The bus rattles as it hits a pothole. You grab the brown pleather seat in front of you and curse the lack of seat-belts under your breath. Not that you needed to worry. There was only a handful of people on board and most of them had reacted the same way. Still, you sit up a little straighter, trying to regain composure before looking out the window. Pine trees flew by. They had started a while back down the road and only grew stronger and taller the further up the mountain you went. The ones that you saw now were as tall as telephone poles and were so thick that you could probably wrap your arms around the rough bark and barely be able to link your hands together. Their branches cover everything in speckled shade.
A fleck of yellow catches your eye. Then another flies by and another. Til the flecks turns into patches of golden flowers, and you feel relieved. Your destination is known for them, so you had to be close. At the river crossing, you see more military vehicles. Utilitarian Humvees pass by and signs for the local spa resorts were overshadowed by chain link fences topped with barbed wire.
The checkpoint comes into view and your heart sinks. It feels like a testimony to the crueler side of human nature. Monsters spent centuries behind a barrier and only to be guarded behind another one. It’s a sad but necessary protection against bigots and the unethical. Flashes of conspiracy theories and monster dust cure-all crackpots come to mind. You were quick to scroll past those links when you were researching this position, but just knowing they exist isn’t comforting.
Screeching brakes tear you out of your thoughts. The bus shutters to a stop and the front doors are opened. You grab your bag and shuffle off quietly with everyone else. Most of them seem to know each other and talk casually with a group of camo-clad soldiers. Once you’re off they begin boarding in your stead. Looks like they're here for the shift change. You wait for your suitcase quietly. Your PhDs never really taught you how to be social.
You look up and nearly do a double take. Standing a few feet away is a seven-foot-tall goat woman. She must have come around the other side of the bus for you to miss her. Her white fur practically glows in the sunlight and her royal purple dress is a rich contrast to the uniforms around the checkpoint. You recognize the white symbol stitched to her dress and the lady herself almost immediately. Yet it doesn't lessen the shock in the slightest.
“I am sorry, dear, but I'm afraid I don’t don’t know how to properly pronounce your name.” She apologizes and offers her hand. You shake it. Her fingers pads grip firmly but her fur slides off your skin like silk. Your hand feels dwarfed by comparison.
“Oh. No worries. I, um… I usually explain it to my students every semester.” You hope your smile doesn't look forced as you help her learn your name.
“Wonderful.” She says warmly. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Toriel Dreemurr and this is my child, Frisk. The human ambassador for monsters…”
She indicates the human child to her left. They can’t be older than ten or eleven. Their dark hair is cut short in a bob and they’re smirking at your gawking. It’s probably a common reaction. No amount of googling could have prepared you for this.
“Hello.” you wave.
They smile hold up a small whiteboard. In colorful markers is written, ‘Howdy! Welcome to Ebott City!’
“Oh right. Um….” You had read about the ambassador’s mutism. So you adjust your bag on your shoulder and then sign, ‘It is nice to meet you Ambassador F R I S K.’
You spell out each letter of their name individually because you don't really understand how names work in sign language. And you're pretty sure your signing was clunky. Yet Frisk’s eyes widen.
“Did I do it wrong?” You sweat.
Frisk shakes their head so quickly that their hair flairs out. They give you a big grin and a thumbs up.
“You know sign language?” Toriel asks. Were you imaging it or was her tone warmer than before?
“A little.” You admit, “There was wifi on the plane so I killed time watching YouTube videos.”
“Really? Did you pick up the basics so quickly? That's quite impressive,” Toriel said, “but given your credentials, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.”
You can feel your face warming up. You don't know why, because you're used to praise for your accolades. But… Well. That was usually from your peers, and there was just something about Toriel that feels like you were making your mother proud.
Now that’s something you hadn't felt, or even thought about, for a long time.
“Well, I…” You start but don't get a chance to finish. Because Frisk grabs your hand and starts pulling you towards the gate. Their excited ‘hurry up‘ gestures were understandable in any language. Behind you, you hear Toriel laugh.
