"What's the difference between a spaceship, and a missile?" James asked as he sat with Anesh in the ER waiting room.
Anesh blinked himself out of the dozing nap he was taking, rolling his neck to stare at the ceiling. "The presence of the late great David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' as a leitmotif?"
Around them, a dozen other people with various problems sat in padded chairs that were still somehow uncomfortable. The scent of disinfectant hung in the air, drowning out everything else with an overwhelmingly, unnaturally, clean feeling. Lights that reminded James too much of the dungeon, or worse, work, hung overhead, lighting the whole place with bright white light that lit up tiny details. A parent tried to comfort a screaming child, a nurse took someone back to the triage room, and somewhere in the distance, an angry man uselessly argued with the front desk that he deserved to go first.
They'd dropped in after getting some real coffee, and real pancakes. James had pushed for it, saying that they really needed to make sure Anesh's arm was fine, and that they couldn't idly trust that the cast which the orb had materialized on his arm was perfect. Personally, Anesh thought that they could trust the mysterious system that had set and plastered his broken bone for him while also providing intimate knowledge on the care and feeding of labrador retrievers. But that had been shot down when James pointed out that Anesh was both high on painkillers, and also just generally more suspicious of the dungeon.
"That's remarkably specific for someone who just woke up." James said.
This earned James the protest of "You woke me up!" from Anesh.
James nodded. "I did, yes. So anyway. The thing I was saying before your interrupted. The difference between a spaceship and a missile is the use case. In addition to a better soundtrack, space ships carry people and tools and stuff. We think of them as being totally opposite things, but really, a shuttle is just a missile with seats instead of a warhead."
"Is this going somewhere or can I go back to sleep? Anesh asked, giving his friend a hyperbolic glare.
"Yes, it's going somewhere." James said. "What is this?" He held up a green orb.
Anesh jerked forward, sitting up. "It's not something you should have out here, and it's also part of our test material." He said in a quiet tone.
"Sure, but look." James went on. "What does it do for us? Well, when we use it? It improves the place around us. But the dungeon? What does it use it for? It's not just stronger enemies, obviously; the stuffed shirt just had more yellow, and it was the most powerful thing we've seen. So, what does this do? What's its missile to our spaceship?"
There was a period of silence, broken only by the crying kid in the background. Eventually, Anesh spoke. "You get really weird when you're tired." He shook his head a bit. "I don't know. I'm not the dungeon, I can't tell you the difference. Maybe it's because we just haven't seen enough of them to really get that BBC nature documentary angle going on. Or maybe it's because the painkillers are wearing off, and I cannot think straight." He finished off irritably.
The both went quiet as a group went by, a couple nurses wheeling a gurney with someone past. At this hour, most of the people who were here were already half asleep, and the kid on the bed seemed like he was already there himself.
James sighed a bit. "Yeah, on that note, want to do our first test here? I'll make the notes if you don't want to, but I brought an extra green. Seems like a hospital is a pretty decent target for improvement." He reached into his pocket and handed another one of the orbs over to Anesh.
"The bonus to this is that we can safely convince Alanna that we're not the bad guys in this whole scenario." Anesh muttered as he popped the emerald sphere in his free hand.
[Local Area Shift : Average crime rate, -18%]
[+4 Skill Ranks : Program Use - Excel]
He relayed what he'd gotten to James, who noted it down in his phone. "Lower crime rate is interesting, but so far, still 'good'. Also, you seriously think we're the bad guys here?"
Anesh snorted. "We're wandering into a resource rich territory, killing the natives, taking whatever we want, and generally making a mess of things. We're proper imperialists, my friend." He shook his head as he saw James looking worried. "But no, we're not the bad guys. You go out of your way to be nice to the peaceful things, and I don't think it counts as being conquistadors when the place isn't... you know... reality."
"Well, that's a relief." James said. "Still nervous about it now, though. I just don't want to be the asshole in this scenario, you know? I'm still in this for the orbs and the thrill of adventure, but if it comes at the cost of being a Saturday morning cartoon villain, I think I'll pass." He decided as he cracked into his own green orb.
[Local Area Shift : Increased Value, $22,825]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Camping]
Anesh shifted around in his chair a bit as James nodded and made a note of his own gains as well. "Hey, what did you... is this a different chair?" He asked, a bit startled.
"Apparently, I bought the hospital slightly better furniture." James said, his brain starting to register what had happened. While he'd been focused on the skill gain, the vaguely uncomfortable and half-padded seat beneath him had shifted into something different. It was still a chair, but it felt newer. More comfortable, a little less worn, and a totally different color than previously. A quick glance around showed that pretty much every chair in the ER waiting area had changed, along with the tables, the tile floor, and one of the drinking fountains. "I hope no one noticed that too much." He muttered.
At that point, Anesh's name was called by a nurse, and the two of them got up, leaving the newly improved area to the rest of the people here.
"That was impressively awkward." James said, stretching his arms as they walked back to his car.
