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A note from argusthecat

More words!

“Why is the building so empty?” James asked Daniel as the Guard held the door open for their procession.

The younger man looked at James like he wasn’t sure if this was a test or a trick of some sort. It was like he had watched James build a trap, step back, admire his work, nod, and then point to the trap and say ‘you should walk into that, it could be fun’. Daniel blinked slowly, before inhaling deeply. “Are you… joking?” He asked, tentative.

“No?” James looked puzzled as he got into the elevator with a few other delvers who were all going up. He was personally carrying a box of replacement parts for their body armor sets, but everyone had at least a small bag of stuff in their hands. The constant influx of gear and supplies into the dungeon continued unabated.

“You must be joking.” Daniel said, looking around at the others in the elevator. “Right?”

No one answered him. James just shook his head in growing frustration and shot a glance at the ceiling. “Daniel. Come on.”

“It’s, like, the twenty sixth? Literally the entire company has the week of Thanksgiving off. Did you not wonder why the schedules changed?” Daniel felt a little bad. He should have just assumed James was being earnest.

“Well shit!” James said with an enthusiasm that did not mirror his feelings. The elevator doors opened, letting the group spill out into the landing area around the Door, where the others were already mustering. James stepped off after the people in front of him, swept his eyes around to find where Alanna and Anesh were talking, and strode over to them, tucking the box under his arm. “So, hey, what are we doing for Thanksgiving?”

“What?” Anesh asked, confused.

Alanna took up the slack in the conversation. “Did you forget about it?” She asked confidently. Not waiting for the answer she knew she was going to get, she shook her head and continued. “It’s fine, I expected it.”

The words *hurt*. James was, very often, a forgetful person. For example, now that he thought about things he'd been forgetting, he remembered that he still hadn’t actually called the Anesh that was down in California. Especially when he had something else to focus on, like, say, the world outside of time and space that contained an endless grey and beige expanse of cubicles, for example. But even so, even knowing that he had a bad tendency to let critical details slip from his mind, it was a pretty awful feeling to hear Alanna say it like it was *expected*.

“God, this is why I hate the holidays.” James bit the words off. “It’s just a million stressful things to do, everyone expects things, and even when people say it’s no big deal, it always *is* a big deal out of nowhere at the last minute. I should have known this was going to come up.”

“Sorry, hang on. When’s thanksgiving?” Anesh asked awkwardly. “I’ve been in this country for years now, and I still don’t really know.”

“Last Thursday of November.” Alanna told him, the look of annoyance on Anesh’s face fueling the small smile on her face. “And buddy, don’t worry. Sarah already bought a turkey and everything, the stuff’s in the fridge and ready to go. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I meant that I expected that you’d be, you know… *that*.” She pointed a gloved finger over to where the stairwell door had been thrown open, and delvers were pouring into the Office. “Or, wait, did you have family plans or something? Shit, now I’m the asshole, I should have…”

“Ah.” James said, mollified. “Sorry, I assumed…. Nevermind. And no, no family plans. I’m sure my parents want me to come over for dinner, but they haven’t called or anything. I dunno what Kayle is up to, but I’m okay with it being ‘not joining us’, if you are.”

“Yeah, it’s cool.” Alanna said as they marched in behind everyone else. She didn’t mention her family plans for Thanksgiving. James and Anesh were already well aware that they were it, for her; now that she’d gotten out from under her mother’s roof, she wasn’t exactly thrilled to go back. “Hey, isn’t it supposed to be our job to throw the doors open? Who’s stepping in my limelight?” She demanded as they came upon JP and Dave who were clearly the guilty parties, waiting for them just inside the door.

“You looked busy.” Dave said bluntly, by way of explanation.

The five of them took a look around as the group began to get down to business. Tonight definitely confirmed it; the dungeon was resetting now when they weren’t in it. The cubicles around here were all reset to pristine condition - or at least, as pristine as you could get rough tan carpet over flimsy drywall.

