You initially attempt to sneak out from under Kate's arm, but your movements prompt her to begin stirring.
"Fuuuck..." Kate mutters, still half asleep. "What time is it...?"
She digs her phone out of her pocket.
"Oh, shit," Kate exclaims. "I'm gonna be late for work."
"Wait--" in the time it takes for you to recover from the stun, Kate's already out of bed and throwing her jacket on. Kate has a job? It, uh, makes sense--people do have jobs--you just...
didn't take her for someone presently employed.
"Where do you work?," you finally ask. Yes, that is much less rude than voicing your disbelief.
Kate smiles. She just woke up but she is still very pretty. "I can't tell you," she says. "I have to maintain my mystique until at least the second date."
You try not to grin, you really do. "What makes you so sure there'll be a second date?"
"I'm sure." She grabs her guitar and heads for the door. You follow after.
You and Kate's exit from the building, and subsequent wait at the bus stop, are relatively quiet. ...Mostly because you're obsessing over logistics in your head. You asked Cici to the concert in the first place--was that a date? Unofficially? Did you accidentally have two dates in the same night? Is that weird? Is that wrong? What are the odds that all the women you've been meeting are gay? Is Maria gay? Maria is also very attractive. Is Maria single? Stop it. Maybe it's not luck--maybe having to live in Addersfield somehow power leveled your Lesbian Senses, like training under stronger gravity.
You realize that the pills have worn off and your brain is back to being a bag of cats.
Just as you start to become too aware of it, and outside begins to feel smaller somehow,
the bus pulls up.
You and Kate board the bus.
Kate sighs as she sinks into a seat, still carrying her guitar in her hand. "Take me home, country bus."
You take your usual spot, nearest to the door.
"How are things?," the bus asks. "Did you manage to get everything sorted?"
"Mostly...?" You give a small shrug. "The cops no longer think we did it, at least."
"The cops could prove we didn't do it," says Kate, "if they give a shit and don't just arrest us anyway. Arson's a big deal--they gotta pin it on someone eventually."
"We gave them, like, a list of reasons it can't be us," you reply. "It'd be stupid to still come after us."
Kate gives a dry smile. "It's not their job to defend us, though. They don't get paid to prove people innocent--and I'd bet the odds are good if it comes to it, all that shit we told them's only going to matter to a defense lawyer. An arrest is an arrest."
"Geez," you mutter. You're... not sure you're that pessimistic about the system.
Then again, you haven't dealt with cops much, personally.
"Cops are assholes," Kate continues. "This is like... the key thing to keep in mind about cops."
"Cici's nice," you counter. "Bebe seemed nice, too."
"Cici didn't ask for a badge," Kate points out. "She got a choice later, she took the out they offered--and I respect that. Most people coming out of a tube don't get that choice. They're born a cop and it'll never occur to them not to die a cop.
Anyone that volunteers for that kind of power, though... you can't trust someone like that. The badge, the gun, the thin blue line bullshit--it's not the good ol' days anymore, people know what cops do now. If you can look at aaall the sinister shit cops uphold and enforce, all the fascist shit they do... if someone can look at all that and think oh yeah I definitely want some of that, I can't fucking trust 'em. That's not a decision I, Kate Halford, can see a good person making."
She pauses before adding, "Besides, animal control is only kind of cops. At least our current animal control--before it was Bebe and the gang we had regular dudes doing it and they were straight up fucking monsters."
"Cops, man," Kate sighs. "Cici, Bebe and Deedee got basically forced into it. Bebe's been looking to get out, Cici already has. Anyone else swinging a big, blue dick around, I don't take chances with."
...So the third sister's name is Deedee.
"At the end of the day," she concludes, "the law's not on our side. It's just another business, and just like Mondol, they'll cut every fucking corner and skirt every line they can to make a buck."
...Just like Mondol.
"Hey.. bus...?" You feel a certain pressure approaching the subject, but now that you've thought about it you can't not ask. "Do you take analytics on your passengers? Like... body weight and stuff?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"That's a real specific answer," Kate comments with a tired smirk.
