“Dude, that’s fuckin’ radical,” Scott laughed.
I nodded. “Yeah, bro, I know. I totally leveled up, right in front of her—it was wicked.” I frowned. “Then again, though, she had that look on her face.”
“What look?” Scott threw himself into my dish chair with a yawn, flicking on his headset. The screen flickered into existence over his eyes.
“The not-impressed look. Yo, turn that off. I’m tryin’ to talk to you.”
Scott rolled his eyes, but he turned the headset off. “Sorry, Mom.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Okay. So like I was saying. I was at the top of the Temple with the Grey Sky, and I saw this Crawler sneaking up the side of the rock to get Iris, so I engaged. And we fought for ages, man. Ages, I’m serious. And turns out the Crawler was some high-point scorer, so I leveled up.”
“Sweet. So, wait, why would she not be impressed by that? Sounds awesome.”
“Yeah, it was awesome,” I muttered, but I felt like I was trying to convince myself. No matter what I did for Iris, she always looked at me like I was something she’d just equalized with her hovermotor.
“You wanna try finding her? Talking to her?” Scott tapped his headset, grinning. “Come on. You know you want to. And she just saw you looking like a total boss. You’ll get Kudos for that at Assembly, no problem.”
I looked out the window at the graying sky. “I know. The honors alone are worth it, probably. And shit, it drained half my life, so it better be worth it.”
“Half? Damn, boy, we better go find you some replenishment.”
“Naw, man, that shit costs so much. My half-full life is probably still better than most people’s full lives.”
Scott leaned back in my dish chair, staring at the slow-moving ceiling fan. It moved sluggishly, like it was slicing through something with every turn. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. “Okay, dude, if you’re just gonna fuckin' sit here and whine, I’m clocking in.”
“No, fuck it, wait, I’ll clock in too.” I reached for the headset on my glass desk and shoved it on. The familiar scarred cushioning lent me a sense of relief, in a strange way. I spent so much time clocked in these days that it almost felt unnatural to be unplugged.
I flicked a switch on the headset. The screen buzzed into place, the frequency crackling. Then I jabbed a fat black button, and two spindly needles slid into my skull just in front of my ears.
My whole body went slack.
When I opened my eyes, I held a serrated hunting knife. Scott stood across from me, black-haired and blue-eyed, a cocky grin on his face as usual.
“Plateau,” I observed, checking our surroundings.
“Yeah. Let’s get to Center.”
“Center? It’ll be crawling with…”
Scott smirked. “Crawlers?”
“I’m chill. I just don’t think Center’s a good idea this time of day. And Iris isn’t gonna be there. She’s probably in Politick.”
Scott made a face. “Forget that.”
“How about a quest?”
“Assigned by Politick? Fuck, no.”
I sighed. “I just meant any quest. What’ve you got against Politick, anyway?”
He shrugged. “In real life, people couldn’t get away with being as arrogant as they act in Politick.”
I rolled my eyes. That’s why this isn’t real life, Scott. But I didn’t say that.
“Well,” he said, “I guess we can stop by just to see if Iris is there. But you owe me.” He punched me. “Also, I wanna see where you took out the Crawler. Temple with the Grey Sky, right?”
“Yeah.” We hurried over Plateau, the granite lighting up under our feet, veins of minerals twisting and curling in sudden light. The sky was dark—it always was in the Other Plane, but it was especially so since my life bar was half-empty. And my legs were annoyingly sluggish because of it. Made me consider, for a moment, unplugging to purchase more. But I’d sold enough of my stuff for the Other Plane—my brothers said if I started selling my possessions again, they’d take my headset, and that wasn’t going to happen. I had a whole life here.
We came to a compass disk, and as we stepped into it, a lashing wind dissipated our shadow-bodies, reassimilating them in Politick.
Politick was less dreary-looking than Plateau. People never hung around Plateau for long—it was barren, save for rogue quest materials, and you could come across some pretty nasty stuff there.
“Iris,” called Scott into the air.
I elbowed him. “What are you doing?”
“Someone call?” said her voice, and then the mist streamed into a head, torso, and long sleek legs. Iris Parker.
“Sorry. My mistake,” said Scott.
Iris shot him that disgusted look. It almost made me happy that she didn’t keep that look especially for me. As she glanced over and saw me, her eyes filled with recognition. “Good job earlier,” she said. “I’ll congratulate you in person when I see you at Assembly.”
“Really?” I blurted, and then I sort of wanted to die. If these bodies could blush, my face would have been splotchy red right then. As it was, I wished I could dissipate on command, like the Talkers. But no. I needed a compass disk.
Iris was a Talker. Not unsurprising, given…well, given Iris, but it meant my chances with her were slim to none. Talkers and Fliers? Not typically a good match.
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll vote for your Kudos, too.”
I was going to fall over for sure. I’d gotten respect points for sensing the Crawler, apparently. “Thanks,” I managed to say.
Scott wasn’t doing anything dumb, for a change. I seriously appreciated it. My first legitimate conversation with Iris Parker didn’t need ruination.
She held up a finger. “Okay, well, that was a lie, sorry. I’ll vote for you on one condition.”
“Yeah?” It wasn’t about the vote. It was about her approval.
“Quest for a Silencer.”
I stared. “Why…why do you need a…” It was like asking for a pike, or a cannon, only eight hundred times worse. Silencers could cancel Talkers entirely—or so rumor had it. No one knew what they even were—what they looked like; how they worked.
“I mean, I’ll try,” I said.
I could practically hear Scott’s voice in my mind. Whipped, bro. But he looked sort of worried, to be honest.
Iris smiled, waved, and dissipated.
Me and Scott said, in unison, “Detach.” The Other Plane detached us from the server automatically.
The Quest wasn’t a Quest, really. It was an obsession. Even after I got my Kudos and bought a new hovermotor—even after the entire Assembly thanked me for wiping an experienced Crawler from the system—I wasn’t happy.
I clocked in every day after work. Scott stopped tagging along on my journeys soon enough. I dug down through Plateau; I explored every temple in Ruins; I scoured every tree in Wild; I mined every tunnel in Burrow; I explored every alley in Politick and I searched every house in Center.
“This isn’t healthy,” Scott said.
“Yeah, man, you’re probably right. Wanna come with me?”
And eventually he stopped saying yes.
Eventually I stopped finding any Quest partners at all. And I spent so much time plugged in that I’d skip meals.
One day I was searching a sub-basement of Politick when my life bar beeped. There had to be a mistake, or something—I hadn’t even started a fight since the Crawler. How was my life low?
“Detach,” I tried to say, but it came out as a croak. How long had it been since I’d drunk anything?
“Detach,” I tried again, but my voice snapped and broke.
“Iris?” I whispered. It was enough for the call. She materialized.
“Help me.” My voice died completely. Quietness rang in the stone sub-basement.
She smiled a little. “So you found a Silencer.”
“I did?” I mouthed.
Iris’s lips tightened into a grim smile. “You are one.”
She said my name, and I dissipated along with her.