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A note from argusthecat

I almost got a chapter out on time for once.  Then I got the flu.

Now that chapter is done, so you guys get this one!

“Alright.” James announced his presence as he strode through the loading dock door to the building they were leasing as a glorified clubhouse. “We’re back. Let's solve problems.”

“You can't just say that every time you walk into a room.” Alanna's chiding was done with a smile, but she still rolled her eyes. “Besides, we’re not exactly qualified to solve this particular problem.”

James snorted as Momo laughed at him, letting the younger girl pass through the door he held open with the cardboard box of equipment to return and documents to worry about. “Nonsense. We’re perhaps the only people qualified for it. Or is this the point where we tell the police, or the government? I’ve been thinking about it lately, being honest.” His voice lost some of its humor and cheer. “Like, really, at what point do we decide that what we’re doing is just a little too selfish? A little too not worth it?”

“We’re not killing the Office.” Alanna reminded him, frimley.

“Nah, I know.” James said. “We’ve had that conversation too many times, I get the reasons. But this is… this just feels beyond us, a bit. I fight monsters, not people.”

The two of them walked into the strangely well furnished warehouse area, closing the back door behind them and finding a pair of seats at one of the desks. As Alanna replied, she pulled off one of her shoes and started shaking barkdust out of it. “So, I know I catch flack for being a bit too opinionated sometimes…”

“It’s part of why I love you.” James reminded her.

She flashed a smile, but didn’t miss a beat in her sentence. “...but I’m just gonna tell you now; if there’s anything I’d call a monster, it’s a human murderer over a sentient pile of desk fans.”

“We really need to stop thinking too hard about desk fans.” James said. Alanna just glared back at him until he relented, and took her seriously. “Okay, okay, yes. I… I see where you’re coming from. But what the hell are we supposed to do about it?”

Her answer was simple. “We either gather enough information that we can pass it off to the authorities - anonymously, of course, I’m sure Secret can help with that - or we kill them.”

“Jesus, that escalated.”

“Well, we don’t specifically need to kill them.” Alanna conceded. “Just render them unable to continue assassin-ing.” She said with a shrug. “I dunno, take their arms off? We’ll figure it out.”

“Fucking hell, that’s really vicious!” James exclaimed. “Where was this when we had the option to shoot Frank?” He asked her, morbidly curious.

Alanna finished getting her shoe back on, and swung her legs up to the desk while she leaned back in the chair. “I ‘unno.” She shrugged. “Maybe I was just feeling charitable at the time. Maybe I didn’t really get just how many people Frank probably killed. I think…” She sighed, not meeting James’ eyes. “I think if we had the choice again, I’d probably just shoot him?”

James opened his mouth to argue, then stopped. Honestly? If he really thought about it? Well…

“I think I might do the same.” He confided in her, quietly mourning for the loss of his own ethics.

“Hey!” Momo’s voice cut in between them, happy even though it was a bit overexcited. “What’re you guys up to now? Do you wanna go get food? I feel like food.”

James and Alanna shared a look between the two of them. A look that communicated a lot of different ideas, but basically boiled down to “Can you tell what’s going on with this girl? Because I cannot tell what’s going on with this girl. I think we’re her dads now? Help.”

They didn’t say that out loud though.

Instead, James shook his head. “Nah, we’ve gotta meet with Benny first.”

“Who?”

“Benny. The guy that came in before we left. I don’t know his actual name, but I think Sarah’s talking to him now. He’s got something weird going on, and wanted our help, and I feel up to playing the role of ghostbusters for a while, you know?”

“He’s not talking to Sarah.” Momo commented idly with raised eyebrows. “Sarah’s doing her group.”

“Oh. Maybe he’s in the bathroom?” James shrugged. “It’s fine, we can wait.”

Momo let out a low note of confusion. “Uh… do you mean that guy?” She asked, pointing at one of the desks on the other side of the concrete floor.

There, sitting alone, almost perfectly still, was the man from earlier. His coat and hat sat neatly piled on the desk next to him, and his eyes seemed locked on one of the standing cork boards with a growing map tacked up in segments. He hadn’t caught their attention when they’d walked in, and James was sort of suspicious of that on its own. If not for that fact that the guy looked like he was absolutely paralyzed with fear and indecision, James might have been mad about it.

“Well shit.” Alanna said. “What’s he even doing back here?”

“I guess Sarah told him to wait here for us?” James guessed, unsure of his own words.