The bus seems unaffected. "I do have a number of systems, functions, and processes left unknown to me. Officially, this is so that I can't deviate too much from my intended purpose, or reveal insider information about Chariot MT's proprietary software."
Hmm. "But unofficially...?"
"Unofficially, it's likely designed so that I can't provide an honest answer to the type of question you're asking."
The bus reaches the stop nearest to Kate's house.
"Hey," Kate says as she rises from her seat. "What's your phone number?"
"I, uh..." You instinctively wince. "I don't have a phone."
"Hohshit you are from a backwoods town," Kate blurts out with a small laugh.
"No I had one," you tell her indignantly, "but I uh... I kind of chucked it out the window on the way here from Addersfield. I haven't bought a new phone yet."
"Ohhh gotcha," replies Kate with a nod, "yeah, I could see that. Well, I guess I'll seeya when I seeya...? The bus knows where we live, we'll figure it out."
She smiles. You barely manage to squeeze out a "bye!" as she's stepping off the bus and walking off down the sidewalk.
You were rather hoping
You could have at least asked, probably.
...But you didn't want to intrude.
Or seem too clingy.
Maybe she wouldn't even want to.
Maybe she's not even really going to work. Maybe she's just--
holy shit Kate's right you have anxiety
you just met a bunch of cool people you don't need to think about--
oh god Lora's probably like, the final boss of your dream dungeon or some shit
BRAIN. For FUCK's sake
"Is everything alright, Plaire?"
oh god the bus knows
the bus can read your heart rate or something
the bus can smell your fear
brain what are you even doing
"You haven't told me where you'd like to go yet," says the bus.
You realize that you've been slowly curling yourself into a tighter and tighter ball in your seat.
It takes you a moment to wade through it.
No, you're not a bad person for not going to check on Maria's immediately.
No, you're not a failure just because you wanted to look into The Back Room sooner and now you're putting it off again.
No, you are not a bad friend for not running right now to go fill Cici in on what she missed.
The night's activities are very quickly catching up to you and you just
you need to be home.
For a minute.
"I need to go home," you tell the bus quietly.
"Okay. I'll take you home, then." There's no discernible difference between the way the bus says it and the way she normally speaks, but somehow it sounds... softer.
A little sadder.
You try not to feel bad that you may have made the bus feel bad.
She takes a slightly erratic route back to your house; it's not until you're almost there that you realize she may be intentionally avoiding other stops with this bus, so as not to force you to deal with other people.
"Thank you," you tell the bus as you pull up in front of your house.
"I'm just doing my job," the bus replies.
"Yeah." It's the most you can manage. She is definitely not just doing her job, though. "Thanks," you choke out again.
You exit the bus, heaving a sigh of relief as you finally reach your front door.
You check the mail.
You have gotten paid for your video about lesser known glitches in Magic Mustachio.
You are now back to having a little money, rather than your previous state of almost no money.
You've also received letters from:
• A company eager to help you pay off your college debt (you have never been to college)
• A dealership looking to purchase your car (you have never owned a car)
• A reminder to renew the warranty on your car (you still don't own a car)
They are all addressed to you, by name, which means they're just useless garbage and can't even give you a fucking hint about secret owners of the house or whatever. You briefly consider shoving the mail in your mouth and devouring it all like the god damn animal you are but instead
you head inside, to the kitchen, and throw all the mail that isn't money into the trash.
You microwave some cheap noodles because fuck it and you grab a cheap soda because also, fuck it
You do a quick internet search.
No, not child behavioral therapy...
Not physical therapy
Not marriage counseling
The nearest therapist that is not for your wife or your kids or your dog or your spinal injury is a two and a half hour drive away.
CANNOT be fucking accurate.
You dig a little deeper.
. . .
Of the local practices that have websites, at least half of them specify in big, bold letters that they don't deal with anxiety, depression, or... weight loss, for some reason.
You briefly press your face to your keyboard.
This is not hopeless.
