You look exactly like you did when you went to bed last night. No sludge stains, no scrapes or bruises, no brain trauma you can spot at a cursory glance.
Part of you feels silly for even looking--it was just a dream, after all.
It's not even the first time you've had especially weird or vivid dreams; people say you can't read or feel pain in a nightmare, but you can absolutely believe you are and in the moment there's no difference. Your brain also likes to get a little crazy with whatever chemicals make nostalgia--you lost track of how many dreams felt familiar but shouldn't have, in retrospect. You "revisited" dozens of imaginary places for the first time and only woke up confused.
You looked into lucid dreaming once, keeping a dream journal and all that.
exactly improve things.
You could indeed become fully aware of when you were in a dream, but even knowing full well it wasn't real you could never change it. You would pinch your arm, shout at yourself to wake up, demand that the dream end--but your dreams refused to end on your terms. You would jump, expecting to have flight in your dreams, but it never worked--and waking up knowing you had been helpless in your own dream didn't make them bother you less, just bother you... differently.
You remember Lora speculating that it was anxiety--that because you felt you had no control over your life, you would subconsciously deprive yourself of control in your dreams, as well.
Like you were punishing yourself.
. . .
On the other hand, this nightmare felt much, much more real than any you've ever had before. You remember it perfectly--the consistency of the sludge, the weight of the barrels, the sound those... things made. You recall every detail like it just finished happening.
You hustle back into your room.
Before you went to sleep last night, you tossed yesterday's clothes into the empty box next to your bed.
You dig them out and check the pockets of your jeans--
and find your house key, ID card, and some money. No sign of the map and floor guide you'd stumbled across--but you remember what was on them, and you remember the area you explored well enough that you can pretty much visualize how the floor structure should look in your head.
Over a breakfast of cheap soda and a microwaved burrito, you start up your computer and document your dream. You also realize that--since it's about 10:20am now, you slept for something vaguely to the tune of at least 8 hours. You DEFINITELY weren't in the mind prison (anxiety dungeon? nightmare oubliette?) for 8 hours.
So, that's one less point in favor of magical hell adventure
and one more point in favor of this is it, Plaire, you've finally fucking snapped
. . .
You heave a long, slow sigh. You don't know what you were anymore. She was your girlfriend, probably. That's what she said, and that's what you believed.
She was your girlfriend.
Most of the time.
Just not when it mattered.
You contemplate punting that box into the wall like a turtle shell, but decide that instead it's time to leave the house for a while--go buy some food that isn't 90% sodium and/or meat in quotation marks. You'd normally be averse to sunlight and, god forbid, interacting with other people but fuck it you just got through dying. It's time to live a little.
You give your clothes a quick smell test before throwing them back on and heading out your front door. You lock it on your way out because you have enough monsters in your house already, thanks.
It's definitely not as dirty as Addersfield. The grass doesn't look very enthusiastic, but at least it mostly exists. Your new town is up in the mountains, which you've heard elevates it above the worst of the pollution. The cleaner water is just better general care; Addersfield was pretty small, and everyone running it was ridiculously corrupt. There were two main water filters: one for the city council and their 'business associates', and one for everyone else in town.
YOU HOPE SHE AKFJ;ACFUCKING ENJOYS IT THERE.
Conveniently, you live within walking distance of a bus stop. Chariot MassTransit provides buses all over the state of Misuschaqua, and your ID card is equipped with a Chariot MT Pass. You can continue to take their brand of bus for free for another like, couple of months maybe.
Free bus rides though.
You also realize you have no idea where anything in this town is except for your own house.
You tossed yours out the window somewhere between here and Addersfield.
As you start to turn back toward the relative safety of your house and your computer that knows everything, a flyer on the fence catches your eye.
You glance one way, then the other.
No one's out walking their dog or anything, so you won't look like a weirdo standing out in your yard and staring at a paper on the fence. You're pretty sure this is partly your fence now anyway.
You approach the flyer. It's advertising a concert from a local band, Biggest Shrug, in someone's garage tomorrow night. It also lists the address of said stranger's garage.
You know what, screw going back inside for an online map. You're in a new town, no one's going to hold it over your head if you get lost. You head straight to the sidewalk and wait for a bus to arrive.
Not for very long, though.
A bus pulls up. You board it, and immediately discover that it's empty.
As in, it doesn't even have a driver.
