“Is that the collapsible, carbon fiber ten-foot pole from TrunchCo—” I slammed my locker door and spun the combo lock, but it was too late; the fanboy already seen my gear. I didn’t know what his interest was, but I didn’t want to encourage him. I said nothing.
He continued: “I’ve got the one from a couple of years ago that folds up. It sucks. I wish I had the new one.”
I stared at him over the rims of my glasses in my best glare. He didn’t flinch.
The fanboy was a transfer student, new this year. I couldn’t remember his name—I wasn’t really in the habit of making friends lately. He ignored my signals and smiled, braces flashing in Braxis West High’s fluorescent lights. He wore a stocking cap embroidered with an Alpha Response logo that failed to contain his ample dreadlocks and a vintage Alpha Response t-shirt under a hooded sweater. That told me everything about him I cared to know. D-space fanboy, and definitely new to Braxis City. Nobody liked Alpha Response anymore. All the founding members were dead or retired, and the new crew didn’t have half the talent.
I shrugged and walked towards the exit. He followed, continuing his one-sided conversation. “Rockin’. I didn’t know you crawled. You don’t sit with the others at lunch. They won’t let me sit with them yet, but I get a table nearby and listen to their conversations and it’s almost as good. Do you run solo?”
I looked up and down the hall for some way to ditch him, but the school was deserted this late in the day. I’d fallen asleep in seventh period, probably because Mom’s crying had kept me up all night again. Thankfully, Mr. Grobson had my brother in AP Spelunking last year, so he didn’t make a deal about me sleeping through his lessons. His understanding didn’t go as far as grades, though. I was still getting a D+. I could have aced it, if I had bothered to do the work, but I had other things on my mind.
The new kid reminded me of my brother, so you can understand why I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. But I couldn’t figure out a good way to get away without coming across as a complete asshole. Maybe honesty would work?
“I’ve never been in d-space,” I said. “I don’t know why I bought that stuff.” I really didn’t know—I’d gone to the Ninth Street Bazaar to buy new clothes, but I’d found myself in Fischer & Sons Outfitting picking out a basic delving kit. Maybe it was because the girl working the counter had been cute.
The new kid laughed, but not in a mean way. “Hey, I get it. I’m still trying to work up the nerve, too. I was really pumped when CCS transferred my dad to the city. It’s so boring where I’m from, hardly any dungeons at all, which I guess was why CCS had their computing research facility there, but anyway, I was thinking about losing my dungeonspace v-card with a level one a couple of blocks from here.” He paused. “Do you maybe want to come along? It’s rated non-lethal. I’ve got some mid-tier gear that should make it cake.”
“What’s it called?” I asked, even though what I wanted to say was, leave me alone. I hadn’t been following the new dungeons for a while, so I wasn’t going to have heard of it anyway.
“The latest Frobisher’s Guide identifies it as ‘Cavern of the Screaming Eye.’ I’m Domino, by the way. Well, that’s not my real name, but that’s my crawler handle. My real name is Jimmy.” He rolled his eyes, like “Jimmy” was the worst possible name ever. “What’s yours?”
I pulled a total brain blank and stammered like a space-ruined drooler. All that time I’d spent when I was a kid dreaming up swank names, gone when it counted. “Rash,” my brother’s nom de dungeon, was all I could think of in that moment.
“Rash,” I blurted, then felt my cheeks burn.
Domino whistled. “You’ve got level ten balls to use that one.”
“Forget it. Just call me Ivan.” Then I added, “But Rash was my brother.”
“Rash was your brother?” I winced at the reverent tone in his voice. “No wonder you’ve never gone in d-space, huh? Don’t worry about it. You can think up a better handle later.”
That was . . . surprisingly chill of Domino. As much as I wanted to him to get lost, disliking him was as hard as hating a puppy. I wasn’t sure I could manage it.
“So you want to check this place with me?”
“I . . .” Did I? My heart was beating faster just thinking about it, like I’d just tried to run a kilometer. Mom would literally kill me, like a total murder/suicide situation if she found out I was getting involved in d-space crawling. But what the hell . . . it wasn’t like a level one non-lethal was going to kill me, obviously.
I spun in my combination again. “Let me get my stuff.”
• • • •
We’d walked less than half a city block before Domino started in asking questions about Rash. He was totally oblivious to the signals I was throwing off to drop the subject.
“So you must have gotten all his swank artifacts and gear when he didn’t come back, huh?”
“Nah,” I said.
I sighed. “He carried the good stuff with him. Anything he didn’t have, my mom boxed up and sent over to the research division of Municipal Anomaly Control. I think the new Alpha Response uses the really flash stuff.”
“So you don’t have any loot?” Domino was trying to keep from sounding disappointed, but I could hear it. Here he had found a famous dungeonspace crawler’s kid brother and he’d never been into d-space, didn’t even inherit anything chill after he died. He wanted to think I was flash. Weird thing was, I wanted him to think it, too.
“I have this one piece of art,” I said, pausing in our walk. I took a deep breath. “Just this stupid silver coin, like an old quarter. The only way you can tell it’s d-space art is that when you flip it, the face on it changes and it always lands heads-side up.”
Domino’s eyes widened. “A probability-modifier? That’s practically a full-blown ’fact. Can I see it?”
I dug into my hip pocket. The metal of the coin was just warm enough that I could always feel it through the fabric of my jeans. I’d only started carrying it with me after Jonah aka “Rash” was officially declared killed-in-crawl by the MAC. I was afraid Mom would send it away, too, if she found it in my room. She had accused me a couple of times of crawling, and we’d had huge, screaming fights about it. Maybe that’s why I had geared up. If she was going to accuse me of something, I might as well give her a reason? I was so tired of paying for my brother’s mistakes. But then, going into d-space, that was like following in his footsteps in the worst way, wasn’t it?
