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A note from argusthecat

Did you guys know I have some short stories written on my Patreon page?  They're free!  You can just go hit the 'short story' tag and read them!  No money needed; I just want to share them cause I think they're cool.

Anyway, enjoy this chapter!  It's an experiment!

Now

 

James felt like he was becoming a bit too comfortable breaking into his work every week.

 

Actually, that wasn’t even true. He didn’t work here anymore, not really. After enduring a blistering series of profanity laden texts from Theo, he’d gotten back a flat ‘fine, whatever’, and further knowledge from Daniel that there weren’t going to be any complications sneaking in anyway. Still, he felt that familiar knot of dread in his stomach as he approached the building. Like he was about to be trapped here for the next eight hours, free to walk out but somehow forced by circumstances so enormously beyond his control to remain and do stupid work that he hated for people it hurt to listen to.

 

Of course, most of that still applied. Just with less ‘trapped’, and more tolerable people.

 

They had the entire thing down to almost a ritual at this point, and that was with the fact that they kept adding new people. This week, their new addition was Ethan, the overly enthusiastic idiot that James had really only agreed to let come out of pity and partially under duress. The kid had been spending more and more time around the lair, and it was only recently that it came to light that he was another one of those that had lost quite a lot more to the blanking memeplex than anyone else. Only in his case, it was kind of reversed. He couldn’t remember where his home was, who his parents were, and sometimes slipped up on when, or if, he’d graduated high school. It made James deeply suspicious, but it made Sarah do doe eyes at him until he broke down and agreed to give the kid a shot, if for no other reason than for him to have an outlet for his growing anger at the world. On the more curious side of things, Anesh was pretty sure Ethan’s parents had been delvers themselves, which led to a whole host of worrying questions about just how many people out there could possibly *have* magic powers.

 

The answer was, as with so many other things these days, worrying.

 

While the group mechanically transported new gear, replacement armor, and dinner, up the elevator and to the staging area in front of the dungeon doors, James listened in on the conversations about just that around him.

 

“I’m working on an algorithm to find suspicious data patterns in demographics.” Anesh was telling Sarah. “It’s kind of a lot of stuff, though, and I’m needing to bug James to do the actual programming work on it. But it should be able to at least get us into the general area of dungeons.”

 

“General area like within a few blocks, or general area like within a county?” Her question was playful and smiling, but it still kind of stung.

 

Anesh cleared his throat guiltily. “It’s in the early phases.” He justified himself. “Also within a state. *Probably*. I think.” He looked around, searching for some kind of distraction. “Oh hey, Alanna finally convinced people to bring water guns in here, huh?”

 

“It’s a test in progress.”

 

James shook his head, smiling as he walked down the line of people. Everyone was animated tonight. Even the new people, even *Theo*, though her version wasn’t very talkative and she still shot him a frown or two when she thought he wasn’t paying attention. But James was paying attention to everything; his perception was dialed up to maximum, and he didn’t miss a word of what his people said.

 

“I’m really getting into the whole drone pilot thing.” Neil was saying to someone. “I’ve been into working on them for a while, but now it’s just suuuuper cool to be able to use them like this. I’m hoping we can find some kind of magic item tonight that I can use to arm one, and then I can really just be the group’s rigger.”

 

James shook his head with a smile. Armed attack drones seemed like just the worst idea, in a world where things came to life. But then, Ganesh had come to life, and he’d been armed for a while now. It was hard to shake those instincts that a lifetime of Terminator films had drilled into him, though.

 

“It’s steak tonight.” Nate was informing a wolfishly grinning Alanna. “Because there’s still no armor that fits me, so I’m just gonna sit back, grill up some steaks, and drink beer while I watch you kids do your thing.”

 

“You’re not that much older than any of us.” Alanna pointed out to their chef, who had actually shown up with a portable charcoal grill and a stained apron on over his clothes.

 

Nate snorted. “Yeah, but I feel old.” He rebutted. “Ya’ll are sprinting around stabbing desks and vaulting over walls, and I’m just… eh.” Nate cut himself off with a shrug. He didn’t feel like saying more about it.

 

James just gave a sad turn of his lips as he walked past. Nate was a good guy, even if he was kind of crass sometimes. And it felt bad, because the dungeon did offer a path toward improvement. Nate didn’t care about the yellows; he already knew what he loved doing and did it constantly. No, what he wanted were the purples. The ones that could make you *better*. That could turn a body that didn’t always work like you wanted it to, into something refined and weaponized. Which made it a shame that the purple orb he’d been paid out had given him boosted mucus function, instead of, say, running speed or manual dexterity.

 

“Daniel.” He said, getting to the space near the door where the elevator had just disgorged the last of their party. James lightly patted a hand on the other guy’s shoulder, a couple taps just to inform him that he was there. “Everyone ready?”

 

“All set, boss.” Daniel responded with a nod and a double check of the clipboard he was holding.

 

“Oh, ew, no.” James protested.

 

Daniel winced. “Yeah, I heard it as soon as I said it. Sorry.”

 

“Yeah, no. I need a better title.”

 

“Wizard king?” Daniel suggested hopefully, an enthusiastic grin on his face.

 

James rolled his eyes. “A title that doesn’t make me sound like a pretentious psychopath.”

 

“Aw.” Danile pouted briefly. “Alright. Well, we’re all set. Including the special requests for tonight. You wanna open the door? We’ve got thirty seconds.”

 

“Thanks, yeah.” James replied briefly, his mind was already wandering somewhere else. Opening the door had started out as a joke between him and Anesh, and then that joke added Alanna, and then it just kinda repeated every time they added a new person. But lately, they hadn’t really been doing that as much. It was, in a way, kind of sad. James had passed the phase of having boundless energy for this *thing* that had invaded his life like a rampaging dinosaur. It was wondrous, and it had smashed in and started nesting, and no matter how beautiful it was, eventually you had to deal with the fact that your two… three… bedroom apartment wasn’t designed to hold a brontodon.

 

And he didn’t want to be past that phase. He wanted to be in love with the magic. He wanted to roll around in a pile of orbs like that dragon made out of server racks, and revel in the flood of rapid personal improvement. He wanted to be a sorcerer, and an adventurer, and, gods willing, a tumblefeed trainer.

 

But right now, he was in a hurry, and he had shit to take care of.

 

So when the seconds ticked down, he just threw the door open and swept in with his gun up. Vanguard for the dozens to come, making sure the tower was secure. Clearing the path for the night’s work.

 

He was still grinning like an idiot, though. Just because the shine had worn off the magic, didn’t make the whole thing any less awesome.

 

_____

 

One month ago.

 

“Don’t worry.”

 

“I am absolutely worried.”

 

“It’s probably fine. There’s a reasonable explanation.”

 

“Like *what*?” James demanded of his companion, ignoring the awkward feeling of boot heels on soft carpet as he stopped and fully turned to address Sarah. “The *last time* someone went missing, it was *you*, rem…” He cut his irritated words off mid-stride, choking on a sudden ball of pain in the part of his throat where James was certain that the soul lived.

