There's Life Underground

DATE: 8/**/2023
ASSETS: ACF-7823-A, “Peppers”; SV-3, “Jupiter”
PURPOSE: Conversation

Pacing in front of the door until it was time wasn’t going to help Pepper. She had no idea when “time” even was. All she knew was that she was expecting a visit from Jupiter at some point that day. That little fact was throwing off her entire day. She couldn’t go out and do any experiments, nor could she catalog any household anomalies. She couldn’t focus on paperwork, because then she might be busy when he arrived. No, instead, she stood, pacing holes into the hardwood floors of her little office. She had a cd softly playing in the background, and she tried to calm down as she listened to Isabel LaRosa’s lovely voice.

Cody had told her already that there was nothing to worry about, and that she just needed to be herself and everything would be fine, but she couldn’t help the knot of anxiety in her stomach. She almost wished he could be there, even if it was just as her manager, and not as her significant other. At least then, if she was struggling to answer something, he could jump in and help explain it to Jupiter.

But no, she needed to do this on her own. Cody was busy with other things, and she needed to be able to talk to Jupiter if she was going to be an R-Class-D researcher. That was important. That promotion was important. It meant so many changes for her and for her research. So much more access, so many different doors, so many opportunities. Really, all Pepper wanted at that point was to be able to stay with Cody and Ira. Anything that solidified that position for her was worth fighting for.

The level of attachment she felt for Ira was already so much higher than she thought it ought to be. The girl had really grown on her in the last week, and Pepper felt a professed defensiveness for her. There was a little place in her heart that was already open to her, and Pepper wanted that room to grow big enough that Ira would always be there. She hoped that Ira felt the same way, but it was a little hard to tell sometimes.

Pepper’s greatest fear at that point was that the promotion might come with a shuffle into a different location. She could be moved to L-15 with Charlie, for instance. She wouldn’t mind that terribly, but she loved where she was. She could also be shuffled into l-9 due to her studies in interdimensional travel and dimensional studies. Especially now that she had started opening doorways to other places again. Now that she could remember how. Of course, she had only spent time over the weekend trying it, and so she hadn’t even had a chance to tell Cody privately that she had managed to do it.

But Jupiter likely didn’t care about any of those feelings or facts. He only wanted to talk to her about Ira and her connection to the Dark Dimension. And it was entirely dependent on him if she got to stay with Ira at this point. If he didn’t like that she was spending time with her, he could absolutely have her reassigned to stop it. At least, that’s what she feared.

And all that fear was the reason she was pacing so uncontrollably, her bottom lip tucked between her teeth as she thought.

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Like any good field agent, Councilman Jupiter was a man of many faces. Not just physical disguises; changing his face was rarely enough to divert notice. There were changes in posture and vocal tone, shifts in expression, that could alter an entire persona, even one as imposing as his. Of course, Jupiter could be threatening. He was a little over six feet tall, broad, trained by the Foundation in various forms of combat, rarely without the black overcoat. When he stood up straight, arms folded behind his back, expression grim, then he was everything most people expected of him.

That was not the Jupiter who followed familiar halls toward the office of Dr. Elizabeth Krasniqi. This Jupiter moved at a slow, paced stroll, hands deep within the visible pockets of the anomalous coat. His face was relaxed, his shoulders slightly slouched, his normally perceptive eyes a little unfocused. This could be deceptive, as it gave him the illusion of distraction. Unlike other members of the Council he wasn’t armed himself or accompanied by armed guard or threatening anomaly. To the naked eye he may as well be a civilian who had wandered in, if he hadn’t seemed so sure of where he was walking.

No one stopped him as he paused a short distance outside Dr. Krasniqi’s doorframe, just out of view from inside the office. He listened for a moment, caught the music almost muffled out by the sound of boots on hardwood. He traced the sound of anxious pacing around the room, then determined the best course of action.

A few more soft steps of his own, and he was at the door, a little to the side so as not to completely fill the space. He rapped his knuckles twice against the doorframe, followed by, [font color="#ff4500"]“Knock, knock.”[/font]

His voice was soft, smooth, and deep as most would expect. There was no trace of any real accent in it. He had a smile that was comfortable, but unreadable, and his eyes betrayed nothing except generally perceptive intelligence. His hand fell to his side, casual, empty, with a gold watch peeking out from under the coat sleeve. Entirely unthreatening, mostly un-authoritative, as emphasized by his next question.

