of his friend's visage. He could already see another one being run off by the copier, the whirring never stopping. "Anesh! Tear it open!" He shouted.

 

Anesh didn't think twice, jamming his axe into one of the cuts on the side, and using the blade to pry open the side. His arms strained, muscles screaming in protest, as well as the copier more literally screaming in protest, as he wedged back a large chunk of its exterior. And what he saw inside looked like if the director of Hellraiser had spent a lot more time at steampunk conventions when they were a kid. Hundreds of turning gears, dozens of tiny mechanical arms, all of them plucking pieces of skin, flesh, bone, and tooth, from seemingly nowhere. Assembling with precision, layer by layer, the skin of his own face. One unblinking eye, swiveling madly in a bone socket uncovered by anything yet, turning to look at him. Deeper inside the machine, he could see another station just like this one. And another. And another. A dozen or so flesh manufactories, more than could possibly fit inside this space, all of them building replicas of himself.

 

And in the middle of it all, he saw, as he heard James getting slapped into a wall on the other side of the machine, a single glowing orange orb. Like the skill orbs they'd found before, it was like a perfectly smooth bath bead, supple and glowing. It was hooked into a black plastic claw, holding it above the whole production line.

 

Anesh tore back more of the covering, even as he saw another pair of half-faces being run out the production slot, and heard James turning one of them into flesh pulp. He snapped off a chunk of plastic, punching a few times to bend another panel of chitin out of place, and then, when the hole was just wide enough, lunged forward into the guts of the machine.

 

His shoulders got half stuck on the outer shell, but he was able to twist and wedge one of them a little farther in. His hand reached forward, even as some of the mechanical arms moved with their knives and pins to stop him. He pushed in, inch by inch, slapped away an assembler, and brought his fingers up just far enough to brush the outside of the orb.

 

"Anesh! Hurry!" He heard from outside, even as he saw below him a row of a dozen iterations of his own face being shoved out the slot. He tried to move, but couldn't. Stuck. Twisting, a bit, he felt plastic gouge into his side, and ignored the pain just long enough to push a bit farther. Just one more inch. Just a little bit more.

 

And then the orb was in his hand. And he ripped it backward, out of its mount, and pulled himself out of the machine. There was a stabbing in his side where the sharp plastic caught under the armor and left a bloody hole in his flesh, and his helmet caught on the exit wound of the copier, almost pinning him in place before he stopped himself from panickedly thrashing and carefully dragged his head out.

 

Behind him, the insides folded in on themselves. Over and over, the extra copy stations no longer had the space to exist, and smashed on top of their cohorts. Space that was previously there suddenly was not, and edges sheared away as reality compressed inward. Anesh had a plummeting feeling in his stomach, like gravity suddenly pointed inward instead of down, and there was a blink of himself, bisected as the part he was in suddenly was not anymore.

 

Then he was out, and his body was intact.

 

James took the last of Anesh's face copies out of the air with his axe when it lunged at him. The thing had stopped pumping out duplicates a minute ago, and he assumed Anesh had something to do with it, but he was busy on crowd control. It wasn't until everything was cleared that he really registered the noise he was hearing. It was like the audio version of dust in your eyes. A grinding that didn't make any real sound, but burned the ears and stretched what he felt was real.

 

He gave the copier, now immobile, another couple of good hits to its front face, just to be sure, burying his hand axe in the console, before Anesh crawled up and said "Alright, alright! It's dead, Jim!"

 

And it was. The thing had gone silent, and it looked... smaller. "What happened?" He asked Anesh.

 

"No idea. Some kinda space fold inside. It... um... broke, when I pulled this out." He held up the orange orb in his gloved hand. "I call dibs on this one later." He said as he pushed it into the pouch on James' pack where they'd stored the other orbs.

 

James just nodded. "Yeah, fair. You ready to get out of here?"

 

"Hell yes. Ganesh! Come on!" He called, and the drone flew out of the cubicle where Anesh had told him to hide. It did a hard landing on Anesh's helmet, and started affectionately tapping on the piece of armor as it slid down the side onto his shoulder. "Yeah, I'm glad I didn't die too." Anesh muttered to him. "Now let's go."

 

"One sec." James said. Over the copier's corpse, there was a large, fist sized green orb floating. "Double loot on this one?" He asked apprehensively.

 

Anesh just shrugged. "Take the bonus and let's get out of here."

 

James struck out down the hall, pocketing the new orb, retracing their steps on the way here. It took them some time to cram themselves back through the cramped tunnel, especially since they froze after James had to kill a stapler crab. They stayed still for a few minutes, praying that nothing new was attracted, but fortunately, the noise didn't draw anything new.

 

"What's our time?" James asked as they pulled themselves out the other end.

