It was a cold night. Not deadly cold, not the kind that bit you down to the bone; at least, not if you were only going on a walk to the coffee shop and had doubled up on coats. Just regular cold. Anesh had doubled up on coats. Anesh had planned ahead far more than James and Alanna had.
Not like Alanna needed to, though. One lucky purple, and suddenly you could tolerate five degree nights in a tee shirt.
James, though, was busy trying to walk at double speed to get them where they were going before his ears froze off, all while his partners were busy with a meandering pace and enjoying the clear night.
No clouds or rain, for the first time in a couple months. And with the back walking trail they were taking being so far from the roads and homes, they could actually see the stars and crescent moon in the late December sky.
It was just nice. Fresh air, even if it did come in the form of snappy gusts of wind. Good company, even if some of it was complaining and hurrying them along. And a feeling of catharsis; of a job well done, and some time now to relax. Even if that was an illusion.
“So, I told Alex about the camraconda den while we were out at the diner.” Alanna was talking casually to Anesh while their boyfriend tried to goad them into a faster pace a half dozen steps ahead of them. “And she suggested that an alternate name for them would be ssssentries.” She hissed out the name with a laughing grin on her face.
Anesh groaned. “Oh, that’s so bad!” He exclaimed. “I feel like James’ love of wordplay has infected everyone at this point.” There was a pause as they walked, and then Anesh grinned a little himself. “Well, the whole story is pretty amazing. Especially him getting to see all the camraconda’s hisssstory.”
“You bastard!” Alanna bellowed a laugh back at him, happiness cracking across the night’s chill.
“It could be worse!” James called back to them. “That store on the corner back there sells footwear and is called ‘If The Shoe Fits’. This entire city loves puns. Need I remind you that Dave *continues* to work at a kennel called ‘Noahs Arf’? Or that there’s one of those drive through coffee places called ‘Stand Your Grounds’?”
“You don’t need to remind us.” Anesh chuckled as they cut across the parking lot to get to their goal.
Tonight, they were hanging out. Just the three of them. Well, four, if you counted the other Anesh, but they really didn’t. Not because he wasn’t important, but because he was just… Anesh. There was James, Alanna, and Anesh, and one of those three people happened to have a little more mass than the others. If you’d asked James, he probably would have made a joke about it being Alanna while miming measuring her biceps, but he *didn’t* do that, because everyone pointedly avoided asking that particular question to him.
For now, though, there were no dumb questions. Just three friends and lovers, having a night out together. Because weekends were critical, James had realized.
For the last two months, it had been creeping up on him. Everyone wanted a chunk of his time, in some way, and before he’d noticed, there was nothing left for him. Dungeon planning, equipment maintenance, long conversations with everyone from Secret to El to Momo, actual work from the job he still inexplicably went to, fielding questions about orbs, magic items, coffee, ethics, and payroll, and also keeping a now especially sharp and tense eye out for any actual legal trouble from the fact that Alanna had gotten in a fight with half a hospital’s staff. There was no James time in there; not where he really got to choose what he was doing. He was just bouncing between obligations. So today, he had put his foot down, and declared it a weekend.
He’d then promptly invited his partners to go get coffee. Because it was *his* time, but that didn’t mean it had to be his alone.
“You guys wanna sit outside?” James asked idly.
“It’s five degrees out here, and the chairs are wrought iron. *Alanna’s* arse has frost resistance; mine doesn’t.” Anesh told him, stating the obvious.
James thought about it for a second. “Inside, then!” He said as they walked up to the counter. “You know, that said though, it does feel kind of weird to have a conversation inside, with a bunch of people around, about weird stuff.”
“Weird stuff.” Alanna echoed, disbelief on her face.
“Yeah, weird stuff. You know. The stuff that we talk about, that’s weird.” James explained, as they stepped up to give their order.
“You guys talk about late stage capitalism and anal sex all the time here.” The barista chimed in from behind the counter.
James cleared his throat and had the good graces to look embarrassed. “That’s different!” He protested. “Also hey. The usual mocha please. How ya doing tonight?”
“Not bad.” The barista was a tall guy. Round face and polynesian features made him look like the kind of dude who could be super intimidating, if he wasn’t constantly beaming at everyone. “But seriously, man. It’s the pacific northwest. No one’s gonna give you shit for your weird conversations. Well, I mean, there’s that one old bat who’s here every tuesday at, like, 2 AM, but you always miss her.”
“I have work then.” James unironically said, their conversation intertwining with everyone giving their drink orders.
“Same.” The barista said with a knowing nod. “Anyway, don’t stress. Drink coffee late at night instead. Though maybe don’t bring your magical stapler friend in when it’s crowded like this. Your doubled-up clone friend is kinda suspicious enough; not that being a clone is a crime”
Anesh winced in the silence that followed. There were a couple other people behind them in line, and a surreptitious check showed that both of them were studiously paying attention to their phones and nothing else. Another sideways glance from his other half showed that Alanna had gone perfectly still; frozen in place like she hadn’t yet decided what to *feel* about this. Ah, right. They’d forgotten to tell her about James’ little walk with Rufus.
“James.” She said in an iron voice. “What.”
“Okay, in my defense, you got in a fight with the staff of…”
“Alright, alright!” Alanna stopped him. “That’s different! You can’t just… oh fuck it, whatever. We’re so screwed, aren’t we? Like, we’re skipping the gradual acclimation period and just shredding the veil of the masquerade, huh?”
James wrapped his arms around her side and gave her a warm hug. “You’re sexy when you make nerdy references like that.” He turned back to the barista who was trying to settle on a look of either amusement, sappy glee, or confusion as he made their drinks. “Hey, as long as we’re abandoning subtle, I’ll trade you a skill point for a piece of cake.”
“I dunno what that means, but I’m game.”
When the hiss of the espresso machine faded and their drinks came up, there was a slice of strawberry cream cake on a plate to go with them. And with only a little trepidation, James pulled a tiny orb of yellow from his pocket and tossed it to the black haired youth responsible. “Have fun.” He said. “Welcome to the weird.” James grinned as he collected their stuff and went to join Anesh and Alanna at their table.