“Ho ho! Alright, my child! We can show the good Doctor around now.” She takes the liberty of grabbing your suitcase for you and trails behind.
Much to their displeasure Frisk has to wait a few more minutes while your identity is confirmed and your luggage x-rayed and searched. Their childish pouting makes the grim reality of it seem almost silly. Finally, you were lead to a vehicle. It’s much like the ones you saw driving around the perimeter. Designed for function rather than comfort it makes the long bus ride look almost like a luxury, but as you were jostled over every bump and crack in the road Frisk signs excitedly. They act as your tour guide pointing out landmarks, giving directions, and adding little anecdotes that give the town color. Toriel translates as Frisk signs. You could tell that they were trying to go slow for you but it was nice to have help when they got a little over-excited or signed a word you didn't know.
The neighborhoods are composed mostly of cabins, bungalows, and duplexes. Sturdy logs and insulated vinyl siding made for the area’s cold winters are common. Though this time of year the picket fences were overflowing with vines, gardens, and cheap plastic wind catchers. Frisk rattled off the names of the residents like water. Mrs. Girlly had a brownie recipe that could rival Toriel’s pie. Mr. Winters ran the general store and seemed to enjoy the antics of his newest employees Bratty and Catty. The Thompson twins that lived in the blue corner unit used to be real terrors around the park but were now the most stalwart players on Monster Kid’s kickball team. You nod along but know that wouldn't be able to keep all these names straight later.
Eventually, the houses gave way to the “downtown” area. Like most small towns it’s simply a street with the shopping outlets on it, but you can see Mt. Ebott in the distance. You spot the general store and made mental notes on where a few others are located. You had packed light and would need more clothes at some point. The movie theater catches your eye. It’s the old-fashioned kind with a big red and white sign framed by bare lightbulbs. Frisk points out the arcade next to it and you watch an assortment of human and monster children milling around it.
“It is wonderful what we've managed to accomplish in six months,” Toriel said following your gaze.
“Do they all go to school together?” You ask.
Toriel lets out a deep sigh, “Not yet but we are working on it. Right now Frisk will attend my makeshift school with the other monster children once the summer is over. Perhaps next year we will have things sorted out with the school board…. However, those completing programs at UNH when the barrier fell are having quite a time of it.”
“University of New Home.” Toriel explains, “It was our college in the underground, and before you ask Asgore is terrible at naming things….”
There is a bitter edge to her voice as she mentions the Monster King but you were saved from having to respond by the river. Going over the bridge Frisk points out a large building on the opposite shore.
‘That's where the sawmill is!’
From this distance it is hard to tell but it looks like it’s still in operation. There’s a fair amount of cars in the parking lot and trucks move in and out. Once across the bridge, the Humvee turns and it looks like you were headed towards a rental cabin resort.
Frisk notices your confusion.
‘Where better to put a of bunch new people than in a hotel?’ They sign, ‘There's a lot around here and everyone that lived under Mt Ebott had a bunch of gold.’
“It's not ideal but most of the owners are reasonable people.” Toriel hums.
You nod and remember your internet research. Ebott City is a small town of roughly 15,000 people. That number tripled with the addition of monsters. It was founded an exorbitantly long time ago. Possibly around the time they were sealed away, but you try not to think about that too much. The main industries were logging and tourism. Industrial mining was listed as illegal in the town charter. That tradition was -again- probably started when the barrier was a known fact and continued due to superstition and geo-tourism. Throughout history, visitors have been drawn to the idyllic mountainside for relaxation and its numerous hot springs. The water’s rich mineral content is famed for its restorative properties and the fast-growing pines have been described as ‘magically abundant’ by more than one land surveyor. Information about the effects of magic are still scarce but all the credible research you’ve read states that it’s generally a good thing for the environment.
You wonder how many people have passed by the mountain without realizing what was underneath it….
Frisk bounces excitedly beside you and signs. “We’re here!”