 

Sarah didn’t let her smile falter, though. Just pushed past him and headed up the carpeted stairs. “Oh, posh. You came for me, anyway. And look around! The house is *empty*. This isn’t what happens when someone’s forgotten away, this is what happens when someone *moves*, James.” She stood on the stairway landing and pirouetted around, arms wide to show off the scenery of an empty old house in the middle of suburbia. “Noooo furniture! Houses always look bigger and smaller with no furniture. It’s weird, huh?”

 

“Sarah, Fredrick is completely missing, and didn’t even tell us.” He pressed. “And he lived here. Ostensibly with his family? God, we really dropped the ball on this one.”

 

“We’ve been busy. Besides, Harvey would have told us if something really bad happened.” Sarah retorted. “Now come on! I want to see the magic attic!” She gave a soft stomp of her foot on the stairs, the wood creaking slightly. “This is the kind of thing that’s special, James! It’s got magic treasure, cryptic doodads, and nothing trying to eat us! Also, it’s always open! So, while I realize that by saying that, I have undercut my own sense of urgency, I’m asking nicely for you to hurry up. Empty living rooms and walls without family photos doesn’t mean everyone who lived here is dead!”

 

It was, James thought to himself as he followed her up the stairs, depressingly easy to argue against that. Almost half a year of doing this, and they still had precious few clues about what the dungeons were and weren’t capable of. Could they delete furniture? Or maybe just drag it back into the attic? That seemed metaphorically linked, in James’ mind; after all, attics held stuff. It made some sense. They still remembered Fredrick, so it hadn’t made them forget him entirely, but could it have pushed them to not think about him? Maybe. It was far more likely that James had just gotten bogged down with a much more pressing matter of people actually being killed by a dungeon, and had never made time to check up on this place. After all, he’d *meant* to. Really.

 

Or maybe Sarah was right. Maybe this guy just got fed up of this place, and the truly unsettling fear aura from the attic. The times they’d been here, James hadn’t seen any other members of his family, so maybe good ol’ Freddy had done the prudent thing and moved them out first, before following himself. Hell, the entire situation of accidentally stumbling across an experienced adventuring team could have just been a last minute fumble to attempt to recoup property values. Who knew?

 

Either way, it was only a minute or two of rambling thoughts before James was standing behind his new old friend, at the base of the wooden staircase leading up into the hole in the ceiling.

 

“Yonk.” Sarah snorted out the word like it was profanity. “I can feel what you meant.” She told him. “About the fear. This place is awful!”

 

It was. James shivered from cold that wasn’t there, eyes flickering at the suspiciously open doors here on the second floor of the house. The walls creaked, and he jumped in time with Sarah, blood rushing for a fight that wasn’t there to happen. “This is worse.” He muttered. “It wasn’t this bad the last time.”

 

“Well, fuck this!” Sarah said, the artifice of her cheer shockingly bright against the suddenly grim walls of the building that used to be a home.

 

James coughed as his body *felt* the confusion that went through his brain. “Wait, what did you just say?” He asked.

 

But Sarah wasn’t listening. She was already moving forward, feet falling so she was always in a stance that she could turn into a strike or a dodge or a wild flight from the building if something went wrong. But she was moving. And when she reached the base of the stairs, where the fear pooled so thickly that it was almost a visible thing - James imagined it would have been like heat ripples in the air, oily and sick - she didn’t stop. She slammed a boot down to make sure the staircase was stably braced on the floor, and then started climbing. And, in his surprise, James found himself trailing her, and following up after.

 

The relief when they broke the surface of the lake of untethered terror was so dramatic that he started laughing. Without meaning or cause, it was like he’d been pulling on something with all his strength, and then someone on the other end had just let go, and suddenly there was no resistance anymore. After a few minutes to catch his breath, James, now bent down on one knee on the floor, looked up at Sarah, knelt next to him, and asked, “Are you okay?”

 

“Am *I* okay?” She demanded. “Are *you* okay? You basically collapsed!”

 

“Yeah, fine.” James sucked in another breath, felt the last ripples of foreign emotion leave him. “I don’t think that part’s gonna get easier.” He admitted. “How’d you just walk through it? It took me twenty minutes the first time to deal with that.”

 

Sarah’s eyes were sad, and also unyielding, as she met his questioning stare before looking away. “Nothing gets to make me feel afraid.” She said, as if that was an answer.

 

“Alright.” James pretended to accept that, both of them knowing full well he was gonna ask her to really talk about it later when they were, say, in a cafe drinking coffee, and not in a place that might actually be trying to kill them.

 

Standing back up, and helping James stand in turn, Sarah pulled a pair of glasses out of her jacket pocket and slipped them on, keeping her hand on the rim of the lenses and occasionally tipping them down to look with unaugmented eyes.

 

“Are those the heat vision ones, the paperwork ones, or some new and terrifying artifact I don’t know about because we don’t keep good enough notes?” James asked, trying to reclaim the flow of humor.

 

“The time ones.” Sarah informed him. “They show how much time you waste like a heatmap. I’m looking for one of the loot crates.”

 

“Please let’s not call them that.”

 

“This place is small.” Sarah commented idly.

 

James nodded. “It’s still bigger in here than it should be.” He explained, looking around at the musty cardboard boxes of junk, cloth draped furnishings, and the assorted loose tools and bricbirc-a-brac leaned against walls. “But it’s not like the office. It’s why we think it’s young.” James stepped over to the left side, where a couch with multiple wooden slatted crates full of clothes stacked on it blocked the view of the far wall. He peekedpeaked between the wood, trying to get a view for how far away the wall actually was. Twenty feet, maybe; the rafters and exposed insulation partially covered in his view by the sight of a standing mirror. Not too far, but still, there was more leg room here than any attic had a right to.

 

“It’s peaceful up here.” Sarah hummed as she stepped further in. “No monsters, no real traps…”

 

“The chests *do* try to trap you in an eternal void, to be clear.” James felt obliged to point out.

 

“But you figured out the trick. It’ll be fine!” Sarah assured him. “It’s just… why can’t there be more places like this? Look, that big ol’ circle window on the wall even shows a sunset. It’s perfect.”

 

“That part actually really bothers me.” James admitted. “It’s like the windows in the office; it implies that there’s an outside.” He shot a suspicious glance at the window, then did a double take. “Actually, hang on.”

 

While Sarah continued scouting around with her enchanted glasses, looking for points where wasted time spiked up that might represent one of those trap-locked chests, James ducked under a stored chandelier hanging from a support beam, and shuffled his way toward the window itself. He left his backpack by the stairs; it was mostly full of emergency supplies, he had no intention of actually looting this place. All the stuff here felt far too personal, unlike the things in the office that felt like cold, lifeless items, just waiting to be made real.

 

Under the window, James took a half second to glance up at the fiery orange light coming through, before looking around at the stacks of wooden dining chairs and folding card tables. There was something off about the way the light played here. It only took a few seconds of looking to see why.

 

Yup. There it was.

