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Generated: Jul 06, 2018 2:49 PM
Post last updated: Jul 06, 2018 2:49 PM
Far Flung Hopes and Improbable Dreams
Joss and Flatmates in Partyland
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An invitation to a party appears on various university billboards inviting people to the Kappa Alpha Frat house located in the mostly finished Castle Commonwealth mall on the edge of town. The notice instructs people to follow the access road at 67 Lost Nation drive and enter through the back door and promises that signs will be posted to guide people to the party itself.

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"Oh, come on, Joss," Rex whines. "The others are already going to be there."

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"I hate parties," Joss says, following along anyway, letting him bound ahead. "You know I hate parties. Why are you dragging me to a party?"

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"Because you haven't been out except for lectures in three weeks? And also because Dale and Tam thought it would be good for you." He's excited, it's been a while since he got to go to a party as well. "Why did I let you talk me into walking?"

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"Because you know I'll be calmer if I get enough exercise and fresh air prior to getting to this party?"

By this point, they've making their way along the access road.

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The road is wide enough for construction vehicles to drive down but not much wider than that and it isn't paved. The road is surrounded on both sides by trees. The road meanders back and forth through the forest a little but then there was a final sharp turn and the trees part to reveal their destination. Before them is a modest overflow parking lot. A smattering of cars are parked there, and beyond that an enormous building looms in the darkness. The impression of a vast castle is very strong.

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Joss frowns at it, wrapping her arms around herself. "Well, this is...big. And not at all creepy."

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"You worry far to much, Joss," Tamaris says as she joins them. "It'll be fine. It's just a party. Come on, the others went ahead."

She leads them down into the building.

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The entrance is done up to look like a drawbridge passing over a stream that feeds into a pond visible a ways off. Just inside the door there's a sign offering directions to the party, the directions lead to one sign and then another travelling through indoor and outdoor areas passing apartments and food courts and tennis courts. Finally their path leads them back into a shopping area and then through a maintenance corridor, into a brightly lit lobby with a single elevator door. Off to the side are tables with drinks and slips of paper on them. Whether from their long walk or something else they all feel a bit thirsty.

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Tamaris picks one up, sipping at it. She, for now ignores the bits of paper.

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Joss is looking for an unopened drink - a bottle of beer would do. "Do you have no self-preservation, guys?" (Because Rex has just picked up a drink as well.) "Jeez, it's a wonder you haven't had anything bad happen."

She picks up one of the slips of paper to see what it says.

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"But that's why we have you, Joss. You keep us safe."

(Joss pretends not to hear that, but she's blushing.)

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The slips of paper each have a border of a certain color along with a quote and an apparently random alphanumeric code typeset in the same color.

  • Red:    B2BB XTN8 3EQR B9VX EC33 "Caring about others, running the risk of feeling, and leaving an impact on people, brings happiness."
  • Orange: 74VM DCU6 QNQ2 A7GH V8HP "A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning."
  • Yellow: 3D96 XY4C 3KER RNW2 TWOD "Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes."
  • Green:  U7N7 KIHQ 3JTP QS39 KG4I "What good is an idea if it remains an idea? Try. Experiment. Iterate. Fail. Try again. Change the world."
  • Blue:   BKQ7 WZUE 6HE6 PSKK M697 "Skill is the unified force of experience, intellect and passion in their operation."
  • Purple: 62OR G47F ZNGK QG3P B3OB "The aim of medicine is to prevent disease and prolong life, the ideal of medicine is to eliminate the need of a physician."
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"Huh," she ends up tucking the red bordered slip of paper away in her pocket - the quote hurts, because right now caring is only causing problems, but she figures she can have a laugh about it with at least one of the others at some point.

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"Can we just go already?" Tamaris demands. "I didn't get all dressed up to be stuck at the entrance to a party."

She's stood by the door to the elevator now, tapping one foot impatiently.

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"Yeah, sure," Joss says, crossing over to them.

And they get on the elevator.

Joss shivers, and rubs her upper arms with her hands.

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Inside the elevator is a keyboard with a twenty character display mounted above it and no buttons for floor numbers.

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"Am I seriously the only one who's getting the shivers from this?" Joss asks, very ready to leave right now.

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Tamaris laughs. "You're paranoid, pet," she says, sliding a hand into Joss' pocket to pull out the slip of paper - apparently she'd been paying more attention than was apparent. She keys the alphanumeric code in. "It's just like having to have a password to get into a party. Keeps the undesirables out."

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"One: You know I don't go to parties unless you guys drag me. Two: They just left the password there for all to find." She doesn't try too hard to stop Tamaris though, it's probably just her being worried about being in a room with people she doesn't know, and she doesn't want to argue with Tamaris about that. She dislikes arguing for fairly silly reasons.

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When Tamaris finishes entering the code the doors slide closed behind them and Joss gets treated to a Migraine-grade headache with a side order of vertigo. The others feel a slight turning sensation.

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Joss sways when the vertigo hits and then slams her eyes shut when the headache makes itself known.

(Something is very wrong.)

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Rex immediately loops an arm around Joss, bracing her carefully so she doesn't fall. "Tam?" he asks quietly, obviously distressed.

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"I'm not sure," Tamaris murmurs. "I'm not feeling anything that would cause this? Maybe she's just dehydrated herself?" She's worried as well, but she does a better job of hiding it.

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After about a minute, Joss's headache and vertigo depart with the same suddenness that they arrived, and the doors open revealing a large well appointed lounge. Off to the right side under some windows is a table with buffet trays. Off to the left is another set of windows. At the end of the lounge is a counter and a doorway dividing it from what looks to be a kitchen. Two people are arguing softly standing at the counter on the kitchen side.

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She stays leaning against Rex anyway, because she's not entirely sure she trusts her legs. Something is definitely not right - and she feels like some strange weight is gone, but she can't place it, and it feels off. She shakes herself, and steps away from Rex and into the room. (Does she still have the knife in her boot and in the back of her jeans? She thinks she does.)

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Once Rex is sure that Joss is steady, he makes his way over to the buffet trays.

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"Well some party this is," Tamaris huffs slightly.

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"Where are the others?" Joss asks, frowning to herself.

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One of the people arguing, hears them and looks over. "The trim matches the color of the code if you picked Red too. I'd say you could call them but neither Zahn or I have cell service so I'd be surprised if you did."

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Joss pulls out her phone, swears, and turns a baleful glare to Tamaris. "What have you got us into?"

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"I'm not the one who chose the code," Tamaris responds coolly.

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"No, but if might've been smart to, y'know, coordinate where we were going? Also, since when did parties have elevators that took you to more than one place, huh? Now we have basically no way of contacting the others, and no idea where we are."

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"Well, I'm sure we can figure those out." Tamaris does not sounds quite as confident as she manages to look.

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"My friend Alice and I have explored the top floor here, it's pretty weird but generally luxurious. We were regrouping to grab a snack before checking out the lower levels. Should we wait for the three of you to catch your bearings?"

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Tamaris shares a look with Joss, and Joss skirts the two strangers to go investigate whether the kitchen has bottles of water.

"I think we're game for checking out the lower levels," she says, "So long as we can find our way back here we have all the bearings we need. Tamaris Apollyon," she introduces herself. "That's Rex by the food, and Joss looking for something to drink."

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"There are cups in one of the cupboards and a sink. If you don't want to drink tapwater one of the cupboard is disguising a refrigerator. I think it's one of the ones in the back right corner."

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"Tap water's probably fine," Joss agrees, pulling one of the cups out. She rinses it out several times before finally downing the liquid in it. "It was more about the safety of drinking unsealed containers that had been left unattended."

She rinses the cup again and sets it on a rack to drain. "Alice and Zahn right?"