“We’re so fucked.” Alanna was repeating. “There’s no way we’re ready for this.” Her head was down on the table, between arms propped up on elbows. “I’ve been so busy, I didn’t even *think* of how we’re supposed to explain any of it. We’re gonna need a *press release*, and contingency plans, and almost certainly some kind of security detail for the secret lair, and…”
James plopped into a chair next to her after settling the drinks down. “Hey, wow, chill.” He said softly. “Have some cake. It’ll be okay.”
“How?! How could it possibly be okay?” Alanna demanded. “We knew things like the skulljacks would be a big deal, but I was so tired after the delve I didn’t even consider what it would mean to just hand over a stack of *human hearts*!” She half-shouted, grabbing at James’ shoulders. “Do you have any idea what that might mean?”
He flicked his eyes over to Anesh, who gave him a shrug. “No?” He ventured.
“I’ve no clue either.” Anesh added, both of him sipping identical mochas in unison. “A math degree has utterly failed to prepare me for this.” He said with another casual sip.
James reached up to give her some pets along the back of her head and neck. “Alright, deep breath. It’s gonna be okay.” He reassured her. “Look, for one thing, we need to know, as soon as possible, if the weird stuff is gonna get us in trouble. The sooner we find out, the less fear and stress in our lives, right? So the small stuff, like introducing wetware to the world and paying people in skill orbs? That’s just the test bed. And if we move fast enough, no one will have time to stop us before we’ve done our good-damage.” James explained.
“Why did you pay for cake with an orb?” Anesh asked, casually.
“I don’t have any cash on me and I lost my debit card a few days ago.”
Alanna snapped back to the present problem for a window of time. “Seriously? No cash on you?” She snorted a laugh that seemed to break her anxiety. “James, what happened to the two hundred grand from yesterday?”
“How in the fuck would I fit that in my wallet?” He blurted out. “Nah, that’s back at the lair in the vault.”
“We have a vault?” Both Anesh asked, eyebrows raised in surprise.
James tapped a finger on his chin. “Welllll, we have a basement.” He admitted. “Anyway, Alanna, the solution is simple. We *cannot* live in fear. So we taunt anyone who wants to stop us out. If no one shows up, then either there’s no one there, or the dungeon’s antimemes are too strong and we’re in the shadows anyway. If anyone *does* show up…” He looked around the crowded coffee shop, at all the tables full of normal people under pleasant orange light. Just a normal night, full of late hours homework, bible study, dates, and hangouts. And he thought to himself that if anyone else had the knowledge, the access to power that he had now, and they chose to come after him and his people? Then those others had absolutely failed their responsibility to improve the world. He was going to build a utopia, where places like this were everywhere, and where poverty and suffering were ground away, and if they chose to fight him instead of cooperate? “...then we bury them.” He finished, grim.
“In the basement, presumably.” Anesh added.
The cheeky comment and irreverent tone absolutely killed James’ dark mood. Alanna laughed along with him, momentarily reassured that at least for now, there was a plan they could hew toward.
“Anyway!” James derailed them. “We were wanting to talk about something important lately, right?” He rubbed his chin with a speculative look on his face. “Hmm. Can’t remember. Something about video games probably. Alanna, have you played anything fun lately that I wanted to talk about?”
“Orbs.” She said flatly, making eye contact like a wolf staring at a hare.
“Haven’t heard of that one. Anesh?” James said, suppressing the smile as he pivoted to look at the duplicates across the table.
Anesh shrugged. “I’ve been getting into multi-dimensional sudoku. Virgil made me a program to generate ‘em.”
“...really?” James and Alanna asked together. “Wait,” James followed up, “how many dimensions is multi?”
“Four.” Anesh replied.
Neither of them could tell if he was serious, as they eyed him with narrow slits. It was entirely within the realm of possibility that Anesh was not bullshitting them. He had, after all, been accelerating his knowledge beyond what most people should learn at a four year university; partly through orbs, yes, but partly through the synergistic study tactic of being two people. According to him, he could learn things at well beyond a 100% increased rate, simply because there wasn’t that time between lessons for knowledge to fade, and because his nightly bout of ‘being a gestalt mind’ did wonders for preventing burnout. And with that ability in hand, he’d begun rapidly powering through ever more confusing textbooks and dissertations, adding real world knowledge to the unfolding lotus that was the skill orb’s background boost to his mind. So him playing four-dimensional sudoku was *absolutely* possible.
It was *also* entirely feasible that he was screwing with them. Not just a possibility, but a likelihood. Anesh could banter with them like a champion when he wanted to, but his real talent was in the true art of *being sassy to his partners*.
“I believe you.” James said with all the gravity of an honest response that he could muster. “But no, I guess it was something else I was thinking of. What’s going on lately?”
“Dungeon shit, mostly.” Alanna replied, her forehead still thumped down on the table as her brain tried to destress. “We’ve got three to manage now, in addition to figuring out how to build a portal to Tennessee to access the one Eleanor told us about.” She groaned into the stained wood. “Ugggh. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we need to delegate at least one of them to someone else.”
“Probably the house. It seems least problematic.” Anesh pointed out.
“No, that wasn’t what I was thinking of either.” James said, shaking his head. “Oh! Christmas is coming up!”
“We aren’t having Christmas in the dungeon.” Anesh vetoed him before the option was put forth.
“No, I… hm.” James paused and pretended he was actually thinking about it. “That could be cool, now that you mention it! We could get some striders to decorate a tree, wrap up gifts in spheres instead of boxes…” He laughed and held up his hands as the other two at the table turned scornful gazes on him. “But seriously, I was just wondering what you guys were doing.”
“Going home for a couple weeks.” Anesh said, shrugging. “Should be interesting, and far more convenient now than previously. I’m actually considering spinning up a new copy of myself just for that. Though the logistics become challenging.”
“Someday, we’ll get you a whole apartment building where you can build your perfect little Anesh hive.” James promised him. “How about you?” He turned to Alanna.
