Twenty minutes later, James and Alanna, along with Ganesh, got back to the fort to link back up with Anesh. The two of them came in a bit stiffly, the hits from their fight with the plant starting to develop into bruises. But that didn't stop them from wearing triumphant looks on their faces, and walking with their heads held high.
"You two look like you had fun." Anesh commented with a smile, holding out a hand for Ganesh to land in as the drone launched itself off James' head. He was sitting at the desk with Rufus, idly reading from a stack of papers in a manilla folder. None of them said anything useful, as far as he could tell, but he’d had just enough time to grab *something* to do before they got back, and he wanted to present an impressive image.
Dropping his bag onto a clear part of the desk, James threw himself into a chair. Alanna similarly deposited her gear, but opted to simply sit down, rather than vigorously fling herself onto the seat. It was interesting to Anesh how two people could make the simple action of sitting down so different; one with gusto, as if he were excited to get back up again, and the other with something halfway between caution and poise, as if good graces would protect against the dangers here. Their formed hard plastic and thick layered cloth armor making movement just tricky enough that all of their movements were a bit more deliberate.
James started to say something, but was cut off by Alanna. "I wouldn't call it fun." She said. "A lot of things. Crazy. Adventure. Awesome, in a way that high schoolers don't use the word awesome. But not fun. How the fuck did you let James talk you into this?" She asked Anesh.
"It was mostly the promise of money, food, and power." He replied smoothly. "Also he's my friend, so keeping him alive was a factor, even if he is a wanker."
"He is!" Alanna enthusiastically replied.
Off to the side of their conversation, James took a second away from worriedly fussing with Rufus's injured leg to let out a "hey!", which was more or less ignored.
"Still, though. It's grown on me." Anesh said. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep coming back at first. A big part of me was going over arguments for how I could convince James to back off on it, or at least excuse myself from it. But, well..." He paused as he collected his thoughts, and Alanna gave him space to think. "This whole thing is so far from normal. I don't think I could ever live with myself if I gave up the opportunity to just be here, and experience it. Candy or not, it's got an uncanny valley kind of beauty to it."
Alanna nodded. "The cubicles look dumb and mundane on their own, but when you can't see the end, it gets trippy. Also, things like Ganesh, who is... kinda cool, yeah."
The little drone hummed his engine from Anesh's shoulder. He'd been warming up to Alanna since he'd seen her preemptively act to save his life. Not enough to use her as a perch, especially since he was legitimately afraid of getting tangled in her hair, but enough to not be aloof.
"Ganesh is cool." Anesh said. "So is the giant tile spire that is the bathroom here."
"Oh, that reminds me. Is there an actual bathroom here? I don't need it now, I'm just curious if it's going to be a problem." She asked tangentially.
Anesh shook his head. "We haven't found a real one. It hasn't been a problem, but then, we don't spend too long in here. If you do need to go, we can just leave. Though if you're good, I think we'd like to go farther in tonight, as a group."
"Farther in? How far did we go that time?" Alanna looked up at James, who took notice and wandered over.
He set Rufus down on the desk behind Anesh, and then leaned on it himself. "Not very far. Maybe two hundred cubes?" He sighed. "We need a map."
"I'm working on it." Anesh said. "I spent some time with Ganesh taking wide shot images of the place around here. I'll turn them into something we can print out and stick on the wall here this week."
"I can help with that." James said, excited. "I can finally put that AutoCAD skill to use."
Alanna interrupted them, waving a hand to catch their attention. "Sorry, you said you wanted to go farther in? Isn't that really stupid? James almost died. *I* almost died!"
The other two shared a quick look. How do you explain to someone that combat gets less scary over time? That the call of exploration and adventure starts to overpower the fear of death? Especially to Alanna, who still had some of her own dried blood on the side of her face.
"I mean, I'm sorry you almost died?" James opened with, and Anesh wanted to strangle his friend. That was quite possibly the direct opposite of tact. "But look, there's just a feeling to it." He continued, passion building in his voice. "We get hurt sometimes, sure, but we've always survived. And that feeling is amazing; knowing that we're good enough for this, or at least not stupid enough to die. And there's still so much to see."
Alanna shook her head. "I still don't want to get sliced up again."