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"Yeah, that's us. You're Joss, Tamaris and Rex? Nice to meet you all, I wish it was under better circumstances though."

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Joss isn't entirely sure it is nice to meet them yet, she gets the impression (and a little bit more than that) that Alice is...not an immediate threat, but potentially one, aggressive, Joss wouldn't be surprised to find her armed. Joss wishes she was armed better.

There's also...something. From both Zahn and Alice, despite the fact that they appear to be regular humans - it feels a little bit like the bond Rex shares with his pack, but like someone cut it off, and it's searching for another end. She doesn't know what to do about that.

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Rex on the other hand, grins. "Nice to meet you too, and the circumstances could be a lot worse." Eternal optimist that he is (he gets a slightly disbelieving look from Joss). "We're still alive after all."

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Zahn laughs at that remark. "We are indeed still alive, and this place is no desert island. We haven't explored very far yet but assuming we can find a regular source of food we should be able to live here however long it takes to find our way home."

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"You said something about exploring. Perhaps we should go and do that before Rex gets distracted extolling the virtues of food?"

(Rex stares innocently at her.)

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Zahn laughs again. Alice speaks up as he finishes. "Of course, do you want to see the bedrooms and bathroom for yourself, or use the bathroom for that matter or should we go right to exploring the downstairs?"

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She looks at Tam and Rex, both of whom shake their heads.

"We're good. I for one have no intention of being here long enough to need to know where the bedrooms are."

She taps the fingers of one hand on her hip and clicks her tongue (a habit she's picked up from Dale when she's not sure of something).

"Let's go."

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Alice shows them out the door from the kitchen, the central area of the floor is hexagonal. It has a large skylight showing an overcast sky, four hallways to on the sides to their left and right and a doorway opposite them. There's a spiral ramp leading downwards. The next floor down looks similar but it has six doors and no hallways. The first door leads them into a greenhouse, the same size as the kitchen and the lounge combined. It's lit by daylight bulbs set into the ceiling. At the end of each row closest to them are opaque bins with handles on the top to open them upwards. "Well, that's not something I'd expect to see in a frat house."

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Rex hums out an agreement, even as he moves forward, inhaling deeply.

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"Don't go too far," Joss warns, moving over to one of the bins and cautiously lifting the lid.

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Zahn moves off in a different direction looking at some of the rows.

The bin opens with a faint hiss. It contains a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Including peppers from the plants Joss may or may not recognize at the end of the current row.

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"Well. We got fruit and veg," she says. She does not, exactly, recognise the plants, but she knows enough to realise that the fruit and vegetables most likely come from the various plants in this greenhouse.

"Hm. Gotta be someone who harvests this stuff. It doesn't look like it's been left here for ages..."

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"Which means we're probably not alone here..." Tamaris moves closer to Joss, somewhat unnerved.

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"Yeah, or at least that someone or something put a lot of work into setting this place up before we got here."

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"So what you're suggesting is that we are in fact rats in a really extensive experiment?"

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"That seems...a little overkill for an immediate theory of what the fuck is going on," Joss says, closing the bin, and scanning the greenhouse for anything she might have missed.

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"I think saying we're rats in an experiment is too specific, we shouldn't jump to conclusions."

The greenhouse has more plants, and some floor decorations, a couple identical ones distributed around the room are surrounded by grooves while most of the rest aren't, but most of the patterns repeat. The floor gently slopes towards some of those grooved patterns but not all of them.

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She moves over to one of the grooved sections trying to figure out if there's any particular pattern to where the floor slopes and where it doesn't.

"We also shouldn't discount any possible explanation to why we're here," Joss admits. "But I want more information before I subscribe to any one theory."

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Rex comes back at that point. He gestures slightly. "Doesn't...smell quite right," he murmurs.

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The sections that are sloped towards are smaller and they have deeper grooves, they might be drains though more elaborately decorated ones than anything she's seen before. The larger grooved patterns are larger and there's fewer of them. Beyond that there aren't more clues to be found.

"Do you mean the food? I don't remember what greenhouses tend to smell like. As for getting more information, there's more rooms to explore, maybe one of those will have more clues."

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Rex shrugs slightly. "It's...more than that," he admits, slightly more cautious now. "I have a very good sense of smell. I would expect to still be able to smell concrete and cement dust from the construction site. I can't."

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"Then we should probably go and investigate those," she almost seems to be trying to distract from conversation about Rex's sense of smell.

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Alice notes the deflection but doesn't comment. She walks over to the door and pulls it open. "Onto the next room then." The next room is a library. There are stacks along the sides with an area with tables and comfy-looking chairs in the middle. The far wall is a massive window. The wall they enter through has six computers lined up along it three on each side of the door. "Well, I'm not sure if this will have relevant information... but it's definitely pretty dense with some information."

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"How do you even figure out how to find out what the relevant information is?" Tamaris asks, although she's eyeing the chairs and the shelves up speculatively. "I mean, we could try an internet search for 'abduction to strangely well appointed so not a frat house'?"

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"Tam," Joss chides, striding over to the window - maybe it will give her some idea of their surroundings?

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The shelves to the left seem to be filled with fiction books. There isn't any clear ordering but there's some sci-fi some fantasy and some literary, among other genres. To the right seem to be non-fiction books, there are textbooks but a cursory examination will not produce anything that looks out of the ordinary.

The large window reveals a large wall some distance off along with a garden, some small buildings and some sports fields.

"I'm not really sure what might be relevant. Certainly if we notice something out of the ordinary we can pay more attention to it."

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"Define 'out of the ordinary'?" Tamaris says distractedly as she continues to lust over the books on the shelves.

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"I also tend to find that if something pings as not right I'm paying more attention to it anyway?" Joss comments over her shoulder, a little bit less distracted than Tamaris. "Looks almost...to normal out here. Like someone built an ideal park? With place to do...everything? I dunno."

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"It's a park of some sort it looks like, I do notice that there aren't any roads in evidence though. There were windows in the bedrooms upstairs and as I didn't roads in any direction, this building is just surrounded on all sides by park and that wall in the distance. There's also what I think is an olympic sized pool outside on one of the other sides."

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"I mean, I've seen estates that you can't see any access roads for, but there's normally one somewhere. Have you found any doors to the outside yet?"

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"You've seen as much as we have if you don't count the top floor. We were just stopping back to grab a bit more food and talk before we headed to the lower levels."

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"Hoping for a fire escape, Joss?"

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"When you're involved, always," she says, bumping their shoulders together. "And I'd prefer to not have to jump out of a window quite a way above the ground."

"I don't think we can gather anything else from here right now. Shall we?"

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"We might look at the computers more in depth later but I think it's probably better to do our exploring while it's still daylight." The next room bears some resemblance to a compressed hospital ward, there are beds with various life-support looking monitors around them arranged along most of the walls. The far left corner has what looks to be an infant intensive care unit, and the far right corner has a couple tables with the fittings for telesurgery. In the middle of the room are several other types of tables for things from dentistry to the sort of exam table you'd see in a physician's office. "I'm not sure whether to be reassured or concerned."

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"Almost definitely concerned," Tamaris says, moving over to poke at the devices.

(Rex follows her, sticking close now where he hadn't before.)

"Although, I have to wonder why on earth they've provided facilities for infants. And the telesurgery equipment seems somewhat more advanced than our current standard."

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"Seems like whatever the reason whoever it was had for bringing us here probably wants us healthy. Or the lab rat thought was accurate and they intend to cut us open to see how we work."

She grimaces when Rex makes a quiet, distressed noise, and Tamaris shoots her a dark look.

"Does there seem to be a standard first aid kit? This is all well and good, but really, sometimes you just need a bandaid and some antiseptic cream."

