Chapter 2: gregariousAmbassador
Your name is HUGH TANNER and you are REALLY EXCITED.
You’ve spent the last six hours beating UNDERLINGS over the head with your TRUSTY WRENCH and LETTING EARTH GET DESTROYED.
A little more than a month ago, you had a DREAM about this game SBURB, and how you’d play it with your 3 BEST FRIENDS. You’re standing knee-deep in a drift in the LAND OF SNOW AND CRYSTALS, your laptop sitting on a titular tier. You know, down to the second, when WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN will transpire, and you grin as you COUNT DOWN in your head.
Right on cue, AMIE LAURENT falls screaming into the snow beside you.
—rewind reset: .5 hours ago—
—aspiringCarver [AC] began pestering gregariousAmbassador [GA]—
AC: ok i installed the client one
GA: How’s it look outside?
AC: most of the neighborhood is on fire
GA: I think we can take a little longer getting you in than Liam.
GA: We should alchemize you some stuff.
GA: Oh yeah.
GA: You’ve got a ton of grist in your cache.
GA: There’s a bunch of different types, but it’s what you need to build and alchemize stuff.
GA: I had to gain a ton of levels before I could alchemize anything really good, but it looks like the last player has a lot of grist at the start.
GA: Probably to make up for the level difference.
GA: We set up a shared cache, so now we’ve got more than enough to make some cool swag for you.
GA: What’s your specibus again?
AC: but my mom locked it down in our basement studio before she left to
AC: oh god
AC: hugh what about my mom?
GA: I think she’s okay.
GA: If she’s not at your house, then there shouldn’t be any meteors coming at her.
AC: i guess
GA: So you don’t have anything in your strife deck right now?
GA: Okay then.
GA: You have a smart phone, right?
GA: One with Pesterchum installed.
GA: Get on that with me.
GA: We’ll figure out something for your computer later.
GA: And you said your chisel’s down in your locked basement?
GA: I’ll get on that.
GA: Go get your phone.
Amie pushed away from the desk, wheeling to her bed. She had set her purse near her pillow before getting online the day before, and from it she took her phone. The meteor crashes had slowed, but the arrhythmia of the strikes made it impossible to grow used to the sounds or the rumbling beneath her. For a time, she sat fiddling with the settings on the phone’s chat client. With a smile she hoped was grim, she relocated the anlaceAgent handle from her chumroll to the trollslum and blocked it.
The tiny triumph was completely ruined by new sounds of smashing: stone against wood, and stone shattering. She bolted at once, rushing down two sets of stairs to arrive in the basement. A small cloud of dust was settling over a broken pile of granite and the fragments of what had once been a locked door. The rusty red stain on the cracked granite made her jaw drop and her arm lift her phone.
AC: that was the carving i was working on!
GA: It was?
AC: why didn’t you tell me you were going to do that?!
GA: I was pretty sure you were going to tell me not to.
She stood very still for a moment, hands tight around her phone. Though her thumbs twitched, she put the phone in her pocket and climbed over the wreckage. The light switch was flicked, and she waved at the dust that still hung in the air. Blocks of stone sat where she had been forced to leave them, scattered amidst finished pieces. She strode to the back of the room and the drafting table there. The stool before it held her hammer and chisel, and she let them shift down into her specibus when she touched them. Her phone chimed.
GA: Hey, I’m going to build a few new levels on your house, okay?
GA: We have to go up in the game.
GA: Really literally, up into the sky.
GA: The easiest way to do that is for your server to build your house.
GA: I’ll help you figure out building Liam’s house up later.
GA: So don’t be surprised if you feel the place shake.
AC: is it going to be worse than the meteors?
GA: Shouldn’t be.
GA: Hang on.
A low, distant thud came in time with a gentle tremor. She sat down, rolling her shoulders in an attempt to relieve the tension in them.
AC: that wasn’t bad
GA: Why don’t you figure out some stuff to alchemize with your chisel while I build?
GA: The alchemiter lets you combine stuff.
