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A note from argusthecat

I lost a few days to just being a lifeless mass over the last week, because someone I care about passed away.  I'm trying really hard to not let that sadness seep into my work, and I'm finding that writing in this world is doing a lot of good work helping me keep my head up.  It's hard for me to truly despair when  working on this nonsense of a story.

This chapter was written a while back, but it was *also* an absolute blast for me to put together, and I hope you get some amusement out of it too.

“Oh cool, those guys are playing Pokemon.”

James and Alanna were currently lurking - though both of them would object to the other using that word - around the campus of one of the several local high schools. They would object to being called lurkers mostly because that was way more likely to get them arrested; although at this point, there was a general feeling shared between at least the two of them that any attempt to actually handcuff them wouldn’t stick.

It was, James mused, a good thing they were all trying to be ethical. Because having superpowers sure would make it easy to be the bad guy. Comically easy.

They were here, going back to school, because they were looking for signs of a dungeon. It wasn’t going anywhere just yet, because they hadn’t gone inside yet, and they were reasonably sure that the point of entry would be in the basement. But neither of them wanted to just walk in, get in trouble with the staff, and lose their easy chance to poke around below the building.

So instead, James was watching students play pokemon.

“I’ve never got pokemon.” Alanna said, tapping her fingers on the lip of the open car window. It was December now, and winter had slammed down on them hard, but she wanted fresh air more than James wanted to feel his fingers, so the car window sat open for now. “Like, it’s weird, right?”

“How is it weird?” James let his brain sidetrack into the conversation, dropping some of his worries about the dungeons, Secret, the skulljacks, everything else, just for a few minutes. “I mean, aside from the animal abuse thing.” He conceded. “Is it because it’s always fights, when, like, a pokemon olympics would be way radder? Just trying to get a charmander to wobble through an obstacle course?”

“No, it’s the animal abuse thing, mostly.” Alanna waggled a hand, making a ‘well, on balance’, gesture. “They aren’t really animals, are they? They’ve clearly got sophancy. That’s sorta what I mean; it’s not animal abuse, it’s just slavery. Also… not cannibalism, but something like it? What’s the word for eating a sentient thing.”

“Gross.” James supplied helpfully. “Or evil?”

“I’ll take either. I just don’t get why people like the games so much if the underlying premise is just so hurtful.” Alanna shrugged. “I get that it’s not how people look at it, I just don’t understand why no one ever sees it my way.” She sounded weirdly morose about it.

James hummed as he thought about it, a low tone that helped him focus his thoughts. “Well, a lot of the way the games and show and manga phrase the…”

“Manga?”

“Yeah, there’s actually a few of them. The good one is Pokemon Adventures. This is unimportant. Don’t sidetrack me *that* far. The point is, they frame the pokemon as friends and not tools. The people who use them as tools are the villains, so the kids who make friends with their pokemon are the good guys and how everyone wants to think of themselves.” James took a deep breath of the winter air flooding the car, craning his neck for another look around to make sure no one was approaching them while they sat in the parking lot waiting for school to get out. “Everyone wants to be the hero, right?”

Alanna nodded. “Okay, that makes sense. What about in the porn, though?” She asked with a sharp grin.

That got a choking cough out of James as his brain struggled to recover from that. It turned out, even having a purple running through his metaphysical veins that doubled his brain’s perception of reality, he still couldn’t deal with his partner’s weirdly raunchy comments sometimes. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean.” He eventually said, playing it cool.

“Oh, come on! You’ve been on the internet, I know you know how much erotica there is of…”

“Wow, hey, look! School’s out! Let’s go!” James threw open his door and stepped out without hesitation, eager to both take the time to see if they could uncover the tunnel to unreality that they knew lurked within at least *one* of the educational buildings in the city, and to also get away from Alanna’s toothy grin at his discomfort.

Another dungeon. That was their goal. Secret had called them Relevant Spaces once, and Anesh had passed that word along to the group. No one knew if that was just Secret being dramatic and handing out cool naming conventions, or if he had some insider knowledge; James was prone to forgetting that Secret was actually a child in a lot of ways, and that his nature didn’t actually give him an intrinsic look into the inner workings of Officium Mundi.

This dungeon, supposedly, was pipes and concrete and damp. They didn’t know much from their one informant, who Sarah had a dark suspicion about but no one had been able to confirm had ulterior motives. But what they did know was that the place was lethal. So, naturally, James and Alanna planned to barge into it and trust to their concealed weapons and powers to get them out. They’d both absorbed a fresh blue orb before heading out, with Alanna getting [+6 Activations - Create Asphalt] and James picking up [+14 Activations - Break Electronic]. They were trying, really hard, to make use of every tool at their disposal, and the blues and the powers they offered were a large part of that.

Or they would be, if they could reroll them to get something more useful than the ability to spawn a road.

The other thing they knew about the dungeon was the reward it offered. Sort of. From the sound of it, you got an actual skill tagged in some way, and as you yourself progressed in that skill, you were granted growing rewards that changed you as a person.

And the instant Sarah had briefed the guild on it, James understood where the assassins came in.

The dungeon could solve a lot of problems it had within its own walls. But its track record outside its boundaries was abysmal. Also, a large scale fight with camracondas and tumblefeeds and shit would be instantly noticed, deployed antimemes or no. So it made perfect sense that when Officium Mundi found another dungeon that gave rewards that were shockingly synergistic with its own, it would work to eliminate the competition. And by competition, James meant ‘delvers that posed an escalating threat’.

