The first thing James did after stepping off the airplane was to almost trip over a child. The *second* thing he did, sore, ears filled with the muffled sound of rushing water, tired, and absolutely prepared to just kick the next toddler that ambled in front of his path, was to make his way to the baggage claim.
And when he and Alanna got there, the third thing he did was to forget everything awful about that flight, break into a grin, and give Anesh a crushing bear hug when he spotted his boyfriend in the crowd.
And for just a moment, there was no press of humans around them, no impatiently waiting for luggage to be dispensed, no airport PA system telling him to be on the lookout for unattended luggage or suspicious behavior; there was just the warm feeling of dry skin against his own, and a pair of arms returning the hug as best as was possible when someone was being smothered.
Out of the corner of his eye, James saw Alanna giving a similar, if slightly larger, hug to another iteration of Anesh, and he smiled. A real smile, this time, that came naturally and without thought or question.
“Oooooh fuck, it’s good to see you again.” James rumbled.
“Arrgmuph!” Anesh agreed. Or, well, probably agreed. It was hard to tell what exactly the tone was when he was pressed against James. With lips pressed in a small guilty smile, James released him from the crushing hug, and let Anesh catch his breath. “Yes, good to see you too. Glad to be home?” Anesh asked him after some theatrical panting to recover his breath.
James nodded empathically. “Unbelievably.” He said. “Let’s get our luggage and get the hell out of here. You brought my car?”
“I did. Did you know this place charges more than Heathrow for parking?” Anesh asked with a thin veneer of curiosity.
“I did not need to know that!” James cheerfully replied. “Alanna. Alanna, please, let Other Anesh go, we only have so many backups.”
Alanna laughed, and released her Anesh, letting him drop a couple inches back to his feet as she did so. “Sorry, sorry. Hey, is it really okay for both of you to be here?” She asked them, suddenly realizing how weird it might seem to the average person.
Anesh shrugged, and Anesh mirrored the gesture. “It’s probably fine.” One of them said. “Everyone’s just going to assume we’re twins anyway.” The other continued.
“How the hell do you decide who talks first?” James asked as he scanned the luggage conveyor for any sign of his bag, and also any sign for a break in the wall of people. The flight back had been packed, and the baggage claim wasn’t any easier to navigate for it.
“We pick one of us to be first every time we resync.” Anesh said. “And then that one goes first every time, and we alternate on sentences.” Anesh continued. “It’s surprisingly easy to get used to, when you know what’s being said anyway.” First Anesh finished.
James pressed his eyes shut, and rubbed at his forehead. “Oh wow, it’s like listening to you in stereo. How did I not not get to experience this before?”
“One of us was always in class, and you two went hunting after a few days.” Aneshs shrugged. “So you only really saw one of us at a time, except…ahem.” Both Aneshs blushed a bit as the second one let the sentence trail.
“Except when we were *not talking*.” Alanna leaned in and winked at James.
James felt his air travel headache escalate. “You guys are on two completely opposite ends of the innuendo spectrum, and somehow can’t just say *sex*.” He muttered, his voice swallowed up by the crowd around them. “Okay!” He opted to say out loud. “I see one of my bags, let’s grab that and get out of here before Secret gets mad!”
“Where is Secret, anyway?” Anesh asked. “We don’t see him on you, and normally that’s where he sits.” An Anesh commented.
At that question, James had the good grace to look sheepish. “Well, I did tell you he’s been spending more time physical, yes? And it turns out that the more time he spends solid, the more people can start to see him. And he can’t just swap back and forth between what body style he’s using, and we couldn’t reschedule our flight last minute, so…”
“So?” Both Aneshs prompted.
“So he’s in the luggage.” Alanna dryly answered. “We should really grab that duffle bag before he decides he’s done waiting for us.”
“I am not a piece of baggage!” Secret insisted loudly from the tubular duffel bag he was currently sitting in as James carried him up the stairs to the apartment.
“For someone who’s not baggage, you sure do weigh a fucking ton.” James muttered, his aching shoulders still sore from being seated in either a car or an airplane for most of the last week.
At the front door, James stopped to pet a welsh corgi and tell it that it was a very good doggo, while Anesh slipped behind him and propped the door open so that Alanna and Anesh could carry the other bags inside. As the dog bounded away, fuzzy tail shaking in satisfaction, James turned and followed them in.
