"Okay, we need to move, now." James hauled himself back upright and took a few shakey steps, still breathing heavy. Anesh reached out and put a hand on his shoulder pad to stop him, which turned into him just leaning on James as his own adrenaline rush died off and he found his limbs unstable, his breath coming in short gasps. "Okay, maybe we need to sit for a minute."
"Yeah, yeah." Anesh slumped down into the swivel chair, while James slid down the wall to sit by the door on the floor.
The two of them sat like that for a while, just focusing on trying to breathe and stop shaking. James let his mind just go blank; he wasn't panicked, really, but he was kind of at a mental dead end. He didn't know where to go from here. They were lost, exhausted, hunted, and also really quite lost, and James was feeling lost in his own head to match it. After a little too long of uncomfortable silence in the chilly dead air, Anesh asked, "Is this how you felt when this happened to you the first time?"
James looked over to see his friend, holding his head up with his hands against his forehead, an expression on his face he'd never seen before. He supposed this was how someone who'd just nearly died looked, normally, and wondered if that was similar to what Anesh was seeing from him. "Yeah," he said, "that seems about right. Though this time there's a little more long term panic thrown in, since I got out that time."
Anesh looked at him for a long time, mouth starting to move several times, but no words coming out. Eventually, he found his voice, and asked, "why did you ever come back in?"
"Well..." He started to tell him it was obvious. For the money, for the skill upgrades, for that little bit of power that translated to the real world, of course. Then he reconsidered. Maybe it wasn't that at all, but just because here was the only place in his life he'd ever really felt like he was tested. He started to say that too, but looked up at his friend's face from his spot on the floor. That wasn't what Anesh needed to hear. That wasn't what either of them needed to hear right now. "Lemmie tell you, I don't think we've even begun to get into the *good* candy in this place."
That earned him an incredulous look. But a second later, the words sunk into Anesh's mind, and a smile cracked through. And then, the two of them were laughing. Softly, but earnestly, sharing something that they'd never be able to find outside of this place. It wasn't just themselves that were being tested, but their friendship. And, while it sounded cheesy enough to the two of them that they'd never say it out loud, they knew they were getting out of here together, or not at all.
James and Anesh were Good Friends™. They didn't need a dungeon to tell them that.
"Well," James finally said after they'd relaxed a bit, and finally stabilized their slightly terrified emotions, "this whole thing does vindicate my decision to not bring my gun in here."
This startled Anesh a bit. "You own a gun? Bloody hell, mate, when did that happen? Didn't you say literally last week that guns were, and I'm quoting, 'cool, but no one should ever be allowed to own one'?" He threw up air quotes around James' own words.
"Well, yeah, but I'm clearly a massive hypocrite." James said. "Also, I picked one up before coming here the first time on purpose. Then I chickened out because I was paranoid that I'd get pulled over on the way to work, or my boss would do a bag check at the door to make sure I wasn't stealing mousepads or something."
"We should steal mousepads from here." Anesh muttered. "I'll make a note."
"The *point*," James said, "was that unless the problem is 'I would rather shoot myself than be eaten by staplers', a gun doesn't actually solve any problems in here. I can't actually imagine myself even hitting a stapler-crab, and even if I did, would it even do anything?"
Anesh shook his head. "I could hit a stapler. And it would probably do something. I mean, hitting them with a crowbar has worked well so far. That's gotta do less damage than a bullet would. I don't think they're actually as durable as real staplers."
James hauled himself up. "Bullshit you could hit a stapler."
Anesh didn't even bother answering as he stood up, leaving the chair to lazily spin behind him. "Hey, before we try to navigate back, do you have a bottle of water? I forgot mine by the door."
"No, I didn't plan on being out this long, so I left it, because I'm a bit dumb." James responded. "Was there anything else we forgot that we probably should have brought, aside from guns and food?"
"We forgot our helmets." Anesh dryly commented. "Oh, and also to make a better map. And I didn't really 'forget' it, but I did leave the drone..." He trailed off, eyes getting wide. A second later, James watched as Anesh scrambled to extract his phone from a pocket covered in football armor.
