"I," James announced, "am bored."
Anesh looked up sharply from the table, over to where James had been meditating on the couch. A small hint of frustration mixed with mild worry going through his head. He'd been sitting there working on homework while James had sat cross-legged on the couch, enjoying the mild social presence of another human while he quietly worked through the cold tyranny of number problems. While he'd noticed James grimace a few times, his friend hadn't said anything, and Anesh was content to enjoy his day off just silently sharing the room.
But now, James had opened his eyes, an annoyed expression on his face. "So bored." He said.
"How bored are you?" Anesh asked casually, setting down his pen and looking over at James, sticking his elbows on the table and folding his hands to make a spot for his chin to rest.
"I am unbelievably bored." James said, rolling back onto the couch, breaking the illusion of himself as a zen master. "Not just a skateboard, but a longboard. If it were colder, I could be a snowboard."
"More bored than the Channel Tunnel?" Anesh chimed in with laughter in his voice.
James lurched forward, rolling off the couch and under the table. From below the wooden surface, Anesh heard him keep rambling. "I'm the chairman of the board! This is my board room!"
At this point, Anesh didn't even bother trying to hide that he was laughing. "Board up the windows!" He got out between fits of giggling. Beneath the table, James also broke down into a fit of roaring laughter.
Eventually, the two of them calmed down, and James crawled out from under the table back up to his spot on the couch. Settling down, he looked over at Anesh. "When did you get here? I wasn't really paying attention. And why is it so warm in here? It's still technically winter."
"It's perfectly normal for the end of February to still be a cold and blighted hellscape." Anesh said, turning up his English accent to eleven for effect. He chuckled a bit at his own words, then shook his head a little. "Anyway, I got here about an hour ago. You were really into your meditation. I must say, it's a bit weird to see you actively getting better at doing nothing. I thought you'd mastered that a long time ago."
James lobbed a pillow at Anesh. "I'll have you know, I'm the master of nothing! Wait, no." He paused for a bit to let Anesh stop laughing. "Okay, but really. I'm getting better at isolating the outsider thoughts in my mind. Working up to trying to kill the smaller one, which is the thing keeping me from using weapons."
"Killing?" Anesh asked curiously.
"Yeah, I don't think it's just a curse or an enchantment or whatever. It moves around, it pokes other thoughts and... areas?... of my brain. It also feels less like a set of words or anything solid, and more like a fish thing." James reached up, stretching and draping himself over the back of the couch. "Hey, you've got a fire going!" He said as he saw the fireplace, upside down in his vision, with a roaring blaze in it. "That's why it's so..." He trailed off as he watched the flames.
Anesh nodded, shutting his textbook and shuffling his stack of finished work together. "It was cold. Turns out, two degrees closer to comfortable is still bloody cold around here." He poked James with a pen, leaning over to jab at his friend. "Hey! Get back up here and tell me about your fish thoughts!"
"Anesh." James said with growing concern. "Are you burning that infinite magazine you found?"
"Unimportant. Fish thoughts." Anesh said.
"Very important! Why are you torching it? That was a work of art!" James protested.
Anesh just sighed. "Because I'm bored too, I guess? It's weird now to have a Monday where I know I'm not doing anything exciting later tonight." He walked over behind the couch and prodded at the fire with the cast iron poker. "Also, because entropy can sod off. Also, like hell it's art!"
Still staring at the dancing flames, James responded sadly, "I actually think that the dungeon might make legitimate art. I don't think it can just randomly generate music that sounds like music, but I found a file on a computer that really did sound like an actual song."
"Weird." Anesh said, sitting down on the floor. "I'm still not convinced that a magazine about horses counts, though."
James stuck out his tongue at his roommate. "Whatever. You're still burning something with apparently infinite mass, and I'm not super happy about that."
"Aren't you supposed to be at work?" Anesh tried to deflect James away from the fire.
"Aren't you supposed to be... at school? Do you have class today?" James retorted
"Normally yes, but I took the day off." Anesh was tired of classes. The effort of carrying around a backpack with one arm in a cast was exhausting. Not to mention that it felt like everyday, someone new wanted to know how he'd broken his arm. He hadn't even tried to come up with something convincing, instead going with blatant lies every time someone inquired. Bear attack, fought off a bank robber, lost a bet, anything that was clearly nonsense. It kept people from pressing, got a laugh, and made him feel like he had an aura of mystery.
James nodded. "Yeah, I do actually have work in an hour or so, but... I just... don't care. I know I need to keep the job so we have access to the dungeon, but, like, we're set for almost a year on rent. I'm not panicking about money. And if I'm not going to get to actually do the one amazing and exciting and magical thing in my life, then what's the fucking point?" He bitterly remarked.