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Looking around the room there aren't first aid kits in evidence. "I think if this place was intended to cut us open it wouldn't be shown to us like this. But maybe I'm being overly optimistic."

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"The lack of first aid kits is really weird now that you mention it. This place looks like a clinic with no storage for medical supplies of any kind."

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"That's somewhat disconcerting," Joss murmurs. "It's obviously not that they don't expect injuries to happen, it's like they didn't fully understand what a medical clinic needed. She hugs herself and shivers slightly. "This entire thing is disconcerting. Feels off, wrong."

She leaves, and leans against the wall outside, taking deep breaths, trying to establish some kind of reality.

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Alice looks over at Joss's friends. "Is she going to be okay?"

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"She'll be fine," Tamaris says, not quite dismissive. "I think she has some bad experience with hospitals and the like, she hasn't been entirely forthcoming with that information. This place, pretty creepy without that. Anyway. I'm not seeing much else we can look at here. Shall we?"

And Tamaris turns to leave as well, Rex right on her heels, both of them looking back slightly to Alice and Zahn.

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"Yeah definitely," they follow her out and Alice opens the door to the next room. The room is filled with worktables, the side walls are lined with cabinets and the back wall has a countertop with a pair of sinks mounted in it. "Well this looks remarkably normal."

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Joss detaches from the wall and follows behind them. She stays quiet, moving towards one of the cabinets.

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"You sure we want to know what's in there?"

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"Better than not knowing," she says firmly, opening the door.

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What's in the cabinet is board games. Settlers of Catan, Monopoly, Life, Yahtzee, and so many more. "Well, that's sorta charming. I remain pretty confused, but I'm also charmed."

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"That is strangely, almost disappointingly, normal," Joss comments. "But at least we have plenty of entertainment, right?"

Tamaris snorts behind her, not quite a full on laugh.

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The other cabinets on this wall contain a mix of games and art supplies, mostly those for drawing and painting and fun projects with kids. On the other wall the art supplies are more suited to more heavy duty projects like carpentry and pottery the games also contain some more mature entries like Cards Against Humanity and Betrayal at House on The Hill. "Well, we're certainly not going to get bored any time soon."

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"Is no-one else going to comment on how much of this seems geared towards children? Like, preteens and stuff? Seems odd given we got here from a frat-party invitation?"

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"Well, I'm not exactly an artist, so it might make sense to use it if I decided to pick up art, but yeah, that combined with the neonatal unit in the clinic seems to suggest they expect there to be kids eventually, I think they expect us to be here for a long time."

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"And we haven't seen anyone else yet." Joss frowns. "But we know our flatmates were coming here as well. And they would have let us know if they changed their plans. Which means they've ended up somewhere else... There were...six different options?"

"Anyone tried going back down the elevator?"

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"Alice and I checked it, that's why we came back to the lounge really, the keyboard doesn't do anything when you try to type something in. Even if it did I'm not sure what I'd type."

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Tamaris takes a smart step away from Joss as the other girl swears and punches the side of her fist into the door.

"Well, then," she says, with a surprising amount of calm. "We may have a problem then."

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"You're only just deciding that? Maybe something else will have a way to switch the elevator back on?"

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"There were those computers back in the library, if this place is as modern as it looks maybe the elevators can be controlled remotely. Otherwise, I think we mostly have to keep moving and see what we find."

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"Let's at least get to the bottom of the ramp before we backtrack."

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"Then let's go," Joss says, heading back out into the hall. "I really don't think we're going to find much else here."

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The next segment of the ramp leads to the ground floor. There are bike racks and a few closets but they're all empty. There's also a sunroom of sorts. There are also several doors to the outside and lots of windows. "Huh, well we've found an exit, but it doesn't look like there's much here. Onwards to the basement?"

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Joss shares another of those looks with Tamaris and Rex that seems to incorporate an entire argument and decision. "Yeah. We can explore the outside later if we're still here. Better to get the building itself cleared first."

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"Alright, onto the basement." The last segment of the ramp goes down over two stories of vertical distance and lets out into what looks like the lobby of an upscale building. One wall is largely missing and lets out onto the corridor of what looks like a mall. There are signs for stores over large open storefronts. The stores are pretty normal aside from the odd absence of check out lines or cash registers. The mall corridor curves away in both directions. "Well, this is about the level of surreal I expected."

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Joss looks around, obviously searching for something. "Radio Shack," she says, with a very slight grin. "Perfect."

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Rex and Tamaris share a look before following.

"You got a plan?" Tamaris asks. "Or do you just really need a new phone? In this very peculiar mall that has no cash registers? Which normally indicates exorbitantly expensive?"

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"Something like that," she says over her shoulder, distracted hunting through what's available on the shelves. (She doesn't even tease Tamaris about the fact that she's used the word 'exorbitant' in reference to the cost of something, which was not something Tamaris did often.)

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Oddly enough this Radioshack doesn't sell phones, it does sell usb chargers, batteries, children's toys and a variety of simple electrical components. "Can any of us help you find whatever it is you're looking for?"

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"I was hoping that if a phone wasn't an option, the kit to turn a phone into a sat-phone was. See if that gave us signal. Failing that, the components to build the kit. I...might be able to do it with what's here, but this is more Dale's thing than mine." She sighs. "This is why I normally carry a SatSleeve."

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"Well, why aren't you carrying one today?"

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"Because we were going to a party. And like hell was I carrying an expensive bit of kit like that with me. I was not anticipating abduction to an area that was lacking mobile phone signal."

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"A satellite phone would probably be pretty useful about now. I wonder if there's a map somewhere, this mall looks pretty big."

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"How about you guys go and see if you can find that, and I'll see about jury-rigging my phone?" Joss suggests, looking up briefly from her hunt for parts.

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"I am not so sure we should be splitting up," Tamaris says.

Rex makes a quiet sound.

"Or, Rex could stay here with you, and I'll go with our new friends?"

Joss makes a gesture that is probably assent but mostly 'stop distracting me'.

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"Alright then," Zahn seems a little reluctant to split up himself. "We can walk at least a little ways further down the corridor."

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"I think we'll be OK." Alice agrees. They start walking. There are a few restaurant type places, some clothing stores and a variety of smaller specialty stores in one bit of miscellany or another. After they've been walking a couple minutes a bike store will come into view.

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"Well," she says. "At least that makes the bike racks make a little bit more sense, I guess?" She does not look entirely thrilled at the prospect of physical exertion.

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"Yeah, depending on how big this mall is the bikes might help for transporting stuff too."

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"That is true," Tamaris agrees with a slight grimace. Then she considers. "Do they have any of those little wagon things you sometimes see cyclists dragging around with them? That would make transporting things much easier." (Liking the idea of physical exertion or not, she's still going to look for solutions.)

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"I can't see any from here but we can go check." As it turns out, they do have cargo hauling trailers; they're about one square meter.

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"Well, at least they exist," Tamaris says. "Just so you understand, physical exertion, so not my thing. Joss and Rex are definitely your guys for that."

She grins slightly. "Yes, I'm totally a spoiled rich girl, get the jokes over with now." There's something slightly dangerous in her eyes however.

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Zahn looks at her strangely, "Um... ok."

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"I think we all have our own areas of experience."

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Tamaris relaxes slightly, her eyes going warm. "Quite. Well. We've failed to find a map, but have found bikes, and a method of transporting stuff if we need to. Unless...I dunno, is there like a cycle-route map? I dunno. Seems unlikely." She goes to have a look anyway.

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There are in fact a map pamphlets in a rack on the back wall of the shop. They show what might be paths and a hexagon in a different color and nothing else inside a weirdly shaped almost hexagon puzzle piece shape.

