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A note from argusthecat

Writing is hard you guys! 

The road lazily rolled on ahead of him. James walked, not alone, along the molten asphalt. Waves of heat fluttered in the air like birds, making the dry grass and barbed wire fences on either side of the road seem more like mirages than they really were.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

The sun beat down. All of the suns beat down. The six dancing stars in the sky above played a staccato drum roll down on the world around James and his walking partner. The landscape burned without fire, but still, he kept walking.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

In the fields to their left, a lone scarecrow stood. It had been there for over ten thousand years, and it had stood a solitary and noble watch over these fields. It had seen the grain, perfectly ripened, sit untouched for centuries. It had heard the endless roll of cicadas herald the summer for millennia. It was eternal. It never tired of the beautiful world around it, or of seeing the passing travellers that sometimes came by, following that river of a road.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

James wiped his forehead, and looked around. Fields, forever. The road, forever. "I'm dreaming." He muttered out loud, realizing it, but holding himself in that sleeping state. The realization is almost startling, but he keeps moving, stopping only for a minute to pick a rock out of his shoe. It's been bothering him for decades. He leans on the fence post for a second, feeling the old wood, understanding how many children have gotten splinters off it over the years. Then he grunts, and keeps going.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

James said he was dreaming, and it wasn't a question. But three miles later, the answer comes anyway. "YES." The person walking with him speaks without moving its mouth. James hadn't realized he was there, or that he could speak. If it had been the waking hours of his life, his heart would have exploded out of his chest, but it is not. Here, in the dreamlands, James reacts with a purity of purpose, his response untouched by fear or nerves. He just keeps walking.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

He doesn't turn to look at his walking partner. "Who are you?" He asks. He knows what's there. It's shaped like a human, but it's not. It's just wearing a shell, here in the dream. The thing is something else. But it's not just a thing anymore, James feels that. It's a person. It's a who. So he asks. And then, looking around, he feels the atmosphere of this countryside, and decides to add a bit of politeness to his question. "I'm James. What's your name?"

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

It's been a month of walking since he introduced himself. Time doesn't mean much here. It's just another way to mark the road, the dust, the occasional rusted signpost, and the eternal wheat. The air smells like the thought of powdered ivory when the creature trying to be a person speaks again. "I AM SOMEONE." It says, uncertain. James nods, understanding. This thing is new to being a person. They continue their stroll.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

It's a hundred miles and two speed limit signs later that James shoots a glance at his new friend. It's him, sort of. His face, his long brown hair up in his ponytail, his Powerman 5000 t-shirt soaked in his sweat. A mirror. But not quite. There's something off about it, something that reminds him of salt and iron, something that doesn't belong here, or as part of him. "Have we met before?" James asks as they both stop to watch a flock of crows soar overhead in a dancing spiral.

 

The other nods slightly, then gives a strangely sincere smile, as though it is proud of the gesture. "WE SPOKE ONCE."

 

Taking this as a good enough answer, James smiles back at him as the last crow falls through the end of their dance and vanishes into the sky. They stand there for a minute to rest muscles that aren't real, before taking the next step on the road that is not there.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

"You're the other one, aren't you?" James asks, without hostility.

 

"I AM AN INTERDICTION." It responds.

 

"Fish thoughts." James muttered, as they pass an old rusted ruin of a tractor. The skeleton of metal stands in stark contrast to the grain around it, a dark brown spot of lifelessness in the otherwise perfect sea of gold. "We made some kind of deal, didn't we? I don't remember."

 

"SECRETS." It nods. James nods back, not understanding, but accepting. They walk on together, comfortable in each others company. The heat feels like a bonfire on the back of their necks. Both of them wish they had a hat. Everyone who walks the road does.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

They come to an intersection. A beat up old stop sign that the local kids use for target practice sits on the corner in a patch of dry brambles. It's a four way intersection, the kind that's slightly imperfect on the angle, so it's not quite ninety degrees. These used to drive James crazy. Now, though, it's just another part of the road. The two of them stop, and sit together on an old log off on the side. There are no cars to watch; there never have been and there never will be. But they watch for them anyway.

 

"Can you tell me what our deal was?" James asked directly.

 

The other James nodded, again smug that it had done so. "YOUR SECRET. MY MEAL. I KEEP. I STAY HERE."

 

James picked at "Here?" He looked up at the everlasting sky. It was a shade of blue that made his bones hurt. Like the air itself was painted to look like a perfect sky.

 

"HERE." It leaned over and tapped James on the forehead. It wasn't really his head, but he got the point. It was living in his mind, making a nest of his thoughts.

 

"Why?" James asked askance. He wasn't mad, for the same reason he wasn't afraid. There wasn't room for that in this sleeping world.