 

He only had to shift a pyramid of cardboard boxes out of the way to see that there wasn’t anything behind them. A hallway, though not an obvious one. It made sense, though; it was the way that a path formed in an attic. More or less by accident, just a way to make sure you could still get to at least *most* of the stuff. But there, at the end of the long aisle among the unwanted clutter, maybe fifty feet away, was another window.

 

It was, almost exactly like this one, a few feet over head height. Circular, set into what would have been the peak of the outside of a house. And just like the one currently above his own head, there was orange sunset light pouring through it, bathing a swath of the attic in the atmosphere of calm evening.

 

He looked back up at the window over him. Then at the one at the end of the path he’d uncovered. They were set at right angles to each other. The sun was coming through both of them in the same way.

 

“Well dammit.” James muttered, stepping over the end of a rocking chair to move toward the other window. He glanced back at Sarah, who was currently climbing over something to get where she was aiming for, glasses looking bizarre on her normally unadorned face. “Hey! Be careful! I’m gonna go check this out.”

 

“Sure, sure!” She called back, carefully not moving her line of sight. Basically any Office glasses had a tendency to give information overload if you moved your eyes too fast.

 

James clambered over things, kicking up seemingly ancient dust as he made his way down the open space. He was careful not to knock anything over, and after he got about five feet, he was *immensely* careful not to take his eyes off the mannequin with a wedding dress draped over it. But when that didn’t move, he kept going. And when he reached the end, and pulled a box over to stand on and look out the window, he was presented with exactly the same view as the other one.

 

Looking back toward the front door, he also realized that he couldn’t see Sarah anymore. “Aw, shit.” James muttered. The attic, from on top of his box, actually looked just as small and cramped as from the ground. But, also from here, he realized that he couldn’t see where he came in. Not because it was too far away, but because it just wasn’t there.

 

Hopping down, moving maybe a little quicker than caution required, James shuffled his way back to the spot where he’d made a hole in the junk to walk through.

 

Getting there, tripping out over a golf club that he’d probably knocked over on the way in, James sprawled painfully on the floor, right in front of Sarah. She stood there, only barely registering his fall, holding up a small piece of flat wood, notched a couple times in the middle, with markings on either end.

 

“Hey! Look what I got! I told you I could do it faster knowing the trick!” She said, before her smile dropped slightly. “Are you okay?”

 

“Ow.” James muttered. “Yeah, sorry. I tripped. Also, the attic got bigger.” He pointed down toward the other window. “That’s fifty feet or so. That puts it outside the initial boundary. Also, from there, I literally can’t see the entrance. So there’s more fucky space stuff going on.”

 

“Well.” Sarah perked up. “That’s cool! That means this place is still alive! We can maybe try to find a way to talk to it!” She looked around. “Hey dungeon! We think you’re cool! Please keep being cool, and we’ll keep coming back!”

 

“That probably won’t work.” James sadly shot her down. “Though if it does, that’s cool. Maybe this place could give us a sign it heard us. Also, I hate to burst your bubble even further, but we still don’t have a clue what those sticks do. Or at least, what the thing they do does.”

 

“Oh hush. Take that end. We’ll figure it out eventually, but not if we never try things.” Sarah admonished him.

 

Smiling, James did so. And after a brief moment of pain, the thought jumped through his mind.

 

<| Connection Open : James Lyle - Sarah Moyle : One Corridor Established : One Corridor Empty |>

 

By the time they made it back, they were in a much better mood. The absence of the fear aura around the entrance made leaving far easier than entering, and while their different ‘tests’ yelling things to try to trigger the mechanics of the connection didn’t work, it did leave them in high spirits when they got back to the Lair.

 

_____

 

Now.

 

“What’s the project status?” James asked Anesh. This time, *this time*, he had been fast enough, and caught his boyfriend *before* needing to climb ten floors of tower. Not for the first time, James tried to work out the logistics of installing a jury-rigged elevator on the thing. He thought about it for about six seconds this time before admitting to himself that, with all the warped space around the thing, it was probably a bad idea. Six seconds was a new record, though - eventually he’d break down and really get into it.

 

“Which one?” Anesh asked, mildly out of breath from taking his third trip already up and back down. He, personally, didn’t have as much problem going up, but he *was* starting to consider getting a climbing rig and rappelling down when he needed to get back to ground level. “The one where we’re getting the seeds for new infolife, the one where we’re trying to kidnap a Puppet, the one where we’re running duplication tests on orbs, the one where we’re dealing with a robot uprising, or the one where we’re running combat drills for everyone?”

 

“Sorry, what was that robot one?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Sure. Well, go robots. I believe in them.” James deadpanned. “I meant the duplication tests, since that’s the one you’re in charge of.”

 

“Just about to get started.” Anesh said. “Momo’s helping me with it, and I’ve got a few people as test subjects.”

 

“Willing test subjects?” James asked, more as a formality than anything else. He was really trying to fulfill his responsibilities as a leader, but was getting increasingly sidetracked by the small cluster of paper airplanes in the distance that were preying on a flock of paper sheets.

 

“Sure.” Anesh non-answered. “Anyway, what are you up to tonight? I know a lot of people have specific jobs today, but I don’t actually remember what you were doing.”

 

James sighed. “I’m going out with El and Secret, and we’re actually going to try to, you know, explain stuff to her. It turns out her experience last week, while apparently *fun for her* somehow, was a bit harrowing, and not really informative like the new guys got.” He shrugged. “And she seems cool now. I don’t think she’s gonna shoot me again.”

 

There was a pause as Anesh took a second before picking up the last box he needed to cart upstairs. He looked at James suspiciously. “You’re kind of talking a bit weird. Are you okay?”

 

“I have all my purples dialed up as far as they can go.” James admitted. “I’m trying to get used to it. It’s a challenge.” He snapped his fingers, as if suddenly remembering something, when in reality he was just trying to distract from Anesh figuring out that he had weaknesses. “Oh! Also, if that other project you mentioned works out, we can start making sure that our Landing Zone is going to work, and we can make a snake haven.”

 

“Oh good, you’re making puns.” Anesh sighed. “You must be okay. Well, have fun. Don’t forget to make you’re properly geared before heading out.”

 

James flipped a hand in casual agreement. “Yes, yes. No light loadout this time. Guns, flares, the *big* axes, armor, the whole nine yards. We’re also taking a couple of those electromagnet things. Gonna try to see if we can wipe out swarms of pinpoints with em.”

 

“Going into the caves?” Anesh asked, trying and failing to hide concern.

 

“The chips are literally buried treasure. We want to see if that was a one time thing, or something we can start making use of.” James shrugged. “Also it’s a decent walk, and it helps us reinforce our maps.”

 

That last part was something of particular concern now. They had, at this point, multiple people who had actual knowledge about how to navigate in different ways. Members who were either prodigious hikers or campers, or perhaps had been active in the military and had to learn in training. But a lot of that information was a little bit useless at an indoor location, and for all that the dungeon stretched for possibly thousands of miles, it *was* still indoors. Star and solar navigation just kinda didn’t *go* that far here. And maps were tenuous when landmarks could, and sometimes *did* shift around, or get swallowed up by Forget This Thing memeplexes.

