Nebiros' wall was covered in pictures and sticky notes. She had dredged up posts, conversations, and role plays that had previously been long forgotten. She had found old pictures and screenshots, including some of her ancient drawings that hadn't been properly destroyed. Years of working alongside Rift had given her insight into things no one else knew. She understood better than anyone the significance of the number three to Sparkbomb's design. She had gleaned details about the Sparkverse that no one but Rift knew. More than these things, she knew the person Rift had been over a decade ago, and she understood how he had changed throughout the years to become the person that was rebuilding the Sparkbomb Mansion now. If there was any insight into Rift's way of thinking, she had it somewhere on the wall in front of her, and she would find the Relics before anyone could so much as say Shaft.
Compiling the data on the wall had taken most of the night, but she couldn't sleep now. A quiet beep from her tablet reminded her that the Random Chat forum would be opening soon. That would be the event of the morning, with everyone rushing into the newly opened room to search for a Relic. Before that, however, Nebiros wanted to test a theory in the parlor.
The stained glass window was beautiful with the sun shining directly on it, but Nebiros spared only a moment to enjoy it herself, letting SparkCam take in its beauty for her. She could enjoy it tomorrow morning. Right now, she was looking for a clue. The night before, she had checked on the Door to Nowhere—that's what she was calling the door in the window of the southeast tower—to see if the time of night or position of the moon had any effect on it. Liz had had the same idea, and the two of them had politely noticed each other in the same way they had before the announcement. Nebiros had considered offering to work together, but she had no idea what the two of them could try that one couldn't do alone. She was sure there would be something, and whoever thought of it would contact the other.
For now, she thought that sunrise might cause something to change in the parlor. She wasn't sure what she expected. Maybe sunlight would focus through the stained glass and onto the dais, or maybe it would reflect off of the dais. The dais was positioned at an angle, curving up from the floor, and Nebiros' eyes darted to the walls and ceiling. If the light was going to reflect off of it, it would light up a part of the wall somewhere above where most people would think to look. However, neither the wall surrounding the stained glass, nor the side of the room opposite her, nor the wall above the elevator, nor the wall behind her gave any indication of a change.
She moved to stand in front of the elevator door. This was the view of the parlor that Rift would have had most often, coming down from the Staff Room, and it was the view that the rest of the community would have least often. Nebiros scanned the walls again, but nothing struck her from this angle either. Slowly, taking each step down the stairs one at a time and pausing, she reassessed her surroundings. Yet each step revealed nothing special, and nothing changed that she could recognize. Once she reached the base of the stairs, she walked over to the dais and looked up at the stained glass.
It truly was beautiful, each piece of glass illuminated by the sunrise. The effort that she and Rift had put into creating it had made her certain, along with the grandeur of the parlor, that a Relic was hidden here. Turning away from it, she looked back at the room. The right side of the room, under the balcony, had a few couches gathered in a semi-circle, and the left side of the room had an open doorway leading into Random Chat. The new forum was open already, and she was late. Taking one last glance down at dais and making a mental note to return to the parlor at noon when the sun would be directly overhead, Nebiros made her way into Random Chat.
Empty booths stood on either side of her, but the sound of gossip indicated that others were out of sight just around the corner. Random Chat was labeled as a cafeteria on the map, but seeing the booths wrapping around its outer edge made Nebiros think of it as a diner. The booths on her right ceased, and the center of the room was filled with a bar. Cel, Kirby, Humming, and Liz had all taken seats at the bar. Behind them, Traj and Star were sitting together in a booth. Bed and Sinical had taken a corner booth on the far end of the room. At first, everything seemed normal, but the fact that no one was searching made it clear that she was even later than she had thought.
The three different groups in the room made it clear that no one had found a Relic. It was no surprise to her, and she couldn't identify anything about the room that was special. No, that wasn't true. Liz was sitting at the corner of the bar, and she was watching something that Nebiros couldn't see. The room formed a U-shape, and Nebiros made her way past the bar to see the last leg of the U. She found Blackjak, fumbling around at a booth that was separated from the others, hidden in the corner of the room beneath the staircase. Nebiros approached him slowly, not meaning to sneak up on him but not wanting to disturb him either.
“I am the wind,” Blacjak said, turning around abruptly and rushing past Nebiros. She stepped sideways to get out of his way, bumping open a door that led to the room behind the bar. Her momentum should have carried her inside, but an invisible force stopped her. Wasting only a moment to wonder what Blacjak had meant, she quickly turned her attention to the door and gave it a push. She could get it to open, to reveal what appeared to be a combination kitchen and stock room, but an invisible force kept her from entering it. In the corner of the room was another door labeled Broom Closet. That triggered something in her memory, some inside joke from a few years prior that she wasn't privy to, but she didn't know what it meant. More importantly, she couldn't get to it to check.
She turned around and investigated the booth Blacjak had been looking at. Nothing appeared to be special about it except for the picture above it and the fact that the booth was separated from the rest of Random Chat. She recognized the picture of two people sitting on a park bench and knew that it was a role play setting. It probably just meant that Random Chat was a place where people could gather and meet. The other possibility, the less likely one, was that Random Chat was much bigger than it appeared.
“When I find a Relic, I'll wish for the Mansion to go boom,” Sinical said with a slight slur, lifting his hands in the air to mimic an explosion. Bed looked at him nervously, and he flinched when Sinical threw his arm out and pointed at him. “Or you know what? Bacon! Bacon's good too.”
