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A note from argusthecat

I think this is the shortest chapter in this entire book.  I may post another one midway through the week to compensate.

“So, fundamentally, we have two problems.” Anesh said, idly drumming his fingers against the table in a casually complex rhythm.

“Uh…” James tried to interject, but Anesh just rolled on.

“The first one is logistical.” He said, raising a hand from where he was resting it on the same massive table that dominated the floorspace of his tower laboratory to point at one of his multiplying whiteboards. “We don’t have enough coffee. Now, we know this tower doesn’t respawn it…”

“The other one does.” James said, before coughing politely and raising one finger. “Uh…” He wanted to ask why the sleeve of Anesh’s shirt was in the process of crumbling into flakey ash on the table, but once again, he got cut off by his boyfriend.

“Good!” Anesh nodded with a smile on his face. “That sort of solves that, though, obviously, the issue is travel time, and how easy it is to get the stuff.” He shrugged, and the left sleeve of his shirt completely sloughed onto the floor as the shoulder dusted away. “The other problem is more metaphysical, and it’s the same thing as with the blues.”

“Anesh, why…”

“We’re not sure.” Anesh cut him off. “But just like how most people can only absorb one blue, with some Dave-style exceptions, it turns out you can’t actually take too many copies of any given single orb.”

James bit his lip as he gave a stupid grin. “What I’m hearing is that we *can* copy orbs to repeat the effects?”

“Hm? Oh, yes. But not too much. That’s sort of the problem. It takes a stupid amount of mana coffee to do it, too!” Anesh complained. “There doesn’t appear to be any function to determine how much, either. Purples take comparatively little, actually. Blues and yellows take the most, with oranges taking the least. And when I say ‘the most’, what I mean is ‘six or seven bags, *probably* more if it’s a larger orb, and that’s after I cut it with normal coffee’. It’s about the density of mana coffee, really, not that it actually takes more stuff per ritual. So, we don’t get to make tailored skillsets.” Anesh finished.

Nodding as he pretended to read the chart of costs that Anesh had started to fill out on his whiteboard, James eyed his boyfriend out of the corner of his eye. The fact that Anesh was dodging his questions about why the left side of his outfit was currently so scorched it was falling apart and why it looked like he’d recently wiped an inch of soot off his face meant that it was almost certainly not something James needed to *worry* about, but it also meant it would be hilariously embarrassing. Taking a deep mental breath, James did something that was very hard for him, and decided to let it go. “Okay.” He said instead. “So, what’s our optimal workflow look like? I mean, how do we start using this to actually get the most out of the orbs?”

“Well, we’ve got a few tools.” Anesh said, relaxing a bit as James stopped pressing on the obvious Incident that had occurred. “Lily is one. And we do have the option of duplicating her, though there are obvious ethical concerns with that. Scanning orbs, finding categories we want to dive into, then duplicating those once. We take the duplicate, crack it, figure out what it is and if we want to make more. Always keep one on file, *clearly labeled*, possibly with something duct taped to it…”

“We can technically do that without Lily. Maybe just focus on the larger orbs, so we get big chunks of skill ups. That way it’s less likely to be useless?” James offered. Then he noticed some of the numbers he was ostensibly looking at. “Wait, hang on. Why the hell are purples so much less coffee-expensive?” He demanded.

“I suspect that it’s because we’ve only tested this with smaller ones, and the smaller purples are less useful than the smaller yellows.” Anesh waved the question off. “Here, try this.” He tossed a small purple from a pile next to him to James.

[Shell Upgraded : Short Term Memory Capacity, +1.6 Terabytes]

“Oh, damn, that’s awesome.” James nodded, his brain already feeling like it was pouring information just on the edge of his memory into that buffer of ‘things to talk about’. Anesh had a few more of these sitting next to him; one of them per delver was absolutely a good investment, if nothing else. “Wait. The costs are based on how useful it is?” James scoffed. “I’m starting to feel like the Office is a really frustrated GM, constantly reminding us that while it ‘makes sense’, that everything we’re doing is breaking game balance.”

Anesh gave James a level look, his steady stare undercut somewhat by the smell of smoke in the air and the remains of his shirt smouldering on the floor, but still a good hard look. “James, we’re trying to cheese our way into making everyone here a master marksman, tactician, detective, and chef.”

“And?”

“And… I don’t really know how to explain this to you. Have you never run a game before where you’ve had to find creative ways to tell your players to stop fucking around like this?” Anesh asked.

James played dumb. “You run most of our games.” He said. “Also we still aren’t actually sure the dungeon is a living thing.”

“Please.” Anesh turned the glower back on. “It might not be a ‘person’, exactly, but it’s clearly exercising some control, and reacting to the world around it. Even if it’s about as smart as your average chinchilla, it’s still ‘alive’.”