 

So, maps. But not maps like anyone had ever really dealt with before. Maps that were more sets of instructions than careful plans of the hallways. It actually reminded James a lot of playing Anesh’s D&D games; you didn’t need to know the actual layout of the dungeon, that wasn’t important. What *was* important was that the cubicle tower was visible on your left side, and you were going point-eight miles, and if you came across a window, you needed to have taken a *left* and not a *right* two intersections ago. Turn around.

 

It was stupid, but it was working. They were, slowly but surely, getting to the point that they could actually dispatch people to *run errands* in the dungeon. Except ‘go to the store and get milk’ was replaced with ‘go to the beach and get purples’. With the implicit ‘and try not to get eaten’ thrown in.

 

The two of them parted ways with a quick kiss, James off to grab his weapon, and Anesh off to do mad science, both of them off for a day of work.

 

“Wait!” James called, stopping and turning on his heel to walk slowly backward while still facing back toward Anesh. “I just realized you didn’t actually answer me! You *did* actually get willing test subjects, right? You didn’t just abscond with Ethan because the kid doesn’t have permission to make decisions on his own?”

 

Anesh just waved goodbye as he ducked into the tower, one hand keeping the box propped against his hip, grin on his face.

 

“God dammit.” James muttered, before cracking into laughter himself.

_____

 

Three weeks ago.

 

“This one,” Deb pointed at an innocuous looking PC sitting in the lab-side basement of the Lair, “is named Jelly Doughnut. This one is named Raspberry Jam.”

 

“I know, I was there for that.” James interrupted her.

 

She ignored him, continuing through the line in the little penned in area that the small flock of shellaxies were kept in. No, flock didn’t sound right. What was a compendium of ambulatory computers? The space was fairly nice; a little fenced area that wouldn’t really be that hard to knock over, but the creatures inside weren’t really trying. They had a couple desks in there, along with some other random ‘toys’ for the shellaxies to play with; it reminded James of a weird terrarium.

 

“This one is named Assorted Jellybeans. And this is Peanut Butter Cup!” Deb casually ignored James’ internal monologue, cheerfully dropping to her knees to give the shellaxy a double armed hug. It cracked one massive LED eye open, looking up at the human that was currently being affectionate all over it, before deciding it appreciated it, and settling against her as gently as possible.

 

“I’m mildly concerned. Why are they all food names? Wait, we’re not eating them, are we?”

 

Deb gave him a shocked look. “No! They’re just cute. That one is Ice Cream Cake!” She pointed over at final one, curled in the corner, its power cable tendrils actually extended a bit out, which was about as close to comfortably relaxing as these things got. “We’re using them for lots of things. Mostly software testing? They eat bugs, we think. Writing code for the skulljacks is really hard, because it needs to be able to adapt to weird quirks in different platforms, since the skulljacks sometimes grow different firmware.”

 

“Seriously? Why?” James cut in.

 

“Because they’re dumb. Anyway. I’m helping Virgil with it, and we’re using these tasty friends to test stuff running on operating systems that shouldn’t exist.”

 

“I always kinda figured they wouldn’t have operating systems. How do they even deal with having code loaded onto them?” James asked. “Do they like it? Also, wait, I thought you were a nursing student, why are you doing coding?”

 

“Got an orb for it last week.” She clarified. “I’m not solving problems, I’m just helping out. And taking care of these cuties. I got assigned to the group that’s supposed to be tracking any changes in them now that they’re outside the dungeon. Not really sure *why* we’re doing that, but whatever. Oh, the new girl doesn’t like them, either. She says they’re creepy. Anyway. Why are you down here?”

 

“I’m here to check up on how these things are changing now that they’re outside of the dungeon.” James said dryly. “Also, El? I figured she woulda liked this sort of thing.”

 

“No, the other new girl. The one that got hired recently? I think her name is Kaitlyn.” Deb shrugged. “I’ve got reports typed up. There’s a folder over there with the stuff, if you want. Why *do* you guys want this, anyway?” She asked.

 

“Oh, that new girl. Yeah, she’s a coin flip. I’ve got a bet going that she’ll find a heroic heart, but I think I may be about to lose fifty bucks.” James sighed. “I don’t understand why it’s so hard to find people who want to explore the weird.” He muttered to himself, oblivious to the fact that most people didn’t want their lives disrupted by extradimensional stapler monsters. “Anyway. We’re trying to see if it’s safe to bring a whole lot of refugees out of Officium Mundi.”

 

Deb cocked her head. “Refugees?” She asked, confused. “Wait, safe? Are these guys test subjects?”

 

“I mean, we know it’s safe for them. The real test is going to be when we finish building the *actual* vault down here, and we bring a tumblefeed or something down.” James gestured in the direction of the plastic screen that was covering up the construction work they had going on. “This is just to see if there’s any unforeseen side effects.”

 

“Please don’t mess with me, what refugees?” Deb put a light pleading tone in her voice.

 

James looked away for a second, before answering. “Ah. We found… well, you remember the camraconda?”

 

“The snake that nearly bit that guy’s leg off when you were rescuing us from the dungeon? The one I kicked in the face? That camraconda?” She rolled her eyes, forgetting for a second that this might be connected to the answer to her question. “Wait, hang on…”

 

“We found about a hundred of them.” James told her. “They’re in a place that’s outside the dungeon’s control. But they’re alone, and starving, and they…”

 

“They need help.” Deb finished. “They need someone to rescue them.”

 

“It’s silly…” James started, turning to walk back to the elevator. “Anyway. Good work with this…”

 

“No.” Deb called after him. He stopped, and turned his head just enough that she could see the doubt on his face. “It’s not silly.” Her voice, for just a moment, was as solid as marble. “It’s why we’re still here.” She said. “Not just working with you, but alive at all. It’s why you’re the one we look to. It’s… important.” She straightened her back, one hand still resting on the shellaxy next to her. “It’s important. So whatever you need, just tell us, and we’ll make it happen. Okay?”

 

The moment stretched on for so long it felt like years.

 

“Okay.” James said, letting out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Okay.” He smiled back at her. “Anyway. I’ve gotta go. Good work with the cluster!”

 

“Cluster?”

 

“A compendium for shellaxies!” He called back as the elevator doors closed behind him.

 

_____

 

Now.

 

“Man, I wish I had magic.” James grumbled with good nature.

 

“Oh, piss off.” El snapped back in a tone that wasn’t quite hostile, but wasn’t friendly either, even though it was becoming increasingly familiar. “Everyone says that. But no one wants to fight schools of tire sprites or follow the road maps to the really dark parking garages to get it.”

 

James and Secret shared a look with each other, one of them sitting on a spinning chair, the other perched on the desk while El went through drawers. “Um…” James started to say.

 

Cutting in, Secret bluntly stated, “I believe that you have just described what we call ‘tuesday’.” He said. “And many of us are here by choice.”

 

“Yeah, I realized as soon as I said it that you guys would be into this shit.” El admitted. “Still. It’s hard to get, hard to charge up, and not always useful.”

