Connie had thirty different tabs open on each of the fifty tablets, laptops and smartphones that were strewn around her and yet they still weren’t enough to keep up with her needs.
“Well, that looks like a recipe for burnout if I’ve ever seen one,” Val said, leaning through the doorway of the empty office Connie had laid claim to when the team returned from their last excursion.
“Oh! You’re back!” Connie said. “Did things go okay?”
Val was still in the same set of clothes that she’d been wearing when Connie had last seen her. The leather jacket looked a bit worse for having survived a trip through an Actual Hell, but her boots and jeans had held up surprisingly well. Better than their wearer based on the state of Val’s unkempt hair.
“Yeah, Aranea has a place in town. We got back yesterday,” Val said. She picked up one of the tablets and began scrolling through the article that was on the open browser tab.
“No weird time shenanigans there I hope?” Connie asked. Before joining the Second Chance Club she wouldn’t have thought to ask that particular question, but James was bringing her up to speed on the perils of planar travel as fast as he could.
“Tuesday was a little fuzzy, but that was probably more the margaritas’ fault than anything actually weird happening with time,” Val said.
Connie did the mental math. If Val and Aranea had gotten in yesterday and everyone else had returned a week ago, then they’d enjoyed a nice little vacation somewhere. Connie felt the itch of curiosity to hear the details but a more rational part of her wondered if she really wanted to know what a spider goddess did for ‘fun’?
“Are you back for a bit, or just stopping to check in?” she asked, instead of delving for vacation details which she probably wouldn’t be able to un-hear once she was told them.
“Was going to get cleaned up, but it looks like you could use a hand here,” Val said. “Is there another crisis brewing? No. Wait. Scratch that. There’s always another crisis brewing. How big is this one?”
“End of the world,” Connie said. “Oh, sorry, that was last week. Looks like we’re fresh of out of apocalypses. Apocali? Apocii? That’s not really word that should need a plural is it?”
“Welcome to the Second Chance Club,” Val said, smiling and taking a seat on the floor beside Connie. Despite her disheveled appearance, Val smelled wonderful. Like freshly cleaned cotton sheets that had dried in the wind and sunshine.
“This isn’t for a crisis, I’m just trying to get caught up,” Connie said.
“On?” Val asked, picking up a cell phone that was displaying an image of Tokugawa era spider statue from a Japanese artist.
“Everything,” Connie said. “I thought I had a pretty eclectic background before you folks recruited me. When I see the kinds of things we’ve gotten into already though, I’m left feeling like I’m woefully under educated for keeping up with everyone.”
“So, your plan is to learn everything there is about everything?” Val asked.
“Not exactly,” Connie said. “I mean, obviously that’s impossible. It is impossible right? The club doesn’t have like a god-memory tiara or something does it?”
“Nope.” Val laughed. “Though, believe it or not, I looked for pretty much the same thing when I was sitting where you are.”
Connie leaned back, placing her hands carefully so she wouldn’t smoosh one of the devices she was surrounded by.
“What was your onboarding like?” she asked.
“Well, we didn’t go to hell,” Val said. “So, easier than yours I’d say.”
Connie laughed and ran a hand through her hair. She still hadn’t really processed that experience. In hindsight it was terrifying, but it had been so hectic while she was there and it was such a brief event that was so disconnected from everything else, that she had a hard time believing it was real. The more days that passed, the more the whole affair felt like a dream.
Except for the bit where they were getting daily updates from Mr. Fong on his cousin’s progress towards Tibet.
Modern technology could have returned the Unity statue to its rightful holders within hours of the team’s return, but in this case the journey held an element of penance which couldn’t be avoided without reigniting the spirits’ wrath, and no one wanted that, not even the spirits themselves.
“I felt pretty overwhelmed,” Val said. “Before I signed on, I’d had no idea about the whole mystical, otherworldly stuff that was out there, and after the first time we ran into something I couldn’t explain, I wanted James and Tam to teach me everything about everything.”
“How long did it take them?” Connie asked. Her smile said she was joking, but there was a note of sincerity in her question too.
“I’ll let you know when they’re done,” Val said.
“You seem to have the basics down at least,” Connie said. “I feel like I’m flying blind even in terms of the simple things.”
“That’s because you’re like Tam,” Val said. “You’re used to either knowing something, or knowing where to look to find it out. Or figuring it out on your own I guess?”
“What other options are there?” Connie asked.
“Experiencing it,” Val said. “I didn’t come up with that. It’s something James told me. I thought he was saying that there was stuff we’d just have to suffer through, and to a point that is true. What he meant though is that there’s always going to be things we haven’t learned about. Or that we’ve learned incomplete or incorrect things about. It’s kind of inevitable given that we deal with a lot of unique people and situations.”
“I can see the value of keeping an open mind, but walking into hell blindly on purpose seems like a great plan if you want to get stuck there forever.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Val said. “If you can do research related to the case your working, then by all mean, stock up on all the info you can. The key there is the ‘all you can’ part. I know I don’t have the best memory in the world, so I read for the high points of things. Anything else and my brain turns to much and I absorb nothing.”