Theo had filled in the missing piece there. Javier, the kid who’d been targeted, had a scheduled job interview at James’ company not even a week prior. The office had eyes, apparently, and it had spotted the potential issue, and it had acted. Rapidly, and harshly; with human weapons and tactics to eliminate someone who didn’t even know it existed.

The theory was sketchy at best, but it filled in a broader picture. It highlighted a few points that suggested at a world where dungeons weren’t just real, but almost common. Which had made Anesh all the more frustrated that his intentional search for weirdness zones had led to nothing of substance.

Still, that was enough to get James wading through a sea of high schoolers on a Friday evening.

“Can we talk about the anti-war themes in the first game that got dropped in the later ones?” Alanna asked James.

“Can we pretend I didn’t mention pokemon, and just find the damn basement?” James grumbled. “It feels weird to be back here.”

“We didn’t go to school here.” Alanna commented idly.

James shrugged. “High school’s are all the same.” He said. “It’s the feeling of them, not the place itself.”

That sentence rattled around in Alanna’s brain for a minute while she tried to figure out what James was actually saying. Something about the emotional texture of locations, probably; he’d been on that a lot lately, when he and Anesh went on long, rambling tangents about the nature of the dungeons. “I think your feelings are weird, in this case.” Alanna said. “Valid!” She backtracked a bit, “but weird.”

“Oh man, speaking of feelings.” James spoke up a bit to be heard over the crowd of younger boys and girls flowing around the two of them. They stood like islands in the sea of education, if that sea was in a rapid hurry to make it to the beach. “Neil got to meet Secret yesterday.”

“Oh man, that’s a hell of a trip.” Alanna shook her head as she smiled. “How’d he take it?”

“Badly! The scales got to him. Also the potential for memory eating.”

The two of them were not unaware of the crowd around them while they spoke. Quite the opposite, actually.

Secret could discreetly visit dreams for anyone who’d experienced him, even briefly. And this was a good test to see if that applied to secondhand knowledge, while also being able to test for anyone who had been into the school’s dungeon. Also, Secret really did seem to gain some form of power from his hosts speaking open secrets aloud in crowded places. Secrets hidden in plain sight; or, in this case, Secret hidden in plain sight. James didn’t know what metric of ‘power’ they were using, but any edge could help.

The two of them stood in the entry hall for a brief minute, scuffed linoleum underfoot and a wide open space around them. There was an easy door to the front office off to the left, partly obscured by the trophy case for the school’s many sports teams. An open staircase to the second floor, the opposite direction they were headed. Across a round space that would be clear if not for a pack of cafeteria tables to their right there was the library, and beyond that, a sort of tunnel-ish hallway that had a distinct downward slope.

“Well.” James pointed. “Down?”

“Down.” Alanna agreed with a nod and a crack of her knuckles.

They were being politely unarmed for this exploratory venture, modern times being what they were, but that didn’t make Alanna any less bulletproof, or give any hesitation to dive into a good scrap.

They passed down the ramp, and while they didn’t descend a whole floor, the atmosphere changed rapidly. It was cooler here, a little stuffier. James constantly second-guessed himself as they walked, wondering if the air was getting damper because of the dungeon, or because of his imagination. It was a surprisingly long time before they passed the doors to classrooms, a pair of art classes set into either side of the hall.

James suspected some kind of space warping in effect. Alanna suspected he was being paranoid, but they retraced their steps twice to confirm she was right. Which she was.

The hallway curved left after another pair of classrooms, one of them a pottery class with a full on kiln in it. It kept going down, too, though this one ended at a pair of those large metal fire doors that the school kept locked tight after hours.

They were unlocked. When James tugged on the handle, a wad of folded paper fell out of the latch. He replaced it as he and Alanna walked through; always be courteous to whatever juvenile delinquent made it easy for you to break into places.

“I think this leads backstage to the theater, for the plays and stuff.” Alanna said. “Man, I remember actually performing here, like, a decade ago. Back when the drama club did the Laramie Project, yeah?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that whole thing. That was before we were friends, right?” James nodded as he checked through the window of a darkened band classroom. “You were in drama then?”

“Briefly. I was a stagehand because I was one of, like, three people who could move the sets around.” Alanna chuckled to herself, mock flexing her muscles.

James smirked at her. “Yes, yes, you’re an Amazonian beauty. I know.” He said, and was pleased to see his words landed with a flush of embarrassed pride on Alanna’s face. “Hey. This door is locked.” He said, getting them back on track. “Boiler room. Think it’s worth checking?”

“For this? Absolutely. Want me to punch the lock open?” She said, with way less sarcasm than that statement might have carried a year ago. “Or do you want to just luck through this one too?”

“On it.” James said, taking a knee and pulling a slim black case out of his coat pocket. “Keep an eye out for me.” He said as he withdrew a thin bent metal bar.

Alanna glanced down at him briefly in surprise, before leaning against the smooth grey brick of the wall and throwing glances back up the ramp and around the corner they were at. “You got an orb for lockpicking?” She asked.

“Not everything is…” James got out before Alanna flicked him on the head. “Ow! Sheesh, touchy.” He hammed it up, but he had a smile on the whole time. “But actually, no. JP got the orb. And then he taught me.”

“Wait…” Alanna rubbed the bridge of her nose. “That’s a thing we can do?”

“I was going to bring it up at the strategy meeting on Sunday.” James said. “I don’t have, like, superpowers. Not the way the orbs give them. But things *can* be taught. The knowledge, once exposed to reality, sticks.”