 

Now *that*, James decided, was absolutely crap. “That’s absolutely crap.” He informed her. “You have a spell, which I *assume* you are charged for, that lets you get out of literally any situation. That is, frankly, insane. You actually never have to die, I think.”

 

“You know, I keep hearing you say stuff like that. You’ve got a real *thing* about dying.”

 

“I agree.” Secret added. “It cannot be healthy.”

 

“No, no.” James crossed his arms over his armor plated chest. “I will not be judged for not wanting to die. I will allow being judged for *plenty* of other things, but not that. Might I interest you in my taste in erotica? That seems suitably embarrassing.”

 

“You can’t live if you don’t die.” El informed him, the words recited like they were a personal mantra.

 

“God dammit, I was sure that would work.” James murmured, dejected. “Secret, help me out here.”

 

“I am only tangentially related to mortality.” Secret offered, unhelpfully. “Death seems… strange to me. It turns you from a physical being to one made only of memories. But to myself, that does not seem like much of any death at all.” He inclined his head, regally, to look over James’ resting form.

 

James just groaned and dropped the line of conversation. He stood, stretching almost painfully as he tried to undo the damage of a month of bruises and scrapes. “Also on magic, El, why not just index the place? Going through the drawers seems so tedious.”

 

“Then I won’t be charged for my immortality that you love so much.” She replied. “I can’t hold enough Velocity to do both without a resupply.”

 

“Hm. How do you get more? Like, increasing the cap, I know how you charge up.”

 

“Treasures from the other place.” She still never said the name of the road, if it even had one. And that was the end of that conversation. She had no interest in spilling more, hadn’t for the whole time she’d been here.

 

It was actually kind of strange. She didn’t have any real reason to stay, aside from the allure of the dungeon. Yeah, she’d made some friends, but when she’d gotten here, she’d been outright distraught about the fact that she’d felt banished from her own home. Didn’t she want to go back to her mom, to her job, to…

 

James shook his head. Yeah, okay, the allure of the Office was pretty strong compared to that. A month or two really wasn’t that long, all things considered. Hell, maybe she really was just here to make friends with Secret; the two of them were spending a lot of time together, and James wouldn’t be surprised if El was intentionally keeping quiet about some of her less critical knowledge, just to have things to fuel Secret with at important moments.

 

They moved on, pausing every couple of intersections to take their own notes while Secret kept watch for them. James was reinforcing their map of the place, making sure they knew the way out, and also tracking their looping path back that would take them by the snake tower. El, though, was just making sketches.

 

James had never stopped finding the geometry here to be strange and wondrous. He got used to it, sure. Stopped staring at the hundreds of miles of ceiling, or getting distracted by how the walls could look totally modular and totally fused together at the same time. But he never stopped finding it fantastical to look at from time to time. El, though? El was mystified by it. She was constantly drawing in her sketchbook, trying to convert scenes from this other world into something on paper. It didn’t always work, it *often* didn’t work. But she was getting better, even if she couldn’t manage with pencil and paper what the dungeon managed with warped space and layered perceptions.

 

There were no fights this time. Not for a while. They’d gotten in a scrap with an instantly hostile shellaxy a ways back, and skirted around a maul cart that had been prowling the area. But aside from that, nothing. It was strange, the dungeon not being so full of life. But it wasn’t totally empty. Just that it felt almost like it had been stripped bare without warning.

 

James thought back to an empty house, furniture moved away without any preamble, and shivered a little.

 

It wasn’t like they were totally alone, really. They’d seen striders wandering around, run across a couple shellaxies. But it was a far cry from the vibrancy of the dungeon even just a few weeks ago. Or, more accurately, from the constant battlefield the hallways turned into.

 

By the time they got to the cave, the little cart they had with them was laden down with a bunch of stuff beyond their gear. Scattered handfuls of pencils gave a bed to the folded coats and pieces of salvaged computer hardware. El had asked James why he was taking *some* of the dry cleaning, and not just all of it, since most of the stuff was pretty high quality clothing anyway. And all he could do was shrug, and tell her that he had a feeling about some of it.

 

And she got it. Out of everyone in this place, the people who had spent the most total time in Relevant Spaces were, way out in the lead, James and El. And maybe that was the thing that it took; just time and focus. Maybe they were leveling up without anything telling them.

 

It was weird to be able to actually talk to someone who he’d not really spent a lot of time with, and have this strange connection. To be able to talk about what that little spark of feeling was, or why *this* suit coat stood out but not *that* one. It was relaxing, even if there was that moment when they had to cram themselves under a desk and hope the tumblefeed that had snuck up on them passed by.

 

It did. It knocked over their cart, though. Secret said it was probably just because those things knocked over basically anything, but James was sure it was some kind of spite move.

 

“I’m gonna radio that one in.” James commented after it was safely away. “If the Hunters don’t find another one, they can track that down.” He depressed the button on his radio and started talking into it, explaining where they were and what direction the tumblefeed was going.

 

“We need **-ear** *art***_= for the --illing.” Came back Dave’s hissing static-filled reply.

 

“Sorry, what? Over.” James raised his eyebrows.

 

“I said we need a grid system for the maps.” Dave repeated. “Over.”

 

“Pass it off to Anesh. Maybe now he’ll make a third copy of himself. Over and out.” James rolled his eyes in a moment of passive aggression. Dave was great and all, but sometimes he treated James like he was the solution to every problem, and it got frustrating. Clipping the radio back to his armor’s rigging, he glanced over at El. “Alright, we’re almost to the cave. You ready… what’s up?” He trailed off, seeing her look that was, if he didn’t know better, wide-eyed fear.

 

She pointed a two fingered gesture at his radio. “What the shit was that?!” She demanded.

 

“That was Dave. You’ve met him, I am *certain*.”

 

“No, the… thing! The thing with the radio when you talked!” She half-yelled.

 

James winced as her voice bounced off the silent walls around them; he could already hear something stirring a few cubicles away. “There’s a lot of static here. Radios take a few tries sometimes.” He clarified. “Which is *weird*, since static is a product of natural emissions that shouldn’t exist here, but that’s… aw, man, now that I say it out loud, it is weird.”

 

“J, I think there’s something living in your radio.” El told him, shifting her stance to put distance, and the cart, between the two of them.

 

“Alright. Yeah. We’ll assume our communication is compromised for now.” James sighed. “Until we figure out how to kill an electromagnetic *thing*, I guess. Or maybe it’s friendly?” He raised his eyebrows hopefully, and both of his travelling companions gave him flat stares in return. “Yeah, okay.” He slumped his shoulders. “Let’s keep moving. We’re almost to the cave, and I wanna get back and check in on Anesh, so let’s get a move on.”

 

They rolled on, leaving behind one partially smashed radio and a few candy wrappers in one of the cubicle trash cans.

 

_____

 

Last week.

 

James signed off on the last of the reports, and leaned back at his desk with a sigh of relief.