Both of them sat there for a bit, staring at the fire. Anesh nodded a bit at James' words, because they both understood. The way James felt wasn't something he tried to hide; the setback that was keeping them out of the dungeon for another month while Anesh's arm healed had him pretty obviously down in the dumps. James just felt like every ounce of motivation he'd had was cut away from him, suddenly and without warning.
James had never been great at dealing with setbacks. When he got on a roll with something, personal or professional, he'd feel unstoppable. But as soon as something interrupted that, the emotional whiplash could keep him feeling useless and pinned down for weeks. And right now, Anesh could not just understand, but also feel a bit of that too. Not much to make you feel like you weren't going to be doing anything fun for a while like a broken arm, after all.
And right now, it'd already been two missed doorways since they'd been in last. Three weeks, and it was back to another Monday evening. The myriad little cuts, scrapes, bruises, and burns had taken a while to mostly heal, but at this point the two of them were looking more or less in fighting shape. With one exception. James had gone back in alone the first week, just to check on Rufus and Ganesh, but ducked out without exploring. He was still feeling too injured at the time to feel safe delving alone.
Both of them were restless. Waiting. Like a coiled spring. Anesh had been joining James at the gym, the two of them sparring together to get used to fighting things shaped like humans. James had been spending every waking hour trying to improve himself in some useful way, while Anesh had been putting a distressing amount of time into seeing if he could make thermite grenades one-handed. (He could, but it took forever and felt precarious.)
They were at the point where they were ready to do something reckless and stupid and amazing and glorious.
But Anesh was still crippled. Out of commission, and the pain management pills he had kept him that way mentally, as well as physically. So they were both a bit annoyed, though not at each other.
"I get that." Anesh said, after a lot of thought. "You want to ignore our responsibilities today and get ice cream instead?"
He didn't have time to finish the sentence before James was saying "Yes!" Snapping back to an energetic mood as the opportunity presented itself. "Wait, hang on." James continued, feeling a bit less lethargic than thinking about work had left him. "You're still burning the damn magazine! We need to deal with that!"
"Oh, relax. I got a bucket of sand right here. I already tested this." Anesh said with a roll of his eyes. "It does really seem to be infinite, which is kinda cool. I think it would be possible to automate the creation of an artificial star with this." James just stared at him, mouth slightly open. "Okay, with the help of a government with a space agency. But we could do it. Like I said; entropy can sod off."
"Anesh." James flatly stated as he threw on his coat. "Put out the magic fire."
In the end, James decided to go to work. Buoyed by the too-sweet bounty that was ice cream, and not making any progress on honing his meditation, it seemed like he may as well show up. There was a certain wall in his mind that he'd crossed over at some point today; all the stress shut off behind him, and he just moved forward with a casual smile. Sure, he had to take some calls, but the knowledge that he *could* quit if he wanted to made it so much easier to tolerate it. None of these people held his fate in their hands.
So he sat in his cubicle, still unmoved from his spot under the haunted ventilation unit, and fiddled with a paperclip while he read through the brick of an essay that Anesh had texted him about the changes to their apartment.
He was intermittently looking up at the ceiling, and considering waiting until no one was around to try to crawl back up into the black and white speckled tiles again. No particular reason, just to see if there was some kind of hive being built up there, or maybe if the striders were spying on him personally. The thought that he could, free of the guilt of running ahead of Anesh, maybe get his hands on an orb, also played a part in his daydream.
But, there were just too many people on the floor tonight. It was pretty nice, since a lot of them were new, and were getting the larger number of calls for training purposes. So he had plenty of time to read about how Anesh was trying to measure where the temperature shift exactly ended, and what his findings were.
'Inconclusive', was a polite term for what James would have phrased as "doesn't make any damn sense". But then, the orbs just didn't seem inclined toward sense. They didn't have a unified system in the sense that they covered all aspects of reality in an ordered sense; they just... did what they did. They made sense, and followed patterns, but those patterns were quite literally surreal.
He started texting back some of his thoughts on the orbs. Anesh had probably already covered this in his own head, but it helped to say it out loud, or via phone in this case. The yellows were the easiest, because they had the most experience with them. They just improved a person's ability. That was almost, *almost*, normal. So close to normal! But James had a dozen problems with how they did it. They didn't change your body to match the time exercising it would take to learn how to throw a proper punch. They didn't link up new knowledge as if you'd actually internalized it. They didn't make it clear whether they were something that became part of you, or just sat in the back of your head, or why there was a difference. They just... didn't do a lot of things that would make sense.
They had a pattern, and it was incomplete and annoying.