 

Anesh checked his phone. "A bit over four and a half hours. We've been doing a lot of walking, and you were unconscious for a bit there. Should be about an hour's hike back. Not a whole lot of margin for error, but we can make it."

 

James just nodded. He wasn't worried. They could always make a mad dash if they needed to. His legs ached, but they weren't going to give out just yet. His throat was a bit raw from all the heavy breathing and running they'd been doing so far, but again, he could take more.

 

Hell, he could take anything if it meant survival. Especially when they had a new orb to look forward to.

 

James would go through a lot for a new toy like that.

 

On they pressed, and it didn't take long to double back across one of their signposts. "Okay, we're mostly clear from here, right?" Anesh asked.

 

James just shook his head. "We don't know where the tumblefeeds roam yet. That thing could come back this way at any time. Let's get a little farther, at least past the first break room, then we can take a break."

 

"Oh, I'm fine on that." Anesh said as he poked Ganesh, sending him forward to check a corner. "I just want to take some time and pick up at least a few hundred bucks."

 

James nodded as the drone buzzed out and back. "Right, right. Thinking of any new gear?"

 

"What"? Anesh shook his head. "No, I'm thinking that I want to be able to afford food this month. I'm a broke college guy living off student aid in America, there is a natural limit to how much I will ignore the fact that we can pay our bills using this place."

 

"Ah. Right. Fair." James muttered, feeling a bit awkward.

 

They moved on, with James keeping watch every few cubicles while Anesh quickly dipped in to rifle through wallets and purses. They were moving slowly, taking a lot of time to check corners and listen for motion, but still making pretty decent time since they weren't doing deep searches of every potential loot box they came across.

 

In short order, they came across the break room, still cleared from their trip in. Coffee puddles still steaming on the floor, a pile of shattered pottery and dirt over in the corner. James wanted nothing more than to cut straight through here and get out, but Anesh stopped him. "Hang on, I want to see if there's anything in the fridge here."

 

"No. Hell no. Absolutely not." James said. "I will allow you to go through the cupboards. I will help you pack as many sugar packets into your bag as you want. I will even carry one of these alarmingly unmotivational posters back so we can put it in our living room. But today, I draw the line at opening the fridge."

 

There was a silent moment, before Anesh sighed. "Yes, okay, good point. Can I take the coffee maker?"

 

James looked over at the fancy looking espresso machine sitting on the counter. He eyed it for a minute, considering the options. He made a show of glancing around at the rubble of the room, the dead potted plant that had tried to murder him twice now, and then back at the coffee machine. "Okay, but, you get that there's a 50% chance it's going to try to kill you, right?"

 

The duo stood there in front of it, looking at it for a while. "Okay," Anesh said, "we've seen vending machines and water coolers that haven't been overtly evil, right?"

 

"Right." James nodded.

 

"And everything that's tried to kill us has been normal office stuff." He continued.

 

James rubbed his chin. "Also correct, yes. So, you're saying this should be safe, since it's a food thing?"

 

Anesh snapped his fingers. "Exactly! I'm taking it!" He reached down to start unplugging the device.

 

"You're carrying that, for one." James said. "Because it looks like it weighs about forty pounds. This may not be your best idea. But more importantly, if any part of that thing, or the stuff it dispenses, comes to life? It's going to be your job to explain coffee elementals to people, okay?"

 

"Deal." Anesh said without hesitation.

 

It took about five minutes for Anesh to unplug the thing and figure out how to get a good grip on it. While he was doing so, James kept checking the far door, looking down the hall for any sign of the tumblefeed coming after them. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard cords hitting the counter behind him, and turned to glare at Anesh who hadn't even noticed the noise while he was busy unhooking the coffee maker's water tube. "Don't *do* that." He shot an angry whisper at his friend.

 

"Do what?" Anesh asked, hoisting the heavy brick of espresso machine up against his chest.

 

James just shook his head. "Nevermind. Let's just move, okay? No more looting for today."

 

They weren't that far out now, and James was getting itchy to leave. The weight of his gear was really starting to pull on his back, even though it had lightened a bit as a few things got lost along the way. His feet dragged a bit as he put in the effort to keep ahead of Anesh, who was now also struggling visibly under the burden he'd stupidly decided to carry.

 

He tried to hold his breath as they passed by the still smouldering remains of the dead tumblefeed. The stench of melting plastic burning the back of his throat as he coughed out a breath. One of the still melted cables sticking to his boot in a gooey mess as he stepped in it.

 

They went on through a few more turns, cubicles around them becoming shorter, more real. Paper vines gave way to plain walls, with only a few nameplates, pinned up memos, or clipped out newspaper comics adorning the exteriors. Anesh stopped them for a brief break for his exhausted arms, and while he did a few stretches and tried to get ready for the final stretch, James ducked into the nearest cubicle and started grabbing anything that looked good, just filling up the last bit of space in his bag with something that might prove useful.