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"Well..." Tamaris pulls a few out, holding two out to Alice and Zahn. "So, they like hexagons, and maps that have very little of anything actually useful. Or I might just be bad at reading them."

She sighs slightly and shakes her head. "Think we should head back to the others?"

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"Just from the number of paths it looks like this place is really big. Aside from that yeah, it doesn't look too useful. It might be good for ensuring that we've explored everywhere I guess?"

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"Smart plan," Tamaris says and produces a pen, quite possibly out of thin air. She frowns at the map in her hands and jots something down before holding out the pen. "I have spares," she says. "Back to Rex and Joss?"

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Alice takes the pen. "Um, was there something you wanted me to write?"

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"We can talk while we walk."

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"You never know when you're going to need a pen," Tamaris says brightly, heading back in the direction they'd come from. "Besides, it's useful for making notes about where we've been and what's actually there. Keeping yourself organised is important." She nods as though that explains everything.

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"I have a really good memory, but thanks."

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"You're welcome," Tamaris says, smiling. After that, she seems happy to continue their way back in silence for now.

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And shortly they've arrived back at the radioshack. How are things going?

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Joss is swearing at something she's working on. Apparently completely unaware of-

Her head snaps around, eyes narrowing at Tamaris. "You've changed," she says. Then shakes her head and goes back to the things in her hand. "Nearly done here."

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Rex emerges from somewhere near the back of the store. "Welcome back," he says. "Find anything useful?"

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"We found a bike store, how exactly has your friend changed?"

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"Bikes are good," Rex declares, hugs Tamaris (if he inhales slightly deeper than is perhaps normal, it's not blatantly obvious).

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"Hm?" Joss looks up, tilting her head. "Sorry, didn't catch that?" Her phone has been built into a bulky case, and her finger is hovering ready to dial. "Oh, how has she- Did I say that out loud? Oops. 'Scuse me for a second, I'm going to see if this worked..."

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"Uh, I'd appreciate having an answer to that question as well, Joss," Tamaris points out - she now has a pad in her hands, and another pen, and appears to be making a list.

Joss looks a tiny bit trapped.

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"Ok, you definitely didn't have that pad of paper a minute ago. Where did it come from?"

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Joss literally facepalms. "Okay, Tam, I know we've had the conversation about what is and isn't suitable to display. Pens, okay, pens are easily concealed. Notepads not so much."

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Tamaris pouts. "It's always important to have a notepad." She looks at Alice. "I think the way we eventually decided to define it was 'pocket dimension', it's not quite right, but things I like to have spares of I just...keep around."

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"So... magic is real, that's an interesting complement to the being in a strange place with no idea exactly where here is."

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"Ok, so is the way your friend changed also a magical thing?"

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Joss clicks her tongue restlessly a couple of times. "It appears to be an..." She looks sharply at Rex, eyes narrowing. "You've got it too. I hadn't noticed." She clicks her tongue again. "You all seem to have...like, half-formed pack bonds? I don't know. Something like that. It's hard to describe."

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"That's a strange coincidence, do you not have this, half-formed pack bond? Also, what exactly is a pack bond?"

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Joss pauses, thinking about that, trying to see if she does. She's...not sure. "I don't know," she says, frowning somewhat. "It...hm. If Tamaris and Rex were altered...was it the drinks? Or was it coming here?" She tapped her fingers against the back of her phone. "Hard to test. No idea what these bonds are looking for. Oh. They seem to be...looking for some other connection."

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When she doesn't continue with a pack-bond explanation, Rex jumps in (it's kind of his area of expertise). "It helps packs communicate, and remain cohesive. You know how the others feel. Basic communication. Really useful for figuring out what a pup wants when they can't actually figure it out themselves. Or for knowing when people need comfort, need to be alone."

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"That's intriguing. Is it touch based?" Alice muses and holds out a hand to Zahn. Zahn reaches back and takes her hand. "I don't feel anything."

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"I don't feel anything either."

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"Pack-bonds normally just happen," Rex says with a shrug. "No need for anything. It strengthens with contact, but it's already there..."

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"And that would've been far too easy," Tamaris huffs. "So contact is out, what does that leave, really? Concentrating really hard on each other?"

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"Hm, well it could just handholding is out. Maybe it's some other sort of touch."

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"If you want a kiss Zahn this is not the way to get it." There's a mischievous smile on her face.

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He laughs. "No, but maybe a vulcan mind meld or touching foreheads or something." He turns to look at her and catches her eye. It's a subtle thing if he wasn't looking for some sort of telepathic power he might not notice it but his read on her emotions is a lot better than it would usually be from looking. "Well that's something."

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It does, however, make things considerably clearer to Joss. "...That worked then? Eye contact was it? How obvious is it? What does it actually... What is it actually doing?"

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Zahn looks away. "It was emotions and maybe surface thoughts, things you almost but don't quite say?"

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"I think that sounds right."

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"And...the connection drops there," Joss notes. "So, it's not a permanent connection." There's something like relief in her voice. "I really want to know who has enough power to bring us here, and give you guys at the very least this ability, without us noticing. That seems like it would take some pretty substantial..." She waves a hand.

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"Yeah, have you heard of magic doing teleportation before?"

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"Never on this scale," Tamaris shakes her head. "The only people I really know who have it are Reapers, and they can only teleport themselves. And dead people, like ghosts, not bodies. Joss, wha-"

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Joss has taken a step forward and has her fingers resting against Tamaris' neck, just over her pulse point. "Okay, you're still alive, Rex-"

Rex moves closer, and rests his own fingers on Joss' neck. Both of them nod.

"Well, we're all alive, so that theory is out..."

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"So, either magic is more flexible than you were aware of or we're looking at a combination of magic and technology."

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"Or both," Joss suggests, massaging her temples with thumb, index and middle finger of one hand. "There's nothing saying that magic can't be more flexible and this involving advanced technology. So, was there anything else interesting here? Or is it really just the world's creepiest shopping mall?"

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"We found these maps," Tamaris holds one out.

Joss takes it.

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"They have fewer labels and scales than I would prefer. They seem likely to be useful for giving a rough sense of how big the area is though."

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"Maybe the hexagon is meant to be a key somehow, though if it is it's an unlabelled one."

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"Feels like a test somehow," Joss comments. "I'm gonna see if I can get in contact with the others. I'll feel better if I know they're okay."

She steps towards the back, looking at her phone again, tapping the screen.

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"Yeah, everything here is starting to seem like some sort of weird test."

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"It would be really nice if we could figure out what they're testing us for," Rex grumbles quietly. "Intelligence?"

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"...I'm getting a little stuck on the infant intensive care unit," Tamaris admits, chewing on her lip slightly. "I mean, unless they know something we don't about our current states of being, or are intending for us to..." She waves a hand.

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"Number not recognised," Joss announces as she moves back to them. "So. Either I screwed up building this, or they're wherever we are and equally lacking in signal. Okay. We've reconned somewhat, decided this is the world's creepiest mall, you said there were bikes? Do we want to see if we can get anywhere with them or... Did we see a TV anywhere? I dunno, just, remembering horror films, TVs tend to end up giving you information?"

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"Well, we kinda skipped two rooms on that level upstairs in our rush to finish checking out the area. Alternatively, they do tend to sell TVs in some stores that appear in malls."

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"Or, we can acquire a TV, I can carry it back up the ramps, and we can then investigate the other two rooms?" Rex suggests. "Means we're not tracking back and forward? And I'm pretty good at heavy lifting if we can't get any information off the TVs in the store?"

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"TVs aren't very useful if there isn't anywhere to plug them in. I don't remember seeing a cable hookup anywhere."

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"I don't remember seeing any either."

