Jakeob Aldon stared at her bedroom ceiling, her limbs in odd places and cold sweat beginning to soak into her clothes. She took a few deep breaths and arranged her limbs in a bit more of an orderly fashion before stealing a look at her alarm clock. 5:38AM. Three hours of sleep. Yay. Stupid dream, waking her up. She was pretty sure it was a dream. She pulled at the elastic of her shorts and was very uncharacteristically glad to see a penis.
"Uh… what are you doing?" Finnegan looked down at her from his seat in front of the computer. His eyes were starting to redden and were beginning to grow small black bags under them.
Aldon released her waistband and squirmed slightly when it snapped against her. "Nothing. Dream. Just checking."
Finnegan's shoulders sagged. "Oh. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, just- not the usual one. It was… weird."
Finnegan pushed himself away from his desk. "Do you want to talk about it? I know you don't usually like to, but if this was different…"
"No, really, I'm fine. Don't worry about it." Aldon rolled off her bed and stood. "Anyway, what are you… What is all over you?"
Now that the grogginess was wearing off, Aldon could see dozens of pentagonal… silvery-gray blister-looking things jutting from Finnegan's skin. Finnegan lifted an arm and stared at one of the various blisters. "Boron crystals. It's on you, too."
"What-" Sure enough, boron crystals were covering her. "Is this why I'm having weird, random mini-dreams? Because you're playing some weird music?"
"I doubt it." Finnegan shrugged. "Relax. It's not dangerous. A friend said she needed some boron, I was playing with these CDs, and one produces boron. The CD is almost over, anyway."
Aldon grabbed one of the disks off his desk. It was labeled "The Absolute Absolute Absolute Absolute BEST of The 5th Dimension!!!!!" Aldon didn't know who or what The 5th Dimension was, but she was not currently enjoying their music. In fact, she was pretty sure it was the worst-
"Wow, that was real cool," they both said in unison as the music stopped.
"No, goddammit, that was not cool," Aldon immediately said. "This is aussie shit, isn't it? How many of those CDs have you played?"
"That's the only one. Relax, Allie. I know you don't like them, but I did the research. Just pull the crystals off. See?" He held one of the crystals between his thumb and forefinger. "C'mon, you know how careful I am."
Aldon mentally stumbled, dropping any pent up anger she had been carrying. "Yeah… sorry. Dream just shook me up, I guess."
Finnegan collected both their crystals in a pile on his desk. He sighed and scratched at his jaw. "You sure you don't want to talk about it?"
She gestured at her everything with jerky hand movements. "I'm just sick of this shit, Finn. Talking about it will do fuckall."
They remained in place for a few moments, Finnegan sitting with his arm on the desk and Aldon standing within arm's reach. Finnegan started to open his mouth as if to say something, and instead just sighed.
"I'm sorry, Allie."
The look on his face made her feel like a fishing line had gotten snagged on her spleen. "Don't blame yourself, man. Please? I feel shitty enough without also having to worry about you worrying about me."
Finnegan groaned slightly as he lifted himself from his chair. He held out both arms and slowly advanced on Aldon. "C'mere."
"No, Finn, don't-" The hug was unavoidable. Auburn whiskers scratched at the crook of her neck, and without anywhere else to go she knew her only option was to reciprocate. A few moments passed before she mumbled, "Thanks."
He released her only to grasp her shoulders. "Can I do anything else?"
"Yeah, go to bed. You look like shit."
He laughed as his hands slipped off her shoulders. "Because you had so much beauty sleep. Fine, off I go. What about you?"
She headed for the door to her little studio. "I'm just gonna go sculpt, I think. G'night, Finn."
"Night, Allie. Wake me if you need anything."
Several hours later, Aldon regarded her latest work from her seat of an overturned paint bucket. It was a life-sized female made of anomalous clay. She couldn't decide if she was happy with it. Was the bust the right size? Were the hips too wide? She knuckled her cheek and ground her teeth together.
She sighed and groaned and pinched her cheek in frustration. She wasn't sure what its flaw actually was, but it just didn't measure up to the image she had in her mind before starting. Maybe it was because she just made it. A little time away from it would let her appreciate it for what it was. Hopefully.
She went to the sink and washed off the errant clay from her hands and forearms. She rubbed her fingers together under the running water, and for some reason they felt unnaturally large. Something between a sigh and a groan left her mouth. After a few slow breaths she looked up to the mirror on the wall.
Another sigh escaped her and she finished washing her hands. "Gonna be one of those days, eh." It wasn't so much a question as a resigned statement.
A small glance at the statue provoked an urge to smash it, to rid herself of its existence and to just start anew. Maybe she'd show Finnegan. Even he'd be able to tell if it was horrible. But what if it really was? She wasn't sure if she could handle having something she was so emotionally invested in shot down. It wasn't just something she made, it was a part of her.
Her stomach untwisted itself slightly to let out a groan. Hunger was a blessing at this point. Anything to get her mind on something else. She left the statue where it was, in the center of the workroom. She flicked the lights off and slipped outside her little workshop.
Finnegan lay on his bed. Earbuds plugged both ears, leading down into his pocket. His signature beret covered his face, his chest moving slowly enough to suggest he was still sleeping. Aldon shut the door as quietly as possible, and took care not to make any unnecessary noise as she navigated the room toward his mattress.
She took notice of Copper, the little golem she had recently created, was standing on Finnegan's desk. Next to Copper was a second golem Aldon had never seen before. It looked a lot like the boron crystals, and was even standing in the same place Finnegan had left them. The limbs of the boron golem retained the pentagonal shapes, though its head was a sphere with five pentagons drilled into it. Aldon hadn't really expected her first attempt at creating sapience to… be able to create more sapience, but neat.
