100% The Daily Grind. / Chapter 52: Chapter 052

Chapter 52: Chapter 052

"Why are we here, again?"

The question came from Alanna. She and James were sitting in the courtyard of their local strip mall, eating frozen yogurt.

"We're eating frozen yogurt." James said with a grin around his spoon. It didn't take long for him to wither a bit under Alanna's glare. "Okay, fine. We're enjoying normalcy."

She snorted, her dessert melting in front of her under the June sun. "Okay, that's not what I meant. I... okay, well, that second part was what I meant. I guess I thought that there was something more dire going on when you said we had something important to do today."

James nodded. "We do have something important to do today." He replied, trying to get comfortable in the wire patio chair that felt like it was currently trying to stab him in the ass. "We're getting frozen yogurt, we're going to go poke around the bookstore here and see if we can find a board game to drag Anesh into tonight, and we're going to walk around and talk about something benign. Like philosophy, or birds, or politics."

"Politics counts as benign to you?" Alanna asked.

"Not the point. The point is, we're not going to do anything dungeon related." James pointed his plastic spoon at his friend. "No discussing tactics, no more training or combat practice, no sorting through boxes of pencils and alligator clips for anything magic. Just... normal stuff."

They'd talked about this a while back, and James really wanted to follow through on it. It was a beautiful day, the mental exhaustion and gloom that plagued him constantly had been pushed back a bit, and he wanted to take the opportunity to spend some time with his friends.

Of course, JP was out with his girlfriend, and Dave was at work. Meanwhile, Anesh was going to some special math class that was only taught over the summer once every three years, had a total of four students smart enough to pretend to understand what was going on, and was probably a stepping stone for the kind of people who were going to invent warp drives one day.

So, he'd grabbed Alanna off his couch, told her they had something critical to do, and the two of them had struck out for a walk in the fresh air and blazing sunlight.

"No dungeon stuff?" Alanna asked him with puppy dog eyes, spoon halfway to her mouth.

Giving her a placating smile, James replied, "No dungeon stuff."

She bit down on her spoonful of treat with an aggressive chomp. "But I wanted to talk about dungeon stuff!" Alanna put on an exaggeratedly dejected look and aimed it at her friend. "Like, we can build wards out of the reds now! We could..."

"No dungeon stuff." James said, cutting her off.

"But what about theorycrafting on what we can do with the other colors, now that we have *three uses* for each..."

"No. Dungeon. Stuff." James was a bit sterner that time.

As tempting as it was to just give in, he was committed to having a normal day. No matter how much James wanted to spend his time building up a sunburn as he and Alanna built up a picture of best practices for orb use, he wanted to make sure they had at least some time out in reality.

Alanna didn't quite relent though. "What if I told you that I found a tube of lip balm that makes skin glow? Would you want to talk about that?"

"No... wait, so, just skin? I guess that's... wait, no! No dungeon stuff!" James had to cut himself twice in one sentence. "Stop baiting me!"

"Oh, fine." She said with a smirk. "I'm honestly fine with it, I just wanted to mess with you. She finished her food, and tossed the bowl over her shoulder into a garbage can. "You wanna go walk down to the park? It'll probably be a little cooler near the lake."

James nodded in agreement. "Yes, please. If there's one thing I regret about this, it's that we left the air conditioning."

That got a puzzled question out of Alanna. "Why aren't we just hanging around the apartment, then?"

"Eh, I wanted to get out, walk for a bit. I get restless sitting still too long, now. Also, our apartment... *my* apartment, which you apparently live in now... is full of iLipedes and orbs and an unsafe spear gun and..."

"Okay, my turn to interrupt you. Yeah, I get it." Alanna made a chopping motion with her hand as the two of them stood up and pushed their chairs back. "So, lake?"

"Lake." James agreed.

They strolled through their hometown, cutting through a grocery store parking lot and across a main road on their way to the local park. Traffic around here was never much of a problem, but it was always preferable to go through less driven areas when they wanted to have a conversation. Engine noise built up fast, and could drown out even someone like Alanna, whose voice was a bit more boisterous than Anesh or James.

