“James!” the call was firm, but not shouted too loudly through the small apartment he shared with his roommates. “What the fuck is this candy on the table?”
James reluctantly hauled himself out of his desk chair and plodded down the hallway to the messy living room of his apartment. His roommate and recent friend, Anesh, was in the futile process of trying to clean off the kitchen table. From experience, James knew that table wouldn't stay cleared off or in any reasonable way 'clean' for more than a day or so. And knowing this, he'd emptied out his duffle bag a few days ago when he'd come back from his first delve onto that table, hoping that he'd have plenty of time to sort it out later.
Of course, now, Anesh had actually decided to do chores. This was unexpected, and now he had to explain something.
"They're from England?" He went with.
Anesh gave him a look. The sort of look you gave someone when you were absolutely sure they were full of shit. "James, I am from England. If these are from England, they're from a Poundland down a back alley that no one has been in since 1995. And they can't be that, because this one tastes pretty good."
"You ate my candy?"
Anesh shifted his look to a more sheepish one. "That's not the point here. Where'd you get all this anyway? And, also, why'd you pile it on our table?"
James decided to go with the honest answer. "Well, I found an extradimensional cubicle dungeon at work, and it has cash and candy bars in it, among other things. This is what I had in my bag when I got home, but I needed the bag for groceries, so I dumped it here. Also, here's rent for the month." He handed over a few hundred bucks, in a range of different denominations.
"I... do NOT believe you." Anesh responded. "But whatever. If you don't want to tell me where you're getting your secret candy, I'm not that curious. Honestly, I care more about why you just paid rent in $2 bills. Did you mug someone's grandma?"
James raised an eyebrow. "Why a gran...?"
"When have you ever gotten a $2 except as a Christmas thing from your grandma?"
"That's a very good point. And no, I didn't mug anyone." James responded.
Anesh sighed. "Well, whatever. It's rent. I'm gonna get back to this, so I'll probably shove your candy in the pantry." As he spoke, he casually unwrapped one of the bright neon-yellow wrapped candy bars and started munching on it.
"Are you just... eating more of my candy? Dude, that took a lot of work to get." James moved to snatch the treat from Anesh, but his roommate dodged out of the way behind the table.
Keeping the table between the two of them, he shoved more chocolate in his mouth. "You left these here for almost a whole week! You forfeit your claim!"
James stopped trying to circle the table and grab his food back. "Okay, A, that is not how property works. B, wait, is it Monday? I have to go get some stuff."
Through the last mouthful of candy, Anesh spoke, "Ah, right, you work tomorrow, huh? Gotta get something before you're banished back to the night shift?"
"Yeah, going to the military surplus store. I want to see if they have, I dunno, some kind of armor." He raised his arms, showing the bandages, one of them actually a piece of gauze medical taped to his wrist. "I'm getting tired of how much these ache and itch."
Anesh just shook his head, and turned back to what he was working on, casually dismissing his friend with a "sure man, go get your head start on your Halloween costume."
Jokes aside, James did have a plan for today. It was the last day of his three day weekend, and he absolutely intended to go in again tomorrow. In to work, sure, but afterward, In. Capital I.
He'd been unsure about it at first. The visceral and insanely unpleasant feeling of a staple grinding against the bone of his wrist as he pulled it out had been... bad. Tooth-grindingly bad. And as soon as he'd actually gotten home, he'd sat down at his desk, and for about two hours, debated going to the hospital because of how bad it hurt. "Never", he'd thought, "am I going to do something that stupid again. It's not worth it. It will never be worth it, especially if it gets more dangerous."
The notepad he'd been jotting stuff down on had been tossed on his desk, and he'd stared at it for half an hour, just considering whether or not he wanted to pitch it in the bin, cut his losses, and forget everything else that had happened.
And he'd had his whole work week to remember how much he hated his job.
And then he'd paid Anesh rent with the cash, and realized he could spend an extra $300 on whatever the hell he wanted. Probably random Kickstarter projects.