All of their fortification work from last week was once again undone, and Anesh was already running the odds in his head that it might be not worth it to put it back up. This little field of low walled cube clusters wasn’t exactly defensible, but it did leave a lot of open space and clear lines of sight around the base of the tower.

The tower, as Sarah confirmed as she joined them, was sacrosanct. Nothing in there was touched, except by whatever the odd shellaxy or two that had moved in had done. All their gear was safely stored this time, and the others were already starting to pull on armor from the growing supply of riot control body suits, and attach flashlights, flares, radios, and crowbars to their persons.

James, much to his dismay, saw a lot more people with swords.

“This is your fault.” He told JP, without bothering to explain. JP, of course, just smirked back, and let his hand come to rest on the hilt of the blade he was personally wearing on his waist. “It was useful *once*. There’s *one* thing they kill, this is just extra weight.”

They stood there for a while in companionable quiet. Either watching the flock of paper in the far distance flutter by, or eagerly eyeing the tower, or just taking slow breaths of the now-familiar scent of recycled air that nowhere on Earth ever really matched.

After a few minutes, Alanna broke the silence. “Everyone is watching us.” She said.

“Alright.” James opened his eyes, and nodded. “Time to get to work.” The stress was gone, the worries about holiday plans or budgets or other dungeons were all gone, replaced only by the thrill of the adventure.

That feeling lasted exactly until James started to walk forward, and got hit with questions from five different people.

“What’s our goal tonight?” Karen brusquely demanded of him.

“Do we have, like, rotating team assignments?” Alex asked.

“Who’s on door duty my dude?” Tyrone chimed in.

“Have you seen my laser pointer?” The question from Daniel was more general, but it still joined the noise of everyone piling responsibility onto James, and it didn’t help.

James jammed his eyes shut for a heartbeat, closing out the world and its distractions for just a moment. This was, he reflected, going to be something he had to deal with eventually. But right now, he just needed to compose himself briefly before…

“Dave and JP are taking first door shift; we’re looking for alternately a decision tree, or for one of the cubicles listed on the two briefcases we have in the tower; third desk in on the left side of the tower is our useful xenotech reliquary and your laser pointer is in the top right cupboard; no.” The answers to all four questions exploded out of him in rapid fire succession. “Team assignments are with JP, since we have a few different people than normal. Also, just so everyone knows, if she didn’t tell you, this will be Karen’s last dive for a while, so we’ll be splitting her team up today so that we can start getting everyone used to each other.” He looked around, and tried to remember anything else he had to say. “Um… Neil’s here today, he’ll be with JP and Dave, who are apparently our new-guy-wranglers. That’s nice. Neil, I’m sorry we don’t have any armor that fits… okay, Neil is distracted.” James nodded in understanding as the new guy still stood in the doorway, staring off into the distance. “Aside from that… yeah, I don’t think I have anything. Oh, Theo. You’re with Daniel and Tyrone, suck it up.”

James nodded as he watched everyone start to reorganize themselves. The more they did this, the less hand-holding it took to get things moving. And now, it was time for *him* to get moving as well.

He made a pass through the tower’s ground floor, appreciating the camp lanterns that had been set up to give the whole place an almost gloomy orange atmosphere. His first stop was where his personal set of armor plating was waiting for him, and a few minutes to change into it. As soon as the plastic beetle shell was in place covering his joints and limbs, James unclipped the shredded arm where the displacer cat had gotten its claws into him, and anxiously slid one of the replacement parts they’d made from the box he’d brought into its place. It was with a sigh of relief that it snapped in like it was made for it. Which, technically, it was. It just woulda been pretty silly to go through all this work for something that didn’t fit or clip quite right.

After that, he grabbed his PS90 and slung it over his chest, adding their last spare magazine of ammunition to a pouch at his side. Adding to that, he clipped two of Anesh’s thermite lances to his back, and then spent three minutes trying to get them to settle in a way that didn’t keep thumping him in the ass as he walked. A flashlight, an empty pouch to carry orbs in, and one of the fresh canteens full of coffee finished his getup.

