"No, that's a stupid idea! The noise will get us killed." Was the first thing James heard as he came back into the apartment after his meditation class. The speaker, JP, was one of the cluster of people around his living room table, with Anesh sitting at the head with all his GM notes.
"Hey guys." James said. "What noise will get you all killed?" He asked as he dropped the multi-purpose duffel bag that he felt had taken over his life recently on the floor. A chorus of greetings assaulted him from his friends as he walked over and looked down at their game map.
It was JP who answered first. "Alanna wants to bring a chaingun into this place we found."
"Because it's a great idea!" Alanna burst out from across the table. "I am absolutely sure that I can out-DPS the dungeon mobs!"
"It's a terrible idea." JP nodded, speaking to James and ignoring her outburst. "Too much noise attracts more creepy shit, but neither of them want to go with my plan of being stealthy, since they built combat characters."
A disturbing thought struck James. "Wait, hang on. Dungeon? I thought you guys were playing Shadowrun." He asked, looking at notes and character sheets for an unfamiliar system on the table.
"Oh, we are." JP said. "We just found this weird zone outside of normal space in an office building. It's some kind of experiment gone wrong. We've been hired to go in and make it stop warping time and space. Or something. It's not a great job, really."
"I... see." James said, staring at Anesh. "So... you're coming up with plans for how to do this?"
"Yup!" Dave and Alanna said simultaneously, before alternating back and forth between snippets of sentences. "Figuring out how to get in and out safely," "Figuring out what we can easily loot." "Oh, trying to find stuff that kills the monsters and still counts as weaponry!" "Oh yeah, god, that whole thing with the cable snake was a nightmare!"
James held up his hands, placatingly. "Okay, I made a mistake. I asked people playing an RPG to talk about the RPG. That was my fault, I'm mature enough to admit that." He glanced at Anesh. "You know what you're doing here?" His question was innocent enough, to everyone else sitting there, but he was really asking Anesh 'is this a good idea?' James hated the mental block that kept him from talking about the dungeon with his friends; he'd like nothing more than to get these people in on the whole thing. And while it was super funny for Anesh to use their weekly adventures as RPG fodder, he was honestly worried about what would happen if his friend *did* break that rule.
The dungeon, so far, had made it nearly impossible for them to share information, even by accident. But they both kept pushing that limit, trying to find loopholes and side options. And Anesh seemed to have found something here, by phrasing it as a game and changing enough small details. And really, James thought, the biggest thing was that they didn't have the time to *plan*.
He'd noticed this over the course of his day. The dungeon occupied his thoughts nearly constantly, but his mind was exhausted. He wasn't burning out on it or anything, though the actual physical burns weren't great. But he was finding it very hard to generate new ideas. He was just too mentally tired, from everything in his life, to really buckle down and come up with good concrete ideas about how to approach the dungeon
JP, though? Alanna? Dave? They didn't have to worry about that. They just had a game.
And from their weekly D&D games, James knew. At least one of those three people was a mastermind. A clown, sure, but a legitimate genius at getting a group of people to commit to a plan and make that plan *work*. In game, sure, but James had gone to school with JP. Grown up with him. that charm and smarts extended into real life.
It was a real shame JP wasn't trying to take over the world. James thought he'd be good at that.
"Yeah, I'm good." Anesh said with a smile, answering James' original question. "It's all in good fun. Also, Alanna brings up a good point. Guns are too loud, and you guys are going to get swarmed and murdered. But don't let me stop you! I'm just the GM!"
A round of laughter followed James as he walked down the hall to his room. He shook his head, smiling. That warm feeling that built in his chest at times like this had a bit of a sad edge, now. It would have been a ton of fun to get in on the game, but his new schedule just didn't make it work. Even on his off days, he was spending less time here, less time with his friends, and more time improving himself. Meditation sessions, cooking class, and a lot of time at the gym. He could feel himself getting stronger, and he was certainly becoming more adept at moving smoothly. Between his randomly acquired martial art skill, and a Krav Magra class, he felt like he took walks now actually *hoping* to get mugged, just to see what he could do.