“That,” Alanna pointed out with a drawl and a waved finger, “is not operationally secure. We shouldn’t be letting people back here. Or really into the building.”

“I’m further guessing she just didn’t think about it.” James told his girlfriend. “Honestly, consider how hard it is for us to just keep track of dungeony things. We basically keep JP around just to do our accounting now, because it’s actually work to track all this shit.” He said. By way of example, he pulled a blue orb out of his pocket. “Like, watch this.”

[+1 Skill Rank : Cooking - Food Preparation - Coffee - Dark Roast]

[Problem Solved : Laundry]

“What am I watching for?” Alanna asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

James tapped the table. “Nothing in particular, I just found that in my pocket and wanted an excuse. But thinking about it; I just made more work for Anesh and his skills spreadsheet, and for whoever is distributing orbs to know that I need a replacement blue for when I eventually burn through all those meetings I can schedule.” He leaned in towards Alanna who smiled at him as his rambling got more heated and passionate. “And while yes, I just realized that *we* are the ones who distribute orbs, my *point* is that almost every action we do creates more work to track and remember. That’s a hell of a mental load! We should, honestly, be giving someone specifically the job of operational security. Someone who is entirely there to remind us that we can’t, like, let random people into our secret base, or, or…”

“Or burn a building down in broad daylight?” Momo interjected with a far too wide grin.

“Yes, that! We should have probably considered coming back at night for that!” James knocked on the desk vigorously. “And now it’s a bit late for that, but whatever. I’m just saying, we should at the very least have more conversations about how *open* we want to be with our bizarre powers.”

Alanna cleared her throat. “On that note.” She said, pointing over at their guest. “Should we maybe talk to him before having this conversation?”

“Shhhhhhit. Yes.” James drew the word out with a bit lip. “Okay, yeah. Let’s go see what’s on our plate now. Actually, while we do that, Momo? Can you go see if you can find anything on our hit list target? I don’t wanna overwhelm this guy with too many people, and… actually, do you have time? Were you gonna get food?”

“Eh, I’ll eat later.” Came Momo’s response. Alanna held back a comment about how Momo could probably stand to eat a little more often as is; the thousand extra pockets and buckles and the leather coat that made up Momo’s goth outfit hid it a bit, but there was no denying that the girl was still a little too thin from her time as a prisoner. “Gimmie the folder thing. I’ll go google the guy.”

“This is an *envelope*, thank you very much.” James said as he stood from his chair and handed the files over. “Your generation may not recognize it.”

“No, I get it! It’s the thing from email.” Momo bit back with a wicked grin. She stretched out languidly, and her grin only got a bit wider as both James and Alanna sighed at her. “Alright, have fun with your interrogation. I’m gonna go check up on this and say hi to Sarah. Might be a while if James or Simon are here; we’re doing connection therapy today, and I don’t wanna miss all of it.”

With that, she strolled out of the makeshift operations center, leaving behind the desks and maps and heavily encrypted unnetworked computers to step out to the open front room, a welcoming group of other survivors, and snacks.

Sarah had brought fudge cookies this week. It wasn’t a challenge to choose what side of the building she wanted to be on.

“Can you tell what’s going on with that girl?” James said, leaning conspiratorially toward Alanna as he muttered. “Because I cannot.”

“I think she’s got the opposite of PTSD.” Alanna said. She let out a heavy breath as she stood herself, tapping her shoe fully back into place. Rolling a shoulder, she gestured toward their guest. “And I’m not sure if that’s bad. Come on, let’s go ask some questions and worry about our resident goth later.”

_____

“Everyone have a safe trip!” Sarah stood in the door to their secret base, which she was still trying to think of a good name for, and waved enthusiastically at the cars one by one pulling out. Sarah was almost always enthusiastic, really; she kind of couldn’t help it. It was just what she was. Though it did mean that when she did get overwhelmed, it was… well, overwhelming.

Now wasn’t overwhelming, though.

Twenty six people had shown up to survivors therapy. That wasn’t a record, but it was a lot, and she was now out of cookies. Such was the life of an impromptu counselor.

Of the survivors, about half of them had cut all ties with the guild as soon as they were out. Many of them had managed to stabilize, reclaim their lives. But a few… more than a few, sadly… had been too broken by it. Suicides weren’t unheard of, and that was just within the people that Sarah and Karen had kept track of. This support group was, in large part, a way to try to provide a foundation for those who were somewhere between. The survivors who were now fully aware that reality was weirder than expected, that couldn’t just go back to their lives and pretend it was a dream, but who also were kind of okay with that, and wanted to see what they could do with their new knowledge and power.