He also stopped by the Useful Item Desk, to see if there was anything… useful. He’d considered the pen, of course, or maybe the laser pointer, but those had both been pawned off on other teams. And really, James kinda felt *ready* in a way that made him want to just leave the weird stuff to people who needed it more. Still, he looked at the labels on a pair of headphones that let you hear intents, and a stapler - a real one, sort of - that shoved organic matter away from itself when clicked. He didn’t end up taking them, but he *did* look.

And then, of course, the hatchet.

They’d gone through so many weapon iterations over the months. But James still just felt most comfortable with this solid piece of cold edged metal in his hands. Not even the crowbar compared, especially when he wasn’t wearing gloves and didn’t want to hurt to hit things.

“Alright.” James said as he emerged, to find Alanna similarly adorned. “I’m set. Where’s everyone else?”

Alanna shrugged. “Well, JP and Dave are staying near the door to start with.” She said, and James nodded in acknowledgement. “Also Sarah already left with Momo and one of the guys who I cannot keep track of.”

“Simon.” James informed her. “Because I see Other James over there. With Anesh.”

“Right. So she’s got her own little thing going on. And then Anesh is staying in the tower today.”

“Whaaaat.” James let out a disappointed whine. “I haven’t gotten to really spend time with him at all this week. Fuck, I keep forgetting to call his counterpart, too. I’m being a bad boyfriend. And now we aren’t even delving together?”

Alanna made a sympathetic expression. “Yeah, I get it. But he apparently has six hundred dollars in coffee grounds and a bone to pick with conservation of matter.” She shrugged. “So, you okay with it just being the two of us?” She asked.

If there was any hesitation in her voice, James plowed through it like a truck. “Yeah!” He said enthusiastically. “Just like old times! And by ‘old times’ I mean ‘a couple months ago when we were just so fucking cool’. Remember being so fucking cool, Alanna? Those were good times.”

She smiled at him, his joy infectious. “I was kinda worried. It seems like you’re spending more time with Anesh these days. Or just on your own.” She said as the two of them rounded the tower’s base, and started walking toward where the cubicles began to rise up above head height.

“And… and you’re worried I was avoiding you?” James asked, partly puzzled but partly understanding. “Aw, fuck. I’m sorry. I’ve got a lot of excuses, but the short version is, I’m sorry. I’m not ignoring you, I’m just… me.”

“Figured.” Alanna said. “But that’s still good to know. I’ll be honest, despite the fact that it’s my fault, I’m not used to a relationship like this.”

“What, with three people?” James asked, waving at Momo’s party a few rows of cubes over where they were poring over a copy of the dungeon map.

Alanna joined him in signaling the other team as their path diverged from Momo’s group. “No, one where everyone cares.”

“Holy shit, that’s bleak.” James wanted to laugh, but opted to choke that back instead, not wanting to be an accidental asshole. He had some more to say about how he didn’t want to betray Alanna’s trust, how he promised this thing they had wouldn’t be that way, but as with so many things in his life, the dungeon interrupted him. This time, in the form of a strider trying to cut into his ankle.

[+1 Skill Rank : Bureaucracy - Medical - Nursing]

“Alright, here we go.” He said as they approached the ‘treeline’ of cubes that made up the more common labyrinthian hallways of the Office, the distraction pulling their attention back to reality. “Ready? Any other relationship woes I should know about?”

“Nah, I’m good.” Alanna stepped up next to him, pulling the velcro on her gloves tight. “Let’s do this.”

They stepped forward together.

_____

The more organized they got, as a guild, the less work James had to do to keep that organization going.

Tonight, they’d come in, he’d answered a few questions, and everyone had spun off into their own roles. They certainly had factions in the guild, now. The Guard were one, and the people James was referring to more and more out loud rather than in his head were The Caretakers, of which Karen was certainly a champion. But those factions took a back seat to small group dynamics, and the individual missions each team had set.