And then, he'd gone into work on Saturday, cursing his new schedule and already mad as hell that he was missing his apartment's D&D game, and his boss had told him he wasn't needed that night, and he'd wasted two hours on the damn commute, and he was just....
Just perfectly ready to pick up the crowbar again.
And so, the local military surplus store. If there was one thing that James had learned from actually playing RPGs, it was that those $300 he'd gotten should be treated as an investment, and instantly go into buying better gear. Gear that would allow him, and he could not repeat this enough, to not get painfully stapled.
As it turned out, though, military surplus stores, or at least, this military surplus store, did not sell functional combat armor. And James was hesitant to ask the three hundred pound bearded mountain of a man behind the counter if they had any bracers in the back stockroom. So, after about half an hour of trying to search through boxes and racks of old BDU's, ammo cans, machetes, and field manuals, he just gave up on that plan, and decided to double down on the thick coat, and maybe go full-anime and just wrap exposed parts of his arms in bandages. That idea was abandoned as soon as he got home, tried it, and realized how horrifically uncomfortable it actually was to move in.
Almost without warning, it was Tuesday again. James hadn't slept well, nerves actually starting to impact him this time. He'd stayed up staring at his ceiling for hours, mostly just thinking about how stupid he was and how he couldn't do this. Eventually, he'd drifted off, only to be shocked awake by his alarm, dragged out of the warm haze of sleep that only really comes when one has been battling insomnia. He'd pushed through his morning routine without thinking of anything in particular, but when the time came to go into work...
Well, he'd thrown the duffle bag in his car.
Work was a series of sharp edges and near snaps. He'd almost punched his manager when she'd surprised him by the door. He'd half-yelled at more than one customer. On his break, he'd taken some time outside to catch his breath and calm down.
"Am I seriously this worked up over it? I feel like a kid going into their first day of work all over again." He'd mused to himself, looking up at the night sky. "Except, well, normal jobs don't try to murder you." He took one last deep breath. "I should probably apologize to the boss, so she's not pissed at me all day. I got this. It'll be an adventure. A good way to kick off the rest of the boring-ass week."
Now resolved, and a little more ready, work passed quickly. And once again, before he knew it, he was standing in front of a certain door, checking his phone's clock.
3:34. Time to go.
Rows of grey and beige, the muffled sound of nothing, strangely dimmed fluorescent lights. It was starting to become a bit more familiar.
Right inside the door, there was a T-intersection in the cubicles. And on the floor, right there in front of him, was a stapler. It looked normal, but it was still quivering a bit, doing its best impression of something that was totally harmless, and failing.
"Really? Come on, little guy." All of James' tension bled out suddenly. He dropped his bag to the left with a whump, unzipped it, keeping an eye on the 'harmless' stapler, and pulled out one of the long cardboard strips he'd brought tonight. Holding it against a nearby cubicle wall, he swiftly reached down, grabbed the stapler crab, and ka-chunked the cardboard into the wall, affixing it. The stapler's scrabbling pen legs licked against his hand as he did so, but it wasn't actually painful when he knew it was coming. Keeping his grip on it, he found a blank sheet of paper around, and a black marker, drew a big A on it, and stapled that to the top of his makeshift flag.
Tossing the stapler down, he shooed it away. "Get outta here, little fella. I'm after bigger fish today." The stapler did something a bit different, and made a low hissing noise at him that he hadn't heard before. It took him a while to realize it sounded like soft rattling metal. It also didn't leave, but it didn't lunge for him either. "Go on! Shoo!" He prodded it with his foot a bit, and it scampered off. "Either I've only met the berzerk ones so far, or that little guy was weird." He muttered to himself.
And now, it was time to do some more exploring. Further up, and further in, as his favorite leonin stand-in for Jesus would say. So, making sure to keep his signpost in sight, James headed straight on into the maze of cubicles.
He stopped a few times to loot when he saw obvious targets. Wallets and purses out on desks, or fancy coats draped over chairs. He was here to explore, sure, and to better himself, of course; but he was also here to be able to pay for fancy food for his whole friend group, and he wasn't going to pass up twenties when they dropped in front of him.