That was the thing that the dungeon had changed most about him, in this short time.
He felt motivated. He felt uncomfortable now relaxing and playing video games, like he was wasting time he could be spending sharpening himself. He felt... like a different person. And he wasn't sure he disliked it.
That said, he still slumped into his chair, muscles unknotting as he relaxed. It took him a few minutes of staring at his ceiling before he decided that maybe a couple hours of gaming wasn't *that* bad. Though first, he went over to the little pen where he was keeping Lilly to note down the results of the first yellow orb they'd given her, and swap it out with another. He and Anesh had tried to get her to scan one of the blues, but the time-to-completion given was upward of a week, and they simply did not have the time for that.
Two hours, six lost roguelike runs, and one hot shower later, James came out of his room to find that the tabletop session had wrapped up. "Oh hey, you're still awake." Anesh greeted him.
"Well, you're up, and I'm out." JP said from the door. "You missed the other two, and I'm just leaving. Hey, you should get your schedule changed and play with us. This is a pretty cool setting." He threw open the door with bravado, not waiting for James' answer. "Let me know when you get that taken care of!" He called back, throwing his arm over his head as he walked out into the night.
Anesh shook his head. "He's way too energetic."
"I dunno, I'm a fan." James smirked back. "So, get any good ideas from them?" He asked as he threw himself onto the couch, still warm from the people who had occupied it.
Anesh opened up his laptop on the table. "I took some notes. They had a lot of thoughts that I really liked, and we should explore. We should look into getting something more geared for actual combat than a five kilo sledgehammer. Also, real armor. Like, SWAT armor. Turns out you can just buy that, and our friend group knows some really weird facts like that."
"I'm not surprised."
"Yes, well. The other suggestion was getting an actual maul made. Did you know that there are real blacksmiths that have actual websites where you can give them money to make you preposterously effective weapons?" Anesh said, and James was pretty sure he did so with the clear memory of having exactly that pointed out to him by their friends over the last couple hours. "Anyway, aside from that, when we were playing, JP kept trying to look into things like they were puzzles. You know, like it was an actual RPG-dungeon-dungeon. And it got me thinking."
"Why *aren't* there puzzles?" James asked, butting in.
"Why aren't there puzzles." Anesh echoed.
He thought for a second, before answering. "I mean, it's not a dungeon, right? That's my first instinct to answer. But it is, isn't it? It has monsters, biomes, loot drops... why wouldn't it have puzzles?"
"Why not, indeed." Anesh said, steepling his fingers and leaning back in his chair. "We've been trying really hard to not treat this like a game, but maybe we should go the other way on this bit."
"Okay, but here's my question. Why would it make 'puzzles', or things that we'd see that way?" James said, thinking out loud. He let himself ramble on a bit, thoughts starting to click. "We don't even have a framework for what this place is, but it's clearly got rules to it. Maybe puzzles serve a purpose? Hell, do we even know if the monsters do? " He groaned and rubbed at his eyes. "I am too tired for this."
"Yeah, let's just be on the lookout for anything new. Anyway, I've got a short list of gear we should look into. You wanna check this site and tell me if any of these stand out to you?" Anesh swiveled his laptop around to James, who started browsing while Anesh kept talking. "Also, I was reading a while back about how to set up tripwire traps and stuff like that. We should maybe plant a bunch of those around the entrance, and just 'harvest' them each week if they catch a stapler or something."
James made a low 'ehhhhh' noise at that. "I dunno, man. Like, Rufus is friendly, right? And we've seen a lot of the basic shellaxies not really be that hostile if we don't piss them off. I don't want to just start killing everything because it's convenient for us."
His roommate threw his hands over his head, and in a comical mocking voice said, "But how will we be good murder-hobos if we don't?!" He cleared his throat theatrically. "Seriously, though. I'm okay with not rigging traps. It would probably be nice to have some backups near Fort Door, but I don't want to run into our own traps when we forget where we planted them. So I don't mind. Just wanted to bring it up."
