James slid into the padded diner seat across from the short, scruffy man with the chevrons on his grey-green shirt, assuming that there were only so many police sergeants in the building. The man across from him, bearing the stenciled name of ‘Madden’ on his breast pocket, wasn’t really what James thought of when he thought of ‘the police. The guy was maybe five foot eight; not *short* short, but shorter than the average gorilla of a human that the police departments usually employed. He also clearly hadn’t shaved, or perhaps even slept, in a few days. And the two empty coffee cups already stacked on the end of the table made it clear that trend was going to continue.
“Detective.” James greeted him, scooting over to give Secret room to join him on the bench.
“Not anymore.” The sergeant’s words rumbled like gravel from his throat. “I got a temporary reassignment for ‘medical reasons’. James Lyle?” He questioned James’ identity, as if anyone else would just casually sit down with him uninvited. A quick flick of his eyes toward the space next to James, but he didn’t comment on Secret or even really seem to acknowledge the serpent.
“That’s me.” James nodded. “So, I wanted to open with a sort of apology. I actually kind of knew about you for a while, but didn’t do anything. I gave you a call once, but then a lot of stuff happened, and I never got a chance to follow up on it.” He looked around, and caught the eye of one of the servers, giving the girl a small nod and smile.
It was weird to James, being here during the afternoon. Not completely alien, but just different. Different light, mostly different staff, also different company across the booth.
The detective - and it was hard for James to not think of him that way - shifted slightly, resting an arm on the table and leaning forward. “I found that voice mail today, it’s why I called you. My phone shows that it’d been listened to before, though. Why is that?” He again glanced sideways, then back at where James sat, before pulling a notepad that he had on the table closer to him and flipping to a clean page, scribbling a few words down.
“Well, that’s a long story.” James shrugged casually, feeling strangely calm despite talking to someone who looked fairly close to whatever ‘the edge’ was. “Do you want to hear it from the start, or just the highlights?”
Madden scowled, face contorting into an angry snarl. “Start with the missing girl.”
James blinked, caught off guard. “Sorry, hang on, I should make it clear; I’m not, like, a serial killer or anything. I…”
“That’s what they always say.” He got interrupted.
“All the serial killers you’ve met?” James quirked an eyebrow. “Long list?”
“Answer the question.” Came the harsh reply.
James got the impression he was one wrong word away from being shot. He traded a quick look with Secret, and let his smile slip away. “The missing girl. Sarah?” A nod in reply, and James continued. “She’s my roommate. Best friend, really.” James explained, pulling out his phone and flipping through a few photos for the man’s curiosity. Recent ones, too. “She lived with us for a while, until she got wiped out of the record of memory by a hostile force. Took a while to get her back, didn’t think to check in with the police when we did.” He shrugged. “Sorry, I guess? I’m saying that a lot, but I do mean it. I didn’t mean to make your job harder.”
“What about the others? Some ‘hostile force’ took them too?” Madden kept flicking his eyes to the side, not ever quite focusing on James for too long before glancing at the spot where Secret sat.
“Yup.” James verified.
Silence stretched between them, tense and angry on one side, irreverent and watching on the other. After a couple minutes, the waitress James had caught the attention of earlier stopped by the table. She didn’t say anything, just placed a mug of steaming coffee in front of James, along with a plate of food, and another in front of Secret. He gave her a smile, and nod, which she returned before walking off.
The look on detective Madden’s face was priceless.
“Hm. Fish today.” James idly commented as he stabbed a crown of broccoli on his plate. “Sorry, were you saying something?”
Madden - James still kind of refused to think of him as another Dave - sat with his mouth slightly open, like he couldn’t tell if he was puzzled or angry. “What is happening here?” He finally asked. “Why did *you*, of all people, suddenly pop up out of the record? Why could I *find you*, but no one else? What is *happening*?!” By this point he was yelling, and a non-zero number of other patrons in the restaurant were looking over. The staff, too, were starting to look concerned; after all, armed and angry were bad adjectives to combine when it came to customers. “And *what*” Madden demanded to know, half standing, and jutting a finger toward where Secret sat, “is going on with *that*. *I know you’re hiding something!”