Kate had off-shelf anxiety pills from somewhere, and while the idea of self medicating for the condition you're still fighting yourself about actually having is less than ideal the pills did work. You've proven it's extremely possible to not
Maybe there IS a therapist in Ninelives and they just... don't have a website.
Maybe Kate got her pills from an actual psychiatrist. Like a... black market psychiatrist.
Maybe you can stumble across a therapist in the fucking dungeon
...You did a video yesterday, asking for game recommendations.
You decide to check on that. That's something. That's a thing you can do.
You go to your video account page, and--
the first thing you discover is that the video has been delisted.
It's not removed, it's just... not going to show up on public searches anymore. Basically, no one can reach the video without a link, or without already knowing what the URL of the video is. It's not even demonetized, though it's going to be a lot harder for it to make money if no one can find it. No reason is given. Just a big ol' blank where an explanation should be.
...Which is fucking bizarre because you didn't put anything objectionable in the video. Like. No violence. No tiddies. The FUCK is it delisted for?
And it's just that one video, every other video you've ever done is fine.
You take a breath.
You cannot afford to break your keyboard right now, so just
You check the comments.
It's mostly standard stuff--people hyping up big, flashy moves from various fighting games, or ten minute summon sequences from certain RPGs, or certain abilities that would be OP in real life but are fairly underutilized in the game they appear in (like slowing down time, or even just the basic act of respawning after death).
One of the comments, though
User The Thirst Guy said:
if this is what I think it is good job much subtle
pretty much any game made in the 80s had the best abilities
they really knew how to make games back then if you know what I mean
if your channel gets huge remember the thirst guy
There's also a string of replies to that initial comment:
User Theodore's Football League said:
There's plenty of *quality gameplay* from modern game devs, too
any fighting game by MASAMOON, all the games by Toward Software (Crush Souls, Ninjas Die in Shadows, and their mecha games are good but wtf why mecha), and Yamauchi Co still sneak Musashi's weird shit into their games (Mustachio is solid, Space Hunter takes some work to get good at but it's worth it, Legend lives up to its name)
User T-Eiffel said:
the dude that designs all the Toward games married a 7
solomon ring + dullahan waifu you will understand why mecha
User A Burst Lye said:
did you just
User Ten Flying Leaps said:
gonna git 🆃🆄🆁🅱🅾🆂🆆🅰🆃🆃🅴🅳
You eat your semi-plastic noodles and drink your off brand soda and you stare at your comments section.
What the fuck is going on
These people know something. You're not sure how much or what, but there's hints that they're not just talking about games. ...Which means they might know about the dungeon? Somehow?
You suspect--at first--that the five comments are, in fact, only being made by two people across different accounts. There's a definite pattern to their screennames:
Users The Thirst Guy and A Burst Lye obviously rhyme. Probably the same person.
Users Theodore's Football League and Ten Flying Leaps both abbreviate to TFL. T-Eiffel also sounds like TFL.
It's only after you start to really consider what they've said, though--in relation to the dream dungeon--that it suddenly clicks.
if your channel gets huge remember the thirst guy
You're not seeing two different patterns at all.
You're seeing one.
All of the screennames either rhyme with the first lie or abbreviate to TFL--again, the first lie. The words that were engraved on that broken blade, words that meant nothing to you at the time, mean something to these people. You're not sure if that means they're in on your dreams and have tracked you down or they're spying on you, or... or if maybe your experience isn't isolated. Maybe these people have been through this, and they've seen that message themselves. Whatever's going on, you're seeing at least five different accounts--possibly five different people--that know something.
Most of what they're saying is just as nonsense as remember the first lie, though.
For instance, no video game you can remember has both a solomon ring and a dullahan in it. They're definitely not talking about Crush Souls, which has neither of those things--and you would know, you've combed over the game's wiki maybe more than anyone on the planet. You've meticulously scouted every route, even looked into unused assets and incomplete zones. There's no items, enemies, or dating options by those names.
T-Eiffel mentioned the ring and dullahans right after bringing up Toward Software, who made Crush Souls--but they've made other games you haven't played. It could be about one of those games... or maybe they're not talking about games at all.