“That’s such an over dramatic way to say that.” His partner snorted. “Sometimes I really want to know how your head works.”

James hopped back to his feet, dusting off his knees and pocketing the lockpicks again. “Well hey.” He said, forcing a casual tone as he pulled the door open. “Get a skulljack and let’s find out.”

Alanna blinked in shock. “What, really?” She asked dumbly.

“Yeah.” James said simply, quiet word belying the hammering of his heart in his chest. He turned to face her as he pulled the door. “I’ve gotta start somewhere productive, right? May as well be you and Anesh.”

“Holy shit.” Alanna whispered.

James made a rumbling noise in his throat. “Oh, come on. I’m not immune to trying to be mature now and then.” He said jokingly. Then he realized Alanna wasn’t talking about him, and followed her pointing finger to look behind him, into the boiler room.

There was no boiler. There were pipes, yes; several of them in fact. They led out into the walls, where you’d expect pipes to go as they delivered hot water. The only thing was, they weren’t leading away from a boiler. They were leading away from a hole in the world.

It was a horrifying fractal, an equation made real. It was formed out of metaphor and math and slapped down here, and told to act like a piece of hardware for the building. But it was also, intrinsically, a breach. A gateway. A path, a threat, a rising wave of anger, and a cold and calculating razor sharp dismissal.

There were a half dozen backpacks scattered around it, all of them with the straps dangling where they’d been shorn off by the knife in space. A folded coat lay on the floor off to the left. The shattered remains of a whole host of smart phones littered the ground as well.

“Hey!” A voice yelled from up the ramp behind the two stunned delvers. It was low, aggressively masculine, and very pissed off. “You’re not supposed to be down here!”

As soon as they acknowledged the voice, the spell was broken. The cut in the world snapped closed so hard, James was sure that it must have made a noise. The boiler room was just a room again, no discarded bags or broken phones. No traces of anyone having been here for a while, judging by the layer of dust.

“Fuck.” James muttered under his breath.

“What’re you doing here?!” The security guard bellowed at them as he strutted down the ramp with confident steps. He was an older guy, mid forties maybe, with a bald head and a bit of a gut. He was exactly the kind of person they should have brought JP to deal with, James realized. Because he and Alanna both responded poorly to this kind of authority.

Fortunately, he could respond by lying his ass off, here.

“FBI.” James said, stepping forward and pulling an absolutely fake badge wallet out of his pocket, holding it open at arm’s length to show the man. They’d rehearsed this, slightly, and Alanna just kept looking forward. James had to smoothly pull back to keep the school security officer from snatching the badge out of his hand. “Sir, don’t do that.” He said confidently as Alanna backhandedly showed off her own ‘credentials’. “Are you staff for this school?” James asked sharply, going on the offensive.

By this point, the guard’s thoughts had caught up to what he'd just been told. Part of him, the part that thought of itself as an adult, railed against the idea of a couple of children being in a position of authority over him. He wanted to throw them out, call their bluff, and call the cops, maybe not in that order. But another part of him recognized something in James’ tone, false as it was, and he found himself nodding. “Yeah, I’m the afternoon and evening building patrol.” He said, using his official title. “Sorry bout that. Didn’t get word that there were, um, feds here.”

James put the badge away. “No worry.” He said, clipping the word from how he normally spoke it. Professional, and to the point, that was his character, he had to remember. “We weren’t announced. My partner and I are looking into a possible bomb threat, and didn’t want to alarm anyone.” He said.

“A bomb?!” The man was shocked. Here? In *his* building? Impossible. But all too possible, wasn’t it? “Shouldn’t we evacuate? Is it safe?” It was rude to demand answers of a federal agent, he was aware of that. But he’d been here for half his life; he’d earned a little leeway.

In response, James just gave him a reassuring smile. “Not to worry. We’ve swept the location,” He kept it vague, no sense giving things away, “and it looks clear. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was all just to keep the new guy on his toes.” He gave a harsh chuckle.

When James had asked JP how to fake being an authority figure, he’d gotten an alarmingly detailed set of instructions. First, confidence. Not just in yourself, but in the world around you. Be sort of cold; be assured that your will is going to manifest. It was the sign of someone who was *used* to getting what they demanded. Be brief, don’t overexplain, and respond to questions with questions.

And if you meet another person used to authority, don’t try to override them. Work around them, and then, when they start to buy your story, give them an exit.

In this case, James telling this proud man that, hey, the too-young kid with a badge *wasn’t* the top of the food chain.

James was more than a little insulted it worked.

Twenty minutes later, he and Alanna were back in the car, headed back to home base. Even after the guard had walked off, they hadn’t gotten the breach to uncurl again.

“Okay, so, that one was different than the others.” James said, knuckles white on the wheel. He was still feeling the slight rush of exerting authority over another person, and also his brain still hurt from looking at the hole.

“No shit.” Alanna replied. “What now?”

“Now? We keep moving. There’s no time to camp out here. We’ll assign someone to it.” James said. “For the moment. And we’ll check back when we have time. Right now, though, we’ve got meetings to attend.”

“Ah, fuck, I am not looking forward to this.” Alanna told him.

James blinked. “Are you kidding? Holding interviews for dungeoning hasn’t been a fantasy of yours for the last twenty years?”

“...Has it been for you?”

“Absolutely! The most fun part of D&D is the part where you roleplay recruiting new people!”

“You are joking.”

“Only a little!” James laughed, and let some tension flee his body. “Man, this is gonna be so much fun. I’m not sure what kind of fake jobs Anesh was offering to draw people in, but I am super psyched for this.” He punched the air over the steering wheel with an enthusiastic fist. “I’m just concerned about how many people Secret can wipe, as contingency, you know?”