James waited for him to calm down, but it didn’t seem like that was going to happen. The man was, by this point, red in the face. And enough caffeine and disregard for his questions had apparently done the job of shoving him off the metaphorical cliff.
“You already know something weird is going on.” James told him, trying to stay calm, but letting a little anger into his words. It wasn’t as dramatic as it sounded, since he had to do so around a bite of fish. “We’re on the same side; at least, assuming you’re actually trying to help people. The reason I’m hiding something is because Secret wanted to get a burger, and we didn’t want to freak you out. Though I’m kind of impressed that you could spot him.”
“There’s a second plate there, but no person, and the food on it is eaten. And you moved over when you sat down, like you were moving *for* someone.”
“Good eye.” James motioned with his fork. “Sit down. I know you’re not used to being in this position, but just listen for a while. And if you ask nicely, you can maybe see Secret.”
“What secret?” Madden said, slightly mollified by the words as he lowered himself back down, still suspicious but not quite so violently.
“Secret. It’s his name.”
“There’s someone there who’s got a secret name?” He jabbed his finger at the side of the booth next to James again, and James noticed it was sorta crooked. Broken more than once, probably.
He sighed. “Okay, look, I *love* Abbot and Costello, but let’s skip the “who’s on first” thing for this chat. The name is the word ‘Secret’. He isn’t “a secret”, though that is also technically true. He’s also not human, which is why he didn’t want to freak you out.”
“I’m not ready to believe in aliens, kid.” The detective told him. He looked around, like he was
James shrugged again. “Good thing he’s from Earth.” He offered. “America, even!”
There was another one of those long quiets. Like Madden was trying his best with a narrow eyed glare to peer into James’ brain. To see past what he clearly thought was the Hadrian’s Wall of bullshit, into some deeper truth.
The thing was, James *knew* this guy was what Alanna and Anesh had been calling ‘inducted’. He’d gotten a peek behind the curtain, he’d experienced firsthand the memory loss, the blanking of records, the *missing people*. He’d been pursuing it, this whole time. At some point, if James remembered right, he’d been hospitalized and forgotten, too. So it was kind of a weird experience to have him sit here and disbelieve James so… not adamantly, but sternly, perhaps?
He didn’t buy it. Magic wasn’t something that was part of his worldview; if there was something shady going on, it was gonna be record tampering, or a crime syndicate, or fuckin’ hypnotism or some other more-or-less mundane thing.
“Lying.” The detective growled out, rapping knuckles on the table. “You’re lying to me. I don’t know why, but this is all you just distracting, or trying to mislead. I don’t have time for this.” He rose to his feet, and James felt a spike of fear briefly as he worried if the officer of the law across the table was going to try to arrest or shoot him.
Keyword was “try”, of course. But still.
“Detective.” James said, seriously. “If you’re not buying, then I don’t have answers for you.” He paused, and considered his next words. They’d be a lie; but what would it take to push this man onto a path that was neither self-destructive, nor *James*-destructive? Something suitably cryptic. He was a detective; rank or no, he apparently wouldn’t leave it alone. “Wait for one moment. There’s more going here than you know.” James channeled Secret’s way of talking, however briefly. “But you can see through part of it. That’s a good first step.” He nodded, like he’d appraised the man’s character and judged him worthy. “There’s a high school near here.” James said. “With too many holes in the roster. I know you’ve been assigned to it. You want answers? I don’t have them. Look there. Look into where the students were last seen, look into when they went missing. Do what you did here; find the physical evidence. And if you find the door, then remember that *I told you so*.” James hissed the last words in a harsh whisper.
No-Longer-Detective Dave Madden looked down at the table. Looked at the empty seat where there should have been someone. Looked at the young man, the *kid*, who was trying to tell him that his whole world was a lie.