Nebiros wondered if she should get involved. Bed certainly looked uncomfortable, and Sinical was being more than a little loud, but the situation didn't seem to be out of hand. She looked around the rest of the room to see if anyone else seemed concerned, and she nearly doubled over with laughter when she noticed Sparkbot behind the bar. It wasn't Sparkbot himself that made her laugh so much as what he was wearing. He had an apron draped over the front of his body, and he was using a towel to clean a glass. Nebiros found herself taking a seat beside Humming.
“What are you doing, Sparkbot?” Nebiros said.
“Mixologybot is taking orders and delivering meals and drinks,” Sparkbot said. Humming laughed and Nebiros giggled.
“He went behind the counter as soon as we got here,” Humming explained. “Nobody had any luck finding Relics, so Sparkbot asked who wanted a meal.”
“There are meals?” Nebiros said.
“Yes!” Celairiel said, seated on Humming's other side. “You can't taste it, but look at how nice these hash browns are.” She held up her plate so Nebiros could see it more clearly. The hasbrowns looked like something out of a commercial advertisement. They also reminded her that she would need to log out and grab breakfast at some point.
“You can order a meal every few hours,” Kirby said, “and you're limited to three drinks with them.” He was holding a simple glass of orange juice. “Everyone tried ordering something different to see if maybe the first person to order a certain meal gets a Relic with it, but so far nothing special has happened.”
“What do you recommend, Mixologybot?” Nebiros said, turning to the robotic bartender.
“Mixologybot's favorite drink is the N.A.T. Oil Shot,” Sparkbot said. “Mixologybot has no preference regarding the meals.”
“The Oil Shot looks scary,” Humming said quietly.
“I'll give it a try,” Nebiros said. Sparkbot set to work, spinning around and grabbing two bottles from the shelf. He pulled out a shot glass from under the bar, and he started by filling it partway with motor oil. Humming and Cel looked horrified, Kirby looked uncertain, and Nebiros simply watched with wonder. Next, Sparkbot cracked an egg and let it fall into the glass. Then he poured from another bottle, adding squid ink to the mix. After a dash of hot sauce, he took a mixing stick and swirled it around the shot glass more quickly than was safe, spilling some of the viscous liquid onto the counter. Finished, he pushed the glass over to Nebiros, who eyed it warily. She passed SparkCam to Humming.
“Here, uh, goes nothing,” she said, taking the glass and downing it in a few gulps. Even though the drink wasn't real, Nebiros couldn't help but wonder what it actually tasted like. Motor oil. Squid ink. Raw egg. Hot sauce. More than all of that, it bothered her how thick it was. How could anyone drink such a thing, even in virtual reality?
Lowering the shot glass back to the table, she waited for some adverse side effect. Perhaps her vision would blur, or perhaps she wouldn't be able to walk straight, or maybe, just maybe, her avatar would pass out on the spot. She waited, and nothing happened. She slowly realized that, repulsive as the drink had been, it hadn't even contained any alcohol.
“Sparkbot, why wasn't there any alcohol in the shot?” she said.
“All of the drinks are non-alcoholic,” Sparkbot said. Nebiros glanced towards the corner booth at Sinical, who certainly appeared to be drunk.
“It seems like the food and drink is just for show,” Kirby said. “It sets the mood.”
“I like it,” Nebiros said, and the other two women nodded in agreement. She swiveled on her bar stool to better face the others, and Humming handed SparkCam back to her. “So nobody's found any Relics yet?”
“Nobody's talking about it if they have,” Kirby said. “We were just discussing how Rift wasn't very clear on what kind of wishes the Relics can grant.”
“If we can get a dance hall, that would be great,” Cel said, looking to the others for agreement. None of them gave a reaction other than polite smiles, and Cel rolled her eyes impatiently. “Controlling the weather would be cool, too. Is it always sunny around here?”
“It always was before,” Nebiros said. She wondered if that would change with the updated software. “What about you guys?” She gestured to Humming and Kirby. “If you could wish for anything, what would you wish for?”
“I'm not really sure,” Humming said. “It's a difficult question, and it probably has to be something that's possible at Sparkbomb.”
“I've never been the wishing sort,” Kirby said. “What about you?”
“No idea,” Nebiros said. “I figure something will come to me if I find a Relic.”
She moved her hand, and a visual interface appeared on the bar. It listed meals and drinks, and Nebiros started scrolling through it. There was a full variety of options: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all available at any time of the day. Thinking of her own stomach, she selected bacon and eggs.
“Nebiros, how would you like your eggs cooked?” Sparkbot said.
“Sunny side up,” she said. Sparkbot went into the back room, but Nebiros could still see him from where she sat.
“I think someone already chose bacon and eggs, if you wanted to try something different,” Kirby said.
“I hear the bacon is good,” Nebiros said. Random Chat was a dead end, at least for now, but she was quickly realizing just how much she missed having the company. Two years away from the Mansion had been too long.
Sparkbot worked quickly, preparing the meal with a speed that was impossible in reality. In under a minute, he had prepared two perfectly cooked strips of bacon and three eggs. He set the plate down in front of her, and she decided that she would take the time to socialize. She needed some time to unwind after thinking about the Relics all night long. While she ate, and as the conversation continued, she couldn't help but feeling that something was going on right behind her. But each time she glanced back, all she could see was Traj and Star eating in silence.