“It’s not worth more than a couple hundred lootbucks,” I said as I passed it to him. “Not that I wanna sell it.”
Domino took the coin into his thin hands and cradled it like a stick of unstable dynamite. He held it up to his face, carefully examining both sides.
“Do you mind?”
I shrugged. “Go for it.”
He flipped the coin and caught it in his clenched palm. He opened his fingers slowly. It was heads-up, of course. The man on the coin had a high, regal collar, two pairs of eyes, and a condescending smirk.
“That’s so chill,” Domino said. He reluctantly returned the coin to me.
“Nah, it’s vendor trash,” I said, and put the coin back in my pocket. “But I kind of like it.” It was the only thing of Jonah’s—Rash’s—that I had left.
Domino looked up and down the street theatrically, then put his hand on my shoulder before I could step back.
“Let’s form a team. You and me. We can train on low-level dungeons, build up our gear, skills, and maybe even develop d-space talents. Me, I’m hoping to develop as an escapist, but I’m not dumb, I know we don’t get to choose.”
I felt the panic rising like bile in my stomach. “I don’t think—” I managed, but he was worked up into a fanboy frenzy and I couldn’t stop him.
“Your brother was great, but maybe you could be greater. When we’re ready, we’ll succeed where he failed, and conquer the Black Hole itself!”
He looked so earnest when he said it, I felt bad immediately after I punched him. He fell backwards onto the pavement, silent for once. Luckily, his gear pack softened his fall.
He stared at me, wide-eyed, and a trickle of blood ran down from his right nostril onto his upper lip.
I wanted to say that I was sorry, that I over-reacted, that it was all too much, too fast. I opened my mouth and what came out instead was, “No thanks.”
I walked away as fast as I could, and when he finally called out to me, I pretended I couldn’t hear him.
• • • •
The school was locked up, so I stowed my gear in the alley behind our building in the West Barrio. I didn’t want to go up to our apartment, but I hadn’t eaten anything all day and if there was one thing that could convince me to brave Mom’s presence, it was food. I didn’t have the cash to buy something from a street vendor. Mom wasn’t working much lately.
I expected I would have to make up an excuse about why I was so late, but she didn’t look away from the projector screen when I dropped my school bag on the kitchen table. The silhouette of where my Alpha Response patch had been sewn on the bag seemed to stare at me like an eye of accusation. I turned away.
“Anything to eat?” I asked.
“Leftover noodles in the ice box,” she said, voice barely loud enough to hear over the voice of the news man talking about a level three d-space anomaly appearing in the middle of the Holson Freeway. Not to worry though; MAC was dispatching Alpha Response to loot-and-banish. Hurray for everyone.
I popped the leftovers in the oven and sat at the kitchen table while I waited for them to warm up. I wasn’t really thinking about anything special when the delivery tube bell rang out. Mom didn’t react, so I shuffled over to the receiving box and took out the capsule to a rush of pneumatic air. I unrolled the piece of paper tucked inside.
“If it’s another bill, put on the pile,” Mom said.
“It’s not,” I said as I scanned the note. Jimmy had pretty good handwriting. I could barely read my own. “It’s from someone at school. About homework.”
The note actually read:
Sorry I came on so strong. You seemed really chill until I insulted your brother. Can we maybe still be friends? I don’t know a lot of people here.
I tore a sheet of paper out of one of my notebooks and did my best to scrawl a reply.
Sorry I punched you. I’m not my brother. If he was still alive, you’d like him better than me. I don’t know that much about dungeonspace crawling. I don’t want to be a crawler.
I sent the message into the tube, and went to eat my chicken. As I finished washing my plate, the reply whooshed in. I dried my hands and read it.
The collapsible carbon fiber ten-foot pole in your locker says otherwise. Meet me at the Speakeasy tonight? If I say anything dumb, you can punch me again.
I looked over to Mom. She was slumped over, passed out, empty wine bottle at the foot of the couch. The newstape flick-flicked softly in the projector, casting pale, confusing shadows against the screen.
Okay, I wrote back. Give me an hour.
• • • •
I’d thought about visiting the Speakeasy about a million times before and after Jonah died, but I could never work up the guts. It was completely harmless, really, but it was still d-space. Bad things happened in d-space. The unexpected could happen there. Literally anything.
The entrance was behind a Q-Mart in the South Barrio. It manifested in the visual spectrum as a quarter-meter glassy orb floating in midair. I stared into it, watching the scene around me reflected and distorted. A couple of trollers doing bouncer duty watched over the scene with disinterest—mostly only there to keep out the MAC-payroll teams who had their own official d-space clubhouses around the city. The Speakeasy was neutral territory for a lot of different cliques and factions that agreed on only one thing: Municipal Anomaly Control were a bunch of no-chill swoleheads.
The flashiest d-space crawlers and thrilljunkies came and went, laughing and talking. The crowds were made up of mundanes, eggheads, mugs, and wind-ups—a parade of sub-subcultures around the whole d-space scene. Three girls dressed in identical green jumpsuits wearing silver wigs carried instrument cases inside at one point. One of them winked at me when they walked past, and I wondered if I knew her from school. If I did, the wig and makeup made her unrecognizable.
I puzzled over the wink. I wouldn’t have thought I was worth notice, dressed in faded jeans and a button-down shirt. My hair wasn’t even dyed a swank color like my brother always sported, just its ordinary dirty blond. My swankness was level zero.