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Joss swears, because she doesn't remember that anywhere either. "This place just keeps getting weirder. Screw it, let's go see if those two rooms have answers, and then see if the computers have internet." She starts to stalk off, makes it to the door of the shop, and then stops, taking a deep breath, and looking back to see if the others are following.

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Alice at least is following.

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Zahn takes one last look around the store but he also follows.

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Rex has been following basically on Joss' heels and tilts his head quizzically when she stops.

Tamaris is following a bit slower, and doesn't bother stopping when Joss does, stepping around her to exit the shop.

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Joss starts moving again, and heads back for the upper levels and the rooms they'd forgotten to look at.

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Conveniently, the first of the two room is a TV room.

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"Am I just paranoid or does this seem too convenient?" Joss asks - she looks noticeably on edge, one hand tapping her thigh restlessly, the fingers of the other hooked into the back waistband of her jeans.

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"You're being paranoid, pet," Tamaris says with a surprising amount of ease. "Even if this place could rearrange itself to throw us off, I suspect they would really rather use it for things other than creating a TV room. Besides which, technical or magical, I reckon your gut would sense a change like this."

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Rex meanwhile has gone to see if the TVs can in fact be turned on, he looks back. "Can't guarantee that," he points out. "We really don't know what's going on here yet."

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There's a remote next to the Television on a small table. When the on button is pressed, the television turns on showing CNN with its typical early evening coverage.

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"Well, that's anticlimactic."

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"Peppa Pig would be worse," Rex says with a shudder of someone who knows that from painful experience.

Is there anything actually interesting on the news, or should he start flipping channels to see if they can find something more informative?

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The news from Earth is pretty generic scandal of the moment stuff, If Rex is the sort to watch CNN at odd hours of the day on Earth he might be interested but otherwise no. Flipping channels won't reveal much besides that whatever this place is it's getting premium channels like HBO.

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"Well. This feels like a bust," Rex sighs. (There's a rather distinct impression of a drooping tail.)

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"But at least we won't be bored," Tamaris says, obviously trying to look on the bright side.

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"Let's go look in the other room, I doubt it has any more answers. But I at least want to know we've covered everything."

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"We can also check the news tomorrow. Maybe there'll be a story about all the partygoers going missing."

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"Maybe," Joss doesn't sound too hopeful as she heads for the final room.

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"Hey," Tamaris hurries after her, touching her elbow briefly, tone low enough that it's obviously not supposed to be heard, but isn't actually quiet enough to qualify as a whisper. "My parents'll care if you go missing as well. Remember that."

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Alice smiles slightly, it's always good to see friends helping one another, but she doesn't comment. She and Zahn follow then. The final room looks like a hybrid between a small dance studio and a gym. The floor has a spring to it and there's exercise equipment, mirrored walls and piles of free weights resistance bands and yoga mats. There's also a couple gymnastics mats.

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"Well this is nice. I mean there's going to be plenty of exercise in exploring this place but it's nice to have a safer space for when we're not exploring."

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"And it'll be a great place to practice katas."

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Rex looks positively enthusiastic as he goes to poke the free weights. He turns at the word 'katas'.

"What do you practice?" he asks tilting his head. "I mostly box, but I do some muay thai as well? And learned katas for a few others because they're good for discipline."

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The free weights seem to be very well made. They're labelled in kilograms.

"A bit of a mix, I like Tai Chi because of how calming it can be but for sparing I like Karate a bit better."

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"I'd offer to spar," Rex says brightly, "But, uh, different styles. And you'd probably kick my arse at Karate." He grins.

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"Tai chi is supposed to be relaxing as well," Tamaris comments, nudging suspiciously at one of the mats with her foot. "I think Mama does it."

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"It's good for staying centered. Most martial arts I've heard of have an element of that but it's emphasized a bit more in Tai Chi, especially the forms most popular in the US today."

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Tamaris makes an interested sound. "I get the feeling that something relaxing might be in order," she comments.

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Joss nods tiredly and rubs her hands over her face. "We should probably sleep," she says. "Maybe tomorrow this whole thing will just be one massive nightmare." She doesn't sound convinced. "Or at the very least we'll have fresh eyes for trying to ferret out clues."

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"That makes sense. There's plenty of bedrooms."

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"It seems a little early still to me, but I don't sleep very much. I might spend some time in the library before bed."

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Joss grimaces. "I don't think I've slept in...at least twenty four hours." (She winces as Tamaris and Rex both give her disappointed looks.) "I had a bad night, okay? Unwanted phonecalls."

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Tamaris sighs. "Well, I think I'm with Zahn. Too early for me to be sleeping, yet. Would you mind if I joined you in the library?"

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"Not at all. It's probably better not to go places alone until we know more anyway. As for not sleeping in twenty four hours, I sleep consistently short hours every night, but I do sleep every night."

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"Insomnia's a bitch. I'm gonna go try and sleep. Good luck with the library. G'night."

She turns and heads out the door.

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Rex looks after her, and then looks back at Tamaris.

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"I'll be fine," Tamaris assures him.

He follows after Joss.

"Library then?" she says, starting to move towards it herself.

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"I think I'm going to get some sleep. Don't stay up too late Zahn."

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"I won't, don't worry about me." Then he follows Tamaris.

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Tamaris heads straight for the computers. "Let's see if these have anything," she says, mostly to herself. "Sometimes online news gets stuff before the TV crews get there. And if nothing else, I can see if emailing anyone is possible."

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"I was thinking the same thing."

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The computers do not have internet access, or a recognizable operating system for that matter. The entry screen has four options displayed: employment, encyclopedia, interfaces, and settings.

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Tamaris swears. "Alright then, let's look at settings first..."

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The settings page has options regarding input methods including speech recognition. It also has settings relating to the theme of the UI elements, the units and calendar used and setting alarms. It also notes that these are the settings Citizen ID f71e1b59 (Tamaris) and 516eb290 (Zahn). The sole thing that stands out is an obscure comment: "No claimed rooms or buildings."

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"Well that's intriguing I wonder how it can tell who's sitting at the computer."

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"Yeah. And I don't like the word 'Citizen' or the fact that we're numbered. If I've learned one thing from history it's that numbering people like that tends to end up badly." She sighs, navigates out of settings and heads into interfaces.

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"I tend to think of numbering as a computer thing, especially given that it's in hexadecimal."

The interfaces section merely has a notice saying "No local interfaces detected. No remote interfaces configured. No employee interfaces unlocked."

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"I'm a history minor, and one of my- great uncles was involved and told stories. It stuck in my head."

"Well, so far, this has been a complete bust," Tamaris says, pouting slightly, "What do you reckon? Employment or encyclopedia next?"

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"I'm sorta intrigued by the idea of employment but I'd naively expect that the encyclopedia has the most information."

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"Well. It's certainly worth a shot," she agrees, navigating to the encyclopedia.

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The encyclopedia has articles on a lot of topics, there's articles on medicine, specific plants, farming techniques, anatomy, various animals including some that are extinct on Earth, cleaning agents, security systems, martial arts, mall stores, and teleporters among other topics. Zahn also looks at the list on his own terminal. "One of these things is not like the others. I think stuff about Teleporters might be our best lead."

The articles on teleporters describe a pretty wide variety of types of teleporters including the familiar elevator type. One of the articles also makes reference to a buffer drug to protect users during interstellar teleportation.

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"...interstellar?" Tamaris murmurs, looking for more information on that buffer drug. "Could that have been in the drinks we had? Might explain why Joss was so woozy when we got here..."

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"Yeah, Alice and I both had a drink."

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"As did me and Rex," Tamaris confirms. "Joss is overly paranoid about open drinks containers at parties and refused to. I- why on earth, or whatever spirits forsaken planet we've found ourselves on, did somebody decide that a interstellar abduction was required?! It makes acquiring a ransom difficult, and with the openness of the invitation, how could they know they'd acquire anyone worth ransoming in the first place?" (She's starting to sound a little panicky now, but she's doing a good job of controlling it.)