Also, preplanning was amazing. Before the meeting the other night had wrapped up, they’d more or less settled who was going where. Everyone was keeping an eye out for the cube numbers that were listed on the ‘delivery orders’ on the two briefcases they had; after all, the value of a single case would put them in the black for *months*. And everyone was also on the lookout for more briefcases. And more anomalies, orbs, cash, and magic items. Of course.

But they had gone over the map, and everyone had a certain place they were searching. And beyond that, a place they were mapping. Especially Daniel and Tyrone, who were carrying Pathfinder through large unexplored swaths of dungeon and blazing a trail for those who would follow and give it a thorough look.

Dave’s team was starting to specialize into big game hunting, preparing with blades and thermite and a not-insignificant skill with snare traps that didn’t come from an orb at all, but rather, a lot of practice in the secret base. They were on the lookout for tumblefeeds and cats, ready to react and learning to track the bigger beasties of the office.

Momo and her team attracted those who were interested in trying to figure out the dungeon’s secrets, looking for places where things were different, where orbs were weirder, and where they could maybe steal a few little facts. Tonight, they were on the hunt for as many reds as they could get their hands on.

And James and Alanna? Well, they were here for one thing this time.

“How many do you have in there, anyway?” James asked Alanna as they took a short break in one of the cubicles that didn’t have a ceiling and wasn’t dark. They’d had a run in with a pissed off shellaxy, and while neither of them were hurt, they both needed some time to let the surprised adrenaline wear off.

James was pointing at Alanna’s orb bag, where she’d been apparently stashing just about every yellow orb she’d gotten. With a shrug that was too casual, she answered, “Oh, a few. Forty eight, I guess.”

“You… guess that specifically? Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’m just kind of impressed. I would have snacked on some of them by now.” James told her as he rose back to his feet, stretching his fingers out in front of him as he got ready to move again and taking a break from idly snapping pencils in half. “Like, you could have gotten a skill point in, I dunno… anything!”

Alanna turned a laugh into a soft grin, not wanting to make too much noise. “That is how the skills work, yeah. But no, I just think it’s gonna be way more valuable to turn them in with a tree.” She shrugged as she idly flipped through the desk drawer in front of her, pulling out a couple pens, an overly fancy paper clip, and a candy bar. “Hey, check it out. Baby Things.”

“Oh man, I miss those.” James said. “Any wallet here?”

“No, and the computer won’t turn on either.” Alanna shrugged. “Ready to move on?”

James nodded decisively. “Yeah, let’s do it.” He tapped the drone they’d brought along that hung from his armor’s webbing. “Scout first?”

A short look of thought crossed Alanna’s face, before she shook her head. “We’re not that deep. Let’s keep moving, I want to make good time.”

“Alright. Just don’t forget we’ve got expendable eyes here.” James told her as the two of them stacked up at the door. He peeked out to both sides, sighing a little at the surreal look of the hallway that went on for well over a hundred cubicle doors. “Clear.” He said, stepping out and moving with expert steps to the right side of the hall to give Alanna room.

She moved out a second later next to him, and once again, they started walking.

It was strange how time flowed in Officium Mundi.

For long stretches like this, a half hour of walking could feel like a few minutes. But then, a trap would spring or a fight would explode into violence, and a minute would be a whole hour. Right now, James was employing one of the most valuable skills he’d learned in his time here; being alert without being paranoid. Every step was planned, quiet and well placed to make sure they were never stopping right in front of a potential ambush point of a cubicle door. Every corner, every overhang, every lip of the walls around them, was a potential danger. James knew they had to be watching everywhere, but he also knew that watching everywhere would exhaust them rapidly.

So he let his brain click to autopilot. His feet moved, his eyes were open, but he wasn’t expecting anything. He was coiled and ready, but not tense. Beside him, he felt Alanna trying to do the same, though she wasn’t quite able to make the mental leap like he was. James was pretty sure it was a combination of a couple orbs, his time with secret, and also just a lot of yoga classes on the company’s dime that let him do it. Not to mention the experience of the dungeon itself.