“May I come in?”
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Pepper wasn’t proud of the fact that she actively jumped at the sound of the voice at her door. She turned around quickly and looked at the man. She knew without a doubt that this man was Jupiter. She also knew she had seen him before. It tickled her brain like a feather on the skin. She didn’t know how she knew him, as they had certainly never met before, but she knew him. She pointed in his direction cautiously and tilted her head. It was the most intense sense of deja vu Pepper had ever had.“You. You? I’m sorry, you’re, uhm, Jupiter right?”

She gestured for him to come in and walked over to her desk. She pulled her pastel pink chair out from behind her desk and sat it around the front, across from the blue chair. That felt more like a conversation than an official meeting in terms of seating arrangement.“Please, come in. Of course, you can come in. I’m so sorry, I’m– I’m not sure why I’m apologizing. I think I’m nervous.”

The man didn’t look as intimidating as Pepper had expected, but all the same, her nerves wouldn’t quite settle. Something about him felt almost disingenuous, but Pepper was sure that was just in her head. There was no reason a man like Jupiter would have to put up a fake persona around someone like Pepper, after all. If he was kind, as he seemed to be, then he must actually be kind. Just because she was good at reading people didn’t mean she was always right. She shook the thoughts from her head and smiled. She gestured toward the blue chair, already pulled from its corner, while reaching over and shutting off her music. “Please, have a seat.”

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Jupiter recognized Pepper’s expression. He had a feeling he saw it more often than the other Council members, as they tended to avoid their past locations. Except Butterfly, but he had ACF-707 to soften the effect.

“I’m Jupiter, that’s right.” His smile was amicable. “There’s no need to apologize. You don’t undergo amnestics very often, I take it? I would recommend not thinking about me too hard. While it isn’t harmful, it’s hardly comfortable.”

Such was the price of true anonymity. It was a very good sign that the amnestics did not seem to hurt, as that could indicate damage and mental blocks rather than manufactured forgetfulness. On the other hand, it was a good sign that amnestics worked at all, with Dr. Krasniqi’s condition as god-host.

Mm. Right. Back to business.

“Thank you.” He took the seat offered, and waited for her to join him. He noticed that this didn’t seem to be an adjustment of hierarchy – if it had been, she would have sat on this side of the desk, and let him sit in the pink chair. This was more conversational.

Good. He had no intention of making her more nervous. He kept the air of calm in his own demeanor, to help counteract the nerves. The persona was not a lie; just an aspect, a facet. Unlike most people, he had a great degree of control over the aspects of his personality, and could call them up at will. No more a lie than courage, really – acting contrary to, or at least without alignment with, true emotions. And the calm was very real, anyway.

“I’m assuming Dr. Redd has told you the reason for my visit, Elizabeth,” he offered, as a semi-formality. Her file could say whatever it liked; that was still her first name, and he wanted to see how and if she would react to it. “Forgive me if my approach seems odd at all. I’m not a researcher, like most of those who have studied your world.”

He chose those words. It might seem an accident, but in a world with two potentially Eldritch deity-class entities, the Foundation had to give both weight, their own politics be damned. It belonged to both equally, as far as he was concerned. Their war was not his concern. His concern was with Dr. Krasniqi, and whether she was ready for the responsibilities that Class-D status would give her alongside the privileges and additional clearance.

He crossed his legs and folded his hands. Open posture, closed focus. She had his full attention.

“If you don’t mind jumping right into it. Or if you have more questions about the amnestic process, I’m open to that too. It might help clear the air.”
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He referred to it as her world. Something about that made part of her, a part she didn’t know, feel warm. But then, a lot of her hadn’t felt like her after she looked too hard at it. Pepper knew the wall inside her had crumbled. So far the amount of people who knew was limited, and she wanted to keep it that way.

“Cod– Dr. Redd has told me, yes. And, you can call me Pepper. No one has called me Elizabeth since I was six.” She took her seat and crossed her legs at the ankles, smoothing her pastel pink skirt out over her knees. She’d worn a much longer skirt than she normally would, maybe out of nervousness, maybe out of an attempt to show respect. She couldn't remember the last time she had looked so… demure. “And however you want to go about this is fine. I just hope I can provide you with some of the answers you’re seeking.”

