Lorian Bulregard was, above all else, a bit of a prick. At least, that was what James had decided about the Phi Delta Theta brother seated across the table from him. He was almost a comical stereotype of a prick, really; slicked back hair that was a little too greasy, a generic tough-guy tattoo visible on his arm, a weasel grin that made James think the dude was constant mocking everyone else in the room. He’d insisted everyone call him ‘Tyr’, and claimed it was a middle name, which another brother had informed James privately was a bald-faced lie. He also kept insisting he *totally wasn’t racist, you guys*, but that he’d never date anyone who wasn’t the right bloodline. Just a real piece of work. And he was *exactly* the sort of dipshit that attritioned other players out of the semi-public house party poker game every Saturday night with his mom’s money.
Which was actually sort of relevant to how James had come to be sitting across from him, with roughly five thousand of his dollars in a neat pile.
As it turned out, James’ previously acquired skill at card counting was almost impossibly powerful. Like, he was what Hollywood thought card counters were. The only problem was, it didn’t give him any actual ability to bluff or even understand poker that well. He’d gotten a crash course from JP, who *of course* was a card sharp himself, before they’d come here.
JP knew people. James had been vaguely aware of that for a while; he knew JP was outgoing, that he had a few other friend groups. But he didn’t really understand that JP was networked like this. When James had casually mentioned funding operations through gambling, and specifically cheating at gambling, it had taken JP two phone calls and ten minutes to get the two of them an open invite to a party, and knowledge of the buy in to the game going on in the basement.
It had taken him less than that long once they arrived to introduce James to four people, all of whom James had already forgotten by the end of the sentence, before sweeping James down the stairs to where their quarry waited. And under a minute, with a couple quiet comments and a smile that just oozed ‘trust me’, to get James and himself seated at the table, their buy in arranged before them in chip form.
“My buddy here,” JP had told them, “is better at this than I am. And I am *tired* of letting you all walk away with my money unscathed!”
He’d laughed, they’d laughed, and even James had broken his nerves enough to give a sociable chuckle. And then, the game had begun.
It didn’t take long for James to realize that this really was a game to these people. They were, mostly, rich kids. Having fun with their parent’s money, not really concerned about the fact that the cost to be at this table was a half-year of rent for someone like James. But they’d never think that, because JP had James in disguise as the kind of person who wore a blazer everywhere. The worst part, to James’ eyes, was that many of them weren’t even *bad people*. Just these perfectly insulated dorks who wanted to have friends and be respected, and thought that money was just one of those things people had. It was kind of impressive to him that JP could be friends with people like this, but then, JP also took a break after the first few hands to go talk to literally anyone else, so maybe he wasn’t best friends anyway.
None of that made it a challenge for him to take their money away from them. Tactically or emotionally. Oh, it took him a few hands to get his feet under him, to remember the tricks JP had taught him. But once he had that most basic groundwork, he also had a skill burning a conceptual hole in his mind as it churned on overdrive. Card counting, he’d learned, was easiest with blackjack. But they weren’t playing blackjack, they were playing Texas hold 'em, and that made it more complex. Not *harder*, but just more lines of light in his thoughts as his rank in card counting blazed answers to him.
He’d been dealt two aces. There were six cards left in the deck. Mike, to his right, had raised hard, which probably meant he had a pair himself. There were a limited number of pairs left available. Only three of the options had a third or fourth mate left in the deck to be revealed. Aces were one of them. The odds that someone else had an ace were ~40%. The odds that Mike had an ace dropped dramatically when he raised, and James’ odds went up. Five of the six remaining cards left would be flipped over. That was a greater than 80% chance of the last ace, assuming it was there, and an assured victory. If, that is, no one was holding it. James let himself approximate. His skill gave him the odds, but putting them together took math he had to do himself, and social deduction that he fed into the engine of his magic. 20-ish% chance someone had it, multiplied by 80% of it being on the table, meant 64% of an unbeatable hand. His card counting skill also informed him that roughly 12% of the other available outcomes favored his victory, but were dependent on what random chance had dealt his foes.
He raised a thousand dollars. Every other person at the table laughed, and matched.
The ace hit the table in the flop. And that was it. No struggle, no tricks. Just pure math, rolling the dice, and the win was his. Of course, now, James had a whole new game to play. And that game was called ‘bait Lorian Bulregard’.
He didn’t have a skill orb for it, but he liked to think that this was more of a personal calling.
“So, Lorian!” James cheerfully puffed his breath to clear some of the heavy cigar smoke out of the air over the table. “How’s it feel to be about to tap out?”
“Ha! As if I’d just walk away. There’s always the option to buy back in, my boy.” The pompous prick replied.
James nodded sagely. “Right, right. After all, I’ve got *allllll* your money here.” He circled his hands over his growing stash. “It would be such a shame if it got lonely, away from its friends. Especially since this is gonna be my last hand, and it’ll be gone forever.”
“I do believe he’s trying to taunt you.” One of the other frat brothers said in a New England accent that was weirdly out of place on the west coast.
“Oh, absolutely!” James told them. “Is it working?” The three players who weren’t fans of Tyr-No-Really-It’s-A-Middle-Name laughed boisterously, a sound that came across to James’ ears as weirdly hollow. The one guy who seemed to be Lorian’s friend just glared at James. A look with so much blatant disgust in it that he was feeling a serious longing for the dungeon, and the much more honest combat therein.
But it was working. Loathe to let any of his money go to someone like James, Lorian raised. James matched it, and the fourth card was flipped. It changed nothing, James had already won.
