"The fuck happened to your arm?" Alanna asked as she pushed her way past a surprised Anesh and into the warm air of the apartment.
James silently opened his eyes from his claimed spot on the couch. It was one of those pleasant evenings when Anesh was back from class, and James didn't have work, and the two of them were just hanging out and watching old episodes of Sliders in their living room. Mostly just as background noise, while they planned out next week's delve.
Anesh was getting his cast off in a few days, and they were both eager to get back into the swing of things.
In the meantime, they'd had to go with some pretty bad lies to their friends about exactly what had happened to put that arm into a cast in the first place. As well as deflecting a few questions about the various burns, scrapes, and scabs that kept appearing on each of them. Most of their group had just kind of accepted that the reason was secretly embarrassing but not overly damaging, and let it drop.
Alanna, though, was the outlier that made it "most" and not "all".
She'd noticed, as everyone else had, that Anesh was injured when they all met up for their weekly game night about a month and a half ago. And had, as everyone else had, asked what the fuck had happened to his arm. Anesh had applied his now-familiar tactic of telling her that he was injured in a tragic zeppelin accident, and everyone else had laughed, and Alanna had narrowed her eyes and said "like hell you did."
It hadn't been dropped since then. Every time she came over, which was a bit more frequent these days, she'd asked again. James suspected she was not-so-subtly checking up on his friend, making sure he was okay. Which was cool, really. They both liked Alanna, and James himself was pretty fond of Anesh, so he didn't mind at all that someone else cared enough to keep an eye on him and make sure the injury wasn't ruining his life. But it also meant that they both had to try to answer questions that they literally could not answer.
Anesh closed the door behind her, shutting out the evening chill. It was March now, and James felt like it should be close enough to spring for the weather to stop being so damn hostile, but it was still a biting cold out every night. "Welcome, welcome. Do come in." Anesh said, rolling his eyes. "Good to see you too, of course. Why yes, I'm doing fine, thank you."
From the couch, James spoke up and answered Alanna's question in Anesh's place as Alanna strode in and stole his friend's seat. "Oh, I broke his arm. We're in a mutually abusive romantic relationship now."
Alanna lashed out with a foot from her draped position on the chair, catching James in the shoulder with a light thud. "No you aren't, there are popes more abusive than you."
"Not a high bar you're setting there." James quipped.
With a series of incoherent grumbles, Anesh stalked around the table and threw himself onto the other end of the couch. "Took my damn seat." He muttered. "Also, yeah, he's talking about how at the hospital, the doctor thought we were dating and had him leave the room to ask me if he broke my arm." Anesh threw his working arm in the air. "It's silly!"
Alanna grinned madly at the two. "Nah, I can see it." She said with a shrewd tone. "Anyway, how'd you break your arm? Tell meeeeeee."
"Why are you here, anyway?" James asked, trying to redirect the conversation. "I mean, not that you're not welcome, but were you here for anything specific?"
"Yeah!" She said directly, "I'm trying to demand answers before you go in to have your cast off, and everyone forgets about it!" There was a brief pause. "Also, I'm bored. Not much to do around here on a Friday night."
It took a lot of effort for James to not break down laughing at that. He was originally going to, but then, a small thought popped into his head that doing so might reveal something, and then the beast in his mind locked him out of it. He'd figured out over the last couple of weeks, by pushing at the boundaries of what he could and couldn't post on Reddit, the limits and terrifying power of the mental coercion that he and Anesh were under.
Any time he thought something might reveal... well, anything, really... his own mind would rebel, and stop him. If he thought he should tell someone, he'd invent reasons not to. If he could conceive of a way to get around that, then as soon as he knew it would work, he also knew enough to *know* that he shouldn't do it. Even accidents weren't working anymore, ever since Anesh had hinted at them being possible. He was on guard now, vigilant for any information leak, and actively finding ways to patch it.