The more he spoke, the more at ease she felt. His voice was soothing to listen to, and more and more she felt that her initial suspicion of him being insincere had been wrong. Maybe he was being a bit more gentle with her due to how outwardly nervous she was, but she suspected that most good people would have been. By that logic, Jupiter must be good people.

“I don’t get amnestics often, no. But I understand their use and the process behind it. It’s just been… a long time.” She paused, thinking about it. Surely, it must have been when she was about twenty-one? She had only just become a full researcher at the time when she had been pulled aside for amnestic therapy for… for what? She couldn’t remember, but that was the point, wasn’t it? It had been right before Cody arrived at the facility. That, she remembered clearly. “I’m ready to just jump right in. Tell me what questions I can answer for you, sir.”

She tried hard to relax her shoulders and sit back in her chair, but her back stayed rod straight and stiff as a board. She took a few deep breaths as she talked, and slowly the tension in her spine and neck seemed to fall away. She lifted a hand and rubbed the back of her neck as she finished talking, and looked up at Jupiter expectantly.

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“Pepper, then.”

Jupiter smiled. He rather liked the nickname. He wasn’t sure of its origin, and had the situation been different, he might have engaged in small talk on the matter. But this was a pressing issue, potentially time-sensitive.

So he adjusted very slightly in his seat, just enough to seem human and not remain entirely immobile, and nodded his head. “Pepper, I’d like you to tell me a little about the terrain of the world. Not the nature of the ground – the type of ecosystem, the climate. The Denizens there, but not in what they are, more how they behave. And, lastly: I know from your file that you can move your Path, but does the path always manifest in the same place? Or does it appear where it would be safest for you to cross, presumably without drawing 1003’s attention?”

They likely seemed to be simple enough questions, a good beginning, but he knew there would be a lot of information here. It was always good to get a researcher talking about something they liked, and letting them give answers that seemed relevant, even if you had to sift through them to make sense of why they were relevant.

And, Pepper may not have known, but they were also the kinds of questions field agents asked before an incursion. Lepidopterists had not been worried about the crossing; their researchers had been present to accomplish specific tasks. But should some issue arise, and the need to pass between become prominent… that would be an issue for that time, but there was never harm in asking safe questions in preparation.
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Pepper nodded along to the questions, her expression sharpening as she took it in. He was asking for very specific answers. Pepper could do specifics. She could do specifics very well. She thought for a long moment, a hand raising to her face, covering one of her cheeks as she closed her eyes and imagined the layout of where she had explored.

“Well, the first thing to know about the terrain is it wants to kill you. There are forests made of tentacle-like appendages that try to kill anything that enters them. Mikulass has shown them to me, but not up close, so I can’t tell you more than I saw them slap something straight out of the sky. The top of the planet is mostly empty plains with little vegetation. The terrain is very uneven, and there’s what could be defined as mountains. I’ve seen some giant structures in the distance before, but I’m unsure if they’re Denizens or structures. Most of the life seems to be underground. I have yet to make it all the way to a city, but Mikulass reports large underground cities to me.”

She paused there. With a sudden flash of realization, she understood the cultists, her cultists, were included in the behaviors of the denizens. She… didn’t like that. Mikulass had been in her life for as long as she could remember. He learned English alongside her, just to speak to her. She didn’t really like the idea of what felt like betraying them to the ACF. Still, she sighed and continued, “The Denizens, well, they’ll attack anything that looks too human or glows the color of the Dead God, pure yellow and gold light, They attack humans because they believe it to be a profanity for their people to look like the Goddess. The glowing, well, that’s mostly a me problem. Aside from that, they’re very peaceful. Adequate enough armor and facial coverings obscure your shape enough that you can get by them rather easily. The cultists never were offended by the Lepidopterist when I took them through.”

She assumed then that he would ask more questions if he had them, so she paused and thought of how to explain the next part. “I used to be able to pick where in the world I wanted a portal. I think that the Dead God’s shard, uhm, is preventing me from doing that now. It’s identified a safe zone, so to speak, and it doesn’t want me to breach it. So the zone that it takes me to is always the same entry point, where I don’t attract Ir– One Thousand Three’s attention.”