As I was about to give up and go home, I felt a tap on my shoulder and nearly bolted. “Woah,” Domino said and jumped back a step. His nose was badly swollen. I winced.
“Agh. Sorry about that,” I said and waved my hand in the general direction of his face.
“Forget it; I was kind of a jerk.” He pointed at the entrance. “You ready to go in?”
I shook my head. “No, but let’s go in anyway.”
“This should be easier than the Cavern.” Domino dug around in his backpack and withdrew a pair of chrome-plated timer watches. He set the dials for five minutes shy of two hours and handed me one. “The guide says we should leave before de-sync, unless we want gut-twisting diarrhea.”
“Yeah, let’s avoid that.”
I took a step forward and closed my eyes. My fingers turned to ice as they grazed the surface of the space-time anomaly, and then I felt the weirdest sensation of being squeezed into a microscopic tube and squirted back out in a long string of spaghetti. It didn’t really hurt, but for a very long few seconds I was afraid I would never feel normal again.
When I opened my eyes, I was standing in the doorway of a smoky tavern. Along one wall was a surprisingly well-stocked bar. On the other side of the room, a small stage where the silver-wigged girls were playing a cello, a guitar, and a flute. The song was some ragged weird piece that sounded like a cover but I couldn’t place it, the notes were just all over. Above us, an alien starscape shimmered. The sky seemed warped, smaller somehow, bending near the edges of the very small dungeonspace universe.
The place was about half-full of people sitting at an array of mismatched tables and chairs. I recognized maybe one out of every four or five of the faces. Some of Braxis City’s best crawler teams and gangs were gathered for some downtime. Nobody was paying any attention to the music.
In the corner, a recently successful party made up of freelancers with no discernable team identifiers haggled over divying up the art and ’facts from their run. A spinning gem, floating and glowing green, stood out among the knickknacks and vendor trash—clearly the prize ’fact that had been the heart of an anomaly. Once captured, the anomaly had collapsed, ridding our shard of the prime world of the anomaly’s dangers.
Near the entrance, I spotted Maligna, one of the highest ranked formulists in the city. She studied her notes and scribbled on a roll of paper, probably working out the calculations and formulas for her next crawl—something that would negate gravity or turn a d-space beast’s bones to jelly. Her left arm was in a sling. Walthen, an equally skilled sympath, poked and prodded at the arm with a glowing finger. Walthen could cut down the healing time on injuries from weeks to hours with his d-space talent. Both were members of the Braxis City Brawlers. My brother had hated them, which meant they were good.
Domino pressed a beer into my hand and led me to an empty table nearby, surprisingly chill in the face of the legends around us. “This has got to be the best use for a nonlethal dungeon ever! Maybe not as chill as the Coliseum. You ever— right, I keep forgetting. Sorry. How come the dungeon nannies don’t barricade this place? Where I’m from, adults aren’t big fans of underage drinking or smoking—” he took a deep whiff of what passed for air in the Speakeasy, “—whatever that is.”
“Blood alcohol resets the minute your timer runs out or you leave via the exit, so the nannies look the other way,” said a heavy-set, brown-haired girl dressed in last season’s Kevlar body armor. She was sitting at the table next to ours. Her face was familiar—I thought I recognized her from my ’zine collection—but there were so many crawlers working in the city that they were hard to keep track of unless they were top-tier.
“Sorry, couldn’t help eavesdropping. You guys new?” She pointed at me. “You look familiar, but you,” she pointed at Domino, “look like a country bumpkin in those shitkickers. Let me guess; recent transplant into the city, huh?”
Domino frowned. “You can tell from my boots?”
“I can spot you farm country kids from a mile away. Got cousins out there. Don’t sweat it. One thing you should know, though—”
“You’re sitting at our table. So you better move if you know what’s good for you,” a deep voice said from over my shoulder. It wasn’t a normal voice—I could tell by how I felt it not just in my ears but in deep in my bones.
Domino started to mouth off but I grabbed his arm and stood up before he could make a bigger mess of things. I mean, I already knew he couldn’t take a punch.
“Sorry,” I said, turning to address the seven-foot-tall troller with blue-green skin looming behind us. He was flanked by a younger boy and a girl; they were shorter, still, and still had mostly the normal brown skin, but their ears had started to sharpen, their features harden. It looked like they had only recently started their treatments.
“We didn’t know. Now we do,” I said, and took a step back.
The lead troller laughed. “Just messin’ with you. No violence in here, dude. Jules has a bum rush staff that de-syncs anyone who starts shit. And then they shit themselves. Calls it Karmic Justice.”
“Wow, a trollboy,” Domino said, and I took another step back. Violence not allowed or not, you just didn’t say some things.
The lead troller shot me a look. I shrugged.
“He’s just some hick, Francisco,” the brown-haired girl said. “He probably doesn’t know.”
“Know what?” Domino asked. “Sheesh, do I really look that out of place?”
“We don’t like to be called ‘trollboys,’” Francisco said. “We’re trollers, my man. That shit is sexist.” He turned to Kevlar girl. “And you, you wanna be called Doom Maiden, or should I call you ‘Maggie?’ In here, I’m Bloodaxe.” I tried not to roll my eyes. A bit too “on the nose” for a troller, given that most of them specialized in solving problems that required strength and more than a little brutality.
Bloodaxe and his pals took a seat at our table and invited us to stay. “I guess my friends aren’t gonna make it,” Doom Maiden said by way of explaining why she pulled her chair over to join us.
“This is just so chill,” Domino said. He couldn’t stop grinning.
I felt like smiling, too, so I did. And the world didn’t end. Go figure.
“How many beers has this guy had?” Bloodaxe asked.