And James *hated* it. His own intelligence was being turned against him by an entity that was equal parts mysterious, invasive, and frustrating.
He let his eyes refocus. He'd zoned out a bit, and while he was silently screaming at his invisible rider, Anesh and Alanna had gotten into a bit of a back and forth. "...good reason, then just fucking *tell me!*" He paid attention in time to hear Alanna's voice escalate to a yell.
"Fine!" Anesh snapped back, seeming on the edge of legitimate anger against their friend. "I got my arm snapped in half by a paper doll from the uncanny valley that we got in a fight with in the extradimensional dungeon zone that James found in the back stairs at his office!"
There was a moment of silence, and Alanna opened her mouth with a glare on her face, as if to tell Anesh to stop making up increasingly elaborate bullshit. But before she could say anything, James cut her off.
"What." He said, staring at Anesh. His friend looked back at him with wide eyes. "No, really, what?"
"Guys, if you don't want to tell me..." Alanna started in.
James cut her off, not even paying attention. And a good thing he wasn't, or he may have shut himself down. He could feel the coercion on himself, still going strong. "How the hell did you say that?" He asked Anesh, confusion salting his words.
"I have no idea!" His friend said. Anesh then turned back to Alanna, wanting to make sure this wasn't a fluke. "We've been looting randomly generated desks for money. There are monsters that drop skill orbs. I have a pet drone that looks like a praying mantis and is named after a god. James has almost gotten us killed six times now." He whipped his head back to James. "It's gone! I can say whatever I want!"
"I... can't." James said, gritting his teeth. "In fact, I just had a very uncomfortable thought about the nature of information leaks. Hey, Alanna."
"Yeah?" She asked with rapt attention.
James had to force the words out of his mouth. "If I were to, say, murder Anesh. You'd probably want to investigate that, yes?"
"Fuck, what kind of question is that?! Of course!" She yelled at him.
"Great. So that would be a terrible way of keeping information from spreading. Gotchya." He sighed, a very horrifying mental compulsion crumbling away as he became convinced that it wouldn't actually stop information from being distributed. "Okay, I'm going to leave the room, because I need to be literally anywhere else right now. It would help a lot if you could promise me, Anesh, that you *absolutely won't* tell Alanna anything else. Because I trust you."
Anesh got it. He understood how bad the mind control could have been, though he hadn't been pushing it exactly as far as James was. And he knew, from what James asked, that it would have been more than capable of forcing his friend to extreme violence if Anesh kept talking without thinking. So, he agreed. "Yeah, of course. Won't tell her anything."
"Hey!" Alanna started to say, but Anesh shushed her.
"It'll be fine." He said. "I don't think I need to share any more at all." Anesh followed up, calmly.
James just nodded, trying not to focus on that, even as his mind raced. "Welp. I'm going out. You guys have fun, explicitly keeping secrets." He stiffly stood up and walked over to the door, throwing a coat on and shoving his feet into shoes. "Don't cause too many problems. Don't tell people Anesh and I are dating, Alanna." She opened her mouth as if to argue, but he stopped her with a hand held up. "We've been friends for a long time, I know you were going to. Don't argue. Yes I'm reading your mind." Her face twisted into an amused snarl. "Yes, I'm a jerk. Okay, bye!" The door slammed behind him, perhaps a bit louder than he meant, as he left.
Alanna turned back to Anesh. "What the fuck was that about?" She asked. "You're really not going to tell me?"
He smiled, knowing what James was doing. "Of course I am. He just can't be here when I do." Anesh went over to the bookshelf and pulled up the file folder full of documents that he used for their RPGs. "Here." He said, pulling out the second set of papers, the maps and notes and things that were a little bit more important than the ones for their current game. "That game I'm running for you guys? That's based off reality."
"Bullshit." Alanna said simply.