The blues were infuriatingly worse, since they didn't have a reasonable sample size, so he ignored them. The oranges were the same, though they seemed fine. Even the red, he could sort of understand. It was the greens that bothered him. Again; imperfect patterns. They changed an area, but what counted as 'local' to them? If they altered a building, what happened when the building was demolished, or even just changed function? And, most importantly, why did the outsider thoughts that informed them of the effects of the orbs give him measurements in celsius?
It all bothered him, and he tried to explain as much of his concerns to Anesh as possible, while still using the phrase, "but this doesn't mean we aren't using more, obviously" at least three times. The line of conversation went on for about twenty minutes, and James didn't even notice that he'd just flat out ignored an incoming call on his monitor.
"James!" The cheerful voice startled him almost out of his chair, sending his heart racing and breaking his focus on Anesh's concerns about their impact on the local economy going forward into the future. The paperclip he was twirling in his fingers spinning out onto his desk with a light pattering as he spun to face his boss.
Theodora looked like she'd seen better days. An angry black and purple splotch of a bruise marred the skin of her cheek, and he could see another one peeking out from the shirt sleeve on her forearm. Her hair, normally kept short at a precise length, had been shaved off on one side, giving her an almost Tank Girl look.
"Yes!" James responded with a little more of a squawk to his voice than he intended. "Woah, what happened to you?" He said before she could start talking, this time in an earnestly concerned tone.
"Sports stuff. Don't worry about it." She said quickly, waving a hand as if to dismiss any notion that it was important. "So, bad news, you're stuck on the night shift and have to work Saturdays. Good news, though. You're not fired! So you can work nights and saturdays for as long as you want!"
James felt like his head was going to spin from the back and forth of Theo's words. "Um... do I get a choice?"
"No!" She announced with a cheerful smile.
"What if I quit or mysteriously vanish?" James asked.
Theodora just waggled a finger at him, not letting her mysterious good mood falter. "That's not a very positive professional attitude for the one person who shows up to work every day and is getting a $500 bonus." She said.
"I... wait, what?" James felt the onset of an actual headache trying to figure out what was going on. "Why? Actually, how? The business doesn't do bonuses. They replaced those with the secondary education thing."
She nodded sagely. "Ah, but this one is more of a personal favor, from me. And it's less of a bonus, and more of a bribe. I came into some cash recently, and I'd like you to cover for me while I take a week long vacation. But alas! Cruel fate! I have no vacation hours!" She smiled at him, grinning with teeth that he would swear she sharpened with a file. "Ah, but look, what fortune!" She shifted her voice pitch to a low tone. "A convenient workaround presents himself."
"So..." James sighed, and rubbed his forehead with his palms. "...I clock you in, answer all the emails, and pretend to be you on the phone, and in return, you basically pay me your wage for the week?"
He thought about it for a second. One second, because that was exactly how long it took him to think the sentence of "she's absolutely going into the dungeon, she knows everything, that's where the money came from and why she's injured and happy." Unfortunately, actually thinking that, knowing that in his heart, still didn't shake the alien claim on his words that would let him tell her that he was onto what she was doing.
It was starting to drive him insane. To feel like he didn't have a hold on his mind. And more importantly, to feel like he knew something special, and to be forced to stay silent about it. Especially since the sure knowledge that there was another delver right in front of him didn't untie his traitorous tongue.
Internally shaking his head, James simply said, "Sold. Have fun on your 'vacation'." He mimed quotation marks around the word "vacation".
Theo laughed, and slapped him on the shoulder hard enough that it felt like it rattled his bones. This short, compact woman had muscles like a fucking truck, and it just further drove home to James just how likely it was that she'd been doing what he was doing this whole time.
Not helping was the fact that he couldn't even make a bad joke about it. Maybe he hadn't been making progress with his meditation, and his attempted self-exorcism, but he was sure as hell going to try when he got home.
Rufus was happy to see his friend when he came through the door. The little creature understood that there was an element of timing to exactly when James could show up, so he wasn't upset anymore when long stretches passed with just himself, with The Enemy and Ganesh for company. He understood this because, last 'week', James had explained it to him. If he'd been a more perceptive stapler-crab-spider-thing, he may have noticed that James didn't really explain it directly, and was more just aimlessly rambling to himself while he rested here in Fort Door.
But he wasn't. So he didn't actually know that James hadn't fully come to know how smart Rufus actually could be. This didn't bother Rufus, though. He was a patient and kind stapler-crab-spider-thing, and he would let his human-friend take as long as he needed to learn. Everyone required time to learn things; he certainly had when James had first found him.
"So, the time looks like eight hours to three minutes, going by that clock on the wall. But this stopwatch, which you took care to protect, thank you Rufus," Rufus purred a bit at the praise. He was a dutiful stapler-crab-spider-thing. "...This one shows that a week went by. So, what the hell?"