He would have scowled a new hole in reality, if he could have.
“I’ll be in touch.” He said. “Don’t leave town.”
And that was it. He was gone.
James rolled his eyes, as Secret shifted into the other side of the booth. “Don’t leave town.” He mockingly repeated after the sergeant had long since gone out the door. “Fuck, that guy thinks he’s in a Raymond Chandler novel. What an ass.” He speared his fork toward Secret, defiantly and still a little annoyed. “And *you*, young man, were no help at all! Could have saved a lot of headache if you hadn’t wanted a burger!”
“He did not ask nicely.” Secret hissed.
“Can I get... either of you anything?” The waitress asked, a little nervously, as she walked back by the table. She eyed Secret cautiously, but not fearfully. At least, not overtly.
James grinned at her. “Just the bill for me, thanks. Sorry about that whole thing.”
“And I would like coffee, please.” Secret said politely, ignoring James’ attempts to cut him off and deprive him of his delightful caffeine.
“Sure thing!” The waitress, a somewhat tired looking brunette woman, replied with a smile. “And no check, it’s on us today.”
James didn’t bother to protest, just smiled a thank you. His life was changing, and so, it seemed, were those of the people around him. The diner had *changed*, he noticed it a lot better in daylight and not after eight hours of combat. It wasn’t anything huge, or physical. It was just… the employees were a lot more present, it felt like. He felt like asking, but their server had vanished, and he had other stuff to focus on.
“So, thoughts on the detective?” He asked Secret.
The infomorph let out a series of hisses from his various fanged maws, which James chose to believe was like a sigh. “He did not listen. He wouldn’t have listened regardless. You did well to deflect him.”
“Not sure it’ll work. In theory, he has our address. He certainly has my phone number.” James griped.
Secret rippled in a wince as part of him chewed on his burger. “Ah, that is the result of my action. Apologies. I have been warring on the effects that are attempting to erase members of our order from the greater thoughtspace. I believe in doing so, I opened up the door for the sergeant to find your contact again.”
“So, here’s a question.” James thought for a second on how to word this, steepling his fingers under his chin. “Oh, I’m not mad, by the way. I appreciate the work you do; I don’t think any of us really fully get how much work that really *is*. Anyway, question. You say ‘effects’. Do you not mean infomorphps?”
“Infomorph is a broad term that you’ve come up with.” Secret shrugged. “Taxonomically, I do not know what I am. But, I would say, ‘infomorph’ would be a class, antimeme an order. So, yes, the things I assault are infomorphic, but they are not like me. They are… imagine if you built a machine to tend to a plant, but you built it out of flesh, and bone, not metal. The machine cannot think; but its material composition is the same as your own body.”
“Okay, I’ve seen the Flintstones.” James nodded.
Secret blinked all his eyes in a ripple of concerned surprise down his body. “Your civilization is strange.” He stated flatly. “But no. These things are not alive. They are patterns set in motion, that do not think or grow. They simply interact with inputs.” He chewed the remainder of his fries. “And I have been killing them.”
“So, the little systems the Office has that keep extended family, employers, and government offices from noticing those who get lost in the dungeon… aren’t doing that?”
“They are not. Mostly. The ones I can locate.” Secret confirmed. “It requires consent on the part of those affected, in some cases. Location data in others. It is not always easy. But it is occuring.” He bobbed in satisfaction.
“Well, either way, I can add ‘stressing about that specific cop’ to the list of my concerns. Right alongside the haunted attic, identifying a dozen magic items, making you some siblings, rescuing a bunch of cable snakes, finding a rogue Student delver, and also I’ve got six texts from different people telling me that El found something in the dungeon a couple days ago that’s going to “revolutionize computational science”, whatever that means.” James sighed, and shoved his phone back into his pocket. “So at the very least, maybe spinning him off to deal with the high school will end with the Sewer blown up. Or the dead kids finding some kind of justice.”
