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After you and Reggie log off TSol (and maybe fool around a little), you head home to the apartment. Tandy's out right now, so it's just you. I think you had a call you wanted to make?
"Trev! Hang on one sec." Water starts running in the background, then she's back. "Sorry, helping my Mom make cookies for her Christmas cookie exchange. It's a 'big deal'. What's up?"
"Man, I would love that! But I'm already home for the holidays. No place like, right? Bainbridge Island, technocrat's home-away-from-office. Maybe after Christmas? I don't have anything big on the horizon... I could fly out for the weekend? And don't worry about paying for the flight." She sounds almost a little embarrassed about saying that last bit.
"No, it's not the offer, Trev. Don't worry about it. I do appreciate the offer, just saying I can get there on my own steam."
When you talk about being on the other side of the country and Bainbridge, she says, "It's actually really beautiful here. They've had laws since forever protecting green space and limiting development, so you're never far from a park or some sort of public space, and the architecture's gotten interesting because people get creative instead of just big. It's a long way away from most everything I care about, though."
After you chat for a few more minutes, she signs off. "Cookies not making themselves, Mom says. Guess I'd better go."
You can hear the smile in Erica's voice. "It's cool. I like surprises when I'm on the surprising end. I'll come in sometime on Friday and rent a car. We'll coordinate later. Hey, Merry Christmas!"
So, between you and Reggie you've come up with a few possibilities for this print. Reggie thinks it might either be a representation of someplace in the real world, or maybe that there's something hidden in the image like those old "find the hidden object" puzzles. The resolution is so high that you'd have to look very close.
That idea triggered you to think about steganography. You've heard of messages hidden in seeming noise, every hundredth pixel's color changed to indicate a number or letter. The possibilities are wide, though, and again with this super-high resolution image (and a physical copy instead of digital, to boot), you'll need to be very clever to detect anything. You also wonder if it's not a landscape for some in-game region that no-one's opened up yet, sort of a preview/clue.
Of course, it could be some combination of those four.
Trev, you cock your head this way and that, but nothing pops out at you. Image search comes up with "similar" results that don't look too similar, most of them digital paintings of the Rockies.
Why don't you give me a Tinkering roll, Trev, to see if you can use the tools at your disposal to start unravelling the mystery of this print. Static difficulty of Moderate (7), with more benefits if you hit Hard (11).
In the end it winds up being a lot like one of those "illusion puzzle" things, only it's not the angle or focus of your eyes that makes the difference, it's something that just clicks in your brain. Or a series of clicks, really.
First step, you head to Jake's room and scan the print on the high-rez scanner he uses to digitize his hand-drawn sketches for further work.
Once you have the file, you do a quick search and download an open source "landmark recognition" program that was developed to aid in crowd-sourcing identification of old hardcopy photographs. You know, like from family albums from the dark ages, that sort of thing. You set it chugging away on the highest-rez capture you can make of the print.
While that's working, you find yet another open source program that uses a fancy bayesian algorithm to detect possible steganographic noise within large graphic files. That process is very mathy, as well, so both programs take a while to run.
The steganography program finishes first. It's found three possible patterns and parsed them. One is a long random string of characters with a header that makes it look like a high bitrate encryption key. The program interprets the second as repetition of a single name, the repetition probably so that it's actually detectable. "Gerard James Dickey." The final one is a string of coordinates made redundant as the landmark recognition program beeps to indicate that it's found a match. View of the Teton Mountain Range from the roof of the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, Wyoming. The image it flashes is from decades ago, but the mountains clearly have the same silhouette. Buildings removed from Zero's image, but you can absolutely see it.
Unlocked a new puzzle piece from Zero's art.
I should head to Wyoming in the new year.
If you can make it between classes, would
love it if you'd come along.
Got the apartment to myself. Feels like it
might be 420.
Details tomorrow? I'll try to find a gap,
but more likely I'll need to be home-base
support. Anything you need me to do? So
proud you figured it out! I knew you could!