"No, really." He spread out the maps, the sketches and battle plans for some of the larger life forms, the printouts of Amazon and Ebay orders for combat equipment. "He found it, did a few dives inside before inviting me. At some point, both of us got hit with some kind of nightmarish mind control. For the last... two months? Three? Neither of us has been able to talk to you, or anyone, about what we've been doing every week." The last thing he added to the table was his phone, opening up his image folder to show Alanna a picture he'd taken of James, holding Rufus in the palm of his hand and giving the strider a mock high five.
She looked at the pile of notes and the image. "I'm almost sure you two are fucking with me somehow, here. This is a long way to go for a joke, but you guys are bored enough to do it."
"Okay." Anesh said. "Come with me."
He stood up, and maneuvered around their living room furniture to walk down the hall to James' bedroom. Alanna watched as he opened the door and disappearing from her sight. A second later, she jumped up and followed. In her head, it hadn't really clicked yet that this might even possibly be real. James and Anesh were her friends, but she was fairly sure that they could pull off bullshit of this caliber. It wasn't beyond the time they'd faked James' death on Halloween, though it was significantly more fantasy than that one.
So, it came as a bit of a shock to her when she walked in to see Anesh uncovering a small cat pen in the corner of his roommate's bedroom. "I didn't know you guys got a pet!" She said excitedly. "Is it a kitten?" Anesh just shook his head, and motioned her closer.
"Look." Was all he said, pointing.
She peered in, excited to see their new pet. But what Anesh had presented was anything but cuddly. Nestled in a ring of blankets, a yellow ball the size of a human head sat. It glowed slightly, differing shades of yellows, tones dark to bright, shifted under its surface. That, on its own, was kind of weird. But the thing that sat atop it took the cake.
It looked like an iPhone, and for a second, she thought that was exactly what it was. But then it moved; a fluid organic twitch that showed off a segmented body, and a myriad of tiny copper legs that made it look like a computer chip and a centipede had some kind of nightmare offspring. Alanna recoiled, letting out what she would define as a roar, and Anesh would have called a scream, if he felt like getting punched. "What the fuck is *that*!?
"Well, that's Lily." Anesh said, backing away. "It... she... is the iLipede that James brought home, because he's a wanker."
"The fucks a nilipede?!" Came the answer, as Alanna crawled up onto the bed to get a better view of it, while still staying safely out of range of... anything it might do, really.
“No no. An iLipede. Millipede, but without the ‘m’. And a lowercase ‘i’, because… you don’t care. Okay.” Anesh smiled a bit as he draped the blanket back over the pen. "It's an iPhone, but a millipede. So far, we've come up with good wordplay names for just about everything, because... well, James and me, right?"
"Right..." Alanna said, still kneeling on the bed.
"Anyway. Yes, it's real. No, it's not a joke. We were originally planning on telling more people so we could get more exploration done, and also share it with everyone we actually like. But then, as mentioned, mind control." He led Alanna back out into the hallway, hitting the light and closing the door after they left the room.
They wandered back to the living room, Alanna still trying to process the whole thing. "Okay, okay, wait." She said. "Just hang the fuck on." She paused for a minute to collect her thoughts, staring at the table now covered in notes and maps. After a long minute, and a deep breath, she finally spoke. "What's in there?"
"Quite a lot." Anesh said. "Cubicles, mostly. Endless cubicles. The horizon is far away and beige. There's stuff, too. We've been paying rent from the contents of the wallets we find in there. Oh, and all that candy that I told you guys was from England comes from there, too."
Alanna slapped the table with a resounding crack. "I fucking knew that Baby Things weren't a real candy!"
"Well, they are a *real* candy, just not one that's available to the public." Anesh countered.
She wasn't impressed with that answer. "What else? What else is in there?"
"Monsters." Anesh spoke softly. "Dangerous things. Twisted images of office supplies turned into life forms, or things like life. Exploding coffee cups. Balls of hostile CAT-5 cable." He rubbed the cast on his arm, the thing that had started this conversation. "Things that could kill you if you're not careful."
