James and Alanna made it back to the breach to find it more or less exactly as expected. Kind of a chaotic mess, but otherwise fine. JP gave them a wave as they walked up, standing up stiffly from his seat to greet them. A few rows of low cubicle walls over, Dave was pointing off at different things on the horizon and regaleing Neil with tales of the cool shit they’d done there. It was an almost quintessentially Dave thing to do; he wasn’t really bragging, but he also wasn’t shutting up, and it was looking like the new kid was getting frustrated with it.
That was a feeling James could relate to; he’d been there.
“Yo. Welcome back, guys.” JP greeted the duo. “Find anything good out there?” He asked casually. When Alanna opened the pouch at her side to reveal the gleaming purple orbs in there, dully shimmering against the black fabric, his eyes went wide. “Oh shit, nice. Found a tree?”
“Yeah, a palm top.” James commented offhandedly.
It took Alanna’s brain a second to process the 90’s flavored office pun he’d just made. When she did, she bit her lip and let out a low groan. “Oh, that’s bad. But yeah, hey, you know people, right?”
“That’s a loaded question.” JP told her. His words were guarded, but his smile was curious. “What’s up?”
“We found a literal ocean of printer ink, and I’m wondering how easily we could build a pipeline.” Alanna told him.
What followed was about ten minutes of explaining to JP that yes, the were serious, and yes, printer ink was actually a weirdly valuable commodity. At first, he didn’t believe them, and once he did, he was actually kind of angry about it. After that, James waited patiently while he and Alanna comisserated together about how unfair modern technology was. By the time they were done, he felt like there was a weird scaffold of a plan in place to start extracting liquid value out of the office, but he’d honestly kind of spaced out in the middle of it. James hadn’t really gotten any reasonable amount of sleep in the last twenty four hours, and it was starting to show.
“So, when are you using the purples?” JP asked, snapping James back to reality. “Are you gonna share with Anesh?”
“Anesh has expressed mild discomfort with the level of transhumanist upgrading that James and I are so ham for.” Alanna told him, rolling her eyes. “Though we’re gonna offer him some, yes.”
JP mouthed a confused ‘what’, before glancing at James, who gave him a shrug. “How?” He asked. “He’s literally two people. I don’t… how?”
“Hey man, I’m uncomfortable with the skulljack, and I’m… me.” James said with another light shrug, which mostly just illustrated to himself how sore his shoulders were. “Look, I wanna go drop my gear off and sit for a bit. Are you guys ready to head out?”
“Yeah, Neil’s ready for some action, and I’ve been staying out of earshot of Dave. Love him like a brother, I do, but he can talk.”
“I hear that.” James agreed. He raised a hand as they walked by, and gave JP an overhand high five. “Tag ya in.” He said with a grin. “Have fun out there. Good luck Neil! Don’t die horribly on your first go!”
“Don’t worry about it.”
James and Alanna made their way through the pattern of low walls around the tower to where the day’s base was set up. ‘Base’ was a strong word for what they were working with today, really. Mostly, the tower itself was becoming their base, but no one really wanted to put in too much time to remodeling it, and they didn’t *need* that much space here. Most of their gear was stashed on the lower level, and the only point of interest was the top floor where Anesh was currently running his mad science experiments.
It felt good to strip off the armor. James still wasn’t really used to wearing it; even though it’d literally saved his life more than once, it wasn’t exactly comfortable to be in. It didn’t help that, even with the machinery to make swappable replacement parts, the fit wasn’t perfect and there were still a few points that had some rough edges.
The two of them, as they unloaded their finds and their tools, kept up a companionable quiet. It wasn’t that they had nothing to say - most of their trip back had been in relative uninterrupted safety and they had spent the majority of it arguing over whether or not using their newfound power to destroy Wal Mart was an ethical thing to do - it was more that they were just *tired*. So exhausted. From the constant planning and resupply of the guild; to the hunt for and discovery of not one but *two* dungeons; to the fact that James *still worked his day job*; and ending on the fact that they’d just spent two hours effectively going on a hike where every fifteen minutes something tried to kill them.
Not, like, effectively or anything. But the life here still tried.