“I’m worried about the ethics of that.” Alanna’s voice was hard.

“Me too.” James agreed, losing the smile. “But we need more manpower.” He shrugged as he took the turn onto the main road that led back toward their fortress. “We need to be doing a better job exploiting our opportunities. And that means multipliers, like green orbs.”

“I *know*. I wrote that briefing.” Alanna said. “I guess… I guess I’m just being weirdly nostalgic for *good god it’s only been six months* ago.”

“I know how you feel.” James nodded. “Hey. I promise you, me, and Anesh can sortie out this week, and kill something dangerous together. Kay?”

Alanna gave a sheepish laugh, turning away from him as she rolled a guilty smile on her lips. “I’m kinda awkward about the fact that I’m into that.” She said. “But also, that sounds good. I love you guys, you know?”

“I know.” James said, happiness in his veins. “Now, since we’re done *impersonating the FBI*, let’s go rustle up some new friends!”

He put the pedal down, and guided them back to their secret lair.

_____

“James!” Sarah greeted him with a smile as he and Alanna came through the door. “Alanna!” She threw her arms up in the air. “You’re back! You’re late! I’m so glad to see you!” She wrapped herself around Alanna in a comical hug, arms sticking straight out to exaggerate how large the taller girl actually was.

“That’s a weirdly cheerful greeting for people who are late.” James said, slinging his bag onto the floor by the lockers that they’d installed near the front door of the hideout.

The lockers were a concession to the fact that everyone who came in here did so with kit on them, these days. Every delver was now briefed on the fact that the dungeon could send out minions, and basically everyone walked around all the time with a bag of tricks and armaments. Half the support staff did, too, but theirs were a little more geared toward problem solving and less toward mortal peril.

“Anesh is here already.” Sarah pointed out to them as she backpedaled into their lair. The front room looked nice today, everything cleaned up, a couple long tables and some chairs making it look like a pleasant shared workspace or community room. They had the heat turned up, to combat the winter chill, too. The only concession to their weird reality was a motivational poster on one wall that read “Embrace Eternal Efficiency”.

James was not a fan.

“Where is Anesh, then? I wanna say hi before we start the thing.”

Sarah clicked her tongue rapidly in a show of mock regret. “He’s doing the thing.” She told him. “Your first interview showed up, and Anesh is handling them. Oh! Also! Alanna! Momo wanted to talk to you about something.”

Shooting a glance up at his partner, James raised his eyebrows questioningly. “Do you wanna go do…”

“Yes.” Alanna said flatly, eyes forward, gaze betraying no trace of her thoughts on if she wanted to conduct interviews. “Yes, I *shall* go visit Momo.” Her words were overly emphasized and robotic. “I am sure it is important. Have fun.” Without pausing in her walk, she veered away from the two of them and made a beeline for the elevators. “Oh! Don’t forget!” She turned back to James, and made a motion with one hand to tap the back of her neck with a pair of fingers, not waiting for a response before she was off again.

James watched her go for a minute, before shaking his head with a grin. “Yup.” He said simply, glancing at Sarah.

“Yup.” Sarah agreed with a matching smile and nod. “That’s pretty much what I was expecting too.” She looked over at him. “So… skulljack things? Is that too personal for me to ask about?”

“You were literally my best friend for my whole life, and kinda still are in a lot of ways.” James said, causing a lump to form in Sarah’s throat at the words. “It’s not too personal. And yeah, we’re gonna try… try getting me over my fear of that later. And also gearing up Alanna, now that we know these things are pretty much entirely safe.”

“I…” Sarah didn’t have easy words, for once. “Yeah. Okay. Good! Yes, good!” She slapped James on the shoulder with an open hand, curling fingers around his arm. “Good luck, okay? It’s not easy, but it is worth it, I think.” She said.

“You’re getting to be a real good therapist.” He told her, genuinely. “Now, let’s go save Anesh.”

As if on cue, the door the ‘office’ they’d been standing outside opened, and Anesh led a young man out. “Yes, yes, thank you for your time.” Anesh was saying. “We will be in touch, thank you again.” He waved kinetically as the younger man maneuvered around James and Sarah, and headed for the door, his ruffled button up shirt poking out of the back of his belt. “Thank god you’re here.” Anesh said with relieved eyes as soon as he took a breath and looked at James. “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

James laughed. “Okay, how long until the next one?” He asked.

“Literally that person walking in right now.” Anesh said, pointing to a thirty-something guy walking up to the door. He was fairly short, even more fairly bulky; bald head and tattoos clashing with the thick framed glasses he wore. “Save meeeee.” Anesh whispered.

With an open handshake and a roll of his eyes, James greeted the guy. “Hey. Thanks for coming out today. Where’re you comfortable, office or out here?” He asked.

“I’m fine here.” The man said. His voice was a scratchy smoker’s tone, but not unfriendly. Hard, not mean.

“Alright! Well, I’m James Lyle, this is…” He looked to his left only to notice that Anesh was walking off with Sarah, both of them deep in thought as Anesh showed her something in a manilla folder that he’d made a slew of notes on. “Okay, *nevermind him I guess*. I’m James.”

“Nate.” Nate said bluntly.

“Alright. So, what’re you interviewing for today?” James asked.

Normally, he’d know. Normally, he would have had far more time before being thrown into this. He had a feeling that Anesh and Alanna were really less into this whole thing than he was, and Sarah was teasing him by not leaving his notes. “Normally” also wasn’t a really good word to use, because James had conducted exactly zero interviews before.