GA: Like, I use wrenchkind.
GA: I combined my wrench with a bunch of fireworks I was going to set off next month on the fourth.
GA: That made my Jubilation Wrench.
GA: It makes explosions when I hit things.
GA: And I alchemized that with a mirror, so now I have two.
AC: i have to use both hands for chiselkind
GA: No, I know.
GA: Just start grabbing stuff you want to combine and put it in your sylladex. We need the captchalogue cards for this.
GA: Ping me when you’re ready.
GA: I’m going to keep building.
She put the phone in her pocket once more and looked around the room. The dust hung in the air independent of all things, and so it remained still through the offbeat rattling of the house. All along the walls were hung framed paintings, taped up sketches, and posters held by pins. Above the drafting table was a poster of a black hole, and she set her eyes on it for a long while. Eventually, she let her eyes drop from the blue-white stars swirled around pure black down to the table. More sketches, designs for statues yet to be carved, lay there. A plasma ball was perched on a small stand next to the table, nestled amongst pencils and worn down chisels. For lack of any other ideas, she turned the thing on and watched the purple lightning sway inside the glass. When her phone chimed, she thought nothing of retrieving it from her pocket. Her breath left her in a long groan, though, at the message waiting for her.
—complaisantArchitect [CA] began trolling aspiringCarver [AC]—
CA: th1s 1s 4m1e r1ght?
AC: excuse me?
CA: dev s41d y0ur n4me 1s 4m1e.
CA: y0ure 4sp1r1ngC4rver r1ght?
AC: who are you
AC: and why do you know my name?
CA: 1 guess 1 d1dnt tell y0u my n4me.
CA: 1m s1t4r4.
CA: s1t4r4. th4ts my n4me.
AC: oh god
AC: not leetspeak
CA: wh4ts leetspe4k?
AC: that thing where you change your letters into numbers
AC: because you think you’re some amazing hacker or something and numbers are better
CA: th4t s0unds stupid.
AC: then why are you writing like that?
CA: 0k 1m g00d w1th c0mputers but th4t d0esnt h4ve 4nyth1ng t0 d0 w1th 1t.
CA: 1 just l1ke these numbers.
CA: 4nd 1 d1dnt w4nt t0 use the numbers 0f the bl1nd pr0phets.
CA: th0se 4re the numbers the bl1nd pr0phets use.
AC: forget it
AC: i don’t care what you stupid trolls are talking about
CA: ye4h y0u s0und l1ke y0uve been t4lk1ng to dev.
AC: oh god
AC: are you their friend or something?
CA: 1s th4t the 4l1en w0rd f0r m01r41l?
AC: are you seriously calling me an alien?
AC: and what kind of word is ‘moirail’?
CA: dev w4s r1ght.
CA: y0ure re4lly e4sy t0 tr0ll.
AC: i’m glad i can make your stupid day better
AC: seriously though?
AC: leave me alone
CA: c0me 0n w41t!
CA: y0ure n0t even 4 l1ttle cur10us 4b0ut wh4t dev t0ld y0u?
Amie stopped, fingers an inch short of tapping the ‘block’ button. She curled her fingers to touch her palm and reread the lines to translate them perfectly. Her pointer finger straightened, and she tapped letters one by one to reply.
AC: what do you want to say?
CA: shes tell1ng the truth.
CA: dev d0esnt l1e.
CA: s0 y0ure g01ng t0 d1e t0d4y.
AC: oh what do you even know?
AC: like i’m supposed to believe a couple of trolls?
AC: i mean
AC: you’re telling me that the world’s gonna end and that i’m gonna die
AC: like you know anything about anything
CA: wh4t 4b0ut y0ur h1ve?
CA: the pl4ce y0u l1ve.
CA: h4s y0ur h1ve been destr0yed by mete0rs yet?
She froze entirely.
AC: what the
AC: what’s WRONG with you?
AC: what’s that supposed
CA: 1ts n0t l1ke 1ts just y0u.