“That can leave out some important details though,” Connie said.
“It can, but that’s what we’ve got each other for, and James, and JB, and everyone else in the club,” Val said. “We’re each good at something but that doesn’t mean any of us have to be perfect at any of it.”
“Yeah, but information is supposed to be my ‘thing’,” Connie said. “I mean you hired me on as a librarian didn’t you?”
“Charlene is the one who makes all the hiring decisions, so you’ll need to ask her if it was your amazing Dewey Decimal skills that drew her attention. If I had to guess though, she picked you because you bring a whole lot more than that to the table.”
“I’m not sure that my archeology background is going to help on many cases,” Connie said.
“You might be surprised,” Val said. “I didn’t think my training in leading a squad was ever going to come up, but then I never pictured that I’d be leading a team into a demon infested Chinese military base either.”
“You got us in, you got us out, and no one got hurt,” Connie said. “Well except for the demon lord I guess. I’m not sure he counts though. Anyways, put me down as happy to follow you again and curious why you didn’t think you’d get to lead?”
“Because we have Anna,” Val said. “And she’s amazing.”
“Granted,” Connie said. “But she can’t be everywhere.”
“Yeah, I’m seeing that now,” Val said. “And I’m seeing something else too. Anna’s an excellent leader, and there’s a ton of stuff I can learn from her, but my training is a bit different from hers. She thinks big picture. Very strategy focused. I’m used to smaller scale stuff. Fewer people. Shorter timeframes. I’m tactical. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Anna can handle tactics just fine too, but I can handle them well enough that if I step up, she’ll be able to keep an eye on what’s going on overall, which I think is what she naturally tries to do.”
“So you’re saying I should be looking at the things Tam doesn’t do, or at least things that I can do better?” Connie asked.
“Not exactly,” Val said. “It doesn’t have to be a competition. We’ve seen your work already, and I’ve seen you in the field. You don’t have anything to prove. You absolutely belong here and we’re lucky to have you with us. That’s true regardless of your skill in any area relative to any of us. What I’ve suggesting is just find what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and then see what those things can add to the team.”
“What if what I’m good at is reading a ridiculous number of articles looking for answers to an ever expanding series of questions that pop in my head?” Connie asked.
“That sounds super valuable to me,” Val said. “With one catch.”
“What’s that?” Connie asked.
“It’s only good if it’s good for you,” Val said. “Doing something because you think we need you to, or because you’re pursuing some imaginary ‘good enough’ target is just going to leave you burned out. Tam was pushing herself like that, and she had a good cause, but outside of the short term, that sort of work does more harm than good.”
“Even if it means saving the world?” Connie asked.
“Things get a little fuzzy there,” Val said. “Do you destroy yourself to save the world? What happens the next time the world needs to be saved? Do you hold back? Is there a world left to be saved if you do? Sometimes you get stuck with a rotten deal of the cards and there’s just no good answers.”
“What do you usually choose to do then?” Connie asked.
“I cheat,” Val said. “If that’s not possible, then I hit things. Or get hit by them. My role on the team is kinda simple sometimes.”
“I could do with simple about now,” Connie said. “But I really want to read these too.”
“Split the difference?” Val suggested.
“Read half of them?” Connie asked.
“Sort of,” Val said. “You read the first one that looks interesting and I’ll pick out the others from the pile that I know we’ve run into before or are likely to come up. If you have any questions, you can ask me and that might save time doing research on it. At least for now.”
“That’s…really generous of you,” Connie said. “Are you sure though? I mean you just got back?”
“Let’s be honest,” Val said. “I just had a week off. I owe you all some time after you covered for me like that.”
“There really wasn’t much to cover,” Connie said. “We haven’t had any problems come up since we got back.”
One of the phone’s beside her rang. The number on the screen was just digits. No one in her phone book.
Val picked it up.
The caller on the other end of the line sounded frantic but the volume was so low Connie couldn’t hear what they were saying.
“Glowing red cracks on the box and eerie moaning from them?” Val asked. “Sure, let me check. Connie, got any suggestion on a sealing agent for a Voxable Puzzle Box that seems to be exploding, slowly?”
Connie blinked. She’d never heard of a Voxable Puzzle Box. Her fears rose to swallow up her thoughts but before they could another idea flitted to her awareness.
“Scrub the cracks with salt and then drip molten silver onto them,” she said. “I was just reading an article on warding a room from otherworld intrusions and they mentioned the salt and silver trick worked on other things too.”
Val repeated the instructions and then listened to the phone for a minute.
“Ok, excellent, glad we could help,” she said before hanging up.
“It worked?” Connie asked.
“Like a charm,” Val said. “Literally. That was the sealing charm they needed. The box is safe and secure now. Crisis averted.”
“Neat! I guess, with a little help, sometimes people can make their own Second Chances!”