“Is that all?” James mocked the pot. “You won’t even win back what I’ve already got from you! Come on, man, go big! You can do it!”
Lorien eyed James’ reckless smile for a few seconds, perhaps thinking himself the dramatic hero at the climax of the night’s story. “You’re *bluffing*.” He accused.
“Maybe.” James said, showing teeth.
“What do you have? Total.” He leaned over for a quick count, and James had to give him an unfortunate amount of credit. He might have been a gross, racist, asshole, but he wasn’t stupid enough to not know how to count. “Alright. I’ll be *nice* to you.” He let the word drip off his lips like sludge. “Raise everything you’ve got left. Twenty eight thousand and four hundred.”
James froze, briefly. Just for a second. But it was noticed, and it put a horrifying smile on Lorien’s face. He was, for that moment, the predator who had just sprung his trap.
Of course, again, James had already won.
Still, that didn’t always get through to his brain. And the prospect of having not just the night’s winnings taken away, but also the money that he’d borrowed from the delver fund, from JP, and from his own savings account, made him hesitate.
Then he remembered. But he decided to play it out anyway. “You don’t have that many chips.” He pointed out, aiming to make his voice sound just the right level of desperate.
“I’ll buy more.” Lorien said with a flip of his hand. “Or just write you a check. If my credit is good to you?”
James eyed him. “Check. If that’s allowed.” He glanced around at the rest of the table, who just shrugged. Most of them had already folded anyway. They didn’t care about the rules; rules always took a backseat to a good show. And no matter how this show went, it would be funny.
It didn’t take the slimeball long to pull out his checkbook - who kept their checkbook *in their coat pocket* - and write it out with long, looping script from the personalized gold etched pen he carried. Every single detail of this guy that James had seen tonight just made him hate the man more.
“Is that to your satisfaction?”
“Yup.” James said simply, shoving his whole pool into the center of the table. “At the risk of being a casino movie cliche, ‘all in’.”
They flipped the last card. Lorien gave a wide sneering grin. “Ha! Two pair! Kings and sixes. Now, let’s see what you bluffed with.”
“Three aces.” James didn’t hesitate. He *was* having fun, but something about the way this guy and his goon were acting had him on edge. “Sorry friend.” He said with a pitying look. “Bluffing is hard to do when you’re busy counting all your money.” Dammit, brain, keep the zingers inside for just five minutes, James chastised himself.
But for all that he was worried about someone trying something, no one did. There was a round of cheers and jeers as he swept his swollen pile of loot toward himself, both for and against him. But mostly, just because it was a hell of a show for the rest of the people at the table and those watching the game. James politely excused himself, cashed out the chips with the person running the whole night, stacked the neat bundles of hundreds into his messenger bag, lied a promise to come back next week, found JP, and rushed them the hell out of there.
“Well, that was fun!” JP said with a grin.
“Of course you had fun. You sipped champagne with rich kids while I had to do aggressive math at people who could destroy my credit rating by asking nicely.”
“Ah, but did it work?” JP asked, suddenly serious for a moment despite his present tipsy feeling.
James didn’t respond until he’d glanced around, and made sure no one was within earshot as they made their way out the front door of the house, and down the street to where they’d parked. “I have sixty thousand dollars in my bag.” He said flatly, his heart hammering in his ears. “And it wasn’t even a challenge. How the hell do people play this game professionally? I’m terrified that someone’s going to come out and shoot at me.”
“James, this isn’t a mobster movie.” JP refrained valiantly from rolling his eyes.
“Tell that to the guy leaning on my car smoking.” James commented, causing JP to whip his head forward before relaxing with a disgruntled huff.
“Don’t do that.” He said as they climbed into James’ beat up old Subaru; a harsh contrast to all the last-model sports cars and Teslas lining the near downtown road. “Besides. You’re underestimating these guys. The ones that play here aren’t the normal frat guys. They’re the kids of tech startup gurus and investment bankers, and they literally do not understand money. These are people who have family members abusing the ‘the first twenty eight thousand in gifts has no tax’ law. You don’t need to worry about fleecing them for a little bit.”
“Is *this* why I’ve never seen you work, but you always pay for your own food? Wait, hang on, are you a con artist?” James blinked, clicking his tongue as he navigated them onto the highway to head back to home in suburbia.
JP grinned at him, answering without words.
“Alright. Alright, that’s insane. How long has this been going on? Wait, wait, no, I remember back in high school, there was that time someone just brought lunch to you, and you never explained it. Have you ever paid for anything in your life?” James mused. “Nevermind, don’t answer that. Also, speaking of twenty eight thousand, who the hell is that Lorian guy? He was way too easy to bait in to the double-or-nothing deal.”
“Ah, Tyr. Yeah, he’s…”
“Don’t call him that.”
JP snorted a snicker. “Right. Well, his dad’s a oil exec, and his mom’s a political lobbyist. I don’t think he’s ever had contact with reality. He’s not even from here; he’s a member of the fraternity’s chapter at Princeton. He comes by because he likes the big fish, small pond, thing.”
“And he’s a nazi.” James nodded.
“What? No! He’s…” JP paused, then tapped his chin with a single finger, staring up at the ceiling upholstery. “Okay, in some ways… no, god dammit, you’re right. Does that make you feel better about taking his money?”
“I took a *lot* of his money.” James nodded. “That’s sorta what worries me. Like, when the skill kicked in, I knew, *knew*, that it was just a matter of time, and my estimated value was positive. No matter what, I was going to win more than I lost in the long run. And some hands, like that last one, I just could not lose. So I ended up winning maybe enough that I was worried he might try to murder me?”