“Like, half of one,” I said. “He’s made of pure enthusiasm. It grows on you.”
“You two developed any talents yet?” Doom Maiden asked.
“This is our first time in d-space,” Domino admitted. “I’ve been training a lot though. I’m good at lock picks and I’m not bad at hand-to-hand. I also have this ’fact I bought, like, it’s how I came up with my name. Supposedly if I wear my mask in d-space, I’m harder to see. But, uh . . . I haven’t tried it yet.”
Doom Maiden nodded. “Not bad; you sound like a natural pick as an escapist, but don’t force it; it’ll come naturally with exposure to dungeonspace.”
I realized she was staring at me with impressively blue eyes. “What about you?”
“No talents.” I said, and took a long drink of beer so I wouldn’t have to keep making eye contact.
“No special skills?”
“He doesn’t need special skills,” Domino said. “He’s got pedigree.”
I slammed my stein down. “Really? You couldn’t go a minute without bringing that up?” I started looking for the exit.
Doom Maiden’s eyes narrowed. She nodded. “That’s why you look so familiar.”
“Someone bring me up to speed?” Bloodaxe asked.
“Rash was my brother,” I said. Everyone stared.
“I should probably go.”
Bloodaxe clapped me on the back, nearly knocking me back into my seat. “Hey, dude. Sorry to hear. Your bro was a good one.”
I’d finally had enough of it. “That’s what everybody says,” I snapped. “He was a huge dick to me, though.”
It spilled out, like I’d needed to tell someone. I couldn’t tell Mom. She would have never listened to a negative word about her fallen hero. So I told these strangers; I told them how my brother picked on me, calling me lard ass or fatty every day. How when I had begged him to take me along on a milk run some time, he’d said I probably wouldn’t fit through the dungeon entrance.
An awkward silence settled on our table. I stared at my drink.
“Ivan, I’m so sorry,” Domino said. He had tears in his eyes. Probably felt dumb for picking a loser like me to befriend.
“I take back what I said,” Bloodaxe rumbled. “Your bro wasn’t a good one if he treated you like that.”
I nodded. I was going to leave, but then, Doom Maiden changed the subject.
“Are you hoping to get recruited to one of the bigger crews?”
“I want to build my own team. Sounds like more fun.” The fog of my bummer attitude lifted from the table thanks to Domino’s enthusiasm for everything d-space. “Climb the ranks from the bottom. Seems like cheating just to get recruited at the top.”
“So are you rich, or just crazy?” Bloodaxe asked.
“Wh-what do you mean?”
He pointed around the room. “Most everyone in here is in this for the loot. Some of ’em even support their families, at least until their brain chemistry matures and they can’t interface with the anomalies anymore, or d-space wins and they don’t come home. Any time I meet somebody and all they talk about is how much ‘fun’ d-space is, they’re either deranged, or their parents are loaded. So which is it with you?”
I thought about intervening, but I wanted to know how Domino would react to being cornered about his optimism. He took it better than I thought.
“Maybe a little of both,” Domino admitted. “My dad’s a scientist, and he’s made some discoveries about why electronics don’t work in or around the d-space entrances. Sorry—I know this is serious. But this is what I’ve dreamed of all my life. I can’t help it if I’m excited.”
“Just remember to have some respect.” Bloodaxe laughed. “So your dad works with computers, huh? He one of those old farts that wants to bring back the ‘good old days’? My granddad told me stories. Did you know there were these things called ‘cell phones’? Communication device you could carry around in your pocket, and anybody could talk to you at any moment of the day no matter where you were. What idiot wants a thing in their pocket that lets their boyfriend talk to you whenever he wants, no matter where you are?”
Doom Maiden rolled her eyes. “An idiot with a boyfriend. Something you don’t know anything about.”
Bloodaxe chuckled. “I’m just picky.”
“How come you don’t have the latest, greatest gear?” I asked, turning back to Domino’s apparently loaded parents. “You were so excited about my stupid ten-foot pole.”
“My allowance is like fifty loot bucks a month. Just because Dad has a good job doesn’t mean they give me much to spend. I blew all my savings on my ’fact.”
“How do they feel about you crawling?” I asked.
“My dad thinks I’ll piss myself in my first dungeon and give it up.”
Bloodaxe laughed loudly enough to make my ears ring. “You’re not so bad, kid. I really hate the thrilljunkie delvers. All kit and no brains to use it.” He looked around the table. “Who do I have to threaten for a drink around here?”
“Get it yourself, you oaf,” Doom Maiden snarled. They sounded kind of like how couples talked, I thought, but that probably couldn’t be the case given their cracks about boyfriends earlier. I couldn’t figure out their status—maybe she was just into him, preferences be damned? What she saw in a troller, I wasn’t sure about. Bloodaxe’s metamorphosis was nearly complete—his skin was four times as thick as before, covered in gross moles and gnarls, and he sported a mouth full of tusks and fangs. I couldn’t imagine kissing a mouth like that.
But who knew what girls liked? Sure as hell not me.
Bloodaxe grumbled and left for the bar.
“I’m Cindy,” said the girl troller once he had left. I’d almost forgotten they were there; they had been so quiet before. “This is Sam. We’re new, too.”
“Does it, you know, hurt?” Domino asked. “To go through the treatments?”
Doom Maiden and I exchanged a glance of “can you believe this guy?” But Cindy was chill about it.
“Yes. My whole body is stretching out, so I’m sore, like, all the time. I grew ten centimeters this month. It’ll be worth it when it’s over. I’ll be able to handle any threat, and it’s better than hoping I live long enough to develop a d-space talent.”
“No thanks,” I said. “No offense. I went through a transformation of my own getting fit and that was enough for me.”