“You don’t know?” Nate asked with an expression half angry, half amused. “The listing was for a chef.”

“Oh yeah?” James was interested. “Yeah, that makes sense. So! Let’s get this started.” He declared with more conviction than he felt.

Twenty minutes later, he had a picture of the man in front of him. He was a navy cook, worked in a retirement home, liked heavy metal music, was used to taking shit from people and was pretty sick of doing so ever again. He didn’t overshare, but he did have a lot of stories that came close from his navy days. He also informed James that he had, to quote, ‘seen some weird shit’. He also had a fairly solid grasp of ethics, in his own way. The ethics questions were ones that James and Alanna had insisted on, and here, they mostly served to sound out the fact that Nate was the sort of person who would be honest, helpful, and absolutely unwilling to accept anyone doing less than their best. He didn’t get political, he said, which James assumed was a lie, but yeah, he wouldn't mind the world being kinder.

James liked him.

“Okay,” James said. “We could use a chef. We have a full commercial kitchen here, but no one really uses it fully. We expect to be adding a lot of staff. Want to be in charge?”

“So, a sous chef, or exec?” Nate asked.

“Whichever one of those means you have a blank check to make food for the full staff, including any off site trips.” James answered.

“Exec.” Nate nodded. “Just like that? You don’t want to know if I’m good at it?”

“Are you?”

“Yes.”

“Good enough.” James nodded. “I don’t know what Anesh put down as our offered pay, but it’s… probably higher. There is one thing we need to check on first. Would you follow me?” He stood, and started walking to the elevator.

Nate followed. “Higher than twenty eight an hour?” He asked. “What kinda startup scam are you running here? Also, this is a single story building. Why’s there an elevator?”

“I’m glad you noticed that.” James said, slyly, stepping in and waiting for Nate to follow. A few days ago, they’d put sticky notes on the two basement buttons, just to finally eliminate confusion. James ignored the one marked ‘quarters’ and chose ‘lab’ instead. “So, you’ve seen some shit.” He reiterated Nate’s words. “The job has a few… I’m not gonna say ‘duties’, but more like ‘opportunities’, in addition to the normal stuff. It’s not gross, I promise.” He tried to placate the man next to him who was shooting him suspicious looks. “It’s just that, before we hire you, we need to know if you can deal with certain things.”

The elevator doors opened. The two people currently in front of a whiteboard filled with possible exploits for the headphones that were always plugged into your phone looked up.

“Oh, hey. Interviews today?” Reed asked.

“Ah. I suppose this is where I must take my leave of the testing.” Said Secret.

Next to James, Nate stared for a second, then nodded twice, solidly, jaw clenched. “It doesn’t eat people, does it?” He asked James.

“I do not, no.” Secret replied. “Hello. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Yeah.” Nate said. “Likewise.” He turned back to James, who was unashamedly wearing a huge grin on his face. “I think I can handle cooking for him.” He said, voice steady.

James hit the button for the first floor, and watched the doors close, clasping his hands behind his back. “You start Monday at midnight. You haven’t seen the start of it yet.” He tried to contain the smile, and found he couldn’t. “Also, Secret likes hamburgers.”

_____

The next interview was cut short almost instantly when the guy couldn’t answer some of James’ initial barrage of questions about work experience without lying.

“We won’t call you.” James said, showing him the door. He was a firm believer in being candid about that in interviews; too many people had scorned him the same way.

The one after that was a girl who said she was here because her parents were ‘making her get a job’, which… well, it wasn’t the worst reason. The followup comment of “I don’t really wanna actually, like, have to do anything though.” Led to her getting shown out as well.

The next person actually had his wife come in with him, and she answered some questions on his behalf, without any hesitation. It wasn’t a translation thing, either; he spoke English, she just didn’t want him embarrassing himself, she said.

That plan didn’t work for them.

One girl, a barista and part time acrobatics instructor, actually made it past the normal part of the interview, to where James started asking probing questions about how she’d do as an adventurer. She’d seemed like the perfect fit for it, too. But it had all been bluster, or maybe she just thought it was an elaborate joke, because when she’d seen Secret, and later been brought in on the whole story, she hadn’t been able to handle it. At all. There was screaming, and denial, and eventually, a sad request to Secret to scour her memories of their secrets from the moment when she saw him up until she would remember being politely denied the job.

James rubbed at his eyes. Anesh had walked by at one point and given him a super sheepish smile; teeth and sorry eyes, making up for abandoning him. Alanna hadn’t come back at all, and Sarah was mostly just showing new victims back to the desk James was now using in the office itself.

It was easier to surprise people with Secret here. The elevator thing was dramatic, but a waste of time when he only had twenty minutes per person.

Then, Virgil sat down across from him.

Skinny kid. No, not a kid; though he sorta looked young at first glance. This twig of a dude with longish hair and eyes that seemed like they never stopped moving. His hair wasn’t like James’, where it was meant to be a full ponytail or braid. It was more like he’d just gotten caught up in something for a few months and forgotten to get a haircut.

He had a suit jacket on, over an offensively orange Hawaiian shirt.

“How do you feel about life and death situations?” James asked him by way of greeting.

Virgil Thomasi, latest in what James assumed would be a string of disappointments, tilted his head, leaned in conspiratorially, and asked, “Are you planning on having me fight to the death with the other interviewees?”

“Maybe. It would weed people out faster.” James said, perking up. “But no. In general; what would it take for you to risk your life? Actual question, we’re starting knee deep in the interview.”