After a little while, they left the sidewalk, for a black asphalt trail that led through to the park near where James lived. Gold evening light filtered through the trees, and a carpet of pine needles crunched underfoot as they walked together.

"So, how's work been going?" Alanna asked him. "You been doing okay lately? I haven't heard you complain about it for a while."

James shrugged and gave a little huff of half-laughter. "I've mostly forgotten how to complain about work." He said. "It's still full of people I'm uncomfortable around, and I have to answer phone calls, which I hate. But I guess I've just sort of started ignoring it, you know?"

Smiling back, Alanna asked, "I thought you said no dungeon stuff."

"Eh, whatever. But really, work just hasn't been as bad lately." James told her. "Fewer dumb calls, less crap to put up with from senior techs, as I gradually *become* the senior tech. We have a huge turnover rate, and I've hung on long enough that it's making a difference."

Alanna stopped in their walk as they crossed over a small wooden footbridge, looking out over the clear pool of water that was the lake. There were a few ducks swimming nearby that she secretly hoped would come over to her and James so she could try to pet them. "So, are you absolutely sure that high turnover rate is... mundane?" Alanna asked, taking the time to find a word that wasn't just saying 'not the dungeon'.

He bit his lip, wobbling his hand from side to side. "I think so." James told her. "Probably. Okay, look, if we absolutely have to talk about dungeon stuff, this may as well be it." He conceded. "I'm really actually concerned about the whole thing. I mean, I remember a lot of people quitting, but, well, now we know that the dungeon has the tools to mess with memories, and that's a huge problem."

"Yeah, also, the stuffed shirts, which really just look like people." Alanna said.

"Oh, Secret told me a bit about that. They're not people, don't worry. Though the orbs are... people-adjacent? Like, the ideas of people. Or maybe things people can do. I don't really fully understand, honestly." James rambled a bit.

"Okay, worrying." Alanna told him as she crouched down and tried to entice the ducks over. "So, if they're just the ideas of people, could it maybe have one that's just, like, Dave? Like, we find an orb that's the idea of Dave?"

James shuddered. "Oh man, can you imagine what kind of stuff would be in that?"

The question was rhetorical, but Alanna still had a snap answer. "Bonus ranks in butts?"

"That's not a thing."

"Can you prove that?"

"No. But I'm going to insist it's not a thing until proven otherwise."

"Okay, well," Alanna said, "what do you think would be in a Dave orb?"

James pondered that for a second. "Dogs? I dunno, that's really the most I know about Dave's life. I tried inviting him to this, but he was at work, and there was a lot of barking in the background, so, 'dogs' is all I can think here."

"I would love to know what Dave's work is like." Alanna mused. Followed by a grumbled "Dammit" as the flock of ducks drifted out of her potential reach, getting a grin from James as the two of them sat on the bridge

_____

Dave was currently sitting at the front desk of the Noah's Arf animal shelter, petting a dog with one hand and fiddling with a Gameboy with the other. Not a modern Gameboy, either. It was a classic; not even a color, and he'd found it in the dungeon. He'd forgotten to tell James about it, since it was the last thing that he'd grabbed before the post mortem had attacked, and he'd just jammed it into a pocket and lost track of it.

That was impressive. Because as he kept Kiba, the yorkshire terrier on his desk, occupied, he was trying to play Pokemon, and it was really difficult with how bulky the old hardware was. It was actually amusing to Dave that he'd managed to forget it in the first place. At least, until it had fallen out when he'd gone to do laundry.

He'd also forgotten from when he was a kid just how thick these things were. As he casually tapped through another random fight in the power plant, frustratedly unsure if he could catch a pikachu here, he was equally frustrated by the fact that handling a Gameboy with one hand was next to impossible. He ended up setting it down on the desk to be able to work both the buttons, and the d-pad at the same time. Of course, then he couldn't see the screen.

