"No ma'am, I don't think I can help you with that." James' voice was strained as he spoke into his headset. It was about 2:30 in the morning, his shift was almost over, and somehow, the main source of his stress was not sneaking his roommate into the building or the possibly-lethal adventure they were about to go on, but instead, someone who didn't understand what a warranty was.
He nodded sagely, despite the caller not being able to see, as she let loose a verbal assault that could probably have injured him more than any exploding coffee pot ever would, if he'd really been listening. "Yes ma'am, I understand the problem." He took a deep breath, kept his voice level as his supervisor walked by. Now would be the wrong time to snap. "But..."
He trailed off as Anesh plopped a duffel bag down in his cubicle and sat himself down in another swivel chair that he pulled over. "But we... one minute ma'am, let me check something." He looked up at Anesh's wide grin and mouthed 'what are you doing here?' as he typed some nonsense on his keyboard for the benefit of the caller.
Anesh just grinned and leaned back. "Oh, the front desk guy let me in. I said I was your ride home, and then we talked about Star Wars for five minutes. How's your night going? You on a call?" He leaned over and started reading the screen.
In his head, James started screaming. What if his supervisor came back? What if he got fired for this? Out loud, though, he cut off the torrent of angry being yelled down the customer's phone and simply said; "I'm sorry, ma'am. If you took your phone in the shower just to see what would happen, then it is both intentional, and water damage, and neither of those are covered by warrenty. I would be happy to help you find a local repair shop, but..." The sound of his enemy hanging up was one of the best things he'd ever heard.
"Okay," he said, pulling of the headset. "the call log is empty, so I've got a minute. Why are you here early? What about the plan?" He half looked at Anesh as he typed up the after-call report.
Now spinning casually in the chair, his roommate replied, "I figured that I'd get here early. And the plan was bollocks. I'm not sneaking in the fire escape when I can just ask politely and be let in." James' boss chose that moment to walk back to his own cubicle, and as James' heart leapt into his chest, Anesh just gave him a polite nod.
"Ah, you found your friend. Good!" His boss said. And got a thank you and a thumbs up from Anesh.
"How did you get my BOSS to let you in? He's always kind of awful to me." James asked him. In his head, all he could see as a profile of the man was a series of inconveniences and petty threats.
Anesh just laughed. "It was pretty easy. I asked nicely, and when he mentioned that you annoyed him, I laughed and did that thing where I failed to disagree so that he'd think I was on his side. Works on everyone."
"Wait, have you done that to me?" James asked.
"Does that seem like the kind of thing I'd do to a friend?"
James narrowed his eyes at his roommate. "Okay, now see, that was... oh, you're screwing with me. Okay. Got it." This got a laugh, which turned back into a laugh from him as well. The two of them spent the last twenty minutes while James was on the clock making light conversation, complaining about their jobs, and pointedly not at all discussing the breach in reality that they were planning on diving through within the hour. Finally, after what seemed like forever to James, his shift ended, he clocked out, and then they had to spend another half hour dicking around in the break room before the two of them headed for the stairs.
"Okay." James said as the two of them stood at the heavy security doors. "I know we kind of have a plan, but just so we're clear, we can leave whenever, got it? Like, we're not saving the world. The stakes have never been lower. We don't need to push ourselves."
Anesh snorted. "Yes, yes, the stakes have never been lower, the stakes are on the floor. Now come on, I want to see this. I'm still not totally convinced this isn't just the most elaborate practical joke ever."
James checked his watch, smiled, and stepped forward, pushing open the big heavy door to show his friend a vision of.... stairs.
"You bloody wanker! I knew it! I knew you were fucking with me!" Anesh looked torn between being uncontrolled laughter, and uncontrolled punching-James-repeatedly.
Now laughing his ass off at the reaction, James pulled the door closed. "Nah, it's real," He opened it again, this time showing standardized beige cubicles that faded into the mist of the horizon and too many hallway turns before they could see where they started to mutate into different geometry. "I just really wanted to see the look on your face when I did that."
If the look on Anesh's face was priceless when he'd thought he was being pranked, James was certain that the look now was even more valuable than that. His mouth was actually hanging open, which James was pretty sure was only a sitcom thing.
He went in first, doing a quick check around for anything hostile. Anesh followed him in, staring around at this new world.
It was very.... beige. He thought. Cubicle after cubicle. The ones here near the entrance only had walls going up to about his chest, so he could clearly see over them. And the area he could see, well, it went on for a long time. There were a lot of hallways, and a lot, a LOT, of desks and chairs and cubes. "How big is this place...?" He whispered.
"Pretty fucking big." James replied. "Haven't found the other side yet, like I said. But yeah, seeing it is probably different than being told. Also, keep your voice low. I shouted once, and a few hundred of the stapler things came after me."
"We need a better name for them than 'stapler things'" Anesh replied as the two of them dragged a desk out into the open near the door.
They plopped their duffel bags down onto it, and as James unzipped his and pulled out his crowbar, he said "Look, they're staplers, and they're constantly angry. I don't really know what you want for a clever name there."
"Hatelers?" Anesh threw out as he opened his own bag.