“Not going home for any weeks.” She said, voice a little sharp. “Probably just gonna lounge around and whine about holidays being over-commercialized.” Alanna raised her eyes up just for a second while she talked, “Maybe I’ll just use the time to go check out the haunted attic, actually. Still wanna know what our connection *is*.”
Well that was suspiciously melancholic.
James didn’t rise to the bait, though. He just nodded, and patted her on the shoulder. “I get that.” He said. “At least this place isn’t playing Christmas carols. Yet. I more meant, like, do you guys wanna do a dinner and gifts and stuff?’
“Not really?” Alanna told him, apology in her words already. “I’m sorry, I just don’t think I’m up for it this year.”
“The only time I’ve actually done anything for Christmas was the last couple of years here, and those involved Sarah, so I don’t remember them.” Anesh pointed out.
They both looked away, sheepish as they felt like they were ruining James’ holiday plans. A second later, he shattered that notion. “Oh thank god.” He sighed out the words. “I’ve been stressing about that for a month!”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“We were busy!” James exclaimed, throwing his hands up. “There’s so many things trying to kill us!”
Alanna laughed softly as she sat back up. “That’s not even a little true. All our problems are self-inflicted.”
“And self corrected.” Anesh pointed out.
“That actually brings me to what I really wanted to talk about.” James admitted. “The Christmas thing was just something I was having anxiety over.”
Alanna perked up instantly. “Is it dungeon things?” She asked.
The look that James shot her way was part way between concerned, amused, and perplexed. “You know, every time I think I’ve got your number, you say stuff like that. What happened to the girl who was *very insistent* that we have days off from dungeon things?” James asked. “I know, granted, that those days always turned into us talking about it anyway, but you at least pressed us to try.”
“Eh.” Alanna waved it away, taking a gulp of her coffee. “This is more fun, let’s face it. Also, we forget stuff all the time that we really shouldn’t. So these chats are engaging to me.”
“Fair.” James conceded the point. “I wanted to talk about our strategy in general, I think.”
“The goal, or the execution?” Anesh asked.
“The goal is our mission statement. Our strategy is the general actions we’re taking to accomplish that.” Alanna lectured. “So, mission statement is ‘make a utopia’. But that’s not a strategy, because it doesn’t give us any guidance on ways to act. Our strategy, in this case, is, say, ‘improve medical care’. How do we do that, then, is a tactic. Remove the wait time for organ transplants. Mission, strategy, tactic.”
“Right. Okay. So, where does ‘accumulate wealth and power’ go?” Anesh asked.
“Strategy.” James said. “But it’s not a good long term one, honestly. Those things enable us to act, but ideally we’ll be building a world where we sort of distribute them to everyone.” He thought for a second, then added, “I think it’s important to note that it *is* a strategy, and not a mission. Now, I love leveling up as much as everyone else, but that’s not the reason we’re doing it, right? We’re not my dad, going to the hardware store to buy tools, because he wants more tools. We’re buying hammers because we’ve got nails to hit.”
“Your metaphors get so weird sometimes.” Alanna quipped.
He threw up his hands in response, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. “Building a deck is a perfectly normal allegory for building a utopia!”
“So anyway.” Anesh cut them both off. “What are our current strategies?”
“Well, health stuff, obviously.” James said. “I think at this point, we can probably count on a few doctors or hospital administrators taking us at face value, and working with us quietly. Once the pyramid of human hearts works out. From there, we can maybe make connections, and find someone to help us start on more comprehensive examination and testing of the skulljacks, too. I’m filing that one under the header of ‘upgrade’. Make people better, that sorta thing. The other big one is more offensive, and is essentially that we want to be looking for ways to undermine and cripple toxic industries and establishments.”
“Come again?” Anesh did a double double take.
“Like, the oil industry, for example.” Alanna said. “The oil industry kills people. Not with snipers and tanks, exactly. Probably. But they create a situation where people die as a result of their policies, and that’s an acceptable cost to them. They lobby for looser environmental protection laws, or for more restrictions on solar power, that sort of thing. So!” She clapped her open palms together a couple times, beaming at them. “We kill them!”
“Not literally.” James clarified to Anesh, who was looking around the coffee shop to see how many people were curious about the murder conspiracy unfolding here. “But, say we find a magical form of electricity generation. We duplicate that, and spread it as far as possible, before anyone figures out they should be stopping us.”
“So we break the law.” Anesh sort of asked, sort of just confirmed. “That seems… unsustainable?”
James shrugged. “Honestly, we’re probably already in a looooot of problems, legally speaking. Trespassing, at minimum. A *ton* of trespassing. Probably something about lying to the police and fabricating evidence, from the whole thing with Frank. I dunno.” He shrugged again, like he was trying to just slough off the potential trouble. “Thing is, if we get away with it enough that it becomes a normal part of life, it’ll be kind of hard to stop us.”
“That’s *really* worrying!” Anesh protested. “I feel like you’re banking on the antimemes a little too much. Because anything that’s going to become normal is, by definition, going to be out from under cover.”
“Good point. That’s where strategy four comes in!” James said cheerily. And when the others gave him prompting stares, he explained, “Strategy four is being gods no not literal gods Anesh, please.” James reached over the table to try to clap a hand on the mouth of each Anesh that was trying to cut him off. “I mean being invincible. Having too many skills and guns and friends and other random-ass effects piled up for anyone to be able to challenge us. And *yes*, Alanna, that *is* how dictatorships start, which is why we need to maybe just not be assholes. I know that’s actually a big ask, but a whole lot of this is based on the idea that we can be good people.”
“I actually more or less trust us to be benevolent gods.” Alanna admitted. “I was just wondering what our short term schedule looks like that leads to this.”
“There’s so much to do.” Anesh agreed. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Why are you both looking at me?” James asked.
Anesh leveled a pair of fingers at his boyfriend. “Because you’re our leader, and you know it. So, what’s first?”