CA: 0ur pl4net w4s destr0yed t00.
CA: y0u sh0uld t4lk t0 y0ur server 4b0ut wh4t he kn0ws.
CA: 1 pr0m1se he d0es kn0w s0meth1ng.
CA: d0 y0u w4nt s0me help de4l1ng w1th the 4p0c4lypse?
AC: shut up
AC: shut up okay?
AC: i’m having a bad day
AC: i really don’t want you dumb trolls
AC: trolling me
AC: leave me alone
AC: forget it
AC: you don’t have to leave me alone
AC: because i’m blocking you
AC: right now
—aspiringCarver [AC] blocked complaisantArchitect [CA]—
She immediately sent the handle into the trollslum, holding her phone tightly in both hands. Her shoulders trembled, and she had stopped noticing the crashing. It helped that it seemed to have come to a halt. She chewed on her lip and closed her eyes. The silence was comforting. It was ruined by the loudest crash yet and rumbling so fierce that she was thrown entirely from the stool. Her head cracked against the floor and she rolled about a moment, snapping nonsense words and snarling. Her phone chimed at her quite urgently.
—gregariousAmbassador [GA] began pestering aspiringCarver [AC]—
GA: oh geez
GA: oh geez oh geez oh geez
GA: Amie, I need you to reply right now!
GA: Amie please reply!
GA: Seriously please!
AC: hugh what
AC: what just happened?
GA: okay a meteor just hit your house
GA: not anywhere near you right now
GA: okay okay hang on
GA: Okay. Okay.
GA: I’m deploying all the stuff right now. If we get you into the incipisphere and onto your planet, I can stop the fire.
GA: I can’t do it right now because editing your house would just set the new stuff on fire.
GA: And PLEASE don’t ask me what I’m talking about because I SWEAR I’m going to explain later.
GA: But I seriously need to get you in right now, okay?
AC: okay let’s go
Instantly, a machine appeared in thin air and slammed down to the floor, crushing another statue and two small blocks of stone. The cruxtruder stood waiting when she rose up, and she went to it quickly. A large fragment of marble was lifted high and dropped onto the lid. The metal crack made her throbbing head shriek, but she looked at the flickering sphere of light that emerged. It was colored the same purple pink shade as the color she used to type, as was the cruxite dowel. Her phone chimed yet again, and she looked at the screen.
GA: Okay, that’s your kernelsprite.
GA: You need to prototype it.
GA: Try to get something that’ll talk to you.
AC: hugh nothing in here can talk
GA: No I know just
GA: It doesn’t have to literally be something that talks.
GA: This sounds weird, but
GA: I had a dog when I was little, and when it died, my dad had him cremated.
GA: And I used his ashes.
GA: Yeah, I know, but whatever.
GA: You need to have a sprite that you can talk to, so not some chunk of granite that’s just
GA: Just a chunk of granite.
GA: What about that statue in the corner over there?
She turned and grimaced.
AC: come on...
GA: What’s wrong?
AC: do we really have to use THAT statue?
GA: It’s got a face and a mouth.
GA: It’ll be able to talk to you.
AC: my mom bought me that dumb thing
AC: i seriously don’t know why
AC: it’s a troll
GA: That’s a satyr.
AC: no it’s not
AC: that’s a troll
AC: i know the title
AC: it’s ‘meditative troll’
AC: i’m serious
GA: Why’s that a problem?
AC: i’ve been getting trolled by the worst people
AC: i really don’t want to deal with my sprite being a troll
AC: it’s just gonna be a jerk to me
GA: Amie, come on!
GA: We need to get it prototyped and that’s the best thing close enough to you!
GA: Seriously, there’s like three minutes left before the big meteor gets to your house.
GA: Please, we can prototype it again later, but you need to get moving right now!
AC: ok ok!