The two of them broke off talking for a second while Anesh got up to go make some food, and James kept looking through the literal weapon shop that his partner had found for him. He was pretty interested in getting something that had a little more use than the sledgehammer, but the more he looked at images of spears and battleaxes, the more acutely aware he became of the fact that he had absolutely no real training with these things. He still had a pretty uncomfortable memory of snapping two of his friend's fingers in half with a crowbar, and that was way less damage than he could imagine inflicting with a bad spear swing.
"Okay," Anesh announced his return from the kitchen with a plate of leftover stir-fry. "What else do we have to go over, while we've got the time, and you're awake?"
James let out a sudden, 'oh!' and jumped up, rolling over the back of the couch. Anesh watched him run off, and then come back a few seconds later holding a piece of paper, and a pair of skill orbs. "We've got these two, that Lilly ID'd for us."
"Weren't there three skorbs?" Anesh asked confused.
James pointed a stern finger at him. "First of all, I refuse to call them skorbs. We need to work on better nicknames for them. Second of all, yes. And she ate one. It's... probably fair. Anyway!" He continued on, ignoring Anesh's protests. "We've got two things here, both slightly different. First one is 'Power unit type : Memory. Operational time : 412 hrs/1k. Purity : 44%.' Not sure what the last bit means. Second one is 'Contained time : 21 hours 9 minutes. Contains traces of : Melody, History'"
"Hm. Give me that note so I can actually understand that." Anesh motioned, and James passed over the scrap of paper. "Okay, so, we've seen some of this before. These things are obviously power units for the monsters, we've got that down. What's purity for?"
James shrugged. "Not sure why you're asking me. Hey, where do these come from anyway? Like, does the dungeon just produce power, and this is a side effect of how it manifests? Or is this intentional?"
"I'm not sure..." Anesh started.
James finished, "Why I'm asking you, yeah, I know." He repeated his own statement from a second ago. "Well, you've got your spreadsheet up, right? Go ahead and use them, and see what you get."
At this point, Anesh wasn't going to turn down an orb. Sure, he'd been burned a bit by the uncomfortable truth about actives versus passives, and his own bad luck on one skill, but he felt more or less the same way James did. There was an allure to them, and he didn't want to pass up the opportunity for just a little extra bit of something interesting in his life. He took the two little glowing golden dots from James, and cracked them open without looking back.
[+1 Skill Rank : History - Music - Mozart]
[+1 Skill Rank : Tae Bo]
"Well, I know what the music history one is." He remarked dryly.
James looked at him expectantly. "What?"
His friend, with a perfectly straight face, said, "Music history." James turned his expectant look into a scowl, before he lost it and started laughing. Anesh didn't bother trying to not join it, and the two of them took a minute to just enjoy the delivery.
"Okay, that's pretty much it." James said. "I don't have anything else I really want to talk about. Except, oh! What's your nickname for the copier enemy?" Anesh gave him a sideways glance. "Come on, you have the best names for everything. And I know you've already named it."
Anesh leaned forward over the table, pressing both his palms to his forehead. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at James. "Of course I haven't named it. It's a copier. It... like, reality did my job for me. It copies things, and is a copier." James just stared at him expectantly. "No, no! I really don't have one! It's exactly what it says on the tin! It's a fucking copier! No!" He stood up, and stormed out of the room. "No!" He yelled from down the hallway. James waited a half minute, and Anesh stormed back in, grabbed his laptop, pointed at James, and in a quiet and firm tone, repeated one more time, "No." Before leaving for good.
"So, are we on for a light run for this Tuesday?" James called down the hallway. Anesh didn't answer. "Guess he's actually not coming back." James muttered to himself. "Damn, I had a great pun about the weapon being a hammer and us getting all this gear and being maul-ninjas." James sighed. Well, if that was all Anesh wanted to talk about, it was probably time for bed.
