After some endless fluorescent period of time, Nelda was taken into an interrogation room and attached to the table with handcuffs. She was still dressed only in a grubby bra and panties. This was probably meant to make her feel embarrassed and self-conscious, but hanging with satyrs had helped eliminate any lingering body-shame issues she had--except for the ones that related to toes
A gaunt woman with short gray hair and rimless glasses came in. She placed a closed folder full of papers on the table. The folder had Nelda's full name written on the front of it.
The woman at first seemed to be wearing no makeup, but up close Nelda could see that it was more a combination of aggressively 'natural' cosmetics that probably all said 'age-defying' somewhere on the box. The result was a look somewhere between Ellen Degeneres on camera and Jamie Lee Curtiss on crack.
[Remember the plan: I'm not going to say anything.]
"Well, Ms. Thirstman. Are you curious about how your friend is doing?"
"He is considerably disoriented and would probably do a lot better if you could join him." She smiled in a way that was probably intended to be friendly but looked more like a chimpanzee's fear grimace.
[Wow, you have both resting and active bitch-face. Or you're just a bitch, and it shows. I know which one I am betting on.]
"All you have to do is answer a few simple questions, and I can make that happen. I am here to help you, Nelda."
[If you were trying to form an authentic relationship, you would have started by introducing yourself Jamie-Ellen McFuckface.]
"For example, tell me when did you first discover that this research center was investigating multiverse applications."
Nelda's face twitched. An automatic smirk that she tried to suppress.
[One point to me. I have learned something, and I am pretty sure you have learned nothing.]
Nelda ignored the woman for a while as she thought it over. So based on watching a few episodes of 'Sliders', multiverse theory said there are many universes caused by different choices and outcomes playing out. On this basis, many things are possible. [But Mirth is clearly based on earth-human beliefs about mythical creatures—using a Greco-Roman Model. So that does not seem multi-versy, really.]
"…Am I boring you?" broke in the woman.
[I mean, sort of.]
"I am your only chance for getting out of this room."
[Doubtful. And if so, only to transport me from the frying pan into the fire.]
"You need to start taking me seriously."
Nelda let herself smile then. She heard the memory-echo of Honey Beard. [I don't have to do shit for you. You are not one of my idiots.] The woman continued to talk, an endless stream of vague threats and demands. She seemed to have realized her mistake in naming the purpose of the machine and did not say anything else that specific.
Nelda leaned back in the chair. [I've faced actual dragons. If all the people I loved were back on Mirth, I'd be sorted. Unfortunately, you have SmithGuild. But any weakness I show just makes his situation even worse. The more you threaten him, the more I need to freeze you out.]
Nelda refused to speculate about how the fastidious gryphon was coping.
[Imagine if a corporation got hold of Mirth. I can see the TV adverts for the actual Sandalwoods Resort—'you've tried swimming with dolphins, now go flying with dragons. Satyr selfies, centaur rides, and mermaid steak for dinner. Your fake-Facebook friends will be #PositvelyChatreuse with envy.']
The only goal that made sense was to break the machine for good, preferably after she got SmiyhGuild back home.
After a lifetime of listless agnosticism about absolutely everything, Nelda had a clear, selfless, important goal. She felt it causing a peculiar transition inside her. Hungry, shackled, and helpless, she nevertheless felt more powerful than any other time in her life.
She kept smiling at Jamie Ellen. If this is how her employer was going to treat her, nothing they offered could even be considered. Until she could escape she only really had two options. Plan how to escape, and plan what to do when she escaped.
Who could she go to for help in the company of a gryphon in human form with the goal of destroying the machine? It had to be some with supervisor or above clearance. That produced three options of which both Angry Brenda and Backstabbing Marie were duds; this left Neurotic Susan.
[What do I actually know about Neurotic Susan?]
"Are you even listening to me?"
Nelda had always known she was stubborn. This trait allowed her to survive being raised by Harridan Mom and Always-in-the-Shed Dad without losing the ability to function as a pseudo-adult. [Is there really any other kind?] But stubbornness without a cause is just dead weight. Something she had dragged along with her as she pursued being a disappointing daughter, a mediocre student, and a meets-expectations employee. She had become numb to living in the dead zone of adequacy that is functionally equivalent to invisibility.
This magister level obstinacy which had always held her back suddenly started to feel like a hidden super-power.
Jamie-Ellen was starting to sound a little shrill and stormed from the room. This revealed a small antechamber with yet another armed guard as if Neda was going to hulk out and make a run for it. A single sheet of paper fell from the folder as she left. It landed face-up on the floor. Moving only her eyes Nelda could see it was a photocopy of a primary school class photo. Little Nelda was helpfully circled.
In it, she could be seen holding in the front row holding a little plastic figurine. She had brought the toy to photo day in what was intended as a small rebellion, holding it visibly on her lap. The bored photographer would probably not have cared even if she had been holding up a Playboy centerfold, but a few other students noticed--making her feel like a lowkey badass for a few days.
The figurine was her long forgotten favorite at the time. A Masters of the Universe griffin her aunt had given her. Nelda despised the cartoon in general but had fixated on the griffins which had escaped slavery to live wild in the Vine Jungle. Where they were sadly once again enslaved by villain beastmen serving Skeletor.
[Holy hole-in-a-donut, Batman. How could I forget that I had a childhood plush-crush on a griffin?]
She unconsciously thought of these tawdry animated animals as griffins, not the more elevated British homonym she had attached to SmithGuid and his ilk. But the strange feeling of relatedness she had to those indentured creatures came back to her as fresh as a deep breath after rain.
[If SmithGuild was planted there, waiting for me--who, exactly, made the world of Mirth?]
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