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As he’d suspected, she was more than happy to answer his questions. She focused, and answered according to how he’d asked. The terrain detail was long since suspected in terms of Ira’s world, and now the idea that the Denizens of Pepper’s Dark Dimension found humanity idolatrous was confirmed.

Dr. Krasniqi had only explored a small part of her world, shared with Ira. He was aware that Ira would be able to give him more details, but he was also aware that the creator of a realm was liable to be much more… philosophical, on the matter. Much less direct. It would be a good idea to take her statement, but it was a better idea for something simpler before approaching the Goddess herself.

“That explains why there aren’t many records of underground exploration.” It was just a little note, after a polite pause to make sure there was nothing more to add. “I presume the Path keeps you away from entrances to heavily populated areas, to avoid attention.”

It wasn’t a question, but he left space for her to correct him if she felt the need. He then continued, “Tell me about your cultists. How do they worship you, and how are they different from the other Denizens in terms of culture, beyond religious differences?”
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“Actually, it doesn’t seem to mind bending to whatever direction I want it to go. I was just stopped by… something the last time I got close to the entrance. I’m still planning a more extreme expedition. One where I make it into a city and maybe document it.” That may have been a little more than he needed to know, and she had almost told him about her latest encounter. She needed to be careful about things like that.

And they circled back around to Mikulass and his cult. She sighed. This one was a harder question. The way the Denizens viewed religion was different from how humans did. “Well, from what I understand, they worship through their form of emotional communication. This is the same of One Thousand Three’s church, from what Misha says. They view us as living gods, and due to this, we are simply worthy of their praise. They expect nothing from us, except maybe us not dying. I would also say that whatever orders I have ever given have been explicitly obeyed. They attend to my presence almost like they’re going to mass.”

She paused there for any questions before continuing. “And culturally, they differ in that they are almost completely migratory. They live in a nomad lifestyle, never staying in one place for too long. They have roaming camps around the safe zone, that way they can attend to my presence when they can. From what I understand, the rest of the denizens live in these mass underground communities. Otherwise, they also praise the sphere to tend to it, they eat the same foods, if you can call it that, and they practice the same rites and rituals.”

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It would be a lie to say Jupiter’s curiosity was not piqued by the mention of something stopping her. Had it been a Denizen, she would have likely discussed it in more detail. As things stood, it could be irrelevant. It could be the hinge on which everything hung.

“You should not attempt to visit a city alone.” His voice was firm when he said that. It wasn’t a command. A very strong suggestion, maybe. A recommendation, even. It was hard to tell with the even tone. “Especially if the Denizens are likely to recognize you, and harm you when they do.”

He had some ideas about the nature of who should be sent with her. Not the Lepidopterists again, although he’d like to review Agent Gilroy’s attempts at introducing memetic hazards into their environment. He would have offered one of his own RH teams, but none of them were equipped for extradimensional travel. All teams with that clearance were under SV-5. 1003 emphatically would not take well to SV-5 intervening. Jupiter was fairly certain he could pull Strings to find a viable loophole, but that was not a problem for this moment.

For this moment, another question arose.

“Tell me about the Sphere itself. It is a large organism that can support other life, but it hates life. To counter that, the life sings to it, shares emotions. Explain that to me.”
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Pepper nervously bit the inside of her lower lip. “The suit that Kim made me has proven very useful in allowing me to go undetected. It’s also saved me in the one run-in I have had since then. My guide, Mikulass, he scouts ahead for me to keep me from being caught unaware by anything. However, I understand why you would say I shouldn’t. I’ll stop trying, for the time being, sir.”

Despite making a few unwise choices here and there, Pepper was very good at listening to those above her. It might not have been a command, but she understood the logic and reason behind it. And when she recognized the wisdom of others, she tended to follow it. Jupiter was making sense in this instance, so Pepper would listen.

“Oh, boy. This might be a question better suited for Ira if I’m honest, but I’ll do my best to explain as I understand it. Like you said, we’ve determined the planet to be made of flesh and sentient. Now, I have no experience with the feelings that others have reported. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m becoming… what I am, but I’ve never felt the malice others have. From what Mikulass has explained to me, they don’t know why the planet hates them, but they know that to tend to it, they must share emotions of happiness, joy, peace, and the like. Apparently, this helps to calm it enough that it hates you less. Ira might know why the planet hates.”