 

A few deep breaths from each of them, and James laughing softly at Anesh's muttered "this is heavier than I wanted it to be.", and they were as ready as they were going to be.

 

"Come on, man. Just another block or so, and we're at the door. We can go get a burger, and go home." He said. "Or, you know, to a hospital!" He held up his hands placatingly as Anesh turned a glare that could melt steel on him.

 

His friend wasn't actually mad, just worried. "Your leg got sodding lasered. We're getting you to an ER. You, I know, have insurance, so it's not a problem."

 

"Oh right." James said as they pushed through the final hall of cubicles. "You still have that bill for your hand, right? I'm fine giving up my half of the cash if it helps."

 

"I'd appreciate that. I am, as mentioned, broke. Poor. Destitute. Bankrupt. Impoverished."

 

"One of those doesn't mean what you think it means, but I'm not sure which one." James said with a smile. "And oh joyous day, there's the door."

 

They made their way through the door to their little fort in near silence. Well, silent except for Anesh swearing and moaning as the coffee maker kept hitting him at an awkward angle.

 

"Okay!" James said. "You sit, because you're gonna have to carry that to the car. I'm gonna put all the loot into the duffles to take out. I think we can safely leave the rest here. Our armor and medical stuff didn't animate last time. Not really sure why Ganesh did at all, honestly." As he plopped the bags onto the desk, and started transferring everything that wasn't equipment over, a familiar stapler crawled its way up. "Oh hey there Rufus! Were you good while we were gone? What a good little chap!" He looked over at Anesh, who was draped over a chair, head rolled back to stare at the ceiling, "I can say chap, right? That's not an English thing?"

 

"It is an English thing, but since you're stealing our language, you may as well do it properly." Came the response.

 

James chuckled as he threw orbs, money, candy, and all the miscellaneous stuff he and Anesh had grabbed to experiment with into their traveling bags. He didn't have an actual count of anything, but the pile of stuff glittered in his eyes like a dragon's hoard.

 

"Alright. Time to go." He said. "See you next week Rufus. Anesh, you ready to grab that thing and go?"

 

Anesh groaned as he stood up. "Bah. Fine." He moved to take the espresso maker.

 

"Don't complain to me, man, you're the one that wanted coffee that badly." James rolled his eyes at his friend's griping.

 

"I know, a decision I regret to this day." Anesh said flatly. "Ganesh, you want to stay here, or come with us?"

 

"Now hang on..." James started to say. But he didn't need to worry. Ganesh gave his human's helmet a friendly tap, then folded back into flight position, and buzzed down to the desk to roll-land next to Rufus. The two of them started exchanging clicks, like old friends. "...are they talking?" James asked to the air.

 

Anesh just hefted the espresso machine after leaving his helmet and armor on the chair. "We can worry about that next time, after some food and sleep. Let's go." He said.

 

And then they were through the door, James giving one last wave to his first friend from the other side.

 

_____

 

They were sitting in a twenty four hour diner near their apartment. On the table in front of them was a small black dice bag that James had emptied out to hold skill orbs.

 

"Okay, you get the orange, I get one green. What do you say we just evenly split the yellows? We can save the blues, and *clearly should*, for times when we need them."

 

"I'm okay with that." Anesh said, already halfway through the burger James and ordered him, as promised.

 

James rolled the emerald sphere around in his fingers. "Do you wonder what things actually are?" He asked. "Like, why do they do what they do?"

 

"Of course I wonder." Anesh responded. "But if there's any answers, they're inside, right? No amount of thinking out here is going to help."

 

"Fair, I guess." James said, sipping at his milkshake. Four AM milkshakes after life or death situations, he decided, were probably just the best food. "But you said Ganesh ate one. Does that mean that everything in there is using these as, what, food? Where does Rufus keep getting them?"

 

Anesh thought for a second. "Maybe the small ones produce them, and the larger ones eat them, and refine them into the bigger and different orbs? Like an ecosystem?"

 

James shook his head. "What do the little ones eat?"

 

"Well, nothing. I mean, it's 'like' an ecosystem, but still magic and bollocks." Anesh said.

 

There was a pair of 'hmms' from their table. They ate a few bites in silence as they collected their thoughts.

 

"Have you noticed that the skills aren't really random?" Anesh broke the quiet from around a mouthful of fries. "I mean," he said as James gave him a disbelieving look, "they seem random. They're not, though. They're all normal things, all things from reality, even though the office space isn't. And they're all things that someone from an office would know."