It was a debate, and sometimes argument, that went around and around in circles. The entire Order had gotten in on it in some way, including Secret, who everyone had *thought* would have some deeper insight, but instead just seemed to encourage everyone else to formulate increasingly silly theories. James really wished that in her limited time on Earth, that Curiosity had given him something more concrete to work with aside from “not your enemies”.

Being fair, she had also said they were what happens when a space becomes alive, but that could have been a metaphor. Though to *also* be fair, the entire Office, and the other dungeons, seemed like what happened when someone slammed a metaphor into a physical reality and told it to get on with being literal.

So instead, James distanced himself from getting back into that whole mess, by doing some quick math in his head.

If the tower respawned coffee every week, and generated roughly eighteen bags of it, they could effectively have twenty six bags after mixing. Twenty eight if they used what Anesh called “good” coffee, which as far as James could tell specifically meant “not Starbucks”. But that was just for purple, red, and orange orbs. Yellows and blues required a much higher density of the mana coffee. The ritual took five bags of the stuff to cover the whole space, and shrinking the ritual made it fail, so it was all or nothing there. That meant that they could clone four small yellow orbs, or five to six purples, every week.

Which was not a good rate for experimentation.

They’d need to get lucky with a copied orb early, and stick to that one, or they’d need to just admit that duplicating mundane objects was going to have a higher value yield for a while. At least until they found, and could clear, more towers every week.

Also they still had to spend coffee to replenish their Atlas supply, which was what someone had started calling the teleport notepads. James hated that name; telepad sounded so much more Star Trek. And of course, any other magic items they wanted more of. Alanna, still awaiting the opening of the School again, wanted them to duplicate a lesson book once they had one, and James agreed that would be a great middle finger to that place.

But with all that in mind, it did mean that they probably didn’t want to use the coffee on orbs. Unless they could get a *really* good green.

“Hey, how much do green orbs cost, anyway? In terms of density.” James asked, noticing the lack of numbers in that column of the chart.

Anesh shrugged. “Haven’t tested it yet.” He admitted. “No one brought one back.”

“What, since *last month*?” James asked. He, and a lot of their original team, had been going light on the orbs lately to share them around with the new people. But the Order still had a standing claim on all greens, and they were slated for use in either experiments or the Lair. The idea that they didn’t have any available was nonsense.

“The last one was three weeks ago, the one that Dave used on the Lair that gave it extra time in the day for recovery from illness.” He shrugged, like that wasn’t the huge deal that it was. “I just think there’s been fewer of the boss fights around.” Anesh said sadly. “We may actually have overhunted. Either that, or I’m spot on, and the dungeon is reacting to us.”

“Bah.” James snorted. “And at the time when we’re going to need more of those.” He commented sadly.

“Ah, yes. Next week is the snake time, yes?”

“Please don’t call it the snake time.” James begged his partner. “I can’t think of a better name, just… not that one.”

“Fair play.” Anesh nodded in agreement. “We could always go back to the bathrooms? We never did explore that far. Or maybe it’s time to actually have a week-long expedition into the deeper parts.”

It was something James was both dreading, and thrilled about. Because yeah, cutting themselves off for a whole week in here could lead to the dungeon unleashing any number of problems on them while they were unable to escape. But it was also a chance to once again go so far in that they started seeing bizarre new places and things. Also a chance to really test some of their new hires who had, sure, started to get into the dungeon, but hadn’t been tested the same way the survivors had.

He gave it a solid ‘maybe’. Seven out of ten odds.

The green orb thought did bring something to mind, though. “Hey,” James asked suddenly, “did you maybe try duplicating something *made* at the Lair? We’ve got that thing that… you know… screws with the nature of the word ‘value’ going on. Does it take more effort to dupe something that’s under a magic effect, but not magic itself, is what I’m asking.” He tried to get his point across.

Anesh looked puzzled for a second, then remembered what James meant. The green orb, the one that improved the value of all produced goods. It had taken them a while to learn that it actually was exactly as insane as it sounded, but also not quite as useful as perhaps it could have been. The ‘value’ came in the form of better materials, usually. And it was a kind of weird quirk of economics that the first 10% of the cost usually got you the first 90% of the quality. Which was a roundabout way of saying that fourteen bucks of value, when making, say, a sandwich, didn’t do much except make a sandwich that had the highest quality meat, the freshest bread, the sharpest cheddar.

Not that Anesh didn’t *appreciate the shit* out of his sandwich, he thought to himself, careful not to flick his eyes toward the debris that was once a plate and lunch, for fear that James would notice and ask more pressing questions about what exploded. But just that the value addition didn’t make things quite as economically devastating as they could have been. Oh, and it didn’t stack; it was fourteen bucks of magically added value per item. So if you “made” a roast chicken, it would be slightly better. If you sliced it up and put it in sandwiches? It was already slightly better - the magic was already there, it wasn’t going to give you any more.