AC: i’ll do it
Without waiting for a reply, she jammed her phone into her back pocket once more. She strode to the statue quickly, but paused in front of it. Atop a craggy floor of marble sat a cross-legged male figure, clad in loose trousers and a sleeveless vest. His arms were crossed, his hands folded in its lap. The long, angular face was at rest, eyes closed, two sharp fangs peeking out from between his lips. From his head grew short hair, and from there sprouted long horns that curved gently back. She had never enjoyed the statue’s presence; she did not understand why her mother had bought the thing for her in the first place. Reference was the claim, but she had looked at it only grudgingly.
It was solid marble. It had taken a dolly and two burly men to bring it to the basement and set it where it stood. The sprite hovered at her shoulder, but it snapped sharp static at her when she reached out to it. Barely a second passed between the stinging of her fingers and the statue’s lifting into the air. She jumped backward to dodge it as it was tossed at the sprite. Just as the flare on her screen had been when Liam tossed the toy into his sprite was blinding, she was forced to close her eyes. Shoulders tensing, teeth clenching, she waited for the light pouring through her eyelids to fade.
“May I request your name, young one?”
She opened her eyes and lifted her brows in one motion.
The troll floated in the air, arms crossed behind his back. One brow was raised, but so too was one corner of his mouth. “Well?”
She mouthed nothing at all, swallowed, and took a breath. “Uh—Amie.”
The troll tilted his head a moment, pupils flickering into cascading pixels. He blinked and his eyes returned to normal. “Amie Laurent. Your planet will be the Land of Snow and Crystals. You are the Seer of Void.”
“I believe you have two minutes and fifteen seconds before the meteor strikes your house and kills you. We need to take the dowel and create and destroy your totem before that happens. Shall we move along?”
“Uh.” She took a step to one side. “Um. I...yes? Okay. Um, okay.” She went to the cruxtruder and stood on her toes to take the dowel in hand. Cradling it in one arm, she stared at the sprite and went to the door. When she tripped on the broken wood of the door, the sprite caught the back of her shirt and kept her from falling. She looked back again, but the troll neither replied nor changed his expression from his small smile.
“Okay,” she said again. “Let’s go. Do you know where the alchemiter and the—the lathe are?”
“Five levels up for the lathe, and the alchemiter is on what is currently the roof.”
Her jaw dropped; her eyes widened. “He built that many floors this fast?”
“It’s been about thirty minutes since you started the game.”
“One minute forty-six seconds.”
She started to sprint up the stairs. Each staircase was more meandering than the last, and she chased after the sprite as it led her to each continuation. A sharp corner had to be taken on the fourth level, and she leaped straight into the open air to avoid the burning, meteor ruined floor. Her bare feet jerked at the wild heat beneath them, both from the flames of her house and the chaos outside. Smoother than she thought possible, the sprite caught her by her arms and swung her back and up onto the staircase. Her muscles twitched in the spasms called up by the sprite’s electric, ethereal form, but she gave him one glance before starting her dash again.
A pre-punched card sat on the lathe, and she shoved it into the waiting slot after jamming the dowel into the chucks. It was shaved down into a thin pillar, with three thick swells at its middle. Her sweating, equal parts made from flame and exertion and terror, made her fumble the dowel clean out of her hands. A desperate swipe let her catch the thing, but she nearly stumbled when she tried to begin a new sprint. She caught herself on the next set of stairs, and scrambled up them half hunched over with her free hand on the next step.
The once-gray sky was painted filthy rose by the blaze and smoke below it. There were no houses left standing; the barest char frames remained in sight through the dancing red. The alchemiter was waiting for her, and she put the totem onto the analyzing platform. As the laser scanned the cruxite and the machine whirred as it warmed up, she called up her hammer and chisel. Rolling her shoulders, staring at the main platform, she swallowed hard. She did not raise the chisel as Liam had his sickle, and she grit her teeth in anxiety.
Her mother appeared. She was faceless, her curly crystal hair unmoving in the heat wind. In her arms was a bouquet of flowers, wrapped delicately and tied with a bow. It had been how her mother had woken her the day after completing her first sculpture. Those two days had covered her birthday a year ago. The flowers had made her smile, even if the pancakes for breakfast made her feel six. She had still loved them.