“We should go see what Anesh is up to.” James suggested, after they’d sloughed off the majority of their stuff. He still had the hatchet on his belt, and Alanna had the revolver in an underarm holster, because they were still in a hostile dungeon and they’d never really feel safe if they went totally unarmed. But this area near the door had always been pretty empty, and it felt even more so today. Alanna grunted in agreement, rolling her shoulders before stooping over to duck into the lower floor of the tower.
“Wonder if he made it work.” Alanna thought out loud as the two of them navigated the tight hallways and sloped ramps between floors. “Have you put any thought into it?” She asked James.
He panted slightly as they surmounted the eight floor; going up stairs, or things that were basically just harder to use stairs, was way more tiring than just walking in a straight line. “Oh, I was mostly thinking on what the projector was.” He admitted. “Like, I’m pretty sure it’s a magic item, right? It’s gotta be a blue thing. But the weird-ass coffee pentagram is… is…”
“Yeah, exactly.” He agreed with Alanna. “It doesn’t fit anything else we’ve seen. It’s almost like totemizing a red. Like this is what happens when you make an item out of a blue, and *also* a red.”
Alanna nodded, before giving a slight sigh as she realized they’d gotten turned around and missed the ramp up again in the weird looping interior halls. “Yeah, okay. Is it okay to say I’m pretty sure Sarah is wrong about the orb uses?”
“No, I think that’s fair. I’m not sure we’re right either, though. We’re acting like they all have parallel use cases, but that’s kind of assuming a lot of this place.” James agreed. “So, like, what if you can make an item out of any orb color? Like, okay, we know some can make life, of varying sorts. Some can make totems. Maybe some can make items? This thing could be a red item; a focus for a ‘ritual’ in the same way that… no, that doesn't make sense, because traps.”
“Traps could be red life.” Anesh greeted them as they got to the top of the ramp. “Also, cheers. How was the delve?”
“A long walk to a short dock.” James replied instantly.
“We found a beach, and an ocean.” Alanna filled in, taking pity on Anesh’s poor confused face. “So, how’s the experiment going?”
Anesh sighed. Alanna sighed too, because she was coming to intimately know the look on Anesh’s face when he was about to start talking about a problem that was over her head. James did not sigh; he'd gotten used to that look a long time ago.
“Okay, here's the deal.” Anesh started. He paced while he walked, pointing out coffee on the floor and table, notes on his confiscated whiteboards, and papers covered in mathematical theories that most humans would find insane. Even the mathematicians. “The thing works. I don't know how, or why it works, though, and that's bugging me. Now, don't get me wrong; I've seen the ‘data’ from the red orb totems, and I'm aware that while it is out of my expertise, there's a perfectly valid theory that ties their function together. But this? This doesn't feel like it follows any rules at all, except what it personally comes up with on the spot. It's a bad magic item from a D&D game where the GM forgot something and had to cover his ass.” Anesh pointed an accusatory finger at the projector, sitting innocent, and also inanimate. “This fucking thing doesn't follow any predictive rules. It mocks calculus. It is distressingly immune to chaos theory. It does not fit any usable model I can come up with.” He stopped with a huff of air and a stamp of the foot.
“So…” James ventured, “it works?”
“I’m not done complaining about this yet, hang on.” Anesh groused, looking between James and Alanna’s faces as he paced. Then he rolled his eyes, sighed in a deeply offended way, and spoke again. “Yeah, okay, it works. Sort of!” He tapped the long conference table that held the projector and some stray coffee grounds. “So, the stuff from in here? The knockoff Starbucks bagged grounds that show up in the towers, only in the towers? That stuff works perfectly. And now I’m gonna be annoyed again because *that does not hang together*! No other dungeontech that we’ve run across comes in two parts, except this thing, which suddenly has both two parts, and those parts suspiciously close to each other.” He noticed his partners losing focus, and snapped back to his point. “Anyway. The dungeon coffee works fine. Coffee from outside? It also works Sort of. But it can’t copy orbs, magic, anything reality-warping, basically. And, now get this, you can *blend them*, and different combinations copy different things. Oh, and when I say ‘different combinations’, I mean, like, this kona dark roast can copy orbs if it’s up to 20% of the mix, but this french blonde roast caps out at 5%. I can copy a magazine of bullets at about 70% of anything, though.”
“You can copy orbs.” Alanna flatly stated, ideas already sparkling in her eyes.
