“James!” The call went out through the home. Alanna’s voice startled Anesh and Ganesh who were absorbed in some project on the table, woke up Sarah, woke up *Secret* who apparently slept now, and then made its way to James. Sarah just rolled over and pulled the blankets over her head like a cocoon, while Anesh blinked twice, realized he wasn’t implicated in this, and went back to work. Which left only a dog that didn’t care, and an oblivious boyfriend to pay attention to Alanna’s call.
A boyfriend who was wearing headphones, and ignored it. Or rather, didn’t hear it.
“James.” Alanna repeated, having stalked down the hallway, past the new batch of salvaged motivational posters that covered up the fist holes from that time a stuffed shirt raided the apartment (Embrace The Efficient Totality), past Anesh’s old room, which was now Sarah’s room, past Sarah’s old room, which was now empty, and through the door to their shared bedroom. She stood behind James, hands holding his headphones perfectly hovering near his head. “James.” She repeated.
“Yeeeees?” James drawled out, rotating in his chair and promptly getting his ponytail tangled in the headphone cord. “Ah, fuck, dammit. Why?!” He struggled for a second as Alanna handed him back the headphones and he took a second to pull his hair out of it. “What’s up?” He asked while extricating himself
Alanna smothered the wide grin she was wearing as she watched him. “Oh! There’s, like, fifteen damn greens on the shelf out there?”
“Um…” James bit his lip, eyebrow raised. “That isn’t really a question? You said it like one, where it goes up at the end, but I don’t know what you want.”
“*Why* are there fifteen greens on the shelf?”
“Oh! I’m saving them.” James honestly hadn’t made the connection, so he was relieved to have an answer to give. Unfortunately, that wasn’t actually the question that Alanna wasn’t asking.
She rolled her eyes. “No, I get that. But *why* are you saving them. Just use them on the apartment!”
“We’re getting an office soon, though. Or, well, no. We’re getting industrial-commercial flex space, which is actually just a fancy way of saying that we’re getting a warehouse with some carpet. But still, I was gonna use them there and see if we could get, I dunno, training perks or something.” James explained.
Alanna sat down on the bed, letting her muscles relax as she transformed a sit into a sprawl. It had been a few days since their delve, but she’d still exerted herself a lot more than normal during it. Hauling, running, occasionally punching, all of it strenuous work for a person, no matter how many muscles they packed on. And all of that took its toll in sore arms and legs, and a desire to lay down on anything with enough cushions. “Training perks?” She eventually asked, staring at the ceiling.
“If we’re lucky.” James shrugged, having fully disentangled himself and tossed the headphones on the desk. “I’m thinking something like, I dunno, faster muscle mass development. Or maybe a percentage buff to learning martial arts!”
“Does it ever do percentages? I don’t think I’ve seen one, and your guy’s notes don’t have any either.” She spoke with confidence, because Alanna was the kind of person who read the notes. Twice. Maybe more if she needed to be sure. “Also, that first one, wouldn’t that just cause more damage from using muscles? You know that’s how your body builds muscle mass, right?”
James stood, stretched, and then flopped face first onto the bed next to her. The collective upgrade to a king sized mattress was, he decided, one of the best uses of their ill-gotten loot so far. “Yes, I am aware of how muscles happen. Also, yeah, you’re right. The only percentage one was the ‘reduced entropy’ in the apartment. And so far, we have *no fucking clue* what that actually did.” He tried to shrug, but it got absorbed by the pile of thick blankets instead. “I’m assuming it’s fine, though, since it’s not killing us.”
“Yes as far as we know *thank you*!”
“Just making sure you have a healthy fear of anything that might be prepared to murder us.” Alanna said cheerfully.
James snorted into a pillow. “Thanks. Just what I need. Anyway, I’m still saving the greens. I talked to Sarah about this the other day, actually; I kind of like where our apartment has ended up, you know? And I’m afraid that if we pile too many things on, it’ll lose its magic.”
“You talked to me about this too, ya know.” Alanna smiled at him, turning to face James as the two lay side by side. “You keep forgetting stuff like that.”
“Ah, but I might forget ten percent less while I’m here!” He countered with a grin and an energetically raised index finger. “That’s the other thing. It’d be easier to move to a new base space than it would be to move our home. At least, I think it would. In case an orb does something actively problematic.”
“Fair play.” Alanna nodded. “Anyway. It’s almost two PM, I know it’s your weekend, I don’t have a job anymore. What’re we doing today? I’m not spending my whole friday trying to make the living room functional, especially not when Anesh is out there doing some kind of frankensteinian experiment with delicate electronics.”