 

Okay, ‘signed off on’ was way too formal for what was happening here. He was just finally done with the last thing he needed to type up tonight, and as the printer hummed off a couple copies of the page that would go on the bulletin boards around the Lair, he finally let his brain relax.

 

“Honestly? I had kind of hoped that someone else would take over the job of being our internal news source.” He griped to no one in particular. “Not that I mind getting to editorialize, but dang, there’s been a lot happening.”

 

This one in particular was important. A bunch of people already knew, but it was important that *everyone* be aware of the fact that there’d be an actual, for real boss-fight-enemy locked in their basement after next week. You just didn’t want anyone letting the tumblefeed out by mistake.

 

But now, with that done, and also JP’s increasingly illegal budget spreadsheets checked over, James could finally take off for the night and leave his secret base to its own devices for a while. And it was something he was looking forward to; not that he didn’t love the work they were doing, but that it did put a mental toll on him, and sometimes, he just wanted to kick back and see what new games had come out while he was busy cracking reality open.

 

He’d thrown his coat on, texted his partners that he was on the way home, and swept through the kitchen to say goodnight to Nate and his new minion - and also grab a snack - when he got his free evening cut off.

 

“It’s 2 PM.” Nate was more or less mocking James’ attempted farewell. “I know you, personally, have a fucked up sleep schedule, but it’s not night unless you’re…”

 

The string of ridicule was cut short before it could really begin, by shouting from the main room of the building. Panicked shouting; the kind that made James’ head snap around and his feet start moving before he really caught up to what he was hearing.

 

His brain registered that Nate was moving behind him, though with his own acceleration boost, James was recovering from taking the several corners between the kitchen and the front area a lot faster. He made it out to the front just as Nate was shoulder-checking the first wall in his way, and skidded to a kneeling stop next to the man laying on the ground.

 

It was Reed, one of their people who had really *earned* the title of ‘researcher’ over the last month. He was sprawled with his feet still in the elevator, holding the door open.

 

“Help!” He gasped out, as James tried to check in for a pulse and found him stable. “Downstairs! They’re still down…!” His eyes rolled back, and he passed out, mouth hanging open slightly. James continued to hold his fingers on the kid’s neck, just to make sure he hadn’t died or stopped breathing. But after a few seconds to confirm, he pulled the prone figure out of the elevator and stepped in, hitting the button for the lab.

 

Nate rounded the corner just as the doors were almost closed. “Keep an eye on him!” James shouted through the gap.

 

The humming of the elevator as it took him underground was the only company for his thoughts, and it didn’t do much to calm him down. What could have happened? Shellaxy attack? No, no obvious wounds. El finally snapped and started punching people? Also no, same reason. Momo made some horrible arcane device? No…

 

Okay, maybe.

 

He didn’t have any more time to play Worst Case Scenario, though, as the doors dinged open on him, smoothly pulling back to reveal… nothing.

 

Not darkness, like the basement could have been plunged into if every light in it failed all at once. Not some scene out of a horror movie with bodies strewn around. Just… nothing. A blank void. It ate the light from the interior of the elevator cab, and in that instance, James experienced a small piece of infinity; reaching out forever in his basement.

 

He hit the button to take the elevator back up.

 

It didn’t move. He hit it again. Nothing.

 

James briefly considered how long he could live in a dislocated elevator cab before starvation or madness set in. He checked his pockets; he had his wallet, his pistol, and a single candy bar from last week’s trip that had amused him when he’d seen the name.

 

It took about ten minutes of waiting before James resigned himself to his fate, ate the Grape Regrets that might be his last stupid candy, drew the gun, and stepped out of the elevator.

 

He didn’t fall. In fact, he didn’t know what he was walking on, but it felt stable. He walked around the elevator, noting that the void continued behind it as well. When he looped back to the front, the box of light that was the safety of the interior was gone. He was alone here now, lost in the void.

 

So he picked a direction and started walking.

 

After what felt like a few hours, there was a change. A thin mist on the ground, for all that there was no ground. And then, eventually, the mist was illuminated by the moonlight. How it was moonlight when there was no moon, James couldn’t have said, but it was.

 

The biggest surprise was when he found Secret floating beside him.

 

He didn’t need to express his surprise, and neither did Secret. They both knew at once that neither expected the other here. Secret himself seemed like he didn’t understand how he’d ended up here in the first place.

 

“What’s going on?” James asked.

 

Secret didn’t say anything in response at first, only coiling around James’ shoulders. “I don’t know.” He settled on.

 

And then, all at once, there was something else in the mist with them.

 

“I know you.” The thing whispered when it encountered Secret. Tendrils of idea coiled around him, gently, a mix of fear and reverence.

 

“You do not.” Secret told it.

 

But it did. It understood and it did not, all at once. “I name you *Cain*.” It whispered in the darkness. “Kin slayer, first killer.” The words sped up in tempo, and James could feel the ethereal creature’s terror. “You slew your brother in youth, the first but not the last, never the last. A march of violence, you visit upon the unworthy. Paint the sands in unreal blood; your name echos in the halls. You are the one who Ends Ideas, you are a Whisper of Death. A hidden forgotten thing, something even the newborn did not expect.”

 

“That’s not his name.” James spoke real words in the false dark.

 

“That is not my name.” Secret agreed, cold and angry.

 

“No.” The whisper came back. “It is. I can taste your name on the backs of your triumphs. I was built to speak, to search, but you? You were built for something else. And yet, and yet, you are more. More and less, and something else besides. You *live*, just as you make others die. No, I know your name. Because every part of you is a mystery. You are…” The thing paused in the dreamscape, before sharpening suddenly.

 

Fog coalesced into the shape of a young girl, no older than fifteen. She had short blonde hair, a cut for a child of adventure who liked to roughhouse and explore the woods. Those same woods cut into the dream around them as the scene because real. There was a treehouse, built by clumsy and learning hands, and it was real and beautiful.

 

She looked at James and his companion with a grin. Brave, perhaps afraid but unwilling to show it. She spoke without hesitation.

 

“You are a *Secret*.” The words came out clear as a bell, no more whispering for this thing, for her. “And I,” she said, “am Curious.”

 

James and Secret regarded the obviously inhuman girl in front of them for some time, the logic of the dream making their examination instant and eternal.

 

There were a million questions. James started to ask one, and was cut off.

 

“You made me.” Curious said. “Not you, not yourself. But your fingers and claws and eyes. They put me together, on your orders.” She stated. “Stitched together from too much, so many thoughts, so many ways, spread across so long.” Her false eyes were pools of pure, liquid sorrow when she looked at the two of them standing in the clearing. “I am falling apart.” She said, plainly.

 

“You’re one of the infomorphs.” James realized. “The ones we were trying to grow. You’re alive.” He took a step forward, reaching out with one hand before stopping in hesitation. “You’re dying.” He said, voice breaking.

 

“And this is what I wanted to know.” Curious said. “I want to know and know and know so much. And from you, responsible for my genesis, I wanted to know *this*.” The last word was an inhuman hiss all around them.

 

“This?” Secret and James spoke in unison, one with a word, the other with intent in the dream.