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"Why is your first thought ransom? It doesn't really seem to follow from what we've seen. I think my first thought would be some sort of social experiment or scientific study."

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"You're probably right," she agrees, shaking her head. "Although I'd really rather not think about the possibility of 'scientific study'." She shrugs. "Unfortunately my 'spoiled rich girl' comment earlier? That comes with a healthy dose of paranoia about kidnap and ransom."

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"That makes sense, on both counts. I'm not really sure what to expect. This whole thing is strange and it's only really the word of this place that indicates we've been teleported to another star system, at least so far."

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Tamaris sighs. "The lack of phone signal implies...something. I'm not sure what. And how are we supposed to get independent verification exactly? I mean, we can't call home and ask whether we've suddenly left the solar system. Not sure how they'd even tell." She runs her fingers through her head. "I mean, Joss might be able to discern something, and Rex definitely thought something wasn't right but. I don't know if they'd be able to tell if we were in a different solar system."

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"It might not be proof positive, but when the clouds clear and it's daytime the sun might look different here, that would be a evidence that we're in a different solar system."

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"Well, it's probably the best plan we have right now," Tamaris agrees, sitting back in her seat, tapping one foot. "Provided this place even has a daytime?"

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"It was light out when Alice and I got here, just overcast."

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"Okay, so there is a daytime," Tamaris says, nodding thoughtfully. "We just have to hope that the cloud cover leaves. Unfortunately manipulating weather is not something I can do," her tone has turned half teasing there, trying to inject some levity. She sighs. "Well, if we're not going to find anything else out tonight, I suppose I should at least try to sleep..."

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"Yeah, sleep is probably a good idea. There's a lot to read but nothing seems likely to be urgent."

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"I really doubt they're just going to hand us the way home," Tamaris says, slightly regretfully as she gets to her feet. "But everyone says that things look better in the morning."

She tilts her neck from side to side as she heads for the bedrooms. "Good night," she says over her shoulder.

Permalink Eye

"Good Night." Zahn finds a bedroom for himself and goes to sleep.

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The next morning Alice wakes up early and goes to the kitchen in search of breakfast.

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Joss is already awake, perched on one of the counters with a glass of water, staring at the ceiling as though it had personally offended her.

"G'morning," she greets without looking to Alice. "Sleep well?"

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"Reasonably well, I've travelled a lot so I'm used to sleeping in unfamiliar places. I had to meditate a bit to clear my thoughts first."

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"Good to hear," Joss says, sliding off the counter and stretching. "Tam and Rex are still conked out asleep. Or at least Tam is. She was using Rex as a pillow last I saw so it might be some time before he's willing to move."

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"That's cute." Alice starts looking through the cabinets and finds a box of cereal. "Are you doing alright?"

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"Better this morning. Sleep does occasionally feel like a miracle cure." She bends over to touch her toes. "If we can't find a way home in the next couple of hours I was thinking of grabbing one of the bikes and checking out the outside."

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"That sounds like it could be nice. I don't really like to be cooped up."

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"Yeah, me neither... or Rex for that matter. Rex will probably not want to wait on that count. We'll see though." She taps her fingers against her thigh, clicks her tongue. "I suppose we'll be spending at least part of this morning in the library then. And probably need to find some sports kit if we end up going for a cycle..."

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"I'm sure we can find something in the mall." Alice pauses for a moment gazing out the window. The clouds have cleared and the sky outside is tinged green. "The sky is the wrong color."

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Joss swears, inventively, and in three languages. (One of which does not sound precisely human.) "So. Either this is some really messed up hallucination or we are a very long way from home."

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"That's about the shape of things. It could also be a complex illusion but that doesn't make much difference."

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"It doesn't...feel like an illusion? I don't think? I like to think I'd be able to tell if it was an illusion..."

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"You'd know more than me, I didn't know magic was real until you and your friends told me."

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"S'kinda weird for me to think about people not knowing, even though I know they don't. I've known as long as I can remember."

She sighs. "For all I know, this is a hella complex illusion that manages to fool me. But- It still wouldn't explain a green sky. That's kinda a dead giveaway that something is up."

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"Yeah. I expect we'll find some answers today, though I don't think we'll find all of them anytime soon."

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"Yeah-"

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"I'm trying to decide whether we should prioritize exploring outside or down in the mall. Any thoughts?"

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"Jossjossjoss," Rex skids into the kitchen, nearly runs into Alice but manages to evade her skillfully and bounds over to Joss. "The sky is green." He sounds far more excited than worried.

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Joss reaches over to scritch the back of Rex's neck. "I think that's a vote for outside," she comments amused.

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Alice smiles at Rex's open enthusiasm. "Works for me. Do you want some breakfast Rex?"

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"Food?" Rex turns to Alice, still very human ears literally perking up. "Food!"

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"This one ain't going to turn down food," Joss says with a grin.

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Rex shrugs. "Please?" he adds.

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"There's cereal, milk and eggs. If you want anything fancier I think we're going to need to get ingredients from the mall. There's also leftovers from last night."

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"Leftovers will do!" Rex declares happily. "...Did someone move them to the fridge?"

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Joss smiles. At least one of them is still enthusiastic.

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Alice smiles too. "I put them away before going to bed last night."

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"Smart move," Rex grins, going to investigate the fridge. He acquires some food and moves over to lean next to Joss to eat it. "We got a plan?"

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"Nothing too specific just yet. I think our main priority is to explore more, between your excitement and the benefits of exploring outside while there's daylight it's probably best to explore outside first. We should also explore the mall and figure out whether there's anything important in the computers."

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Zahn walks in. "I spent a little time on the computer last night and some more when I woke up. It let me take some brief training and a test and now I can turn on the teleporter disguised as an elevator. That doesn't let us go home without knowing the code for home but it's something. There's also training to operate the clinic room, to manage the greenhouse and to manage the access lists for what the computer calls our home complex. It says that job requires the agreement of a plurality of residents."

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"The elevator thing sounds like a good start. I'm not sure how we could find a code for home though. I'm not sure how much time I want to spend learning how to use this place but someone should probably figure out how to use the clinic."

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"...Do you think it might let us skip between the different addresses that were...back at the entrance point?"

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"Maybe, that would be useful. The security role says that it lets you control who is allowed to visit you via elevator though and I don't know what the default setting is."

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Tamaris wanders in at that moment, somehow managing to have the state of 'artfully ruffled' even though one would think her hair would be a complete mess. "Morning," she greets them all with a wave. "What's this about visiting via the elevators?"

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"Apparently they're teleporters?" Rex says. "How cool is that?!"

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"It's pretty cool. From what I read I get the sense that there's a lot of them around."

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"Too many possibilities to brute force?"

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"You could cover the planet with teleporters and not run out of addresses."

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"Hm," Tamaris hums, stealing a bite of food from Rex's plate. "D'you reckon we'll get lucky and the addresses are origin point and destination? Or is that not how it works?"

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"The Stargate addressing system made no sense. I don't think this will be similarly bizarre."

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"Because this place is making soooo much sense to begin with."

She hesitates, blinks. "Not that I have any idea what you're referencing with Stargate."

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"Pretty sure he caught you there, Tam," Joss grins, looking somehow far more relaxed than she has so far this morning. "You may as well give up and admit to your inner nerdery now! We won't judge, I promise."

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"I certainly have no grounds to judge. What do you think Alice? Were there any patterns you noticed?"

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Alice fiddles with her hair and gazes into the distance. "I think I remember all the codes. I was thinking about visiting the other areas later. There aren't any patterns I can see though."

