So all of this happened two weeks ago. It took about a day for him to really start to believe it had even happened, though the aching scabs on his cheek and hand were pretty good proof. Another few days to really process the whole thing, and stop double checking every door before going through it. About five days to pretend his life was going back to normal (and pointedly NOT "taking the stairs" that Tuesday), with one day off for getting drunk with some friends on the weekend.
And then a few days to consider the implications of everything.
The stapler, he decided, was not a huge threat. Oh, sure, if he'd let it, it could have taken out an eye, and the swarm could have bled him out in a probably horrifyingly painful way. But one of them wasn't a problem. For a few hundred bucks and some novelty candy, he could fight a few staplers. But that was just near the door, he hadn't gone too far in, so who knew if it got worse?
And, more importantly, who knew what other skill balls he could find?
As absurdly useless as knowing how to size a column for a list of phone numbers was, he'd basically just gotten two months of job training for free in a few seconds. Sure, it was a hyper-specific job, and he didn't live anywhere close to New York, but still. It was a fair bet that not every stapler dropped that exact same chunk of knowledge. It was also a fair bet that at least a few staplers would drop SOME chunk of knowledge. How long would he have to spend in there to learn something valuable?
And so, that Sunday night, James spent his time at work spacing out, fantasizing about magically becoming a master chef, picking up Judo like it was nothing, and, on a more practical level, maybe figuring out how to fix the internet when it went out at his apartment.
That Monday night, before going into work, he had packed his bag full of tools, brought along an extra duffle bag, and hoped all day that no one would notice that he had a crowbar under his desk.
Work crawled by, almost unbearably slowly. James fielded a few intolerably stupid tech support calls, one from an older gentleman who, while friendly, had to be reminded that the CD tray wasn't a cupholder. At any other time, this would have amused him, and been one of those tales from tech support to share with his friends and/or Reddit, but right now, it just frayed his patience. And so, by the time his shift ended, his nerves had him almost shaking.
Clocking out, spending the two minute walk between his desk and his time card worrying that someone would again notice the crowbar, James just kept running over in his head what a stupid idea this was. How he was gonna get himself killed, how it wasn't worth it, how he should just go home now and not wait for the door. And yet, when he got back to his desk, he did a quick double check of his "gear", took an exactly-twelve-minute "bathroom break", and then headed for the back stairwell.
No one was around in the elevator landing, leaving the area with a strangely dead silent feeling, at least, strange to someone who was used to being there during the day. It was the little things; the potted plants didn't rustle in the breeze of people walking by, the carpet that normally kept things quiet now muffled sound to a stifling degree, and the elevator’s ding wasn't sounding every two minutes as someone got on or off. It was just.... empty. Devoid of humanity.
Trying hard not to notice this, or at least, not to let it bother him, James checked his phone, confirmed it was 3:44 AM, and pushed open the door.
The solid metal door swung open silently on well oiled hinges. And beyond it, instead of stairs, was an ocean of low-walled cubicles. Like a beige fractal, the aisles and walls and open spaces stretched out before him. Nothing moved, nothing threatened him, but he still felt ill at ease. It was, he realized, almost an identical feeling to being in the elevator landing; not a single human around to make small noises or provide a bit of company.
As the door swung shut behind him, he almost jumped out of his skin. Giving a nervous laugh to try to steady his nerves, the noise actually drew his attention to a clock on the wall over the door. 3:44, it read. And continued to read. As he watched, he could barely see the second hand ticking forward, but it was at an almost non-existent pace. So, then, the thought, he couldn't be here forever. But it would be a very, very long time before 3:47 and the door wouldn't open from the other side. Would it still let him out? Or would he be stuck here forever?
James did some quick math. It seemed like, based on the speed of the clock, he had maybe eight hours in here before that was even a problem. And he had no intention of staying longer than it took to fill up a duffel bag. So, he set a timer on his phone as a backup measure, and turned toward his goal.
Step one, he figured, was to just rummage through the immediate surroundings. He couldn't actually see too far into the distance, because some of the cubicle walls rose up to just over head height, and after enough distance and enough walls, there wasn't a clear line of sight for very far. But nearby, there were cubicles. Some of them should have been the ones he'd poked through before, but he didn't recognize any of them. The first one he got to had pictures of what looked like a stock model playing with her dog, except each picture contained a different woman. Same dog, though. It was the kind of thing that made James pause, and put a little too much thought into how silent and inhuman it was in here.
