James woke up, and instantly regretted his decision. He'd gotten about three hours of nap in, and his sleep schedule was absolutely fucked. His eyes were sore, and as he rolled out of bed, it felt like he was running on empty. His arms were limp noodles while he pulled on his shirt and pants with automatic, jerky motions. Limp, sore, noodles.
He had work in twenty minutes. It was a fifteen minute drive. His brain, in a kind of hollow fog, took about five minutes of staring at the door while he sat on the bed to fully do the math.
"Shit." Was the reaction when the math caught up.
He stumbled out the door, jerking his feet into shoes without bothering to untie them from when he'd kicked them off last night. There was no consideration given to food, or listening to Anesh wish him a good day and telling him not to get fired from the kitchen table. He was running on the most garbage of human autopilots; the kind that gets you to work in the morning when you'd rather be doing anything else. That stupid "sensible" voice that tells you that losing your job is a bad idea.
It wasn't until about halfway through the car ride there that he remembered his promise to Anesh that they'd Go In tonight. And then the sensible voice, which was now telling him that he still felt like he'd lost a fight with a freight train, got to move over and shut up. Because now, the voice in his head that told him that he was going to get to crowbar a potted plant and get paid in level-ups was talking, and boy was that voice jazzed for this.
He spent the next seven and a half minutes of car travel fantasizing about finding skill orbs that would make him a warrior, teach him weapons and survival. Or give him powers beyond humanity. Or, failing that, he laughed to himself, at least teach him how to do basic car repairs without killing himself.
Then he arrived at work, and went back to regretting his decision.
His shift started kinda late, but it was still irritating to see how many empty desks the call center he worked in had right now. People out sick or out drunk or out recovering-from-being-drunk, he didn't know or care. All that mattered was that the idiots who did come in had to shoulder the extra work. And if there was one piece of self-knowledge that James had, it was that he was a profoundly lazy person.
Oh, he'd get the job done. He'd find the most efficient way to do it, and do it correctly the first time, so that no one would bother him about it again. Lazy didn't mean stupid. But it did mean that, over the next eight hours, as the sun set over the highway out the windows by his desk, and the world dropped into the dark of nighttime, he got really sick of his job, really fast.
"I'm gonna quit, I swear." He muttered to himself as another call ended with abuse hurled his way.
But he wasn't, and he knew it. Previously, it was because he was too lazy to find anything else, and he knew what he was doing here. Now, it was because... well, still those reasons. But also there was a hole in reality over by the back stairwell, and he was interested.
Curiosity, and free candy, trumped lazy any day.
So he kept his eyes from dropping shut, kept finishing calls, and kept not strangling his shift manager when she walked by and made "jokes" about how he needed to keep working hard. And when Anesh showed up an hour early, the two of them shared a quiet look full of nervous energy, and he finished the last dozen calls with a bit of a smile in his voice.
"Okay," James spoke in a voice with a lot more calm than he was feeling as the door shut behind them, "I am never going to really get used to the lack of a horizon, and the endless ranks of office walls fading into the mists. But man is it cool to look at." He stood looking off down the aisle that their map had labeled Hallway One, enjoying the view of the endlessly repeating tan walls until intersections, rising wall heights, and distance took the view away.
Anesh nodded and hummed agreement, even as he ignored the vista James was fixated on. Instead of looking into the distance like his friend, he went right over to the pair of desks that the duo had dragged to sit nearby the door.
"I mean, are you seeing this?" Anesh heard James call from over his shoulder.
"Not really. I'm seeing the gear, instead." The left side desk had the stuff they used. Crowbars, football pads, a couple backpacks, radios, flashlights, gloves. What James was starting to see as a standard kit, and Anesh was starting to see as not good enough. The other desk had the duffels on it, one of them with a smattering of other stuff left in it, including rope, and a bunch of candy they hadn't brought with them, along with some bottles of water. It was to that desk that Anesh added another backpack and started pulling stuff out.
James broke off from gazing into the distance to saunter over. "How much are we spending on backpacks? Real question; should we have accounting spreadsheets for this? And should that spreadsheet be honest? Because it would be weird if someone looked at my laptop and saw I was spending $50 on machetes."
"I did pick up an accounting skill, I think." Anesh said as he pulled a pair of machetes out of the bag, setting them over with the crowbars. "But it's only gonna be $12 for machetes. They are literally always on sale."
"How?" James gave him a puzzled look as he started messing around with one of the blades.
Anesh stopped and looked up. "I did not ask. I will not ask, ever. That place scares me." He looked back down, then froze as one of the duffel bags shifted a bit. Then yelped out a panicked "shit!" as he stumbled back a step, going for a crowbar as a pair of ballpoint legs dragged a black and red stapler frame into view.
James stepped up grinning as Anesh brandished the prying end at the small monster. "Hey Rufus! How's my favorite mobile office tool? Who's a good stapler? It's you!" He started giving the thing pets down its back as it pulled itself fully out from under the back, shaking itself on clicking pen legs.