And this hallway was far longer than it would need to be to make all that effort worth it. Because while they’d initially assessed it at a few hundred cubes, James was starting to realize it was more like a couple thousand.

“We should make this a main corridor. Get the bikes in here.” He told Alanna. “Think it’s worth turning back for them?” He asked.

She shook her head. “There’s no intersections.” She said, suspicious eyes watching the doors up ahead. “We’d have to make some.”

“We could do that.” James hefted his axe. “I’d be *happy* to…”

“Too loud.” Alanna told him. She was firm, but grinning while she said it. “You know we’ve been having more problems with loud noises lately.”

James winced. That was true. There’d been a strider swarm last week, and he wasn’t keen to learn if the other things in the dungeon had similar reactions to loud noises.

The duo took a few more steps forward, and then both of them halted at the same time. The ground underfoot had *crunched*. Alanna took a rapid step back, one hand on her weapon just in case they needed it, the other tapping James on the shoulder. He took the signal, and looked down at what they were getting into.

The carpet here was a kind of dark blue that looked somehow unspeakably boring. James hadn’t been paying much attention to it, so when it suddenly decided to make a new sound at being stepped on, he felt a little stupid. When he looked down, he saw that what he’d just stepped in was also dark blue, so he felt a little better.

A whole patch of the floor had been covered by ball point pen lids. The blue ones that showed up in every office, and got lost as rapidly as the cheap pens they supposedly protected did. Wait, no. Covered was the wrong word. A thin strip of the floor was *replaced* by them. That was weird.

“Lids.” James said to Alanna. “Maybe some kind of quicksand thing? I dunno. Looks like a few more patches up ahead. We can probably avoid walking on them, though. Keep going?” He voiced the standard question.

Alanna glanced to the side, where the looming curved face of a cubicle offered shelter behind a curved doorframe. “Let’s stop here for a second. Get the drone up.”

“Good call.” James said, carefully pulling his foot off the offending surface, a little worried something was going to burst out and grab his leg as he did so. But nothing went wrong. It was just different, and around here, different often meant dangerous, so he kept his eyes open as they stepped back and Alanna swept the cube for threats.

One overly aggressive computer mouse later, James flopped back in the padded chair in front of the horseshoe desk, and set the drone onto the flat surface, ready for takeoff. While Alanna added the yellow to her burgeoning trade stock, James powered up the drone, and clipped in the controller to the skulljack on the back of his head.

Without a word, the drone launched itself skyward. James had gotten pretty good at this over the last couple weeks of practice; and now, he turned that training time toward ensuring them a safe path forward. He saw through four wide angle eyes, he pushed at the air with a pair of main-body fans, and he became a hard plastic and metal shell wrapped around a radio receiver.

Alanna watched James’ second body zip away overhead, humming to herself softly. She was keeping watch, yes, but this hallway felt safe to her. Sure, they’d had a couple run-ins with striders or the odd shellaxay, but nothing threatening. Which was, itself, kind of odd. They’d come a loooong way, compared to their previous delves. The hallway stretched behind them a fair handful of miles, and it felt strange to have come so far and encountered basically nothing of note.

Well, there were a few things of value at least. They were still stripping easy cash out of the cubicles they stopped in, but they were more going for time than anything else, and a few hundred bucks wasn’t anything to write home about. Alanna considered that they should maybe turn back, and backtrack a mile or so to where there was an intersection. Maybe another path was what was in order; they could update their map that this area was a boring-zone and move on with their lives.

She snorted into the empty air. Boring. What a fucking word. Alanna was staring down a hallway that went so far that she couldn’t see the details at the end, only a sort of haze. Overhead, in the gaps in the fifteen foot tall cubicle walls around them, she saw swarms of self-directed razor-sharp printer paper flying by. And hell, even just ahead of them, there could be something amazing. Sure, so far, it was just that the dungeon had discovered how to make the world’s most annoying gravel, but later? Who knew?

Alanna needed an unreality check every now and then, or she got super jaded about how great this all was.