“Oh.” Doom Maiden raised an eyebrow. “You said your brother called you names, but you seem pretty slim now.”
I shifted in my seat and looked away. I wasn’t used to being around other people and I kept sharing stuff that I didn’t want to share. “After Rash died, my mom fell apart. My dad died in an incursion when we were little, and Rash’s death just . . . broke her, I guess. She cried all the time. I couldn’t take it anymore.” I finished my beer in one long gulp. Maybe it was the beer that made me talk so much? Or maybe I was just lonely. “I took walks around the city for hours, every night. Anyway. Now I’m not so fat.”
“Good for you, man,” Domino said. “My mom believes it’s good to take tragedy and spin something positive out of it.”
“You know, your brother might not actually be de—” Doom Maiden began to say, but Domino waved her off, to his credit. Maybe his enthusiasm was something I needed.
I felt like I owed him in return, and I knew Domino wanted one thing more than anything else. The Speakeasy hadn’t been so bad. Maybe I could handle a wild, untamed anomaly.
“How much time before you have to be home tonight?” I asked him, mostly to change the subject.
“I’ve got a few hours, why?”
“Let’s take a run at the Cavern of the Screaming Eye.”
“Right now?” I couldn’t help it—I grinned, too. I was tired of all the talking. Maybe it was time to hit something and not feel bad about it afterwards.
“Right now, before I lose my courage.”
Bloodaxe returned to the table as we stood up. “You two leaving already?” Domino explained where we were headed. “We’ll tag along. It’ll be a good experience for my young protégés. Doom Maiden, you in?”
She nodded. “If it’s okay with you guys.”
“Sure. Let’s party up,” I said. It made me feel better to know we would have some experienced crawlers on hand.
• • • •
I was the last one of us off the Yellow Line bus. I’d already lost my nerve again.
“The entrance is just a block away,” Domino said. “Oh, man, I can’t wait to get inside and kick butt.”
“Maybe we should come back in the morning,” I said. “I should read up on what the ’zines have to say. My brother always researched his runs.”
Bloodaxe placed his massive hand my shoulder and guided me forward, step by step, with a grip that said it wasn’t worth arguing. “Gotta relax, dude. The Cavern’s an easy one. Nobody’s ever died in there.”
Doom Maiden had a timer in her hand. It was pretty flash, crusted with all kinds of fake gems, totally out of character with her armor. “What’s the duration for this place?”
“The Guide says forty-two minutes,” Domino removed something from his pack, a weird little white mask with a black mask painted around the eyes. He adjusted some straps and placed it over his face. It made him look ridiculous, but also kind of chill.
“Okay, I’m ready to go now—hey, what’s so funny?” He slid the mask up over his head.
“Nothing,” I said, smothering my grin. “What else does the guide say?”
“The reason I picked this one is I think my mask will get us past some of the defenses. There are these cave tunnels, filled with these things, uh, big eyes, I guess, that watch over sections like guard dogs. If they see you, they start screaming, which hurts like hell and then you’re de-synced from the dungeon,” Domino said.
Bloodaxe flipped through a pocket guide and read a few pages before smirking. “Your whole body’s covered in purple spots for a week after de-sync. That’s not so bad. I went blind for a week after bouncing hard outta level two once.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said, but I wondered what my Mom would say if she found me covered in head-to-toe hickeys?
Better not think about it. I had to do this. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I liked these people and I didn’t want to them to know how zero-swank I was in real life.
“Bloodaxe and I are going to hang back at the entrance unless you guys get into trouble,” Doom Maiden said.
The troller nodded. “We’ll help only if you really need it. Purple welts aren’t going to do anything for my complexion right now.”
“I’m not very good at sneaking,” Sam, the young troller boy, said. The guy was terrible at conversational segues, but I kind of liked him more for it. Everyone else was witty and fast on the feet.
Bloodaxe shrugged. “You gotta learn. This’ll be good practice for you.”
Sam didn’t look happy with that, but what could he do? I’d watched Cindy and Sam on the bus ride, and I was pretty sure that they actually were a couple. I figured they had decided to take the troller artifact transformation together. I wasn’t sure whose idea had it been, though. Probably Cindy’s? They were from the poorer West Barrio, which explained why they had agreed to sell BodyMods Inc. twenty percent of their loot proceeds. I’d always thought it was a raw deal, but I couldn’t judge them for it. We all did what we had to do.
“Ready?” Domino asked. Everyone nodded.
The Cavern entrance was in the far back stall of the women’s restroom in a Java Palace franchise. The JPs had popped up around the city like caffeinated zits lately, buying up cheap disused property in manifestation zones. That made them popular crawler hangouts, but this one was null excitement. Experienced teams probably wouldn’t be caught dead near a Cavern instance.
The barista didn’t look up from her newspaper when we walked in carrying our packs of gear. She pointed to the sign-in sheet and MAC disclaimer forms. “Sign in first.”
We wasted a few minutes filling out the paperwork and then Doom Maiden went in first to make sure nobody was using the toilets. She signaled that the coast was clear.
This anomaly’s entrance manifested a fiery rock embedded in the floor. A slitted ember iris stared, unblinking, from below. Totally creepy, but not enough to stop me now.
Domino and I went in first, then Sam and Cindy followed. Bloodaxe and Doom Maiden followed a second later, and when they appeared in the damp, dimly lit cavern of the dungeonspace, they were laughing like one of them had just told a really funny joke.
Somehow I just knew they had been making fun of me. The trollers and Domino brought something to the crawl, but I didn’t have any training or talents. I was in moderately decent shape, but still flabby in the middle. The only thing I had going for me was all the stories my brother had told me of his dungeonspace adventures. Every dungeon was a little different, even within the different established variants, so that information was of limited use. I was this team’s dead weight.