"Holy hell, that thing gave me a heart attack. James, why are you keeping it here?" Anesh dropped the crowbar, and went back to unpacking the bag, slowly dragging it farther away from where Rufus was getting his affection from his human buddy.
"I just think he's kinda cool. I'm not gonna kill something that isn't hostile, and he just kinda hangs out around here. Also, look, he brought me a skill orb!" James held up the tiny pip of gold that Rufus deposited before him. He made sure Anesh saw before he cracked it. "As he is my friend, and you keep almost killing him, I do not think he would want me to share." James said with exaggerated sincerity, then raised his eyebrows at the prompt.
[+1 Skill Rank : Drawing - Abstract Art]
"Okay my friend. I've got this thing set up." Anesh had mostly ignored everything he'd just said, and was looking down at the table where he'd unpacked, somehow without James noticing, a quad-copter. Also a pair of helmets, though that wasn't what interested James.
James walked over and looked at phone app that Anesh had open, showing a view of the two of them, looking at a smartphone, from the perspective of the drone on the table. "This is cool and all, but how much did THIS set us back? These things are kinda pricey, right? Also, how do you have signal in here?"
Anesh sighed. "The wi-fi in here has no password, and is also garbage. And this actually came from Neil. You remember him?"
A short nod. "Yeah, I remember him. Big guy, kinda?" Neil was a big guy. Not fat, just someone who towered over James despite his own height of just over six feet. He was also someone Anesh hung out with a lot, and James was pretty sure he was singlehandedly responsible for 10% of all drone purchases in the country. "He just gave you this?"
The drone whirred, startling Rufus from his little backpack nest. The stapler hissed a bit at the intruder before James settled him down with a hand on his back. "He said he didn't need it, and he was glad I was finally interested." Anesh said as the blades started spinning. A small plume of dust kicked off the drone, and the two of them coughed for a second, James waving a hand in front of his face. "Looks like he... *ahem* hasn't used it in a while anyway."
As Anesh started practicing with the drone, James got himself geared up, just in case, and went back to playing with Rufus. It was while he was down at eye level with the little guy, and also coincidentally the desk, that he noticed something. "Hey, Anesh?"
"Yah?" He got a call back over the whirr of a small engine, as Anesh figured out how to maneuver the quad-copter. Badly.
"Why is there no dust here?"
The quad-coptor landed, gracelessly, and shut off. "What do you mean?"
"Well," James said, "when I first got here I checked the time dilation thing, right?"
Anesh nodded. "You said it was about eight hours to three minutes, right? That maths out to don't-want-to-be-here-when-the-doors-close long every week."
"Correct. So why isn't there dust? Three years, and no dust? This place has dust, right?" James patted one of the bags. There was, indeed, some dust. "I mean, there should be more dust, right? How does time even work here?"
Anesh rubbed his fingers across the table, then shook one of the sets of football armor. "Yeah, this isn't three years of dust. I remember when my nan died, it wasn't until about a year later that I ended up going to her house to collect everything. Now *that* was some dust. I'm talking 'leave footprints in it' dust. Maybe this place is just sterile, but it doesn't seem like this is anywhere close to three years worth." He wiped off the armor, and started putting it on. "But that's really not that bad, right? It just means that we don't have as good a grasp on time dilation as you thought and okay I just realized why it's not fine."
"Yeah, thanks. Maybe we limit our time here to four hour chunks. Let's just not get stuck here overnight, yeah?"
"Yeah." Anesh agreed. "Well, the drone thing is probably gonna make exploration a lot easier in the future, but I kinda didn't realize that I don't know how to fly the fucker. So, I'll get some practice on that this week. Want to just go wander around for a bit? Get some exploration, maybe an orb or two?"
"You're getting more addicted to those than I am." James smiled as the two of them finished picking up their gear. "Okay Rufus, be good while I'm gone, okay?"
Anesh shook his head as he started down Hallway One. "That's creepy."
"Hush. He's harmless. Also, we should keep it down." They made their way through a few rows before Anesh spoke up again.
"So, how's work been going?" He asked.
James looked up from the desk he was going through. They'd poked at the computer in this cubicle, as well as the chair, and the cup of pens on the desk just to be totally sure nothing was alive in it, and now James was looking for anything they could take. "It's work." He whispered. "Shouldn't we be keeping quiet while we're out here?"
Anesh looked back through the door. "Maybe? I mean, I'm not yelling like you said caused the problem. It's just really quiet in here, and it's creeping me out, honestly."
James stood up and dusted his hands off. "Nothing here." He grabbed his crowbar and headed toward the door. "And we still haven't seen any..."
It wasn't anything serious, he just stumbled a bit, and caught himself on Anesh's shoulder. But that small bit, combined with Anesh's nervous feeling, and the unfamiliar weight of their armor, was enough to send him sprawling while James stayed up. He watched as Anesh tumbled back into the cubicle wall across the hallway, sliding it inward a little bit with a burst of scraping and a *crack* as a bit of the plastic corner snapped. Nothing fell over, though, and Anesh scrambled to pull himself off his ass and back up.