James started stretching his arms a bit as he waited. "Why are you looking like the drone half a mile away is relevant?"
"Because it might be!" Anesh said.
"There's no way the controller works from this far." James paused. "Is there? I don't fully understand how those things work."
Anesh held up his phone, tapping through options. "No no, I left that behind too. But the camera works on wi-fi, and there IS wi-fi here."
"I know I've been saying this a lot lately," James said, "but that's bullshit. Why is there wi-fi in here? Does the internet even work through time dilation?"
"Oh, oh no." Anesh waved him off. "There's no actual internet, it's all LAN. But there's devices on the network. Or, well, one device my phone can find, because I didn't think to install apps that search for security cameras or whatever. I'm not working from the Anarchists Cookbook here."
"That was written in the seventies..." This earned James a glare from his partner. Anesh was patient with a lot of things, but he was losing his dry resistance to dumb jokes quickly. "Okay, okay! We get signal. So?"
"So, the drone has a camera. Aaaaaaand..." Anesh held up his phone so James could see. "It's facing the cubicles." He waited a second for James to make the connection as he looked at the screen. About half of it was just the lower walls of the first row of cubes, but the upper half had a pretty decent view of the vaguely sloped 'sky' between the cube walls and the fluorescent lights far above. It took James a second of considering mentioning how useless this was, before he looked up above their heads. "Yeah, that's right. Throw something straight up."
James grabbed a desk lamp and went to lob it over their heads, and Anesh almost instantly slapped a hand on his wrist. "Throw something less stupid, please?" James would have been offended, if he'd had any intention of actually flinging a lamp. Instead, he just smiled and grabbed a pen off the desk.
"Is this gonna be big enough?" He asked.
Anesh nodded, eyes on the screen. "Should be. I just need to see movement." He signaled James, and the pen went up, and got caught on the way back.
"No, try again."
Once more, James tossed the pen up, and Anesh felt his heart sink. "Fucking hell, I was hoping this could get us out of here."
James came over and looked at the screen. "Wait, hang on. We went all over the place. If we're too far back, that's one thing, but what if we're to the sides? Let me try something." He started rustling through desk drawers until he found a manila folder full of documents. The pages all appeared to be charts, though not a single one of the axis were labeled. James ignored all of that, pulled one out, and started folding it.
A half minute later, Anesh looked over at his work. "That's a surprisingly intricate paper airplane."
"Yeah, turns out, I actually did get an applicable skill. Though don't tell anyone I'm using origami knowledge for this; I think it would legitimately offend Alanna's otaku sensibilities."
"Noted." Anesh smiled a bit, mostly relieved that his plan might still have a chance.
A couple minutes, and a few more paper airplanes later, James gave him a nod. "Okay, ready? I'm gonna throw them in different directions, and if you see one, we'll know at least what way we need to go. Assuming you can figure out the relative directions. I don't think I've ever once gotten those right when using my GPS, and that's without things trying to kill me."
Anesh gave him a thumbs up, and James threw the first one over the front wall. "Nothing." A few seconds later from Anesh, and he turned ninety degrees and threw the second one. "Still nothing."
Both of them started to feel that seed of doubt in their hearts as James turned again and looked at his friend. "Two more. Ready? Sure it's getting signal?"
"Yeah, it's working." Anesh said. He didn't look up, eyes on his phone. "Go ahead. Cross your fingers."
Anesh jumped out of the chair. "Fuck! Yes!" He almost shouted, before remembering how they got into this mess in the first place. He coughed a bit, half covering up his excitement, half just because his throat felt like sandpaper. He took a minute, and a few more dry coughs, to clear his throat, and then spoke again. "Okay, I saw that one. It came in at a weird angle. Throw another one in the same direction, we can figure this out."