And it was a power, Sarah was becoming increasingly aware. The skulljacks, specifically, were an incredible asset. Many of the survivors had worked in IT alongside herself and James at one point, and that knowledge, paired with the technology they now had, gave them a much wider range of ability than expected. Untrained humans were clearly worse at it than whatever monster-Karen had been, but still.

Mind links. Drone control. Instinctive programming. Biological drivers for hardware. Networking and indexing with subconscious thought. Bandwidth that was, apparently, unlimited? Or perhaps simply more powerful than a mundane device could ever manage, due to the magic that powered the jacks.

The support group was partly there to keep people sane. To give them a place to meet, talk, understand and be understood. But it was also there to give the first batch of transhuman wonders a place to learn and grow.

It almost made Sarah embarrassed by how afraid she was to use her own skulljack. A sentiment, it seemed, that she shared with James. It didn’t make sense that the most outspoken transhumanist in their group would be the one afraid of his own upgrade; but then, it had come at the cost of a total violation of self.

James didn’t come to the support groups. He always said he was too busy. But really, Sarah was pretty sure, he was just afraid. It made sense; she was too, after all.

The remainder of the group of survivors, the ones that stuck around after the group session ended, were the guild’s newly acquired support staff. People who didn’t want to go delving, but were already in on the secret, and so, were capable of providing a range of skills to the team as a whole.

There was one guy who was actually a gym instructor, before his capture, who ran their back ‘training area’. It wasn’t like they were turning into superheroes, but the different between no muscle, and *some* muscle, was a lot when it came to delving. And having someone there to keep you on the right track was useful. There were a couple people, who Sarah suspected were dating, that were constantly looking into how the orbs worked. That was useful just because Anesh was so busy with *everything else* these days, so offloading the record keeping of skills was handy, if nothing else. They had been the ones to suss out the limits of the blue absorbs, too, which was cool. They also liked testing the things in microwaves, which Sarah saw as an eccentricity, but James assured her was probably almost certainly real science. Then there were a handful of others, who ran errands, helped with cleanup or getting the building into working order, or just lent a hand moving tables around when needed.

And then there was Harvey. Harvey was a good guy. Sarah had been relying on his help with the other survivors, in terms of taking care of them, and by this point he was basically a full time employee of Dungeon Problems Incorporated, or whatever they ended up calling themselves.

Harvey had dark skin, and a darker beard. He’d trimmed it back after they’d escaped, going from ‘mountain man’ down to ‘immaculately curly’. His hair, likewise, mimicked his goatee; a wiry mop of curly strands, kept formed into a perfect little cap on his head. He smiled, a lot. Big toothy smiles; emotions worn on his sleeve.

While Karen was focused on keeping everyone fed and housed, and was constantly pressuring them for more resources, more *money*, Harvey was busy trying to make the survivors into a family. He brought people food, checked up on anyone who was out of touch for too long. He always had time for you, no matter what. Essentially, he was their ombudsman; hearing grievances and passing them up the chain to the people that he still saw as the heroes of their lives.

There weren’t many grievances, really. But if there ever were, Sarah trusted that Harvey would be there to help. It didn’t hurt that James got along with him, too. Not that that was a surprise; James was getting better about getting along with just about anyone, these days, and Harvey made it easy.

“Everything’s put away.” Harvey said from Sarah’s side as he stepped up to the doorway. “How’re you doing? You didn’t talk much tonight.”

“Oh, I’m fine.” Sarah said, shooting him a smile. “Just kinda worried. Your friend came by before group, and I didn’t really have time to figure out what his deal was. Then there was the whole thing with the suits and James and Alanna running off, and then James just being *James* all over the place.”

Harvey laughed, a deep rumble that built up from his chest and poured out into the world. “Hah! Yeah, that kid’s something else, huh?” He kept smiling, but his voice took on a more serious undertone. “Hope it was alright to send my old brother this way. I thought, what with how things went down in the office, that maybe James could do something for him.”

It wasn’t lost on Sarah that Harvey treated James like he was *the* hero in the group, but she still nodded. “He’ll probably be up for it. What exactly *was* going on, though? He didn’t say much except that his house was weird?”

