Alanna's first instinct was to reach for the phone. It was a corded desk phone, the kind of thing that really only existed in offices these days. Greyish black, cheap plastic that was functional enough but would probably give under one good crowbarring. And it was also currently ringing, which was disturbing, to say the least.
The noise was clearly digital, a warbling two-tone beep that was soft enough to not wake James, who punctuated its noise with mild snoring. When it had started ringing, Alanna had found her hand reaching for it without thinking; after all, she'd just gotten a note telling her to answer the phone, and it took a second for her brain to catch up. Because she wasn't in reality, manning the front desk at the garage, she was in the Office.
And here in the Office, answering a ringing phone seemed like a really fucking stupid idea.
The phone rang again, and Alanna pulled her hand back. This seemed like a pretty obvious trap, but something in her brain nagged her forward. Something was different, something had changed. The dungeon didn't ask nicely when it tried to kill them; it usually just launched tumblefeeds at them or detonated a Starbucks cup. It didn't leave notes and make phone calls. Or did it? They were deeper than they'd ever been. This really could be something that would replace her brain with jam if she listened to it.
Hell, the ringing itself could be doing the jam thing right now.
The phone rang again. Alanna glared at it.
The smart play was obvious. Don't answer the phone. It wasn't complicated, it was just frustrating, because Alanna was really, *really* curious, and wanted to answer the phone. It didn't even feel like a mental compulsion; though then again, if it was, how would she know. Alanna just wanted to pick up the receiver and see what the hell could possibly be on the other end.
One more ring. Under the desk, James rolled over into the cubicle wall, pulling his coat around him. "Answer the damn phone." He muttered, still asleep.
Alanna sighed, taking a look back at the note. 'Answer the phone', it said. Nothing else. "If this kills me, I'm blaming you." She said as she reached out. Maybe she was just trying to convince herself, but Alanna's main thought was that if this was a trap, she'd have at least some kind of human instinct to avoid it, instead of casual curiosity.
She picked up the receiver. But just to be safe, didn't bring it to her ear, and pushed the 'speakerphone' button instead. "Hello?" She asked politely.
The voice that came out of the other end was scratchy and artificial, but clearly female. It sounded young. Or rather, it sounded like it was trying to sound young. "Please don't do it." It said.
Well, her eyes, brain, or limbs didn't instantly turn to jam, so this was a good start. But that left a big question. "Do what?" Alanna asked without thinking.
"Please don't kill my brother." The phone said, pleadingly.
Personally, Alanna hadn't been planning to kill anyone, so this request came as a bit of surprise. "I don't..." She started to say, then stopped. Was engaging with this thing really the right call here? Was this even a person, or an intelligence at all? Or just a sophisticated chat bot? "Who is this?" Alanna suddenly felt like cackling with laughter as she realized she was playing out horror movie tropes. But she held it in to hear the response.
James had stopped his snoring, and was crawling out from under the desk as the voice on the other end of the phone responded. "I don't have a name." It answered, the child's voice still slightly distorted. "Please don't..."
James gave Alanna a questioning look as his brain caught up with what was going on. "Don't what?" He mouthed at her. Then, "what?" mouthed again, a general question to what the hell was happening.
She shrugged in response, and then asked into the phone, "Can you tell me who your brother is?" It seemed like the obvious question. If the thing on the other end that sounded like a kid was so worried about its brother, it was the least Alanna could do to ask after it.
"I don't have much time." The phone told them.
James whispered, before it could say more, "this is the woooorrrst idea."
The voice on the other end carried on like it hadn't heard him. "Much can't be explained."
"Obviously." James and Alanna said in unison, voices dripping sarcasm.
There was a crackle of static, and the voice shifted back and forth between multiple tones, all of them still young and tilted toward female, as it spoke again. "You are standing in a scrapyard." "You crawl upon an empty hull." "You are a poison of the fuel." "You perpetrate a madness beyond the great wheel." And then, the voices all realigned. "You must leave. Please. Take them with you, and go. Please don't kill my brother."
"Shit." James muttered, taking a few steps back.
Alanna looked over at him. "What?" She asked, even as she turned her head back toward the phone on the desk. "None of that made sense."
"Hang up. Hang up the phone!" James almost yelled, and Alanna saw a pale blue snake with too many mouths and eyes start to wrap its way around his arm; Secret, manifesting himself visibly. Secret had told James that it was easier here, but hadn't been able to explain why, and right now, it wasn't the time to worry about it. Alanna didn't hesitate this time, grabbing the headset and slamming it back into the cradle, clicking the call off.
"Please. You need to listen to me." The phone said.
"Fuck! Nope! No, no, not dealing with that!" Alanna yanked the phone off the desk, the cords trailing behind it easily as they had never been plugged into anything. She threw it to the floor, and brought a booted heel down onto the plastic, shattering it after a couple good stomps. "Fuckinnnng... haunted phone. Yeah." She sighed as she looked up at James, but tensed back up as she saw him still on guard, Secret wrapped around his shoulders and whipping his serpentine head around them. "That didn't work?" She asked, stepping back from the phone.
