Sunday, May 28, 2017

i played an rpg module! get this: "a hole in the sky"!

as everyone who comes here knows, i don't exactly get out much, so whenever msg comes back from his weekly rpg game, i have to satisfy myself with enjoying it vicarious-like. (hey, does "vicarious" come from "vicar," like an english priest person who doesn't get to do fun stuff of their own and has to be satisfied listening to their church members gossip or confess? curious claire wants to know, etymologically speaking. not entomologically speaking,  which would be about bugs like ants, which means it should really be antomologically just so people wouldnt confuse those words. you know, like you always hear them doing in conversation.)

i have recently gotten a hankering to find out what this rpg stuff is all about more directly, and msg has been sitting around reading these modules for this "dungeon crawl classics" game which i know is not the one his group is playing right now and which he seems to be super-entertained by, so i proposed that he ought to sit down with me and let me try playing. (even though i am a good listener like all vicars, so i knew just two people playing a game like this isn't exactly ideal.)

apparently he has been super-itching to play this game, though, because he jumped at the chance even though it would just be the two of us, and he got out his rulebook for me to roll up characters.

now, i've been listening to him talk about rpgs for forever, so i knew you kinda need a crew of characters to play but also that it's kinda recommended you only play one at a time or maybe two, which means i was pretty surprised when he had me roll up ten of the suckers.

yeah, ten.

this dcc game, it turns out, is the mother of all sadistic killer dungeon-master games. and the idea of how you start off is, instead of making up one cool character you want to play as, instead you make up a bunch of nobodies who have no powers or skills or even real weapons. then they all go in a dungeon called a "funnel" and most of them get whacked. the ones who make it through turn into real characters like wizards and warriors and healers and thieves and stuff. the rest? toast.

so these were my characters (and yeah, you can read something totally ominous into that "were" in there.)

  • a cobbler (shoe-maker, not dessert) - i called her "claire"
  • a mercenary - all his abilities except strength were 9, 10, or 11 (out of 3-18), so i called him "joe average."
  • a ropemaker - he had a 9 in "personality" so i called him "grumpus mcgoof" because i didn't know then that a 9 is not so bad.
  • elven falconer - pretty awesome rolls, he had a 16 personality and a 17 luck, and he was an elf, which made me think he would be a fancy-pants, and elves can use spells (when they become real characters), so i called him "fanansiver spellflinger."
  • a wizard's apprentice - dude was really strong, but had a bad stamina. "strong lee sickabed."
  • radish farmer - he had a pitchfork and a hen, but his luck was 3. "meat beeternick."
  • another cobbler - what the heck? i caller her "cobblercat" because she was copying cobbler claire.
  • a barber with pretty average rolls: "yawni o'style."
  • a dwarven blacksmith - bad personality, so he turned into "stubbs stumblegruff."
  • a noble - why the heck would a noble be hanging out with these guys? i dunno. "martin moneybags iii."

i was like, "okay, now i have an army. how am i supposed to learn to play characters when i have so many? it's like you're teaching me to juggle starting with 10 beanbags."

"don't worry," msg said, "a lot of them will die pretty fast."

great. probably the ones i like.

"just decide who you like and don't put them right up front. and the guys you don't like? use up their luck points to help them fight the monsters so your favorites are safe and getting experience while the expendables are getting killed off."

this game is sounding pretty cruel and harsh, but he insists it's funny, so we get going with this module called "a hole in the sky."

[i want to pause a second and make sure everyone knows that's "a" (as in the first word in the alphabetical listing of shortest words ever) "hole in the sky", not "a-hole in the sky." i don't want anybody thinking the game is a snark-fest by one of those twitter atheists who like trolling other people's religions. (not that some of those guys aren't funny.) this module is a crazy sword and sorcery adventure about an actual hole in the sky.]