It was unfortunate that that was the best answer she had, but given she had never felt the planet’s malice, it was hard to explain it. But then she thought of one other possibility. She hesitated for a moment before continuing. “There is one other option. Mikulass says that the amount of happiness and peacefulness I radiate affects all of the cultists, so it’s possible that it affects the Sphere as well.”

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She accepted his advice, most likely because he was a Councilman. He didn’t mind that. It would be more concerning if she didn’t take his advice, because he was a Councilman, and she was still Class-C. Class-D personnel had some leeway, and Class-E personnel could speak freely, and often did. But Council members made recommendations when it was important, and Pepper seemed to understand that.

Good. He would have left it if she had argued, but he would also have been concerned.

None of that changed his face. His eyes rested on her, his posture remained professional but relaxed. He waited for her to finish her explanation of the Sphere, and then simply said, “Thank you.”

He did intend to ask Ira more on the subject of her world. The Sphere absorbed emotions, and seemed to react to them. He was not a researcher, so he did not have theories, or if he did he wouldn’t voice them. This wasn’t the time, nor the place. Her theory was very good, anyway. As was the one she derived from Mikulass.

“That brings me to questions about your priest and cultists.” It was unclear which side of Pepper he was addressing, if he wasn’t already addressing her as a whole. She was anomalous. It could be all three at once. “Professionally, I need to know if they should be counted as allies or neutral parties during independent Foundation expeditions. For now, 1003 and the other Denizens will be considered hostile. But do you believe Mikulass could be negotiated with, as their leader, or do they follow your commands blindly?”
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Pepper’s face fell into a somewhat harsh expression. It looked foreign on her round face with her big eyes. This was a face meant for smiles and laughter, not for hard, straight-set mouthes and furrowed brows. She looked almost offended. But it passed quickly and her expression became considerate. Jupiter wasn’t trying to imply anything. He was asking extremely understandable questions. She closed her eyes and let her face smooth back out before looking back up at the man. There was a voice ringing in the back of her head, whispering to her.

“He means no harm to Us. He means no harm to them. We need not be so on guard, Pepper.”

She nodded to the voice in her head and finally the edges of her eyes softened and she smiled a little sadly. “Right, professionally, I would tell you that they should be considered allies. Even when faced with an unmasked and unobscured human being, they have listened to me when I have told them to leave them be. They listen to my word almost blindly, although Mikulass is very intelligent, and he could easily be negotiated with. They would gladly help with any actions, especially if they were neutral or somehow negatively affected the Goddess. I think, even if it negatively impacted them, they would do it if I requested it. They have only told me no once, but they caved on that a few years later.”

Then her face became a little hard again. She wanted to say something but chose to refrain. She wanted to tell him that, very unprofessionally, Mikulass was her friend and mentor. If any harm were to come to him, she might reconsider future association with the Foundation. And as she couldn’t be contained, except willingly, it would be unlikely they could do anything about it. And then bye-bye to their only portal to Ira’s– their– world. But she said none of that. She simply furrowed her brow and let her mouth rest in a flat line. She didn’t look angry, per say, but more like she just didn’t like the conversation.

But of course, she would tell Jupiter anything he needed to know. There was very little she wouldn’t confess to. And the only thing she could think of began with an E.

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Jupiter nodded like that was the answer he expected – like he had expected an answer at all. What she said mattered much less than her expression, however. There was a moment, just a moment, where it slipped into something else. Offense, anger, even. It was not a possession of any sort, as much as it did not suit her face. No. The emotional response was all Pepper’s.

But much more importantly, she reigned it in, and told him what he had asked for.

When she looked at him, she would see the same look of open, warm interest, but there was something else in his eyes. Nothing harsh, nothing soft. Not curiosity. It would be hard to place, without training. He had seen the first hints of what he had come here to find. Not enough, but quite a bit. That was the cue for something with more weight, more pressure, behind it. And so, he jumped ahead.