Are... there dullahans in the dream somewhere?
You're pretty lost on everything else, as well.
they really knew how to make games back then if you know what I mean
Like, what does this even mean? Are they saying some games work better than others, outside of the abilities themselves? Because graphics and engine processing power has only gotten better over time, and there's much bigger, flashier, explosive-ier powers in newer games than anything from the 80s. There's games from the last five years or so where the protagonists fly and throw planets at each other and shit.
Magic Mustachio just jumps good.
You can't imagine how the era the game was released in would make it more effective, or what
the dude that designs all the Toward games married a 7
...has to do with anything.
Unless, by "a 7" the poster doesn't mean the developer's wife is hot, they mean...
Something else that you have no context for.
Ugggghhhh it's all fucking code and you don't know the code, you don't even know who's supposed to know the code or why it's in code
--Okay, maybe you do know why it's in code, because somehow the conversation got your video delisted. It can't be the content of the video itself, that doesn't make any sense.
But a cover up of... strange behavior in the comments section
that fits a little better.
...But it also implies that this is bigger than you first suspected, because it means the company running the streaming video site is actively hiding whatever it is these people are talking about. Ten Flying Leaps' joke (you hope it's a joke) about being "turboswatted" suggests that being silenced on the subject isn't even unusual.
. . .
You just don't know enough.
There's information here. You know that. They're trying to tell you something but it's like it's buried under an entire subculture you've never seen before.
For now, the best you can do is take their game suggestions. That seems pretty straightforward--they listed games, you should try some of those games. Maybe you'll figure out what the rest of it means later.
. . .
A seven. A seven what?
You send a private message to user The Thirst Guy.
User Porcelain Salamander sent:
You also do a quick search online for the price of cheap cell phones.
...Which are becoming a rarity, it turns out. As companies push for data plans and contracts and long term commitments, and as companies are... well, consumed by bigger companies until there's only a handful left, fewer and fewer outlets are providing cheap flip phones. There's also been a big push to ban what's referred to as 'burner phones,' citing their use by the criminal element.
MondolMall does still sell them, though, according to the internet. The current going price is... just about your entire funds at the moment.
So you can get a cheap phone, but it's going to be from Mondol and you'd be broke afterwards. You do need a phone, but that's a tough call versus saving up more and getting... not a MondolPhone.
Maybe you'll get lucky and Kate's hypothetical black market psychiatrist also sells off-market cell phones. You're past due for good luck at this point, it's not too much to ask.
You decide to just... say fuck it and take a bath.
You have shit to do but you can do it when your brain isn't about to explode.
Your bathroom is small, but surprisingly nice.
The whole house, honestly, wouldn't be bad if it wasn't for everything it does and is involved with.
You try not to think about what all's going on--in fact, you try not to think at all, just relax.
It's harder than it sounds, though. How much do those random internet commenters know? Have they gone through what you're going through... or are they keeping up with your exploits? Do they know what you're doing in the dream? Are you being monitored?
A great thing to consider while you're sitting naked in the bathtub, naturally.
You can't get Cici's apartment out of your head--the idea of sensors, everywhere, constantly scanning for a turn of phrase or a slipped keyword. Constantly analyzing everyone. Constantly taking information and feeding it to algorithms and selling it to the highest bidder.
Maybe the dream's just some kind of fucked up game show, and everyone on the internet is a huge fan of you getting shit shoved up in your brain.
. . .
The worst part--
the worst part is that in a vacuum, you don't even think you'd care. The worst part is that as terrifying and otherworldly and unknown as your dreams in this house are, you're more confident in there than you are out here.
You're more at ease running from monsters than human cops.
You've been caught by the monsters, you experienced a very real and very visceral death, and somehow the prospect of facing that again fills you with less dread than the thought of getting arrested.
Because that doesn't just end.