While Dave had, at this point, given up on being able to actually play the game while the dog was still on the desk, he wasn't too put out. Kiba was a good dog, under exactly one condition; as long as someone was petting him. So, there were only so many options for Dave while he was tasked with watching the front desk, and the yorkie that was a fixture of this part of the shelter. He'd gotten so bored at this, the quietest hour of the afternoon, that he'd started poking around the desk for *anything* he could do one-handed.

And that was when he'd found the Gameboy in his pocket, again, apparently having forgotten it there again. After he'd done laundry. And put the Gameboy in a box. In a desk drawer.

Hm.

Seriously, though, Dave was aware of the fact that being stalked by an inanimate object was kinda weird. But he'd always had a hard time reacting to the less predictable parts of life. Back when he was a kid, he'd been made fun of for being slow a lot, along with a few other choice words. These days, he made up for it by playing it off as being constantly cool, though he also knew that he usually just seemed distant, or like he didn't put thought into anything. Routines helped. Predictability helped. Things he could understand helped.

Dogs certainly helped.

His father had, at one point, mocked Dave for getting a job with the most unpredictable animals, when he was such a creature of habit. But the old man had never understood much about dogs; they were simple, and direct. Food, shelter, warmth, and some good pets, were about all they needed to be happy. Dave could see how all the parts of their lives came together for them. His job was an island of strangely fluid stability.

An island that James and Anesh had begun to erode.

The existence of the dungeon had almost given Dave an anxiety attack. If not for James' assurance on that first night that he could leave if he needed to, and that he wasn't required to do anything, he might have just cut and run. The place was too strange, too outside what Dave was prepared to deal with. Hell, he'd hurt himself pretty badly that first time just out of fear.

But he'd stuck with it. Because for all that it scared the shit out of him, it was *awesome*. It went on forever, and it was filled with dreams and nightmares, and despite the fact that it seemed so random, there was still a subtle and real routine to it. Explore, fight, loot, evaluate. Rinse and repeat. It was light years outside of his comfort zone, but James was his friend, and he'd shown Dave something truly magical. So he'd keep pushing himself, if it meant going back in and finding more things like a Gameboy that...

Ah, right, the Gameboy.

Dave had let his thoughts drift again. There was something strange about the Gameboy. It wasn't playing by the rules of inanimate objects. He leaned in and poked at it, letting his hand rest on Kiba's back for a minute while he tried to fit this new element into his worldview.

It didn't try to kill him. It wasn't driving the dogs insane with some kind of psychic assault. It wasn't leaving Gameboy-seeds around the lobby. Dave shrugged to himself; it wasn't hostile, and it had Pokemon on it. Stressing about this too much would just hurt him; better to let it lie, and reserve his mental energy for the small problems of the day. He'd show it to James or JP later, and it would all work out. He knew James had some kind of date going on tonight, but maybe JP would be available

The bell over the door rang, and Dave looked up with a smile to greet the new person coming into the shelter. The woman was looking for a dog for her son's birthday, and Dave knew just the Best Friend Ever to show her. As he walked her back to the kennels to meet a few dogs, the Gameboy faded away into the desk; forgotten, until the next time it wasn't.

Just another day for Dave at work. He was comfortable here, and he only wished everyone could love their jobs as much as he did.

_____

Theodora August hated her job.

Perhaps that was a bit unfair. She didn't hate the work itself that much. Nor did she hate the people she had to work with, or the people who worked under her, or the people she reported to. Not a whole lot, anyway. She didn't hate the commute, or the building, or the parking lot. Well, no more than was normal.

She just hated the whole package.

Every little thing added up over time, and it made her angry. She might not hate most of her bosses, but she had *four bosses*. It was doubly shitty that she couldn't even have enough bosses to make an Office Space reference out of her life. She might not hate the commute on its own, but she hated that it ate up eight hours every week. She might not hate the people, but...

Well, actually, the people she never got much of a chance to hate. With the exception of a few people, like Sy, or James, most people just weren't here long enough for Theo to dislike them. This place had a stupidly high turnover, even for a call center. It was part of how she'd gotten this promotion to floor manager, after only half a year working here.