The sprite did not speak. She did not want to move. Her throat tightened. She could see an ugly sphere of craggy, flaming red stone appear in the sky out of the corner of her eye. Her fingers squirmed on the handles in her grasp, and they squirmed in the sweat of her palms. The heat was awful; the meteor was horrifying. When she squinted, she thought she could see a point of faded black at the statue’s heart. She stopped squinting immediately.
Amie wanted to let her arms drop. They would not. Her elbows were locked in place, and her hands stopped shaking. Her legs walked her forward. Her arms lifted. She closed her eyes; they were made to open. She stepped up onto the platform and placed the chisel’s tip on the statue’s chest. She swung the hammer as hard as she could, and the cruxite shattered and exploded.
The heat was instantly reversed, and she gasped at the frigid wind that sliced into the sweat on her neck. She began to shake from the cold, opening her eyes wide to stare at her bare feet. Teeth chattering, she shifted the hammer and chisel out of existence and wrapped her arms tight around herself. The wind brought snow into her eyes, and she pressed hard on her eyelids when they shut in reaction.
A low, rumbling growl undercut by sharp hissing filled the air around her. She blinked out the cold water in her eyes and looked up. The dull light from the sky was blocked out and let loose by the massive wings attached to a long, winding serpent. Long, glistening fangs protruded from its mouth, and liquid oozed from them as its maw opened. It was colored deep purple, but its eyes were a bright glowing gold. Amie forgot how to breathe and felt her heart stutter.
A back was before her, covered by a green cloak so dark in the shadows it looked as though it was made of ink. When she looked up, she saw a head wrapped by a hood and the long, curved, candy-corn colored horns that extended beyond the cloth. The left horn was hooked and swept down, and when the figure turned its head, the first thing she saw was a ragged, ripped apart ear that could have once been pointed. The skin was gray, and square glasses sat on the end of a small, blunt nose. The lips parted in a wide smile to show fangs as sharp as the winged serpent’s.
Amie was thrown bodily from the roof, through the wind and snow, and had time enough only to see the figure leap high into the air, arms spread wide, and knives extending from gauntlets on their wrist. She could see, just past the long cloak, the faint curves that told of the woman within the green cloth. Then the falling began in earnest, and she screamed as she went.
In her perception, barely a second passed before she fell into a thick cushion of snow. She wanted to let out another scream, but the deep dark cold stole every last piece of air in her lungs. She tried desperately to swim out of the snow, arms flailing, but she only dug herself in deeper. When her fingers managed to swing through air, her hand was caught and she was pulled free.
A young man with short brown hair grinned broadly at her as he helped her to her feet. When they stood on an even level in the drift, he was considerably taller than her. His hair was slightly wavy, despite its short length. She kept her own brown hair tied back because of its thick curls, and she tugged at it anxiously as she took a step back. The step was negated when he lunged forward and caught her in a tight hug.
“Amie!” he said. “I finally get to meet you!” Before she could push him away, he stepped back and held her at arm’s length. He looked her up and down and laughed in glee. “What’s up?”
She wrapped her arms around herself once more, shivering furiously. “H-Hugh?”
“Yeah!” he said. “I was worried you weren’t going to get in!” He paused and glanced up at the house. “Why’d you fall off the roof like that?”
“No, I didn’t—I didn’t fall off,” she said. “Someone threw me off.” She pointed up, and jumped at the sudden echoing shriek that rang out from the distance. A flash cast long shadows down the walls, and when the light vanished, shapes in wild sizes and colors rained down. Hugh pulled her out of the way of a massive ruby-red gem and stared up at the roof. A long moment passed, and a black shadow flitted across the gray sky. She gaped at the gem and didn’t react immediately to Hugh letting go of her arm. She turned in time to see him pull a wrench from nowhere and thrust it forward. A gear appeared, and the wrench caught its center to let him hold it tight. He turned it backward and vanished.
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