warning! if you are interested in playing this game, i am totally about to spoil some of "a hole in the sky," which even though it's very demented is gobs of fun, so read no more if you're not the dungeon master (they call them "judges" in this game), and maybe even read no more if you are the judge and you like reading the adventure for yourself just as a fun reading deal. to give you a taste of what it's like so you know if you want to avoid my spoilering, here's a quote from right at the start that msg read out to get things going:

you arrive, exhausted and confused, at the cliff overlooking the ocean. the scene is exactly as it appeared in your dreams (he had already told me the characters were having weird dreams and sort of sleep-walked to this cliff) and you are suddenly grateful as this must mean that you are not insane. there at the edge of the cliff is the woman who has haunted your dreams for months, standing behind a long table ... nearly seven foot tall, wearing tattered finery of deepest blue. and for the first time, you see her face - somehow her head is that of a statue of a woman. (i'm like, wtf?) her features are inanimate and softened, as if rain and wind had eroded the statue head over time. In her left hand she holds two severed human heads by the hair. (omgwtf???) in her right hand she holds three. as you approach she holds all five up as if to greet you with their dead faces. then those dead eyes open, and the five heads speak to you in unison, each in their own voice.

so this super-creepy statue-face head-holding chick tells us to sit down and enjoy the feast she has arranged for us and i'm like who in the heck in their right minds wouldn't just turn and run for the hills? but msg reminds me my characters have all spent their whole lives imagining they were destined for greater things and feeling out of place in their cobblering, barbering, radish-farming lives, and they've been having magic dreams over and over for months, and they just slept-walked for weeks getting here, and i'm like, okay, maybe they wouldn't totally run. maybe.
then we're all sitting down and msg rolls some dice and says, "most of the places are set with delicious-looking servings of mutton and fine vegetables. but claire, joe average, and fanansiver find that the plates before them are heaped with rotten food. vegetables covered in fungus, meats squirming with maggots."

"you're shitting me, right?" but before msg can answer, i remember that my elf has an alignment of "chaotic," so i decide he says, "i will eat this food to seize my rightful destiny!"

when claire and joe average see it doesn't kill him, they go ahead and try theirs too, and they manage to choke it down without getting sick, so ...

anyhoo, creepy statue chick offers us this deal (through the heads) where if we'll go on a journey on this magical invisible bridge that will appear "when the full moon reaches the top of the sky" and if we can free this ally of hers from a prison inside the "hole in the sky" then she'll let us spin this wheel of destiny thing that will give us our true destinies. and she raises her arms and cracks open the air and shows us this giant stone wheel spinning in a lightning hurricane dimension, and i'm thinking this is batshit crazy but i guess these dudes would just go for it.

so she gives us some more scoop and then she sinks into the ground like she was never there, and we've got hours to kill before night, so we head back to this town we passed to shop.

we've all got, i dunno, 30 copper pieces each, and it turns out anything good costs at least 3 or 5 gold, which would be 300 or 500 copper pieces, so all we can do is buy some rations and waterskins and stuff. i mean, martin moneybags iii trades in his noble signet ring to buy a shield that makes his armor class better by 1, but mostly we're talking rations. for some reason i decide cobblercat is scared of dying of thirst if this journey turns out to be too long, so she convinces some of the others to pool their money and buy a barrel to put water in. they're like, okay, we'll give you some coppers, but you have to roll the barrel yourself.

so we get back to the cliff and it gets to be nighttime and the moon comes up and we're all, okay, is the bridge there? but it's supposed to be invisible, and we can't see it, and fanansiver (chaotic) thinks maybe we should just jump off the spot where the lady pointed, and his intelligence is only 7, but grumpus mcgoof has a 15 and is like, why don't we lower a rope over the edge of the cliff and drag it along until we find the bridge? and even fanansiver can see that's a better idea, so we do, and no bridge.

then msg says anybody with an intelligence better than 12 thinks about it and remembers the crazy rock-head lady said "when the moon reaches the top of the sky."

so we wait for it to be right overhead and try the rope thing again and, viola, there it is.

we're on our way!

grumpus feels like he's the bomb with his rope, so he stays up front, throwing the rope out in front to make sure the bridge doesn't take a turn or something and we'd all march right off.

so he keeps doing that all night and everybody else follows along and cobblercat complains about having to roll her water barrel the whole way by herself, when the whole idea is to bring enough water to make sure there's enough for everybody, and yawni o'style and stubbs the dwarf help a little on account of they're "lawful" like cobblercat, but i made everybody else "neutral," and they're like, "hey, we gave you coppers, stop complaining."