“I thought this was for a software development job.” Virgil said. “Is this a military thing?”

“No.” James said. “But you know how software development is.”

“I do.” Virgil nodded. “It’s not that.”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

The programmer cleared his throat. “I thought it was clever. Ah. No. I don’t want to risk my life for money.” He said. “Maybe something else. Something worth it.”

That peaked James’ interest. “Worth it?”

“Like, changing the world. Fixing things. I think a lot of the evil decisions in the world are just sorta dumb. I’d risk my life to help everyone be smarter.” He said.

Well that was different, James thought. And enough to make him pay attention for the rest of the interview.

He was a software engineer, a programmer really. Knew five different languages well enough to improvise with them. He’d gotten into it right out of high school with nothing but a lucky interview at a tech company and knowledge of how to ask questions on forums, and spent a year writing user manuals for apps that didn’t exist - James had initially thought that meant something totally different than it actually did. He’d been in a dozen clubs through school, from amateur rocketry to the debate team. James asked him if he had something against sleep; Virgil said he just had things to do that were more interesting.

James didn’t really like him.

He was an overachiever. Razor sharp smarts, but maybe not the best at applying etiquette.

He was also one of those people who would forget to eat if he got too into a project. And he had a clever answer for everything. James was no stranger to being a wiseass, but this was more than that; Virgil was pretty far up his own ass about how smart he was, and he really needed to show it off.

But fuck, he could be useful. And it didn’t hurt that he wasn’t evil. Honestly, he’d probably be good for the world, given a little power; James just thought he was a bit pretentious.

“Okay. Before we move to the final stage of this interview,” James said, “I’d like to share Secret with you.”

“You mean ‘a secret’.” Virgil corrected him. It was like an automatic response. James winced.

“No.” He said, and kicked open the door to the supply cabinet.

“Hello.” Said the multi-eyed bright blue serpent coiled up in the impossibly small space of the second shelf, between the sticky notes and the extra pens. “My name is Secret. A pleasure to meet you.”

“Huh.” Virgil said. “Is that a hologram, or an animatronic?”

“Close enough.” James said, not at all actually in answer to the question. “Last question; do you want to be project lead and head programmer for designing a UI for a mind-to-machine-and-sometimes-other-mind interface? The pay is pretty good.”

“Yes.” Virgil said, without hesitation.

“Your first day is Monday. Show up at 11 PM. Wear boots.” James said as Secret slithered out the door, his role in this over.

“That’s weird, but okay. And that’s a really good hologram.” Their new programmer said.

“No.” James told him. “It’s really not.”

_____

The last interview candidate was a bear of a man who showed up wearing a t-shirt that was a D&D joke. James asked him what his character’s alignment was, and spent fifteen minutes letting the dude explain why lawful good was the only correct choice if you actually wanted to be a hero. He may have been overly defensive about a perceived reaction from James.

James let him go for a bit, then told him that he had literal magic items in the basement, and did the dude want to join their adventuring team?

He had some concerns. Why him? Was this some sort of chosen one bullshit? Why him, really? He was kinda fat, wasn’t he? Also, was this an elaborate practical joke? And would he be expected to kill in something other than self defense?

James found the questions surprisingly refreshing, and gave honest answers. No particular reason, because he was here, because he answered the job listing. Random chance, really. Fat was a problem, but James hadn’t exactly been the apex of human potential when this had started; they had a gym here.

Then he tossed the dude a tiny yellow orb, and smiled when their new paladin leveled up in beekeeping.

He’d show up on Monday, around 11 PM. He had vambraces he could bring, he told James.

James was unsurprised, and yet, somehow fine with it.

__

“How’re the interviews going?” Anesh asked without a trace of shame as James wandered into the back of the building for a brief break.

James scowled at him. “Not bad, honestly.” He said, packing away the glower. “I’ve picked out a few people. Only had to wipe one person with Secret, and he says that it was more of a nudge than a full blackout. Whatever that means.” James shrugged, brushing stray strands of hair out of his face. He frowned as he did so; he was loathe to get a haircut, but it was getting in the way of looking professional, *and* his ability to keep his eyes alert in the dungeon.

“What kinda people?” Alanna asked, overhearing a bit as she walked in.

“Not exactly people like us. A couple of them are ridiculously good at things, a couple others just have the right outlook. No one evil, I think. Except maybe the chef, but I think he’s a kind of community-minded evil that we can use.” James said, accepting a quick hug from Alanna as she wrapped her arms around him from behind. “What’ve you two been up to?”

“Do you have time?” Anesh asked. “Or any more interviews?”

“A couple more.” James said. “The last guy I sent out early, so I have a short break. He used the same racist dogwhistle phrase three times, like I wouldn’t fucking notice.” His scowl this time wasn’t for dramatic effect at all; it was real, and ugly. “Fucker.” He punctuated.

“Okay, well, my thing is honestly mostly just gonna be numbers, which I can skip and get right to the choice bits. Did you know that JP got a skill in investment banking a long time ago?” Nods, which prompted Anesh to continue. “Right. Well, he set us up a stock portfolio, and I’ve been mostly channeling extra funds into that.”

“How’s it doing?” Alanna and James asked in unison, curious and slightly worried.

“Well, skill ranks apparently can’t account for outside information or random chance or whatever the stock market is. But they *can* still make us a 355% return on investment.”

“What.” James said, incredulous.

“What?”

“*What*?” He repeated.

“I don’t… what’s wrong?” Anesh was starting to look worried.