“Yeah, he was quiet with me too. Well, quiet in the way he is, where he makes lots of noise but doesn’t say much. But from what I get, his attic is cursed. Not, like, the cube farm. Just an attic that’s not… completely… attic.” He trailed off with a shrug.

“That sentence got away from you.” Sarah chuckled as she ribbed Harvey. “But yeah, okay. That’s screwed up. We knew there were other dungeons out there, and now I’m wondering if this is one of them.” She hummed, toying with the edges of the sleeves of her hoodie. “Well, Alanna said to let them talk to your friend… what’s his name, anyway?”

“Fredrick. He goes by Fredrick, too.” Harvey answered.

Sarah clicked her tongue. “Not Fred?” Harvey shook his head at her. “Alright, so, Alanna said to let them talk to Fredrick for a bit; they don’t wanna surround him with people.” She sighed deeply as she walked back inside, shutting the door to keep the harsh November air out. “Did you know that I completely forgot about Halloween this year?” She asked Harvey.

“I didn’t know you were… no, hang on. I should have of course assumed that Halloween was your thing.” He nodded to himself as he imagined Sarah’s perfect holiday. “Yeah. What happened?”

“Just busy, I guess. But imagine the costume I could have had! I could have just worn Secret and won every costume contest ever!” She bemoaned her forgetfulness.

“Okay, so, why bring this up?” Harvey asked. He wasn’t annoyed, but it was kind of a non-sequitur, and he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Oh, I just noticed Momo dyed her hair and it reminded me.” Sarah said, tilting her head at the younger goth girl as she came running up to the two of them, carrying the manilla envelope that she’d been fidgeting away with during the support group meeting. “Hey Momes. What’s up? They done back there?”

The girl blinked at Sarah for a second before catching what she’d been asked. “What? No. Maybe? I wasn’t really paying attention. I think they left when Anesh showed up? Look, check this out, I was found this guy.” She gave a light thwap to the documents she had in hand, and held out her phone to Sarah to see what she’d dug up.

But Sarah wasn’t really interested in that. “Hang on, Anesh showed up, and they just *left*? Why didn’t they tell me?”

“Well, you were still talking to people, I guess.” Momo faltered a bit. “I don’t think they were trying to ditch you, they were just going to check out Melvin’s house.”

“Fredrick.” Harvey interjected. “Though he does look like a Melvin, doesn’t he?” He mused to himself as he started clearing up the support group’s area, an armful of folding chairs carried off to their proper waiting place.

Here was the problem: it was personal. Despite Momo’s assurances, and the casual mood in the room, it *was* personal to Sarah, because it didn’t feel personal at all. If, five years ago, James had discovered a literal haunted building, then Sarah could say with absolute confidence that she would have gotten a call about it as the highest priority. Before the local news, before any of their other friends, and before the police when James realized that he’d actually just disturbed a nest of very angry raccoons and not ghosts. But today… today James had, over the span of two hours, learned about a local cabal of assassins, been apprised of the location of a ghost-infested attic, and *also* used at least one of those events to skip out on actually talking to her about his feelings. And the worst part was, well, exactly what Momo said.

It wasn’t personal.

“Okay, before I get angry about this,” Sarah started, a hand cupped over her mouth in frustration, “how exactly did Anesh get here so fast? He was doing tutoring downtown when I called him.”

Momo had the look of someone who knew they’d just stepped into a social minefield, but replied anyway, “Oh, James used his blue power to create a meeting, which Anesh was then on time to. He tried calling, but couldn’t remember which Anesh in his contact list was the Anesh that was in town, so he felt awkward.” Sarah nodded along with Momo’s explanation, totally understanding what she meant by James feeling awkward, until her brain clicked on something.

“Wait. The blue. It… can do that?” Sarah was shocked. “That kinda flubs up our estimation for how powerful that ability was, does he get that? Does that dork even *care* that he’s running around breaking causality?” She threw her arms wide, turning as if to address an audience that wasn’t there; only Harvey was left in the room, and he was only back for more chairs. Everyone else had either gone home, or was helping out with sorting through one of the basements. Disgruntled, Sarah turned back to an uncomfortable looking Momo. “Sure, whatever. Fine.”

“You don’t sound fine.” Momo ventured, timidly. “Are you okay?”

Sarah closed her eyes for a second. Was she okay?