There was a problem, though, that Secret didn’t hesitate to point out. “And what if he finds that other Relevant Space, and takes advantage of it? He was angry with you, at points. If that anger turns to violence, and he is Armed, how will you stop him then? You cannot deceive forever. I know.”
“I tried telling him the truth.” James rumbled, not meeting Secret’s eyes. “I guess I could have tried harder, and been less snarky, but… well, that’s the kind of guy we’re fighting, kinda. In a roundabout way. Secret, the police were never going to just stand to the side and let us take over, or even just do our own thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s legal or not; someone would make it illegal. No, we were always headed for a fight with the law. And I’m not gonna label Madden as an enemy combatant or anything that drastic.” James didn’t add the unspoken ‘yet’. “But I’m not gonna invite him to our lair and feed him cake. Or orbs. And as for how I’ll protect myself…” He once again pulled his phone half out of his pocket, turning the screen on just long enough to check the time. “Well, I’m late for meeting Anesh, and I’ve got basketball practice today. Drink your coffee and let’s go.”
“I don’t get it.” James huffed out, trying to maneuver around Anesh’s blocking form without taking steps, or letting go of the ball, and failing to do both.
As Anesh jogged over to the side of the court they’d occupied in this little park up on a hill near their apartment, he breathed out his reply. “Which part? The computer part, the magic part, or the reason it’s important?”
“Yes.” James agreed, bent forward with his hands on his knees.
Both of them had been at this for an hour, and both of them were sweat soaked and physically exhausted. But they were also having fun, and James was only two points of basketball away from his own first graduation. James stumbled to the sideline and grabbed his water bottle, taking a couple gulps while Anesh got back into position on the court and waited for his boyfriend to rejoin him.
“Okay, so.” Before they started playing again, Anesh explained a bit, buying them both time to just stand there and not move around so much. “A normal computer processor fundamentally still breaks down to a stupidly complicated series of zeros and ones…”
“I understand binary programing to the extent that I think I could actually recreate a programming language given a month or two.” James cut him off. *That* skill was coming in handy faster than normal. “I’m mostly trying to ask why this is different. Does the magic somehow make it not binary? All computers are binary.”
“Well, yeah.” Anesh idly dribbled the basketball on the cold concrete. “That’s the point. The chips… and by the way, they’re actually gems. Emeralds, specifically. And they *glow*, and the circuit board is *pure silver*, so if nothing else, this thing is worth a few grand.” Anesh reigned in his derailing thoughts. “Anyway. The chips. They accept a single input, which is a request for a task to be done, and then they… I guess ‘grow’ is the best word for it? They grow a program that can do that.”
“They’re alive?” James questioned with raised eyebrows; surprised, but really, not *too* surprised after everything that’d gone down in his life. He also didn’t take his eyes off the ball, in case Anesh started moving. He’d learned that lesson; conversation wasn’t a cutoff to the game, it was a potential distraction.
Anesh didn’t have a perfect answer for him, only a shrug. “They’re something. I think they’re alive like plants are alive.”
“Wait, hang on.” James said, lashing out a hand to try to intercept the ball as Anesh suddenly pivoted past him. He missed, but by less than normal, which was a big improvement. He groaned in tired frustration as Anesh took a couple steps, and made another mechanically solid shot. “You’re too good at that.”
“I’m not perfect.” Anesh pointed out. “But yes, one skill rank does seem to be a major threshold. I’m still getting tired though. Anyway, you were saying?”
James searched his thoughts, then caught the thread he’d started a second ago. “Ah. Accept an input? How?”
“Oh, you’ll love this.” Anesh said with a wild grin. “You *whisper to them*. In a dark room, all alone, you take one chip in your hand, and whisper to it what you want it to grow. And then, it does.” He almost cackled at James’ riotous range of facial expressions. “So far, we’ve got three of them going; a few of them ‘withered’, I guess would be the term. And I say ‘we’, but I mean the research team. Once you set them to their task, Virgil has a USB converter designed for the damn things, *somehow*, that lets him keep an eye on the code. They keep growing. Or at least, have so far. Further testing is required, obviously.”