If Theo didn't work for what was obviously an evil megacorp, she'd be really suspicious that they were kidnapping people to throw into the meat processing plant or something. As it was, she was less 'suspicious', and more just 'resigned to the fact'.

"F. August." Frank greeted her as she walked through the doors. Theo just scowled at the smug old man who wasn't even looking up from his crossword puzzle as she stormed toward the elevator.

She hated that guy. *That* she was sure of. He was always up to something; either not reporting something he should, or making trouble for otherwise good employees if he didn't like them. And he always greeted her with her last name and her gender. She'd looked it up once, and found it was pretty much just a reference to an old sci-fi author. Pretty harmless.

Except while Theo would have absolutely believed that it was harmless if it came from someone like James, she had no such illusions from Frank. It was just one of his games; taunting people behind the guise of something clever.

She was still scowling when she got to her desk, practically throwing herself into her chair with a wince. Her ribs still hurt from her weekend combat ritual, and she was the kind of person who could easily forget about that sort of battle damage. Booting up her computer and looking over he emails revealed the sort of day that she also hated; some hiring, some firing, and some callbacks for tech problems that the newbies couldn't handle.

Theo looked over at the roster and sighed. It was Sunday, which meant none of her three good people were here tonight. The fact that she wasn't allowed to do a new shift bid until she'd been in her position for six months infuriated her, because it left her with these gaping holes in expertise that she couldn't fill easily, and meant that she had to do most of these herself on days like this.

At least on Mondays, she could be absolutely sure James would be here. He was a wiseass, at best, but he showed up.

After two hours of work, she was *still* scowling. There wasn't anything fun about the part of the day where she had to let someone go for stealing from the company. Which annoyed her, because it really got in the way of her plan to do some serious embezzlement.

No, not really.

But it was nice to dream sometimes.

Her plans of corporate espionage and retiring to a private island were broken with a knock on her office door. "Ms. August?" A rather timid voice called to her through the propped door. "There's some sort of management meeting I'm supposed to take you to?"

The kid was one of the new security guys, probably working his first shift. Theo certainly hadn't seen him around. Greasy hair, pale skin, a few pimples. Not too many, though, he was trying at least. When he spoke, it was with a shy voice, like he was afraid she'd bite his head off for bringing her news.

Unfortunately, Theo was the kind of person who didn't think over details like that for too long, and so, her response was to bite his head off for bringing her news. "What? A meeting? Did they just randomly decide to start scheduling things without telling me? Who the fu..." She stopped as she saw the new guy's frightened expression. Theo hadn't really meant to terrify the new guy right off the bat, before she even knew his name. "Ahem. Right. So, where's this meeting?"

The new guy - Daniel, his nametag read - swallowed hard before answering. "It's, um, it's... well, Frank said that it was in conference room D, but they're doing some painting on the fifth floor, and I was supposed to take you there." He spoke quickly, like if he said the words fast enough, Theo wouldn't be able to get mad at him.

The good news for the new... for Daniel... is that she wasn't mad at him. She was a bit pissed at Frank, though. This felt like exactly another one of his games. 'Painting'? No, not a chance. There probably was a meeting going on; that sort of thing happened a lot around here, and Theo didn't actually pay enough attention to the memos delivered to her desk to believe that she would be one hundred percent appraised of all events in this building. But that didn't mean that Frank wouldn't find some kind of way to screw with her when she was in a hurry.

As for what went on in this building, well, Theo was aware of about three different things that happened at this company. Tech support, on at least three floors. Some kind of engineering department that worked on lots of stuff; that took up the basement level, and as far as Theo knew, they worked on commission for other companies, working out minor hardware bugs in phones. And, finally, the company produced red tape. A lot of it.

Well, they produced other stuff too. It was a big building. But Theo wasn't really that into exploring places that might get her fired. So it was always interesting to be guided around by a security guy when one of the floors was closed off.