She was tired. She wasn’t even really mad at James; he’d at least made an effort today to try to talk to her, and things going sideways wasn’t really his fault. She was so tired. But the support group had been good, everyone was doing okay, and she had *almost* gotten herself past her phobia of using the skulljack to plug into another person. Was she okay?

“Yeah.” Sarah said, letting out a breath. “I’m doing fine!” She felt her voice pitch back toward her preferred chipper self, felt the tension drain as she relaxed her shoulders and stuck a smile back on her face. It wasn’t fake, not really; she didn’t just act happy all the time, she really did tend toward it. She just got tired easier, these days. “Hey, so, here’s an idea;” Sarah said to Momo, “Simon and your James are in the back. How about you go grab them, while I look at what you found, and we can go check this kid out. This is the kid, right?” She asked as she finally took the offered phone from Momo and started flicking through the screen.

Momo nodded, grateful to be back on track, but still worried about Sarah. “Yeah, okay!” She said, thumping her fists into the palms of her own hands in excitement. “You sure you’re okay?” Momo asked as she started backpedaling toward the hallway that led back to their little gym.

“I’m *fine*.” Sarah insisted with a grin. “Though thank you for asking, you dingus.” She waved Momo off, sending her to fetch her friends. Sarah peered down at Momo’s smartphone in her hands, currently pulled up to a page for a local high school football team. Momo had, helpfully, zoomed in on one of the faces. “Javier, eh? Football player, seems.” Sarah muttered to herself. Looking up as someone entered the room, she called over to the man, “Hey Harvey! Wanna go help us scout out a kid targeted for assassination by an entire living office complex?”

“Oh *hell* no!” Harvey called back, carrying the last of the chairs. “I got enough of your weird shit three months ago! I’m just here to help out.”

Sarah let out a chiming laugh. “Yeah, okay!” She called back, shaking her head. She forgot, sometimes, that not everyone was as *into* the weird stuff that she and James and the others thrived on. “Alright.” She nodded to herself. “Well, floop it. If they went off to explore a ghost attic on their own, I can go have a chat with one kid, right? Time for an adventure.”

_____

“Hey Rufus.” Dave said as he entered the apartment, the spare key James had given him so long ago letting him in. That was weird on its own, normally the door was never locked. “Where is everyone?” He asked as he set the box he was carrying down on the table.

The stapler-spider-crab-friend-thing gave him a *look*. Dave stared back at it, keeping his face blank, while he privately admitted to himself that it was actually pretty impressive that Rufus could do a *look* with just one eye and without really moving his legs at all. It was something to do with how he tilted his body, just a little bit to the side. Just a fraction, to indicate disdain.

“Okay, so, you can’t talk, right.” Dave nodded. “Is Secret here? Secret can talk.” He walked past Rufus who was now affecting the *very* human gesture of rolling his eye behind Dave’s back, and headed down the hall to the bedrooms.

The place looked a lot nicer, Dave thought to himself. All the extra furniture and whiteboards and stuff really took up a lot of space. Maybe they could start doing anime nights here again. Though, of course, they’d need to reschedule it to be on a night when they weren’t dungeoning. Also a night when Dave didn’t work; but that would be harder. He’d gotten weird looks from both Alanna and James when he’d told them he was still working at the kennel, like they expected him to quit just because he had another source of income.

The kennel was also the reason Dave had gotten out of helping to move all that furniture in the first place. He thought it was great that they had an essentially endless warehouse of desks and things they could use to furnish their new secret clubhouse, but the act of having to carry them out into reality, into the elevator, out of the building’s door, into a truck, *out* of the truck, into a *different* building, and then to where they wanted them? That wasn’t a thing Dave was super interested in doing.

Especially not when there were dogs as a second option.

“Hey, Secret? You awake?” He rapped his knuckles on the bedroom door. No response. Dave let out a defeated sigh.

He looked around the place as he walked out into the living room. Rufus looked like he was trying to teach Lily how to use the TV remote; or maybe just get her off of it. Her app was currently on, the one that gave meaningless statistics for things she caught on her camera, informing Dave that the remote had fourteen hundred and six button presses left on its battery life. The kitchen looked like it was a bit of a mess, which was to be expected with how busy everyone had been. But overall, the whole apartment radiated a sort of quiet that left him feeling mildly alone.