The pines give way as the humvee reaches the top of the hill and you get a glimpse of the layout. The main hotel, a blocky building with cabin like accents, sits at the front. It serves to check people in and looks like it offered traditional rooms. Behind it lay a series of spiraling cul de sacs spaced out by trees and walk paths. Each circle has about four cabins each. They are two story homes with clean chestnut colored logs, green roofing, and wide windows. Almost like the lincoln logs you used to play with as a child. At the center of each cul de sac is a fire pit and a few picnic tables. It looks like the perfect place to barbeque and in fact you could see several groups of monsters doing just that.
You’re driven to a cul de sac nearest the center and try not to look dumbfounded by the honest-to-god skeleton standing near the fire pit. Frisk is the first out. They practically leap into his outstretched arms and look happy as a clam sitting on his tall broad shoulders.
“GREETINGS HUMAN DOCTOR!” The skeleton’s voice reminds you of something out of a He-Man cartoon. “I, THE GREAT PAPYRUS MONSTER MASCOT EXTRAORDINAIRE, WOULD LIKE TO PERSONALLY WELCOME YOU TO YOUR NEW HOME!”
“Oh! Thank you. I’m Doctor~” Your voice sounds so quiet, and you have to crane your neck to look at him. But it doesn’t matter since Papyrus interrupts you.
“MS. TORIEL, PLEASE ALLOW ME TO TAKE THAT FOR YOU.”
You look back to the Humvee to see that Toriel had again taken the liberty of getting your bag.
“It’s no trouble Papyrus, really,” Toriel says.
You listen to the both of them politely insist and you feel your cheeks redden. It’s silly to be fussed over so much. Yes, you are an esteemed scientist in your field, but you’re hardly a superstar. You try to protest, “Um… I can take my own…”
“just let them do it.”
The noise you make is hard to describe but it’s not flattering. Whirling around you find yourself face to skull with another skeleton. How did you not see him before? He’s about your height, and some small part of you is glad that you won’t be looking up at every monster in town. Dressed in loose-fitting shorts and a hoodie he’s a lazy contrast to Papyrus’s sharp looking scarf, polo, and pants combo.
“aren’t you a wire-y engineer.” He smirks and your eye twitches at the pun. Extending a hand he says, “i’m sans.”
“Um, thanks… I’m~” Taking it, you are rewarded with a low, loud, and long fart noise that peters off into a high pitched whine.
“SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANS!” Papyrus moans. You can practically hear Toriel and Frisk snickering.
“wha? it’s a classic” Sans chuckles and holds up the small palm-sized whoopie cushion.
“...” For once you’re caught absolutely speechless. The moment passes and the pupil like lights in Sans’ eye sockets shift awkwardly.
“Let us be kind to the Doctor.” Toriel comes to the rescue and Sans looks as relieved as you are. She gently leads you to one of the cabins. “The journey here was long and this must be quite the culture shock. Perhaps some rest is for the best.”
You nod dumbly and allow yourself to be lead. The door to your cabin is painted purple and it opens up to an airy first floor. Only a bar and countertop area separates the kitchen in the back from the rest of the living space up front. There’s a kitchen table and a few nice looking couches around an old TV. To your right is a staircase that presumably leads to the bedroom.
“Please do not feel the need to rush. Take however long you need, and we hope to see you at dinner tonight.” Toriel offers warmly.
“Thank you….” You mumble. “I think I will.”
“No pressure, either way,” Toriel replies. Your suitcase is set inside and Toriel closes the door gently behind her.
You wait for a second to make sure you’re alone. When silence is the only thing that follows you let out a breath that you didn’t know you were holding. Combing your hand through your hair you ask the ether, “What did I get myself into?”
“Well, that was a weird dream….”
You snuggle deeper into the covers. There’s no light coming in through the windows but that’s alright. The conference circuit tends to mess with your rhythms anyway.
Giant goat ladies and prankster skeletons… Man, your imagination could run wild sometimes! You wonder if you should keep a journal as you roll over and come face to figurine with at a hot pink Mew Mew: Kissy Cutie clock.
“What…?” You blink a few times. Willing the obviously Japanese made appliance to melt into something more appropriate for the western cabin decor. It doesn't and slowly you start to remember. You sit up in bed.