by dawn of course we're exhausted, so we decide to take a nap. of course, it starts raining. the rain wakes us up at lunchtime and we eat some rations and get going, cause it's too cold and wet to sleep anymore. and the rain gets worse and worse and turns into a storm.

at this point, even though we've figured out the bridge is like 20 feet wide and we're sticking to the middle, the wind blows so hard msg says some of us might get blown off, and we have to make luck checks to see.

remember meat beeternick and his 3 luck? aaaaaaah! off the side of the bridge because he fails miserably and then fails this reflex saving throw to catch the edge.

one down.

cobblercat gets blown away too, but she grabs the side and doesn't fall. only her barrel blows over (she set it on its bottom when the wind picked up) and the wind is blowing it away, and even though stubbs stumblegruff made his luck roll, he decides to grab for the barrel, makes an agility roll to get it, but then fails his strength roll to stop it and fails his luck roll to keep from being pushed back by it. but he does make his reflex check and grab the side of the bridge.

so 7 out of my remaining 9 guys end up hanging off the side of this bridge in the storm until it clears up enough they can climb back on top and keep going. cobblercat is crying about losing her barrel that she pushed so far.

that night is cold af, and we're all still wet, and msg says anybody with a stamina 7 or less gets sick, but even strong lee sickabed has an 8, so we're okay there.

day 3 we see something ahead in the water. did i mention the bridge had a rise at the start and took us way the hell up in the air that first night? we're like half a mile up, so obviously our 50 feet of rope isn't going to let us explore whatever it is, but as we get closer, it's a shipwreck and these gross evil bird monsters covered in warts fly up to attack us. "sea shrikes," msg calls them, and they start laying into all the guys who have sucky luck stats.

remember how joe average was a mercenary? so because of that, he had a longsword and this hide armor, plus he had 5 hit points, so he's like our most badass guy and he tries to stay up front and protect the others, but his rolls are for crap, and he gets nothing done. meanwhile, crazy fanansiver the chaos elf kills a shrike with one puny little dart. stubbs kills one too, and martin moneybags, and fanansiver kills another one, and another one, and petty soon they're all dead, only poor cobblercat got beaked to death and some of our other guys are pretty chewed up.

but it was our first fight, so we get experience points, or xp as they say. it's like 3 points, msg says, because it was a tough fight and we had a fatality. (we'd also gotten 1 point from surviving the horrible bridge storm.) i'm like, 3 doesn't sound like a lot, how much does it take before we turn into real boys and girls?

the answer is 10 apparently, so we can figure by the time we get to first level, we'll be down to 7 characters. "well," says msg, "a really tough fight with multiple fatalities is worth 4, which would get you there faster," and i'm like, "dude, aren't you supposed to be the guy who knows the best math around here, because multiple sounds to me like two or more and if we had 2 fights like that, we'd be down to 5 characters instead of 7."

sometimes, it's like i'm psychic. (that's what they call "foreshadowing.")

so that same day we get to the end of the bridge.

no hole in the sky.

we're half a mile up, and when grumpus goes around trying to find the edges with his rope, it turns out the back end of the bridge has been following us, and now we're just stuck on this 20 by 60 invisible platform with nowhere to go.

for like 2 more days.

the plus side of this is, each night when we sleep, we get a hit point back, so the guys who got shriked mostly heal up.

finally, this spot appears on the horizon and gets bigger and bigger, and there's crackling blue lightning all around the edges and inside it we can see a magenta sky.

whew!

it lines up with the end of the bridge and we go through. so now we're in some other dimension in a bamboo forest that has a weird smell in the air, and it's all misty, but off through the mists we see some giant structure straight ahead.
the hole behind us is gone, so, not much to do but head for giant misty structure.

msg is rolling more dice as we walk along, but apparently they come up bust, because nothing attacks us. but we do end up finding this clearing, and since it's the only clearing we've come across, we're careful to look at it for traps or spiderwebs or whatever, and that lets us see that there's some ground out of place or something, and we dig up somebody's stash of old stuff. there's like, a crowbar, a backpack, a shield, and some leather armor.