It was during this looting spree that he finally realized that most of these desks had computers on them, and computers actually have real world value. Slapping himself for not thinking of it sooner, he went to power one up and see what kind of specs it had, before stopping. His hand about two inches from the power button, he froze.
There was a feeling that he'd gotten a few times in his life, when something had almost gone cataclysmically wrong. He'd dropped a knife once at a shitty kitchen job, and it had landed about three "oh shits" away from a co-worker's face. He'd almost run over a dog once, just barely missing it by an almost accidental swerve. And he'd accidentally set his desk on fire once, putting it out before it got too bad, but still leaving that scorch scar on it forever. And now, he felt something similar. That feeling of dread, like he could see the mistake coming, and didn't want anything to do with it, but couldn't stop it.
So he froze. Looked down. Saw the flashing blue LED on the front of the computer tower pointed up at him, slit down the middle like an iris. Saw the CD tray opened just a bit, and a row of circuit board teeth inside.
Slowly. Ever so slowly, he pulled his hand away. Swearing inside, because he'd set his crowbar against the wall by the opening into this cubicle when he got excited about the computer. His heart rate spiked. How many of these things were there? Was every PC and laptop in this place hostile? Was he surrounded right now?
Maybe it hadn't seen him. Maybe it couldn't move. Maybe a lot of things. James only had a few seconds to decide what to do, and so he decided to play it cool. He hadn't had any of these things go for his ankles yet, so either this was the first one, or it wasn't going to attack him if he didn't touch it. "Ah, sorry friend." He said in a shaky voice. "Didn't see you there." And slowly rolled the chair back.
It didn't move. The CD tray closed. James sighed out a lifetime of tension. As he backed out of the cubicle, snagging his crowbar on the way, he muttered to himself, "there goes a year off my lifespan. This place is gonna give me a heart attack."
Now a good deal more paranoid, he kept going at a slower rate. Through the endless beige cloth walls, at some points the taupe office fortifications linking together overhead to form ecru arches. When he realized he was just running through a list of synonyms for beige in his head, he started to calm down a bit and stop making his legs ache with his exhausting sneak-walk.
The area around him was more or less the same as it ever was, but he was starting to notice a few new features that were showing up as he progressed. Small banners or drapes of blank printer paper hanging from arched overhangs and walls, occasional blisters of sharpened pencils coming out of the tops of cubicle walls, things like that. They made the surroundings feel less… dead. Less stale. Like it was more of a living place.
He had to stop a couple times to put up most signs, when he felt like he was about to lose track of the last one he'd stuck up. He hadn't taken many turns, but this whole place seemed to just be a grid, with a few quirks, so as long as he had line of sight to at least one of the signs, he was pretty sure he could get back safely.
Of course, when he tried to put up the third sign, the stapler he grabbed wasn't inanimate, and went for his fingers. That same stapler got slammed into the wall, then hammered with a crowbar until it couldn't get up again.
A few days ago James had briefly considered the idea of trying to take skill orbs out into the real world. But now, having one in front of him again, bitter taste of a mild adrenaline rush in his mouth from something trying to stab him, he found he couldn't help himself and popped it before thinking about holding onto it.
[+1 Skill Rank : Recipe - Pancakes]
"That is... almost useful!" James exclaimed as he found another (real) stapler and finished putting up the sign. "I mean, I already knew how to make pancakes. Kind of. I wonder how much better at making pancakes this makes me?" He stepped out into the hall, took a deep breath, and looked down the hall.
It looked like the line of cubicles ended up ahead. Oh, sure, there were still intersections around him, forks in the path, but if he followed this line, he could see a large flat table in a more open space, fluorescent lighting pouring down onto it. The whole thing brought to his mind a scene of a single large rock in a forest clearing, sunlight pouring down onto a holy object, protected against man and nature.
Except here, it was shitty, overly bright white light, and instead of a holy object, it was a cup of coffee.
Which, given how tired he was from work, may as well be an object of divine power. Smiling, he set forward, keeping an eye out for any surprises. He was about ready for a change in scenery. Time to check out the break room.
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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!