“I would like you to take me to meet him.” It was said as steadily as before, with the same cadence. His eyes stopped moving, however, and he went very still. The calm settled into something heavier. Expectation. Of a specific answer, or any answer at all, was impossible to read by his face alone, which had not shifted at all from the original demeanor.
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The serious expression on Pepper’s face became considerate. That wasn’t a question that she had been expecting. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been expecting it at some point, just not quite so soon, and not so… casually. She nodded her head and took in Jupiter’s form. His body betrayed nothing, and his expression betrayed even less. She had no idea what he wanted her to answer with. But maybe, that was part of the point. He was judging what kind of a person she was, after all. It felt a bit like a test, but one which Pepper hadn’t been given the materials to prepare with. She crossed her legs at the knee, leaning forward.

“I can take you to meet him if you want to. If you want to go now, well. There are some things we’ll need, the bare minimum. Your safety is important, so we should visit Smith and get you fitted with some armor and some night vision goggles. I would also prefer if we could arrange for an escort. Taking you somewhere as dangerous as there should definitely involve as much protection as possible. I wouldn’t be able to protect you if one of the Goddess’s creatures came up on us.”

She leaned back in her chair. She felt weird, telling him what they needed to do because, of course, he’d already know all of this. Hell, Pepper wasn’t sure she even could take him without an escort. That seemed entirely unsafe. She sighed a little, her face still considerate. “At the very least, we should have an escort. You’re too important to the Foundation for us to go without, in my opinion. However, I can’t stop you if you give me an order otherwise, sir.”

Maybe that was too much, but Pepper felt it was necessary to say as much. There were just too many possibilities. Perhaps telling a Councilman what to do wasn’t the best idea, but then Cody had told her to be herself, and Kallie had told her to speak her mind if she felt it needed to be spoken. And those two things together meant that she had to speak up about her concern for his safety. Status be damned, as Kallie would say.

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The only clue that she had passed was the soft smile that crossed Jupiter’s features. She may not even have known it was a test – which was all the more credit to her, with the response she gave. Strictly put, she was correct. He should not do something like this without a field team on hand. Ideally his own Sons of Thunder, or the Lepidopterists. But he hadn’t brought the first, and the second lost their best two assets in the Waking World. There was not much time to gather either team, anyway.

“I don’t believe an escort will be necessary, doctor. I’m willing to bet money that I’ve been a field agent almost as long as you’ve been alive. I’ve handled my fair share of…situations. Believe me when I say that given the reports, all I’ll need is my jacket and a guide to the terrain.” He held up his hand, not dismissive. More like a conductor indicating a rest. “I will wear armor, though. I’m sure Smith has one of my old sets on hand. And I’m sure you’d rather have Agent Gilroy’s memetics on hand in case something notices you, that shouldn’t.”

He did not, directly, make it an order. He should not need to make it an order for someone at Class-C to take it as fact. Class-D personnel could speak freely, as he was sure she knew, until he made it an order. He wanted to see which she currently fell into, directly or otherwise.

After a moment of thinking, he held up a finger again, and then reached down into a pocket and removed the end of a faded red string. He held it up to show her, and then began to pull it. And pull it. And continued to pull and wind it, even though it was very clearly missing pieces, even as he spoke again.

“This will come in handy in case we become separated, somehow. If you are familiar with the legend of Theseus, you might understand why and how. And in the case we encounter more aggressive locals, I have other surprises.”

He pushed himself to his feet, and then slipped the loops of thread back into the pocket it had come out of. He gestured for Pepper to follow him, then took up the steady, familiar tread of a security agent in his own location.

“I’m sure you don’t know too much of my personal collection, Dr. Krasniqi, but I’d like to know what you already have heard. I’d like us both to be prepared, even if we’re avoiding certain precautions.”
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Well, at the very least, he had consented to armor. That didn’t really feel like enough for escorting a Councilman, but he seemed very self-assured of his own skills. Pepper rose when Jupiter did and followed after him, only a step behind him at any given time. Her brow was still furrowed, as she was debating how to broach him needing more protection. But then, a moment arose where he asked her what she knew of his collection, and she realized she could use it to segue into her point.

“Sir. I’m aware of the string and the coin and your jacket. I’ve heard some stories of other stuff, but I wouldn’t know what to really believe unless you confirmed it. A compass that directs you to other anomalous items, a neon vest that convinces people you’re where you’re meant to be, a bookmark that jumps to the most relevant page in a book. I’ve also heard you have a living dustbunny in one of those pockets. I’m hoping you have something, that uhm, might offer you more protection.” She paused and caught up to him at this point, looking up at him.