“I hate that Virgil is good at this.” James pointed an accusatory finger at Anesh. “This is your fault somehow. You set up interviews with people who are too good at their jobs.”
Anesh shrugged. “We need good people to do good things. Although yeah, he’s a bit of a prick sometimes.”
“So what are the chips making?” James asked, mildly worried. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the research division, it was just… “Actually, a question before that one. What’s this project named?”
“Chaos Egg.” Anesh deadpanned.
“Wh… is this a Sonic the Hedgehog reference?”
“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t trust the research team anymore.” James groaned. “So, what are they making?”
Anesh shrugged. “I actually didn’t ask. Or rather, I did ask, but I wasn’t told. They have some basic tasks assigned to test the limits, and also try to get data on other parameters, like how long it takes to grow more complex stuff, and how optimized it can make something that’s otherwise fairly simple. And that all sounds great, but I somehow am only just noticing that I was weaseled out of actually being told what the programs *are*.”
“Eh.” Anesh shrugged. “I feel like we’re teetering on unleashing an apocalypse anyway.” He said. “At least the programs aren’t alive? Yes, no, I’m gonna make that not a question anymore. The programs aren’t alive. Can we go home now, by the way? I’m exhausted.”
James let out a long groan, tilting his head back at the sky. “Nooooooo.” He complained. “Come on, please? I’m literally one point away from a level up, and I want superpowers like Alanna got!” He rolled the basketball around in his hands. “I just need to learn one more basketball thing!”
Anesh stepped forward, and briefly clapped a hand on James’ shoulder. “Man, here’s a secret. It’s not good sportsmanship to force your boyfriend to play basketball until he collapses. Let’s go home, and we can come back tomorrow.”
He had a good point, and James begrudgingly nodded. “Yeah, okay. Sportsmanship matters.” He agreed. “Alright. Gonna check my syllabus, and…”
The classroom was bright, a sharp change from the night James had just been in. His eyes didn’t need time to adjust though. Something geometric and sharp and glaring at him stood in front of the blackboard; having just carved its claws across the surface to leave behind chalk marks. It wore false flesh rimmed with thorns, and a beige cardigan.
“Choose.” The teacher said.
Accuracy. Agility. Coordination.
“Accuracy.” James spoke. He didn’t think about it too hard; didn’t really have to. They’d kind of deduced that the options given were vaguely tied to the Lesson at hand, and he’d talked to a number of other delvers about this over the week. The place they were weak was in the ability to mount effective offense. Agility could be fantastic with his mobility enhancements, coordination could help him with everything from juggling to typing, but accuracy?
Accuracy was offensive. It was a weapon in the sheath.
“You have learned.” The teacher gnashed. “Leave. Return when you have more.”
James stood on a basketball court in fading twilight as the late December day coiled around him. He held a basketball in his hand, and watched his boyfriend packing up their stuff.
On a whim, he lobbed the basketball at the hoop. He knew, the instant he threw it, that it was going to miss. Instinct and calculation unspooled in his mind, firing up like a generator kicking on. He saw how he could have thrown, how to compensate for exhaustion, how to make the next throw. And he didn’t just see; he felt. He could throw anything at anything else, he could hit a target a hundred feet away. It wasn’t like a skill. There was no real information, there was just *him*, and raw ability surging just under his fingertips.
“Okay!” He called after Anesh. “I’m good! Let’s get out of here!”
Even in his downtime, James didn’t ever really stop thinking about the dungeon anymore.
What had started out as an almost cute way to earn pizza money had, surely, taken over James’ entire life. And the lives of most of his closest friends. Though not his family, which was a relief. In the case of his sister, who had somehow shrugged the whole thing off like it was a particularly weird episode of a TV show, it was a relief because James didn’t want her getting hurt. In the case of his parents, it was a relief because *fuck* that would be hard to explain.