The living room was an absolute mess. This, on its own, didn’t honestly surprise James. Five humans in six bodies lived here, along with three fabrimorphs, and one particularly sturdy white shepard that was one of the most well behaved dogs James had ever met, even if it did seem to have developed a taste for cardboard. And at the best of times, none of the humans were that interested in clearing off the massive table that they all used for meals, games of D&D, and as a storage spot for whatever they needed to set down in the moment. And ultimately, this was only a three bedroom apartment, even if one bedroom *did* have an extra closet that shouldn't fit inside the building, and was also occupied by over half of the population of the structure.
Still, that didn’t explain why most of the non-couch seating had been rotated around to be in the way of anyone walking through the door. Nor did it cover the reason that one of James’ bookshelves had been rotated over to be against the wall by the kitchen - a terrible place to store anything that was susceptible to damage by rogue food.
No, those things were explained less by their overcrowding problem, and more by the massive whiteboard, and pair of cork panels, that now sat across the back wall, covering most of the sliding glass door to the patio, and firmly blocking access to the fireplace.
It looked like a conspiracy theory gone awry. Scribbled notes in different colors of pens, dozens of photographs and news clippings tacked up, grouped together, and connected by lines of red string. The original Wikipedia; going down any one rabbit hole was sure to cost you an entire afternoon on a madman’s board like this one.
“What.” James asked, tone flat. “In the hell. Is… all this. All of it. Also, hey JP. Why are you here?” He looked down at the feeling of something thudding into his ankle, and saw a certain red and black stapler looking back up at him from one slitted central eye, pen legs making scratching noises on the strip of hardwood floor. “Aw, hey Rufus! I missed you too!”
“I’ve got a lot to keep track of.” The Anesh behind him muttered guiltily, while the one farther down the hall yelled it back with the same level of guilt in his voice, just a bit louder.
“Hey James.” JP said from the couch. “I’m just hanging out. Anesh wants my help trying to find a dungeon he thinks might actually be online later, but until then, I’m just working on this Shadowrun character. Did you know your rulebook is falling apart?”
James dropped his luggage and almost let it hit the floor before remembering Secret was inside it and catching it, lowering it the last foot or so and unzipping it to let the multi-eyed, multi-fanged concept of a secret inside drift out and lazily float over to his place on the couch with practiced flicks of his tail in the air, where he curled up next to JP. “Yeah.” James replied smoothly, as if this were normal. “I took out all the sample characters when they started falling out, and then figured that as long as pages weren’t going to stay in, I’d sort them in order of use for character creation. If you’re wondering where the skills are, they’re after the bit on starting points for mages.”
“I was not wondering that, but thank you.” JP bobbed his head. “I was more wondering why some of these pages look… different.”
“The rules for hacking are stupid and I fixed them.” James betrayed no emotion as he answered. Then pivoted back to a more human tone. “Also, what’s this about an internet dungeon?”
JP just leaned back and tapped the mess of lines and details behind his head. “Ask Anesh, I just work here.”
“Oh. Cool. I actually wasn’t sure if you were still part of the team; I haven’t seen you in weeks.”
“Well, you've been on the road. And I’ve been driving Dave around every day, since he’s taking care of Pendragon now, and still trying to keep a normal day job.” JP didn’t get defensive. He was a remarkably calm guy; where some people might see a personal attack or an angry comment, he just found a question to answer, politely and accurately, with a smile on his face. It was what made it so easy to get along with him. It was also why James didn’t bother getting mad at him when he hadn’t wanted to go on the rescue delve with himself and Alanna. He knew JP was just being true to himself, and blaming him for it wouldn’t accomplish anything, even if it did sting a bit.
“Dave does have a great job, though.” Alanna said, coming back out of their shared room with a fresh tshirt on her torso and Ganesh on her shoulder. “Where’s Anesh?” She asked, maneuvering through misplaced furniture to climb into the most comfy chair at the head of the table, reaching out a bare foot to poke at Secret’s tail.
“Bathroom.” Answered James’ sister, Kayle, walking into the living room like she owned the place.
“What about the other Anesh?” James asked, at this point more or less having fully accepted that his sister was apprised of everything that was going on around here, as long as she was using his couch as a bed.
“Also bathroom. They’re the same person, bro, I dunno why you think they’d drink different amounts” She rolled her eyes at him, a gesture that actually did manage to cause a burst of anger in the back of James’ head. Sure, she’d helped Anesh save his life a month ago, but ultimately, his sister was still an enormous pain in the ass to him, with a lifetime of petty annoyances in his memory to remind him just how much he disliked spending time with her.