Not enough of a pause to stop him checking the purse on the desk, though. Or muttering a quick “score” under his breath as he pocketed the ten bucks in it, along with a small bottle of perfume. Anything that looked vaguely fancy, he figured, he might be able to sell at a pawn shop. Or just give to someone as a gift. Nice perfume was a good gift whether it came from a store or a monster-infested nightmare zone. He assumed. He hoped? Hey, he thought, he was here to loot, and he might not come back anytime soon. Best grab whatever looked nice.
James went through a couple more desks, snapping up cash, (though making a point to ignore the three-dollar bills) grabbing any nice looking pens, nabbing a smartphone of some kind, and of course, bagging any candy bars with bizarre names that he could share as a novelty with his roommates. So far, not much was topping “Baby Things”, but “Flavor Rocks” was pretty close. Then again, he figured, “Butterfinger” and “Whatchamacallit” were both actual, real names for food that someone must have, at some point, thought were good ideas, so who was he to complain about the creativity of the random name generator in this cubicle hell?
It wasn't until about fifteen minutes into his looting spree that he got his first bout of trouble. As he ducked under a potted plant that looked suspiciously like how someone who had only heard of ferns before would make a fern, his first enemy struck. The stapler-crab came out of the thick fern like a bolt, falling the half foot onto his backpack, and immediately trying to punch its metal payload into his right shoulder. Fortunately, the thick leather coat that he'd worn today, despite the summer heat, absorbed the actual stab. Still, being punched at high speed by a motivated and furious stapler was gonna hurt anyway, and the feeling of its pen legs scrabbling at his back almost made James panic right there.
He didn't, though. He kept calm, or at least, calm enough, and slammed his back against the cubicle wall. It held up surprisingly well, and he both heard and felt the stapler hit the floor. Before it could skitter away, or worse, into his ankles, he stomped on it hard enough that his teeth rattled. Keeping in pinned, some of its legs bending under it, he brought the crowbar down on it like a golfer teeing off. Once. Twice. The third time, something gave, and the front of the creature tore off with a fleshy pop, lines of staples flying across the floor along with a splash of black inky liquid.
Just as he was taking a breath, leaning back against the wall, he happened to catch sight of movement. It was that stroke of luck that saved him from a stapler-induced concussion, as not one, but two more of the crabs crawled out of the cover of the potted plant, perched on the edge of the hanging pot for a minute, and then launched themselves at his head.
The first one caught a panicked swing of the crowbar, as James hissed out profanities. He kept his voice low, even as he became increasingly adrenaline pumped; he remembered what happened last time he made too much noise here. And he probably wasn't at risk of actually dying, he knew that. Not after the ambush was spoiled at least. But still, these things fucking hurt, and he didn't want to go through the process of pulling staples out of his fucking face again.
To that end, he decided to make just a little more noise, specifically by grabbing the second stapler off his shoulder where it was hauling itself toward his neck, winding up, and pitching it as hard as possible over the cubicle wall, off into the distance. Now, James was not athletic. He was the kind of person who worked tech support, because it afforded him the opportunity to read more books while sitting down all day, which was a continuation of what he did at home. He wasn't lazy, or fat, but he wasn't overly strong or fit. Even so, he currently had enough adrenaline in his blood to kill a large dog, or perhaps a small horse, and so his throw was a bit more vigorous than normal. The creature arced up toward the ceiling, silently twitching its legs, and quickly went out of sight over the cubicle wall in front of him.
He didn't hear it land.
Turning back to the desk, and the other crab, James swapped the crowbar back to his right hand, and took a swing. But this time, he was starting to feel the shakes from his adrenaline fueled fight, and he whiffed over the head of the thing and crunched the computer monitor instead, snapping the plastic frame and ruining the screen as the heavy bar of metal got stuck in it. He tried to yank it back for another try, but it really was stuck, and the office supply nightmare rushed him and sunk its “teeth” into his wrist before he could jerk backward.
