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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
"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.
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.
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.)
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."
"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?"
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.
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).
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."
"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..."
"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.
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."
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."
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."
"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'?"
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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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.
"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.
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."
"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?"
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?"
"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."
"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.)
"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."
"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.)
"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.
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.
"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?"
"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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
"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.
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..."
"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?"
"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?"
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.)
"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."
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."
"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..."
"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.
"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..."
"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."
"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."
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."
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."
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.
"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."
"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."
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?
"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.
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."