James shrugged. "I can't promise that won't happen. All I can say is that it didn't kill you. And I won't let anything kill you if I can help it. But there's more to see, and I want to see it. I want to be there." He finished with a calm, powerful tone, a hint of melancholy in his words.
It surprised Anesh to see that James' points hit home on Alanna. If there was one thing that he always forgot, it was that tact wasn't useful with someone who preferred the direct approach.
Standing up, Anesh paced away, not sure what to say to break the thick silence that had fallen on them. He didn't feel like it was time for a joke, and nothing he was going to say was going to tip Alanna any further. So he just quietly left, a little awkwardly, while she made her decision, and started double checking their gear for if they did decide to go deeper in today.
The coffee was still available, and still hot. James had discovered over the last week that it did have to be hot if they wanted to get the buff; but right now, it wasn't a problem, and they had three thermos full of the still steaming drink. There were a couple more small yellow orbs in James' bag that the two of them must have found and been saving. Anesh tossed them into one of the desk drawers with the reds he'd gotten, thinking that he needed to bring in some kind of bowl to store these things in. Maybe a fruit bowl; make it look like a batch of weird-colored grapes. That made him laugh in his head.
They hadn't used any of the gear really, except the medkit. So Anesh mostly just took the time to make sure everything was still there, and split up some things among three packs. Mostly, it was just food and water and medical supplies. They each had one small bundle of rope apiece, as well. Just in case. Not too much of it; that stuff was heavy as all hell. But it might come in handy, just like the duct tape.
Into one of the drawers, the one that currently only held a very dangerous pen, he placed the sunglasses he and Rufus had found. Those might be incredibly useful in the future, but he didn't want to take them out without both a strap for them, and also a little more practice to make sure the headache wouldn't kill him.
Just as he was zipping up the bags, Alanna came over. "Anesh. Are you thinking of going in with James?" She asked.
"I am." He stated simply. "I want to see farther inside as much as he does. And I don't think either of us wants to tackle the bathroom today. So, as far in as we can go in two hours."
"It gives us a safety net to get out." He said by way of explanation.
Alanna nodded. Despite really wanting to go, Anesh wasn't going to push her on it. If she didn't want to come along, she could stay here, or just head out of the dungeon. But he did think they'd get a lot more done with three people, and just having someone else there...
"Okay, let's go." Alanna's words jolted Anesh out of his contemplation, and he snapped his head around from deliberately staring at the gear to look at her.
"Are you quite sure?" He asked.
James came over before Alanna could answer, casually tossing Ganesh into the air, only for the drone to recover mid-throw and glide down to alight on Anesh's shoulder. "I bribed her." James explained with a smile. "Those last two yellows we got, plus the pen. A steep price, but hey, there's always more, right?" He said with an exaggeratedly dramatic swoon. Anesh casually opened the drawers and tossed the orbs to Alanna. The pen got handed over with a little more caution, but no hesitation.
She almost asked if *they* were sure about giving this up, but the ease with which both of the guys parted with the loot had a strange reassurance about it. They weren't the kind of people who would let greed get in the way of friendship, or of function. And it was with that thought that she answered Anesh, "I'm quite sure, yes." As she cracked the two orbs.
[+1 Skill Rank : Etiquette - Corporate - Tech Firms]
[+1 Skill Rank : Singing]
Smiling through closed eyes so she could better see the thoughts in her head, Alanna felt her spirit soar. "Feels good, doesn't it?" She opened her eyes to see James and Anesh both looking at her, grinning as well. From anyone else, it might have felt malicious, but she squashed the part of her heart that yelled that at her. These two were on her side - more than that, they were friends.
"It does. Really fucking good." She said, rolling her shoulders. Alanna casually reached down a muscled arm to hoist the hammer she'd leaned against the wall, rising up to her full height as she shouldered her backpack. "Okay. I'm ready." Ignoring the bandages on her face, not feeling the bruises on her arms, all fatigue falling away, she stepped up to the door. "Are you two coming or not?"
James looked over at Anesh, hoping to get someone to appreciate his eye roll, but his friend was already moving after Alanna, out the door and across the open area toward their planned path, spear in hand, drone on shoulder, and straightening the old football pads he was wearing. Looking down at Rufus, James said, "You appreciate my sarcasm, right?"