"Something's still wrong..." James muttered.
Over his head, Secret hissed out in his unnervingly deep voice, "The connection is held open. Something is coming."
Alanna kicked the phone away, the shattered plastic scattering under the desk and against the back wall of their camp cubicle, before stepping back to stand shoulder to shoulder with James. She shivered a little as Secret draped himself over her shoulders as well, coiling himself around her once to peer toward the phone. Secret was still getting used to the idea of physically observing things, and at any other time, it would have amused both Alanna and James how he seemed almost reverently curious about the concept of looking at something.
They stood there for a long, tense, held breath. But there was only silence.
Alanna opened her mouth to ask if something was going to happen, but James pushed a finger against her lips to silence her before she could get the words out. She almost laughed; of course James would actually believe that trope. But then again, could she blame him? They were in a world that did seem to play by the rules of narrative sometimes. And when the lines were fuzzy like that, maybe it was better not to say out loud 'I guess everything is fine'.
All three of them waited in a hard silence, no one speaking or even breathing too heavily. That last trick wasn't much trouble for Secret, but James had been woken up with something that started off as trouble, and escalated from there, so he was already doing some mental work to regulate his breath. Alanna had spent the last hour or so being constantly surprised and caught off guard, so she was mostly getting used to the constant adrenaline spikes, and while the bitter taste of the chemical hadn't left her mouth, she felt ready for whatever was about to happen.
But a minute passed, and then another one, and nothing happened.
Both of them started to speak up at once, but James paused and let Alanna carry the conversation. "So... can I say it now?"
"Go for it."
James tilted his head and cast his eyes up to Secret, raised over their heads. "Is it still open?" He asked.
"No." The infomorph rumbled. "I felt nothing as it passed."
"Worrying." James growled. "Okay, let's..."
He was interrupted by Dave sliding into view, followed by Daniel and Theo. "Hey. Did you two get a phone call?"
"Ah, fuck." James and Alanna spoke in unison, giving small grins to each other as they faced Dave. James carried on, a bit irritated, "Did you answer a phone, Dave?"
Dave was cut off as Theo came into view behind him. "What the fuck is *that*, she screamed out, voice rising to a frantic pitch as she backpedaled into Daniel, sending both of them falling back into the cube wall behind them.
Dave didn't even bother really answering her. "No time for that nonsense. James, Daniel picked up the phone before he knew that it was a bad idea. Something on the other end told him not to kill someone, and..."
"It's the dungeon." Alanna said calmly.
"Wat." James glanced at her.
"I figured it out just now. I think, anyway. She's talking about this place." Alanna's brain started making connections. "Her 'brother' is the dungeon. She's describing us being here, in this place." She turned and made eye contact with James, her words soft and heavy. "'We are standing in a scrapyard', she said. We're here, inside her brother. Fuck. Fuck!"
Dave stepped in, after dragging Daniel to his feet and pulling him along. "So what? Were we going to try to kill a world anyway?"
"Yes." James said flatly, frowning at the wreckage of the phone. "It's kidnapping people. Killing people. Spreading out into our world."
"No." Alanna answered, baring her teeth. "No, we're not. You don't fill in the Grand Canyon just because some people fall in."
James looked at her with a feeling of betrayal written on his face. Plowing over Daniel's raised hand and quiet "um", he snapped back, "It's not an accident that people are falling in here! This place recruited Frank! Who knows who else it has on payroll! It's hunting, not just waiting patiently for people to slip up! And it sent goons out into our world, too!"
"Frank shoved us in here." Theo tried to interject, but they weren't listening.
"I admit, the leaks are a problem. But we can deal with that! We can't just... throw this away, James! Look at this place!" Alanna's voice strengthened as she spoke.
James threw his arm out toward the window. "I have looked at this place! It's cool, sure, but it's also trying to kill us at every turn! You've spent an hour tracking something that only moves when you're not focusing on it, and is probably going to try to kill us later! That's literally a Doctor Who monster! And you think this is worth sparing?"
She took a deep breath, trying not to be angry at her friend and love. "I know... I know you want to do the right thing. But this place... it's given us so much. The rewards it offers are too much. They give us too many options to change the world. *Really* change the world. We can't just give it up like that."
"You think I don't know that?" James said, looking hurt. "I've been using these delves to stay out of poverty! I..."
Alanna jumped in while he tried to find the words to go on. "It's not just that. James, what was your life like just three fucking months ago? You got up, went to work, then went home and played video games. Every week, you played D&D or something. That was it. That was your whole *life*. What do you do now? You train, you exercise, you go to random classes and *learn things*! You come home and cook dinner for all of us, while you and Anesh get into weirdly heated arguments about metaphysical boundaries! How can you want this place dead..." She choked over her words as they caught in her throat. "How can you want it dead when it's what's making you alive?"
