"I don't know what that word means." Dave said as he watched down the halls of the three way intersection while James poked at the vending machine.
No selection was made, James was just running his fingers down the side, trying to get his brain to more easily accept the non-Euclidean motions while they were passing by a relatively safe example of them. "Oh, it's a weird science term." He told Dave. "It means to turn something from a solid to a gas, without liquefying it."
Dave gave James an alarmed look. "Isn't that super dangerous?" He asked in a shrill tone.
"First of all, keep it down. Second of all; no? I mean, it worked on the maul cart, right? And neither of us exploded."
He was answering Dave's questions currently on his ability that had been acquired by absorbing the blue orb. Ideally, he would have kept it as a small secret, for the infomorph that lived in his mind to feed on. Especially since telling Dave generated the risk of Dave trying to replicate it, and James wasn't exactly sure if he'd wanted to open that can of worms. Best case, Dave wasted some blues. Worst case, he either died, or got superpowers. Or both.
"Okay, fine." Dave sulked as he tracked a flock of fluttering crumpled paper sheets through the holes in the cubicle panels overhead. "So, why do you keep mispronouncing 'mail'?"
"Mail?" James asked in response without thinking about it.
Dave nodded, even though James wasn't looking. "Yeah, you keep saying 'mail cart', but you're sort of slurring the word mail. Is that something I should worry about?"
"Why would you worry about that?" James turned to look at his nominal friend. "Is that really the sort of thing that concerns you?"
Dave got defensive. "I've seen a lot of shows and stuff where weird tics like that are signs of impending doom! Don't pretend you haven't! And you've got an alien *thing* living in your head, so maybe it's a sign of brain damage!"
That was actually a fair point, so James relaxed a bit and told him so. "Oh. No, it's nothing so sinister. I'm trying to say *maul* cart. Like, it mauls us. But then trying to keep the cadence of the word mail, and... look, coming up with dumb names for things is a tradition here." He tried to explain.
Honestly, when he actually said it out loud, it sounded a bit silly to think that they were giving these things weird names like this. If James was going to be honest with himself, then it would probably be more efficient - especially in combat - to have the names be short and snappy. 'Tumblefeed' and 'camraconda' were hilarious to him, but calling them 'ball' and 'snake' would save precious seconds in a fight. Still, though. It was a tradition; something that he and Anesh had shared through their early explorations and fumbling adventures. The silly names were a legacy, and a good reminder of just how surreal this place was at times.
Unable to see James' inner thoughts, Dave just shrugged it off. "Alright, I mean, I guess that's okay if it's what we do. I was just curious." He let out a long breath as he kept his watch on the halls. "Are we going to go anytime soon?"
James dropped his hand down from the vending machine and turned to Dave with some aggressive frustration. He was about to snap at his friend, but then reined himself back. Sighing a bit, he picked up his backpack again and slung it over his shoulder. "Yeah, okay. Break over. Let's get on to the thing, and then head back."
"Yeah, what is this thing anyway?"
"It's a surprise." James told him. Mostly, he'd just wanted to show someone new the Decision Tree, and thought it would make a fun end point for Dave's training run. But now, he had a lump of irritation in his chest; Dave was running his patience out, sure, but also he really did just want to finish this up, and head back, so he could talk to Anesh and Alanna about going through the bathrooms tonight. James knew he was being impatient, but ever since learning that the dungeon had literally erased someone, he was finding it hard to focus on the safe-but-slow approach that they had adopted.
He wanted to rush in. Not sit around wasting time. That wasn't... well, that wasn't heroic.
Of course, James knew that was stupid. The right choice really *was* to play it safe. To be careful, a little methodical, and to make sure they could survive before moving forward.
Because if they died, or the dungeon ate them like it had Sarah, then there really wouldn't be anyone to stumble across the artifacts of their memory this time.
This was what was on James' mind as he led Dave through the halls and corridors formed by the increasingly twisted geometry of the cubicles. They were moving quietly, not talking, and it gave James ample time to let his mind wander.
Every now and then, they would hear a noise, and take cover until they could figure out what it was, or verify it was far enough away to continue. Sometimes, one of them would point into a cube, and they'd take a short break to rest and loot. But since they were trying to move quickly, and avoid too many encounters, they were intentionally only hitting desks that had literally nothing risky near them. It was more than James expected, but far swifter than actually searching everything.