fanansiver's all hot for the leather armor because he was the hero of shrike battle and killed more than anybody, so we give in and let him have it, and we give the shield to joe average just because then one person will have a 14 armor class, which sounds a lot better than just bumping someone from 10 to 11.

moving onward, we get to the structure and find it's some kind of giant seed-pod thingamajig, a couple hundred feet high with 50' thorns all over it and a 60' tall door in the side that faces us. the door is latched, maybe 30 feet up, so no way are we getting up there to unlatch it, and even if we could, it probably weighs like, literally tons, so how could we open it? we're stuck. but before we start searching around the bottom of the giant alien pine-cone for another way in, we realize the gap under the door is big enough we could squeeze under.

we lie down to see if we can see anything inside, but it's all dim and there's just junk or debris on the floor within view. i'm thinking, if somebody crawls under and there's a monster inside, it'll just gobble them up while they're squirming through the crack, right? so we need to check it out somehow that keeps the first person through from being a total sitting duck.

even though cobbler claire is my main character and the one i'm thinking of as "me," she volunteers to lie on her back and have a couple of the guys push her under the door by the legs for a better look, and they'll yank her back if she sees anything and hollers.

she sees something and hollers!

right over the frickin' door is this giant jack-o-lanterny thing with green fire in its mouth and scary tentacles and shit, and when it sees me seeing it, it jumps right at me!

i scream and they pull me out, and the jack-o-lantern tentacles come out from under the door to grab at us, and they get hold of joe average but he busts loose with a lucky strength check.

and this creepy voice comes from under the door, "so sorry to try to kill you, but i'm the guardian here, and if you persist in trying to come in, i will have to destroy every one of you in a horribly painful way."

nobody else saw any of it except the tentacles, but claire is like, "eff that shit!"

seeing as how we stumbled across one stash of goodies on our way to the pine cone, we decide to search around in the bamboo forest a while and see if there's more treasure. or maybe enough monsters to fight for us to go up a level and be ready to fight the truck-sized killer demon pumpkin.

msg shrugs and starts rolling randomly, but apparently the dice are coming up bust again, and after looking around for several hours we see that no matter what direction we go, the pine cone shows up ahead of us. so we're like, "f___."

we get back to the door, but not within tentacle reach just in case, and that's when i realize if the door is 60 feet high it must be really wide too, and i ask how many of us could try to squeeze through all at once. msg says almost everybody, 'cause the door's like 25 feet wide and each person doesn't need more than 3 or 4 feet to crawl. so we decide if we all crawl through at once and jump up, we can mob-carve ourselves a pumpkin even if it grabs somebody.

one, two, three, go!

"who's got the lowest luck?" asks msg.

this doesn't sound good, but i tell him. the jack-o-lantern is hanging on the door as we come in, and it rushes down and grabs up yawni and martin. unlike joe average, they don't make their saves to break free.

we roll initiative, and our side wins!

fanansiver is throwing his darts. everybody else is chopping with their knives or poking with their daggers or chopping with his sword (joe average), and we mostly miss, but there are 2 "natural 20" rolls. those are "critical hits!"

the critter takes 12 points of damage, which i'm like, "that kills it, right?" and msg says, "no, it barely looks scratched."

uh-oh.

now it's the creature's turn. one of the critical hits messed up its leg, so it's got less movement, but it still climbs up 20 feet, way out of reach. only because it withdrew from "melee" we get to take free hits at it. one of them is another critical!

19 points of damage so far.

"it's dead now, right?"