“Basketball.” James said. “First, anyway. Resource use, basically. Alanna and I need to finish our lessons; see what they actually do. I’m tired of letting these things sit idle; and for the same reason, you guys need to start screwing around with your link and see what the hell it does. To that end, back into the house. Open more pieces of cursed furniture, see if it’s spawning monsters, see if there’s broader options there. Then we need to decide what our course of action with the school is. I’m thinking of putting it to the torch. Thoughts?”
He’d clearly thought this out. Anesh himself had been wondering about the connection that the house had awarded to himself and Alanna for all the hard work James did, but the two of them simply hadn’t had time to talk about it. And Alanna had been curious about the lesson since they’d gotten it, but herself hadn’t had time to do more than rack up a few points on it.
“My first thought is that we cannot burn down a high school.” Alanna started with. “That’s just silly. Also, hey, did anyone ever check up on… you know… the whole thing?” She was met with blank looks from her boys. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t play dumb. The thing where James bled all over the records office and wore Secret like a scarf through a crowd.”
“Oh, that thing.” James said, playing coy. “No?”
Both Anesh pulled out their phones, and after a brief minute to connect to the wifi, started searching through news stories. “I can’t believe none of us thought of this.” He said. “What were we *doing*?”
“Sleeping. Then more dungeon.” James said. “See, this is what I’m talking about. We forget *so many* little details.”
“James, there’s a story here about an opened investigation into the possibility of a serial killer after thirty two students went missing on the same day.” Anesh hissed out. “So whatever’s happening, they don’t know about the information void, but they *are* aware now.”
“Is there anything about me?” James leaned over the table to look at Anesh’s screen, getting cake frosting on his shirt as he did so. “Huh. ‘Detective Madden told reporters that at present, they are investigating all possible leads and have no active suspects’. That’s disappointing. I was hoping…”
Alanna snorted. “You were hoping to be a hero, huh?”
“I’ve got a lot of vainglory stored up, yeah.” James nodded. “Still. Not mention of me, or Secret, or any of that stuff. So, that’s good?”
“Either they’ve got a blind spot for things beyond the Weirdness Threshold, or they’re not going to talk about ghost monsters on the news sites.” Alanna agreed. “Either way, it does confirm that we have a bit of anonymity. We’re still not burning down the school, though.”
“It would solve the problem.”
“So would just sealing off the breach!” Alanna argued back. “School’s can’t just be replaced. That would seriously fuck up a lot of people’s lives; students, staff, parents. Also, it’s an infrastructure investment that can’t just be covered by cash from state insurance. So *no*. But I am okay with us posting a guard on it.”
James cocked an eyebrow. “Is this going to be part of some zany plan to put Momo into deep cover as a high schooler?”
“No, dingus. We just get someone a job as a school counselor. We’ve got someone already in the roster who’s qualified, and we can clearly forge FBI credentials, so we just do that. Tell the school the person is there to keep an eye on things and assist with the investigation, that their salary is already paid, and then give them a free staff member.” Alanna suggested.
There was a pause. “I feel like there’s gonna be a problem there, if anyone bothers to check anything, but having once volunteered in a school office, I can’t say that I ever knew of anyone checking on anything. So that might work.” James admitted, sadly. “Though posing as the FBI long term is another one of those unsustainable ideas.”
“Ya think?” Alanna snorted. “Okay. So. Learn things, guard the school, check out the house - we should do that on Thursdays, just as a thought, since it doesn’t seem to have a set time - is there anything else that we need to go over?”
“Endless things.” James sighed. “We have too much on our plate. Our resident warwitch has made a lot of progress on the red totems, so we need to have some kind of system in place for turning the weird stuff she makes into actual solutions to problems. Also… um, yes Anesh?” James pointed to the one of them that had a hand raised.
“I was actually thinking about this. The math on the reds is constant, for the totems. And now we have a green totem to study, as well as the oranges we keep finding. I’m not sure about those, but I’m *reasonably* sure I understand the yellows well enough to make a totem out of them.”
“No!” and “Hard no!” echoed as James and Alanna spoke at the same time. James picked up that line of thinking. “Anesh, we know very few things about the yellows, but one of them is that to absorb them, you have to understand that they are themselves a congealed function of *time*. Now, I know that the totems for the reds produce information, which seems to be their thing, and the oranges and greens seem to be about spaces. So I am going to say this once; don’t fuck with time.”
“What! But we could probably do it safely!” Anesh protested. James glared at him, and he shriveled in his seat. “Okay, probably.” The glare did not relent. “Okay, fine! I won’t fuck with time!”
“Good. Thank you.”
“...Dungeon fucks with time.” Anesh grumbled.
“The dungeon fucks with time in exactly one instance, which makes me think even it is wary of it.” James pointed out.
“Okay, fair.” Anesh agreed. “I’ll keep it to my theoretical notes for now. Promise.”
James squeezed his eyes shut for a second as he processed the implication that Anesh had already started on this. He said a small prayer for linear causality, and moved on, hoping to brush that under the rug. “Moving briskly on,” he said, “did you know that we got more iLipedes?”
“Oh yeah?” Alanna asked, subconsciously itching at her arms. “That’s… nice.”
“I thought you liked Lily?” Anesh asked her.
Alanna bit her lip. “I do like Lily. She’s both useful, and stays politely away from me. But they’re still all undulate-y, ya know?” She gave an exaggerated shiver. “Ugh. No. Millipedes are no.”
“I’ve seen you catch-and-release spiders with your bare hands, and you’re telling me you don’t like something vaguely bug-shaped?” James inquired, amused.
“Vaguely shaped like the *worst* bug, yeah. Look, this is irrelevant, can we talk about what they do?” Alanna tried to divert them back on track, which was difficult enough normally and even more of a challenge when James had caffeine in his blood.
“Okay, so, there’s four of them, two are fine, and two are possibly exploitable in a way that’s probably, *probably*, going to get us into trouble.” James started. Instantly, Anesh perked up; exploitable systems were getting to be his bread and butter. “One of them is like Lily, it scans things. It seems weaker, though. Like, it only scans things it thinks of as ‘tools’, and it doesn’t count the orbs for some reason. It can tell you who owns a thing, though. The other one gives you a countdown timer to the next time you’re going to be in physical danger…”
“That one’s gone.” Anesh pointed out.