Rufus thought for a second, then held up his front legs in an X. James just sighed as he went to pick up the bag Rufus was sitting on. "Okay, I need this now. I'll be back later, though, and I'll bring you an orb or two." But Rufus didn't get off, instead just latching on with his legs. James started to let out an "um...", but Rufus just pointed a single leg after their friends, now gaining a significant lead. "Okay, so you're coming? Even hurt?" Rufus rolled his single eye, a gesture he'd learned from James. "Right, fine. I get it." Shouldering the bag, careful not to dislodge the strider, James headed out as well, jogging slightly to catch up. "No one appreciates my sarcasm." He muttered.
They'd been moving for about half an hour, and it was going well. Alanna was getting used to the level of caution and quiet that they employed, and James and Anesh were both becoming more comfortable with a third person involved. Ganesh was still relaxing on Anesh's shoulder, dug into the football pad armor there, and Rufus was presumably taking a nap in James' backpack. In total, they had probably gotten about a mile or more into the dungeon, mostly because they weren't taking the time to loot every single cube they walked by. And they were walking by a *lot* of cubicles.
This side path, just a few aisles to the right of their normal entry point, and a few turns farther away from their usual path, still had the same environment of thousands and thousands of cubicles, with the walls getting gradually taller and taller as they went in. To James, it felt like descending into a cave, while Alanna and Anesh both felt like they were walking into a dense forest.
Whatever it felt like, they'd all decided that pillaging the outer 'shell' of the dungeon was something that they could basically do at any time. So, they just pressed through it. Forging past all the potential loot made James a bit twitchy, and every time he moved past the door to a cubicle and saw a coat on a chair, or glimpsed a briefcase on a desk over a wall, he would wince a bit. Still, he wasn't going to slow them down grabbing up cash that they could get when they needed it. A bulging wallet was satisfying, but it wasn't really what they were here for, exactly. Not today.
Up ahead, Anesh checked the cube on the right, while Alanna checked left, and then they both signaled James forward. He moved up, checking the right himself, while Anesh moved to the left, then they repeated the process. On and on, keeping up the pattern, moving deeper and deeper. They saw more than a few striders on their path, especially as they started moving into the area of the dungeon where paper hung like vines and staples made webs across the doors and hallways. But none of them made any hostile moves, instead content to watch the trio as they walked.
Maybe it was because they weren't invading the cubicles, James thought; as long as they didn't violate the homes or territory of the staplers, they wouldn't lash out. Or maybe it was just because there were three of them now, five with Rufus and Ganesh, and the striders weren't that violently suicidal.
Either way, they weren't having much trouble.
That lasted about two minutes after James had that thought.
They took a corner, one of the simple bends, not an intersection. And James saw in front of them another hallway. Standard, so far, though he could see ahead small clusters of cubicles where the walls were only at about waist height. These groups of two-by-two desks gave the impression of open spaces, even when the walls of other cubes arched up overhead, they still created gaps of open air that made the gloomy space feel a bit less claustrophobic.
The other thing James noticed was that the carpet here switched from the flat grey with some dots on it pattern, to a series of large green and black squares, with smaller overlapping circle of purple every few squares of the pattern. It wasn't anything impressive, but it was the first time they'd seen the carpet change except for the break room.
"What the hell is that?" Alanna had come up beside James and was pointing down toward one of the low-walled clusters. There was something in the middle of it that James had initially thought was a support beam, but now that he looked at it more, it was twisted and there was something hanging off it on the other side.
"No idea." He said back. "Anesh! We've got something up here!" James motioned their friend up from where he was keeping watch on the hallway they'd come down, suspiciously eyeing one of the cubes they'd seen a strider nesting in. He turned at James' low-pitched call and headed up to peer over the shoulders of his companions.
Looking down the hallway, Anesh nodded. "Yeah, that's a suspicious floor."
"What?" James said, confused. "No, the pillar thing over there." He and Alanna both pointed at what they were looking at.
Anesh shook his head, a concerned frown on his face. "That thing's probably also going to try to kill us. But I don't like the floor. Too... Indiana Jones."
"You've seen Indiana Jones?" Alanna asked.