It wasn't a dream. You weren't at a conference. You had agreed to move to Mt. Ebott to study monster technology and contribute ways to sustain The Core without constant manual upkeep. The thought of monsters stir up uncomfortable thoughts about “magic” but you shake your head as if to shake the memories away.
No….. This is different. You remind yourself that you are an adult now, and that you can handle this. You had only met three monsters so far and besides some quirky personalities, they all seemed like nice people. Exorbitantly friendly even! Plus Toriel had mentioned a university, so somebody had to have practice teaching the fundamentals. This “magic” was just another form of energy. Something you could measure, replicate, and predict. Patterns could be learned and you are good at learning.
Bolstered by you resolve you shower and change. Your style can be summed up as “business casual”. Though you a one fancy outfit and a lab coat in your suitcase.
When you had first came upstairs you had been surprised to find two bedrooms and had just picked the bigger one in your tired stupor. Now you wonder if you were going to be sharing with anyone. You didn’t see any personal items in the other room. Maybe the clock belonged to someone else here? You should ask. It’s around dinner time and you wonder if Toriel’s offer is still good.
Making your way downstairs you see a group of monsters through the large windows. They’re clustered around the fire pit and picnic tables outside. Fairy lights strung between the cabins light the area with a soft glow and from the smell, you guess that the food has finished cooking. You’re also surprised to see a lot of important figures outside. Frisk is helping Papyrus stock wood for the campfire. Toriel is easy to spot by the grill, and you’re shocked to see King Asgore himself standing sheepishly by the veggie platter. Undyne, ex-captain of the royal guard and Frisk’s personal bodyguard, appears to be bickering with the robot superstar Mettaton over table placements. Did the monsters really stick anyone who could be considered a leader in one place?
You see Sans talking with a yellow lizard monster you don't recognize and feel a little bit of comfort. Not everyone here was a political bigwig.
“You can do it.” You mumble and step outside.
“Hey NERD!” Undyne’s voice cuts through the crowd like a shot and you flinch a little.
“Hi…” you wave shyly, “Room for one more?”
There's a chorus of agreement and you make your way over. Frisk and Papyrus finish what they're doing to join you. King Asgore comes around the table to shake your hand.
“Howdy,” His voice is deep and soft. His handshake is much like Toriel’s, though his hand is nearly twice the size.
You introduce yourself and add, “Its a pleasure to meet you, your majesty, but I wasn't expecting to see you till tomorrow.”
“Please, just call me Asgore.”
“He still responds to Fluffybuns too!” Undyne jeers. Her smile is wide with an underbite full of big sharp teeth. Asgore pays her no mind, simply ruffling her hair and giving her a playful push. Undyne laughs.
“As I was saying.” He chuckles, “You will probably see me around here often. That is my cabin over there.” -He points to the cabin directly across the circle from yours with the green door.- “I share it with Undyne and Dr. Alphys here.”
At the mention of Dr. Alphys you perk up. She had been your contact after the military had approved your application. After all, monsters needed to have a say in who could go poking around the Core before you had final confirmation. You’ve never been interviewed over email before but her responses had been very quick and informative. In fact, it was because of her that you felt fairly confident about coming into this project at all.
“Dr. Alphys?” You ask and looking around.
“That would be this GORGEOUS monster over here!” Undyne practically shouts. She vaults over the table, rattling a few dishes in the process, and lands next to the yellow lizard woman you spotted before. Undyne hugs her tightly around the shoulders even as Alphys’ face goes from yellow to orange. “She’s the SMARTEST, GREATEST, and BEST ex-royal scientist on the surface!”
“Oh, w-well I wouldn't- I wouldn't s-say that much….” Alphys studders. Her tail curls around the front of her and around an ankle. If she could shrink into a little ball it looks like she would.
“Dr. Alphys its so good to meet you.” You smile warmly. Social anxiety is common among your peers and you felt like you had some common ground with Alphys in this group of superstars, “I'm so glad to put a face to the name. Your emails were incredibly informative and I'm looking forward to working on The Core with you.”