"Alright kid. Let's go." She said, grabbing her wallet and badge out of her desk drawer, and lurching to her feet. As the new guy led her through the back halls to the stairwell (the elevator was out of order again, which seemed to happen every other week around her), Theo tried to relax. There was no reason to suspect she was about to get fired or anything, so she settled back on projecting what she felt was a 'management aura', and made some small talk.

"So, kid, you know anything about rugby?"

_____

Alanna snorted in disbelief. "No way she actually plays rugby."

James laughed as he tossed another scattering of birdseed to the ducks in front of the jungle gym they had situated themselves upon. It was a bit strange, to James, that he'd seen this place be absolutely swarmed by kids back when he was a teenager, but these days it was more or less empty on these long summer evenings. "I think she does, really. I mean, I'm not saying she's not a delver, just that I can absolutely imagine her headbutting someone into the dirt."

"I can't really see it." Alanna shook her head, currently lying half-inverted on the metal bars, hair pointing down like a human pendulum. "She seemed nice when I talked to her!"

"Oh, she's a nice boss, and probably a nice person, but was she angry when she talked to you?" James winced a bit as he remembered the last time he was five minutes late. "I can easily believe she'd, you know... break someone's arm in a burst of fury."

That got a laugh. "That feels overly dramatic." She swung her self back around to crouch next to James on the play structure. "So, you don't want to risk inviting her to the party because she might snap at you?"

"No," James replied in an even voice, "I actually do want to bring her in. But there's this running fear with Anesh and I that the company I work for is... how to put this..." He trailed off.

Picking up the thread of conversation, Alanna interjected her own word ideas. "Evil? Corrupt? A nightmarish megacorp, hellbent on fiscal dominion over all mankind? Dumb?"

James barked out a laugh. "All of those words work." He agreed with his friend. "But mostly, it's that we can't trust anyone in the structure of the company. What if the company is actively working with, for, or on the dungeon, and Theo's in on it?"

"Theo manages a tech support floor. That's kind of paranoid." Alanna hummed at James. "Like, if she was the CEO, sure, but she's... well, she reminds me of us. A bitter cog in an uncaring machine, who'd probably be super into this whole dungeon thing." She tapped at the bars she was sitting on. "Also, it would be kinda neat to have another girl on the team. Not that you guys aren't great, but, it does feel kind of weird sometimes."

"Really?" James was a bit surprised.

Alanna shrugged, trying to minimize any tension. "Yeah, I don't talk about it much, but yeah. There was this neat study done a while back, about how if people feel isolated in groups, they tend to try to fit in, instead of being themselves. And I worry that I might be doing that?"

That didn't reassure James much. "That doesn't sound great. Actually, I feel like I should have noticed that, in the decade we've known each other. You've always just acted like Alanna, to me, I guess."

She gave another small shrug. "Like I said, it's just a concern. I also feel, now that I know that there used to *be* another girl in our group, like that's just something that I've had yanked away from me."

"Is gender that big of a deal? I kinda figured that wasn't as much of an issue for people like us."

Alanna paused briefly, to think about it. "I don't think it's a big deal? I don't care much. But we're part of our society, and that sort of thing leaks over whether we want it to or not. I also just want to make more friends, and find more teammates for the delving, and it'd be nice to solve three problems at once."

"Fair." James nodded. "Oh, since we're just breaking the dungeon stuff rule entirely right now..."

She pointed down at the birds they were feeding. "We're doing something normal to offset it. It's fair."

"Okay," He continued, "well, I was going to ask, how'd you find that chapstick? Er, lip gloss. Whatever. How'd you find it?"

James had been wondering about this for a while. It felt like they found too many things. At first, it seemed like too many things that were useless, then too many things that were overly useful. Then, just too many things, given that they hadn't really refined any good way to hunt for the stuff.

"I found it by accident, really." Alanna said. "I just picked up some lip gloss, and it turned out to be mildly enchanted. It's cool, though, so I didn't want to crack it unless I had to, but I wouldn't mind if you wanted."