Sure, why not? You holding?
Sounds good. Sleep well. See you tomorrow.
On my way. Should I bring toys?
Be there in 20.
Hey, don't know if you're at the apt.
Won't be home tonight. Getting lucky.
Be careful. Have fun!
Tandy responds with a smiley face, but no more.
You've got twenty minutes, give or take, before Jessi shows up. Anything between now and then?
You're watching episode 3 of Almost Human for the umpteenth time, once again cursing Fox for cancelling yet another show that had promise, when there's a knock on the door. You assume it's Jessi, and it is.
"Been a while. How's it hanging, Trev?" She gives you a hug and a kiss on the cheek in the doorway.
Once she's inside, she flops on the couch in the living room. "You and your 2-d lost-cause TV shows. You said you were holding?"
Jessi takes your cue, and very grandly picks up the pipe. She loads it with weed and tamps it down just so with her pinky, then picks up the lighter. She primes it first, waving the flame over the leaf, then holds the fire over the bowl and takes a deep hit. After she holds the smoke in for a few seconds, she blows it out and says, "Not bad, Trev. Guess fame has its privileges..." She hands you the pipe and the lighter.
Jessi takes another hit off the pipe, then blows it out. "Asshole poked his nose out, got arrested. He'll get out in not too long, but hoping he takes the hint. Dipper's the Dipper. 'More cheese? Court Bouillion? Oh, is the chocolate not to your liking?' Haven't gotten laid in a while, but don't worry, I'm not going to push it. Unless..." She hands the pipe back to you.
Jessi settles into the old rhythm, passing the pipe back and forth and giving you shit about your vintage taste in entertainment.
"So, how's your room-mate doing, T? Jake, not Tandy. Or both, if you want to share. Still carrying a torch for Tandy?"
"So, what's your secret, then? I knew you had a thing for Tandy that you couldn't ever tell Jake or whoever. If that's done, why does it still seem like you have a secret?" She takes a drag and looks at you appraisingly through half-lidded eyes.
And, finally, the fingers of her left hand brush against your thigh. Her words contrast. "Wish it was me, but I don't think it is."
Jessi takes off her sweater and tosses it on a chair before taking another hit off the pipe. The scoop-neck top underneath is light blue and thin enough that you can tell for sure she's not wearing a bra. She licks her lips and you see the little tongue stud that added such... texture... to the last time you were together.
"This is good stuff, Trev." She leans back lazily, her eyes half-closed and that blue top rides up to expose her belly button and the tops of her hip bones. "You want me to tell you another story, Trev? I think you liked the last one."
...and so you get a story. "I don't know what it is, but I've been as horny as hell, these last few weeks. Even squeezing past a crowded table, the chair back rubbing against my ass, that makes it worse, you know? So, two nights ago I was just ready to pop by the end of my shift. I looked around and decided to make Josh's night. He's cute enough, even if he's a little soft in the middle. And he lives alone. So I just walked up to him and said, 'You, me, naked. What do you think?' I thought he'd swallow his tongue, but he nodded."
She pauses, checking your reaction so far.
Jessi licks her lips again. "So, I followed him back to his apartment, which is super clean, by the way. We get inside and crack a beer, just chillin' on the couch, like we are right now. Then I leaned in real close." She demonstrates. "And I kissed him. It was like I flipped his 'on' switch, Trev. He just started kissing my neck and my ears, and his hands were so warm on my back, and I was sooo horny. I got off the couch and got on my knees in front of him. I swear he held his breath while I undid his belt and unzipped his pants. When I pulled his cock out, it was like a Christmas miracle! They say Koreans aren't well-hung. Well, they're wrong, apparently. I couldn't wait to get my mouth on him."