A series of screens throughout the bus blink on, showing the Chariot MT logo; the voice of a calm, mature sounding woman resonates throughout the vehicle.
"Welcome, Plaire Stevens. This is a Chariot MT self driving bus, one of five in the area networked to the same AI slave. Do you know where you'd like to go?"
"Oh, uh, weird," you mutter. "The Chariots in my last town had... um. People drivers."
"It's an initiative that Chariot MT is deploying in select locations across the state," the voice replies. "I can detect when a pass holder is waiting in the vicinity of a Chariot MT bus stop. Trained algorithms allow me to optimize the routes for all my buses instantly. As a result, I have neither a set schedule nor a fixed route; the bus will make stops only when necessary."
"Do... you..." you hesitate a little, trying to decide which monitor you should be making eye contact with. "Do you know anything about what's in town? Like, can you do recommendations, or-- like..."
The bus picks up roughly where you trailed off. "Well, I am an AI. I do regular analysis of businesses that are along my potential route, which includes customer reviews and any other publicly available information about the company. I also log all word of mouth. I can only take you to Chariot MT bus stops, but I can offer directions and advice to get you beyond that."
"Okay, so..." you breathe in, still uncertain about staring directly into one of the screens. "Food. Where can I get groceries at?"
"Well," the bus begins, "as part of a contractual agreement between the company and Chariot MT, I'm strongly encouraged to recommend MondolFoods. The majority of their food is artificially engineered or imported from overseas, ensuring consistency and minimal radiation.
There's also Maria's, a locally owned and operated grocer that's been in town for substantially longer. Their prices are lower on average, though there's been some debate about the taste."
You nod. You're... pretty sure the bus can see that, and knows what it means.
"Okay. T... Thanks." You pause, the information needing to sink in before another thought occurs to you. "What about games? Like... video games."
"Mondol-Funstop sells video games, movies, and other entertainment. On the opposite side of town is a store named The Back Room; the only information I can find online is that they are, and I quote, "the island of misfit toys." But, I have heard passengers mention that The Back Room sells games."
"Thanks," you reply again--still awkwardly, but not as forced sounding this time. You ride the bus in silence for a little while, getting it all straight in your head before another thought interrupts it. "Do... you have a name? Is that rude to ask?"
"No," the bus replies simply, before adding "to either question. Each of my buses has a code, and I collectively have a network number as part of my AI system, but Chariot MT did not assign me a name."
"Huh," is all you can manage in the moment. On a whim, you follow up with an otherwise random question. "Have you heard of Biggest Shrug?"
"A few members of the band take the bus sometimes," says the bus. "I've not been able to hear them play yet, but they seem popular with teens and young adults."
The bus takes the briefest of pauses. "I'm afraid I haven't," she concludes. "There's nothing reoccurring or consistent involving that phrase in my database. Maybe you heard it in a past conversation?"
"Maybe." You huff a little. "I've definitely heard it before, I just don't know where."
You look out the window.
You give it some thought.
Probably can't just keep riding this bus forever.
"I... think I'm gonna try Maria's," you state.
"There's a bus stop fairly close to there. I'll swing you by."
Very shortly, you arrive at another Chariot MT bus stop (which you now know have sensors in them). The bus gives you directions to Maria's, but you can actually see the store from here.
"Thank you," you say. Third time's the charm, and it actually sounds natural this time. As you start to step off the bus, though, you have one more question. "Uh... pronouns?"
"She/Her or They/Them are both acceptable," says the bus.
You, uh, weren't expecting a reply that concise or immediate. The surprise forces a slight smile across your face. "Oh, uh. O-Okay. I'm s-she/her. Just... in case. You need to know that. Okaythanksagainbye--"
You're pretty sure the bus said something else at the end there, but you are too busy fleeing the scene of your awkwardness crimes. You walk quickly (but not too quickly (and you're very self conscious about your pace)), toward the store branded Maria's.
A glass double door automatically slides open as you approach. You're greeted by... a smell, something distinctive and a little strange. It definitely does not smell like any store you've ever been in. There's a hint of something mechanical buried in an otherwise alien scent, maybe oil or antifreeze or something (you barely know what you mean by mechanical smell, let alone which one it would be). It's not bad, though--just... different.
It takes you at least one real, entire second to realize you've walked in on an argument.
"Respectfully," says one of two men in suits, "I think you should reconsider."