And she’d been staying here for almost a month now. Well more than enough time for him to get sick of her presence.
“Why are you still here, anyway?” James asked, as non-bitter as possible.
It didn’t work, and his sister sneered at him. “Mom and dad are still on vacation. They decided to go to *Arizona*.” Kayle inflicted the word like she was talking about a sewage treatment plant. “So I’m here for another week, with all the insane stuff you do.”
James tried to divert away from her hostility. “Arizona? That’s cool, we were just there. Maybe we crossed paths?” He glanced at Alanna, who gave a friendly shrug.
“Bet they’re checking out the Grand Canyon. Oh man, what if there’s a dungeon in the Grand Canyon?” Alanna commented.
Kayle sighed in that way only a teenager could; when the adults in the room were being boring. It never ceased to amaze James just how quickly she’d come to terms with the existential threat to humanity, and then turned it in her head into something boring that wasn’t her problem. He’d suspect a hostile infomorph at work, if he hadn’t had verification from Secret that such wasn’t the case, and if he didn’t know his sister was just the kind of person who didn’t… care. Not really. Not in a way that he could empathize with. “Well, whatever.” She announced to them. “I’m going out.”
“Have a good afternoon.” JP politely said, while Alanna went with a hearty “See ya!”, matched by Secret’s “Fare you well.” And James settled on “Dressed like *that*?”
She paused at the door, sliding sandals onto her feet. “What’s wrong with *this*?” She gestured to her jean shorts and tank top, mockingly matching James’ tone.
“Nothing.” James said, trying and failing to position himself out of the way without falling over badly placed chairs. “I just like giving you a hard time.”
With a huff, she slammed the door behind herself.
There was a long breath of silence as everyone watched the door. For some with eyebrows-raised amusement, and for others with concern that she might come back.
Eventually, Alanna spoke. “Well *that* was fuckin awkward!”
James laughed, and JP joined him, as did both Anesh’s coming down the hall. “Okay, so, hey, Anesh. Before I relax and take the world’s longest shower, JP said something about a wikipedia dungeon? What’s up with that?”
"Wait, he found a Wiki-dungeon?" Alanna interjected, carelessly leaning half her upper body over the back of the chair, balancing with both hands upside down on the seat of a less plush, more wooden, seat behind her throne. "Like, a dungeon inside wikipedia?"
Anesh sighed, and started to answer, but James cut him off. "No, that would be silly."
"Really? More silly than..." Alanna gestured around at the maybe-copy of Anesh, at Rufus trying to make himself a cup of coffee, and at just generally everything else in the apartment.
James sniffed. "Sillier, then."
"I found a dungeon that..." Anesh didn't get far in that sentence before Alanna spoke up.
"So, like, you find it through certain links at certain times of day, right? Like, you have to go from the page for Cheshire County, England, to the page for trains, to the page for the history of obsessive behavior, all at twelve-oh-six in the afternoon?"
"Okay, I can see it." James said. "And then you get into this sorta back-hallways part of wikipedia? So, like, there'd be even weirder random articles that distort the farther 'in' you get, you can only travel via links. Threats?"
"Memes, right? But, like, the cognitohazard kind. Things that make you black out or forget your eleventh birthday if you see them. Or just kill you, maybe." Alanna shrugged. "Maybe other digital ones, too, like just straight up viruses. Virii. Or maybe certain words are traps and try to eat your mouse cursor!"
JP didn’t miss his chance to contribute either. “What if the loot drops are edit privileges? Maybe you could lock actual wiki pages for X amount of time or something. That’s probably a power none of us should have.”
"This would make a fun game." James stated, draping himself back over the couch. "We should make this."
"Can I finish?" Anesh asked, half growling.
James and Alanna looked over at him as if surprised he was still putting up with them. "Oh! Right! How do we get into wikipedia again?"
He sighed, but with a smile on his faces. "Okay..." Both Aneshes rubbed at each others shoulders, a gesture that made James suddenly realize just *how* convenient it would be to have an extra body that was fully equipped with the knowledge of exactly how tense your friends made you. “It’s not even close to anything you wanks said. I think.”
“You think?” Alanna quizzed.
JP slid a folder across the table to her by way of explanation. “Running theory is that it’s a hostile chain of links on wikipedia that eats people.”
“That’s *kind of* like what I said.” James rebutted, leaning on the breakfast counter and coming to the new realization that he still hadn’t taken his shoes off. “How did you find this alleged dungeon? I mean, not that I’m… okay, this is gonna sound dickish, but none of the eight places we checked out panned out. Why this one?”