Jessi gives you a Mona Lisa smile. "So, I just flicked the head with my tongue-stud, you know, to let him know it was on, and he hissed in a breath like he'd gotten an electric shock. When I went down on him, though, he leaned back and just rode it. He was humming something, I think it was some sort of Korean hymn, if I had to guess. You do remember that I really like giving head, don't you? I just like the way a cock feels in my mouth, and Josh's felt really good. When I tickled his balls with my nails, he stopped humming and started up with the profanity and grabbed the back of my head, really started fucking my face."
No part of Jessi's body is touching you, right now, but you're keenly aware that her knee is millimeters away from yours, her hand is draped on the back of the sofa so close that she could stretch out a finger and stroke your neck without moving it. Her other hand is on her own thigh, rubbing up and down unconsciously.
"Are you trying to skip ahead, Trev? Don't you want to hear about him shooting a giant load in my mouth and me swallowing it? Because he did. Well, that calmed things down a little, and he wasn't shy about kissing me after, so we just made out for a while until I pulled off my shirt and Josh started in on my nipples like he'd never seen any. A girl can really appreciate enthusiasm, you know? So yeah, eventually his hand made it up to the crotch of my pants and he started rubbing." Jessi's own hand mimics the action. You're still not sure if she knows she's doing it, but she's definitely rubbing herself through the fabric of her jeans, and her nipples are as hard as drill bits. "Finally I said, 'Stop teasing!' and started taking my clothes off. He did, too. Left his shirt for last, like he was embarrassed by his tummy, but I just didn't care about a little belly fat. He wasn't hard again yet, so I pulled his hand in and let him feel how wet I was. I don't know how many girls he's been with, Trev, but he must play the piano, because he's got some freaky manual dexterity. Then he surprised me, I thought he was too... something... but he went down on me."
She shifts position a touch, and her thigh is right up next to yours, touching lightly.
Jessi chuckles low in her throat. "It was only okay, but really? He hit the right spots most of the time, and I was ready by the time I noticed he was hard again. I just pushed him on his back and rode that big ol' Korean cock like it was a bronco. It didn't take me long to come the first time, and it lasted like thirty seconds. I was just shuddering and panting and practically choking on my tongue. I could tell he wasn't taking the lead, so I climbed off and went face-down ass-up. He took the hint, and pounded me hard, Trev. You wouldn't think Josh had it in him. I came again quick, and he wasn't far behind. He must've had a lot built up in there, because that condom was full when he finally pulled it off."
Her eyes have a sparkle behind the cannabis glaze, one you've seen before. Jessi moans low, and you know she's just on the verge of making herself come, through her jeans. "Sure you don't want to make a story, Trev, instead of just hearing one? I see your little friend wants to come out and play."
Jessi unzips her fly, but leaves the top button of the jeans fastened. She slips a finger in and starts playing with herself through the silky fabric of her underwear. No more than thirty seconds later, she stiffens and cries out her orgasm. After, she looks at you through half-lidded eyes. "God, Trev. That was... You sure you don't want something? Would a handjob be cheating?" She gives you a look from the corner of her eyes. She's teasing now, doesn't expect you to say yes, but enjoying the moment.
Jessi picks up the pipe, taps out the burnt remainders, and reloads it from the little Ziploc. She lights it and takes a big hit, then passes it off.
"So, why, Trev? You text me to come get high, knowing I'm going to do my best to get that cock out of your jeans, and knowing you're going to go right to the edge and then not jump, because you've got this amazing, beautiful, smart girlfriend. Why did you text?" There's no bitterness in her tone. If anything, it's a sort of predatory curiosity.
Jessi blows out a breath. "You miss what we had, you mean." That lopsided grin comes out to play again. "This is pretty fucked up, smoking up and telling dirty stories. But I guess it's... well, something about it's pretty hot. You have to be the storyteller next time, though."
She traces a finger along your thigh, and Lil' T springs back to attention. "So, unless you want to whip that out and jerk off for me, I should probably go and let you take care of business in privacy."
Jessi puts on her sweater and coat and you walk her to the door before doing what you need to do. As it happens, Tandy doesn't come home tonight, just as she thought, and the apartment seems very quiet.