James and Anesh both gave her a stunned look. James spoke first, while Anesh just had his mouth hanging open. "He's British, not uncultured." And Anesh just nodded, pointing at James in agreement. "Anyway. If you guys are actually worried about the carpet, I'll go first, and be careful, okay?"
He stepped forward, probing the carpet tiles ahead of himself with one foot. Nothing happened. He put more weight on his outstretched foot, and still nothing. Shifting forward, he tapped the green square to his right, and found a similar result of "nothing at all". Finally, he took a few cautious steps farther in, and reached out to thump the toe of his boot onto one of the purple circles.
James had to admit, he was holding his breath a bit. He didn't fully agree with what Anesh meant about the carpet being suspicious until he actually stepped out onto it, and now he was worried that the smallest motion would open up some kind of pit trap. Probably with sharpened desk rulers at the bottom.
Still nothing happening, though.
Breathing out a sigh, James straightened up. "Okay. Nothing to worry about!" He called back to the others. "Let's go check that thing out." Alanna and Anesh moved up, side by side to catch up with James. He turned back, and started leading the way toward the low walled cubicles and the strange pillar.
As soon as he stepped onto one of the thin lines where the different carpet swaths met on the floor, two dozen small holes opened up in the tall wall to his right. Alanna saw it first, and yelled a warning at James, shouting "*Down*" at him as fast as she could react. He reacted to her warning with almost absolute trust, starting to duck and throwing his arms up over his head. He wasn't quite fast enough, though.
In a volley from ceiling to floor, rows of bright yellow, needle pointed, number two pencils launched out. The noise of their firing screaming through the air with the heavy buzz of an electric pencil sharpener. Each row of three pencils spat out before the one below it, and they cut into the far wall so deeply that they hung there without falling back out.
James had maybe two seconds from when Alanna yelled to when the pencils started hitting. He'd begun kneeling down and starting to roll forward, but it wasn't enough to fully get him out of the line of fire. Of the eight rows of office supply spears that scythed through the air, the top four missed him entirely. The next two were at the level of his head, but he'd leaned forward enough that one of them stabbed into his backpack, but the rest flew past.
The rest of them, though, started hitting *him*. Several deflected off the shaped hard plastic that he was wearing. He felt impacts on his shoulder and elbow that just redirected into the floor, and a few more that cut into the thicker padding of the armor but didn't reach him. Two of the overly sharpened pencils, though, cut through the armor. One into his upper arm, and the other one at a weird angle, right across his ass, cutting a thin line through the back of his slacks, and leaving a similar red line on his flesh where it scored him.
And then it was over. The buzzing cut off abruptly, and James finished throwing himself onto his face. The holes in the wall closed off, and all that was left by way of evidence was about twenty yellow wooden shafts stabbed into the far wall, and scattered on the floor. And in James.
"Okay, ow." He said from the floor, standing up carefully to avoid jostling the pencil jammed into his arm. It wasn't in deep, but it hurt like hell, and he was worried about pulling it out right away.
Anesh ran over, yanking out a medkit, while Alanna moved ahead of him and bent down to grab James under the arms and drag him away from the trap, back to the bend of the corner. "Shit, shit, shit.." Anesh intoned as he pulled out a packet of hemostatic powder and a roll of medical tape.
"That's my line." James said calmly. "Whoo. This looks a lot more painful than it feels." He said, wiggling his arm a little to make the pencil bob a bit. After unstrapping the armor pad there and carefully pulling it over the pencil, Anesh wrapped his hand around the shaft, yanking it out in a smooth motion. Blood started to flow immediately, and so did James' swearing. "Okay! Okay, now it hurts!" He cried out as his friend dumped powder on it to clot the blood, and then quickly laid down a bandage pad and wrapped it up with the tape. As he wrapped it up, Rufus crawled his way out of the backpack, pushing the zipper apart to poke his snout out and chitter at the pencil now impaling his improvised nest.
Anesh was about halfway done with the bandage when Alanna gave out a warning. "Staplers! A bunch of them!" James almost choked on the mouthful of water he was using to swallow a painkiller, and he and Anesh looked up to see Alanna standing just a few feet away, brandishing her hammer. On the walls down the hall from where they came, every other cubicle had a strider or two sitting on its lip. A couple more hung from staple webs strung across the low ceiling where walls bent together. And still a few more were just moving forward across the floor.