“Nah. He wouldn’t do that. He might be rich, but he can still be arrested.”
James gave JP a sideways look with pursed lips and raised eyebrows.
“Okay, fine!” JP relented. “Your anarcho-socialist worldview is probably accurate, and he could have you murdered! But he *won’t*, because this was me calling in a few favors, and even if he’s mad, it won’t happen again.”
“Aw, I don’t get to do this next week?” James pouted.
“Sorry my dude.” JP told him. “A few people owed me, which is how you, an unaffiliated rando, got a seat at a moderate-stakes backroom poker game. And while I make a point to collect favors, that only goes so far. So next time you need to make some quick cash, you’re gonna have to go get kicked out of a casino.”
“Got it.” James said. “So, you’re the group’s Face, then.”
“Like from the A-Team. Or Shadowrun. Or… lots of things, probably. I’m the bard, Alanna’s the paladin, Anesh is the rogue, and Rufus and Ganesh together form the wizard. You’re the face, and Dave is inexplicably the lead character from Beastmaster.” James ticked off fingers on the leather of the steering wheel as he ran through the group.
JP pressed his eyes closed in exasperation, rubbing at his forehead as they made their way down the dark streets toward the apartment. “I want to be mad at you for this, but now all I can think of is Dave with shoulder-length hair and pecs.”
“You’re welcome!” James smiled.
And that was how his weekend ended. With a small joke, and a bag full of rolls of cash.
Alanna woke up at the normal human hour of nine AM. And so, out of vague guilt and bleed-through motivation, so did James. Anesh had already left for classes; one of him going to sit in a small room for a summer class with six other people and a teacher who knew more math than James knew existed, the other one going to tutor students in trigonometry, as a favor for a different professor. Neither of them were worried that anyone would figure out they were the same person, though James had his concerns.
The affair of waking up had changed dramatically for James when his relationship had begun. Once they’d sorted out exactly what they were doing, and made sure in the weeks following the Big Rescue that they actually wanted to be together, *together*, there had been some modifications to their living situation.
Alanna had moved in, for one. Even with Secret sleeping in the extra closet that there physically wasn’t room for in the apartment, there was still enough extra space in there for a dresser and some personal effects. And Alanna lived light, so fitting her into the place wasn’t a problem at all. Anesh, similarly, had kept most of his room intact, but shifted his sleeping spot from his own bed, to James’. The idea had been floated of selling or storing his bed, and just using that extra room as an office of sorts. Or at least, a place to put all their desks and computers. But they’d been busy.
“We were busy” was kind of their unofficial relationship motto, really.
The real change had been the small, quiet moments. Waking up wasn’t something to groan at and roll back into the covers for anymore; at least, in a non-joking way. Now, for James, waking up was a gradual thing that started when his partners began to stir, and was… warmer, was how he would describe it.
Small touches exchanged with them as they got out of bed, or he did. A small rub of the shoulder, a ruffling of Anesh’s hair or scratching the back of Alanna’s neck as they rose. Or, in Alanna’s case, grabbing either of their butts when James or Anesh tried to get up. Short, quiet sentences exchanged about what they were planning for the day, or when they would be home. A kind of mild coordination that kept any of them from worrying about each other too much. And then, dozing back into a pleasant snooze, with a lingering feeling of skin contact and love.
Or, sometimes, instead, it was getting up with Alanna to go jogging.
“Uuuugggggh.” James arced his arms overhead, and managed to avoid the critical error of letting himself fall backward into the blankets and pillows. “How do humans get up this early?”
“Well, most of us don’t go to bed at 3 AM.” Alanna told him with the hint of a grin on her face.
“First off, I work night shift.” James reminded her. “So having my eyes open at all is kind of impressive right now. Admire me.”
“Oh, I am.” She wiggled her eyebrows at his shirtless self while James hunted for clean socks.
James flipped an absolutely-not-clean sock over his shoulder at her. “Bah. Also, I was up late last night because I was busy taking candy, and money, from rich college students. That should earn me a pass anyway.”
“I wasn’t judging you anyway. You don’t actually need to come with me, you know.” Alanna told him, giving him a hug from behind while he stood at his dresser.
“Yeah, but it’s a thing. I wanna have more things with you guys, you know? Shared routines and stuff. I can be tired for that. Also, the apartment has extra time for sleeping, so I’m not actually *that* tired.” He reminded her of the green orb he half remembered from what felt like years ago, which had added an hour to the apartment’s timeline that could only be used for sleep. No one was really clear on when that hour occurred, though, so James just chose to believe he was waking up more rested than otherwise possible, and it seemed to be working.
The two of them finished their wake up routines in companionable quiet, getting dressed, grabbing a piece of fruit or a fig bar for breakfast, brushing teeth for Alanna and scoffing at the taste of toothpaste this early for James. And then, the weird part of what was becoming their morning jog routine; a cup of coffee.
The coffee machine was magic. This much was beyond reproach. And it showed, amazingly, no signs of deteriorating or losing its touch. A single cup of its miracle juice could push a human’s reflexes to the edge of the possible, and make their speed match. More, and you could cross that line into something that shouldn’t realistically be a thing a human could ever do. *Too* much coffee, and you passed out, until the mystic caffeine burned out of your system.
This was probably their greatest dungeon delving tool, but they hadn’t been using it properly at all.
So, James had suggested and Alanna had agreed, that their morning jogs should be under the influence of the coffee. Both to get into the habit of remembering it existed, and also to acclimate themselves to how they could move while it was in their blood.