 

"I have four ranks in field artillery." Was the retort.

 

Anesh snorted out laughter. "Okay, yes, but you told me a while back that a couple of your coworkers were gone because of national guard training, right?"

 

"Yeah, um... they were both Nathans. There's a surprising number of Nathans at my work. They both quit, though, I think. Haven't seen them in a while. So, you think as long as someone there knew it, it can show up?"

 

Anesh shrugged. "I mean, it's the only thing we can say hasn't been contradicted yet, right?"

 

"Fair." James shrugged to go with it. "What about the other colors?"

 

"Oh, fuck that, I have no theories. But at least we know where they're from. Green for big things, blue for 'magic' items. Orange for...." He trailed off. "Okay, green for big things, blue for magic items. We'll worry about orange later."

 

"Speaking of," James said, finishing off his sandwich, "want to use what we have?"

 

"Yes please." Anesh replied. "Big ones first?"

 

James wordlessly pulled out one of the shining green balls, and snapped it apart in his fingers.

 

[Local Area Shift : Hours of operation +1]
[+4 Skill Ranks : Chemistry - LSD Production]

 

"I have two questions." He started with. "First of all, who the hell in my office was a drug lord?"

 

"What..." Anesh started, and was cut off.

 

"LSD production. Also, I'm glad we did this out of the apartment, because the other effect was an extra hour of operation."

 

Anesh looked around at the twenty four hour diner. "This place is open twenty four hours a day?" He stated-asked.

 

"Yeah, I don't really... know. I think that might be a serious problem, even if it's only for their payroll department."

 

"Huh." Anesh shook his head in confused amusement as he pulled out the orange orb. "Alright, ready?"

 

"Go for it." James said, and watched as his friend did so.

 

The thoughts that poured through Anesh's mind were like music to him. He could feel the exact strings they were rearranging, because it was something he was intimately familiar with, and he could feel himself gaining a depth of wisdom that was previously unknown to him. Then he realized what the first words said.

 

[Certification Added : Class C Driver's License]
[+3.8 Skill Ranks : Math - Differential Geometry]

 

Silently, he pulled out his wallet and opened it up. Giving a surprised laugh that was a little louder than intended, he pulled out a driver's license that hadn't been there a second ago, and handed it to James.

 

"So, I can drive a truck now? Also, I got a fractional skill point. It was in something that I already know, though. So, I think that it bumped me up to the next 'rank'? Maybe? I don't know, but I do know I can go write my thesis now. Oh god, I can just... I can..." Anesh put his hands on his head, as he lost his words. "This is exactly what I needed. This is perfect.."

 

"Man, I hope the rest of these get me a reaction like that." James said, trying to break the awkwardness of seeing his friend almost crying. "Um... do you want to just..."

 

Anesh took a shaky breath. "Yeah, yeah! Go for it. You pick first. I just... you know, thank you. Thank you so much for trusting me on this, and bringing me in. I know I've been a wanker about it sometimes, but... thanks."

 

"Of course, man. You don't need to thank me, you've saved my stupid ass enough to make up for it, right?"

 

"Oh god, right. You'd be dead if not for me." Anesh laughed. "Okay, you owe me then. I take back the thanks."

 

James laughed as he pulled out orbs from the bag. "What! Too late for that, buddy. We're stuck with this nonsense now.

 

[+1 Skill Rank : Cooking]
[+1 Skill Rank : Programming - C++]
[+1 Skill Rank : Game Design - Rule Sets]
[+1 Skill Rank : Geography - Holland]
[+1 Skill Rank : Language - Spanish - Northern Mexican]
[+2 Skill Ranks : History - Roads - America]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Animals - Tegu]

 

"Do you... um... want to get a pet lizard?" He asked Anesh as his friend drew out his own set of orbs from across the table.

 

"Why, what stupid skill are you going to try to adapt your life to?" Anesh asked.

 

James put on an exaggerated offended look. "It's not stupid! I will have you know that tegus are very smart creatures that have dog-level intelligence, and are quality companions!"

 

"What the fuck is a tegu?" Anesh paused, confused.

 

James laughed. "You know that picture of a lizard in a sweater? The one the size of a dog? It's that thing."

 

Anesh was laughing as he popped his own skill orbs.

 

[+1 Skill Rank : Yodeling]
[+1 Skill Rank : Anthropology - South America]
[+1 Skill Rank : Ventriloquism]
[+1 Skill Rank : History - Metallurgy]
[+1 Skill Rank : Seduction]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Ritual - Catholicism]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Longbow]

 

"Hey, um..." He looked over to James who was updating their notebook of learned skills. "Do you... want to trade? I changed my mind. I want the lizard thing now."

 

They were both still laughing when the check came.

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argusthecat

Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!

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