By the time they made it to the cramped turn that led to the open air zone that was their destination, they'd picked up three small yellow orbs, a pound of assorted candy, and about twice that weight in cash. Also, season one, episode three, of some kind of post-singularity sitcom directed by Joss Whedon. James was a little disappointed that the file had been alone, but wasted no time sticking it on one of his USB sticks.
"Okay, so, this is where we start to see arrow traps." James was telling Dave as they approached the carpet shift. "Watch for the line where the carpet changes. It's not the colors, it's the panels of flooring. Also, it's got some kind of electromagnetic trigger, so you need either a person, or a phone, to trip it. I recommend not using your phone."
Dave rolled his eyes. "So, what, we trip it, then run?"
"No, we step over it. It's a line on the floor. Just make sure not to touch it, or we might die." James told him, calmly walking forward and hopping over the line.
Staring after him, Dave hesitated. The line was small, innocuous, and easily avoided, but it scared the hell out of him. "How... how fast do the darts go again?"
James looked back. "Like, I dunno, thirty miles and hour or something? They're not like bullets, but they can go through the armor. Come on, let's go."
Dave hesitated again, before finally shuffling forward, and then stepping over the line in the floor like he was tiptoeing around a nuclear warhead. "I hate this. I really hate this." He muttered as he moved to catch up to his partner. Fortunately for him, James wasn't paying attention, and hadn't noticed his apprehension.
He was moving forward with confidence and an excited energy that Dave hadn't really seen in his friend before. As soon as he stepped out of the corridor, Dave was a bit startled at how quickly the walls fell away. This whole area, maybe five hundred feet across, was like a cavern in the mass of tunnels that was the dungeon. No walls here went above five feet, many not even getting up to that height, and he could easily see across the whole expanse. Some of the cubicles even had frosted glass panes in their sides, making this space feel bright and open and free.
There was a second ceiling here, with holes in it feeding in light from above, and through those holes, support beams that were normally disguised by cubicle walls showed through. Some of them wrapped in tangles of what looked like power cabling.
Overhead, a pair of paper airplanes circled, keeping an eye on the clearing. Lower to the ground than Dave had ever seen any of the fluttering bird-like paper creatures.
But none of that interested James. He was here to see something specific, and so, Dave followed after him, still keeping alert. There were far more striders visible here, moving up and over the walls of the cubes. But none of them made any aggressive moves, so Dave just kept an eye on them and followed on.
And then his party member stopped in at one of the cubicles. "Here." Was all he said, moving in without checking. It was one of the cubicles with the tangled up support beams, and Dave entered cautiously. He ducked his head to avoid a strider 'web' and stepped inside.
"Okay, so, what's...?" Dave trailed off as he looked up. The hole in the ceiling made it hard to spot from any angle but this one, which was why James probably hadn't pointed it out earlier.
Above them, stretching out and casting down the glow that permeated through the hole in the ceiling, was a massive tangle of black cables. Unfolding flowers of LCD screen tilted down toward them, showing dancing colored screensavers. Small lizard-things that looked like they had scales made of shards of those same screens skittered along the branches of the twisted and bound cabling. The whole thing was massive, imposing, and majestic.
"Oh. Huh. That's cool." Dave said.
James, sitting in one of the chairs and staring up, trying to get a monitor lizard to climb onto his outstretched hand, looked down at Dave. "That's cool? That's it? You see a tree that grows computer monitors from cables and fluorescent lights, and all you can say is 'that's cool'? I'm a bit offended!"
Dave moved into the cube, still looking up despite his lack of reaction. "Well, how am I supposed to react, then?" He asked a bit bitterly.
The tree answered his rhetorical question. Monitors flickered to life, colors and light splashing together to form words and phrases. "Awe" said one of the screens. "Wonder" another told him. Smaller ones came to life with "fear" "worship" "panic" "flight" "a little appreciation" and "heart attack?". That last one was in smaller letters, and for some reason was a question.
"Okay, that's pretty cool." Dave said, nodding. "So, why are we here?" He wasn't upset, but it had felt like James was a little more excited about this than was strictly required.
James leaned back again, now trying to entice the lizard that was crouched on the trunk of the tree into his palm with one of the yellow orbs. "I was going to ask the tree a question." He said. Dave gave him a blank look, that quickly turned into one of frustration at the lack of explanation. "Okay, okay. So, everything in here seems like it feeds off the orbs to stay alive. But for the tree, that doesn't make sense, right? It's not hostile, and the lizards on it all seem totally fine. So, Anesh and I were talking about where it got its life source from; what it ate, basically."
"And?" Dave prompted, trying to get this to go faster.