James exfiltrated himself from Alanna’s hug to snatch the papers out of Anesh’s folder. “Are you fucking kidding me?” He exclaimed. “Anesh, this is… insane. This is the kind of thing that gets us on the suspicious list of the SEC, rapidly.” He looked up at his boyfriend. “This is a good profit; basically, it’s too good.” He said with a wince. “You need to tell JP to back off on the frequent daily trading. I know he knows more than he lets on, and the orb is probably giving him some insane instincts for good picks, but this looks like insider trading, man.”

“Are you sure? How do you know?” Alanna asked him, curious.

“I have a degree in this sorta thing.” James muttered. “And yes, before you ask, I am aware that I work in tech support. I know. Thank you.”

“Okay.” Anesh said, concern on his face. “So, what happens if they catch us?” He asked James.

“Well… ‘catch us’ doing what? I mean, the thing is, it’s suspicious as all fuck, but it’s not actually illegal to be good at day trading. And for a while, that’s what it’s gonna look like. Hell, now that I think about it, it probably won’t even get noticed until we start hitting the range of millions of dollars.” James shot a look at Anesh, glancing up from the documentation of their accounts. “We aren’t doing that, are we?”

Anesh pulled a notepad out of his pocket, tore a page off, crumpled it up, and overhand flung it into a wire trash bin two desks down. “Nope.” He said.

“Woulda been nice.” James said. “Maybe we can start a finance consulting firm at some point and mask our devious plan to be ‘too good at money’.” He shrugged. “Again, it’s not actually illegal to be good at day trading. It’s just that, with how we’re doing it? It won’t look like we’re just good at it.”

“Alright, alright.” Anesh said, a little annoyed James was harping on it. “I’ll have JP step off for a bit.” He gave ground on that point. “Anything else?”

Now seemed like the best time to bring it up. “Alanna… and I… want to try using the skulljacks tonight.” James said, trying to get the words out before his weird sense of embarrassment caught up to him. “Like… together.”

Anesh’s eyes met Alanna's, and then James’. “You sure?” He asked, though he wasn’t sure who he was asking.

“Yeah.” They both said together, with Anesh chorusing in for the second half of the expression, rolling his eyes as he did so.

Of course they were sure. If he’d learned one thing about them in his time with his partners, it was that they really didn’t ask things they weren’t already sure of.

So, “Okay.” Was all he said. “I’ll see you both tonight. James, I think Sarah’s wild flailings over at the door means your next interview is here.”

“Great.” James said, stifling something that was half yawn and half sigh. “I’ll see you two in an hour, after these wrap up. If you finish up here, just meet me at home, okay? Don’t stick around on my behalf.”

“Kay!” Alanna cheerfully patted him goodbye, while Anesh gave James a short peck on the lips. “Now, Anesh! I’ve been talking with Momo about the reds…”

James smiled as he walked over to where Sarah was giving an exaggerated tapping of her foot, feeling good about his night. Conversations with his partners always left him feeling hopeful. Maybe the next interview would be exactly what they wanted.

_____

It wasn’t.

_____

At roughly two AM, the elevator doors dinged open on the ground floor of the structure that Momo had started calling home.

She lived in the basement, which was also her own personal lab space. In theory, the other rooms down here that had been cleaned up and furnished served as guest rooms or permanent quarters for anyone who wanted them, but Momo was kinda it for now. She didn’t mind, though. Quite the opposite.

Momo took the ‘solitude and contemplation’ part of being a goth seriously.

Also it gave her more leeway to try dumb things with the red orbs, just to see what worked. She hadn’t been able to do anything with the theory that you could make a kind of life with them, but she *was* getting better at designing totems.

Like, to the point that she was actually designing them, now.

She was pretty sure that her next big breakthrough was right around the corner. Maybe with this one, she’d figure out how to transmit information in a way that didn’t hurt as much.

Momo was… not doing great, if she was gonna be honest with herself. Sure, she had a place to stay, a hobby and/or job that she loved, and a lot of friends. But her parents didn’t remember her, she was probably never gonna get a normal college experience, and she hadn’t really slept in two days.

There were bags under her eyes. The kind you only got from prolonged lack of sleep; sleep that left you functional, but never really rested.

Momo was losing ground, and didn’t know how to take it back.

What she did know, though, was that Harvey had taken in a delivery for the kitchen today. She also knew that James had interviewed twenty eight people, and ‘hired’ six of them. That first fact she knew because she wasn’t a total isolationist, and the second she knew because the shell-and-bottlecap totem she had in her pocket had just enough range to reach a few feet around her, and told her the allegiance of every human in the building.

That one had taken a lot of work to make, and she was pissed that the only settings she could work out were “all living things”, which included *ants*, or “human”, which was… fine, but not as all-encompassing as she might have hoped.

It also hurt like hell to have on, but she left it running basically all the time anyway. The nosebleeds were barely noticeable anymore anyway.

The point was, she’d come upstairs for a 2 AM sandwich. And she’d taken the elevator because stairs were for chumps, and spatial violations were hilarious.

What she wasn’t expecting was to see someone outside the large glass panes of the front windows.

It was a woman, or a girl, or whatever. Maybe a little older than Momo herself, and looking… kind of like in the same shape, honestly.

She stood in the rain, hoodie and tangled blonde hair dripping wet as she peered through into the mostly-dark interior of their little semi-private space. Her eyes also had the look of a member of club no-sleep, and her shoulders sagged in desperate exhaustion as she tried to find something through the glass.