Too late to back out now. I took a deep breath and had a close look at the dungeonspace around us. We’d appeared in a ten-meter-wide space carved out of rough-hewn rock. Light seemed to be coming from somewhere, just a little bit of it, but as much as I looked around, I couldn’t find a source. Physics was notoriously weird in d-space. The light was coming from everywhere, I realized, like darkness just wasn’t totally dark here.
The floor slanted downward slightly, almost aiming us towards the passageway that curved away from the room. We couldn’t see very far down it, the light fading fast in the distance. The air smelled like a moldy basement, and the only sound beyond our own breathing and shuffling was a persistent drip of water.
“Kind of anticlimactic—” Domino began. Something shifted along the wall. I was startled by how fast Sam moved at it, swinging with a meaty fist. The beast was the size of a large rat: slimy, four-legged, with a torso made mostly of an enormous eyeball. The iris swiveled in our direction, fixing on Sam, who was now closest to it. A tiny little mouth opened and let out an ear-shattering scream, answered by faint screaming further within the cavern.
Sam managed a weak “oh shit” before evaporating. I hadn’t taken a single step. Cindy, on the other hand, had already crossed the space between the entrance and where Sam was attacked. The little d-space beast whole-body blinked, seeming as surprised as Sam when he vanished. With an open-palmed slap against the cavern wall, the troller girl reduced the creature to a vitreous jelly sludge.
“Good reflexes, Cindy,” Bloodaxe called out. “I’d better go console poor Sam,” and he popped out of d-space.
Doom Maiden grinned. “Sixty seconds in and you’ve only lost a quarter of your party. Not bad.”
“I didn’t have time to react,” I mumbled.
“I barely saw that thing before Sam was toast,” Domino said, sounding shaken. “They’re too quick. Not sure what we’re going to do. I can probably sneak past them with my mask, but the rest of you won’t make it.”
“We might as well try,” Cindy said with a shrug. She had a slight smile; I guessed she was really going to rub it in with Sam that she lasted longer than him. I hoped he wouldn’t take it too hard; he’d saved the rest of us from a similar fate by taking the first sonic blast.
A quick scouting mission by Domino revealed the path ahead crawling with a dozen of the eye screamers. Basic stealth wasn’t going to cut it.
“Let’s review what we know,” I suggested. “They have to see us, and they have to scream, right? A silence artifact would be useful, if we had one.”
“Maybe we can try blinding them somehow,” Domino suggested. “But I don’t have any smoke bombs and the cave floor is pretty uneven. I wouldn’t want to fall down in there.”
“Can we splat them before they scream?” Cindy asked.
I frowned, shook my head. “We need to get the drop on them a dozen times. You’re fast, but not that fast. What if there’s a group of them together?”
She had the right idea. I took a burlap sack out of my pack, standard delver gear. “Here’s something. Domino, activate your mask, and instead of just sneaking past, you pick up each one of the little bastards and shove them in this bag. Repeat until we’re clear.”
“Not bad,” Cindy said.
“Yeah, that could work. Let’s give it a try.” Domino slid the mask over his face again and vanished.
Cindy and I waited while Domino advanced down the passage, his footsteps fading away with distance.
“Sorry about your brother,” Cindy said after a minute. “Even if he was a jerk, I bet it’s been hard to lose him.”
I stared off into the dimly lit passage, hoping Dom would get back soon. “Can I ask what the story is with you and Sam? Are you guys . . . together?”
She laughed. “Sam told me he loved me in the fourth grade.”
“The feeling’s not mutual?”
She looked away. “It’s complicated.”
I dropped the subject, and was thankful to whatever demon gods ruled over this d-space that Domino reappeared with a squirming, squeaking bag.
“I think that’s all of them,” he said. He handed the bag to Doom Maiden. She took it reluctantly, holding it away at arm’s length.
“Onward then?” I asked.
“Good luck, kiddos.” Doom Maiden fixed me with that odd stare of hers. “That was a good play, Ivan. Most people would have tried the attack route and fail.”
I did the best I could with a compliment and ignored it. “Okay, no time to waste. Let’s move forward.”
We traveled through the screamer passage into a junction with three branching passages. We quickly agreed to split up and scout each path.
About halfway down my tunnel, I realized that the dim light I had been navigating by was nearly gone. I felt colder, too.
“Shit,” I said under my breath.
“A voice? Do I hear a voice?” something answered up ahead.
“Who’s there?” I called out.
“‘Who’s there?’ it asks. I could ask the same of the voice, and so I do. Who are you?”
Everyone knew the stories about what could happen if you told a dungeon native your real name. So I did the stupid thing again. “Rash,” I said.
“Rash? Back again? You sound unwell. Still troubled? No matter. Come into the darkness. It’s safe here for now. The guardian yet sleeps, but I sense more intruders in this space. I will watch their struggle soon, but first I favor conversation.”
The voice knew my brother? He had been here? He’d never mentioned the Caverns to me that I could remember.
I took a step into the darkness. The voice continued.
“I’ve missed our talks,” the voice said. It had a soothing quality, but not unnaturally so. It was like a grandmother; old, wise. I wasn’t afraid of it.
“Uh . . . remind me what we talked about last time.”
“Hah. I am supposed to be the forgetful one, child. The nature of things. Mysteries within mysteries. The solution to the ultimate puzzle.”
“Oh. Yeah. I remember now,” I lied.
The voice chuckled, and its tone took a harder edge. “No, no. I hear it now. Not him. Someone close, though. The brother, perhaps?”