"No no, that's not my point. My point is, why does it feel like some of these things are finding us, instead of the other way around?"

There was a moment of quiet, with Alanna opening her mouth to answer, then closing it slowly and pausing for thought. After a couple seconds mulling over James' words, she came up with an answer. "That feels overly dramatic." Before he could sulk at her, she waved away her words with a laugh. "But really, that is kinda weird. And on that note, why don't we try to find more magic items."

"How?" James asked, quizzically. It was something he and Anesh had talked about before, but it always got pushed back in the face of more pressing issues.

Alanna had a quick solution. "Well, we've found more than a few pens and pencils with traits on them. Why not just grab literally every batch of those we find, put them in a big box, and put the box in a wood chipper?"

"That is..." It felt like a lightbulb going off over his head. "Holy shit, that would be great. If we don't really care about the effect, just the orbs, we could just harvest a few dozen a day!" Then another, darker thought. "But what if the woodchipper eats all the blues?"

"Then we run, and we run, and we don't stop running until we are far enough away that the woodchipper with legs cannot get to us." Alanna replied with gravitas. "But really. Wouldn't that just make a magic woodchipper?"

James hummed a bit. "Ehhhh. You've brought up the mixed traits before. Most of the blues and greens also have skill ranks in them, which implies they're part yellow. And that one purple had some emotion in it, implying it's part red. And what annoys me most about this is that it doesn't match the color wheel."

"Why would it?"

"To make me feel better."

"Oh, wah. Anyway, go on."

Clearing his throat, James continued. "Right, so, the orbs can be mixed. And that's really the whole point; I don't want to feed a woodchipper blues, because blues often contain yellows, and yellows *make things alive*. Honestly, a not-alive woodchipper is still a worrying thing to have to walk by; I always worry I'll fall in. One that can move around? That's fucking horrifying."

"Fair." Alanna said. "Well, we can still just break them all by hand."

"Works for me. We'll bring it up with everyone next time." James said.

The two of them sat there in peaceful quiet for a while, the only noises the quacking of ducks and the dull roar of cars in the background. At one point, their following of birds scattered for a bit as a woman came jogging through with her dog, but the avian cult soon reformed at the base of their throne to get more of the food James or Alanna would occasionally toss down.

"What a great evening." Alanna said with a smile. "This is nice. Thanks." That last bit directed at James as they basked in the warm evening air.

"Yeah, it is. That dog makes me think, though. I wish I could bring Rufus out here some time. I think the little guy would love it." James replied wistfully.

Alanna had an instant disagreement, but didn't want to crush her friend's dreams so quickly. Still, though. "Um... wouldn't he freak the hell out to be somewhere with no ceiling?"

"I... hm. He's a smart strider. I'm sure he'd adapt." James said, cautiously. "Wonder what he's up to while we're away, anyway?"

_____

Rufus was fighting for his life.

The Puppet had wandered into their home while Ganesh was resting, and the Life that the human Dave had made wasn't aware enough to start working with them yet for their mutual defense.

Rufus felt like an idiot. He'd been so busy tending to what James called his 'garden' (a good word that he liked) that he hadn't focused on watching the area around them. He'd become complacent over the last month, assuming safety when in reality, that was in short supply even when their humans were here.

And now, a Puppet had found them.

It was one of the white ones. No more than two feet tall, with a smooth white exterior that wasn't as hard as the shells of its Life brothers. But what it had sacrificed in defense, it made up for in the perfectly patterned movements of its feelers, and the coherent light weapons mounted in its secondary maw. Secretly, Rufus felt a surge of relief that it wasn't one of the corded ones, or one of the few human-shaped things that were made into Puppets.

At least this, he and Ganesh might have stood a chance against.

Rufus hurled himself forward again, taking advantage of his enemy's jerky turn rate to flank it as often as he could. If he could stay in its blind spots, then he might be able to wear it down to death before it was checked up on. His bite didn't penetrate this time, and he noted that he did better when he aimed near the small ventilation slits.