“Sir, I know we’re getting you armor, and I know I’m supposed to trust when you say that you’re going to be able to handle anything we encounter– but I really would feel better if I knew you had a surefire way to protect yourself. I know this is, out of line, that I’m only a Class-C and I should just listen, but if I take you in there, and you get hurt, or worse, then the Foundation is down a Councilman. I don’t want me not pushing for better protection to be the reason that happens. Obviously, I will listen to whatever your choice is, whatever your decision is, but I have to insist on saying it anyway.”

She pushed the whole statement out as fast as she could, unsure whether he’d actually be able to understand her or not. She kept pace with him, even though it meant moving a little faster than her casual walking pace. Her cheeks were mildly heated, but her facial expression was serious. She rarely felt the need to assert herself. For the most part, people listened to her, and she was used to taking care of the Class-Bs, and even some of the other Class-Cs. But never had she spoken up to anyone higher than a Class-D about their choices. And usually, that was only if she had caught someone doing something against the updated ethics code. She wasn’t necessarily a person who expected people to listen to her– she was just used to using charm instead of assertion. So doing something so assertive left her a little embarrassed, for lack of a better word.

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She kept a little behind him, which was typically a good thing with lower-class personnel, but interrupted the familiar flow they had established in the comfort of her office. She did, however, speak up with regards to her concerns. That was very, very good. Her concern for his health would have been slightly irritating, a few years ago, but by now he’d had time to get used to it. After a moment’s consideration, Jupiter decided the best course of action would be to deflect back to the situation at hand, and then expand outward from there.

“Pepper,” he said, gently, as he slowed his pace to stay beside her, “Assertion is a trait we look for when preparing someone for promotion. If you think a superior is being stupid, or an expletive, you need to say as much, to their face if need be. You’re right. It would be very stupid of me to go into the Dark Dimension entirely unprepared. A rookie mistake, even. But another rookie mistake is missing something important when something is explained to you.”

His smile remained patient as he reached into his left pocket, and withdrew a modern, beige pistol. He held it up, finger light off the trigger, thumb near the safety, and showed it off.

“Sig Sauer M-17 semiautomatic pistol, derived from the company’s P320 model. Current US military and ACF standard, typically acquired through military surplus. The M-18 is a smaller model, but I like the weight of the M-17. She is entirely non-anomalous.” He returned the gun to the nowhere it had come from, then reached into the collar of the thick coat to draw a sleek black model with his right hand. “Beretta M-9, the US military designation of the Beretta 92FS semiautomatic pistol, which was the military and ACF standard from 1990 to 2017, when the Sig replaced it. This one in particular has saved my life more times than I could count.”

He ejected the magazine, showed it to Pepper, then reloaded and reholstered it as well. He reached over his left shoulder with his now-free right hand. Out came a large rifle, recognizable from the movies as a Tommy gun.

“M1928A1 Thompson submachine gun. This one I’ll admit is more for flavor, although I personally like the pistol grip. She’d be impractical for field use if it wasn’t for the coat, but she’s a manageable full automatic for emergency situations. Noisy, but I have suppressors for the pistols if we need to go quiet.” He rattled the weapon a little, to make his point, then put it back and reached over the other shoulder, left-over-right.

This time, he drew a sword. He spun it once in his hand to feel the balance, and had no trouble with its weight.

“Bastard sword, hand and a half-length. Simple hilt with crossguard. 1095 high carbon steel. This one’s from a renaissance festival in the US midwest, but I keep her sharp. I’ve got a standard-issue riot shield in here somewhere too, but that would take some rummaging, and given my old armor is Smith’s design I doubt I’ll need it.”

He slid the sword back, and reached into the elbow crook of his left sleeve. His hand emerged with two items. The first was what looked like just a knife hilt. The other was a squirming ball of fuzz.

“Ah, Wallace, there you are. Here, hold him for a second, please.” He put the living dust bunny in Pepper’s hand, then showed her the thin stiletto hilt. His finger touched the side, and a stiletto blade popped out. He slid it back in carefully, then repeated the process, just to to make sure she saw.