Because yes, it made you faster, and sharper. But it didn’t give you the experience with it that came from a lifetime of moving in your own body, normally. So, they trained themselves to feel not just powerful with their buff, but comfortable. For James, especially, this was important, because one of the purple orbs that James had acquired toward the end of their Big Rescue was one that boosted his acceleration.
And boy was that one vague.
What it *meant*, he’d eventually figured out with some math help from Anesh, was that his acceleration in a given direction had a sort of curved average applied to it as a buff. The modifier of /s^2 wasn’t just the normal physics notation, but a measure of how long he had to sustain movement to actually start to flex the new ‘muscle’ that let him start pulling anime ninja moves. Basically, it meant that if he were jumping, or trying to pull himself up a ledge, he wouldn’t be sustaining enough acceleration over enough time to actually get the full benefit of an extra G’s worth of momentum. Not that he wouldn’t get any benefit at all, but there was certainly a lot more of it when he started running.
James could run. It was the one thing he was good at in gym class in high school, because he’d been in band, and playing the trumpet for three years did that to a person. James after months of going to the gym, and going on life or death adventures, could really run. His muscles were more solid, his poise more balanced. James on coffee could *run*. His legs blurred and his mind followed suit as he launched himself down the black asphalt path that ran behind their apartment. And James, built on adventure, burning coffee, and imbued with a number of purple orbs?
James could fucking *run*.
Alanna could also run, to her credit. But for her, it was less about bursts of speed and an irresponsible top speed, and more about endurance. She could run forever, because she was toned for it. Alanna didn’t get tired; Alanna got bored. But it did mean that she had to give James a minute to run back to her before the two of them started jogging side by side, after he got excited by the initial speeds he could pull.
“Two more days.” Alanna said between heavy breaths as they beat feet down the cold road. Around them, an unkempt network of blackberry bushes and small trees provided a tunnel of foliage against the houses and apartments the path ran near. “You have any plans for next delve?”
“I’m gonna…” James panted out, unaccustomed to speaking while running, and not holding the same endurance. “Gonna go with the new teams. Explore a bit. Just have some fuh… fun. Guh. Slow down a minute.” He panted, as Alanna smiled and sped up.
“I want to find a decision tree.” Alanna said, saving her breath from laughing out loud as James put his head down and pushed to catch up to her. There were cracks in the pavement here, and the occasional stick or rock on the path, but that was part of the fun. The coffee made their reflexes hum, letting them pick out, and ignore, obstacles like that as if it were second nature. And at this point, it almost was for them. They were both more in tune with the magical effect than before. “I’ve got a lot of yellows saved up that I want to trade.”
“Good plan.” James huffed, shooting out words between heavy breaths. “Anesh. Wants. To. Make the copier. Work.”
“It’s not really a copier…” Alanna started, but James just flailed a hand at her as he pumped his arms to run.
“Bah!” He exclaimed. “It copies! You come up with a better. Name.”
She already had one percolating in her head. Something about overhead, maybe - it was an overhead, and it could reduce costs, that seemed like the way to go. But before Alanna could take James challenge, she noticed something off to the side of the path, and threw an arm in front of him to call a halt.
The both stopped about half a block later. It’s not easy to stop on a dime when you’re moving at ten miles an hour. Humans, unlike bikes, don’t really have breaks.
When they stopped, Alanna almost instantly turned around to go back to what she’d seen by the side of the path, while James, catching his breath in great gulps of air, shook his head theatrically and stumbled after her.
There, by the side of the path, sitting in a patch of purple and blue wildflowers still holding on in the rapidly cooling October morning air, was a shoe. It lay in the rough gravel and soil, wrapped slightly around a larger rock that lay in the dirt with it.
“It’s a shoe.” James said, master of the obvious.
“Yeah…” Alanna muttered, kneeling down.
“Someone musta lost it. Wait, no, that doesn’t make any sense. How do you lose a single shoe? Is there another one around here?” James scanned the bushes. It wasn’t a sandal or a sneaker or something; this was a businessman’s shoe. Black, thin laces, the kind that you got someone to polish for a nickel while you waited for the streetcar. Classy. This wasn’t the kind of shoe you lost on the side of the walking trail. “Hey. There’s another one.” He said, stepping past Alanna and pushing into the waist high grass that formed a thin barrier before the thicket of trees and thorny vines fully took over. He grabbed the shoe off the tree branch where it must have been thrown. “Hey, what…”
He turned back to Alanna, who was similarly holding up the other shoe, examining it. James caught her eye, and turned the shoe over and shook it, sending out a spray of dust and shredded paper.
Instantly, both of them were on guard, and Alanna rose to her feet. Months ago, something they’d done had attracted the attention of an agent from the dungeon that had been lurking in the real world. A stuffed shirt, most likely under the control of monster-Karen, had kicked in their front door and nearly killed James. The incident had put their hackles up for a while, but it hadn’t happened again, and they’d started to forget about it, and assume it was a one-off.
But now, this. Business shoes and paper blood? Near where they lived? Not a coincidence. Couldn’t be.
They were unarmed, but they weren't defenseless. They were buzzing with the coffee, which had previously let James go toe-to-toe with the stuffed shirts, in limited ways. And there were two of them. And, if need be, Secret was just one personal revelation away.
The two of them silently fell into step, James taking the lead, Alanna two armspans to his right and a few steps back. And they pushed through the bush together. Twigs and thorned vines pulled at James’ legs, making him wish he’d worn longer pants than the running shorts he’d started the jog in. The two of them shoved aside branches, some of the leaves still damp from where the cold sun hadn’t yet dried out the dew, as they moved forward.