"nope."

it tosses martin moneybags inside its mouth and he starts screaming and burning up. then it just drops yawni o'style, and falling from 20 feet is 2 dice of damage, so splatterooni.

the rest of us look around for someplace to run and hide. we're in some mf huge caverny chamber inside the pine cone, and there's these creepy brain-shaped flies that glow bobbing around, and on the other side of the chamber is this nightmare titan thing sleeping against the wall. it's big enough to need that 60' door! agh! we're not going that way.

but cobbler claire has a special lucky thingie where her luck bonus helps her find secret doors, and she spots a gap in the wall maybe 50 feet away. we run for it!

except for fanansiver. you'd think maybe he was going to stay and throw darts, since he's the only one with a ranged weapon and maybe he could kill the pumpkinmonster with a lucky crit. but, chaotic, remember? what he does instead is, he looks around to see if he can spot a dart he threw at the pumpkin and missed with. dude is retrieving his ammo while martin is burning up screaming and the rest of us are high-tailing it for cover.

but the critter doesn't come back down to get fanansiver, it just hangs there with mr. moneybags taking 1 point of damage each round from the green fire, and it's talking with its mouth full, all apologizing about how sorry it is to be crisping our friend to death, but we really ought to reconsider leaving as a better alternative to going on.

even though he's getting flame-broiled to death, martin gets a strength roll every round to try to bust out of the mouth. msg says i need a 20 to make it, and martin has -1 because his strength is bad.

fail. 1 hit point of damage.

fail. 1 hit point of damage.

fail. 1 hit point of damage

17! minus 1 is 16, but martin has some luck left he can spend, which he uses to make it a 20! yay!

he squeezes out of the monster's jaws!

only he's still 20 feet up in the air. msg doesn't even need to roll the damage, because it's 2 six-sided dice and martin only has 1 hit point left. his flaming cinder corpse hits the ground with a sickening crunch.

meanwhiles, the rest of us have gotten to the gap and made some strength checks and wrestled the debris out of the way, and even with his side-trip to grab his missing dart, fanansiver makes it too. did i mention he has a 17 luck score? lucky bastard.

inside, there's this dark corridor piled with garbage and junk ... and also, a cage hanging in the corridor with some of those brain-flies in it for light. so that means there's somebody here, right? the polite but evil pumpkin has green fire in his mouth, so he doesn't need bugs for light, so they're not his.

anyway, since we have a second of breathing room, i'm like, "4 xp! cough it up, buddy! we had 2 guys die, and that's 'multiple fatalities,' right?"

he admitted it was and gave us the 4 xp. just 2 more and we'd make 1st level!

since this whole place seemed pretty obviously set up to kill us dead, we started looking around the room really carefully.

"okay, roll initiative," msg says.

"swell." i roll crap, and these two half-starved dudes burst out of their hiding places along the walls. one of them comes right at us, and the other goes tearing off down the hall yelling.

joe average is ready! his 14 armor class is too much for a half-starved craze-ball, and on our turn, he cuts the guy down with his longsword!

fanansiver moves up and throws a dart at the running guy - bullseye! right in the spine!

"yes! that's 2 xp, right?"

"oh, come on. that was way too easy. i shouldn't give you any experience at all."

i give him my best "don't make your girlfriend mad" look, and he rolled his eyes and said, "all right, 1 xp. that's the best i can do."

since he was kinda right about how easy it was i couldn't really argue with that.

on into the darkness we went! we ran into a trap, but it was so easy, msg refused to hand out any experience. then we found a shaft going way up into the darkness overhead, with these rickety makeshift ladders to climb. i didn't like the looks of them, but it was a dead-end otherwise, and we sure weren't going to backtrack out to where the kill-o-lantern was. so we start climbing. the wall on one side is kind of decrepit, so there's little tears and holes that let in dim light from the main chamber.

that sort of should have been a clue.

partway up the ladders, the pumpkinmonster rips open the wall and grabs stubbs stumblegruff! stubbs smacks it a good one with his hammer before it can pop him in his mouth, and he yells, "go ahead and eat me, beastie! i saw what happened to martin, and i'll just hammer you from inside until you're dead!"

kind of a mistake to say that out loud, i guess, 'cause the monster says, "oh, dear. i'm terribly sorry, then, but i'll just have to go about this differently" and it rips stubbs in half! dwarf guts everywhere!

we got a couple of hits in on it as it moved away again, apologizing some more. by now, the thing has taken 20-something points of damage and it's still going strong. what sadist sends a monster that badass against guys with 3 and 4 hit points each?

i was sad about stubbs because i thought it would be cool having a dwarf character. but ...