“I can copy *anything*.” Anesh told her. So speaking, he plucked the slim remainder of a yellow legal pad off the table and tossed it over. James caught it and looked down to see the top page contained the words ‘the base of the cubicle tower, closest to the door to Officium Mundi, from the stairwell’. “I made a mistake with the teleporters, though. Each one has five pages, but the first page is always gonna be a recall to here.” Anesh shrugged. “But yeah. What do we want more of?”
He said it like it was… nothing. Like he didn’t understand the doors he’d just opened.
“Money.” James said, without thinking about it. “Fund our operations. Literally all our problems are bottlenecked by money.”
“No, orbs and the consumable items like this.” Alanna replied. “We don’t know how hard it’s gonna be to get more coffee. We should make it count. Replicate *this*.” She said, holding up a purple orb that glittered in the low light of the top floor of the tower.
“If conserving mana-coffee is our goal, then we should totally go with money. That, and ammo, or explosives. Anything that would get us noticed by a government.” James rebutted.
Anesh nodded. “Good point. I can stretch the resources we have. I’m not calling it mana-coffee though.”
“The problem is that our growth, as a trio and as a guild, is just too weirdly haphazard. Like, we get all these random skills, but only every month or two do we figure out how to use one to *do* anything.” James tapped his chin. “We should really be having everyone meditate on their orbs. Have you guys ever done that?”
“Please never say ‘meditate on your orbs’ again.” Anesh said.
“I meditate on your orbs all the time.” Alanna spoke simultaneously.
James blew a raspberry at them. “No, I mean, it’s this thing I started trying to do after the whole card counting thing. Which, by the way, I did not enjoy, but am willing to do again if we need a bundle of hundreds to feed to the projector. Anyway, you just kind of focus on the orb, and roll it around in your head. It helps to feel everything that you know now, since normally skills don’t actually trigger unless you’re using them.”
“Weird. I like it, though, and I can get on board.” Anesh said. “Doesn’t solve our problem of what to spend the mana coffee on.”
“I thought we weren’t calling it that?”
“It’s a placeholder.”
“Anyway. Jumping back a second. What *does* give us the capacity to accomplish our goals? Like, the real ones. Not just trying to claw through whatever new challenge is slammed in front of us by either dungeon or poverty, but actual goals. Can we, feisably, make enough money to *buy the world*?”
Anesh and Alanna looked at the small size of the projector screen for a long, *long* moment before turning back to James. As one, they answered, “No.”
“Okay. Orbs, then. Yellows we can, probably, keep getting. I don’t think we need to copy those. Ditto blues, though they’re a higher priority. Oranges… we can’t use yet.”
“I can.” Anesh interjected. “I think I know how to teach you, too. Maybe.”
“Not yet.” James continued. “Reds, no. Greens, maybe. Purples.” He stopped and looks at Alanna. “Purples?”
She nodded. “Purples are a good start.” Alanna rolled a few of them around in her hand, before awkwardly dropping one, swearing curtly, and having to get down on her knees to find it under the table. “But what do they *do*?” She called up from the floor.
“Good point. I guess they get us closer to, like, being able to covertly destroy the oil industry?” James shrugged. “I feel like we need to start getting more used to the fact that the dungeon is the foundation of our abilities, not the point of them. Like, Alanna, we were just talking about this. We need to be doing something with all this, or what’s the fucking point? It’s heartless.”
Alanna opened her mouth, then closed it again and tilted her head sideways, a look of puzzled thought on her face. James and Anesh watched her patiently, waiting for the idea to manifest, and eventually, were rewarded by their partner saying, “Okay, this might be crazy. But. What if I could… get a heart?”
“Wat.” James barked out.
But Anesh already got it. “Oh. Ooooh. A human heart. Because we have enough space on the projector to abuse exponential growth a bit.” His eyes got wide. “We could… I mean, the demand for organs is big, but *limited*. That is actually somewhere we could make a serious dent. Or, you know, remove the problem. Assuming the coffee holds out. Which it *could*, because organs are mundane, weird as that sentence sounds.”
“Do you know organ facts just by coincidence, or is that a Skill?” James asked him.
“Not everything is a skill.” Anesh said cryptically.