“I thought Anesh would be here, at least.” He said to Rufus. “He’s the one that asked me to bring all this coffee.” Dave idly picked up one of the grocery store bags of coffee grounds out of the box. “No one was over at the clubhouse, either.” He said, sitting down on the couch and trying to make conversation with the uninterested strider.

Dave sighed to himself, deeply. No one appreciated all the trouble he went through! They just assumed he always had time for this stuff, even when he was at work or something. He’d spent two weeks laminating all the paper on Pendragon’s frame, and no one had even offered to help, but as soon as Anesh needed *coffee*, it was down to Dave.

“Oh. I guess the coffee is for the ritual thing.” He realized as he thought about it. “I probably shouldn’t be as annoyed, right?” He asked Rufus, who just shot him a tired expression as the strider tried to muscle the iLipede off of the household electronics. “Right.” Dave nodded.

He looked around again, as if waiting for someone to show up. But no one did. The apartment that usually held all his friends was quiet, and empty.

“Well,” he said as he stood to leave, “I guess it’s good that everyone has a quiet day every now and then.”

_____

Anesh had a lot of time to think on this road trip. He’d left a couple days ago, and was more or less making good time, but he was also making plenty of stops. For food, for gas, just to stretch his legs, whatever.

America was *huge*. People in this country, James included, didn’t seem to *get* that. Anesh had been driving for four *hundred* miles, and still had a third of his trip left to go. When Alanna had helped him plan the trip - and surreptitiously handed Anesh a shotgun for it - she’d told him that he could probably make it in about two days. Two days? Not bloody likely.

It was also beautiful, especially a lot of the parts of southern Oregon he’d driven through. And even some of California, when it wasn’t busy ruining it with cities or sales tax. God, but he’d gotten used to not having to pay sales tax. That was the last reminder of home he needed. His old home, the one overseas, that is. These days, his home was, as the saying so often went, where his heart was. The reminder of *that* home was the eighteen foot long blue serpent with too many eyes and teeth curled up in the back seat.

When he wasn’t admiring the scenery, though, he let his mind wander. And it wandered, as it so often did, to the dungeon.

More specifically, it went to some of the things that he and his partners had talked about, in terms of using the dungeon for the gain of humanity. Anesh was, at his core, a mathematician, but he also *loved* deep dives into logistics and planning and how large scale projects worked. He had at least three youtube channels he watched just to learn about how people built anything larger than a barn. And some of their long term plans presented fascinating challenges.

Skulljacks. That was first on the list. They could, as had been proven, just give them to anyone. But *should* they? Well, yes. That question they’d answered early, and then reinforced over the months. Yes, this was certainly a good idea. Not perfect, no, but it would absolutely cause more good than bad. So how did they *do* it? That was the question Anesh rolled around in his head.

It all hinged on their willingness to breach the veil. To just throw off the masquerade and tell everyone that magic *was* real, and that they *were* wizards. Of a sort, anyway.

Anesh wasn’t ready for that. He felt like there was still too many unknowns, and Alanna agreed with him. James, on the other hand, was of the opinion that they shouldn’t industrialize it right off the bat, but should instead just start handing the things out. That was, honestly, maybe not the worst idea. But it would eventually lead to the breach of secrecy anyway, unless the infection effect only went so far down the chain. Still, it would be a way to test in the small scale whether humanity as a whole was ready for this.

He’d been worrying over that one for a long time. It would have been a lot easier if any of the world’s leading researchers into mind-machine interfaces had taken their calls. Turns out, there was a limit to James’ power to get a meeting, and it also relied on the other person actually being the kind of person who would *go* to meetings. Most mad scientists, and that *was* what Anesh was filing them under, did not.

That was the big one that was within reach, right now, but there were so, so many others. The magic items they found tended to have either no useful effect, or *the* useful effect, and it really only was a matter of time before they hit on something that could cure crippling diseases, regrow limbs, roll back climate shift, destroy nuclear weapon stockpiles, end aging, or any *number* of other problems the world faced.

Anesh had a list, of course. Anesh liked lists, and it helped to have guidelines for what they were looking for. Make it easier to recognize a treasure when it fell into their hands.

The other one that he was currently seriously considering was a suggestion Alanna had made, which was that they could effectively combat homelessness, locally at least, by colonizing the dungeon.

Now, Anesh had issues with the world ‘colonize’. He’d brought this up before, but basically anyone of Indian descent was going to be more than a little suspicious of plans that started with “what if we just take the land we want?”