Rufus didn't have an answer for his friend. At least, not one he could really explain. Of course the door wasn't always open, that was how doors worked. But he figured James knew that, so he wouldn't waste time trying to convey that. Rufus needed to learn to speak, he decided to himself. James and Anesh did it, and it made things a lot more exciting and expedient.
“Eh, it’s probably something Anesh can do math at. Or, at least, it means that the time dilation stuff isn’t as certainly dangerous as we thought. That’s probably good, right?” He asked offhandedly.
James hung around for a little while longer, and Rufus stuck around in the fort with him as he rearranged all their piles of stuff. He bagged up his old, partially laser-melted armor to take out and toss, while also making a point to carefully set Anesh's oversized Amazon order off to the side. Untouched. Until they actually got the delivery receipt for that order, he wasn't taking any chances with causality.
For his part, Rufus had no such qualms, and had already checked out the insides of the box. It was full of good nesting material, and he hoped they'd let him have it once they were done taking out the inconvenient hard bits.
He continued following James around as he did some 'chores', for lack of a better term. Nodding empathically as James complained about foolish clients at work, helping him find all the candy wrappers that cluttered up the floor to add to his garbage removal, and giving a hopeful squeak when James mentioned Anesh's and his recovery.
Rufus was a big fan of Anesh, mostly because his own partner was as well. Ganesh had a personality that didn't exactly mirror, but did compliment the other delver. Creative, energetic, and yet stoic. Rufus cared a lot for Ganesh, and the drone cared for Anesh. And so, Rufus had decided, he would as well.
The garbage removal, incidentally, was something Rufus was happy for. The place was a mess, and even Rufus, who used a shredded backpack as a hammock and nest, was not a fan of having loose candy wrappers and splashes of blood around his home. He had piled some of them up in a corner, but hadn't really had time this 'week' to go through every nook and cranny and collect the trash that James and Anesh had left behind. So seeing James actually wipe down the desk and chair where he'd done quick first aid on himself was nice. Rufus didn't know if James had noticed it, but there was a smell in the air that came from blood, and it became less pleasant over time.
Maybe humans didn't have a great sense of smell. That would make sense, Rufus thought.
“What in the hell…” James muttered, looking under one of the desks. Rufus had to scramble over the surface to try to distract him, but it was a little too late. “Rufus, I have a concern.” He turned to face the stapler that was now at eye level with him. “Is this,” James asked, holding up a golf ball sized chunk of staples, pressed together with the spiky bits pointing outward, “an egg? Or did you just crap in this drawer?” Rufus reached out and carefully took the ball from him, before setting it back in the small side drawer pocket it had been in. He then reached out a single pen leg, and tapped James on the nose.
“Okay.” James remarked. “I shall leave that alone for now.” He said with a raised eyebrow. A mental note was made to talk to Anesh about this, but even if it was inexplicably an egg, it didn’t actually cause any problems. They could totally afford to have a baby Rufus running around the fort.
"Well." James said, looking around the cleaned up base camp. "That's about all I can think to do today. I... really want to go poking around a bit, but that seems really stupid." Rufus was proud that James was learning things. "Also, Anesh would be annoyed." James sighed, dropping to his knees so he could give Rufus scratches on the back part of his main joint, which Rufus had learned was the best place ever to receive scratches. "You know, buddy, you've got it pretty easy. There's a whole lot of other life in here that you can share this place with. I know a lot of it's hostile, but hey, I made friends with you, and Ganesh is... nice for some reason. You can always make more friends and peers here. But Anesh and I are the only humans that get to know about it, and boy is it just the goddamned worst." James stood up and reached his arms over his head, twisting his spine around to try to loosen up his back after a day of sitting at work. "We have a bunch of... well, we have a couple friends I'd love to share this with. You'd probably get along *great* with JP. He does that thing you do, where he stares at someone and looks stupidly cute, until they feel guilty for saying stupid stuff!"
Rufus tilted his head to look at James questioningly, his main eye blinking in slow, smooth strokes.
"Yeah, that thing!" James said with a laugh as Rufus bumped into his hand. "Alright. Well, I guess when Ganesh gets back, tell him I said hi. Ask him if he's a program, if that's a concept you can accurately transfer." He said over his shoulder as he walked out, in a tone that made it pretty clear he didn't really expect Rufus to understand, or share that information.
Rufus liked James. James was the one who'd given him a chance at something different, and it had paid off for both of them so far. James was also just friendly, and gave great scratches. James had brought him Ganesh, who was now Rufus' second-best friend. And it really made Rufus feel bad that James was so torn up about not being able to share this home with any of his own friends. Everyone should have a good friend, Rufus thought, as he climbed his webbing to watch for Ganesh's return.
And so it was, as James walked back out into the other world, that Rufus couldn't help but feel just a bit guilty.
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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!