Momo ignored every security protocol that Harvey had laid out to them over the last two weeks, went over, and unlocked the door.

The woman nearly jumped out of her steel-toed boots when the lock clacked open. And Momo had the impression she was prepared to fucking book it back to the rolling trash heap shaped like a car that she’d parked on the far end of the otherwise empty lot.

“Hey!” Momo called over, sticking her head out the door, voice raspy and thick from lack of use and equal lack of staying hydrated. “You want a sandwich?” She very carefully did not step outside. She didn’t want to find out what the totem thought ‘in the building’ meant if she was outside.

The other woman made nervous eye contact with her, before looking around at the empty parking lot, dark building, and then back to Momo herself.

She’d come a long way to be here, Momo thought to herself. She had that feel to her. The weight of a long trip. Only she didn’t get to the end to find a place to prop her feet up and relax. She just ended up… here.

Momo watched the woman think, watched her steel herself to answer. If she came into the building, Momo could tell in an instant if she was a threat. She didn’t think this was that kind of situation, but if it was… well, she hadn’t lived here for a month without coming up with a few paranoid plans. And if she wasn’t, then the kitchen could support two sandwiches.

She held the door open for what felt like half an hour, wind sweeping the occasional sheet of cold rain just across the threshold at a right angle to the door itself. Momo was becoming a lot more patient than she ever expected, she realized, as she waited for the answer.

Finally, after what felt like a small forever, the wanderer made her choice.

“Yeah.” Eleanor called back, striding to the door. “I’m fucking starving.”

__

“It’s not the same, from what I understand.” Anesh was telling them, the trio-plus-extra-Anesh seated on the bed in a ring of crossed legs and small touches. “Simon is better at describing it, but basically, what I do is more of a refresh. I’m reminding myself of things I haven’t known yet. What they do, what we… we’re going to do… it’s more.”

James tried not to whip his head back and forth as both Anesh’s spoke. It had been a while since they’d all been in the same room, and he had forgotten how easily his boyfriend slipped into that pattern of teamworked speech.

“What about for me, since I don’t have a…?” Alanna tapped the nape of her neck.

“It forms when someone plugged in brings an ethernet cable near your neck.” James said, suppressing the urge to start shivering as he remembered having his own forced onto him. “It’ll be fine.” He reassured Alanna. “I’ll be fine.”

They had, between each of them, an ethernet cord, and a single router, which was plugged into the outlet in the least obtrusive way possible. The lights in the room were off, with the exception of the constellation of lights from James’ PC, and the glow of the first size two yellow orb that the madman *still* kept as a nightlight-slash-lava-lamp.

It was a tense feeling, but a warm and comfortable one too. They were together, and kinda worried about what was gonna happen, but they were here, with each other. Kinda sleepy, kinda excited, and none of them knowing exactly what to expect.

“Okay. Okay.” James muttered, as he picked up his cord. “Just like flying a drone, right?”

“Do not pilot me.” Alanna stuck her tongue out at him. “At least, not right noooooow!” Her last word turned into a yelp as both Anesh’s on either side took the opportunity to poke at her sides.

“Be serious here.” James tried to say with a straight face, but failed. “Or not.” He laughed as his partners engaged in some kind of tickle-based skirmish.

“Oh, fuck it.” Alanna said, gasping for breath and giggling as she held off a snickering Anesh. “Just shove it in already.”

James almost rolled his eyes. But then, he realized, maybe that was just what should happen. Just… one last push over the edge, and trust that they’d catch each other as they fell.

Anesh’s were already plugged in. So James reached over, grabbed the spare cord, and with a fluid motion and a leaned-in kiss, brought it up to the back of Alanna’s neck.

Flesh and bone reshaped themselves, or were themselves reshaped, into something new. Something human and not, technological and yet totally irrational. A path of almost ultimate trespass, and also, a gate to a greater future.

And then James slapped his own into place, before he could second guess any farther.

It wasn’t instant, like with monster-Karen. It wasn’t slow and awkward, like trying to learn to pilot a drone, either.

Human minds quested, when presented with new things. They poked at holes they weren’t supposed to, they explored down the strange paths, unless taught not to. And now, there were two and a half paths for James’ mind to follow.

He closed his eyes as the feelings rushed in. Impulses, at first, small snippets that he knew weren’t him, but he could taste the familiarity of.

Here was fear, here was worry. Here was surprise, and satisfaction, and curiosity. Here was compassion.

He followed the feelings, and felt the others doing the same. James realized he could feel the others. And they realized it too, as he shared the thought. They were sharing, almost without meaning to. More fear, from someone. What if they shared what they didn’t mean to? What if they gave up secrets that were meant to be kept private? What if they hurt each other?

But it was too late. They were linked, and they *wanted to be*, and they couldn’t pull back now.

James had thought that he’d be afraid. But now, tumbling over the precipice, he found that he wasn’t. They trusted each other, ultimately, and so they would never let themselves fall.

They’d never been sure what it would be like, to be three people and one person all at once. They’d not had the words for it, individually. Even now, together, they didn’t quite grasp what they were. The emotion resonated with each piece of their new self; different thoughts all thought together and amplified across four platforms.

They were together, as fully as a lover ever could be. They were the next human, something new. They were an opportunity for knowledge and tactics unknown to mortals. They were becoming something different. They were who they always were. They were terrified, and excited, and so many other things, all at once in a way a single human could never be.

They opened their eyes, and four angles of vision each saw the different parts of who they were, and knew the truth of each other more powerfully than almost anyone ever had before.

And then there was only love.

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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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