“Yeah, there was an argument over whether or not it was causing the danger. We released it back into the wilds, rather than suffer its curse.”
James cleared his throat. “Why does no one tell me this stuff?”
“We are literally having the conversation now. This is us telling you.” Alanna said, clapping her hands together once and pointing the whole gesture at James. “What do the other two do?”
“Fine! But this is gonna end with me giving people paperwork, mark my words!” James threatened. “The other one builds up a charge over time, and you can ask it yes/no questions. It seems like the cost of an answer is based on how big of a question it is, but it might be something else. The last one is a social network.”
“Like Facebook? Wait, no, that’s not the important one here. That first one could…” Anesh trailed off.
Alanna picked it up. “A perfect lie detector? Unravel political conspiracies? Brute force passwords? No, that one is stupid. Um… solve questions about the universe?”
“We tried that one. It probably won’t ever have enough charge to settle the debate of whether or not God is real.” James said. “It takes maybe a few hours to build up to something moderately useful, and probably a lot longer for anything involving quantum physics. The fun one is the social network thing.”
The other two stopped to think about that one for a second. Anesh bowed his head, Alanna tilted hers up, and they both put their brains toward figuring out what a dungeon-made social network would look like. “Oh.” Anesh said suddenly. “It gives you a literal map of a person’s social life, doesn’t it?”
“Yep. Only to one degree, which is still a lot of information. But the longer a person uses it, the more it fills in connections between different people, to an alarmingly detailed degree. *Did you know*, that JP’s mom, and Dave’s mom, kissed once in a college frat party?” James asked with a wild grin.
Alanna choked on her drink, nearly spitting coffee onto the table. “Did *they* know that?”
“They do now! It’s honestly not an amazing coincidence; their families have been friends for a long time. Maybe that’s why!” The conclusion was an easy one to make for James, especially when it was happening to someone else. Even better that those someone else’s weren’t here tonight. “Anyway, that’s the iLipedes. As Alanna’s mutterings and napkin scribblings tell me, there are already a few ideas on how to use those. Um… yeah, that’s about all I’ve got. As far as I know, no one found any transcendentally good magic items this time around. The only thing left to talk about is the orbs we picked up.” The shrug James gave was casual, and belied the electric excitement that he felt in his chest.
No matter how many times they went through this, it was always just… fun. It was fun. Sitting down together, sharing their skill gains and buffs in the same way they shared food. It grounded the whole experience.
There had been talk, lately, from some of the new people and also from the survivor cadre, that James and his inner circle were insane. Not in a bad way, specifically, but just that the rate and eagerness with which they accepted the madness of their changed world wasn’t normal. The dungeons gave out rewards both exciting and terrifying, in a lot of different ways, but James had just folded all of that into his life and kept rolling on like it was the new normal.
And while he didn’t get angry about it, or even disagree really, he did have one counter argument for why it was so easy for him.
The part where he and his friends shared the loot and levels was glorious.
They started pulling out pouches, loose orbs, and in James’ case, a repurposed Altoids tin, from pockets and backpacks. The stack on the table started to grow rapidly, and Anesh eyed it with worried eyes as he stopped adding to it long before the other two did. With one finger, he casually stopped a purple from rolling off the table as Alanna spilled a second handful of the things out.
“I thought we were sharing these?” He asked.
“We are.” Alanna said. “I did. Everyone got at least one.”
“There’s, like, fifteen of the bloody things here.” Anesh protested. “Where did you two get all of this?” He asked. “Did you confiscate every orb we pulled in last delve?”
James looked offended. “What!? No! This is kind of normal now. Though yeah, that is way more purples than I expected. What’s up with that?”
“Oh, Deb’s crew liberated a few from a pair of paper pushers, and Daniel and his guys found a couple in the other tower they tracked down.” Alanna explained. “So everyone actually did get one; they just didn’t take the extras. And some people didn’t want them. Virgil had some religious thing about body modifications, which felt awkwarrrrrd.”
James winced. “Oof, that’s gonna be a problem later, probably.” Then he paused and held up a hand. “Wait, doesn’t he have a skulljack already? That… whatever, fuck it. I don’t care. How are we splitting this? I admit, I’ve been casually cracking yellows, so I dunno if I should get as many of those. Also we have a lot of other things to spend those on now.”
There were a lot of yellows. Maybe forty of the smallest ones, and a dozen larger ones as well. A single baseball sized golden orb was the centerpiece of their little hoard. Around it spread, fifteen little purples with one or two small reds mixed in. Two larger dots for oranges that Anesh had brought. And five or six blues of varying mass, just to test their limits in non-crisis situations. No greens, though. The coffee shop was great, but these days, the greens were reserved for the Lair.
“Even split.” Alanna said. “James, you separate the piles, then Anesh and I will choose first. The classic cake distribution.”
“For cake. If you want to share a cake, one person cuts, the other person picks. You don’t know this?” Anesh asked. “It’s how my parents raised my siblings and I to share properly.”
James made an unappreciative noise. “You’ve met my sister, you know damn well the two of us never learned to share with each other.” He said, as he started splitting the piles up. The only corrections that were made were Anesh passing off his orange orb back to James, saying that the intent was for him and Alanna to learn to absorb them, and nobody wanting to be the only one picking the huge orb. “Okay, come on guys. We can’t all be proud and stupid. Someone just… okay, fine.” He relented, as both of them reached out and pushed it into his pile. “Fine! Alright. Anesh, get your notepad ready, because I’m not gonna remember half of these.”
One by one, colorful bursts of glimmering dust faded across the tabletop, and a flood of alien thoughts passed through James’ mind, which he dutifully repeated to the Anesh keeping records.