“Okay. Okay. So we can solve the global wait list for heart transplants.” Alanna held her head in her hands, like she was just now coming to terms with the fact that they were about to bend both physics and the scarcity based economy over the table and have their way with them. Which she was coming to terms with. Rapidly, and with relish. “This is amazing. What else can we do? Can we kill hunger?”
“Logistics says no. We’re looking for high value, low size. Diamonds?” James suggested.
“The value of diamond is artificial.” Alanna told him. “And that solves no problems. What about… what about… god damn, this is too much.” She stole a chair, brushing Anesh’s leftover coffee onto the floor.
“Okay. So we’re bad at this. And our ideas cap out at ‘give everyone superpowers’, or more likely ‘give ourselves whom we trust *more* superpowers’, and also ‘solve medical shortages’.” James hummed. “That’s not a bad list?” He glanced at Anesh, and asked, “How much coffee do we even have left?”
Pulling a cardboard box over, the noise a harsh scraping against the smooth wood of the table and the rough leftover coffee grounds, Anesh peeked inside. “Maybe three uses if we do mundane stuff. I’ve been doing this for the whole three hours you were gone.”
“No way we were gone that long.” Alanna protested, before trying to check her phone, and realizing there was no way to tell if it was still keeping proper time. “Okay, maybe we were. I’m so tired, I feel like I’ve been up all day.”
“Alanna, you wake up at 7AM, every day. You literally have been up an entire day. It’s just… some of it took place outside of time.” James shrugged from where he was pacing in front of one of the tower’s windows. “Take a nap. I’m okay with us staying on guard duty while everyone else has fun. Oh! We should use the purples now, though, before we forget again. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but it’s *too* easy to forget about orbs if you don’t use them right away. I think it’s a dungeon curse thing, but Secret isn’t here for me to pester about it.”
Anesh accepted a few orbs from Alanna, less grudgingly than James had expected him to be about it. “Have we considered using one or more of these to make another memetic life? Something like Secret, but, I dunno, more focused?”
“We’d have to feed it.” James said. “And that would mean using these up. And I’ve got plans for myself once I’m a supersoldier. So!” He balanced his whole half dozen purple spheres in his palm, and then brought his hand together in a fist.
[Shell Upgraded : Stable Platelet Count +62,000]
[Shell Upgraded : Synapse Signals/Second +.8]
[Shell Upgraded : Left Eye Vision 20/+5]
[Shell Upgraded : Neuroplasticity +4%]
[Shell Upgraded : Lifespan +1.3 Months]
[Shell Upgraded : Comfortable Bladder Volume +3oz]
There was a staggering amount to unpack in those six burning lines of thought that coursed through James’ brain. The first of which being just how much thinking *hurt* all of a sudden.
His vision sharpened, he could feel his blood strengthening, even the small urge to use the bathroom lessened. But mostly, his thoughts *raced*. They pounded through lines of thought like liquid electricity, simultaneously exhilarating and painful. The world came into sharp edges and harsh tones, very suddenly and very unexpectedly.
It took James a few seconds to get what was happening. He wasn't thinking faster, not really. He wasn't thinking smarter, either, which was something of a blow to his ego. No, what was happening was that his human brain was being absurdly human, a lot more than normal, at high velocity.
Your eyes don't process images, your brain does. Same for sounds, smells, tactile sensations, everything. Your mind inputs massive amounts of data from organic devices vastly superior to its own abilities. Then those live feeds are filtered and turned into something your personality can actually handle. Unless, of course, you turn the safeties off, and roughly halve the input lag your brain experiences, perhaps through some magical effect that no one saw coming.
“Ow.” James said, listening to the shape of the word reflect off the floor where he now lay. He could hear the carpet. It didn’t matter. He’d just realized that he’d increased his lifespan. That was it; the key to everything. A path to immortality, his greatest fear done away with by magic and grit. The pain didn’t feel so close anymore.
He focused on dialing it back. The purple orbs worked kinda weird, once you understood them. And he liked to think he *did* understand them by now, a little. They were flexible; the upgrades they gave were more like extra metaphysical muscles bolted into a person. And those muscles could be trained, honed, and, if you focused - and this was the important part - *relaxed*.