 

It stood up, dusted itself off. A very human gesture that felt stiff and unpracticed, but like the thing meant it. "I AM BECOMING HAPPY."

 

James stood as well, swatting away a horsefly that buzzed around his head. "Well, you have to chase your dreams, I guess." He said. The thing that wore his face tried to smile, but it didn't have much effort behind it. Maybe it was still working on the sense of humor. James didn't mind, though. It was good company. He ignored both other options on the intersection and crossed over, continuing down the eternal black ribbon that was the road ahead.

 

One foot down. Then the other.

 

_____

 

James woke up to the smell of pizza and the sound of small things clattering on wood. He briefly considered keeping his eyes closed, and letting sleep take him again. Despite the fact that his bedside clock told him it was 4 PM, he wasn't in any hurry to get out of bed.

 

But the call of food, and the laughter and conversation from his living room, were enough to convince him that maybe it was worth it to get up.

 

Ten minutes and a few failed attempts to find a pair of pants later, he felt a bit more alert and ready to go see what was going on in his apartment. Before leaving his room, he took a second to check on Lily. It - though James really did think of her as a she, the iLipede was fundamentally genderless - it was still sitting atop the giant orb they'd brought home. Lily looked pretty comfortable, occasionally twitching a leg or antenna in a way that reminded James of a cat lazing in the sun. The screen that made up her back was still displaying a progress bar, as it had been for some time now.

 

"92% done, eh?" He said quietly, not wanting to startle or 'wake up' the small mobile device. "Well, keep at it." James said in a kind tone. "We'll make sure you get all the orbs you can eat when you're through, okay?"

 

Standing up from his crouch over the small pen, he wandered out of his room and down the hall. The living room had a lively feel to it; a cluster of people sitting around a table, chatting. Alanna gave him a joking salute as he walked in, and James spotted Dave out on their back porch, probably having a smoke.

 

It was getting on toward spring. Still cold, though not as bad; crisp instead of biting. The weather hadn't warmed up much, but it was staying light later and later, and it made for some great sunsets. James always loved how the light through their big porch glass doors looked when there was a cold sunset. He took a second to appreciate it before JP bounced a d8 off his chest.

 

"Ow." James said without pain. "Also why."

 

"I asked you something and you just stared out the window." JP responded. "We're wondering why you're not at work." The others at the table nodded, especially Anesh.

 

"Yeah," Anesh said, "I think we agreed that you getting fired was a bad idea?"

 

James rolled his eyes. "I am aware that a sudden case of joblessness would be a problem, yes. I have the day off. We actually get most holidays off." Blank looks from everyone. "It... it's Easter?" James said tentatively.

 

"Easter is a holiday?" Alanna asked with a bit of sharp confusion.

 

JP looked over at her. "Okay, I know that I forgot about Easter, but at least I know that it's a holiday. What's your excuse? Wait, hang on, I've met your mom. I've *been to your house.* She has more crucifixes than most churches."

 

"I know what Easter is, you fuck." Alanna flicked a chip at JP who ducked it, sputtering. "I didn't realize that people actually got it off. I thought it was one of those things that isn't important to anyone but nutjobs like my mother."

 

Clearing his throat, James cut off their impending argument. "Um... it's not. I mean, it's not normally a day off. My company actually gives us a surprising amount of days off. It's one of those weird things that make up for working in a corporate office hellscape. Anyway, the point is, I'm here tonight. What're you guys playing?"

 

"Still on the weird dungeon delve thing." JP said.

 

James raised an eyebrow, and looked over at Anesh, who just shrugged. "Isn't this... um..." He pinched the bridge of his nose and thought for a second, eyes closed. "Okay, I don't know how to phrase this, so, 'why are you guys doing this'?" He asked.

 

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Alanna said with a wolfish grin.

 

"Yeah, what's wrong with a novel and obviously unreal game scenario, James?" Anesh asked.

 

JP just gave him a shrug. "I mean, I think it's fun, I don't know why it bothers you. I normally just play whatever Anesh wants to run though."

 

"No, JP, you're excluded from this disdain." James said, turning his attention back to the other two. "You guys know damn well why. Is there a reason, or are you just screwing with me?"

 

"That second one." Alanna said, before Anesh could answer and keep the joke going. Anesh cut himself off, mouth still open, sitting forward, before getting a dejected look on his face and leaning back in his chair.

 

James took a long sigh. "JP, the reason this is dumb is because this isn't fictional. We found an office dungeon. Well, *I* found an office dungeon. It's real, this is mostly real, because I don't know what creative liberties Anesh took, and the original reason for the game was to farm you guys for ideas." JP started to say something, and James jumped in. "Yes, really. Yes, we have proof, Anesh saved some of the skill orbs for exactly this purpose. Yes, skill orbs. No, I'm not kidding. No, I'm not psychic, I'm just getting good at this conversation. Any other questions?"