"fatality!" i said. "that's at least 3 xp! we're first level!"

there's only 5 of us left, but now we all get to roll extra hit points and get spells for wizards and all kinds of shit. yes! of course, that means i've got to decide what to make everybody. apparently fanansiver has to just be an elf. he can't choose any other class. so he's stuck. joe average pretty clearly has wanted to be a warrior all his life, easy choice. and you get to roll a die 12 for warrior hit points! and i rolled a 12! then i had to figure whether to make grumpus mcgoof and cobbler claire into wizards or clerics, cause we needed 1 of each. they both had good intelligences (wizard) but claire also had a good personality (cleric). so even though being a wizard sounded cooler to me, i decided i'd better make cobbler claire into claire the cleric. that left strong lee sickabed. he was strong enough to be a warrior, but that bad stamina ... if i rolled sucky and got low hit points, he wouldn't be much use as a warrior. so i made him a thief, which would let him sneak around and backstab people instead of hanging out on the front line to get creamed.

i was really surprised how fun it was making these decisions and figuring out the results!

anyway, that covers the first several play sessions, and my typy fingers are tired, so i'll leave the rest for later. i hope you guys find this writeup half as fun as i found the game!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

i am such a faily mcfailington failure at this writing thing!

yeepers, two years between chapters???

obviously, i have been big-time slacking.

plus, on top of that, i read back over everything so far, and there is noooooo sign of the sizzle-y sexiness i promised would be in this book!

i am letting you all down, i can tell.

but ...

that's pretty okay!

because i've still got my day job, which is also my night job, which is pretty much the bestest most non-jobby job in the world.

since it's a new year, though, i'm going to be all resolutionary and promise myself i'll be better about novel blogging. i got too hung up in finishing real chapters, i think. making sure they had a real beginning and middle and end.

too much pressure!

so i'm going back to my "just write however much you feel like and call it a chapter and be done with it" approach, which i think worked peachy as a peach pie with extra-peachy peach ice cream on top.

it's going to be a total success, i can tell!

happy new year, everybody!

Chapter Six

Coffee the next morning turned out awful.

For starters, Bitsy was almost late. She got up on time, of course, the way you always do because the dream feed autosyncs with the alarm and eases you to the end of your dream just in time for the buzzer. The problem was, the dream just wouldn't quit after she woke up. The whole time she was getting out of bed, emptying her recycling bin in the toilet, and showering, reality kept fading out and Bitsy kept fading into echoes from the dream feed, with her imagination cut-and-pasting random images from the night across her vision in place of the wallpaper or the shower tiles or even the mirror when she went to blow her hair dry.

One minute she'd be sitting on the can, letting her systems evacuate the processed food from the day before, and the next thing she knew, she and Cord would be swimming in a pool-sized vat of cream, or maybe it was soy milk.

Suddenly, pow, she looked up and there was only ten minutes left on the clock before she needed to get on the train, and her teeth still weren't brushed.

Which meant she had to run to the elevator and then squirm for it to arrive and then squirm some more when it stopped to let more people on from every floor and then run through the lobby and down the street and down the stairs and through the turnstile and over to her platform and just barely through the doors before they shut and the train whisked away. So then there she was, panting and sweaty and probably with her hair all out of whack. The Asian girl with the makeup-application glitch looked at her a little funny, and her knees almost buckled on her. Oh, Loj. I look so awful even she can tell. And then she panicked even more: What's the makeup girl doing on the train? Our normal train isn't for half an hour -- did I lose 30 minutes somehow? Am I already late for coffee?

Then she remembered it was Wednesday, and the makeup-glitch girl was never on the train on Wednesdays. She must take this earlier one instead. Maybe she meets someone for coffee every Wednesday.

But even after confirming the time on her watch she could hardly catch her breath the whole train-ride through. When the doors opened at her stop, she was sure Cord wouldn't be there, that she'd screwed something up somehow and missed him.

Even worse, once she spotted him, it didn't flutter her heart upward, it made it sink instead. His face held this blank look before he saw her, and once his eyes turned her way, the smile he gave her looked pinched, like he'd forced a reload and it hadn't quite gotten there. Then, instead of dreamy spotlights on both of them and a miraculous aisle through the crowd for them to approach each other, Bitsy had to bump and jostle through the same ordinary stream of people cutting across her path as any other day at the station.