"Well, we're pretty sure it works kind of like a plant. It absorbs light from the fluorescents overhead, it takes 'nutrients' through its 'roots', that sorta thing."
Dave may have been a bit apathetic about the whole tree thing, but he was still smart enough to see the problem there. "There's no way that's enough to support this. Also, what roots?"
"Well, the power cables, and when I say nutrients I mean electricity." James explained, before agreeing. "But still, you're right. So, while we were trying to decide how it worked as a life form, Alanna pointed out that a much more practical issue was what powered it from our point of view. As in, could it produce orbs as maybe a kind of 'fruit'."
"And?" Dave asked again, feeling like he wasn't really part of this conversation.
James shrugged. "And now we're here, and I was just going to ask?"
"Ask what?" Dave said to him. And overhead, the screens lit up again.
"Food source" one cluster said, while another batch of them said variations on "gifts" or "bounty". A single small one in the corner offered up "secret to happiness", which made James smile when he saw it.
But, ultimately, he knew what he wanted to ask already. "That one." He pointed up. "Hey tree! What kind of orbs do you produce?" James called up at the construct.
Dave shook his head at his friend's antics. It was almost embarrassing. No matter what the monitors said, it was just a plant. A dungeon plant, sure, but...
His shoulders slumped and James let out a smug laugh as one of the monitor lizards paused for a second, and then scurried into one of the larger screen lotuses. A second later, it emerged, holding up a tiny, brilliantly shining purple dot.
"I knew it!" James half-yelled, while Dave headbutted his fist. "It editorializes too much to not be sentient!" As he jumped up and pumped his fist in the air, the lizard skittered away carrying the orb.
"Okay, so, it actually really hurts to see you be right about this." Dave said, not actually angry, but a little irritated that once again, James had been right about something stupid. "But how does that even work?"
James stroked his chin while he thought. "Well, it clearly 'eats' from the sources we talked about. Maybe it refines them into the purple orbs, somehow? And then the lizards... eat those? Process them into yellows, that then go back to the tree? Hm. Okay, the ecosystem doesn't line up quite right. But the point is..."
"The point is you were right. Okay, so, now what? And I'm not asking the tree this time." Dave shot that last sentence upward at the monitors that had already started displaying options.
The response was a shrug from James. "I mean, I don't want to fight a swarm of moving monitor shard and also a whole tree. So, I was planning on asking nicely if we could have a few. Maybe offer to trade for them?" Overhead, one of the monitors blinked as its suggestion was taken unknowingly.
"Trade what?" Dave inquired.
"Well, we've got a few yellows. Hey, tree!" James called up, fishing around in his pocket. "It's not a whole lot, but we'll give you these for a couple of yours!"
Dave sighed. "Now, there's no way... no, you know what? I'm not going to doubt it anymore. That's only making me look bad. Go ahead, go treat the magical lightning tree like it's a vending machine." He stepped back, shoving his hands into his pockets in annoyance.
His hedging of bets was rewarded a minute later, when a couple of the monitor lizards came down the side of the trunk, gripping slivers of bright purple in their spikey mouths. They waited at about head height, while a small horde of unburdened lizards, their crystal scales shimmering, scampered down toward James' outreached hand.
Almost daintily, ladylike, one of them unfolded itself off the black plastic shell of the trunk, and with tiny forelegs, plucked the first yellow orb out of James' plam. Placing it in its mouth, it curled back up, planted it's claws back on the tree, and with the lightest of tapping noises, was back up into the branches. The others followed suit, plucking away the orbs James offered, and running away as if afraid he was going to try to catch them in his hands. After all the yellows were taken, the two remaining held out the purple orbs his way, and James smiled as he took them in his fingers.
"Well, thank you." He said, as much to the lizards themselves as to the tree. "Alright, Dave. Now we can head back, and maybe see if we have an ice pack or something for all the bruises."
"Thanks." Dave said, glad that James actually did seem to care about his own feelings. "I'm not trying to be a downer or anything, just, well, even after this, I don't know if I'm cut out to be here." He confided, trying to open up to James a bit.
"Hey, it's alright." James reassured him. "We're not a cult. You can leave whenever you want. Anyway, let's get going. I'll bet you a hundred bucks we've got a better haul than Anesh's squad did." They walked out of the cube, Dave taking the lead and almost unconsciously dropping back into his high alert mode. Before they turned back to the path to Fort Door, though, James turned around one last time. "Pleasure doing business with you." He said to the tree, with a small bow.
Had he stuck around, he might have seen the "You as well" lit up in the branches.
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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!