"Respectfully," replies a woman in her early to mid 30s looking very sweaty, "I think you boys can kiss my ass."
"It's a very generous offer we're making here," points out the other suited man.
"Yeah," agrees the woman, "for my soul. You fucking goblins are going to rot all the food. Get out of here before I call pest control, or an exorcist."
One of the men sighs, the other shakes his head. They turn and begin to leave, stopping in the midst of the sliding door to get in a final word. "You know how to reach us if you change your mind."
"So weak," the woman fires back. "You need more passion. Give me a RUE THE DAY!, or a YOU'LL LIVE TO REGRET THIS!. You know how to reach us? That's your parting shot? I give it three of these outta ten," at which point she extends her arm. And her middle finger. "Don't come back."
Once the men exit, she begins to curse loudly in a language you do not understand, but definitely recognize the best curse words from. With the men no longer standing in front of you, though, she quickly realizes you're standing there.
"...Oh," she mutters. You see a rollercoaster of subtle expression changes while she finds most of her retail voice. "Hi, welcome to Maria's. ...I'm Maria."
A portly man behind the register waves at you, smiling and speaking up in a thick accent. "I'm her father."
"Mondol," says Maria. "Or MondolGroup, or whatever the--" She catches herself before loudly cursing in front of a customer again, "--the gentlemen from MondolMall call themselves."
"I've been hearing Mondol a lot today," you mutter.
"You new in town?," Maria asks. "You are going to keep hearing it. They're supposed to be some indie startup group coming out of the cities--trying to fill the void all these big, sinking corporations are leaving behind. The problem is, these assholes--" she realizes she said it as soon as it leaves her mouth, but she can only pause and keep going, "--act just like a billion dollar corporation. We don't need any of that here, and I am NOT going to let them buy out a business I worked my ass off for! They've already plowed through every other grocer in town."
"It is a lot of money, though," her dad comments. "You could live the rest of your life on that." He does suggest it casually--not pushing, just making sure his daughter is still seeing all her options.
"I'd be living the rest of my life in a mall," Maria counters. "They have started doing apartments! Mondol's going to eat the whole town. There will be nothing left but Mondol, and the food will be garbage! It all tastes like radiation and slave labor."
Maria spins back around to aggressively inform you, "All of the fruits and vegetables here are grown on-site."
"Our meat and eggs guy is a friend of mine," adds Maria's dad. "He lives up higher in the mountains."
"Milk, too," Maria adds a little more calmly. "And he introduced us to our bread guy--we owe him a lot, actually. ANYWAY." Maria once more twists her attention from her father to you. "What can we do for you?"
"I... uh..." In all the hot gossip and flaring passions, you almost forgot why you walked in. "I need food." Of course you do, dingus. "Healthy, easy to prepare... but also cheap." Yes, good, your tone suggested it was all one coherent thought, planned that way from the beginning.
Maria squints behind her glasses. "And what is your budget like?"
"I don't have one," you admit bluntly. "I have the money in my pocket and a house that's paid up for a while. I have microwavables with enough sodium to kill me in a week, tops. I have no idea how to cook. Fire scares me a little."
This time you stun her, making you the winner.
"...Alright," she says, adjusting her glasses. "I'm not a psychiatrist, but: you can learn the basics of cooking online. Don't use any flavor packets that come with your noodles--swap them with real seasoning, real meat and real vegetables."
"Huh," you mutter. "You're pretty good at this."
Maria smiles a little, in spite of the frustration still bleeding in from earlier. "I've had to do it before. Aside from noodles, you should look into rice, and eggs are pretty cheap..."
She takes some time explaining to you what you can do for cheap, healthy foods, and figure out some of the pricing. You're pretty sure you can stock up for the rest of the month, but it would leave you with no money. If you try to swing it half and half--actual food and cheap food-like products, alternating so you don't get scurvy--you think you could walk away with almost no money.
"Worst case," Maria adds, "if you're completely broke and you need food, let me know. I've worked with a few people in town already, it's not a big deal." She leans in a little, staring you down. "...But if you're not completely broke this is a business, not a charity."
"Maria," her dad begins, "weren't you just mad this morning because you gave away all our leftover--"
"Now is not the time, Papá."
Her dad continues, fighting back a grin. "And that blind guy who rides the bus. He only comes in when he knows you're here because you keep gi--"
You should probably decide how much of your money you'll spend on not eating poison.