“Half a suit coat.” James tapped the cloth hanging on a tree as they passed. “Edges look like wet cardboard. This is absolutely a paper pusher.”
They moved forward. Deeper into the vegetation. Until, all of a sudden, there was a gap in the green. A small circle, fairly wide if you weren’t worried about being scratched up by blackberry bushes, fairly cramped if you were. It wasn’t dark, but there were only a few gaps in the trees overhead that let any of the morning light in.
Toward the back, in the circle of dirt and trampled leaves, sitting with its back against a tree, was a man. Or rather, the shape of a man. Its mask, that oh so clever symbiotic organism that too-perfectly mimicked a human face, must have slipped off long ago. All that was left was a blank slate; taut construction paper, eggshell white. It was missing its shoes, showing only normal feet, which actually surprised James. He’d assumed they’d be less… human. One of the feet was split in half from between the second and third toe, all the way to the heel, though, so maybe that counted. It still wore the other half of its suit, over a dirt stained white shirt and black pants that had more than a few rips.
There was a thin puddle of dust around it. Seemingly undisturbed by the elements.
Alanna sucked in a sharp breath as the two of them entered the clearing, and James could practically feel her tensing up to fight if the thing moved. But his mind jumped to something stranger, rather than focus on that. As soon as he saw the employee, he felt a thought cut through his mind. ‘Look away’ it said. But it said it all wrong. It shouted it, it rang bells and launched fireworks to get your attention so it could tell you how you shouldn’t pay attention. It was bold, and obvious, and it left the scent of rot in James’ nose.
A quick glance at Alanna and shared raised eyebrows showed that she’d thought it too. And as James thought about it, a few puzzle pieces started to click together. They’d known for a long time that the employees often carried purple orbs, and they could use them to make thoughtforms like Secret. Hell, that was where Secret had come from. They also knew that the monster that had been kidnapping people had sent agents out into world to protect its interests, and that against all odds, those inhuman things hadn’t aroused mass suspicions. They also knew that they’d run past this part of the path at least a couple times over the last week - sometimes twice a day - and yet they hadn’t noticed the torn parts of the employee before now.
And now, with that one too-obvious thought drifting in his perception, James realized that he now knew what the rotting corpse of an antimeme looked like.
Shaking off the strange sorrow of seeing this thing that would otherwise be their enemy laying here in repose, James stepped around its side while Alanna knelt down next to it.
“No orb.” She said, clinically. Like she wasn’t looking at a corpse; or *was* looking at a corpse but had some kind of CSI job. “If it died here, then it must have run out of energy. No orb for the infomorph, so, same.”
“If an infomorph gets killed, where does the orb drop?” James asked, suddenly struck with a though. “Didn’t Secret help us kill the one that was covering up Sarah’s room? Shouldn’t that have dropped an orb somewhere?”
“Different rules, maybe.” Alanna shrugged. “Doesn’t look like it got in a fight. It just… laid down and died. Maybe it stopped receiving orders. Or maybe its last orders were to wait and watch or something.” She looked up at James. “We should take it back.”
“To our apartment?” He stuttered out a low ‘uhhh…’ before Alanna cut him off.
“No. To the dungeon. If for no other reason than that we can’t easily deal with it here.” She ran a hand over the blank face. “Huh. That’s weird.” She said, turning the head sideways and motioning for James to look in. “Check this out.”
It was a port, at the base of what would on a human be a skull. It looked an awful lot like the one that James wore on his own neck.
“Ah.” James wrinkled his nose. “That’s anxiety inducing. Now I can’t stop wondering if this is what people turn into if they’re plugged in long enough.” He scooted back a couple half steps from the body.
“I think it’s more likely that this is what the Karen-Thing was supposed to be puppeting.” Alanna told him. “Which makes me wonder if there’s more of them. Or maybe if the skulljack technology isn’t unique.”
“That’s *more* worrying!” James informed her.
“Well, is it as worrying as me asking you to grab the legs?” Her partner gave her a blank look until Alanna got a grip under the corpses arms and started lifting. “We can’t leave it here. Not now that literally anyone could see it.”
James grunted acknowledgement and dusted off his knees. “Alright, alright. And yes, it is more worrying than that.” He said, looping his hands under the thing’s shoulders. One of them crumpled like wet cardboard as they lifted, and James had to make an effort to not just rip the arm off by accident. “Okay, this is gonna sound bad, but… why don’t we just burn it?”
There was a pause, and Alanna wrinkled her nose in thought. “Doesn’t seem disrespectful, I guess. Fireplace?”
“Sure. Get the legs.”
“Welcome to our new digs.” Anesh said, throwing open the doors that James was waiting at, grin plastered on his face. “As a head’s up, I’ve still got a few people coming by in a bit here, so no talking about the dungeon in front of the contractors.” Anesh himself had been here for a few hours by the time James arrived, unloading stuff from their rented moving van that Anesh was absolutely *certified* to drive; a distinction that had not gone unnoticed by James as his friend had gone out the door.
Still, both the building and the truck were intact, and Anesh had been happily working with Momo and Alex to pull in tables and lockers, as well as all the white- and corkboards that they’d had hanging up on their walls for the last several months. James had to do a small double take on that last name. Alex was someone he vaguely remembered from their mass escape, but she hadn't come to the delve last week, even as part of Karen’s group. He'd have to talk to her later, and he made a mental note as he looked at the progress. Under Anesh’s direction, the open interior of the warehouse was quickly turning into something straight out of a low-budget spy thriller student film.