"Uh, hi, good morning," she said when he met her halfway.

"Not entirely," he replied, giving his head an eh tilt back and forth. "But it's getting better now. Come on, let's get our coffee."

They moved together through the crowd toward the nearest kiosk. Bitsy felt awkward.

Do I ask what the matter is? What if it's a Real problem, and he doesn't want to say? She gave herself a mental kick. Well then he won't say, but at least he'll know you're concerned, right?

"What got you off to a bad start?" she asked. "I almost missed my train. I bet I look a mess."

They made it to the coffee line and he glanced at her with those brown eyes. "You look great. I just had an appointment later this morning, and they dropped-signal on me." He looked up at the menu for a minute, still seeming distracted. Then he frowned, maybe at himself, and turned again and smiled at her. "I'm glad you didn't miss your train. That would have really been a rotten start to my day."

Smiling back, she thought, Ask what the appointment was. No, that's nosy. Ask about where he works. No, that's nosy too.

"I work at Sitemapson Lincorporated, in the recursive accounts department of traffic tracking," she said. Oh, great. Yawn. "Not that there's anything to say about it."

"Well, there's got to be something to say about it."

She shrugged, wishing she'd asked what kind of coffee he liked instead.

"It's stable, I guess. Never any shortage of traffic to be tracked."

"Or accounts to be recursed, I assume."

She laughed. The line wasn't moving. Some guy at the front seemed to be having trouble making up his mind what to order.

Cord went on. "So what got you into traffic tracking?"

What a weird question. Her eyebrows tried to squeeze down, and she tried to keep them from squeezing. "You know, the usual. I came off the line at the factory like most folks, without any special ambitions or goals. So I went to an assignment house, gave them a chip of my childhood simories and simucation, and the next day they told me there was a position at Sitemapson."

Cord nodded like what she said made perfect sense, which of course it did. But he also looked like it made him think about something else, which why would it? Only about ten percent of androids got the itch to do something particular with their lives from the simories installed at the factory. Surely no one would come pre-programmed with an urgent desire to go into traffic tracking, so obviously she'd gone to the assignment house. He shouldn't have needed to ask.

Then she realized, He's Real. He never had a chip of simories to hand over -- nobody Real would. They must all choose what they're going to do for a living. Or maybe they don't have to work at anything unless they want to.

The line took a step forward. Thank Loj!

"What kind of coffee do you like?" she asked before anything else dumb could come out of her mouth.

"Mocha with a ton of sugar," he said. "How about you?"

For the first time since the morning before, she remembered that she didn't really like coffee and hadn't given a second's thought to what she would order. "Uh, I usually just get the crud from the break room. If I'm going to have coffee. Maybe I should be more adventurous."

"Hmm."

What's that mean, 'Hmm'? I'm cabling everything up. What a doohickey. She opened her mouth, hoping it would help her think of something to say. It didn't, and in another second she would look like an idiot with her mouth hanging open. But luckily the line moved again, and Cord looked away as he stepped forward, and then it turned out he had his own something to say.

"So what do you do, when you're not tracking traffic?"

Oh no. "You don't want to hear. I have the most boring life ever."

He laughed. "It can't be the most boring ever. Yesterday you got hot coffee spilled on you. That's not boring."

"I don't know. I read a lot. And watch old holos."

"What kind?"

Anything I can find about the old days. When there were still people. Should she? Would he like the fact that she had a fixation about Real people? Or would it scare him off?

His phone chimed before she could decide what to say. Taking it out with an apologetic look, he read the screen and grimaced and answered it.

"Cord here. Yes. No, not yet." The line moved some more. "That fell through. I know. No, seriously, they left me hanging. I don't know, I don't think it was ... look, I can't talk about this right now, I'm having coffee with someone. Ten? Yeah, I can be there at ten. Yeah. Okay, goodbye."

He shook his head and put the phone away. "Sorry. One of my colleagues wanting an update."

Is he Real too? "It didn't sound like a very happy call."

A shrug. "Work."