Apparently, the creatures were just restrained enough to wait until it looked like the group was injured to attack.
James cupped his hand over Anesh's where his friend was frantically fumbling the bandage. "Go." He said. "I got this, I'll be right there." Taking hold of the tape, he started undoing it from where Anesh had twisted and made it too tight, working calmly, but as fast as he could.
Dropping his spear, Anesh unclipped his compact hand axe and stepped up with Alanna, keeping a pace back and far to the left. Ganesh on his shoulder taking flight with a hum. "Deep breath." He said to Alanna, who was noticeably freaking out at the high number of approaching hostiles. "They're still just staplers. We've got this." He said, half-believing his own words.
Alanna started to say something, probably something pessimistic, but from behind them, they both heard James shout out; "Fuck 'em up!" He called to the two, and Alanna let out a snort of laughter, before taking an aggressive step forward, roaring. Whipping the sledgehammer forward with both hands, she spiked a strider that had been running along the wall of the cubicle to their right, hitting hard enough that it punched through the plywood and cloth of the cubicle. The strider didn't come out of the hole left as she wrenched the hammer back.
And then the rest of them charged forward, and it turned a bit chaotic. Anesh stomped down on one of the ones on the floor, pinning it in place while he used his hand axe to one-two slap a pair off the edge of the wall to his left before they got in lunging range. Kneeling down, he started lashing out to chop at the bodies and legs of any of them that got too close. At one point, he had to frantically blink ichor out of his right eye as Alanna smashed one with perfect accuracy to his right, splattering the liquid across the aisle.
When one of them lunged for Anesh, he tried to slap it away, and missed. But all it could do was ineffectively try to cut its teeth on the chest of his armor. It may just be sports gear, but staplers still weren't getting through it. Still, he grabbed it in a free hand and pitched it back down the hallway before it could climb up to his exposed arms or face. To his right, he saw Alanna miss with one of her overpowered hammer strikes, leaving an indent in the floor, and probably jarring the bones of her arms hard enough to hurt.
Alanna did indeed feel the sting from that one. But she lashed out with a foot and kicked the oncoming strider away, buying time to lug the hammer back up and take another shot. What she didn't see was the one that was crawling through the staple webs above her, and she didn't see it about to drop down, aiming to concuss her and take her out of the fight. She also didn't see Ganesh whip through the chains of paperclips and cut the legs out from under it, leaving a tumbling strider to crash into the ground about two feet farther down the hallway than it intended.
James saw it, though. And he grabbed it while it was still stunned, careful to keep his fingers away from the mouth as he pinned it down and took it apart with his axe. He then turned to deal with the one that Rufus was wrestling off the wall behind him, a straggler that had been going for the presumably defenseless James.
The fight would have gone on longer, but the remainder of the striders, perhaps seeing that there weren't any downed individuals at all, pulled back, quietly slipping away with a light skittering sound of dry pens and unsharpened pencils.
James walked up to the other two, both Anesh and Alanna panting heavily. About a dozen crushed, cut, and mangled strider bodies scattered around, glowing points of yellow drifting in the air above them for a half minute before dropping back to the ground. "Well, that went well!" He said, smile turning into a wince as he pulled at the bandages he'd applied to the cut on his rear end.
"I'm... going to... hit you with this." Alanna gasped out, leaning on her hammer. She was in good shape, she was strong, but making targeted hits with something that weighed between five and ten pounds over and over again, while things tried to kill her, was enough to leave her out of breath and sweating.
"I'll help." Anesh said, miming strangling James.
James just laughed though. They were kidding, and he wasn't trying to be too much of a dick. "Alright, alright." He said, smiling and placating them. "I'll grab up the yellows. You guys just relax for a minute."
The total haul, after he found the one that Alanna had put through a wall, and gave up on the one he'd seen Ganesh dive bomb into the horizon, was thirteen orbs. Coming back to the others, he asked, "Do we want to use these now? Or wait until we get back, then divide up everything?"
"Wait." Anesh said
At the same time, Alanna perked up and said, "Use 'em!"
"Okay, that's unhelpful." James sighed. "As tiebreaker, I'm going with Anesh. We still need to make sure we have extras for Ganesh and Lily, and then we'll have a weird number to divide up here." Alanna groaned, and made puppy dog eyes at James. "That's not going to work... very well. Anesh, help." James looked over at his friend pleadingly.