And it was a warehouse. It had a nice facade out front, a decent sized parking lot off a secondary road, bushes and exterior lighting left over from the last people who had leased the building. But for all that the paint was fresh and the leasing agent called it a “commercial-flex space”, there was no real hiding the lack of any kind of ceiling panels to cover all the ventilation overhead, or the fact that there were only really three interior walls breaking up the fairly massive square footage of the interior.
“Do we actually need this much space?” James asked, standing in the middle of a barren carpeted floor. It was that same kind of hard carpet that places used when they didn’t want to pay out for actual tile or hardwood floors, but still didn’t want to let any of their employees make the mistake that ‘comfort’ was on the list of priorities anywhere. Tightly woven green and dark red fibers, making triangular patterns underfoot. The smell of drywall hung in the air, almost overpowering the lingering scent of bleach. “It just seems like it’s… huge? Especially given the size of our, and I hesitate to use this word, ‘organization’.” He emphasized the last word with air quotes, fingers cocking in lighthearted sarcasm.
“Sure do!” Momo butted through their conversation, figuratively and literally, as she hauled a pair of gym mats between where James and Anesh stood talking in the middle of the open floor. “We’re making a fight club in the back!”
“Wat.” James croaked out, much to Anesh’s amusement.
“She’s being hyperbolic. We’re setting up a place for people to get used to fighting, maybe a firing range, too, if we can get enough soundproofing. It’s important that people be able to actually know how a fight *feels*.”
“Like we didn’t.” James nodded.
“Like we didn’t. Exactly.” Anesh gave his boyfriend a soft smile, before shaking his head and snapping out of the quiet moment. “Lemmie show you around.”
“I can *see* around, Anesh.” James said in protest, before sighing and following the retreating back of his partner. “Also, where’s the other you? I would have figured the ability to move furniture would be the perfect use for a second human.”
Anesh led him behind the counter, a curved bar of purple painted wood that James assumed was another leftover from whatever had been here previously. It was set against the wall opposite the front door, and it half-covered two doors that went through the wall it was against, and one door to its right that went to what looked like a small office area. As Anesh took him through one of the back doors, James glimpsed old holes drilled in the desk probably for cash register power cables, being used now as cupholders for the thirsty work of dragging desks off a truck.
“Other Me isn’t here.” Anesh told James. “I’m out buying socks.”
“Yeah, I’m still going down to California after this week’s delve, and it turns out, then when you dirty your pants at double the rate, you need to either commit to a life at the laundry, or buy more socks.” Anesh glanced over his shoulder through the doorframe as he rolled his eyes at James question, before turning back and pointing into the room. “Now, I got a contractor to take out this interior wall, because this room was just a small unlit box otherwise, and now it’s part of the large area that we can use as storage. I’m also having them stick most of the furniture here for now, too, and it’ll be where we do planning and operations meetings.”
“Wait, so, there’s this giant-ass space - nice concrete floors by the way - and then I’m guessing there’s another one down that side hall past the bathrooms where Momo was talking about making a… well, a gym, basically. But what are we using the front room for?” James asked.
Anesh shrugged. “I mean, I didn’t really think about it. We’ll probably need the room eventually, and this place was still cheaper than most of the smaller places around town. And we *do* need to be around town; this is on a bus line, too.” He scuffed his boot on the floor, frowning slightly at the hard surface. “We’ll buy rugs.”
James thought for a second as he watched Momo and Alex bring another table through the back entrance of the cavernous space. The room didn’t have lighting in it for some reason; all the overhead fixtures had been removed by the previous tenant, so the back loading bay door being open and letting in natural sunlight was all that illuminated it right now. He smiled to himself as he and Anesh stood there, acting like proper supervisors, listening to the two girls talk about how even *this* was better than being trapped in the dungeon.
“Oh. Oh!” James tried and fumbled a snap of his fingers, causing a brief pause where Anesh watched his friend attempt to get his fingers to work properly until he eventually got it. “Okay, there. Anyway! The support group! Sarah’s been doing a great job keeping it up, but I still get this weird feeling about doing it at the public library, you know? So, why not just use that big front space?”
“Makes sense. We can get some folding chairs tomorrow. Oh, actually talk to Sarah about it first, okay?”
James rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes. I’m not stupid; I would never be friends with someone who wanted unsolicited gifts.”
“Was that sarcasm?” Anesh asked, genuinely curious.
“I’m not sure!” James replied cheerily. “Anyway. I brought these with me, and really it’s the only reason that Alanna had a hope in hell of getting me out of bed before noon.” He held up the small pouch that he’d been carrying a cluster of green orbs in. “Do you want one? I’m totally willing to share. I’m magnanimous like that.”
“I’ll take one!” Momo yelled across the floor, young voice echoing over the empty rock and metal of the warehouse space.
James mostly ignored her, just brushing a hand in the air in the universal signal of ‘oh, get lost’, and instead raised an eyebrow at Anesh. “No thanks,” his friend said, “I’ve got some at home, and you earned those anyway.” He cleared his throat and looked away, before he could change his mind as James started pulling out orbs. “Anyway, I've been meaning to ask you something.”
[Local Area Shift : Air Quality Improved, -32 PPM toxins]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Singing - Opera]
“What's up?” James asked Anesh over the wisps of green dusty smoke trickling through his fingers.
Anesh snorted out a sigh. “The skulljacks.” He stated.
“What of them?” James asked as he pulled out another green orb, this one half the size of the first.
Anesh watched as James rolled the small ball around his fingers with a casual deftness. “We need outside help on them, and the world’s leading cyberneticists just aren't taking our calls. Also, the amount of trouble they cause when it comes to getting on airlines is difficult for arranging meetings.”