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Joss closes her eyes, runs through her visualisation of the table with the pieces of paper on it.

"Can say the first eight digits of each code were definitely different," she states firmly.

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"Alright, let's try this. I'm pretty sure I remember at least one of the other codes."

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"Sure." Zahn walks over to the elevator. "Interface, activate this elevator and display its code."

There's a chiming sound and on the screen at the back of the elevator the familiar code appears: B2BB XTN8 3EQR B9VX EC33

"Well that much seems to have worked."

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"That matches what I remember. We should probably write these down somewhere."

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"Well, it's a good thing I always have a notebook and pen," Tamaris says as she produces them. She moves forward so she can see the screen and jots the code down. "Next?"

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Alice dictates out the codes:

  • Orange: 74VM DCU6 QNQ2 A7GH V8HP
  • Yellow: 3D96 XY4C 3KER RNW2 TWOD
  • Green:  U7N7 KIHQ 3JTP QS39 KG4I
  • Blue:   BKQ7 WZUE 6HE6 PSKK M697
  • Purple: 62OR G47F ZNGK QG3P B3OB

"I could also say the quotes, I'm not sure if those are important though."

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"Impressive," Joss notes as Tamaris jots them down. "If this is some kind of test or experiment the quotes might be relevant to that...?"

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Alice smiles, just a little smug. "I worked very hard to get my memory this good." And then:

  • Red: "Caring about others, running the risk of feeling, and leaving an impact on people, brings happiness."
  • Orange: "A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning."
  • Yellow: "Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes."
  • Green: "What good is an idea if it remains an idea? Try. Experiment. Iterate. Fail. Try again. Change the world."
  • Blue: "Skill is the unified force of experience, intellect and passion in their operation."
  • Purple: "The aim of medicine is to prevent disease and prolong life, the ideal of medicine is to eliminate the need of a physician."

"There's a theme there. They're all aspirational in a way, though red, yellow, and blue are less that."

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"Sounds like someone read a self help book but didn't quite get the idea," Joss mutters sourly.

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"I thought we were going outside," Rex pouts, although he doesn't sound entirely serious about that, he's definitely a little disappointed in the change of plans.

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"We will, we're just delayed a bit. Do we want to try one of these codes? It seems worth trying. I'd like to go if anyone is going, I'm not sure who'd want to come along though."

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"My impression is that the elevator get turned on at the other end when you arrive but I should probably go with you just in case."

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"May as well," Rex shrugs.

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"I'm in," Joss agrees. "Tam?"

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"Well I'm hardly going to stay here alone. You might get trapped!"

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"...You aren't funny."

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Alice steps inside the elevator and Zahn follows. She waits for the others to join them before typing in the code for orange.

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There's a gentle but noticeably synthetic voice. "Access Denied."

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"It looks like we're going outside after all."

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Rex bounces, and immediately heads towards the ramp. "Lets goooo," he says, catching Tam's hand.

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"I think I'll go do some more investigating of the library," Tamaris says.

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"Borrrring," Rex announces with a grin, but drops her hand. Looks to the others and tilts his head.

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"It'll be nice to get some fresh air."

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"I'll come. I've already spent the morning in the library."

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"You know I'm in. You gonna be okay, Tam?"

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"You taught me how to throw a punch, Joss, and Daddy taught me a few tricks most people won't expect. Besides. You know Rex'll hear me scream if I need to."

Her eyes are twinkling like she's only half serious about that last.

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"Alright then. I missed my morning run, so exploring outdoors will do the trick!"

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"Do you want to grab bikes or explore on foot?"

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"Bikes give us more range, but foot makes it easier to do a thorough sweep."

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"I vote for on foot. But that's just because I don't do bikes."

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"We can always explore with bikes later. I figure for today we should mostly stay within the wall anyway."

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"I want to figure out if there's any way past the wall. I still don't have a good sense for how big this place is."

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"Even if there is a way past that wall, I'd be concerned about what it might be built to keep out. And if there isn't a way past it, it's obviously meant to keep us in."

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"There is a third type of wall. Theme parks and gated communities use walls to control access but they aren't really trying to trap people or keep out anything dangerous."

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"That is true..." she agrees thoughtfully. "Hadn't really thought about those. Haven't spent much time in either..."

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"Theme parks are lots of fun, I wonder if whoever built this place also built one here."

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"I'm sure we'll find out," Joss notes.

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"I just found the one I went to loud... Couldn't actually make it onto any of the rides..."

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"Yeah I used to have issues with crowds too."

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They reach the landing for the ground floor. Alice guides them out the wing with the bike racks.

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To the left there are some pools a little ways away with a small building next to them. To the right there's a baseball field. Beyond the pools is a greenhouse. Beyond the Baseball field there's an orchard. In between there are a trio of buildings in the distance and there are other smaller buildings peaking out around the edges of the greenhouse and the orchard. The path around them is made out of large concrete tiles and branches to go around the building they just left and towards each of the mentioned structures.

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"Where to?"

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The minute Rex hits the open air there's a distinct, unpleasant sound of bones cracking, breaking and reforming. And then a large dog bounds ahead of them, eager and exuberant, sniffing around.

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"Rex," Joss groans good-naturedly, shielding her eyes with her hand to scan their surroundings. "I'm curious about that greenhouse," she states.

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"You couldn't have warned us that you can turn into a dog?" Alice is clearly unsettled.

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Zahn flinches too but before anyone can respond says. "Greenhouse sounds good."

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Rex droops slightly, clearly apologetic.

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"Did we not cover that yesterday in the 'magic is real' talk?" Joss sounds honestly perplexed. "I feel like it would've come up when we were discussing packbonds?"

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"I think Rex said something about pups, but I didn't make the connection."

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"Note to self: more sleep, and make sure when explaining things everything is clarified. I'm pretty sure- oh, Rex's tail will occasionally be on fire. It's perfectly normal, he's not hurt by it."

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"Alright. Rex has his dog thing, you have a magic detector, and Tamaris can make things, or duplicate things. Anything else I should be expecting?"

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"Not unless we find the others, and I need their permission before I say any more- oh, Tam's kinda got a healing thing, but like...she won't unless you give her permission. Half-angel, half-demon, even she doesn't know the full extent of her powers yet."

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"That makes sense. Healing is potentially very useful. If there's no negative side effects, please tell Tamaris it's alright to heal me if circumstances prevent me from doing so."

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"Same. If I'm unconscious I'd prefer to get healing or medical treatment all other things being equal." 

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"Far as I know, there's no side-effects, I'll let her know."

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Rex has recovered some of his enthusiasm and is ahead of them, running back and forth to sniff at things.

Abruptly he stops, head up and alert, looking into the distance.

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"What do you mean, 'other people'?" Joss asks, even though nothing's been said.

"Was there anyone else here when you two got here?"

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"There wasn't anyone around when we arrived. I think that someone might have been there before us and eaten a bit from the buffet. There wasn't anything obvious like dirty dishes but there were signs."

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Rex takes a step forward, barks once.

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Joss resists the urge to go for the knife in her boot. It's probably fine, she's just being paranoid. "We have company," she says instead. "Heading back towards us if Rex is right."

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Alice tenses slightly and plays with the hem of her dress. "Can he smell if they're people you know?"

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"They aren't," Joss says tightly.

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"Don't worry so much. They're probably just more partygoers like us." He moves to stand slightly behind Alice.

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"You're right," Joss says, although she doesn't sound entirely sure.

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Well, there are three people heading towards them. Two girls, and a boy.

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The boy has his arm around one of the girl's shoulders and is gesturing grandly as though he's explaining something.

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The other girl spots them first, and throws out an arm to stop her two friends.

"Hello," she calls.

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"Hi. Are you more guests from the not quite a party last night?"