"How can you, of all people, prioritize me over everyone else?" James whispered back at her. "Fuck, *I* don't even do that, and some days, I really don't care that much for the rest of humanity."
The two of them stood there, glaring at each other, neither of them able to find a single word left to say. The silence driving a wall between them, until Dave shattered it.
"So, did you want to know what was up with Daniel?" He said, quietly interrupting their argument. Both of them turned their cold stares toward Dave, as if seeking to wither him out of the discussion. But if there was one thing that Dave had on his side, it was a complete and total shield of obliviousness to dramatic tension. "Because it's mildly relevant to this." He gestured behind him to where Daniel was picking at the frayed end of a shirt sleeve, while Theo sat out beyond their door hole trying desperately to not get dragged into the argument.
James sighed, and Alanna let out a chuckle. "Okay," she said, "we'll table this one for now. Not like we know how to kill a dimension anyway."
"Though apparently we *can*, if someone bothered telling us not to." James muttered, shoving his hands into his pockets.
"Good for the ego, isn't it?"
Dave pinged a small yellow orb off of Alanna's head, causing her to stutter and wave her arms in front of her face at the mosquito sting before catching the small ball. "Stop quipping please." He said, and it was Secret of all people who laughed. A great big bellowing thing that somehow made no more noise than a summer breeze. "Daniel was given a map when he was talking on the phone. And if the labels are accurate, it's telling us where there's other people in here."
"...Okay, why?" James asked, suspicious.
Alanna nodded, walking back over to the window and picking up the binoculars as she did so, scanning the outside to make sure nothing had heard them and was on the way up. Just as she started looking, she spotted that damn shadow shape flicker around a corner again. "Dammit." She swore, but then turned her attention back to the group. "Actually, not just why. Though yes, James, good question. Always ask why. But really, how'd it get a map through the phone? Or did you guys get a fax?"
"No, it put it into my head." Daniel said, sheepishly. "It's like I memorized it. It's kinda cool, though not like how the orb Dave gave me worked."
"Aw, you gave him one? I wanted to be there for that." James whined playfully.
Dave walked past him to the window with Alanna. "Pay attention. The voice on the phone wanted us to know where other people were. What did it say to you?"
Secret answered, pooling on the floor around James' feet and raising itself up to half of Dave's height to look at him. "It spoke of madness and poison. I believe it was using metaphor, though."
"Dave, why's there a snake?" Daniel's voice quaked as he pressed himself back into the wall.
Dave ignored him, though James sighed and started explaining Secret to Daniel, again, while Dave and Alanna spoke. "So, you used speakerphone? Maybe that's why you didn't get a map." Dave thought out loud.
"Yeah, Secret did say something was trying to come through. Maybe this is just a really weak infomorph, living in Daniel's head now."
"Could be a problem."
"Everything is a problem. That thing out there is a problem. Our time limit is a problem. Do we trust the map? If so, it's a problem with more problems attached when we rescue the people. And you fucking know James is gonna make us."
"'Make us'" Dave made air quote around the words.
"Whatever." Alanna grinned.
Dave smiled back, then shifted back to a frown as some words caught in his head. "What thing out there?"
With a sigh, Alanna shuffled over to offer him a seat at the window, and pointed out. "Every time I look away, it's there. It keeps getting closer, staying hidden. It's low to the ground, black, kinda hard to see. I haven't been able to tell where it's going, or what it is." She raised the binoculars back to her face.
"Hey, where did you get those?"
"The binoculars. We didn't pack any." Dave reminded her.
Alanna looked at the optics in her hand, then back up at his deliberately-not-smug face. Then back down again, eyes widening. "Oh, for fucks sake!" She smashed them down on the sill, shattering one of the lenses, then applied pressure until the middle bent just enough that the whole thing boiled away, leaving only a small blue orb. "This fucking place." She muttered to herself, as Dave really tried not to grin.
Standing up, Dave headed back over to where James and Daniel were debating the reality of the map. Though the answer wasn't really in question for him.
Because when Dave looked at his friend these days, he wasn't seeing a random twenty-something nerd that he'd met through an acquaintance and a D&D game. He was seeing someone he trusted, someone he could rely on. He was looking at a person worth living up to.
James was going to direct them to the point on the map, even if it cost them time. He was going to bring Daniel and Theo into this, teach them how to delve - and he'd already had Dave working on getting Daniel into it - and teach them how to fight. Alanna would argue, but in the end, she'd do what was right too; because for all that she wanted to be pragmatic, she was just like James. Someone who *cared*.
And Dave? Well, Dave would be there when they got done rationalizing it. He'd have the bags packed, and his armor on, and he'd smile when James asked him to take rearguard so they could screen for anything Daniel and Theo couldn't handle.
Because this place was starting to make sense to him, he mused to himself, as he idly rolled one of the dozen small orbs they'd collected here between his fingers. And before he started his work, he cracked it, just out of mild curiosity.
[+1 Skill Rank : Law - Protocol - Civil Proceedings]
He smiled again. No objections, your honor.
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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!