She moved on to more pressing issues and gently lifted the beret to reveal Finnegan's hairy mug. After collecting herself and forcibly ignoring any possible issues, she pushed her middle finger against her thumb, her hand shaking as it neared his face. A monstrous flick made contact with the Irishman's nose, violently waking him from his peaceful slumber. Finnegan yelled incoherently, his thrashing limbs missing the retreating Aldon. He collected himself when he realized he wasn't actually dying, taking the time to don his hat. He took a deep breath as if to say something poignant and then simply offered Aldon his middle finger.
"I'm hungry," Aldon said. "Are you hungry?"
"Really? For food? You did that for food?"
"You said to wake you up if I needed anything. I need to eat. Where do you want to go?"
"Let's look at how much money we have." Finnegan pulled out his wallet and displayed its contents. "Oh, look. I'm broke. I imagine your wallet's equally unencumbered. Where might we find sustenance given our current financial situation?"
Aldon managed a smile. "Is the answer the pizzeria? I bet the answer is the pizzeria. The answer is usually the pizzeria when you start talking like a wordy doucher."
"The answer is indeed the goddamn pizzeria. Again."
"God bless employee discounts."
Spicy Crust Pizza was a small, supposedly local pizzeria. For the most part, this was true. John Ericson was a local man who had bought out the place from another local man. While Ericson operated his business like anyone else would, he did not actually make any money from the pizzeria directly. Instead, what would have normally been his money was funneled into an account that dozens of other supposedly small businesses pumped their owner's earnings into. Superficial Corrective Procedures; internet sensation Silly Crab Productions; even the lesser known Scalpels, Chains and Presents Ltd. The organization behind this bank account then paid Ericson and his kind their actual paychecks.
Unaware of all this, a certain employee entered Spicy Crust Pizza with a friend in tow. Aldon ordered two drinks and a large meat lover's, and ravenous duo forked over what little cash they had. They ate within the pizzeria, as they usually did. There wasn't much room in their apartment. While they technically had a kitchen, it was usually empty and was too small to house a table. The living room was too packed, and they were too neurotic to bring food into their respective work areas. So they sat at a table by the glass outer wall, watching pedestrians hustle and vehicles bustle as they ate.
"You ever get the feeling you're being watched?" Finnegan asked through a mouthful of spicy crust.
"Because we're being watched." Finnegan sipped at his soda, his gaze focused over Aldon's left shoulder. "Or you are, at least. There's a man and a woman sitting at that table, and they've been staring at you since they walked in. They're not very subtle."
"Crap." Aldon sighed. "Do they… Let's see, who do I not like?"
"Well, they're coming over now."
Aldon held her head in her hands. "Noooo. Make them go away, Finn."
"And talk to the scary people? Nope."
"God dammit, Finnegan. One comment. One goddamn comment and you never-"
"Hello, Jakeob." Cassandra 'The Director' Paulson stood over them, her arms crossed and her mouth pulled into a half-smile.
"Goddamn, it had to be you of all people. Go to Hell, Paulson. I have no interest in-" Aldon caught sight of the man with Paulson. Felix Cori smiled and lifted and hand in greeting. "Oh. Hey, Felix. Still palling around with these losers, huh?"
"Well, actually, it's just the two of us right now," Felix corrected. "So, just the one loser. And I'm kind of The Boss now. Well, The Critic."
"Oh, god, you're still using titles." Aldon sighed. "Wait, how did you become the leader?"
He palmed the fedora on his head. "Didn't say 'not it' fast enough."
Aldon couldn't help but laugh. She turned to Finnegan, who had ignored a majority of the conversation to continue eating. "For context, she's one of the idiots that fueled my desire to move out here. He's actually okay, even if he hangs out with a bunch of jackasses. Felix, this is Finnegan, my roommate."
The two simply nodded at each other.
"So… let's get this over with, I guess," Aldon said. "What do you want?"
"Let me do the talking, Sandra," Felix said. "Allie, we want you to join us."
Aldon was almost surprised how easy it was to call up the anger she had felt earlier. It took a fair amount of restraint to not start shouting. "Fuck your group. Even with you in charge. She's still there, and I'm sure she'll just strongarm you into recruiting more shitheads. I'm flattered you came to me first, though. Unless I'm not, and whoever else you tried also had the brains to decline."
Feix's shoulders slumped under the weight of defeat. "So, that's it? You've decided, and nothing can change your mind?"
Aldon resumed eating. "Pretty much."
Paulson cleared her throat. "What if I told you we had a way to give you a female body?"
Aldon almost choked. "What?"
Paulson wore the kind of smile that made Aldon want to instinctively punch her. "It's not exactly difficult, if you're not an amateur. We have the materials, we just need a new Sculptor."
"Wait, are you talking that stupid golem thing with the dong cult?" Aldon said. "The expensive 'Gee I Hope They Do Not Fuck This Up' thing?"
"No, of course not. We have plenty of clay capable of the task, courtesy of our old Sculptor. But we need a replacement for him for an upcoming project. Help us with that, and we'll help you with your body situation."
"Just- here." Felix put down a small card with a phone number on it before Aldon could say anything. "Call me when you make a decision." Then he hurried out, Paulson right behind him.
Finnegan wiped his mouth and threw the napkin onto his empty plate. "What are you gonna do?"
Aldon rested her head on the table, staring at her food. Despite only having one slice, she didn't feel all that hungry anymore. "I don't know."
She glared at the piece of paper with the phone number on it. The image of the statue she had worked on that morning sprung to mind. The constant dreams-turned-nightmares upon waking up.