The gesture didn't go unnoticed. "That's why you're hurt." It wasn't a question. "Why go in there at all, then? Why not just tell someone, sell the information, and leave it alone. Or, I dunno, call the government? Do they have a division for this?"
"Probably!" Anesh said with a sudden cheerful turn. "But this one isn't theirs. It's ours. Well, it probably technically belongs to the company James works at, but that's not the point. That big basketball thing that Lily is sleeping on? That's a skill orb."
"Wat." Came the snappy interruption.
Anesh cleared his throat. "I'm trying to explain, come on. Give me some word space." He pushed her two thing sheafs of paper, each one labeled with a name. "James found it first, when he killed one of the staplers. They use these things as power sources, we think. But when we use them, crack them open, it adds things to our minds. We think. Again, this is mostly experimentation at this point."
He pointed to the lists of skills that he and James had acquired, and the notes next to each of them. They'd done more than a little testing on that front, Alanna saw. There were notes on which ones tied into others, what was 'active' or 'passive'. What the jump in ability actually felt like. Anesh had a thing for written organization of data, and the pile that he'd handed her went pretty deep on it.
"You learned how to fence?" She asked, looking up and raising her eyebrows.
A shrug in response. "I learned how to use a rapier. It's different, somehow. Not... quite sure yet."
Alanna leaned back, now with serious consideration written across her face. This was a look Anesh knew pretty well; anyone who spent time around Alanna eventually saw this. It meant she had an idea. A big one. One of those 'change the world' ideas.
"What are you guys using this for?" She asked quietly.
"Self improvement, mostly." Anesh said. "Also dragging ourselves out of poverty. Also, I think James might literally be addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat. But that's... not much of a problem, I think?" Anesh sighed, turning sideways on the couch to stare at the ceiling. He never understood how James made this seem comfortable. "We've shared some of the money, quietly. Helped a few people make rent. Used a couple of the green orbs in a hospital. Oh, those improve locations somehow." He signed. "Look, I know you're probably disappointed, but... we can't find the exploit, if that makes sense. If there's a way to use this place to do more to help the world, I'm not seeing it."
Alanna nodded silently. "I don't know. I'd have to see it, I guess. From what you say, you're right. I'm not going to judge you two for not doing enough, but it does seem kind of.. small?"
"Small is a good word for it." Anesh said, feeling a strange and unrequired guilt. "We don't have a plan to fix everything, just ourselves."
"Anesh, you know you're part of everything, right?" Alanna said in an amused tone. "I know I yell about the Utopia Fallacy a lot, and I know that James and Dave think I'm some kind of blind idealist, but I'm not *mad at you* for this." She stood up, reaching her arms over her head to stretch, her height making her look like a titan in the small apartment. "Improving yourselves is part of improving the world. You've got a line on that sheet that's got a million underlines and circles around it, and looks like it let you skip six months of math classes that I can't understand, right?"
"Right..." He said hesitantly.
"Great. Use that. Don't waste it. Push the collective knowledge of humanity forward a bit." She walked into the kitchen to get some water, and he heard her call back. "It's not evil to seize power, only to squander it!"
Anesh wasn't sure he fully agreed with that. But then, he had a totally different cultural background. There was a certain dichotomy that came from growing up in England with an Indian bloodline, and so he could probably name any number of reasons why seizing power wasn't a great idea. But he also knew that, just because history showed empires being evil, didn't mean that those mistakes had to be repeated. In a large way, he envied Alanna's view of the world as something to improve, as opposed to how he and James treated it as something to be *survived*.
She walked back into the room. Fairly casually for someone who'd just learned about the existence of literal magic, Anesh thought. "Look, here's my offer." she said. "I'll keep this secret, like you guys were *before* the creepy mind control thing." She pointed an accusatory finger at Anesh. "But I want in. Because of course I do. But, well, it's like you just said. You're improving yourselves. Don't think I haven't noticed how fucking happy James has been lately. Or that he's put on muscle."