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"Yes, something like that," this girl steps past the warier one, and moves close enough to offer a hand. "Miriam. These are Arla," she points at the other girl. "And Dan," she points at the boy.

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"I don't suppose you guys have figured this out any more than we have?" Dan asks.

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Joss makes a discreet and obscure gesture down by her hip, clicking her tongue twice, eyes fixed on Arla.

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Arla narrows her eyes, but responds in kind.

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Zahn accepts the handshake. "We understand a little but we still don't have an answer as to why."

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Dan offers his hand as well. "And that 'why' really is the question. There isn't anyone else here that we've seen."

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"We did come out here pretty quickly," Arla points out. "It's not a small place. We could've missed someone." (Her and Joss do appear to be having a staring contest of some description.)

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"There's another member of our impromptu group that decided not to come exploring but other than that we haven't seen anyone either. We think the different codes sent people different places. We all used the red one."

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"Yeah. We did too. ...which is probably obvious."

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Miriam giggles. "Yeah. I suppose that makes sense..."

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"It seemed likely but we don't really know how big this place is, or how to find the people who used the other colors."

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Alice tears her attention away from the staring contest. "I'm Alice by the way, I came here with Zahn and we met Joss and," she pauses for a moment, "Rex."

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"We had Tamaris with us as well," Joss adds. "She's not much for outdoorsy stuff unless it involves a sun lounger and a drink."

She pauses. "Anything interesting?"

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"There's doors in the wall," Arla says. And does not elucidate.

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"Did you try going through?"

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"And risk not being able to get back?"

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"Arla," Miriam chides. "We spent a fair bit of time walking. Figured explore the grounds before exploring outside of them."

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"Sensible," Joss agrees. (Whatever staring match was going on between her and Arla appears to have ended.)

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"The doors looked like the sort that might trap you outside?"

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"Looked like two sets of glass sliding doors, with about twenty to twenty five feet between them. So yeah, I'd say there was a chance you could get trapped in there."

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Alice nods. "Where did you stay the night?"

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"One of the houses in the grounds," Dan waves a vague hand. "There's a several on the grounds, in fact seems to be a few clusters of them. There was...a dozen or so? In the cluster we were in."

He glances at Arla who nods.

"Kitchen-diner, living room, laundry, office, several bedrooms, a few bathrooms, I'm kind of assuming all the houses followed the same pattern, but I could be wrong."

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"That sounds nice. I wonder why there's space for so many people?"

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Arla clicks her tongue. "It reminds me some of those...drawings and stuff. Of habitats on the moon. For the case of us destroying our environment enough that the earth became unliveable."

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Rex whines quietly and slinks back to beside Joss.

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"It does fit, doesn't it."

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"It doesn't seem like there's enough of us here for that. Maybe we're just the first to arrive though."

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"I mean, theoretically, this is just one of six compounds?" Joss says, resting her hand on Rex's head, scratching his ears. "Maybe more people went to the others?"

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"There's also the fact that they appear to be relying on signs on college notice boards. Not necessarily the best way to attract people."

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"Yeah, there's still definitely something we're missing, if this is meant to be an ark."

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"Although young adults at college are probably a good group to grab if your aim is to build a civilisation."

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"Yeah, the adaptability of youth with less dependence on support networks than younger children."

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"Less potential fertility problems as well if you want population growth."

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"But this doesn't explain why someone's gone to these lengths. Or who. I certainly hadn't heard of any risks to earth. Or of any projects that would allow for immediate interplanetary transfer. ...I suppose it could...potentially be a massively complex virtual environment, but I'm pretty sure it isn't."

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"It's entirely possible that our presence here was not the act of anyone from Earth."

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Zahn links with Alice to exchange thoughts then looks over at Rex with the intention of forming a telepathic link.

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"I suppose that is always an option..."

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Joss taps the side of Rex's head lightly, and very subtly points to Zahn.

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Rex looks up to Zahn, head tilted slightly, ears perked forwards, their eyes meeting.

Yes?

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Do you know if these new people know about magic? What is it ok to tell them? The words are accompanied by confusion and the sense of flailing a little.

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One of them is, her friends don't know. And Joss says there's something strange about the boy, she kinda can't sense him.

He pauses, shifts closer to Joss and-

We prefer to not make it common knowledge. And dropping the Reaper in it wouldn't be good, should be her choice whether or not she reveals what she is. But- But probably wise for them to know magic is a thing?

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If delicacy is required I think I'll leave it to Joss. Alice would but she doesn't understand the situation well enough.

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Joss makes a quiet, almost amused sound as Rex woofs out something that might be a laugh.

"We gonna continue our recce?" she asks Alice and Zahn. This isn't a conversation she wants to have exactly here.

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"Up to you, I'd like to see more but it's not urgent considering they've already done some of the exploring we planned to. I think Rex will be disappointed if we go inside right away though."

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Rex barks and bounds off before anyone can make him do that most heinous thing.

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Joss laughs. "Yeah. I should possibly go for a run with him if you guys wanna head back in?" (She gives Zahn a significant look that says she'll fill their new friends in when she gets back.)

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Arla tracks Rex's path with mildly suspicious eyes. "We did come in search of breakfast."

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"Well, I'd be happy to show you the kitchen. It's reasonably well stocked. I just had cereal but it has ingredients if you want something fancier." He starts walking back.

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Alice looks briefly torn but then says. "I'll come too. Have a good run Joss."

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"You can come if you want?" Joss offers, tilting her head at Alice in question.

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She meets Zahn's eyes for a moment. "Sure, it'll be good to get some exercise in."

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Well then, off the running party can go.

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Arla casually places herself between Zahn and Dan and Miriam, although it doesn't really look like that's what she's doing.

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"So, less worrying topic of conversation, Zahn, what are you studying?"

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"Computer science. What about you?"

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"Nice. I'm engineering."

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"Medicine," Miriam says, grinning proudly.

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Arla doesn't immediately offer an answer.

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"I wanted to be a doctor when I was younger but as it turns out I'm a bit too squeamish."

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"Yeah, that sounds like a bad trait for a doctor," Miriam agrees grinning.

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"Turns out Miri is basically impossible to squick out. She watches slasher flicks and asks why they're supposed to be scary and explains why they're impossible."

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"That sounds like a fun hobby, I like pointing out the absurdities in sci-fi stuff."

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"That is fun," Dan agrees.

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Arla snorts.

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"You do it too," Miriam points out, reaching out to tickle her.

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Arla fends her off expertly, and laughs. "Okay, okay."

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Zahn smiles and laughs at their antics.

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Tamaris abruptly appears, at speed. "Where's Joss?" she demands immediately.

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"She went to run with Alice and Rex, while I walked back with our new acquaintances. What's wrong?"

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"I-" Tamaris exhales sharply, turns away and shakes her head before turning back. "It'll be easier to just show you, and none of us are going to catch up with those three now. C'mon."

She doesn't bother to introduce herself, just turns to head back indoors, still moving faster than the languid pace Zahn will have been used to from her.

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Zahn raises an eyebrow but moves faster to keep up.

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The other three speed up as well, keeping pace.

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Tamaris leads them back to the TV room where she's got a news channel playing.

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The ticker at the bottom declares: Neutron star expected to do minimal damage while passing through the sun.

The anchor meanwhile is talking about a related matter. "We're getting reports of intense fighting in and around Jerusalem. The IDF is engaging with insurgent forces who seem determined to take control of Jerusalem, apparently not believing the claims that this isn't the end of the world."

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"Tell me a neutron star passing through the sun isn't going to do bad enough damage. Convince me."

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"I... I'm not a physicist. I usually trust scientists but I wouldn't be entirely surprised if the government is leaning on news agencies to sugarcoat things."