“Okay!” James’ voice behind her sent a small shock through her fingers as he snapped his eyes open and instantly started talking. “I think you’re gonna like this.”

At no time, in the history of mankind, had anyone ever taken that statement at face value. “Why?” Drawled Alanna.

“Because it’s rad. Come on, you’ll see. I parked the drone a ways down, let’s go grab it. I didn’t see any wildlife on the way, and it’s only a quarter mile or so.” James told her.

With narrowed eyes, Alanna followed James out of their little cube refuge. She noticed that, while he said he hadn’t seen any angry wildlife, he was still smart enough to keep his senses sharp to their surroundings. The perception skill Alanna had picked up on their rescue delve tickled in the back of her skull, pointing out to her the ways James tilted his head and eyes that were ‘correct’, to her senses. It felt strangely intrusive, but also reassuring that her tied-for-favorite boyfriend wasn’t being an idiot.

They slid back into their alert positions almost by accident, taking short bursts of steps down the hallway, past innumerable cubicle doors on either side. James avoided the growing number of patches of pen-cap ground at first, and Alanna mimicked him, but eventually there was less hard carpet than there was hard plastic, and the two of them found their boots crunching with every other step whether they wanted them to or not.

And then the walls around them began to degrade.

Bit by bit, as they walked, the walls were less solid. Dustier, but in a way that felt like delicate and accidental patterns in the fallen dust, and not just that the walls were covered in the stuff. Alanna had this suspicion that if she tapped one, it might crumble away.

Some of them *had* crumbled away. There was a good ten foot section of the left hand facade that had the top five feet broken off and tumbled in decaying chunks into the walkway itself. They skirted around it, more out of convenience than worry, though Alanna did step on a mostly-intact chunk of wall panel that had gone fuzzy at the broken edge. It turned to powder under her boot, ground into dust against the blue caps that made up the floor now.

“What is that *smell*? It’s like a chemical factory exploded.” Alanna commented to James in a quiet voice as they pushed on a large piece of fallen wall, caving it in through the middle and opening up their path more clearly.

“Oof.” James waved a gloved hand in front of his nose. “Wow. Couldn’t smell that through the drone. Maybe we should invest in filter masks if we plan to come back here.”

“Back *where*? Where are we going?”

“Hang on, almost there. You’ll love, or hate, this.”

The pressed on, just a bit farther. Around them, the walls that had survived were pitted and ground down, looking more like beige rocks than anything else. The chemical smell got stronger in the air as the space around them got more and more open, the walls worn down to shorter and shorter heights. There was no fancy architecture or distortion here, just normal cubicles that had taken some serious weather damage. There was also ivy, of some sort.

The plant was the bright green of a highlighter, and it seemed like the glowed a bit under the fluorescent lights. Vines of it crept along the walls around them, seeming to have their roots buried in the mounds of sandy dust from the ruined structures. The vines had dozens of blades of razor grass growing off of them, mixed with strange clear bulbs full of some kind of fluid that never seemed to flower. They didn’t move, but they created an alien atmosphere in this last stretch of hallway.

Alanna and James stayed clear of those.

And then, they passed one more row of cubicles, and suddenly they saw the *sky*.

No, that wasn’t right. Alanna peered upward at the ceiling here. Now that the cube walls had worn down to under waist height, her vision was unobstructed. It wasn’t a sky, it was just thousands of paper ‘birds’, fluttering against the backdrop of the overhead lights, moving in such large flocks they looked like clouds.

James, taking the lead, kicked down a decrepit dusty wall to the sand and plastic floor, making them a path around a larger wall ivy. Alanna noticed him stoop down as they moved to pick up the drone he’d landed here. And she understood why he’d wanted her to get the full experience of seeing this place for the first time.

It was a beach.