 

There was a long pause. "Why tell me?"

 

"Because we're not main characters. Having a larger team increases our odds of survival, our applicable skill pool, and how far in we can go. I would also say our supply of ideas, but Anesh actually solved that problem."

 

"Why tell me *now*, not earlier, since it seems like this has been going on a while?" JP clarified.

 

"Oh! Mind control. We took care of it. It was a misunderstanding." James told him, clarifying very little.

 

"I'm... not sure what to make of this. Do I get a choice?" JP asked.

 

Anesh slapped Alanna on the arm as she started to give a quick and snarky answer. "Obviously, yes. We aren't going to drag you in against your will. That would be stupid. We do ask you keep it secret, though. I actually prepared a short set of guidelines that I'd like everyone to go over and sign off on. Sort of a charter thing, but that can wait. I also was hoping that Dave would be here when James came in and saw this."

 

"What about me?" Dave said as he walked back in through the sliding glass door. "Oh, hey. You're awake! Don't you have work?"

 

James rubbed at his eyes. "Okay, I'm not repeating this. You guys have fun. The door is on Tuesday at 3 AM, I'm going to get food, I'll be back later. Don't scare Dave off." He threw open the door and took a deep breath of the cool evening air. "Oh, and someone keep an eye on Lily. The thing's almost done." He called back as the door swung shut behind him.

 

Without a moment's hesitation, Anesh and Alanna both cried out, "Not it!" A half second later, Dave joined them; he didn't know what he was un-volunteering for, but a lifetime around James had taught him that it was better to get in early with this sort of thing.

 

JP shrugged, figuring it wasn't that bad to have to go do a quick check on... "Wait, who's Lily?" He asked. "Guys?" JP started to get a small sense of worry when Dave just shrugged, and neither Alanna nor Anesh would meet his eyes. "Dammit, guys, come on..."

 

_____

 

James strolled down the sidewalk. It felt good to stretch his legs, and the delightful feeling of not going to his job today really helped bolster his spirits. He felt good today in general, really. It was a rare effect on him to not just feel like he was surviving, but thriving in life. And a lot of small things came together today to make that happen for him.

 

His friends were assembling into an RPG party, which was cool. He had the day off. The weather was pleasant, and as a proud resident of a state with weather all over the board, he got to be smug about not "needing" to wear a jacket. And also, the booster shot to his finances that was the dungeon made it possible for him to go down to the barbeque place near his apartment, and ask them to put as much brisket on a piece of bread as they were legally allowed to serve him.

 

It was there, in that restaurant, sitting in a little booth in the back corner, that James pulled out the blue orb he'd been holding onto.

 

It was the size of the tip of his index finger. It didn't quite glow in the low light of the diner, but it had a feeling to it that went beyond just the shine of the color. Like it was lit up in James' mind, if not in physicality.

 

He'd been holding onto this one since he'd accidentally torn one of the filing folders on a desk, and the orb had popped out. It had sat forgotten in his pocket for a while. And while he hadn't intentionally kept it out of the loot pile, he did decide that he wanted to try something with it before offering it to Alanna.

He would offer it to Anesh, but he figured that his buddy had already had his fill of problem solving.

 

Okay, that was flimsy justification. But still, he had an idea he wanted to try, and he was worried that Anesh would shoot down his rational on the grounds that they needed to save these kinds of resources for emergencies. And really, he could understand that. Anesh had taken some serious punishment in the dungeon, and wanting to be able to mitigate and *survive* that was reasonable. More than that, it was just smart.

 

But James had an idea.

 

He and Anesh had talked before, partly while his friend was under the influence of painkillers and exhaustion, and then partly later when he was a normal human, about the idea of different uses for the orbs. Simply put, they could be used in different ways. "Cracking" them, as they tended to do, was one way. The dungeon clearly used them in a different way, creating monsters and traps and warped areas of space. It sort of looked like Rufus and Ganesh did a third thing; consuming the orbs as a power source. But James had a suspicion that it was just an extension of the dungeon's use; infusing an orb into something to give it properties.

 

The thing was, while James had never seen Rufus eat a blue, he was pretty sure they could. It would just change them, or perhaps more accurately, power them, in a different way. And while he had never seen them crack orbs, he was almost sure they could. And yes, obviously, a human wasn't a stapler crab, but he didn't see any particular rule that said that he couldn't absorb orbs the same way they did.

 

James was realizing as he thought this out, that it was a pretty long list of assumptions.