“He told you about me?”
“Ahh, yes. I am observant, am I not? Rash spoke of you. You do not resemble the picture he painted with his words, however.” Something sniffed. “Unseasoned, you are. But there is potential . . .”
Then a sound of distant footsteps approaching.
“Shame. I would have liked to learn more about you, but I care not for additional company.” And the darkness lifted, leaving me standing before a great stone door carved with an enormous eyeball.
I flinched, feeling silly immediately. It didn’t scream. I examined the door for buttons or keyholes.
“My passage was a bust. Just nests of more eye screamers,” Domino said. He flickered into view beside me. “Did I hear you talking to someone a minute ago?”
I frowned, shook my head. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone what I’d experienced. “Just myself—”
I touched the door. It was cool and hard. I gave it a push. It didn’t budge.
“This looks promising. I’ll get Cindy,” Domino said and disappeared. I continued to put the door through the standard paces while I waited. A moment later, Domino returned with Cindy in tow.
“Standard impassible?” Cindy asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I tried asking it a riddle, knocking, and searched for hidden buttons. There’s no lock to pick that I can see.”
Cindy cracked her knuckles. “Did you try brute force?”
“I was waiting for the brute,” I said. “Have at it.”
Cindy threw herself against the door hard enough that it practically winded me. The door budged a few centimeters.
“This whole space has to be designed,” Domino said thoughtfully.
I groaned. “You’re one of those?”
Domino rubbed his face where the mask had left faint lines along the edges. “It’s not such a crazy idea. Something has to be responsible for the dungeons. This one seems planned out. What, do you think this door happened naturally?”
I leaned in close to the door, put my ear against the crack. “I’m not worried about the door as much as I am about what’s behind it. Listen.”
I could make out heavy, slow breathing beyond the door. Domino pressed his eye against it, staggered back and waved me forward. I peeked inside.
I saw the largest dungeonbeast I could imagine. I mean, I’d never seen one before, but this had to be the biggest. The room on the other side of the door was a vast cavern, so big it was like a skyscraper laid on its side. It was barely large enough for the bulk of the beast. At first, I thought it resembled a snake, but as I stared, the body resolved as a thing composed of enormous, muscle-rippled arms with hands at both ends. The hands clasped together, forming a long chain. Coils and coils of folded, bent arms wove in loops on the cavern floor. Resting atop the coils was a hand that served as the head. A mouth of horrible teeth bisected the palm and blood-red eyeballs tipped each long, bony finger.
“Non-lethal my ass,” I muttered. I stepped back from the door so Cindy could look. She gasped loudly at the sight of the beast, and was met with a low rumbling inside.
“I think this might be the prime,” Domino whispered. The ultimate of its variant, he meant, the one that, if defeated, would close other Cavern anomalies. The anomalies came in two varieties; primes and shadows. Shadows were good for practice. Primes were the real deal, and often deadlier.
Cindy hissed for silence, but it was too late.
“Who prowls outside my den?” the beast asked.
“I mean, why does it even speak our language, huh, explain that?” Domino said. I rolled my eyes.
“Let’s continue that conversation later when we’re not about to be eaten by a giant hand.”
Cindy threw the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside before I could stop her. “Adventurers, come to slay monsters and loot their treasures,” she shouted.
Bad. Ass. At least she’d die chill as anyone who ever lived. I expected a blast of fire or a gnashing of giant teeth in answer, but the beast only laughed.
“Guests! I haven’t had a good game in ages. What have you brought to gamble? I warn you, I am nothing if not fair . . .”
“Gamble?” Cindy asked, taken aback.
“We could do . . . violence instead. If you wish.”
“No!” I said loudly, and stepped inside. “Gambling is agreeable. We have fine treasures for stakes.”
“Eh?” The beast swiveled its finger eyes to look at me. “Such as?”
I took out my collapsible ten-foot pole. I expanded it with a flip of my wrist. “How about this?”
The beast snorted. “A stick? You insult me.”
I patted myself down. The timer? No, that’d be equally insulting, as would my multi-tool and my rope. What could I possibly—
“I grow bored,” the beast said, and a long, purple tongue licked at its palm-maw.
I took out my coin. “What about this?”
The beast growled with pleasure. “Yes. Let’s play for that. What game would you like? Shall we throw the bones? Spin a wheel? Cards, perhaps.”
“Let’s flip for it,” I said. I had no idea where this confidence was coming from, but inside I was terrified it would leave me at any moment.
The beast’s face swung closer to us on its neck of interlocking arms. “Let me see it. Show both sides,” it said. I held up the coin so he could see that it looked perfectly ordinary.
“Very well. I call . . . heads.” And its horrible mouth twisted into a smile.
Somehow, the monster knew. Had it read my mind? Had it seen the coin before somehow?
I looked to Domino. He held his hands up as if to say, “I’ve got nothing.” Neither did I.
I flipped the coin. Caught it, and held it in my clenched fist.
“Are you sure you want to call heads?” I asked. But the beast merely smiled, and its body of arms rippled and flexed.
I opened my palm. The beast leaned in to look. The coin was heads. I groaned.
The beast laughed. A child’s hand appeared from within its coils, pinched the coin between two talons, and withdrew amongst the mass of biceps. “I win. Shall we play again? What else have you brought to gamble?”
Domino removed his mask and offered it. “No,” I said. “Let’s forget this.”
“I’ll gamble my mask for your treasure, but you have to give back the coin, too,” he said. “My ’fact is worth a lot more than the coin.”
“Of course. I am a fair guardian, as I said . . .,” the beast said. “Choose your game.”