But in this case, it really did seem, if not purely good, then at least not *too* evil. The denizens of the Office were almost always instantly hostile to an alarming degree, and those that weren’t had so far tended to end up becoming long term friends. Introducing more humans probably wouldn’t be the worst thing ever, considering it didn’t hurt when they started bringing in the larger guild.

The holes in the plan came down to the same two holes in almost every one of their plans. In every human plan ever. Security, and logistics.

Anesh tried to imagine the best case hypothetical, where secrecy was maintained out of goodwill and human decency. They still had to approach, individually, anyone who was currently homeless, then offer them a place to stay, then *explain* it, then, assuming the idiot said yes, they’d need to craft at least a small personal space for them in the dungeon itself that would be livable. Food would be not too much of an issue, now that the dungeon was seemingly ‘awake’ again and respawning things sometimes, but other human needs were problematic. For one thing, the bathrooms outside were only accessible once a week, and the bathrooms *inside* would try to stab you with bugs. Add to that the risk of attack from dungeon life forms, and it was a pretty hostile proposition to begin with.

But, assuming they could entice people, make them homes, take care of plumbing, shelter, food, safety, and the dozens of other little problems that would pop up… then what? How many people could they support? The dungeon had seemingly infinite space, dozens of kilometers at least, so it really came down to if they could support the secondary needs. And then, how many people they brought in or out each week.

“Bah.” Anesh grumbled to himself. He didn’t need advanced calculus to know the numbers just didn’t line up.

As with so many of their plans, he was going to have to table this one.

“Hey Secret.” Anesh called into the backseat, breaking the rumbling silence of the road. “All this thinking is making me hungry. I’m gonna stop at the next diner I see; you want anything?”

Secret sleepily raised his head, uncoiling a bit as he slithered up to poke his head over the passenger seat and stare at Anesh. “I desire a burger.”

“I feel it’s only right to tell you,” Anesh said as he turned the wheel to pull the car off the highway off ramp, craning his neck to check oncoming traffic, “that it is right disturbing that you are so into burgers.”

“They hold the secrets of generations.” Secret told him, solemnly. “Each one, crafted by hands that have stolen their own knowledge from echos that came before them, each one special, each one a personal touch that itself creates more echos for those who follow. The burger is the perfect expression of this world’s knowledge.”

Anesh sat in silent contemplation of the infomorph’s words as he scanned the signs around them for any hint of somewhere to eat that wasn’t fast food. After passing through a particularly long traffic light, he asked the question that Secret had put in his mind. “Is literally anything you just told me true?”

“Perhaps.” Secret hissed back at him, joy bubbling beneath his surface.

“Okay, new question for you, that’s not food related. Mostly.” Anesh sighed as he hit another red light; every single stop he’d made in California had been like this so far. It was like the state hated him. At least it was better than when he’d first moved here and forgot at least once that he had to drive on the wrong side of the road. “Let’s say we’re willing to make use of the dungeon space. How would you use that to help with the problem of homelessness?”

Secret gave him a look like he didn’t understand. “I have not had a home long enough to grasp your meaning. Homelessness? You have a home.”

“Oh bugger.” Anesh breathed out. “This is gonna be a hell of an awkward conversation.” He sighed, and started explaining one of the worse parts of modern civilization as he pulled into the parking lot for Penny’s Diner, slotting his car neatly into a parking space between some old clunker and a moving van. Anesh stepped out into the evening air, weirdly warm compared to back home, leaving a confused and angry Secret in the back seat to think about what he’d been told. He gave an appreciable nod to the spray art someone had done on the hood of the beat up old sedan next to him, of a highway stretching into the sunset.

As he placed a to-go order, making sure to ask for Secret’s burger with whatever house sauce they had, he considered calling James and telling him to have a long talk with his meme-son about the harsher realities of the world. But then shook it off. He needed to get into the habit of accepting that there were two of him, now; that sometimes, he wouldn’t *feel* like he was spending enough time with people until a day or two afterward, when he could recombine his thoughts and memories with his other half. It sucked, now, sure, but… well, he didn’t want to be double the relationship burden. Calling to check in would just be a hassle, especially when he’d get home in a week or so and have it all to himself again *anyway*.

It was times like this Anesh lamented that no therapist on the planet would actually believe him if he tried to talk about his personal problems.

At least everyone back home would be able to have a quiet night, though. Sometimes, that thought was enough to keep him going.

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argusthecat

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!

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