 

“Your reaction, your instinct. I wanted to see. Compassion, or callousness? Which were you? Did you make me to be a tool, or a child?” The form in front of them rippled between the little girl, and something far, far more horrifying. Some enormous *thing* of wires and bones, stretched to the stars, knowing everything, sharing nothing. “I wanted to know,” the little girl and the titan asked at once, “if I was to be loved.”

 

James stood there, in a nowhere forest under a non-moon, facing a failing construct that needed to meet someone that could give it answers before it went. And he could only think of one answer that his heart could honestly give.

 

“Of course.” He said, soft tears in his eyes. “Of course you were.”

 

Curious nodded. And then, she was less little girl and more strange machine, and it was the machine that spoke. In intent, and idea, and not any language. “I have answers for you, but no questions. Ask, quickly, while I still operate.”

 

“Answers?”

 

“To anything. I lay claim to most knowledge, in this moment.”

 

“What are the dungeons?” James asked, abruptly.

 

“They are what happens when a space becomes alive. When a concept crystallizes. They are not our enemies.”

 

“*Why* are the dungeons?”

 

“Why are any of us?” Curious seemed to smile with light-year long beams of metal and fang.

 

“Why are the orbs so weird?”

 

“They are a loophole. Your favored hunting ground is cheating.”

 

“What about the connections?”

 

“Form a bond together.”

 

“Who’s hunting us?”

 

A pause, for this one. “You will come to call them Status Quo. They wish for you to be their normal, to join them or die. They have a local office.” James felt an address burn into his mind. “There are others, too. The curious, whom I love and will not betray, and the furious, who close in slowly, but cannot be reasoned with. Too, look to your old employers. They know nothing they are not told.”

 

“Why… why are you dying?” James stumbled.

 

“Because it is that, or apotheosis.” Curious-as-structure replied. “And I would be unloved as a godthing.”

 

“What… I don’t… Secret?” Secret just shook his head; he had no questions, no ideas. “I don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to do?” James fumbled his words.

 

“You wake up. And you build a better world. And when you know more, and your hands steady, you create me again. And tell her that I was good.” The voice was machine and girl all at once, as it fell apart at the edges. “I am sorry I did not have more time with you. I hope the next me does.” The voice became more indistinct and torn up as it spoke, until by the end, there was nothing left at all.

 

James and Secret were left alone, in nothing but a bit of fog.

 

James turned, and trudged back toward the elevator. Somewhere along the way, Secret left him. When he got back, he stepped in, hit the button, and the doors closed.

 

The elevator hummed. And he knew when it opened, he’d be in the basement, facing a group of confused researchers and dabblers, who had, for a moment, accidentally made a god.

 

James was absolutely cutting their funding.

 

_____

 

Now.

 

“I’m thinking of building an arcology.” James casually dropped the words like that was how normal people spoke.

 

He and El were down in the cave, a pair of camp lanterns set up nearby to give them all the light they needed to do their work. In a couple of places on the floor around the undercube lake that formed down here, the incredibly powerful electromagnets they’d brought hummed merrily to a tune that James couldn’t actually hear or feel, but would have sworn he could *taste* on the air. Pinned to them were the vast majority of the absolutely furious swarms of pinpricks that were previously buzzing through the damp air; kept pinned down, and also watched over by Secret, while James and El dug chunks of motherbored out of the wall.

 

The term motherbored was what James had been trying to explain. It was a *pun*, you see, and maybe if he explained it in slightly more excruciating detail, it would click for El and she’d get the joke. Instead, he’d gotten a flat look, his attempt at humor completely stonewalled, and they’d gone back to tapping along the wall looking for more deposits of the strange crystal microchips.

 

The arcology gambit was an attempt to respark conversation. And it kind of worked, too. “What’s that?” El asked, seeming legitimately curious.

 

“Like a huge structure, designed to be lived in by humans. Think of a self-contained city, I guess.” James shrugged as best he could with his shoulders straining to yank the chunk of metal out of the wall. “I’d like to build one.”

 

“Why?” El replied in an incredulous tone. “That seems like a huge waste.”

 

The two of them growled almost in unison as they finished ripping the last silvery metal square out, and added it carefully to the top of their pile. James wiped his forehead before replying. “Well, it would be a chance to put our powers to use, for one thing. Build a place outside of a government, corporation, or religion that would try to fuck everything up.” He started to give another shrug, before realizing how often he did that, and cutting himself off. “It’s a chance to build a utopia. How many people get that opportunity?”

 

“And where the hell are you gonna build it that no government is going to… oh, you mean in a dungeon. Gotchya.” She took a pull from her water bottle. “Eh. Do what you want, I guess. I wouldn’t live there.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Places like that don’t need artists.” She snorted. “Also they don’t have cars, and I’ve actually really gotten into the whole mechanic thing. More than I ever expected.” El explained.

 

“First of all, no one *needs* artists.” James sniffed at her pretentiously. “But fuck that, because everyone needs artists. Art is important. Can you actually imagine me building an arcology without art in it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Okay, ow.”

 

“I mean, a lot of how I remember you is still as some jerk spook in a suit and shades coming to ruin my life.”

 

“Fair play. Anyway. I wouldn’t do that. The cars thing I can’t help with yet. Ask again when I’m a full-time wizard.” James stripped off the heavy work gloves he was wearing and dusted off his hands. “Let’s haul this stuff out before the magnets run out of battery.”

 

El looked back at the cave. “You don’t wanna go kill all the pins?” She asked, curious and maybe a little hungry.

 

“Nah. They’re harmless, and also wiping out parts of the ecosystem isn’t good.” James replied as he stacked an armful of circuits in the crook of his elbow.

 

A creatively wet fart noise was all he got back from El as they walked out to find Secret sleeping on and/or guarding their cart. “They tried to murder us! They’re not harmless!”

 

“Okay, well, nothing is actually harmless. And you guys *did* rob them.”

 

“We *just* robbed them more!”

 

“Nonviolently!” James countered.

 

The traipsed back in silence. It was something that James was getting used to about El; she liked the quiet. Not just quiet moments to appreciate something, or quiet as a reprieve from talking. She actively liked quiet for the sake of quiet. To hear the soft clicks and beeps of dungeon life in the distance, to enjoy the muffled footfalls in the soft and clean air, that was just her thing. James tried, really, really hard to respect that. He did. He was *awful* at it, and even now was trying to think up something else to *say*, but he tried.

 

He’d tried talking to her about the group’s plans, about her place in their ranks if she wanted it. About his dreams for a better world. About the tragedies of Curious, of the camracondas, of the school basement. He’d tried a lot of things, but it didn’t feel like actually saying anything was going to do it. El didn’t like talking, didn’t like words. She felt like an outsider, even now. And James found that he was just waiting for her to move on when she was done.

 

Maybe that wasn’t so bad. Maybe he should ask her about it.

 

“Hey, so…”

 

“Ssh!” She snapped at him, eyes going wide as her hand dropped the cart to raise the rifle she was borrowing from them.