They'd been in the hospital for about three hours, and the sun was starting to come up. It was just light enough out for everything to be tinted an anemic blue; the sunrise itself hadn't started yet. The whole process should have been simple, but Anesh had slipped up either from pain or exhaustion, and revealed that he didn't remember getting the cast on. There was no record of him actually getting any medical care in their system, so there were a few x-rays to do, and some other tests to run.
And all of that took forever. And it didn't help when Anesh got asked how his arm had broken in the first place, and he'd muttered something about tripping over a curb. James had been asked to leave the room so the doctor could talk to Anesh alone, and it was this that Anesh was busy complaining about as they drove home.
"He thought we were dating!" He half-yelled, his tone incredulous.
James held in laughter with a wide grin, trying to focus on driving without bursting out at his friend's words. "I mean, we could be dating." He offhandedly threw out.
This statement got ignored in the wake of Anesh's indignation. "It's not about that!" He said, waving his good arm around. "He assumed you were the cause of this!" The words were punctuated with tapping of his cast.
"I mean, technically.." James started, but Anesh cut him off.
"It doesn't matter. I have a bunch of vicodin now, I don't have to answer any awkward questions when I get the cast off next month, and I don't have to explain that you're not repeatedly physically abusing me." Anesh said, sighing.
James repressed a snicker, and tactically changed the subject. "So, hey. Here's a thought. Ganesh and Rufus actually probably literally saved my life in that fight. Can you talk to Neil and maybe get us a few more drones?"
"Why?" Anesh asked. He held up a hand as James started to answer. "To clarify. Why don't you do it, and also why do you assume they'll animate like Ganesh did?"
"Because Ganesh did?" James said slowly.
Anesh leaned back into his seat, pinching his nose as he answered. "But only Ganesh did. Not the armor, bags, cameras, the stopwatch, the weapons, or the food."
"That last one is probably for the best." James said, and Anesh grunted an agreement.
"Sure," Anesh said, "but the important part is that Ganesh seems like an aberration in the system, not a rule. I mean, I'm fine testing it, but I don't think the dream in your head of having an air force is going to happen naturally."
James rolled his eyes. "Still want to try. Although that does make me think of something. Is Ganesh... how to phrase this... is he a digital life form? Like, is he the 'programming' of the drone? Because if so, maybe before we test the animation thing, we should get an upgraded drone and see if he can transfer over to it."
There was a pause where the only noise was the faint radio music and the wheels on the road, as Anesh thought over that. "I have no idea." He settled on. "But we should ask. I keep forgetting to mention it, but isn't it kind of weird that those two guys both seem to understand us, and are smart?"
"Of course it's weird." James said as they pulled into the apartment parking lot, his car cooling quickly in the crisp morning air when he killed the engine. "Everything about this is weird. There's a hundred and fifty pounds of assorted drinks that have never once been sold on Earth in my back seat. I have a bowling ball that looks like a lava lamp and is probably going to teach me how to fly a fighter jet if I touch it the right way. This whole thing is messed up." He monologued as they trudged up the steps to their door.
"Okay, just so we're on the same page there." Anesh said as they went in, kicking his shoes off. "Now. Before I go to sleep, and to make up for the fact that I'm not getting any dungeon fun for the next month, do you want to use another two of the greens here? You know, for science."
James stared at his friend, a hint of a smile on his face. He knew how Anesh felt, honestly. There was a glee that came with opening up an orb, and it had been really hard for him to avoid the temptation to just crush every single one he found in his hand without thinking about it. The fact that they'd both been playing it cool and resisting the urge long enough to bring the orbs home, divide them up, and wait on using them until they'd let Lily scan some of them, was really honestly impressive.
And now Anesh wasn't going to be able to come with him for a while. Hell, James himself might not go back in every week, if he wasn't going to have backup. It was a problem, and it hurt to think about. Especially now, when he was so tired, it left a scratching anxiety at the back of his eyes that made him feel one step away from total panic.
So he got it. He really did. They had some orbs, they were pretty sure the green ones were safe now; they may as well have some fun. Carefully setting his bag down on the kitchen table, he pulled out a couple of the emerald spheres, each one the size of his fist and seeming to glitter a bit.
"Alright," He said to Anesh, "I bet you half my share of the cash that at least one of these actively makes our apartment a little less... convenient, I guess is the word."
"Deal." Anesh said, as the two of them closed their fingers around their prize.
For James, the alien thoughts that ran through his head were
[Local Area Shift : Ambient temperature adjustment, +/- 2°C toward 21°C]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Cryptography - Encryption]
For Anesh, it was
[Local Area Shift : Rent change, -$255/month]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Bureaucracy - Insurance]
"Well shit." Anesh said. "What did you get? Because I just lowered our rent, which kind of makes up the sting of probably losing the bet."
"Yeah, I think I win?" James said with a confused tone. "Um... hey, here's a question. Is twenty one degrees good, or bad, in celsius? I'm a little too American to understand this one perfectly."
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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!