By the time you return to check out, Maria is gone, but her dad is still working the register.
"Have you ever been to the Back Room?," you ask.
He shakes his head while ringing up your purchases. "I've heard it's a weird place," he says. "A bunch of guys that quit Mondol to do their own thing. No idea what they sell, though."
You finish purchasing groceries.
You are left with almost no money,
but you do still have money.
You return to the bus stop and wait. It takes a little longer this time, but it's not that bad. You watch some very round birds fuss over someone's discarded fast food until the bus pulls up.
"How was it?," asks the bus.
You sit down, setting your groceries on the floor. "I met Maria," you begin. "She's... energetic. She said Mondol's trying to take over the town."
"They are," the bus replies with a frankness that almost blows you out the window.
She continues in the face of your stunned expression. "I'm not programmed to track their growth, but less than three years ago their local presence was one convenience store. Today they own a significant percent of the businesses in town and have begun moving on to the residential districts. If the data from other AIs in my network is accurate, this is standard procedure. They've witnessed Mondol bulldozing houses in other towns to make room for expanded malls with Mondol apartments."
"Holy shit," you blurt out. "Literally the whole town becoming Mondol."
"Springmark, East Virginia," the bus states simply. "The town of Springmark is a mall."
"Like..." You trail off, eyes wide.
The bus says again, "One mall is the entire town." You're pretty sure she could phrase that sentence a dozen different ways and you'd still have trouble imagining it.
"What... aaaabout... like... going outside?"
"MondolParks provide the latest when it comes to indoor wilderness experien--"
"Oh," is the only reply you can muster. It's not much of an interruption, but the bus seems prepared to accept that you don't want to hear the rest of the spiel. "Wow."
"Yes," the bus concludes in a tone neutral fashion. "As part of a contractual agreement between the company and Chariot MT, I'm strongly discouraged from engaging in discussions about how those not actively under Mondol's employ--and many who are--have been fighting against MondolGroup's growth. The owner of Maria's being involved in that fight fits all my previous data."
The rest of the ride is fairly uneventful.
The bus drops you off at your house, and you thank her again.
It's about 1:00 pm when you step back into your home, groceries in tow.
You stash all of your recently acquired foods in their appropriate places in the kitchen; you now have healthy food options in addition to your instant food products.
You toss the leftover grocery bag into the empty box in the kitchen.
Physically you're fine, mentally you're exhausted.
You do a quick internet search and look up how to microwave a potato. That's new food, prepared by you, just... you'll figure out real cooking later.
You follow the instructions, making sure to poke holes in the potato so it doesn't explode (as much as you would, at some point in your life, like to see an exploding potato). You have to stop and turn the potato a few times, but overall it only takes you about fifteen minutes.
You have successfully crafted a "baked" potato.
After seasoning it with the limited resources you have, you return to your room with the potato and a cheap soda to eat and debate what to do after eating.
You could make online videos. Videos about lore, mechanics, and glitches in video games got you to where you are now. When you make a successful video, you are mailed money.
You could try to make videos about other things. You've never done one before, but there's videos on the internet about landmarks, restaurants, politics, life experiences... basically videos about everything, and someone's made money off all of them. That's not even getting into more niche entertainment, like unboxings or videos about specific slot machines, or videos about random toys from the 70s.
Basically, you can make a video about anything and post it online.
Because you lack experience in producing content about anything but games, you probably won't make as much money doing those videos. However, it would give you valuable experience, and you could get better at it over time. In addition, such videos could have other benefits.
You could also just blow off work entirely for now and continue to relax with a video game. Depending on what kind of video you might try to make, your mood and energy could both be a factor--positive or negative--in how good the final product is. Playing games can also affect your mood; they can get you more focused, calm you down, or rile you up. Different games can even get you thinking in different ways.
You're also not yet sure if your decision to play Crush Souls last night influenced your dream. The flooded prison you were in felt very dark fantasy, which fits with the setting of the game. On the other hand, you were fresh out of Addersfield still, and if your subconscious at the time saw the outside world as being a little medieval
well that wouldn't shock you either
(or Doki Doki Moustache, as it's known in the original translation)
It's a fun enough game and pretty relaxing. For many casual players, this game is one of the best; the aesthetic, the gameplay, the pacing, all of it is fine tuned to a ridiculous degree by passionate developers. The series is iconic, the character known worldwide; a Mustachio game was one of the first you ever played. You grew up on these, thinking they were pretty much perfect
until you saw speed runs.