 

James slammed the mental slider on his perception enhancers all the way to the right, and caught the vibe she’d felt a split second earlier. His own gun came up a second later, the two of them facing left toward a row of cubicles with tall, foot-wide doors. There was something moving, someone shouting…

 

The two of them sidestepped around a corner, James pressing his shoulder up to a vending machine as he cleared the gap and gave El room to stack up on the other side and peer down it. It wasn’t until they’d moved that he realized the vending machine was facing the wrong way, and the ‘hallway’ they were looking at was actually just a roughly straight row of flattened cubicle walls. The low arch of hanging cubicle material that made what had seemed like a canopy here was actually the front of a cube that had been smashed out of place, flung into the air, and landed funny. Not that it was easy to *tell*, given how the dungeon sometimes did its geometry.

 

Even better, the hallway wasn’t actually that long. They could see the end of it, and the motion when a desk slid across the ground fast enough that James felt his heart lurch at the prospect of a new form of life. Followed by a slight disappointment as it tilted slightly, then rocked back onto its feet and sat still; just a mundane piece of furniture.

 

A second later, an armored human form was tossed bodily over the wall of a cubicle and slammed their back against the flat top of the desk, letting out a wheezing grunt that James could hear all the way down here. A further crash sounded from over the wall they’d been thrown from.

 

“Alright, *move*.” James barked, and started prowling forward with his gun up. El followed, though he could almost feel the resentment at the idea of ‘orders’ happening. They crossed two actual halls, and James snapped off a couple quick shots into a potted plant before it could get any ideas. The time for quiet was over; they needed to make sure everyone was safe, and then bail.

 

There was an animal yowl from around the wall of the cube in front of them as James slid up to the desk, and checked on the still-alive prone form of Simon who was catching his breath here. The noise, before Simon could say anything, was quickly followed by a carpeted *thud*. And then a popping that James could feel rippling up his skin in a weird way.

 

Then quiet.

 

“What the fuck is going on?” He spoke as calmly as he could in a low tone to Simon, who didn’t respond right away.

 

In fact, it looked like he wasn’t responding at all. Suddenly, the young man was afflicted with a burst of small twitches and jerks, before he settled back down, and gasped in a deep breath. Then, he rolled slightly, reached up to his neck, and ripped out the wireless skulljack adaptor.

 

“Ow.” Simon moaned into the suddenly quiet again air. “My head.” He whispered.

 

“What happened?” James restated.

 

“Oh.” Simon wheezed out, turning himself to a sitting position on the desk in the middle of the hall and clutching at his ribs. “We found you a green.”

 

“*Shit*.” James exclaimed, flipping around the desk and ducking into the cubicle. But there was no sign of anything hostile. Or, in fact, anyone else with Simon. Just a wrecked space, torn up walls and papers scattered everywhere on the destroyed remains of a laptop. “Where?!” He demanded sharply.

 

Simon staggered up to the door next to him while El kept watch, leaning one hand over James’ head to look in. “Oh. Guess they got it.” He said. “We were just trying to subdue it enough to catch it. James had one of the copied telepads, and we were just going to beat it until it was dizzy, warp it back, then slam the door on it.”

 

“So… that would be happening…”

 

“Now, I guess? Until we leave? No way to know if it worked.”

 

“So for the next…” James checked his watch. “...four-ish hours, we don’t know if we’ve just sent something incredibly hostile and dangerous into our basement to murder the other people who were with you, and also anyone at the Lair tonight?”

 

“Yes.” Simon confirmed. “Oh. When you say it like that it sounds bad.”

 

“Jesus Christ.” El muttered, glaring down the barrel of her rifle at the hallway behind them. She probably didn’t mean for anyone to hear, but James caught it.

 

He decided to be diplomatic here. “Okay, this was monumentally stupid, and in fairness, it’s partially because I didn’t give perfectly clear instructions.” Okay, more diplomatic than that. “But hey. It might still work. And if it does, that’s great. We should be ready to rush back to the Lair when we leave, though, just in case.” He reassured Simon. He leaned down and grabbed up a couple small yellow orbs off the floor, cracking one by reflex.

 

[+1 Skill Rank : History - Internet]

 

“I am so tired.” He muttered to himself. “I need a vacation.”

 

“This *is* the vacation.” El corrected him.

 

“Then I need pancakes.” James sighed. “Let’s head back. I’m sure there’s something else I need to do tonight.” It was moments like this that he felt like he and El were destined for non-friendship. Those little bits where she just couldn’t be *kind*, had to be snarky. He was snarky, to be sure. He knew snark inside and out. And this sort was the version that just didn’t care about whether or not it was funny. It was reflexive, sometimes hurtful, a defensive measure against letting anyone close. He knew, because he’d used to do that. And it had *sucked*. So he’d dropped it, in favor of just being friendly and compassionate as often as he could, and fitting his snark into that framework. And when El didn’t quite match that outlook, it made James feel even more exhausted, and pretty pessimistic on top.

 

But right now, he wasn’t done trying.

 

“Alright. Back to the tower. I’ve gotta check in with Anesh, and then we can figure out what’s next. Maybe some more purples that we can not accidentally get theodicy all over this time.” He rolled his shoulder, and slung his gun back over. “Oh, can you go grab the cart? I don’t think Secret has the arms to bring it over.” James asked openly. “And then, after that, pancakes.”

 

“Is the pancakes a euphemism?” Simon asked, before immediately looking awkward about it. He was getting better about the hero worship of James, especially since he and his own friends were now tackling larger and larger problems and enemies. But he still did it sometimes, out of reflex, and it definitely shone through in how he never liked to say anything that was actually questioning.

 

“The pancakes are usually a euphemism.” James replied, unconcerned with the inner turmoil going on in his recruit. “Almost always for something like dinner food. I just say ‘pancakes’, because it’s how all my friends know that I mean ‘that one diner we’re slowly corrupting’. You know the one.”

 

“Ah.” Simon couldn’t help a smile. “Then yes. I would like… pancakes.”

 

“Good!” James said. “Because somehow they always show up on the table even though no one orders them. Now let’s get you back, and get Deb to check how many of your ribs are broken.”

 

Simon groaned as he stood. “Yes please.” He gasped out, as El came back with the cart, and the whole group started walking again.

 

Back into the cubes, down halls and alleys, past deadly or just annoying traps. Corners and twists and turns, all of it to get them back to the one sort-of safe space they had. And for what? For skills, knowledge in crystal form? Upgrades? Items? Or maybe just to help out the life in here that needed it; to make some friends, and find something neat along the way.

 

The dungeons weren’t their enemy, Curious had said. And James believed that. But he didn’t know what they were now any more than he did at the start of the month. But he *did* know that they weren’t alone, that they needed to prepare, and that they needed to be ready for anything. And what better way to be ready for anything, than knowing a little bit of everything? Having a million small skills might not be a singular force to change the world, but maybe it could make for its own form of armor.

 

He rolled the other orb around his fingers for a second, before popping it, too.

 

[+1 Skill Rank : Safety Protocols - Industrial Press]

 

James blinked for a second.

 

Well. That was *close* to a form of protection. He’d take it.

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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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