A solid stapler *ka-chunk* was followed instantly by a burst of pain, as a staple punched down to the bone on the back of his wrist. About half the staple was still sticking out as the monster pulled back for another strike, and James reacted to blind instinctive fear. He dropped the crowbar entirely, grabbed the stapler around its midpoint, ignoring the abnormally sharp points of the legs, and as with his first kill here, grabbed it with both hands and simply pulled until the top ripped off and he could pour its staples, and inky blood, across the desk.
And then everything was quiet again.
As his body started to tremble from the after effects of what felt like life-or-death combat, James pulled the office chair over and fell into the black padding of the seat. He took a few deep breaths to steady himself, and to psych himself up to pull a centimeter of metal out of his wrist.
Pulling out his tube of disinfectant and a bandage from his bag, he was struck with the sudden realization of just how loud the rustling sounded in the otherwise dead air. Even in the office in the real world, when he was alone at night, there was at least the air conditioning constantly humming. But here, nothing. Not even the sounds of clicking as enemies closed in. It took him more than a couple minutes to get the medical supplies out, as he kept stopping and checking to make sure he didn't hear something, constantly looking around at the walls of the cubicle to see if anything was crawling over them.
But the coast was clear, and he couldn't delay any longer. With gritted teeth, he took a grip on the staple in him with sweaty fingers, and jerked it out. Two small points of red blood started welling up, and dripping down onto the carpet almost right away, as he tossed the metal away and clamped his hand over the wound. James cursed himself for not thinking to bring a towel or something to clean blood with, as he fumbled with a single hand to put some disinfectant on the bandage, and get the adhesive onto his skin in a way that didn't just slide off in the now quite slick layer of blood.
Eventually, he got himself no longer bleeding, and took a few minutes to just try to calm down, process what happened, and get his crowbar out of a computer monitor as quietly as possible. After taking a few drinks of water and settling down, he decided it was time to check what he'd really come here for.
Over both of the dead stapler-crabs, a small yellow orb hovered. Mostly opaque skin around some kind of liquid or gas or maybe just congealed yellow magic, James didn't know exactly what. It was smooth, like a bath bead, and to him in that moment, it was the most precious of treasure. He had fought for this, literally bled for this, for a chance to, right now, be something more than just a dull IT guy in a dead end job he hated.
“Yessssssss” he whispered to the empty office, doing a small fist pump in the air.
“Time to see”, he thought to himself, “what we've got here.” Two small orbs popped neatly in his fingers. Two small thoughts ran through his mind, very obviously intruders, making their presence known clearly and politely.
[+1 Skill Rank : History – Boogieboarding]
[+1 Skill Rank : Repair - Fax Machine]
“Noooooooo” he whispered, equally unheard by the chairs and desks around him.
But in truth, he wasn't mad. Not even a little upset or disappointed. As he ducked back out of the aisle, and followed the pen marks he'd left back to the door, he had a sense of satisfaction and triumph burning in his chest. He'd done it; he'd made a successful incursion into this place. He'd tested himself on something that was trying to kill him, and he'd won, and been rewarded.
His rewards were... lackluster. James was almost certain that his office actually had a fax machine somewhere, but damned if he'd ever had to fix it. But they were also different from the first one. As he walked, he made some notes on the pad he'd brought along, scribbling down the words as he kept his eyes on the walls around him. First, he marked the “skills” he'd gotten. It was actually pretty weird to suddenly know things he hadn't even considered before, and the lack of context or emotion on those chunks of knowledge made them a bit surreal to think about. He also made some notes on the things he'd learned about the diversity of orbs found so far, and then started jotting down questions he had. The questions, and possible tests to answer them, took up a lot more space.
Before he was actually done, he'd arrived back at the door. It was almost absentmindedly that he pushed it open, stepped out, and casually waited for the elevator to take him down. He'd gotten lost in the thought of what questions he had, and suddenly realized how lucky he was he didn't get jumped again on the way out, even though he wasn't that far in.
The big questions, things like “what is that place” and “who/what made it, and why” were obviously off the table. But other questions, like, “does it get more dangerous” and “do the more dangerous parts drop better skills”, and even, “what constitutes a single point in a skill” were all things he could maybe start testing.
Of course, as he headed out of the building to his car in the warm summer night, he also remembered that he had some much more fun questions to answer when he got home. Questions like, “can I afford to order pizza tonight because I just looted a few hundred bucks from an extradimensional office dungeon”.
He was pretty sure the answer was “oh, yes”.
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Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!