Suddenly, they were at the counter and the barista was asking what they wanted.

Ack! "Two mochas with gobs of sugar!"

She blurted it out and stood staring at the counter guy like he was a door guard at the Department of Evil and she was a holo hero trying an old password to get in and destroy his super-villain boss's super-death weapon.

"What sizes?"

Oh shorts, there's more than one stage to the password ...

"Uh," she said, looking at Cord, "that must have been a tera you spilled on me yesterday? I mean, that I made you spill?"

"Yeah." It came out as much a laugh as an affirmation.

"One tera and one ..." Chip. No way can I get a giga down. Maybe not even a mega. But will it be too obvious how much I hate coffee if I get a kilo? "... and one mega."

She stole a glance at Cord, sure he saw right through her. But he was glancing down at his phone, half out of his pocket and telling him something that brought out another frown.

I guess it's not all autoflow being Real, she thought, turning away so he wouldn't see her seeing him looking at his phone. The coffee guy told her the price and asked for her credit chip, which she handed over.

"Name?" he asked, with the chip extended back to her after a swipe across the reader.

"Bitsy."

"Sugar and stuff's around the corner."

They stepped out of the ordering line and moved over to the hanging-around-for-coffee-to-be-ready cluster near the corner of the kiosk. She could see the cream and sugar stand now, with androids pouring sweetener and half-and-half into their steaming paper cups. Cord's phone had disappeared back into his pocket.

"So ..." She started the word in hopes it would lead to an idea of something to say. Come on, come on ... "Do you get coffee here every day?"

He shook his head. "I'm all over town, depending on what my calendar looks like. Sometimes I even travel out of town."

"Out of town!" Bitsy blinked. "Wow, that must be exciting."

Cord shrugged. "Maybe not as much as you'd think."

"Where do you go? Out to the mines or refineries? To the agro districts?" Oh my gosh, I shouldn't have asked that. Maybe out of town is where all the Real people live.

But Cord just said, "Sometimes."

Wanting to stop herself but not able to, she asked, "What's it like out there?"

He looked apologetic. "I hate to say it, but it's boring. Pretty much exactly like the holos -- robots doing a bunch of work, nobody around but tour groups and the occasional inspector."

Her mouth opened again, but this time she managed to shut it. Then she opened it again, but before she managed to say anything from behind her came:

"Bitsy!"

"Ah!" She just about jumped out of her skin.

"One tera mocha, one mega mocha!"

Oh. The coffee.

They got their cups, Cord's towering over hers, both of them steaming through the little sippy holes in the lids. An unusually wide guy stood square in front of the sugar and creamer stand, not adding anything to his coffee, just stirring and blowing on it and sniffing of it like that was going to tell him whether he'd gotten it sweet enough or creamy enough or both. Ordinarily, Bitsy would not have said anything. But at this point if she didn't say anything to the coffee-blocking dude, she'd have to say something to Cord, and she had no idea what that would be.

"Yeah, um, excuse me, sir? Could we get to the cream and sugar? Please?"

He looked at her, but didn't say anything, since his mouth was apparently too busy blowing across the lip of his cup. But he did move a step to the left, so that he only blocked three-quarters of the counter instead of all of it. She thought, So rude! at him, but didn't say it. And then she realized it was kind of okay, since now there was no way she and Cord would both fit at the stand, giving her still more time to think of things to say.

So what exactly takes you out of town? No, if it's a Real thing, that would be bad. What if I say I've never been to the outskirts, but when I was a kid, we had our lottery number come up and got to spend three days in the Parklands? Factory, this stuff still tastes bad -- how much sugar do you have to put in it? Yeah, the Parklands ... no, no, stupid, why would he care about some implant memories? He's Real. But I could ask if he's ever been ...

She finally got her mocha to where it tasted bearable, like sugary milk with just a touch of burnt dirt thrown in. The wide guy was still stirring and blowing and sipping, so she squeezed around him and let Cord into the spot she'd just left. While he fixed his tera up, she looked around for a table.

Her eyes scanned the little seating area, left, right, left, a little farther left -- oh, no.

Stepping into the end of the line, not more than a half-dozen meters away, was Gigory from work.