“I want to know.” James said sagely. “But I also don’t want to know?”
“It’s a weird feeling.” Alanna agreed. “Want to see if Sarah wants to go get dinner? I could eat thai.”
“You say that literally every time.” James laughed.
Alanna tapped her fingers against his forehead. “I’m keeping my options open!” She said. “Also, seriously, I need to do something not dungeony today. Just something normal.”
“We tried that once. It didn’t work. But I suppose I could postpone my plans of watching hour long video essays on deep reads of the themes in Fallout to get some food and walk around a bit, sure.” James rolled off the bed, coincidentally rolling over Alanna in the process, who let out a peal of laughter and tried to turn the motion into pinning James to the floor as both of them fell off the end of the bed in a tangle of limbs. James had a sudden appreciation for Anesh’s presence in the room, because a few months ago, his floor would have been covered in random assorted stuff that could easily have broken, or broken him, as he toppled to the ground. But his new, more literal, roommate was the fastidious sort. And so, instead of a random CD case or a discarded fast food bag, he got his nose rubbed into vacuumed carpet.
The two of them froze as the sound of clapping filled the room. Looking up sheepishly, they saw a sleepy looking Sarah and an amused looking Anesh standing there in the doorway, watching their antics. Well, Alanna looked up; James did what he could, and raised his eyes. “Mmet me uff.” He muttered at Alanna, who seemed to suddenly remember she was holding him down, and obliged.
“And Alanna wins by pin and countout!” Sarah announced, voice groggy. “The crowd goes wild!” Next to her, Anesh made hushed cheering noises. “You two done?” She asked with a smile.
“Never!” Alanna responded, followed shortly by, “Except for right now. Do you feel like curry?”
“I feel like a shower.” Sarah replied. “Dunno why I slept so long.”
“Nonsense Fatigue.” James said, and then explained to the group of people throwing ‘huhs’ his way. “Like, when your life is too weird, there’s this actual thing that happens to humans where our brains just stop being capable of caring and just tell us to take a nap and wait for it to all blow over.”
“That is super weird.” Anesh commented. “Also why do you know that?”
James scoffed at him. “Please. I have access to wikipedia and a lot of free time at work. Now! Let me up, and let’s go get food.”
For a brief period, the mundanity of the life of friends getting ready to leave their apartment took over. James flopped on the couch and poked around the internet on his phone while Anesh got changed and Sarah showered. Alanna fiddling around trying to do minor cleaning of their kitchen while they just waited a bit, and only giving James a *little* bit of casual ribbing for the pile of green orbs still sitting on the shelf. One Anesh, then the other one, petting the dog and reassuring her that they’d be back. But in short order, the five of them (both Anesh’s needed to eat, after all) were out the door and on a short walk to the nearby thai place. Then two of them, who wished to remain nameless, ducked back inside to grab coats, because even though it had been a hot year, mid October had still decided it would be a chilly day. Bright, but windy.
And for that short twenty minute walk, James was a normal person again. They talked about books they’d been reading, or conversations they’d had on the internet, or, if by “they” you meant “Alanna”, somewhat intricate plans for a large scale political system that took advantage of modern technology. Because Alanna.
Despite the fact that it was only for a few hours every week, and not even most weeks for the last month, James had been feeling like he’d had armor on almost nonstop. And this last delve had been *exhausting*. Not just because it came at the tail end of a day at a job he still hated, not just because he had all these other people to take responsibility for, not just because he hadn’t really… slept… at all. But just because he felt like he had fully committed his life to this one hole in reality, and that was all he was now. Like a unit in a tactics game; his hobbies and relaxation and comfort had taken a back seat to being deployed across the country to hunt for dungeons, or being sent out to buy bulk road flares and football padding, or, you know, actually getting into fights with bizarre monsters that were trying to kill him and turn him into orbs.
So he savored this pleasant evening of just being with friends.
Right up until they got seated at the table, and Sarah segued into “So, what are you working on that has a whole engineering department covering our table, anyway?”
“No, no!” James protested weakly. “One dinner! Just one dinner without dungeon stuff!”
One Anesh patted him on the arm reassuringly, while the other turned to answer Sarah. “Sorry friend.” The first said to James, while his counterpart started explaining. “It’s a drone interface for the skulljacks. James gave me the idea the other day, and I wanted to see if I could build one that had a little more flexibility to it.”
“Wait, this is my fault? Again?” James peeked over the menu he was hiding behind.