And then he was scurrying away again, moving as fast as he could before it could focus on him, either with its hundreds of fractal cables, its beam weapon, or just its teeth. As Rufus scrambled to stay behind it while it pivoted at perfect 45 degree angles, the Puppet swept its beam across the internal walls of Fort Door. It didn't start any fires, fortunately, but it did leave a long black score across the repurposed cubicle walls as it tracked after him.

Then Ganesh was there. Buzzing in like a furious hornet, the drone dive bombed the Puppet as it turned away, and Rufus felt his Life flare up as he scythed into the top of the shell with his arms. But just as quickly, he had to abandon his platform as the Puppet jerked backward, slamming its top into one of the desks and threatening to crush Ganesh.

Rufus kept moving, arcing around it. This wasn't working. It would take hours to break through to anything vital. They were going to run out of time, or, they were going to slip up and take a hit that would be lethal to smaller Life.

Silently, he signaled Ganesh. The drone caught his motion, and the two of them flashed a conversation between them in the sparse seconds they had between their flittering dodges. Did they have options? No. Wait. Yes. There were weapons here. Weapons? Human weapons. And also Object weapons. Okay. Could they use the human weapons? Maybe. But there was an Object weapon that Ganesh could find. The concept that James called a "pen". Find it. On it. Distract the Puppet until then. Good.

Breaking their brief contact, Rufus straightened up. Okay. Now he just had to buy Ganesh time to do his job. Letting out a battle hiss, he lunged forward, popping out of the hiding spot under the desk that he'd briefly occupied. He landed two bites, one in the cabling and one to the vent slits that brought a manic sense of ruthless joy to his heart.

The Puppet, which had turned to focus on Ganesh when it lost track of Rufus, turned back to him, whipping its beam weapon across the high walls as it tried to refocus. The laser scored across the walls again, and Rufus felt a surge of guilt as it clipped that map that they'd spent so long on. Then he felt a bit better as it bisected that stupid motivational poster that Alanna and James liked so much. He didn't have much time to spare to watch to bottom half flutter to the ground, but he wouldn't miss it.

Then he had to move again, keeping scant steps ahead as it twitched the beam around. Sometimes it would brush his carapace, and he's let out a hissing scream of pain, but he kept moving. All he had to do was last a little bit longer. Just let it pay attention to him for a few more seconds. Because if this didn't work, they'd have to go to his backup plan, and he did not like his odds of firing a gun.

Abruptly, it stopped chasing after him. It was so close behind the strider, that he could feel its presence. And then, there was a droning buzz overhead, and the sound of a grinding impact.

Ten seconds ago, Ganesh had found the Object that Rufus had indicated to him. Six seconds ago, he'd pulled it into a carrying position that he could sustain while flying, tucked under one of his arms and braced against his main body like an airborne lancer. Two seconds ago, he'd backed into the wall to click open the tip, sizzling with conceptual power.

And zero seconds ago, he'd made contact with the Puppet, slamming into the much larger enemy as hard as he could, tiny legs pushing back and absorbing the force of the impact as he drove the pen against it's frame. It *burned*, melting and boiling away the plastic shell, cutting away irregular chunks of mass as Ganesh dug in his razor-sharp claws and held on for his life.

Wasting no time as the Puppet struggled, Rufus bolted for where the humans stored their weapons. It wasn't the easiest task in the world, but he and Ganesh had drilled repeatedly on unlatching the containment case for the handgun, and he cracked into it now. Dragging out the weapon, bracing it on the desk, and angling it down to track the Puppet, just in case this didn't work.

And when Ganesh pushed off again, taking to the air, the Object weapon falling inside the Puppet's shell without killing it, Rufus gave a resigned whine. Trying to wrap as many of his legs around the gun as possible to stabilize it, he leveled it at the Puppet, and pressed down with his front leg on the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Rufus felt panic and confusion, though probably less than the Puppet did as it was torn apart by two smaller pieces of Life. Still, this was their last chance, now that the Object was lost!