[+1 Skill Rank : Cleaning - Dishwashing]
[+1 Skill Rank : Sewing]
[+1 Skill Rank : Repair- Sound Systems - Speakers]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Health Care - Treatment - Cancer - Chemotherapy]
[+1 Skill Rank : Gambling - Roulette]
[+1 Skill Rank : Fabrication - Wood - Chainsaw Carving]
[+1 Skill Rank : Chainsaws]
[+1 Skill Rank : History - Production - Assembly Line]
[+1 Skill Rank : Pan Flute]
[+1 Skill Rank : Acting - Lying]
[+1 Skill Rank : Etiquette - American - Weddings]
[+1 Skill Rank : Bureaucracy - Insurance - Car]
[+1 Skill Rank : Pilot - Fixed Wing Aircraft - Cessna]
[+2 Skill Ranks : History - Sports - Baseball]
[+1 Skill Rank : Recipe - Cake]
[+1 Skill Rank : Camouflage - Taiga]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Firearms - Sidearm - Walther P38]
[Shell Upgraded : G-Force Tolerance +.8 Gs]
[Shell Upgraded : Comfortable Walking Speed +1.2 mph]
[Shell Upgraded : Flight Control +13mm adjustment/second]
[Shell Upgraded : Lumen Damage Threshold +1684]
[Shell Upgraded : Ball Joint Hyperextension +2.1 degrees]
[Problem Solved : Possessions Dehumidified]
[+1 Skill Rank : Literature - King Arthur]
[Problem Solved : Pursuit Shaken]
[+1 Skill Rank : Cleaning - Laundry - Detergent Ratios]
Silence followed. “Okay, I have some thoughts.” Anesh said, tapping his pen on the legal pad in front of him. “I think I’ll go through the simple ones first, and then pass off to Alanna, who looks like she’s having an aneurysm. So, first off, you got two chainsaw skills. That’s horrifying. Also, I’m a bit sad your sports history wasn’t basketball, because I really wanted to see how many ‘points’ that counts for on your Lesson. And finally, flight control is a bizarre thing for you to have, would you like to go parachuting or something and test that out?” Anesh didn’t wait for an answer, instead turning to the woman next to James. “Alanna, you have a thought?”
“*Pursuit fucking shaken?!” She yelled, getting a brief moment of awkward hush across the rest of the patrons of the coffee shop. “I was *right*, and we *do* need plans for this!”
“Well, we did.” James admitted. “We don’t anymore. It’s been ‘shaken’”
“What does that *mean*?!” Alanna demanded.
“Good question. I’m sure our pursuers will be asking the same thing.” James said. “Listen, this doesn’t change anything, except that Anesh now wants to throw me out of an airplane. Our plans still stand. Now stop glowering at me, and eat your orbs!” He ordered. “I’ll try to absorb the orange once we’re all done.”
Alanna half-complied; specifically with the part that didn’t mean she had to stop scrunching up her face at her boyfriend. Her method was much less dramatic and more efficient than James, simply crushing every orb in one swoop, but she still rattled off everything in perfect order for Anesh to write down. The one main difference was that she absorbed one of the blues to make up for her lost ability to conjure asphalt from nothing.
[+1 Skill Rank : Recipe - Confection - Salmiakki]
[+1 Skill Rank : Animals - Horse]
[+1 Skill Rank : Geography - Canada - Edmonton]
[+1 Skill Rank : Fabrication - Crochet - Amigurumi]
[+1 Skill Rank : Massage]
[+1 Skill Rank : Accounting - Double Entry - Receipt Validation]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Etiquette - Aristocracy - European]
[+1 Skill Rank : Camping]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Boxing - Out Boxing - Southpaw]
[+1 Skill Rank : Disguise - Impersonation - Management]
[+1 Skill Rank : Etiquette - Gamers]
[+1 Skill Rank : Operation - Backhoe]
[+1 Skill Rank : Political Science - Nebraska - House of Representatives]
[Shell Upgraded : Bite Strength +166 PSI]
[Shell Upgraded : Safe Heart Rate +46 bpm]
[Shell Upgraded : LD50 Dextroamphetamine +4 grams]
[Shell Upgraded : Keratin Hardness +1.1]
[Shell Upgraded : Hearing Radius +80 cm]
[+16 Activations : Restore Glass]
[Problem Solved : Bathroom Cleaned]
[+1 Skill Rank : Gardening]
“Alright. So.” Alanna said, excitedly shifting back and forth in her seat like she was planning to vibrate through the floor. “So! I have a thought about all this!”
“Is it that you can now take way too much Adderall and be super productive all day long without worry?” James quipped.
She casually placed a hand on the side of his face and started slowly shoving him off his chair. “Nope! Nor is it whatever your next joke about me being able to eat plastic and being a goat is.” Alanna didn’t stop smiling. “It’s that I got *etiquette* skills. And I’m amazingly curious if that’s going to count toward my Lesson. Anyone want to find out?”
“Does it not automatically do its thing?” James asked, speaking the word and pushing the intent to check on his own progress. It remained unmoved; he hadn’t, after all, learned anything even remotely related to basketball in the last forty eight hours.
“If it does, then I didn’t get anything.” Alanna said. “So let’s find out. Syllabus!” She intoned the word. And a second later, she was somewhere else.
The classroom looked clean, and bright. Light streamed in from the windows through the half-pulled blinds. The chalkboard was freshly cleaned. The linoleum floor gleamed from its recent waxing. Alanna sat near the front, where she always sat, in one of those desks where the chair was tethered to the rest of the piece of furniture with a metal bar, watching the teacher.
The teacher wasn’t human. But that was fine. It was the teacher. Always had been. It taught her lessons. And Lessons. Right? That’s how this worked. That’s how school worked. You fought, you killed, then you sat, then you learned. And if you were very good at it, you didn’t need to retake senior year.
The light from outside wasn’t real sunlight. It was just more of the greasy blue-white light from the overhead bulbs. The chalkboard had things written on it; faded messages not completely wiped away. They were grim arcane formula and dire threats. The floor was mostly clean; the bugs skittering across it ate anything that wasn’t them.
Alanna tried to stand up, and found she couldn’t. She tried to howl in rage, and couldn’t do that either.
“Stay in your seat.” The teacher rumbled at her. “We want you to leave as much as you do.” It turned to the blackboard, and with a rusted steel claw, and began carving words into it. After the third word, it turned back toward her. “Choose. Then go.”