“Yeah, sorry mate.” Anesh sheepishly grinned. “It was the whole ice cream thing. I had wanted to have this for the delve the other night, but we didn’t have the capital for more scout drones. Honestly, scouting is the biggest thing we need to worry about, and it would really help, especially if we could have people literally able to see through the cameras.”
“That big of a deal?” Alanna asked, the traitor.
“Well, James and I were talking about mapping as much as we could the other day. Since the dungeon changed its landscape, we want to be able to cross reference for more changes.” Anesh answered.
James sighed, and leaned back in the chair. “Okay, okay, I’m resigned to this. Yeah, the problem is that it stuck that tower right in the middle of the entry.” He gave a brief explanation to Sarah, which turned into a round of storytelling from all of them as they went over small highlights of the ascension. Culminating in him and Anesh getting really excited about the potential of the clone machine.
“We can copy ammunition.” James pointed out. “No more paying for the overpriced and weirdly specific bullets for the guns Anesh got!”
“We could copy better guns…” Alanna suggested dryly. Alanna was, out of all of them, the best defined as a ‘gun person’. She didn’t really like guns, but she knew how to shoot. Her dad had been a cop, after all, and he’d taken his daughter’s interest in his job seriously enough to take her to the shooting range with him fairly often. Alanna had just enough of a developed sense of taste in firepower to be annoyed with the choice of PS90s from Anesh.
“Well, you *obviously* need to see if it can clone xenotech.” Sarah offered. “Is that on the list already? I assume you have a list.” Anesh absolutely had a list.
“We could make copies of people!” James excitedly said. “Like, I dunno about you guys, but I’m enough of a transhumanist that I’m into the idea of having backups of myself.” Sarah and Alanna made tight lipped eye contact with him, and then slowly and silently raised their hands to point at the pair of Aneshes sitting at the table with them. “Okay, okay, fine, yes. But that’s different. That’s an Anesh thing. I’m talking about a thing for all of us, mostly me. Something reproducible.”
Alanna sipped at her water, looking around for if a waiter was planning to come by. The restaurant wasn’t too busy, but so far, no serving staff had prowled across the hardwood floors to see if any of them were ready to order. “What’s it like?” She casually asked Anesh. “Being two people. I’ve been meaning to actually ask you for a long time. Like, I’m pretty sure James and I are cool with it?” A raised eyebrow to James got a nod in return. “Yeah, we’re cool with it. And I know you can make more of yourself, too, but what does it actually *feel* like?”
“Like being me.” Anesh said. They were on what James had mentally labeled Twin Protocol, where they took turns speaking in paragraphs instead of one sentence at a time or occasionally saying things in unison. “I mean, I’m still the same person, right? It’s just that there’s two sets of experiences. Kind of. Not really. Okay, I’m a bit bad at this but… how much do you remember about yesterday?”
Yesterday, for James had been a weekend. When prompted, he could easily remember sleeping in, having a noon-ish breakfast of mostly bacon, getting roped into browsing Amazon for an hour looking for wireless cameras, and then taking a walk to the coffee shop at around 11 PM. “A lot of it.” He ended up telling Anesh.
“Great. How about two days ago? Or three?” Anesh pressed.
“Oh, easy! Three days was dungeon stuff.” James almost laughed, until his brain caught up to what he’d said. “Ooh ho! No, wait! That was four days, wasn’t it? I… don’t have a clue. I guess I was at work?”
“Exactly.” Anesh said. “You don’t remember what specific day we climbed the tower, but you remember that we did it. As evidenced by the exhaustive detail you just dumped on poor Sarah.” He shot her a pair of sympathetic sets of puppy eyes.
Sarah swatted at him. “Oh, shush, you dink. I don’t mind.”
Half the table laughed, and Anesh grinned as he wrapped up his point. “Thing is, you might remember what you did, but our brains don’t usually categorize things by days. It’s why James can’t tell you what chapter anything happens in in whatever book he’s reading, but he can recite the whole plot word for word. It’s the same thing. When we reconnect, we basically just update things we’ve done, and the fact that the timeline doesn’t line up… doesn’t matter. Because it doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just living twice as many days.”
“This would be a literal nightmare without the skulljacks.” Alanna told him bluntly.
“Oh, probably. We’d drift over time and eventually be different people. But that wouldn’t be too bad. I can’t see any future where I’m, like, a villain.” Anesh stroked his chin. “I’d need a goatee.”
“Can you grow a goatee?” James smiled as he tried to imagine it. “You’d look like a Bollywood actor!”
“What, in the world, would you even pretend to know about Bollywood?” Anesh rolled his eyes at James.