“Ow.” James said again, and didn't crack his skull open with the sound this time. “Okay, yeah, I’m okay.” He waved off a concerned Alanna and Anesh, who were hovering around him. “Just some mild brain upgrades. Hooooly shit that feels weird.” He swept his hand through the air in front of him, feeling and hearing the thin differences in the air currents as he moved. “I think I can, without hubris, say that it might be possible for me to literally dodge bullets now.”
“That.” Anesh pointed accusatory at him, finger cocked like a gun, “Is hubris.”
“That is probably true.” James conceded. He blinked a few times as he tried to get his eyes to refocus. “Oh.” He realized why his left eye wasn’t focusing correctly, and popped his contact lens out, blinked twice, and watched the world come into focus. “Neat. Okay. Do yours next.”
Anesh sighed, but didn’t hesitate. Unlike James, he’d never gotten into the dramatic flair of smashing whole handfuls of orbs, and instead used his one at a time, feeling the changes as they took effect.
[Shell Upgraded : Oxygen Requirement -.2 in^3/second]
[Shell Upgraded : Tooth Regrowth - +1/month]
[Shell Upgraded : Visible Spectrum Range +12 nm]
“I like how some of these are always profoundly dumb.” Anesh commented after he waited to make sure none of his own purples were going to send him to the floor. “Like, my brain already knows yellow exists. I don’t need to be able to actually literally see it.”
“Of course yellow exists?” Alanna half asked, half stated. “I look forward to reading the email recap of everyone’s gains from this week, because that is a weird statement to make.”
“Humans can’t see yellow.” James explained. “It’s your brain tricking you. Which is *weird*, now that I think about it, because we can totally see the yellow orbs, right? And Theo, who is colorblind, can *also* see the colors in them. Ooooh, yessss, I like this.”
Anesh chuckled. “You like this.” He gestured around at their penthouse tower floor, complete with magical coffee-powered cloning device. “The colors, out of everything?”
“The colors are weird. They feel like actual magic. And in the spirit of ruining that joy, let me know if the yellow orbs look different now, kay?” James’ words got that confused laugh out of Anesh, where his boyfriend wasn’t entirely sure if he was kidding or not; or, more accurately, wasn’t sure which *part* was the joke. “Alanna. You’ve got a giant pile of these. I wanna see you get even taller than me and grow a tail or something.”
“Pass.” She said bluntly. “Though I am kinda curious if I can get extra eyes, maybe. I think I’d look cool with four eyes.”
“You would. So, not gonna use all of them?” James inquired, pointedly.
“I’m gonna give one each to most of the others. I think team Animal Magnetism could really use it, if for no other reason than as encouragement to explore more. Though that might be dangerous, and now I worry I’m pushing them too hard.”
“Because of the…” Alanna started to say.
But Anesh cut her off, slapping his forehead. “Because of the dog made of the magnetic distortion thing. Of course. James, how could you miss *that* as an obvious name for it?”
James harumphed. “I was mostly asleep when I named it. Don’t judge me. Alanna, use your orbs and save me from this.”
“Yes sir!” She exclaimed with too much enthusiasm and perhaps a little too flirtatiously. Much like James, she preferred smashing big heaping handfuls of the things, but unlike James, she didn’t want to induce sensory overload *too* fast. So, rapidly but not all at once, she shattered the little motes of power that she’d assigned herself.
[Shell Upgraded : Comfortable Carry Weight +38 lbs]
[Shell Upgraded : Wrist Joint Range +1.4 cm]
[Shell Upgraded : Skin Elasticity +13%]
[Shell Upgraded : Extremity Friction Control +/- .2µ]
[Shell Upgraded : Organ Rejection -1/Year]
[Shell Upgraded : Ingrown Toenail -1]
“Did you *have* an ingrown toenail?” James asked her after she relayed the information that had carved a path through her brain. “I’ve seen your feet, and while I don’t, you know, *pay attention* to things like that, I’m pretty sure you don’t.”
“I don’t. I didn’t. I still don’t?” Alanna looked down at her boots like she was considering taking them off. “I’m pretty sure that didn’t do anything. Does this mean I have one free one banked, or... ? No, you know what? I don’t care. I’m way more into the friction control thing. Also, skin elasticity? Do you guys think that works with the basically-bulletproof thing? Oh man, this is gonna get ridiculous fast.”