"No." James cut back, pulling out the two-way radios, clipped one to his belt and handed the other over.
"Stapliders. Because they're kind of like spiders, right?" Anesh started unloading a set of football padding from his bag, then a second set next to it for his friend.
"Denied." The last thing to come out was a decent quality hunting knife he'd bought at their local sporting goods eternal 'going out of business for real this time' sale, which he strapped to his belt while Anesh pulled his own crowbar out.
"Well, I'm out of ideas." A couple light backpacks came out last. They'd leave the duffel bags here for now.
The two of them started pulling on the football pads, checking straps and making sure they were comfortable. "I know, that's why I'm calling them stapler things. Now. Ready?"
"Oh, goodness no. But I'm also intensely curious. Lead on, MacDuff."
James noted with some interest that the signposts he'd made were still up. He gestured to Anesh about this, who made a small note on it for later. Then, the two of them, geared up and ready for anything, hearts beating a mile a minute, took their first steps together into the maze.
With two people, active looting went a lot faster. They'd spot a cubicle that looked like it had something worth anything, and one of them would stand guard while the other went through drawers and coat pockets. Much to James' dismay, the stuff along the path he'd followed last time was still stripped bare where he'd looted. So, Anesh made them a supplementary signpost, and they diverted a couple of hallways left. Their plan didn't call for getting all the way to the breakroom anyway, so they didn't need to keep track of that.
Periodically, Anesh would ask James for a moment to stop, while he sketched out a rough map of their path so far. This, too, was something they'd planned on, so James would stand sentinel, keeping an eye out for anything hostile while his partner drew.
So far, they'd been here for about half an hour, and hadn't run into anything more dangerous than a flickering fluorescent light. Which, to be fair, and startled them both enough that Anesh had almost brained James with a flailing crowbar, and they'd added "helmets" to the list of things they needed.
"I'm beginning to think you scared everything away..." Anesh whispered as they came to another almost empty three-way intersection. This one happened to have a vending machine and a potted plant.
"Maybe, but at least we're getting decent mundane stuff. Also, I am super curious what this vending machine has, and I bet you are too, because I've seen you eat one of every single candy bar we've found."
"Baby-Things are delicious! I don't understand why we don't just have these in reality!" Anesh retorted as the pair approached the machine.
It was tall. By this point in their journey, they were well into the territory where the cubicle walls were over head height, and this machine was, perhaps intentionally, exactly as tall as the surrounding cube walls. One of the old style ones, too, with the big plastic dome buttons, and a cash slot that would probably only take the most pristine of one dollar bills. "DRINKS", read the big red and yellow glowing text on the front. James took custody of the notepad with the map on it to get an idea of how far in they were while Anesh started looking over the options.
From the map, and how tired his feet were, they were twenty six rows in. Each row averaged about ten cubes, which put them about four times the length of his actual office building inside his office building. James' head hurt thinking about that, but he shook it off. As he was about to turn back and tell Anesh that they should consider turning back today, his friend spoke. "Dude, check this out."
Looking over, he saw Anesh running his finger down the row of buttons. "What?"
"No, really, watch." Anesh pulled his hand away, and then moved his finger to the first button, as if to select it. Then he moved it to the next one. Then the next. James watched, curious, as Anesh repeated this process about thirty times, each time moving down one spot to a new drink button, each time covering space, and each time, there was always more below. "We found a non-Euclidean vending machine."
"Oh, man, that's trippy, and there's no way in hell I'm drinking anything out of... HURK!" James was cut off abruptly as something wrapped around his ankle and yanked, hard.
Anesh was yelling something he didn't hear as his head slammed into the floor. Had he not just had the thoughts knocked out of him, he would have definitely doubled down on the helmets idea. As it was, it took most of his effort, to kick his leg and look down to see what was trying to kill him.
It was the potted plant. They'd both zeroed in on the drinks, and he'd personally gotten complacent since they hadn't run into anything and James had thought that maybe with two of them, it'd be fine. But no, they'd ignored the plant, it was mostly his fault since he was the one with experience here, and now it had ambushed him and was slamming him into the floor with a rather long vine that had trailed out of it. And now the nearby cubicle wall, which he impacted the corner of with his shoulder. This thing was way stronger than he'd expected!
Anesh wasn't standing idle, though. After a brief pause to fully process the fact that his roommate was being murdered by vegetation, he took a big step forward and brought his own crowbar down on the middle of the plant's mass. One of the big frond leaves broke off and one of the smaller vines bent in half, but the rest of it didn't seem bothered. The main body stopped brutalizing James for a minute, and brought a couple of side-vines up to slap at Anesh.
The hits had enough force that the one he ducked under bowed in the front of the vending machine. The second one caught him right on the armguard he raised, and Anesh felt his whole left arm turn into a mushy bruise in an instant of painful impact. Swinging wildly with the crowbar, he landed hit after hit on the thing's trunk and vines, snapping off leaves and small twigs, before a weaving vine caught his arm and slapped the weapon away.