[Local Area Shift : Water Pressure - +/- 6 PSI toward 45 PSI]
[+1 Skill Rank : Interior Design - Feng Shui]
“Yeah, the security at the airport was really annoying.” James nodded. “So, what's your thought?” He fished around in his bag, feeling for a good one.
“My *first* thought is that I hope you're writing those down. Especially in *my work space*.” Anesh affixed a stern expression on James, who sheepishly froze, ceased digging in the pouch, and pulled out his phone to start making notes. “Good. Now. I propose we find disillusioned anarchistic engineering and comp-sci majors, and hire them.”
James held up a finger as he finished typing on his phone’s difficult keyboard. “Water...pressure…. ok. So, what? Just grab random people and bring them fully onboard?”
“Well, the anarchist thing was Alanna's idea. She said they'd be the best people to design safeguards against abuse.” Anesh shrugged. “And I agree? I mean, these things are literal magic that could redefine humanity. I can think of people who shouldn't get to be part of that process.”
“I'm on board with that. My political leanings are somewhere left of fully automated luxury gay space communism, though. But hey, it's our project, we should run it how we think will be best for humanity.” James pulled out another green orb and held it idly up to his eye, enjoying the slightly surreal tint of color. “Got any candidates?”
“For the engineers you goon.” James broke the orb between his middle and ring finger, watching carefully as it vaporized itself.
[Local Area Shift : +1 Basement]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Athletics - Gymnastics - Cartwheels]
“Not yet, but I… what the fuck was that?” Anesh went from exasperated to alert in a split second.
James felt it too. The floor literally rippled underfoot, and left them feeling like they were standing on sand for a brief second. “Okay, good news! We have *more space* now!”
“James what the bloody hell did you do?” Anesh demanded, eyes sharp.
“Excavated a basement?” James half-asked. “We should go check that out.”
Anesh just sighed, and waved the two girls over, who he put to work searching the back half of the building for any sign of stairs while he and James took the front.
“Okay, well, barring any you-induced catastrophe, I want to talk to you and Alanna later about coming up with some kind of way to screen people for… I don’t want to say ‘loyalty’, but the kind of people who we can integrate into this without too much worry.”
“I’ll think on it.” James said as he checked the small manager’s office for trapdoors, and then cracked another green on the way back to where Anesh was looking in the janitor’s closet.
[Local Area Shift : Fabrication Time - Clothing, -13 minutes]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Geography - New York - Hotels]
“Would you *stop that*?” Anesh asked, incredulous. “You’re gonna give us another basement before we find the first one!”
“Okay, okay, just one more. *That* one, by the way, made it faster to make clothes here. We should see how that applies to armor.” James dutifully recorded his results in his phone. In actuality, he was just composing a rather long email to Anesh, which he planned to send later. He did this with his head down, following behind Anesh without really watching where they were going.
“Just help me find the stairs first, please?” Anesh asked with a half-amused, half-frustrated tone.
James looked up, apologetic. “Right. Of course! Sorry, I’m not trying to be a dick, these things are just really fun. We haven’t seen a lot of the greens, you know? Also, I’m pretty sure we can’t get another basement.”
The two of them combed over the building, until eventually crossing paths with a grinning Momo and a concerned Alex.
“Found it!” Momo declared. “There are *spiders* in the basement!” She waggled her fingers in what she surely thought was a spooky fashion.
“Gross spiders or worth-experience-spiders spiders?” James asked, curious.
“Just regular spiders. Looks like no one’s been in the basement for a long time.” Momo answered. “Can I poke around the stuff down there?”
“Wait, *stuff*?” Anesh and James asked simultaneously.
“There’s a lot of boxes and some furniture down there.” Alex told them. “She wanted to open it, but I said we should ask first.”
James gave a thumbs up that got an awkwardly prideful smile in response. “Good instinct. The basement wasn’t there until ten minutes ago, so…”
“So where’d the stuff come from?” Anesh finished for him. “I feel like this is punishment for something we did wrong.”
“Okay, can I crack the last two now?” James asked, holding up his final orbs. Anesh nodded, ignoring the excited exclamation from Momo and the curious question Alex had. James didn’t ignore them so much, though. “The greens change places.” He explained. “We should really write a briefing book for this. Anyway, that’s where the basement came from. ‘Plus one basement’. Kind of a weird phrasing. Oh, wait! Maybe it’s someone else’s basement!”
“Please no.” Anesh sagged his shoulders. “This place is getting too weird already. Just crack the last two, and let me start fixing whatever goes horribly right.”
[Local Area Shift : +$46,050 Value - Bathrooms]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Manufacturing - Circuit Boards]
[Local Area Shift : +1 Basement]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Cooking - Food Production - Butter]
Beneath their feet, the ground rippled again. Before anyone could say anything, James turned to Anesh and said, “Okay, so, in my defense, you jinxed it, and this isn’t my fault.”
Then Momo and Alex spent a few minutes watching their boss try to put his boyfriend in an armbar.
Sarah ran into James in the parking lot when he got home. She was on her way out, while he was just getting back from spending another half hour searching for a staircase while Anesh grumbled at him. He approached her as she was coming down the steps; two stairs up and only just over eye level with him, she greeted James in that way that he was coming to understand she liked conversations. Totally devoid of small talk. “So I was doing tai chi in the living room, and…”
“How?” James interrupted.
Sarah’s smile didn’t even twitch. “How was I doing tai chi? It’s not hard, James. I could teach you, actually! You’d probably like it.”
“No, I know some already, thanks. I meant how…” James waved a hand at her.