He really was looking forward to their next trip. They weren't planning on hitting the bathroom this week, but they still had so many little things to try out. It felt pretty good, really. Like they'd be accomplishing a lot of things, as opposed to just making progress on one big thing. Actually taking the time to 'clean out their sidequests', as Anesh kept calling it, made James feel like they were doing chores in the best way. And the chores dropped loot, and might try to kill him.
Also, it bought them some time for the stuff Anesh wanted to order to actually come in. With their efficient looting pattern last week, they'd managed to collect almost five thousand dollars in cash, so James had no problem giving him control of their funds and seeing what he came up with. Anesh had gotten really into the logistics of the whole thing, and James was pretty much fine just letting him deal with that entirely. It's not that James wasn't interested, more just that if Anesh hadn't come in and actually started pushing for legitimate upgrades to their kit, James would still be using a crowbar.
And maybe also be dead.
James jolted awake off the couch to the sound of his phone alarm, his improvised nap interrupted by the familiar and jarring tune. It was somewhere around 11 PM, and he had one last thing to do tonight before he could actually sleep. The dream he was in, he vaguely remembered being about cats in some way, drifted through his mental fingers as he swore and fumbled for the alarm button.
His car was freezing, and he took some time to wait for the heat to come on before driving off. The biting winter cold having absolutely no effect on the smell of worn faux-leather seats and the lingering aura of fast food. Taking a main road into the center of town, James hummed along with the radio while he headed to his destination.
His destination, at this hour, was something he had mentioned to Anesh after the incident with his boss when they looted the coffee machine. The problem, really, was that there was one entrance that wasn't alarmed, and in general, one person who was both omnipresent and absolutely willing to rat them out.
Frank was not a bad guy. At the age of fifty, he was the kind of older person who valued silence. Gruff, was a good word for him. Grey hair, a goatee that never went out of style, a little more muscle than you'd expect on a wiry old guy frame, he was a good fit for the kind of person who was working a terrible security desk job at 4 AM. Again, not a bad dude. But he was the kind of person who felt like anyone trying to get away with anything was doing so at his expense.
It was James' most sincere hope that when he was old, he'd know how to take a joke better than Frank. It was also his hope that Frank was the kind of guy who could let anything slide as long as he thought he was in on the con.
So, he'd ended up here, at a bar called Ichabod's that Frank spent Friday nights like this drinking at. It was recently remodeled, and still looked like a bit of a dive. The inside had fancy light fixtures and fresh seats, but couldn't shake the perpetual feeling of quiet desperation that kept James far, far away from establishments like this. His target, the old security guard, was drinking by himself at the end of the bar.
The whole place was fairly busy, but James still found an open stool and pulled up next to the man who was working his way through a beer. "Hey Frank." He opened.
Looking over, unsmiling, it took a second for Frank to recognize him. "Ah, Jim!" He said in a vaguely surprised and totally uninterested tone. His voice was like rough gravel, hardened from a life of cigarettes and cheap beer. "What're you doing here?"
James took a deep breath. This wasn't something he had a lot of experience in, and he was well outside his comfort zone. So, he hoped that Frank would be okay with the direct approach. "Well, sir, I'm here to try to bribe you." Frank raised an eyebrow. "A lot, really."
"That's a new one." Frank grumbled. He ordered another beer from the bartender, and James took the chance to get himself a glass of cranberry juice, explaining himself as a driver. "Bribe me for what?"
"Remember the coffee machine thing?" James asked, and Frank nodded. "Well, there's going to be more things like that. My friend and I bringing stuff in and out, sometimes weird stuff. We'd like you to just not say anything to anyone."
"Weird stuff, eh? Weird like a coffee maker that you didn't steal from anywhere?" Frank set his beer down and pointedly didn't make eye contact with James. "You two playing some kinda practical joke?"
James nodded slowly. "Maybe, though not on you."
"You stealing anything?" Frank asked bluntly, biting off the words like they offended him.