Ahead of them, curving outward to the left and right for what seemed like *miles*, was rocky beach. The sand from the crumbled edifices of the walls behind them mixing with the hard plastic gravel of the floor, making a surface that crunched and drifted in the strange air currents. The hum of air conditioning hovered omnipresent over the beach, from somewhere hidden directing the flow of air. They were in the center of a bay, with the arms of it reaching out on either side. The left side rose up into a hill in the distance, and through a flock of paper, Alanna could see a massive tower perched on it; a perverse lighthouse watching over the place.

And about twenty meters ahead of them, the sand met the waves.

Lapping at the shores of this absurd, impossible place, was a sea of dripping, acrid black. The scent of it was overpowering, and it suddenly made sense why it was such a powerful chemical stink.

Printer ink. A literal ocean of it. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of gallons of the stuff.

“This is *insane*.” Alanna gasped. Beside her, James wiped sweat off his forehead as he took in the scenery too. The view through a drone camera didn’t even begin to do this place justice. “Okay, this was worth the surprise.” She told him. “But I want you to know, I am already trying to figure out how to pipe that entire ocean out into our world.”

“Is this because printer ink is a bizarrely expensive commodity or something?” James asked with a smile aimed off into the waves. The ocean kept moving, somehow, despite the lack of tides here, and the sticky noise of each individual splash against the shores was dissonant and novel all at once.

“It would literally solve all our money problems if we could pipe this out. We could buy the building, the land it’s on, the entire *company you work at*, and just sell printer ink at slightly below market prices. Forever. And we could be *heroes*, James. They’d make us king. They’d make us *god*.”

James shot a disbelieving glance at Alanna, then another, more worried doubletake as he saw the enthralled expression on her face. “Ooooookay. First of all, I don’t think that’s how divinity works. But fuck, I may be wrong. I also thought offices didn’t turn into oceans after six miles. Also, holy shit, who hurt you? Was it Inkjet? I bet it was Inkjet.”

Alanna scowled, lost in memory. “They charge more to recycle used printer cartridges than to buy new ones.” She said, as if that explained everything. “I was in *high school*, and I couldn’t afford printer ink, James.”

“I’ll add them to the list.” James said, cryptically. “Anyway, if you want to get away from your *clearly* very traumatic memories of trying to make a printer work, I’ve got one more bonus for you.” He pointed down the beach.

About six hundred feet away, leaning out over the sand from where it was rooted in the crushed dusty remains of a cluster of cubicles, was a decision tree.

It wasn’t like the others they’d seen. It had a curved trunk with terraced looks of cable hanging off it like vines. It felt all at once looser than the original, and also more solid. Like it could weather a million storms and never complain. Large oval leaves came off its crown, each of them bouncing a neon green, blue, and black screensaver pattern. Monitor lizards scampered across the surface of the massive piece of flora, going about their strange symbiotic business.

“Want to go have a loot?” James asked Alanna.

“I’m not gonna rob them, dude.” She told him, offended.

“I actually meant ‘look’.” James said sheepishly. “I keep slipping up on words lately. It’s getting frustrating. Anyway. Let’s go trade.”

They approached cautiously, but when they were about halfway there, a mild interruption stopped them.

James had placed his foot down on what seemed like a perfectly fine patch of sand, and as soon as he began applying weight to it, the ground underneath shifted. It wasn’t quicksand, and didn’t try to pull him in, but in the span of a couple seconds, a shellaxy had erupted from the ground beneath them.

Dust and small runners of underground ink ran off the thing’s case in waterfalls, making it look like a majestic old turtle even as it lunged forward. Alanna, reacting with worryingly precise reflexes, yanked James back a half step by his shoulder, and the snapping mouth of the shellaxy closed on air instead of leg. Their armor was tough, probably even tough enough to survive being gnawed on for a few seconds. But a full on chomp would still bruise, and cause damage.

James retaliated with a kick, finding his balance on the ground and lashing out as soon as Alanna let go of him. His foot connected with the side of the ambulatory computer monster, but while he snapped one of the latches off, he hadn’t expected the thing to keep half its leg-coils rooted in the sand. The shellaxy didn’t *move*, and all the force of James’ accelerated kick that had to go somewhere instead went back up his body, sending him sliding back on unstable ground.