This time, Sarah interrupted. “You know tai chi?”
James smiled back now, the banter feeling a lot more natural between them when they stopped worrying about memories and focused on just being themselves at each other. “Some. Focus! How did you do tai chi in the *living room*?”
“It’s not that bad.” Sarah defended herself.
“Sarah, the living room could best be described by the mental image of a crime scene investigation unit shaking their head as they report to their superior that ‘there was definitely a struggle here’. How did you *fit*?”
Sarah thought of their living room, over three quarters of the floor space taken up by a massive table, the rest of it occupied by the couch, the chairs, and the shelf housing the TV that was used for a lot fewer anime nights these days than she remembered, or preferred. There was barely a patch to stand comfortably. “Okay, yeeeeah, there was a struggle.” Sarah admitted. “Now shut up and watch this.”
She hopped off the steps, nudging James back a bit before glancing around them. Waiting patiently for the neighbor who was taking his trash out to get back around the corner and into his apartment, Sarah dug her hands into the pockets of her ancient denim jacket and rustled around until she came out with a small ball bearing.
“Ah, a silver orb!” James exclaimed, earning himself a fwap on the arm with the sleeve of her coat.
“Shut up you goober! Now watch this.” Sarah took a few steps back, and stretched a bit before falling into a suddenly graceful sweep of her arms. She did a few basic motions before lunging forward slightly, her left arm extended forward, palm out; and her right arm pulled back near her breast. James noticed, then that the ball bearing that she’d had in her hand was now hovering, suspended about an inch over the middle finger of her right hand.
And then, it was *gone*. An instant later, there was the noise of tearing vegetation from the direction of the barrier of blackberry bushes that marked the boundary of their parking lot, the same direction that Sarah’s other arm was pointed to like an arrow.
She stood up with a quick shake of her wrists, and sighed a deep breath as she opened her eyes and looked at James.
“What the *fuck*?” He asked, perplexed.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the purple orb that lets me control magnetic fields. It’s super hard, ‘cause it’s not a muscle I’ve ever had, you know?” She gestured off toward the bushes where, presumably, the ball bearing had been launched. “I dunno how fast that can actually go, but… I think I probably should have checked there was no one on the other side, you know?”
“I’m suddenly very worried about our living room.” James said with a grim frown.
Sarah winced. “That was actually what I wanted to tell you about?”
“Wait!” James held up a hand, and she looked at him, worried. He gave her his best serious frown, and said, “Whatever it was, bring me back a barbeque sandwich and I promise not to be mad.”
“What, blanket immunity?” She asked, looking at him expectantly, before frowning.
James didn’t miss that. “Ah. That was… that was something of ours, wasn’t it?” He suddenly felt a lot sadder than he should for learning his old best friend was a living railgun. With the smallest shake of his head, he tried to reaffix a smile to his face. “You’ll have to tell me about it when you get back with my sandwich, and after I call the… glass repairman?” Sarah shook her head at him, his smile infecting her slightly. “Veterinarian? No, okay, good. Electrician? Wait! Wait, come back! Now I’m really worried!” He called after her as Sarah waved goodbye while climbing into her car. James just shook his head, now smiling for real as he saw she was as well. She was his best friend for his whole life, memories or not, and she deserved better than to be forgotten.
James looked up the steps and sighed to himself. “Alright, let’s go do some damage control on today’s newest crisis.”
“We’re funded.” James stated
“Mostly thanks to you.” Anesh replied
“We’ve got an actual central location set up for meeting and planning and stuff.” He continued
“Yes.” Anesh agreed.
“Neil dropped off those drones?”
“Yes, while I was in the basement.”
James smirked. “Which one?”
“It doesn’t matter, and it’s not funny! They shouldn’t work that way!” It was funny, and everyone in the room knew it. Including Anesh. *Especially* Anesh.
“We’re still a well kept secret?”
“Well enough.” Secret told them from under the table, voice clear to them despite the barrier. “I can only really follow my own threads, but they appear to have not spread more than one jump.”
JP had the next point. “Everyone is ready.” He said, glancing up from his phone.
“Yes, yes.” Anesh agreed.
“Everyone is *excited*.” Alanna pointed out.
“We are, yeah.” James nodded, and Rufus and Ganesh nodded along with him from their perch on the table.
“I am too.” Sarah said, softly. Everyone paused, and James reached over and reassuringly touched her shoulder.
“The list of things to test is ready.” Anesh told them.
“The list of things to look for is ready.” Alanna added.
“The list of surprises waiting is mysteriously obtuse.” James couldn’t help grinning as he reminded the group.
“I’m a walking railgun.” Sarah reminded James, who slowly nodded in acceptance that a lot of surprises probably folded against those velocities.
“I remember the first time you invited me to this there was a lot less of this part.” Dave interjected.
The room laughed, and James eventually found the explanation he was groping for. “We’ve got more people now. And we’re taking more risks, you know? We aren’t worried about JP spraining an ankle again…”
“...we’re worried about someone getting lost, or really hurt. We’re going in deeper, and we’re hunting for better rewards, and we need to be ready.”
“But we are.” Dave told him, in his oblivious way of approaching situations.
James was about to protest, but then he caught himself. Dave was, he realized, absolutely right. All this scrambling, all this running around and fishing for information and schedules and equipment, they were getting better at it. Hell, they were almost getting *good* at it. And this week, for the first time, what it added up to was this.
They *were* ready.
“Yeah.” James said. “Alright. Everyone grab some sleep, or do whatever it is you do when I’m not looking. In twelve hours, we’re gonna have some fun.”
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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!