Then, Ganesh alighted beside him, and carefully reached one claw in to depress a small button on the side of the gun, before striking out an assault gesture at the Puppet. Rufus didn't understand, but he pulled the trigger again anyway.

Safety off, the bullet ripped through the front of the Puppet's carapace, dislodged the Object, and left it a smouldering wreck on the floor. Explosive sound and fury filled the air, surrounding the duo with a brief blast of noise. The recoil flung Rufus backward into the air above the desk, while the gun went tumbling to the floor. Ganesh made a choice about which to catch, and Rufus felt comic betrayal that it wasn't him.

As he toppled back to the ground, he decided to have a talk with the humans about the unreliability of their weapons. James never had to deal with this nonsense. And the explosion of noise was a bit of a problem if there were any more Puppets nearby, or even some of the less friendly Life that might try to investigate to see if there was anything to eat.

But at least, for a little while, their home was safe.

_____

"He's probably fine." Alanna said reassuringly.

"I mean, yeah." James said. "Besides, he has Ganesh. They're probably on some cool adventure right now." He shrugged. "It would just be cool to have, I dunno, a familiar? He's not really a pet. But out here, in this world."

Alanna glanced sideways at him as the pair walked back to the apartment "I note that you've stopped saying 'the real world'. But Anesh still does. Reason?"

"I feel more alive there than here." James sighed. "I'm really trying, man, but I feel like I'm falling apart most days. In the dungeon, though, I know what I'm doing, and I know what the stakes are. It's a lot more... direct. A lot simpler. Or at least, it was until the whole thing with Sarah. But even then, that's very straightforward; it's an enemy that we can confront. It's not an awkward social situation or dealing with eating healthier or failing to flirt properly."

"Oh my god, just fucking ask Anesh out already." Alanna let out her frustration. "For fucks sake, you two are so dense."

"I'll get around to it." James said with a weak smile. "Anyway, the point is, it's just as real as normal life. And I don't want to be like some old-timey European explorer who decided to start calling Africa 'the dark continent' just because *they* hadn't mapped it."

Alanna nodded. "Good point." She said as they rounded the corner into the parking lot of the apartment complex. "Hey, do you have work tonight?"

"No, why?"

"I want to see if we can disassemble that totem thing that Lily made, and then put it back together." Alanna rubbed her hands together. "I've been waiting all day for this, since you woke me up for ice cream."

James poked at her. "You've been waiting for two hours, tops. That's not 'all day'. If you want to say all day, you need to wake up before four PM."

"*You* wake up at four PM!" She retorted, indignant. And it was true, James was very rarely up out of bed before noon, and it was equally rare that he be awake while the sun was still up.

He let out a short huff as he unlocked the door to his home. "I work nights! It's reasonable for me. That's my excuse, and I think it's a good one." Then, both of them stopped their mock argument for a couple minutes to give some affectionate pets to the adorable shiba inu that trotted by and paused to nuzzle up to Alanna's knee.

After it trotted off again, giving a single happy bark at them, Alanna shook her head, and picked up her train of thought. "I also work nights now, technically." Alanna mused, putting her finger up to her chin in a thoughtful gesture. "I mean, am I an employee of this dungeon venture? Or more of a freelance contractor."

"Hah! Yeah, you can bill us for whatever hours you work, as long as it's in the dungeon. Which is only open at a very specific time. At night." James laughed.

"As far as we know." Alanna said, grim.

James scowled at her as he sat down at the table's couch, feeling the objective knowledge of the perfect 72-degrees-and-clear-skies day flooding his mind. "I mean, sure. But let me pretend everything is okay for at least one more day. Now, do you want to do weird science to this thing or not?"

She grinned back at him. "Let me get my lab coat!" Before James could ask if she actually owned one of those, she was out of the room. Just as he was thinking that there was no way that she'd smuggled that into his apartment without him noticing, even if she *did* own one, she called back down the hall, "No, not really. I'm just using your bathroom. We can dive into that in a second."

He wasn't sure why, but James was oddly disappointed by that answer.

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