Then everything was quiet again.
The two of them stood there for a second, beyond tense, looking around frantically for any sign of danger. After a few heartbeats, Anesh started to say, "Ah. See? Nothing around to hear..." he trailed off as James shushed him, and the his eyes started to get wide as both of them heard the sound of clicking. Lots, and lots, of clicking.
"Run. Fucking RUN!" James half-shouted, still trying to keep his voice down. The two of them turned down the corridor back toward their signpost, and the front door, and bolted. The place wasn't so large that hallways were ever longer than a couple hundred feet, so running wasn't usually something they did to get from place to place, but now, they needed to haul ass. The pair thudded down the flat carpeted floor toward the intersection, picking up momentum with the unfamiliar weight on their shoulders. At about twenty feet away, James saw the first of the stapler-crabs come over the wall they were headed straight for. As he skidded to a stop, Anesh behind him got a good view of the next six or seven. By the time the next three dozen had crested the barrier and started to crawl down, or simply hopped to the ground, to give chase, the friends had turned and started booking it in the opposite direction. "Fucking run the other way, then!" James hissed out between breaths.
They didn't jog, or even run, really. They sprinted. One of the crabs wasn't really a huge threat. A few of them had panicked James at first, but even then, he could take them without dying. Even the potted plant, which had terrified Anesh at first, and had tested their strength, still never felt like a fight they couldn't win.
This, though? This was a fight they would always lose. A hundred, maybe two or three hundred, of those things? That was lethal, every time. So they sprinted. They booked it. Cubicles flew past as they moved, with Anesh catching glimpses sometimes of one or two of the stapler-crabs crawling off of desks to join the horde. And, once, the larger bulkier frame of one of the mobile computers doing the same thing. Ahead of him, James whipped his crowbar across the top of one of the walls to his right, taking out an attempted ambush with a loud hiss as the multi-legged monster fell back. He could feel his blood pumping, fear racing through his veins. "There!" He pointed left at an upcoming turn, and James took it. Anesh followed, the two of them hoping to lose some of their pursuit.
They kept going, losing stamina fast, taking another turn a minute later. After a third turn, with no sign of the mass of the horde behind, they paused to catch their breath. James leaned on the inside of a cube wall, panting, and as Anesh went to do the same, he stopped, having seen a trio of staplers skittering down the hall behind them. They were alone, maybe scouts, or maybe just on the move now that the whole of their civilization was riled up. Either way, he acted without thinking about it.
The first one he just stepped on, pinning it down while he slammed the crowbar into the follower. Then again in rapid succession before the third could even react with more than a hiss. It crumpled a bit, enough black goo squirting out that Anesh was sure he'd gotten it. As the one beneath his foot struggled, he lunged forward and sideswiped the third, slapping it into a filing cabinet with a dull thud. Stunned, it had no chance to dodge the overhead swing that killed it. After that, he picked up the hissing, skittering nightmare from an office supply closet that he had underfoot, and pulled it apart like James had mentioned doing on his first trip.
It was harder than he'd expected.
The whole fight took less than a minute. That was, Anesh supposed, the difference when you were the one doing the ambushing. Silently, he tossed the three corpses into a nearby cubicle door, grabbed the orbs, and stepped back in to take a breather with James.
"What was that? We gotta go?" His friend asked when he came in.
He shook his head. "I got it. Here." He passed James one of the orbs. "If we're gonna get ate here, I at least want to see if I can get something good first." James nodded, and cracked his while still trying to drag in great big breaths of air.
[+1 Skill Rank : Etiquette - Internet - Dating Sites]
James almost choked laughing. "Well, so much for that. What about..." He stopped, seeing Anesh's surprised face. "What?"
"I thought all these were normal!" His friend exclaimed.
James cocked his head. "Normal how?" His mind went through a list of ways that none of this was normal, but it hardly seemed relevant now. If "extradimensional office dungeon" was their baseline, "normal" could mean a lot of things.
Anesh shook his head. "It's not useful right now, but I just leveled up in rapiers."
"Bullshit." James exclaimed. "That is not fair. I refuse to believe that. I got internet dating polities and you got swords. This is just... fucking... bah." He trailed off. "Well, congrats. You got the good stuff first. And I'll treat you to a sword when we get out of here. But... uh..."
Anesh and James both peeked out of the cubicle they were in. There was no sign of the horde, they appeared to have lost their pursuit. But, that did leave one very serious question that they had to ask.
"Where the hell are we?" James' voice echoed a bit in the still air.
There wasn't a signpost in sight, and they hadn't been able to track after the first turn. They must be close, but their map didn't cover out here, and they had run almost directly away from the door without counting cubicles. Which made Anesh think of one other big problem.
"How long do we have to find out?" He asked, mirroring James' worried look.
Support "The Daily Grind"
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!