"Yeah, it's kind of impressive." Anesh said slyly.
"Oh, and don't think I haven't noticed you noticing either. The only reason I'm not telling people you guys are dating is because I'm waiting for you to do it." She ignored Anesh's flushed face and stammered attempt at a comeback, and just rolled on with what she was saying. "The point is, the government, or the company, or whatever mysterious bullshit organization handles this sort of thing? They're not going to use it right. So, I want to get in while there's an opening. I want to be better, I want to learn random crap like this. Because if any of it's useful, well..."
Anesh composed himself as she was talking, and tapped the table as she trailed off. "If any of it's useful, then you're more useful, and you can do more."
"Right." She said.
"When you run for president, I'll vote for you." He said with a grin.
Alanna laughed, a loud booming chuckle that carried through the whole apartment. "Wait, you're not a citizen! That's a hollow promise!"
"I'll make James do it then!" Anesh said with a laugh of his own, feeling the tension draining from the room and the guilt he'd been worried about with telling Alanna leave him as well. "Okay. The door opens every Tuesday, at 3:34 AM. As in, stay up late on Monday."
"Got it. Are you guys going in this week?" She asked.
Anesh slapped his cast with his good hand. "This comes off a day earlier. Then we're going delving again. And yes, you're welcome to come along. We can carpool, to make it easier."
"Wait, they just let you in?"
He shrugged. "The staff were fine with it at first, and then I think James bribed the security guard after he got in trouble for us taking a coffee machine. Oh! Magic coffee! I forgot!"
"I'm going to need to take some time to catch up on this, aren't I?" Alanna asked as she cracked her knuckles.
"Probably." Anesh said. "I still don't know how James is going to react to it, or if he *can* react to it. This might be weird. Er. Weirder. I still don't know how long I can talk about it for, honestly. I want to tell JP, but he's on vacation with his family. I do *not* want to tell Dave. This is very important. James and I discussed it, and neither of us trust him to not be a jackass."
"Agreed." Was the all-too-fast response of someone who knew exactly what kind of friend Dave was.
"Aside from that... Well. This might be a little odd, but want to look at melee weapons on Amazon before James gets back?" Anesh asked.
Alanna laughed again. This time a sort of bitter tint to it. "Buddy, I'm super glad you're telling me about this and eager to let me come with you, but at this point, I don't think you need to keep saying that stuff is odd. I mean, let's be honest. I haven't seen anything this effed since episode six of Sesame Street."
He just sighed. "Yeah, it's hard to keep that in perspective sometimes."
It felt good, though. For Anesh, it was puzzled relief that his mind was his own again. For Alanna, it was excitement at what her friend had trusted her with. And even for James, still walking his detoured path back from the burger joint he'd visited, there was a sweetness in the air.
Because James knew he could trust Anesh, and he implicitly trusted him to share with Alanna. But at this point, the knowledge was already out there, there was no reeling it back in. The creature in his mind had railed against him as he'd walked down the sidewalk, trying to push him to ideas on how to stem the information bleeding. But he just kept walking, and kept pushing back. Softly, at first, then with more confidence. He'd hummed as he'd casually put one foot in front of the other, letting his mental momentum build up with his physical stride.
It was losing the fight. It was weakening. It still held a grip on his mind, James knew he wouldn't be able to just turn to the guy passing him and tell him about this one time when he got to launch a fire grenade into a walking computer that shot lasers. But he cordoned off the part of his mind that it had assaulted when Anesh had started sharing. And he was fairly sure that he could talk to Alanna about it now.
Still, though, it would be nice to know exactly why this was happening. Or what the strange fish-shaped thought-thing was. The mind control had never been a high point, and now that it felt like he was gaining ground on the monster in his head, well...
James had a strange idea then, on the nighttime walk home.
Maybe he should just ask it.
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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!