James cracked his knuckles over the table, stretching out his arms with a low groan at the lingering soreness that he turned into the reply of “Ohhh, I dunno. What do *you* pretend to know about it?”
“So Anesh!” Sarah chimed in, cutting off James’ satisfaction at his cultural appropriation burn. “Any luck finding a new dungeon?”
Anesh swirled the chunks of ice in the bottom of his cup, before idly trading for a full cup from other Anesh who was more hydrated than he was. The version not currently drinking spoke up to answer Sarah. “Turns out, it’s awful and I hate it. I think so far, the biggest argument against the idea of the Wizard Police is that it would be bloody impossible to spot any of this stuff. I did a second sweep of older spots that I was *sure* about, and I’m still pretty damn sure that shopping mall in Tennessee is either a dungeon or haunted, but it’s so hard to pin them down.”
“Doors!” Alanna exclaimed. “Time limits! Weird conditions we don’t know about!” She slapped the table, briefly drawing the attention of nearby diners. “We need interns. An army of interns! No, what’s the plurality for interns?”
“An internment? No, too close. An exploitation?” James mused.
“A cafe.” Sarah said, and giggled while everyone else caught up to the joke.
“We have interns, though.” James said. “We have, like, fifteen people who didn’t get their lives back that we’re employing. Use them.”
“We really don’t have the money for that.” Anesh winced. “We need briefcases. Badly. Like, I was hoping for at least one this week. We didn’t even meet our operational expenses, if we count support for the victims.”
“Shit.” James grimaced himself. “We could… and I hate to offer this, but we could go through the vent again. Fight our way to the door, collect enough cash that way?”
“Hard pass.” Alanna told him. “Not unless you can convince me there’s someone to rescue again. And *last time* that put us more in the red, not out of it.”
“Okay. We need to make money, then.” Sarah said, shrugging. “I’m sure we can do that.”
“How?” Several people asked at once.
She looked at them in surprise. “Haven’t you all been cracking orbs this whole time? Sooner or later, you hit a marketable skill that you can use to make some extra cash.”
There was a round of slow blinks as everyone thought on what they had access to.
“I’m not sure my sweet snowboarding tricks will get me cash.” Alanna commented. “Or Anesh’s… longbow skills? Am I remembering that right?”
“Yeah, that’s me. I’ve also got a huge chunk of high level math, and furniture appraisal. That seems like a dead end.” Anesh frowned. “James? Anything you can remember?”
It was actually kind of hard. The skills given by the orbs were always ready to kick into high gear, but they were almost always divorced from context. For a normal human who’d learned how to fish, the thought of fishing might be tied to memories of going on road trips with their mom, of the smell of the bait shop, of dirt roads and paddle boats. But with an orb, you *knew how to fish*, and nothing else. If you weren’t fishing, it wouldn't come to mind. So it was hard to keep a mental inventory.
Which was, of course, why Anesh had a written one. Somewhere. For now, James just had to think. “First of all, I think you’re selling short how much money you can make off snowboarding tricks.” He pointed at Alanna, and then at Anesh, “Or off of going on Antiques Road Show. Or, you know, *being a math tutor*. I just thought of that, though, so maybe I shouldn’t say it in that tone that’s accusatory, sorry.” He let the words loll out of his mouth. “As for me, um… card counting? Cooking could get me a job, but I already have a job. I could be a very specific car mechanic, or I could manufacture LSD. Oh! That reminds me!”
“*That* reminds you?” Sarah gave him an incredulous look.
“Yes! That orange I got on the exodus run gave me a military rank. I wanted to see if it was possible for me to get paid for that.” James nodded.
“Okay, first of all.” Anesh steepled his fingers as both of him leaned in, lowering their voices. “I feel like maybe you shouldn’t talk so loudly about making drugs in a restaurant. Even if we do seem to have been forgotten.” He glanced around, trying to grab the attention of a waitress.
James had a stray thought hit his brain. “Is this… are we forgotten? Is this Secret being mad at us for leaving him alone at home with Auberdeen?”
“No. This just happens when the bar here is busy.” Anesh reprimanded him. “Probably. Anyway. You’re in a military?”
“Yup. US Air Force.” James nodded. “Not really sure how to use that, though. I also haven’t gotten deployment orders or anything, so I’m pretty sure that they don’t think I’m AWOL.”
Alanna facepalmed. “James.” She said slowly. “I’m pretty sure active military members can buy restricted firearms. You may need some checks first, but I’m almost certain that you can.”
“What, really?” He looked surprised. “Honestly, I was pretty busy, so I kinda forgot to check.”