“Assuming we keep finding trees to trade with. And that we focus the orbs on a few people. Which, you know, we *are* doing.” Anesh pointed out.
James nodded as he added, “It’s also relevant that some of these are kinda garbage. We actually need a whole batch of them to make sure we actually get at least one super useful thing. But we *do* eventually get super useful things. You still plan to give one each to everyone else, yeah?” Alanna nodded, and James returned the gesture. “I don’t think that’s bad, but we can’t expect everyone to get something good. There’s gonna be imbalance pretty rapidly.”
“We just need more of them.” Alanna sighed. “Shoulda saved all of these for the copier.”
“No, this was the right call.” James said. “Holding onto them until we have enough coffee, we’d just be sitting on them for who-knows-how-long. Way better to do this now, before we forget, and make use of the ability. I’m really coming around on the plan to singlehandedly destroy capitalism.”
“Don’t you still have a grade two yellow as a nightlight?” Alanna asked with a comical frown. “And you’re commenting on sitting on things?”
“I don’t sit on my nightlight.” James told her. “Anyway. We’re burning time here. Let’s head downstairs, this whole project will keep for a while. Anesh, c’mon. Let’s go place bets on which of our neophytes gets the silliest upgrade.”
Anesh rubbed his nose while he stacked up notes on the table before following after James. “I bet the other me isn’t having to deal with this.” He mused. “No trying to fix global problems, no hazing the new kids. Just a good old stupidly long American road trip. I shoulda gone instead, if that would have been any different.”
The parking lot of Aile’s Diner And Lottery was mostly empty, but for a tow truck, an old RV that hadn’t moved in years, and Anesh’s car. All three vehicles sat together, unlikely companions brought together under dim orange streetlights by their owner’s need to be, for some reason, here at this ancient diner at eleven PM on a tuesday. If Anesh had been in a better mood, and not fresh off another answer of ‘no, nothing weird here’, maybe he would have found some kind of artistic statement to be made in the mental image of these three misplaced vehicles looking like reunited old friends. But he was, so instead, he was irritated.
“This town is abso-bloody-lutely cursed.” Anesh said as he got back into the car. “There’s weird art everywhere, which was cool at first, and made me think we were onto something, but now it just feels like a distraction. And everyone is either given up on life or wired on some illegal drug, and it’s like this is just a place that people get dumped and forgotten to die. I hate it.”
The door slammed behind him, pulled shut not too hard, but exactly as hard as was needed to get the old sedan to cooperate. From the back seat, under the half dozen blankets they’d collected on the trip, Secret poked his head out of his nest. “Curses are not real.” He informed Anesh.
“Secret, you’re great and all, and this has been a great bonding experience. So, don’t take this the wrong way. But are you not essentially a curse that has come to life?”
“No. I am life that was, briefly, a curse.” Secret told him matter of factly.
Anesh turned the engine over, giving the old vehicle a moment to warm up before he turned on the lights and the radio. “Well.” He said, waving his hands in front of the air vent, waiting for it to start dispensing heat to ward against the frigid night outside. “That makes no sense. But I appreciate you confiding in me.”
The two of them sat in the peaceful interior of the car as the sharp edge of the cold was slowly pushed away by the air conditioning. Eventually, Anesh felt like he’d relaxed enough, and leaned forward to throw the car in drive and take them to their next destination.
“Have you had any luck yet?” Secret asked from the back seat.
“No, nothing concrete as of yet.” Anesh replied. It was, he realized, too easy to fall into Secret’s mannerisms when he was talking to the infomorph. “The woman in the restaurant did tell me that there was a witch living in the town, so we can go see about meeting them. But after that, we’re dry on leads.”
“I am surprised your military was so accommodating in letting you photograph their underground tunnels.” Secret let out a rustling hum that made Anesh’s teeth hurt. “Hardly are they good keepers of their secret.”
“Not *my* military. Also I think it’s a tourism thing, they don’t really use the base for anything, and advertising the town as having secret tunnels is a good way to attract sightseers on road trips. Better than what they attract now, which is mostly people who look like they’re trapped here, or people who keep trying to sell me meth.” Anesh glowered over the steering wheel. “Anyway. Last stupid rumor for the night, then we can grab a hotel somewhere. This whole thing has been a wash.”