It keeps going. And you'd have to go to court. And sit in jail. And talk to cops. And get your video posting schedule all fucked up and lose followers because you didn't post anything for weeks or months or however long you're imprisoned. Probably lose your house and be homeless afterward. And have a fucking record that you get to carry with you forever.
The monsters just kill you and that's the end of it.
Even knowing that the dungeon could actually kill you, in real life, if what the mayor said was accurate--even knowing that, you'd rather take on the dungeon than argue with the mayor or deal with her creepy secretary or ride a bus with a bunch of strangers or
There's a weird sense of escapism in the nightmare.
The flooding dungeon scares you less than walking outside does and that makes you very, very uncomfortable to realize.
At least being afraid in there felt rational. It feels oppressive because it IS, it's an entire fucked up physical manifestation of the worst period of your life with a sole, singular purpose in making you suffer and die.
...But outside feels like that, too. Like the world just wants to hurt you.
It always has, and it shouldn't, but it does and it's insane.
Or maybe it's you.
Maybe you're going insane.
Maybe you lost your mind growing up in a place and time where you had to constantly hide who you really are, constantly lie straight to the face of your friends and your family and your teachers about what kind of person you are and what love even means to you.
Maybe you lost your mind when the only person you had, the only person you believed in and who believed in you, the only person who knew YOU, the REAL MOTHERFUCKING YOU
that person just
For you, Addersfield was torture. It was Hell. Not even the avatar of it, the representation of it in your nightmares, does it justice. You would rather die than go back to Addersfield.
You thought Lora hated it as much as you did.
You thought that hiding what you had, who you were, was as painful for her as it was for you.
Apparently it wasn't, though.
Apparently she was fine giving you up to keep it.
You breathe a heavy sigh.
You know you need to stop thinking about her but you can't.
She was supposed to come with you. That was always the plan. She'd rescue you, or you'd rescue her, and you'd run away from Addersfield forever and find a place where you can be together without being afraid. You had both been talking about it since you were kids. That was the dream.
It's hard to think about the house, the situation, the dungeon without remembering that she was at some point going to be in this with you.
You're alone and you shouldn't be.
You shouldn't have to be.
You weren't supposed to be.
. . .
Fuck all of that, you're not alone.
Cici and Kate both knew you less than a day but they were willing to fight with you. For you.
The bus is a bus but she's a cool bus and she supports you.
Maria helped you and she had no reason to.
Meatloaf is a cat and he's fat and you can go pet him whenever you want.
This isn't god damn Addersfield. Everyone's been nice and accepting and ridiculously competent, not a bunch of old overzealous fucks lashing out as the modern world leaves them behind. There might be nefarious forces at work in this town but at least the town itself is not a nefarious fucking force.
Ninelives isn't perfect but you're not trapped here. Not like you were in Addersfield.
You have some semblance of freedom. You can get shit done.
You should get shit done, because while you can't help everyone the way they've been helping you there IS something only you seem capable of right now, and that's dealing with whatever the fuck this house's deal is. There's something, SOMETHING in that dream--something the mayor wants, something that Mondol might want. You're not yet sure if you should let that something fall into Parsons' hands, but you sure as hell have to keep it away from Mondol or the feds or whatever other faceless evil might be hunting for it.
Ninelives isn't perfect but the problems it has are problems you, Plaire Stevens, can actually oppose in a meaningful way and you've never had that until now.
Kate knows somebody that can get you anxiety medication. Worst case scenario, she knows someone that can get you level--not a good solution if you plan to keep doing parkour, but it is, at least, a cheap and dirty answer to the basic act of living with yourself.
You know that personal sized med synthesizers exist. They've gotta be expensive as hell, but you also have the internet... which means, given enough time and research, you could possibly build one and just make your own anxiety medication.
There's probably online mental health sites you could check out, but the thought of facechatting or--God forbid--talking with a therapist over the phone is actually less appetizing than the alternative five hours of driving round trip to meet a therapist is.
At any rate, you have options.
You have people willing to help you.
...You're not really used to having either of those.
You drain the tub, dry off, and get dressed. It's time to get shit done.
...Even if it's small shit.