"No sir." James said, totally honest.
"You hurting anyone?" Frank followed up without pause.
"No, sir." James said, slightly less honest depending on what 'anyone' could mean.
"You plan on paying me more than those corporate parasites, Jim?"
James pulled out a thousand dollars in twenties, and set it on the bar in front of Frank. "Yes sir." He said as he saw Frank's eyes go wide.
Thumbing through the money, Frank turned to really look at him for the first time. "Tell me one last thing, Jim." He said. "This isn't about anything weird and dangerous, is it?"
James couldn't keep himself from smiling a little, as he said, "I'm afraid it is, sir."
"Hmph." The grey haired man grunted out, turning back to his drink. "Well. Good luck, kid. And stop calling me sir. I work for a living."
James hurried the hell out of there before he either called him sir again, or couldn't tolerate being called Jim anymore. And just like that, one more obstacle was out of their way. And James could finally get home and pass out for real.
It was dark, and bright, all at once. There was a whistling noise that bounced around him like a cat.
James was dreaming.
He realized it, and wasn't surprised. He stayed calm as he watched the dream unfold around him, cathedral spires and stone floors pulling themselves together. He walked through the hallways, marveling at the stained glass windows that showed him faces from his past.
He'd never realized how many friends he'd had in school. How many people he'd stopped talking to over the years.
The cathedral kept going, a kind of temple to James' relationships. He saw Anesh more than once; armed and armored in one, running a game in another, just lounging around watching TV in a bathrobe in the third. He showed up more than anyone else.
And then, James started to see Rufus. But not just Rufus, other dungeon monsters as well. There was the tumblefeed, there was one of the masks. He saw a window that showed a shadowed figure triumphing over a swarm of staplers. And he saw one window that had that stupid copier on it.
God, he hated that thing. Without thinking about it, James realized he had a rock in his hand, and with a slippery mental effort, he hurled it at the copier's stained glass, punching a hole through it with a glimmering sound that bounced around his mind. Behind it, there was simply nothing.
No, not nothing.
There was a glimmering yellow... something... out there. With a bit of will, James pushed away the cathedral, the dream, the stained glass, the whole dream. He almost woke up right there, but he hung onto that floating nothing of sleep. And there, in his mind, he could feel something bright and yellow and *alien*. It was a thread, with some small dots along it. He ran out a hand in his mind and followed it, and ran across more bumps and places where it split into other threads. He could feel a connection to them, though.
They were his skills. Sitting here in his dream, and totally outside his influence. James pulled back, and saw the whole web of them, a drifting wire frame of shining yellow, with a small splash of red in one part of it. His victories, his growth, laid out before his dreaming eyes.
But there was something else. Something lurking there, behind the darkness, behind everything. Deeper down, and further in. And it had not been invited and wasn't supposed to be here. James could feel it, watching him, pulling on his mind. It thought, but it was not alive. It saw, but did not know it was watched.
Here is an experiment; sit with your eyes closed and imagine a ball. Now, imagine that ball is made of interlocking brass rings. Those rings each have a needle running through them, that can move in or out, allowing the rings to spin around each other. Now, add a core, another ball of rings.
Now, imagine that there is a thought inside of those spheres that you must keep pinned down. That the slightest slip will allow it out.
That was how James felt, trying to grab that errant part of his mind.
It slipped through his mind's fingers, again and again. It was never in reach, it defied every attempt to contain it. James tried to bring memories of knives and fire, to stab and burn it from its hiding places, but it just ignored them. Pain and death was alien to it, so much so that it could not die. He tried ripping it into pieces, but the dreaming shards drew themselves back together before he'd even finished the thought that cut them up.
On and on, he struggled to destroy the intruder. Like picking at a scab, or trying to ignore the need for breath, he couldn't help himself. But no matter what he tried, it simply. Would. Not. Die.
And then James woke up, alarm screaming, and himself along with it.
It was going to be a long day.
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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!