“Now I don’t know all the specifications of this one, just that it’s common for use in self-defense and gang violence alike. It’s a [EXPLETIVE] if you can get it into something vital before the pain can register, at least for human and zoological combatants. Just long enough to be illegal in a number of states, not including Iowa.”

He put the knife away, then left his hands in his pockets and the squirming ball of hair and dirt, which if turned had a comically small leporine face, in Pepper’s hands for the moment. His smile wasn’t smug, or maybe it was, depending on the lighting. It wasn’t meant to be, at least.

“My point is that people know I am in possession of a number of anomalies, and forget that the pocket dimensions of my anomalous jacket are capable of holding more than my personal collection. This causes people to underestimate me as a field agent, which is good for field agents, as I’m sure you witnessed with STRH-14-B when you accompanied them on their collections mission in 2021. Even my own agents sometimes forget that I am a fully outfitted security agent – although I’m sure Smith will want to take the time while we’re armoring up to inspect everything. Lord knows she can be fussy. I am surprised that she doesn’t seem to think you should go armed, but am I mistaken in assuming that has more to do with the time necessary to train you and the lack of general danger to your person when you are in that dimension?”

Had someone, quite possibly himself or his former co-manager, determined that it was not worth the time to ensure Dr. Krasniqi’s safety? If so, that was a gross oversight. He would have to include it in the training required for a full promotion, especially if she would begin escorting surface teams into the dimension.
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Most people might feel absolutely humiliated in the face of Jupiter’s demonstration. Pepper was not most people. Sure, she felt a little embarrassed for pushing, but mostly she was just relieved. He was more outfitted than some strike teams were as a collective. Honestly, she should have expected something like this to begin with. She gave a small sigh of relief, her eyes closing. Then she reopened them and nodded her head. “Duly noted, sir. Thank you for the demonstration. I feel a lot more comfortable about this now.”

She looked down at the small dust creature in her hands and lifted it up closer to her face, examining it as thoroughly as she could while still paying attention to where she was walking. It was adorably small, and when she nudged it, it turned around. She smiled a little brightly at its small face, fascinated by its size. She kept examining it while they moved through the halls to Smith’s, occasionally looking up to ensure she didn’t walk into anything or anyone. She looked up at his last question and made a soft noise, holding Wallace out to him, in case he wanted the small creature back.

“Ah. It was never, uhm. Yes, sir. You’d be correct in assuming that. I had a bit of a security mishap when I was younger, and I had to fight really hard to come back from it. Unfortunately, I think between that and the fact that serious harm, or even minor harm, had never come to me as a child, I think all of that together made the previous uh… I can’t remember his name, I’m sorry. But one of the previous managers had made a decision to put as many stops on my access and training as possible. I don’t think it was malicious, mind you. It was only once C– Dr. Redd and Agent Cotta came on that I started getting more access again. And I think it just never occurred to either of them that I had no training, in that regard. Sir.”

Pepper abruptly stopped talking as she realized she was rambling. But it was the truth, and maybe that would outweigh the fact that it was, in fact, a ramble. Or maybe Jupiter just wouldn’t care about her rambling. Rambling felt like such a young Pepper thing to do, however, and it left her feeling a little miffed at herself. She made a small face as she turned back to focus on the hallway in front of them. She could see Smith’s door coming up.

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As anticipated, both the answer and Wallace had helped Pepper to relax, somewhat. She wasn’t embarrassed by his response. Embarrassment had not been its intention, after all. She was instead relieved. Jupiter added that to his mental notes as he took Wallace back, and the tiny creature wiggled into his sleeve and disappeared into another pocket.

She mentioned a security mishap, and with a very slight smile he inserted, “The 109 incident. I remember.”

Another pause, like something came rushing back to him. Several somethings. He had read them in the file in preparation for this conversation, but some things previously determined irrelevant cropped up.

“You did suffer physical harm as a child, but not from another anomaly. I recall a Class-D demotion following one of your procedures.”

Two, actually. Kallie Reed had pressed the full force of location management to ensure it went though. That had…nothing at all to do with the decision not to formally train Intern Krasniqi, at the time, anyway. But he did want to check a few things in her response as they finished their approach to the armory. He’d already inform Agent Smith that Dr. Krasniqi would need formal firearms education and to have regular checks of her armor following field missions and more. He left the space for Pepper to address it, or move on, before they reached the armory doors.
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