"Hey Alanna." Anesh said by way of distraction. "Didn't you want to go check out the pillar thing?"
She jabbed a finger into his padded side. "Don't try to distract me! But yes."
James shook his head as he turned away, amused. Still, he wanted to get moving forward again. Cautiously, he moved up to the line that had triggered the pencil dart trap the first time. It was one of the tiny, almost invisible points where two sections of carpet were joined together. He poked it, from as far away as he could manage. Nothing happened, though. He tapped around it, putting different amounts of pressure down. Still nothing. Finally, he took a deep breath, and cautiously stepped over it, careful not to touch the line itself.
Nothing! No darts. He moved forward a few cubes, before approaching the four-way intersection, made a lot more open by the presence of low-walled cubicles ahead. He was careful to watch for more lines on the carpet, but it seemed like the patches of carpet were pretty large. Still, it would be something to watch for going forward. Maybe get himself a riot shield.
And then, after checking around the intersection to make sure that there was nothing moving, he took a closer look at the pillar in the middle of the four open cubicles. Eyes widening, James quickly motioned to the other two. When that didn't work, "Come on, guys. Stop fighting and get up here. Don't step on that line." James said, pointing behind himself at the mark on the floor.
Anesh moved up first. "We're not fighting, just disagreeing passionately."
"What happened to your pants?" Alanna asked as she joined them.
"Not important, either of you.. Look at this. Just... look at this thing." He said, staring.
This thing was what they'd noticed from a distance, and hadn't really been able to make out. Up close, though, it became more clear what it was. A trunk, really, was the only way to describe it. It had a thick, black plastic outer layer. It was actually two parts, not just one; two massive cables, coiled around an actual support pillar. Small bits of white paint peeking through the massive cords wrapped around it. A handful of smaller cables coursed up around the outside, occasionally splitting off to form small branches, or coiling together to make knots and bulges.
But the fact that there was a plant made out of cabling wasn't the part that was making James stare. It was the fact that the cables coiled together, up above the ceiling around them, through the open space where the walls fell away and left a courtyard of clear air. James had thought it was strange that it wasn't much brighter around here, despite there being fewer ceiling pieces to block out the fluorescent lights above. And now, they could all see why.
Shapes of dim glowing plastic came out of the coils at the peak of the plant where they spread out. It was like a tree, with shapes of petals and leaves growing like lotus blossoms. They were computer monitors. Folded, warped, nowhere near the standard golden ratio rectangles that sat on desks across the world. But still recognizable as a staple of the personal computer.
And they covered the sky above them. Blooming off of the cables where they grew out from the main trunk, blocking out the view of the lights above and casting a strange glow down into the twilight they left below. Screensavers of dancing color lit many of them, neon blues and oranges moving across panels of glass.
The three of them moved forward, stepping up to the low cubes, and staring upward.
James had never seen anything like this. He heard Alanna let out a laugh like a series of bells. Anesh said something awestruck. But James didn't look down; he just kept gazing up at the marvel above them. He didn’t look away out of fear that it might disappear before he could turn back; their own personal dungeon mirage. But it was real. James stepped up as close as he could to the center of the cubes, reaching out to place a hand on the black corded roots, feeling even through his glove the sturdy nature of this creation.
The branches moved in an unfelt breeze, there was a chiming sound like a handful of password prompts singing together, and above them, colored shapes and starfields danced. For just a moment, everything felt brighter and new.
On Anesh’s shoulder, an artificial life looked upward and saw beauty for the first time. From out of James’ backpack, a creature gazed up at a part of its home that it had never seen before.
Overhead, small six-legged things ran across the branches, poking their heads out through the glowing segments to look down at the guests at their home’s base, before turning back to bathing in the light from above and around them. They called at each other with chirps and dings, and they wore slivers of monitor across their bodies as scales.
"There is magic in the world, waiting to be found." James intoned, soft voice echoing through the almost silent office. He felt tears in his eyes as he saw something truly beautiful and unique for the first time in this hostile place.
It would have been the perfect moment for anything to ambush them.
But the office stayed quiet. And they watched with wondering eyes, uninterrupted for a time.
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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!