He sounded angry. Secret’s eyes flowed into sympathetic shapes as he wrapped his body around the passenger seat. “Are you angry that they have found two more Relevant Spaces, stumbled into by accident, when all your true efforts have led to nothing?” Secret asked, worried.
“Yes.” Anesh said. “Exactly that. But I want to feel justified in it, even though I know it’s stupid. Honestly, I don’t even want to be angry at all. I just want to, you know, go to this ‘witch house’, learn that it’s just some old lady who sells bizarrely potent marajuana, sigh deeply, and then go home.” He looked out his side window, using the pretense of checking for cars before switching lanes to break eye contact with Secret. Secret was flatly intense to talk to, and it could get exhausting, fast, for someone like Anesh.
Secret understood, though. He didn’t mind. Instead, he pulled himself up to the passenger seat, enjoying the play of the orange overhead lights through the dirty windshield. He rotated himself so that fewer of his eyes gazed at his driver and friend. Secret hadn’t been taking too many naps on this trip, hadn’t been diving into the dreams of his sleeping friends. Instead, he’d been enjoying being present, being here with Anesh, talking to him and being treated like a person.
Having a body was a transformative experience. Secret chuckled to himself as he thought that; James would approve of the pun. But that wasn’t how he meant it. Instead, it was that he simply felt more grounded to a place that wasn’t familiar to him. To reality, to this shell he wore. He could leave it, if needed; travel back to the nowhere and everywhere that was the mental space that conceptualized him. But for now? It was nice to just be in a car.
Nothing was going wrong. Nothing here needed to be fought, though he did keep a close eye on the men and women who approached Anesh carrying concealed weapons. This was *not* a nice place, Secret was learning. But nothing demanded his attention except for enjoying the ride.
Which was why it came as a mild shock when they pulled up to the old rusted barbed wire fence that constrained the farm just outside town where the supposed witch had been staying.
Tall grass overgrowing splintered wood posts. The smell of a lot of cows, and the noise of a herd rustling even at this late hour. A half dozen old rusted vehicles, silhouettes visible in the light from the car headlights by the road. In the distance, a farmhouse sat dark and foreboding, waiting for nothing in particular but the passage of days.
The old farmer who owned the place, according to the woman from the diner who had turned Anesh onto this one last clue, fancied himself a friendly guy. And he’d been letting this traveling witch stay here in exchange for help with his car, which was a sentence that Anesh felt was maybe a little bit out of place. But then, things being out of place was kind of par for the course for this place, even if none of those things had turned out to be more dungeons.
Of course, nothing really felt as out of place as the ten foot tall pane of sheet metal, buried into the dirt by the farm’s front gate. It sat next to the wooden arch with its closed gate, next to a few posts with waving flags that didn’t belong to any country, a dozen handmade windchimes dangling from the gate itself, and a bronze wire sculpture of a bear on the opposite side of the opening of the fence. A whole welcoming arrangement of the kind of art that people made when they had access to knives, blowtorches, spraypaint, chunks of wood and a scrapyard.
And then, this one piece of sheet metal, with a mural sprayed across it in harsh strokes of a paint can.
“Well. That’s probably not good.” Anesh said in a studied flat tone as he let his eyes adjust to the low light and start making out the shape of the painting. “Secret.” He called back to the car. “Secret!”
It took a minute for the infomorph to manage to open the passenger door from the inside, and wind his way over to settle next to Anesh. “Yes? What…. Ah.” He stopped as his own eyes made out what it was Anesh was looking at.
Nine feet tall, the piece of art showed a simple thing. A creature, some might say a monster, but Anesh and his people would know better. It was a series of looping coils, like a snake or some ancient sea serpent. A riot of blues and greens with a backdrop of a fiery red sunset. The creature reared up over the highway stretched below it, fanged mouths dotting its hide along with a number of furious eyes.
“Secret.” Anesh said with a stern voice as he pointedly kept his eyes forward on the farm’s collection of welcoming art. “Can you explain why there’s a portrait of you here?”
“Ah.” Secret sounded apprehensive in a way that Anesh had literally never heard before. “Oh dear.” The infomorph said as he peered forward at the spray paint rendition of himself. “I may have made… a mistake.”
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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!