Charisma. Empathy. Reputation.
“What am I choosing?” Alanna tried to ask, but she couldn’t. “What are you, where is this, why am I here, who *am I*.” None of the questions came out. There were three words she was permitted to say, and all of them were written on the board.
So she thought. What did she want? Not Reputation. That was a bad idea for someone who wanted to stay undetected. And she knew that was what she wanted. Charisma? That sounded okay. So did Empathy. What was the difference? People understanding her, versus understanding people? She already was understood. She knew *that* very powerfully, in a part of her gut that yowled defiance at this place. So, there was only one thing left.
“Empathy.” She said.
“You have learned.” The teacher gnashed. “Return when you are prepared to be taught again. Now get out, plagiarist.”
Alanna was sitting in a padded chair, in a pleasantly lit coffee shop, at about eleven PM at night. Around her, the texture of human emotion roiled like a fog bank filled with lanterns. “Worried.” She said, pointing at James. “Curious, also worried.” She pointed at Anesh. It wasn’t enough; there was so much information, so many little thoughts that meant so much more. “You don’t care!” She started to raise her voice, pointing to a man sitting at the table across the open aisle to their left. “And you care too much!” Alanna directed that to the woman sitting with him at the same table. She stood up, staring around as people started murmuring to each other, watching her. “Afraid! Stressed! Mourning! Aroused! Angry!” She fired off words with the point of a finger, going through everyone near them, even as a few people stood up and started to leave. “Vindication!” She yelled, spinning on her heel to point at the barista, who had come out from behind the counter to stand behind her.
“Yeah, this is kind of what I meant.” He told them, vaguely sheepish. “Guys, I’m gonna need you to keep it down. You’re bothering every...one…” He trailed off as he saw the remaining pile of orbs in front of Anesh. “Huh. Okay. Yeah. Stop yelling please, or I’ll have to kick you out.”
Alanna flushed bright red as she realized what she’d been doing. “Sorry.” She said. “Shit, I’m really sorry!” She called to the cafe, and got a wave of knowledge of just how many people felt acceptance of her apology as she sat back down.
“What the hell was *that*?” James asked her, now fully terrified that something was wrong.
“I have no idea.” Alanna said. And then she remembered something that she’d been remembering this whole time but hadn’t acknowledged. It flickered on the edge of her awareness, and she directed her mind toward it. [Lesson - Communications III : 18/400 - Empathy II]. “Oh.” She said. “It worked. I… got something called Empathy? Twice, it looks like. Shit, I feel like a raw nerve. I can hear everything everyone is feeling. This is insane.”
“Twice?” James asked. “Wait, did you not get a choice like the kid did?”
“No, I got a… choice.” Alanna’s eyes narrowed to slits, and she glanced aside. “I don’t remember anything about it. But I made it.” She let out a low hissing noise. “My head hurts.”
“Yeah, no kidding. Well, good news. You were right on the orbs being broken with these. That’s gonna get out of hand real fast.” James said.
Anesh nodded. “It makes sense now why the Office tried to have Javier killed.” He tapped the table. “Should we be worried? If it finds out that you have these, it might try to kill you, too.”
“It isn’t already?” James laughed.
Anesh didn’t laugh in return. “James, Officium Mundi has a literal army of highly lethal creatures in it, many of them things that might be literal puppets to its will. If it wanted us dead, we would go in one day, go a half mile in, and find ourselves surrounded by more tumblefeeds than we have bullets. It *can* kill us. It just *hasn’t*.”
“That’s both technically true and deeply unsettling.” James shivered, his humor gone. “Though I suspect it can’t ‘just’ kill us. If it really was interested in murder, or even just basic defense, there would be the most dangerous things on the *outer* layers of itself, right? I think it has to play by rules.”
“If we’re breaking the rules, why wouldn’t it?” Alanna said. “So, we need to be careful. I shouldn’t go in next week until we secure the area, and even then, we need to not say a damn thing about it. I shouldn't use it either, if that’s an option.”
“Don’t know yet.” She shrugged. “But at least this would solve the overhunting problem.”
“The what now?” Anesh asked. “Sorry, I’ve been kind of out of the loop.”
James let out a groan. “Okay, you know how we weren’t going to talk about dividing up hunting territories or whatever?”
Anesh agreed. “Yes. For reasons.”
“Right, colonialism and stuff. Which I admit, is bad. Anyway. Certain areas of the dungeon near the door just don’t have a lot of life in them right now. And they aren’t even places we’ve been exploring! There’s just regions that are kind of empty. Of other things too; not a lot of orb-touched effects there at all. No items, no warped spaces, nothing.”
“I feel weirder talking about this now than before.” Alanna muttered, glancing around at the people she could now feel being surreptitiously curious about their chat. “But yeah, if the dungeon does decide to try to kill me… we could harvest a lot of greens, fast.”
“We’ll call that plan S.” James said. When he noticed Alanna’s cocked eyebrow, he nodded in affirmation. “Yes, you are correct. The S is for Stupid. Anyway. I’m getting kinda exhausted here. Anesh, you wanna use yours, then we can try to absorb the oranges, and then head home?”
“I’m way more interested in talking about the fact that the dungeon might have, or be, an ecosystem.” Anesh admitted. “But I also wouldn’t mind going home and sitting down for a bit. So sure.” It took him longer than the others, since he was stopping between each one to write them down, but as was tradition, they reserved commentary until the very end. It was also a bit weird because both Aneshs took the time to hook together with a short ethernet cable they’d brought, sitting in a position close to back to back for the brief period it took them to go through all the orbs, so no one around could see. Apparently, they *could* sync up the orb effects when they recombined their minds, but that process was actually very challenging, and it was easier to just do it while ‘together’.