James wasn't wasting the reprieve, though. He wasn't sure where his own crowbar went, but he had that knife, and he yanked it out, grabbed a handful of vine, and started sawing through it. The plant thrashed, but it only took him a few seconds and his leg was free. Dropping the knife, he lunged forward for his crowbar, and, prone on the ground, started slamming it into the ceramic pot itself. It cracked on the first, spiderwebbed on the second hit, and James punched a gloved fist into it to drag away chunks of pot. Inside, instead of dirt or more plant, there was only a single glowing red orb with a black slit down the middle; a malicious eye that turned to stare at him as soon as it was exposed. He was about to smash it, when a pair of vines grabbed his legs again and threw him back down the hall.
To do that, though, they'd had to stop their dance with Anesh. And he'd seen what James was doing. Grabbing the one vine still on him, he took a half step back, lined up, and kicked as hard as he could into the hole, jabbing with his foot in a move that would make his fourth grade martial arts teacher furious. But a move that still worked. He felt something wet and sticky ooze into his boot, and all the vines and leaves suddenly fell flat.
"Hoooooly shit, are you okay?" Was the first thing James could say as he caught his breath and stood back up.
Anesh looked at him. "Am I okay? Are YOU okay? You got thrown into a wall!"
"The pads are surprisingly good. I owe you whatever not having cracked ribs is worth. But dude, you're bleeding. Here, get away from the fucking thing, I think the leaves are sharp."
Anesh hadn't noticed it, but he was bleeding. A long, shallow line right above his left eyebrow. The blood started dripping around his eye, tickling and feeling generally awful, as soon as James mentioned it. Looking at him, James could only think that the blood looked more like oil as it tinted against his darker skin. It took him several tries and a few furious rounds of blinking before he could think straight enough to pull out their medical gear and help Anesh clean and bandage himself.
"Okay, well, that was different."
"Is it always like this?" Anesh asked. "I didn't really like the part where I got hit and cut all that much." He hissed as James applied disinfectant.
"Don't worry. This next part is a whole hell of a lot better." James pointed over to the plant's now-shattered pot. As they watched, a palm sized golden orb manifested, followed by three more smaller ones. "That's also different!" James smiled. "Okay, you feeling good to go? We should get out of here before anything that heard that comes looking for us. I think we're well past the 'easy stuff' territory."
"Yeah, I'm good. You want to grab the things? My bag is kinda full of candy."
James sighed. "You know, you could at least pretend like you weren't just here for the food."
Anesh grinned back. "Let me tell you, I am entirely here for the food. But yes, also because I'm secretly hoping for one of those to give me, I dunno, a full calculus course or something. Skip a few years on my masters degree."
"I will not apologize" James stood up, shouldering his pack now slightly more full of mass, and far more full of value. "Hey, on the way out, I want to try something. You good for one more fight?"
They trekked back to near the entrance, and at one of the cubicles, James held up a hand to stop the two. "Okay, so, see the PC under the desk?" He pointed, and Anesh nodded in understanding. Both of them slipped into the cubicle, took up positions with their crowbars, and, at James' nod, brought them into the sides of the computer together.
"James." Anesh said after a lengthy pause.
"Ah. Yes, good friend of mine?" The response from James was tinted with embarrassment.
Anesh looked at the pile of scrap parts on the floor. "James, how many of the computers in here are actually alive and hostile?"
"Well, the good news is, we now know that answer is 'not all of them.'" He shrugged in an exaggerated fashion.
One sigh later, and after convincing Anesh that tonight was not the best time to actually start checking on the computers for if they'd be worth taking, they made it back to their base.
"Okay," Anesh said in a more relaxed voice as they crossed the imaginary line between 'inside the battlefield' and 'safe'. "I was going to suggest we leave our stuff here, but I'm reconsidering that right now."
"Why's that?" James asked.
"Well, do you remember bringing a stapler with us?" Anesh pointed with his crowbar at the piece of office equipment sitting next to one of the larger duffel bags. "I'm gonna take care of it, I want to see if these things are as bad as you say."
"Wait!" James half-yelled. "That one's okay! I call him Rufus. He's got the different coloring, see?" He walked over and casually picked up the stapler, which deployed its pen-legs as he did so. It didn't lunge for him or struggle too much, though, so he put it up on the shoulder of his football pads, where it bumped its... 'snout?'... James wasn't sure what to call it... into his cheek. "See? He's friendly."
Anesh sighed and dropped the crowbar on the desk. "I have no idea how you could so easily forget that not everything here is hostile. That raises a lot of ethical concerns, you know."
"Dude, I forget friends' names all the time. Don't tell me you're surprised that I forgot that someone WASN'T mad at me."
"Fair. Now, do you want to pop these now, or later? I have a few things I want to test, but I'm also really impatient right now." He motioned to the skill orbs in their growing pile of loot as they sorted everything out.
"How about one of the small ones each, we can save the others?" Anesh nodded, and they each picked one up. "I feel like we should have some sort of good luck prayer for this." James said.
"Anesh, you are my friend, but if you tell me to 'get good', I am never bringing you back here."
"...I am out of ideas." His friend said.
"Well, how about this, then." He raised his hand out and popped the orb. "To a higher level!"
Anesh grinned. "I can get behind that." He said as he triggered his own small orb.
It was the best thing James had ever heard.
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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!