The shellaxy made a second lunge, this time going for Alanna, who deftly stepped out of its range. It might be stable, but it was leashed in the sand like this, and she just kited away from it like she’d done it a thousand times. Then, while its attention was on her, James regained his footing and hit it from behind with his hatchet. It snapped its head around toward him as he added a screeching gash to its side and another nick to his weapon, and Alanna took the opportunity to slam the point of her steel toed boot into the same dent James had made before.

By the time it realized that it wasn’t getting an easy ambush meal out of them, the shellaxy was too late. The duo dismantled it rapidly, and James pocketed the yellow orb without any remorse. He was perfectly happy to negotiate or make friends with the life forms here, but not if they kept trying to *eat him*.

“Kay.” He said with an exhalation of breath. “So, that’s something to watch out for. I wonder if they bury themselves to hunt striders or something coming down to the water? Like a massive oasis?”

“We need a nature documentary in here.” Alanna said, agreeing with James in a roundabout way that this was all fascinating. “Wanna see if we can recruit David Attenborough?”

“Yes.” James didn’t even have to think about it. “But for now, the tree.”

The monitor lizards were wary as they approached, hiding among the leaves. James and Alanna didn’t instantly try to make their trades, instead sitting down on the sandy ground to relax for a minute, and let the little shards of screen get used to their presence.

“What should we do after this?” James idly asked Alanna while the two of them stared up at the dancing colors of the leaves overhead. Decision trees were still just the coolest thing here, to him, and he could enjoy their shade all day.

“Go home.” One of the leaves switched to words at his words. “Go for a swim.” Said another. “Look for shells.” A third offered.

“I think we head back.” Alanna said, causing that frond to glow brightly before the words all faded. “We’ve got plenty of time, but we should take a turn on the door, and make sure everything’s okay. We haven’t had any radio contact, but we are kinda far off, and these things don’t have infinite range.”

“Agreed.” James said. “Wanna see if they’ll give us a good deal?” He motioned up to where a cluster of monitor lizards were watching them, curious but fearful.

“Yeah.” Alanna said, rising to her feet and pulling out the now bulging sack of orbs she’d collected. “Let’s see what we can get.”

The lizards, in fact, did *not* give her a good deal. In fact, they gave Alanna and James a deal that was about a third as good as they’d gotten from the previous trees. It felt kinda awful, but at the end of the day, there was really only two known sources of purple orbs, and one of them required ambushing stuffed shirts that happened to have orbs before they could use them. So, this time, for now, they took what they could get. Maybe, if James was being charitable, he could believe that the tree just didn’t have that many orbs and it was getting the most it could out of its supply.

And what they could get was two orbs for James, and fifteen for Alanna. All of them the size and color of large grapes, each one of them a delicious treasure.

They agreed to use them when they got back, in a safe place. And as they brushed themselves off and prepared to leave, Alanna casually slipped a few of her own orbs into James’ hand.

“Here.” She said. “I’m gonna give a handful to Anesh, too. You can owe me or something. But we’ve gotta keep up with each other, you know?” As if that explained away her almost automatic generosity.

James smiled, nervously. “Man, sometimes I never know what to do with you.” He told her.

Overhead, the leaves lit up. Only this time, the tree only had a single message for them, unified across all its different screens.

“Kiss her you idiot.”

Alanna, glancing up at the change, glared at the tree. “Now hang on. I don’t know if I’m okay with a piece of digital vegetation shipping us, and…”

She was interrupted as James casually pulled his gloves off, placed his hands on either side of her face, and pulled her down slightly to give her a passionate and lasting kiss.

The tree overhead resumed its colored dance of lights, though maybe a bit brighter this time.

After half a minute or so, James and Alanna pulled away from each other. “Alright.” Alanna said, blushing uncharacteristically. “Fucking fine, I guess the tree was right.”

James’ laugh echoed louder than the sound of the waves for just a minute. “Okay,” He said, “let’s go home. For now.”

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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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