So, while he sat at his desk and tried to pretend that he was one hundred percent invested in modding the hell out of XCOM, he also had Slack open on the side, trying to drag information out of the tech team about the emerald chips. While he browsed youtube and ate barbeque potato chips to his favorite content creators, he also read through assessment reports from a number of people about potential dungeon locations, potential new hires, and potential avenues for influencing the world. And while he idly listened to a podcast, he had the iLipede with the social network app - some monster had named it Billy - open and running.
The social network, which was simply called PERSON WEB, and James assumed the all caps part was important, was a strange thing to experience. All it took was a picture of yourself, and it started to populate. Instantly, it was easy to see it wasn’t really a social media site, but an actual literal network of your social interactions. Lines would spread out, linking you to everyone that you knew, worked with, studied with, slept with, and if you waited long enough, bumped into in a bar that one time six years ago. As long as you had at any point gotten a name and a face from them, they were there.
Everyone. Literally everyone.
It was powerful, beyond powerful in some ways, but it also followed the law of overcomplication of information. The app itself was pretty damn garbage at sorting out anything, and had no filters or search feature. You had to just scroll through. And while it did seem to default, in a lot of ways, to keeping ‘close’ connections physically close to the center of the web, it didn’t always, so it wasn’t even predictable.
Of course, if you continued to leave it on, it would fill in connections between other people. It never went more than one degree away from *you*, but that was still a ton of people. And if you could find someone that you’d met once on it, you could see how they related to anyone else. You could suss out family ties, friendships, rivalries, if they kissed once in college, if they once saw the other person shoplift a necktie and said nothing, anything.
All it took was a lot of waiting, and scrolling, while holding onto an only barely cooperating iLipede.
Of course, it could also get worrying sometimes. Like, when it didn’t fill in people instantly, it could lead you to believe that your sister had been murdered or something if you were impatient. And yes, that *was* a remarkably specific example, and no, James *didn’t* plan to tell anyone about it. It *didn’t* show dead people, ever, they’d determined that. So using it to find murderers was basically impossible.
But using it to find a police officer who you’d recently had coffee with wasn’t that hard.
“Dave Madden. There we go.” James muttered as he scrolled and found the photograph to match the face he’d met earlier, whatever was playing on his headphones now forgotten and ignored. “Let’s see…” He flicked his thumb across the screen in practiced motions that seemed to sooth the iLipede in his hand. “Okay, ‘searching for’ Sarah. Makes sense. He doesn’t have to, obviously, but… whatever. Unaffiliated, unaffiliated, unaffiliated, ‘aware of the activities of’? JP, what the shit?” James stumbled over that one, but decided to give his friend the benefit of the doubt here. That was ambiguous wording at best. “And finally, what do you have to say about me?” He scrolled all the way back, until the words along the line were visible.
“Watching. Waiting. Suspicious of. *The usurper does not yet know his blade is a kingkiller*?!” James jolted backward, dropping Billy on the desk, before leaning forward again and peering narrowed eyes at the now fading line of text. It was still there. “What the actual fuck?” He proclaimed.
James looked around the apartment. Anesh and Alanna were out on a dinner date, other Anesh was doing math tutoring, Sarah was busy, and Auberdeen didn’t care. He didn’t have anyone to talk to about this that was one of his trusted companions. He briefly glanced at the open server that he could use to ask the entire order about it, but then discounted that. This sort of thing was awkward at best in text format. He could actually drive back to the lair; it didn’t take nearly so long anymore. But he was comfortable and in a bathrobe and not inclined to leave the apartment again tonight.
Also, most people would be missing. It was the day before Christmas, after all.
He sighed. Okay. Make a note. Make *several notes*. Text Anesh. Make an extra note to put up in the living room.
It’ll keep ‘till tomorrow. Assuming he didn’t get eaten by a haunted attic before he talked to anyone about it.
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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!