“Yes, really.” Alanna sighed. “Also, you really need to check in with… I actually don’t know, but somewhere. Before you *do* get arrested. Assuming that can happen. Does anyone know if the oranges give responsibilities along with legal status?” She directed that question at Sarah, who just shrugged and made a low noise of uncertainty in her throat. “Great.”
Sarah interrupted with a question that James had brought to mind. “Hey, why *do* you still work there? I quit as soon as the dungeon started paying my bills back when I was a delver.”
“That makes you sound super old.” James said. “Like a scarred veteran adventurer. Holy shit, you can be our cloaked figure in the corner of the tavern!”
“Nah, I don’t look good in a cloak.” Sarah smiled at him. “Anyway. Job?”
“I feel like I owe Theo a lot.” He explained. “And also it’s extra income. And also it’s kind of… okay, have you ever heard the line ‘my job would be great if I could leave whenever I wanted’?”
“Sort of. Where’s that from?” Anesh asked him.
James pointed to himself. “Me. Anyway, it’s that. I can quit literally at my leisure, and the dungeon will still be open to us. Though the enhanced security is a bit of a pain. But we’ve got the skills and resources to just… ignore it, mostly. But I see no reason to bother quitting. What would I do? Lounge around all day and get mad at Rimworld mod conflicts?”
“I don’t know what that means.” Alanna told him. “But you could have some time to yourself. Worry less about being caught up forever in dungeony things.”
James just shrugged at her. “I mean, it also keeps the money coming in.” He restated. “Which we *do* need right now. And speaking of things we need money for, does anyone want to split an appetizer when we finally get noticed? Maybe some pot stickers?”
“Can we back up.” Anesh said. “To the part where James can make LSD?”
“Oh yeah! Super good at it, too!” James gave a wide smile. “Can’t believe we haven’t tried being drug dealers yet.” He sat back in his chair with a smug look on his face.
Alanna let out a low hum. “Honestly, why not? LSD isn’t actually harmful to people. And it’s shown to be pretty effective in combating depression, which…” She cut off as she made eye contact with James.
“Yeeeah.” He said, letting out a huff of breath. “I’m still not super okay with the idea that depression might actually be a knock on effect of dungeon antimemes. But that… actually, hang on!” He snapped his fingers, and Alanna figured out where he was going at the same time, sitting forward with wide eyes.
“Holy shit, LSD is a mnestic!” She burst out.
“Wat.” Sarah and Anesh said simultaneously.
“A mnestic is something that makes you remember.” James explained. “So, if LSD fights depression, what if it does so by causing ‘hallucinations’ that are actually memories of people they know?”
“That is… a bloody *massive* logical leap.” Anesh said diplomatically. “I’m not willing to buy it. But if you think that it won’t get us super arrested, I’m willing to entertain the production of absurdly illegal controlled substances.”
“It’s the fact that they’re harmless that makes me okay with it.” Sarah said. “Also, if it does work the way James thinks it does…” She trailed off, and everyone already knew what she was going to say.
“Yup.” James said casually, breaking the awkward quiet. “So! What now? Plans for world domination? Anyone get anything good from their orbs?” Alanna and Anesh both dodged eye contact with him. “No, no. You did *not* give me crap for saving mine when you didn’t even use yours!” He accused Alanna.
“I’m saving the yellows to trade to the first tree we find!” She argued. “I just… think the purples are better.” Alanna crossed her not-insubstantial arms in front of her as a conversational shield. “Fight me.”
“Nah, that’s a good reason.” James grinned. “What about you, oh auspicious boyfriend? What’s your reason?”
“I got distracted.” Anesh muttered. “I thought I found a new dungeon and then I had classes and… I just got sidetracked.”
“Okay, now *that’s* funny.” Alanna said.
Sarah ruffled Alanna’s hair. “Oh, be nice.” She said with a grin, playing peacemaker. “Besides, it’s easy to forget some of the smaller ones. I actually just found one of the level ones in an old pair of jeans the other day.”
“Get anything good from it?” James asked, as Anesh also leaned forward with interest, tapping up his note app on his phone.
Sarah just smiled. “Chemical composition of shampoo. Bad news! Shampoo is weird!”
“See, that’s what happens when you just use ‘em right away.” Alanna stated it like it was a concrete fact, even though she was mostly talking out her ass.
Sarah snorted in reply. “Alright, laugh it up. You guys can all get to use your toys on your own time.”
“Toys?!” James exclaimed. “I will have you know these are the hard won spoils of war!”
“And don’t mess with my toys.”
Their group laugh at James’ indignant face finally got the waiter to show up.
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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!