It didn't ruin your experience per se--you still love playing these games. It just... definitely altered your experience. Players trying to set records in how fast they can beat the game have found dozens to hundreds of glitches, ranging from insignificant tricks to shave off seconds to massive level skips. There's even a couple glitches than can kill the game cartridge or brick the console running it if you do them wrong.
It was... well, discomforting sounds a little dramatic. It was weird. You knew these games like the back of your hand, or so you thought--but here someone was clipping through walls and butt-sliding backwards up staircases at 200 mph. As a kid, beating a game was a massive undertaking--an often insurmountable obstacle. Even coming back to games you couldn't beat as a child, adult!you still struggles sometimes.
...But then you watched random internet people beat game after game in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, breaking rules you didn't know existed in ways you never imagined. There was an entirely different world right in front of you the entire time,
you just never saw it.
So now when you play Magic Mustachio, it feels... different. Not worse, per se, just different. You don't mind that you're not one of those game wizards playing the secret, undesigned game layered beneath. You're pretty content just getting really good at the regular game, and understanding all the connections and meanings hidden there.
But you also can't un-learn that such a world exists.
You also remember trying to explain a hitbox to your sixth grade teacher.
She had made the argument that things like genetic engineering, neural uploads, and, yes, artificial intelligence were "unnatural." She said they were against the intended order of things. It's all steeped in hard, testable science, though; these are all reactions to reactions to things that happen naturally. We didn't pull this stuff from another dimension, even the word invention is a misnomer--we just figured out what causes things to happen and started putting them together, stacking discoveries and causes and effects until we reached cloning. It's "the work of man" and required our interference, sure--but people are part of nature, too.
but requires no extranatural resources to pull off,
is it a glitch?
Can God code a bad hitbox?
You take a bit to upload it, giving it a title and a thumbnail and all the other little things you never think about until the last second when they're physically preventing you from being done.
It's a pretty good video, in your opinion; you expect to make decent money off of it. It should be mailed to you in the next few days or so.
It's about 9:30 pm when you finish.
Returning to your desk, you eat and begin work on a journal separate from your dream journal. Like a... uh... awake journal. You write down your thoughts from earlier and some of the things you remembered from when you were a kid. You also start making notes on the things and people you've encountered in town so far.
You still have a lot of questions--about why a corporately owned and operated AI is so open and forward, what the hell all is going on with Maria's operation, and... pretty much everything about MondolGroup. You still need to visit the Back Room, too, and there's that concert tomorrow night. For now, though...
it's about 10:15 pm, and you're getting tired.
You eye the bed. You had a pretty good day; if last night was just your brain going to a dark place then you shouldn't have much to worry about tonight.
You're not really convinced that it was just a stress dream, though.
You still remember everything. Perfectly.
If you're going to do this, you're going to do it right.
Assuming the worst, you'll be thrown back into a horrible prison that's trying to kill you. Last time, your glasses and your clothes came with you--even though you weren't wearing them when you went to sleep. That suggests things can come with you.
Ideally, preparation would mean bringing a bag--full of pens, paper, chalk, rope, duct tape, and anything else you'd bring on a fantasy spelunking adventure. A weapon would be nice, as well, so you're not reliant on whatever the dungeon gives you.
you don't own any of those things.
...And probably can't afford them.
You're not even sure there's a store open at this hour.
What you do have are potatoes.
They're not... exactly helpful, but they could form the basis for an experiment.
You head to your kitchen and sort through your potatoes. You find the smallest two potatoes you can, barely managing to shove one into your (admittedly pretty shallow) pocket.
You return to your room, and put the other potato in the empty box that has become your de facto dirty clothes hamper. If your clothes can be transported from there, then the second potato should, too. Right?
You brush your teeth and get ready for bed.
In a last ditch effort to try and soften, alter, or even outright avoid the horrible murder dungeon you spend some time watching internet videos of rabbits flopping around and munching on food. You get a little distracted, following the rabbit videos to turtles, also slowly going to town on various vegetables, before eventually ending on videos of cute caterpillars eating leaves (and, appropriately, a sweet potato).
It's almost 11:00 pm when you finally go to bed.