“If you are fair, then you won’t mind another flip of the coin,” Domino said. The beast began to protest, but Domino, to his credit, held his ground. “It’s my choice, isn’t it?”
“Fine,” the beast said. “We shall toss a coin again.”
The beast retrieved the coin again from its hidden folds, presented it for examination.
“If you’re truly fair, then you will let me call the toss?” Domino asked.
“Of course,” the beast said.
“Let’s talk this thr—” Cindy said, but the coin was in the air.
“We call tails,” I shouted, cutting off Domino. He shot me the angriest look I’d seen him manage so far. I held my breath as the coin spun on the floor, rattled, and then fell . . .
The beast let out a huff that smelled like raw steak. “Well played. How did you know I switched the coin for one of my own?” it asked.
“A truly fair guardian would meet our cheat with one of its own.” It was dungeonspace logic— the kind my brother used to justify picking on me no matter what I did. Cruel. Crafty. I guess I had learned something from him after all.
“Clever,” the beast said. It uncoiled and slipped away into the dark recesses of its cavern. Where the beast had been knotted there were two things: my coin, and a red box the size of a jewelry case.
“That was genius!” Cindy clapped.
I shrugged and turned my head away to hide a smile and my embarrassed flush.
“Just one artifact,” Domino said with a sigh. “How are we going to split this up?”
“If it’s just art, we’ll sell it and split the money,” Cindy said. “But if it’s a ’fact, one of you two should have it. I don’t feel like I contributed that much.”
“That’s really nice of you, but we would have never gotten through that door without you. How about you can have pick next time?” Domino said, and I didn’t argue because I was too busy thinking: Next time? Would there be a next time?
“How are we going to decide between us?” Domino asked.
“Flip you for it!” We laughed.
“Grab the box and let’s get out of here,” Cindy said. “We would be the lamest ever if we lapse out before taking the loot.”
I pocketed my coin and picked up the box. I offered it to Domino. “You take it. You were willing to risk your namesake to get back my coin. Thank you.”
“Fine, we can argue about it when we get out.” And he opened the box.
I expected a rush of energy, an explosion, something. Instead, we were instantly back in the women’s bathroom at Java Palace. Poor Sam stared in the mirror and rubbed at purple welts on his cheeks with a bemused grin.
Bloodaxe and Doom Maiden started as the anomaly collapsed. I felt pretty good at the sight of their shock.
“How in the hell did you pull that off?” Bloodaxe asked.
“Excellent teamwork with fine leadership from this guy,” Domino said, slapping me on the black. “The loot’s weird, though. Never seen anything like this, have you?” He held up a jagged, black shard. Black didn’t really describe it. It was made of some kind of material so dark that light couldn’t escape it. Almost like . . .
“I have seen something just like that,” Doom Maiden said, lips curled in a grimace. She looked at me. I nodded. I knew the material, too.
“The entrance to Black Hole looks like that,” I said. “It must be tied to it somehow.”
“I think it’s a key,” Bloodaxe said, nodding.
“A key?” Domino asked. “Is it worth much?”
“Keys are very rare, but this one’s worthless now.” I sighed. “The Black Hole is locked down by MAC as an ultra-lethal. Nobody’s ever come back out, so they’ve written it off. Maybe a high-rated team could score entrance, but that’s only after signing like a thousand pages of consent forms.”
“I guess we had better start training you newbies up then,” Bloodaxe said. He cocked his head to Doom Maiden. “Try Tower of the Repeating Phantasm, next, maybe?”
She nodded. “For starters, yeah.”
I blinked, confused. “Why help us? We got lucky in there. I’m sure you have better things to do.”
Doom Maiden shook her head. “You didn’t get lucky. You made sharp calls in there. A good head on your shoulders in d-space is worth more than all the talents and artifacts in the city.”
“I’m already mentoring these two knuckleheads,” Bloodaxe said. “What’s two more? And to make it fair, we’ll take, say, ten percent of your loot in return. I’m not long for this game anyway. Gonna age out soon.”
“That’s fair,” Domino said, nodding and grinning.
“I thought you were making fun of me when we first went through,” I mumbled. I felt tears running hot down my face. Why was I crying now? I hadn’t cried in months. I thought I wouldn’t ever cry again.
Doom Maiden’s perpetual scowl softened. “That’s not it at all. I laughed because I forgot what it was like in the beginning.”
Bloodaxe grinned. “When crawling was about more than the bucks, bruises, and broken bones. It’s serious business, of course, but there was a time for us all when it was also exciting and not just a job.”
Bloodaxe put his arm around my shoulder. “After solving the Cavern on your first try, I don’t think anybody’s going to be making fun of you. Unless you say something really dumb. Okay?”
“Thanks,” I mumbled. “That means a lot.”
“Now we need to get you kids on a training regimen quick. I know a gym we can use cheap. And we’ll need better gear . . .” Bloodaxe took out a pocket notebook and began to scribble in it as he rambled.
Domino looked to me. “What do you say, Flip?”
“I dunno, it just seemed right.” He smiled.
“I like it,” Cindy said. “You can call me ‘Basher.’”
“That’s a good one,” I said. “And I like Flip. Yeah. Thanks, Dom.”
“I’m in, too, but I can’t think of a good name yet,” Sam said. Cindy shot him a look that I could only read as “we’ll talk about it.” Poor Sam.
“What do you say? Team up for real next time?” Domino asked.
What did it mean, I wondered, that we’d looted a key to the dungeon I feared more than anything in the city? Was Domino right? Was there an intelligence behind the anomalies? Did the voice in the shadows have something to do with it? I had more questions than I’d started with. But I had at least one answer worth giving.
“Yeah . . . I’m in.”