“Oh… Uh, t-thanks.” Alphys blinked.
“Of course you are!” Undyne's smile somehow grows wider. It was an uncanny sight but you could see that she genuinely believes in what she was saying. Her affection toward Alphys is sweet in it's it's own forcefully way. “Alphys is awesome!”
“Alright, everyone. Dinner is ready!” Toriel interrupts. Her arms are laden with burgers.
“Please let me help you with that Darling~” Mettaton purrs. He has the deep electronic voice of a radio star and the fluidity of a dancer as he plucks burgers from the tray. As he distributes them, you watch his metal arms bend and stretch in inhuman ways with mild fascination. “I want to be helpful and you didn't let me cook any of my fab~u~lous glamburgers this evening!”
“We didn't have enough glitter for that.” Toriel harrumphs.
Frisk tugs on your pant leg and angles their body so they could secretly sign to you, ‘Mom actually threw it all away. She says it gets everywhere.’
“Glitter? In food?” You whisper back.
They just smile and nod. Papyrus chimes in, “IT’S ACTUALLY QUITE DELICIOUS. LIKE CRUNCHY SUNLIGHT.”
Everyone started taking their seats. You somehow end up between Frisk and Sans. Toriel and Papyrus snag the ends of your row. Alphys and Undyne were across from you and were flanked by Asgore and Mettaton. You vaguely noticed that Toriel and Asgore were seated as far away from each other as possible, but mostly you were trying to figure up how you got stuck in the middle.
Between the burgers and light conversation, you learn that almost everyone at the table lives in this cul de sac. Papyrus and Sans were your next-door neighbors in the cabin with the blue door. Toriel and Frisk lived the last cabin with the red door. So knowing that Asgore, Undyne, and Alphys were in the cabin with the green door meant that the only one left out was Mettaton.
“I found a pink anime clock in my room; is that yours? Did I crash in your room by mistake?” You ask but even as you say it you doubt it. After six months aboveground there was no way this flamboyant robot could contain himself to a single clock decoration.
“Oh no darling~!” Mettaton laughs “This is actually my last day here for a little while. Tomorrow Blooky, Shyren, and I start our world tour!”
“Congratulations.” You reply.
“Yes it'll be marvelous, I'm sure! Tokyo, Milan, London~ Concerts performed nightly. Talk shows and meeting fans by the day. It’ll be tough but such is the life of a star!”
Nodding you remember a few YouTube videos that went viral. Mettaton’s music wasn’t exactly your style but it was catchy. Frisk looks proud while Mettaton continues to rattle on about the tour schedule. It must have taken massive political wrangling to get make it possible, but no doubt the tour would go a long way towards monster human relations.
“So if the clock isn't yours…?” You began and Alphys turns orange again.
“T-that would be mine….” she admits, “I-I-I knew I forgot something when I moved out.”
“Moved out?” You question, “I didn’t crowd you out, did I?” Given how everyone here has roommates, even the monsters three times your size, you could guess that space was at a premium.
“Well, we wanted to give you space.” Asgore reasons.
“Besides! You movin’ moving in was just the excuse I needed to get this gorgeous monster all to myself.” Undyne beams. She nuzzles the top of Alphys’s head, who’s orange blush only deepens but she returns the nuzzle with a drunken grin. Alphys wraps her arms around Undyne, and it’s absolutely adorable.
“Awww…” You can’t help yourself. It’s just too cute to see and you’re not the only one that makes approving noises. Still, somewhere in the back of your mind, the special treatment makes you uncomfortable
For a bit the others simply tease the happy couple. Then ply Mettaton with questions about the travel arrangements; apparently the TSA hadn’t been too happy about a robot going through security.
Toriel turns to you, “So how was the trip, doctor? Hopefully not too bad.”
“Not bad, just long. I barely remember crawling into bed.” You reply.
“know that feeling…” Sans mumbles.
“Well dear, I am glad you arrived safely.” Toriel adds, “We’ve been looking forward to your arrival.”