“I haven’t tried.” Anesh admitted. “Though I’m not sure what good it would do?”

James shrugged. “Mostly just something to test in case it’s ever relevant.” He admitted. “Besides. We’ve gotta try this stuff sooner or later.” He paused. “Um… actually, here’s a question; what if we transport this thing to the Lair? We’ve got basement space.”

“We have, in fact, a little too much basement space.” Anesh quipped.

“I’m serious. Does the stuff it makes count as ‘products’?”

“Oh, again with the value orb. Um… maybe?”

“I wonder what fifteen dollars of extra telepad looks like?”

Anesh shook his head. “It’s too valuable to risk moving. If the ritual is bound to this place, moving it would ruin what is right now our most powerful tool.”

“Fair.” James sighed. “I just wanted to know.”

“Well, you can talk to Momo.” Anesh offered. “She’s trying to make ritual items.”

That was nothing new. Momo had been, with the help of literally anyone she could book time with, trying to figure out how to turn their increasing stockpile of red orbs into ritual items like the projector. It was… certainly a hobby. Which was the polite way that Anesh thought about it; James just thought it must be super frustrating to believe something should work, and constantly headbutt a concrete wall of failure instead of proving your point. He thought this because basically all of Momo’s attempts ended up with her accidentally cracking an orb instead of imbuing it into something. At last count, she was up to two ranks of amusement, suspicion, and lust, and a whopping three points of fury.

With all that in mind, James didn’t bother answering that particular question.

“Anyway.” He said instead, turning to lean on the hole in the tower's wall that made one of the rings of windows around the place, and peering down at the figures moving on the ground. “We’ve got about an hour left before we’re packing up. You wanna do anything tonight?” James asked his boyfriend. “We could go bike around the outside edge, maybe? Just some light scouting and maybe make a new shellaxy friend?”

“I am still honestly confused as to how Sarah keeps getting those things to agree to trust us.” Anesh sighed.

“No you’re not!” James countered with a bark of a laugh and a toothy smile. “It’s Sarah. I mean, come on. We’ve actually known her for a few months now, and in that time, I’ve seen her make friends with essentially everyone that she’s crossed paths with. It’s like her superpo… hm.” With a pause, James tapped his chin, turning on his elbows to face Anesh from his window perch. “Do you think it’s an actual Power?” He asked, starting to master Secret’s trick of pronouncing the capital letters.

“Maybe.” Anesh sighed again from his chair. He’d sort of lost the thread of conversation when James was staring down at the ground, and had begun scribbling notes on the duplication ideas. “Er. Probably not? I’ve met Sarah.”

“That’s what I… okay.” James laughed it off. “So, bike ride?”

“I’m good.” Anesh guiltily declined. “I wanna finish this up.”

“Isn’t this just math?” James asked, walking around the table. “You can do this at home!”

Anesh scooped his papers closer to his chest like a dragon with a pile of gold. “Stay away from my math. And no, I can’t, because I have stuff to do at home. School stuff, and Order stuff, and there just isn’t enough time. The extra eight hours here is nice, and quiet.”

“There’s three of you now, isn’t there? How much stuff do you…” James trailed off, and considered who he was talking to. “Yeah, okay, nevermind.” He smiled, realizing how often he was saying that lately. “Alright. Well, I’m gonna go touch base with everyone. Oh! That reminds me!”

“Yeah?”

James cleared his throat. “Um… there’s a cat in the basement of the Lair. Probably. If the telepad hit on target.” He met Anesh’s incredulous stare a bit sheepishly. “It might be angry? Or maybe unconscious.”

“James…”

“I’m thinking of trying to make friends with it, and riding it up to the front door of that mystery address that Curious gave us.” He continued.

“James.”

“That’s actually another warning. I am one hundred percent sure that we need to at least try to open a dialogue with them. I wanna do that next week. After we have the camracondas out.”

“James.”

“And I’m pretty sure you know, but this is also me touching base on the camraconda thing…”

“James!”

“Yeah?”

Anesh let out a noise that was half sigh, half growl, rubbing at his forehead. “Thank you for the warnings.” He said, in a strained voice. “Please stop giving me warnings and let me do my math.”

“Kay!” James injected as much cheer as he could into the word. It was kind of a lot, and his genuine smile and the loving shoulder rub he gave to Anesh as he walked by on the way out was enough to make the other boy smile. “We’re gonna get pancakes after we’re done here, too.” He said, giving Anesh a peck on the cheek before striding away, off to the ground floor to be seen and help out.

“Oh, um… one other thing.” Anesh stopped him when he was just starting to walk down the ramp.

“Yeah?” James called back.

Anesh put every iota of his effort into saying the next sentence with a straight face.

“Can you bring me a new shirt? Mine exploded.”



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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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