 

But he had a feeling in his gut. Like he'd started to form a pattern map of how the orbs worked. This really should have been Anesh's thing, given the skill he'd gotten. Hell, maybe he had already sorted this out. Or maybe James was making illogical leaps, and hoping they worked.

 

His food arrived, and he thanked the guy who brought it over. Had a burst of small talk about the weather and how the day was going. And then, he was left alone, with about a sandwich worth of time to decide if this was a bad idea or not.

 

Well, he figured, mouth full of tangy barbeque sauce and beef, the worst case scenario if it doesn't work at all is that I'll have wasted a blue. The worst case scenario if it works *badly* is that I'll die, I guess.

 

He didn't wait to finish his sandwich. He picked up the orb in one hand, after wiping off barbeque sauce on his paper napkin, and pressed it against his forearm.

 

It didn't break. He didn't want it to, this time. He had a different goal in mind here. He didn't fully expect it to work, but he wanted to see. So he kept pressing, applying a little more pressure. Still nothing happened, though. But he was pushing down well past the point when the orbs normally popped.

 

Taking a short breath, he set the orb to the side. His fingers were sweating a bit, and he didn't really have a plan beyond "see if this would work." But he didn't feel like he'd gotten a solid line on what he felt was the way forward.

 

So he took a couple more bites of food, and thought while he chewed. The orbs, so far, had all been about will. If you wanted to use it, you used it. It barely required any physical contact at all, as Alanna had discovered when she'd started spiking them into nothingness. The only real exception was the first couple they ever picked up, where simple curiosity had done the job. Well, curiosity and a bit of pressure.

 

James rolled the orb around on the table with one finger. He was almost sure this was possible, he just needed to figure out the trick to it.

 

Cracking an orb was a human action. He knew this. Curiosity or will or just plain old luck. Those things got you a skill point, or a problem solved, or a Canadian citizenship. But the dungeon wasn't human.

 

Okay, point of order, James cut himself off. The dungeon probably wasn't even alive. But the things *in* the dungeon weren't human. They worked differently. What were the orbs to them?

 

James picked up the orb again, and tried to think of it in different ways as he pushed it in his fingertips. He stared into the blue, and thought of it as a battery, taking a minute or so of gazing at its surface to change how he considered it. That didn't do anything, though. So he switched over to food. It was pretty easy to think of it as food while he was eating lunch, he found. So he took some time to consider it as a desert, and still nothing.

 

James sighed. This wasn't working. What was the difference, really? Cracking the orbs still felt like they were, well, absorbing them, for lack of a better term. They internalized the skills, they really just took the contents of the orb into themselves. Maybe it was about whether it was intact or not?

 

Trying a few thoughts on that didn't yield any results either.

 

The whole thing was a bit demoralizing. James figured he'd hand off the orb when he got back, and got ready to leave. His lunch had been delicious, but being tainted by the sting of failure wasn't a great seasoning. With one last puff of breath, he went to stand up, and had a single final thought.

 

"Hey, Secret." He muttered, projecting the thoughts at the creature living in his brain. "Give me a hand here, will ya?"

 

He squeezed down on the orb, and felt something from his subconscious reach out and *twist* how he saw it. It couldn't be as simple as a human looking at something from a different human perspective, of course. The trait it took to internalize an orb was something wholly alien from a human. But of course, James wasn't just a human; there were two different things living in his mind.

 

The orb slipped into the palm of his hand.

 

James grinned madly, wanting to punch the air and scream in triumph. Then a wave of pain unlike anything he'd ever felt hit him. It felt like his blood was shattering, and his eyes had turned to glass. The nightmare lasted for a second before the world went white, and he lost consciousness.

 

_____

 

James awoke to an EMT leaning over him, shining a flashlight in his eyes. He tried to bat it away, but found he was strapped down to a gurney. The world around him rocked, and it took a second to realize that it was because he was in an ambulance, and not just completely off balance.

 

"I'm fine, I'm fine." He tried to tell the EMT, but all that came out was a mumble. Clearing his throat, he tried again, and got out a bit more. The medic backed up, and started asking him questions about what he remembered, and James tried to answer as best as he could.

 

But it was a bit difficult when the first thing that flashed through his head when he'd come back was an intruding thought. It felt like it had been waiting politely for him to wake up, and it also sounded quieter somehow. Could an external alien thought feel guilt? James wasn't sure, but it definitely felt like it. Either that, or it would really appreciate it if he didn't do that again.

 

He focused on what it told him, instead of what the EMT was telling him, and it passed off the information before leaving.

 

[+14 Activations - Sublimate Rubber]

 

"Oh. Super." He muttered out loud, thumping his head back on the thin pillow and trying to not let the thought of having to sit in the ER for six hours ruin his night.

 

It had been going so well.

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About the author

argusthecat

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!

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