You pause and decide to be brave once more. You have to know the reason behind all of this special treatment. From the welcome with the ambassador themself to carrying your suitcase for you and now knowing that you have the privilege of a private cabin. Something feels off.
“I hope this question isn’t rude,” You start, “but may I ask why? I mean, not that I don’t appreciate the warm welcome. I do! I really do, but… Well, I’m here to study your tech. There will be a solution to The Core’s labor costs. I’m sure of it! It sounds like it’s a thermal cooling problem, but really it’s my privilege to come here to study your breakthrough in renewable energy. Out of the all of this, humans will benefit from this more than you will. So why am I getting special treatment?”
Silence descends upon the table. You can feel everyone’s eyes on you and you struggle not to squirm.
“Well?” You say with more resolution than you feel.
“There, uh…. W-we had a lot of difficulties with…” Alphys stammers. She drums her claws on the table and mumbles. “The Core really is a problem. I - I.. There w-was only so much - so much I could tell you over email…”
You blink. Well, that explains a few of Alphys’s ‘odd’ questions during the interview. You don’t say anything. Instead you just nod and wait for her to continue.
She doesn't do so immediately. Everyone is quiet and Alphys looks first to Asgore and Toriel. They both stare at you intently and again you struggle not to squirm. You could practically feel them summing you up. Part of you wonders if the rumors are true and that monsters can see through to your very soul. There’s tension in the air that says that they can, and their gazes shift to a spot in your chest about where your heart should be. Guess that those rumors might be true. After what feels like forever both Asgore and Toriel nod. Whatever they saw in you was deemed worthy.
Approval given, Alphys continues. You leaned in intently as she explains the true depth of the issue.
Turns out that if The Core isn’t kept cool it can overheat, and if it does it has the potential to melt the entire underground. Which while no one wants to stay there, the underground had been their cultural home for generations. No one wanted to see it destroyed. More importantly the additional magma would not be good for the local geography. The heat alone would kill the surrounding forests and wildlife. Thus wiping out a good chunk of the environment and economy around here. Alphys isn’t certain if the pressure would be enough to force the lava to the surface but no explanation was needed for how bad that would be.
To complicate the matter The Core produces a lot of energy and that energy has to be used up. Otherwise, the system would overload. Right now the buffers were handling it just fine, but they didn’t know how long it would last. Should an overload happen Mt. Ebott could become Grand Canyon Ebbot. Directly shutting down The Core or simply turning the thing off was not possible either. It was tied directly into the earth’s crust and once it began operation it had become self-sustaining. To break the loop would cause the same kind explosion…. In theory.
This was all untested. There had always been enough monsters in the underground to staff The Core and use up the energy it produced. While Alphys never said it, you got the feeling that no one had actually believed they would ever be free. So the Core simply hadn’t been designed with it in mind.
It was both sad and terrifying.
“You’re saying that we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb?” You summarize.
“Do you wish to remain?” Asgore’s question is short but holds the weight of a king.
It all made sense. They threaded a thin line when they hired you and you were secretly a little proud of making the cut. On one hand they sought out someone with the skills and knowledge to help with the Core. On the other they must have searched through your personal history and looked through every scrap they could to find to figure out who you are. Part of you wonders how much they found but you can guess that they interpreted it with sympathy. Since they needed someone that wouldn’t run to the authorities the moment you heard the truth.
With a single phone call you could shut down this entire project and fuck up every monster’s life. You could just imagine how the politicians would panic. How the military could lock down the quarantine and evacuate the entire city, except for the monsters. They would be stuck here as the media would run with this story and paint them in a terrible light. There would be calls to force them back underground. If not because of their race then because of an unfeeling machine that could blow anytime. Even if ethical voices were heard the whole thing would get wrapped up in so much red tape that it would take generations to resolve.
For a brief second, you remember being trapped with machines in a small dark place. It fills your thoughts. You smell sulfur and remember the flames. It’s a brief but potent memory.
Asgore’s question hangs in the air. Do you wish to remain?
“Absolutely.” You agree with determination in your eyes.