[+1 Skill Rank : Writing - Caligraphy]
[+1 Skill Rank : Sailing - Twin Mast]
[+1 Skill Rank : Templating - Note Taking - Shorthand]
[+1 Skill Rank : Cooking - Pizza]
[+1 Skill Rank : Philosophy - Ethics - Immanuel Kant]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Art - Metalworking - Wall Hangings]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Language - French - Québécois]
[+1 Skill Rank : History - Music - Nineteenth Century - Rock]
[+1 Skill Rank : SCUBA Diving]
[+1 Skill Rank : Gambling - Craps]
[+1 Skill Rank : Sartorialism - Pants - Flood]
[+1 Skill Rank : Sex - Foreplay]
[+1 Skill Rank : Crossbow]
[+1 Skill Rank : Leadership - Team Building]
[+2 Skill Rank : History - Art - Romance Period]
[Shell Upgraded : Pigment Control, 2 Orders of Complexity/day]
[Shell Upgraded : Vocal Range +/- 1 Octave]
[Shell Upgraded : Spice Tolerance +391,040 Scoville]
[Shell Upgraded : Lifespan +3 Years]
[Problem Solved : Renewed Travel Papers]
[+1 Skill Rank : Toxicology - Substance Identification - Mold]
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Longing]
“...But I like spicy food…” Was the first thing Anesh said after he finished the list and looked down at his paper. Tentatively, one of him started poking at their tongue, as if trying to feel if they’d been cheated somehow.
“Did you get any good skills?” James asked, pulling the notepad over to him and scanning it.
“I can tell you that you shouldn’t wear flood pants.” Anesh said with a frown. “So no, nothing good.”
“This says ‘crossbow’.” Alanna pointed out.
“I can already shoot a bow.” Anesh countered, idly dismissive. “I’m more interested in if I can…” He held out an arm, and narrowed his eyes in focus. A few seconds passed, before James and Alanna started seeing swirls against his skin, like cream dropped into a cup of coffee. The color changes whorled and spun for a few seconds until Anesh unclenched his hand, shook his arm out, and held it up to examine. He hadn’t gone for fully changing color; instead, simply drawing patterns against his skin. Spirals and loops in mathematically fluid shapes, running down the back of his forearm and across his wrist and palm. “Neat.” He said. “Not sure how I can exploit this though.”
“We’ll find a way.” James promised, patting him on the shoulder. “If nothing else, it’ll be great for Halloween.”
“Mmh.” Anesh hummed out an agreement. “Alright, last thing. Let’s see if we can get you guys absorbing an orange.”
They turned to the last two orbs on the table, and Anesh started explaining exactly what he’d done when he’d absorbed the first one. It was, as with the yellows and blues, about truly understanding what the orb was about. Yellows were a crystalized sliver of time, blues were a single solution to a problem stretched out to cover a massively wide space, and oranges, as far Anesh could explain it, were about bureaucracy.
Though maybe that wasn’t quite the right way to say it. Complexity, perhaps. Layered thoughts, all part of a larger system, that were twisted to serve a purpose even if they didn’t organically fit. It was about making something do a job. Spaces were twisted to labyrinths of themselves, people were given certifications they never earned, life was created that then itself created more things from its own nightmare templates. And if you absorbed one, that concept was turned to its fullest; you acquired a ‘job’, of sorts. Perform a task, get a reward.
Or so Anesh theorized. James, personally, was holding out that it was ‘perform a task, get a copy of yourself’ every time.
Alanna listened with rapt attention, absorbed everything Anesh was trying to say, picked up her orb, and promptly fucked up whatever she was going to try to do and crushed it in her fingers with a loud “Fuck!”
[Certification Added : Business License - Alabama - Jefferson County]
“Okay, so. What did you do, exactly?” James asked. “Because I want to do anything but that.”
“Uggggh.” Alanna let out a long groan. “Well, I guess I can’t get all the cool toys in one night. I was mostly thinking about them in terms of complexity, and then I felt it start to slip and tried to force it. Fucked that right up.” She clenched her hand a few times, as if trying to capture the sensation. “Well, at least I can do what I’ve always wanted and move to Alabama to open my artisanal pet food shop.” She looked over at James with pinpoint timing. “No not really.”
“Is this your new superpower, or am I just getting predictable?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “Now try yours.”
James looked at the small orb in his hand. It was the smallest orange they’d found, from a hallway that looped on itself sometimes. He tried to imagine that feeling. The feeling of being a hallway that had a new task, of being bent into the shape of a new job that you didn’t particularly want. Then he realized he didn’t have to pretend that hard; six months ago, that was *him*. He could have been that hall. Could have been just a series of certifications without context or meaning.
It didn’t matter that the task was a layer of complexity. Complexity without meaning was despair. The orb was something more than that, wasn’t it? It was complexity, with a purpose. It shifted not just what was done, but ascribed a satisfied sense of a job well done to it. None of the spatial warps ever felt *sad* to James. He imagined that Anesh had found a different shade of color in his idea of complexity, but here, this was his. It was complex. It was complexity. It was his job to take that dense bundle of functionality and make it *do something*.
The orb slipped into his palm, effortlessly.
[Task Ascribed : Input - eat seven apples : Output - 16.2 grams Saffron : Time Frame - 3 days]
“Well.” He said. “An apple a day… no, two point three-ish apples a day… gets me… great rice, I guess.” James sighed. “Fuck. I mean, okay, this is cool. I’m glad this exists, I’m glad I got it to work. I feel like the longer we spend in the dungeon, the better I *understand* it, and this exemplifies that. But honestly, at the end of the day, I’m a bit pissed that Anesh gets to duplicate himself, and *I* get to duplicate *ingredients*.” He looked back and forth between his partners. “It’s fine, I’m not mad. Hell, I get to create matter from nothing, by eating healthier. How cool is that?” James gave a small smile, weak but real. “Alright. So. We know where we’re going. We know how we’re getting there. We all just got a significant amount more dangerous while sitting in a cafe. And we are out of coffee.” He stood up, flattening his palms on the table. “Who’s ready to go home? I wanna find out exactly what Anesh’s skill that we all pointedly *didn’t* talk about does.”
“Just for that,” Anesh said as everyone rose to their feet with James, “neither of me is loaning you one of our coats.”
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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!