“To be fair, and in your own words, it’s more likely that we just couldn’t find the entrances than that they weren’t there.” Alanna pointed out. “But I’m also curious how you found this.”
Anesh shrugged, not sure how to explain the tenuous chain of coincidences and logical leaps that he’d put together to form a rough outline of this picture. Thankfully, he had JP for that. “It’s that skill of his.” Their friend exposited. “Pattern recognition, it turns out, is very useful, especially when we have fifty people to serve as examples.”
“Examples?” James asked. “Fuck, I know we haven’t been talking much while we’ve been on the road, but I feel out of the loop. Can we please get a Discord or a Slack or something?”
The decision to keep things mostly on paper had been an early one. Hell, it’d been James own insistence that they limit use of their smartphones when it came to recording dungeon stuff, or even keeping notes. It was why JP was handing Alanna a folder full of paper, and it was also why at least one Anesh had seen fit to reorganize their very limited living room space to make room for whiteboards instead of a more stable TV stand or something.
Fundamentally, none of them trusted the dungeon. Or whatever wireless carrier they were using.
Honestly, as far as James knew these days, any government mass surveillance that might have caught onto their bullshit was either not real, or defeated by the baffles that were the antimemetic defense grids that the dungeon employed. The real problem that had emerged was that now he *knew* that things in the dungeon could mess with electronics, like monster-Karen constantly screwing with their radios. It was a looooong jump from radio to an iPhone, but considering the dungeon had actual sentient iPhones, it probably wasn’t so far that any of them wanted to risk it.
Still, the line at which healthy paranoia started being too inconvenient was approaching fast.
“The examples are the survivors.” The Anesh in slightly green shorts said. White shorts Anesh picked up the thread of conversation without a pause, adding “It’s the specific way that the office tried to erase them from reality.” “There’s kind of a weird… I guess we’d call it a rough edge?” The Aneshes shared a glance and a nod. “It’s a hard end to documentation, just a bloody big hole in the world.” “The dungeon wasn’t really that precise.” “It left a crater of information, and the size and shape of the crater is...recognizable.”
James made a strangled noise in the back of his throat. “It is… really hard to keep up with you talking in stereo.”
“You get used to it.” JP reassured him in an absolutely nonreassuring voice.
“Okay, so, that’s how you find stuff like this?” James asked, legitimately curious. He saw Alanna roll over in the chair, paying real attention now and not just playing off her casual lounging as a nap. “You look for… what, places where police investigations start and then vanish?”
“Basically.” Anesh said. “Police records are hard to actually get ahold of, and we don’t know anyone in the service that we can talk to for it. Also, houses that are long term empty and not for sale. Businesses with constant hiring advertisements but no turnover. That sorta thing.” He graciously spoke with one voice to be nice to James. “It also helps that Secret’s back. I’ve been wanting to talk to him about his, for lack of a better term, vegan habits.”
James eyed Anesh suspiciously. “I’m going to have questions if you tell me that my snake-son only eats artisanal, free range memories.”
“What, like that one?” Alanna snarked at him.
“No no, because he… doesn’t eat memories. He sort of skims off the top. Secrets, catharsis, dreams. I suppose we couldn’t prove it if Secret was taking a whole hell of a lot more from us, but I trust him, and it seems like he’s not actually consuming anything.” Anesh explained.
Alanna raised her hand. “Question! What about the actual meat Secret eats? Does that make him not vegan?”
“The what now?” JP looked down at the leviathan on couch next to him, and tried to scoot a few inches away as inconspicuously as possible.
“He eats burgers.” James explained. “He says that he can truly savor them.”
“Fast food burgers?” Anesh asked, eyebrows raised.
James bit his lower lip, showing off teeth in a worried expression that said he knew exactly where this was going. “Yes?” He tentatively answered.
“Yeah, don’t eat at those fast food places.” Anesh told him. “Ever, please.” The other Anesh emphasized. “Anyway, the point is, we’re going to keep doing research. But it’s hard, without a network of contacts to draw on. We need to be able to place or bribe people, or just buy our way through some problems. And for that, we just need more resources than we have. The money’s running out.”
James nodded, already knowing what the answer was. “And for that, I’m gonna need to cut this vacation and go back to work.” He looked around at the mess that his apartment had turned into, and smiled. “I feel pretty good about it, though. Anyone wanna take bets on if Theo wants to come in with me to check it out?”
No one wanted to take bets.
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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!