It took three more airplanes and both of them looking at the screen, with Anesh trying to explain how the angles correlated, before James finally relented. "Okay, I get it. You know this stuff. I believe you." He did not believe him. But at this point, it was better than waiting around. They'd taken what felt like at least half an hour here trying to rest and work out their position, and he couldn't help but feel like they were running out of time. According to the clock on his phone, they still has an hour left before their four hour limit; and that was itself playing it safe. They could afford to take their time and make sure they did this right.
They took another ten minutes coming up with a plan, and ten more for Anesh to convince James it wasn't that bad.
"Alright." James said. "I found a roll of quarters and a granola bar, so this wasn't a total bust. We're not hurt, we've got more or less all our gear, and now we know we can set up our own camera network in here. All told, this has been a good learning experience. I'm pretty sure we leveled up. Go us." He sat his crowbar off to the side of the curved desk in this cubicle, and drew his machete. "You sure about this?"
Anesh sighed. "For the last time, yes." James shrugged, crawled under the desk, and punched through the back wall with his machete. Using the blade, and way more effort than he'd hoped, he sawed a trio of neat lines through the carpet and plaster barrier, before scooting back, and kicking the new improvised door out.
"After you." James said as he stood up and readjusted his backpack and machete so he could retrieve his crowbar. Anesh nodded and got down on his hands and knees, crawling through. The idea was that they could shortcut to the row on the other side, then all they needed to do was take a left, and head in a straight line. If there wasn't anything to stop them, they could cut 'doors' as needed to keep going forward, and make their way back without any problems.
There were problems almost instantly.
As James knelt down so he could crawl through, there was the sound of metal on plastic on the other side. He hauled himself through as fast as he could and swiveled his head around frantically to see Anesh, pinned down against the far wall in a sitting position, and a heavy matte-black desktop computer tower, the mass of cables it used as propulsion writhing beneath it as it tried to drag itself up onto the struggling math major.
Anesh had dropped the crowbar when the computer came at him. His mind briefly made a note that he needed to name these things, too, before it had shoved him back and was trying to rip his face off. Fortunately, his football pads were enough to stop its teeth, for now, but they were getting great big strips gouged out of them as he kept throwing his forearm into its way when it lunged forward; like a big friendly black dog, except not friendly, and with way sharper teeth.
He was on the defensive, but he wasn't hurt yet, except for a small gash on his palm. The problem was he had no leverage, and even though this thing was slow, it was already on him, and he had to just trust in James to deal with it while he held it off. The problem was...
The problem was that James missed with his first swing.
The crowbar came in, hit the side of the boxy beast, and, instead of bowing it inward and smashing the internals, it slid along the outside, and smashed right into Anesh's left hand where he was holding it.
Anesh's vision went blurry as his pinky and ring finger snapped in half. His left hand slipped off the casing where he was holding it back, and it lunged forward enough to sink circuit board teeth into the upper part of his thigh, shredding through his jeans and starting to leave shallow cuts. He didn't quite pass out, though, and started frantically punching the side of it, to no effect, as he heard James swearing loudly above him.
The next thing Anesh knew, the weight was off and he wasn't being mutilated anymore. Looking over, he registered James pinning the box to the ground, even as its cables tried to right it, his crowbar held like a shovel over it. There was a grinding noise, and then a series of electronic *pops*, and then more crashing, as James brought the prybar end of his makeshift weapon down again and again, until he was certain the thing wasn't ever getting back up.
"Oh hey." Anesh gasped out. "That's where the bigger orbs come from, huh?"
"Shit shit shit shit shit." James frantically repeated as he threw his backpack off and started digging through it.
Anesh woozily stood up, holding his left hand in front of him, cupped in its uninjured partner. "Wow, thisssss hurts... a lot more than ex.. ex.. exhpheted." He coughed, and spit a bit on the floor. "Ow."
"SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT." James threw their medkit on the desk, pulled Anesh by his arm into the chair, and started pulling out supplies. Medical tape, tongue depressors, painkillers, and gauze. He pressed a trio of high dose Ibuprofen into Anesh's hand. "Swallow these. I know we don't have water, but they're gels, so just swallow them anyway. Give me your other hand, don't move."
Anesh almost gagged a few times trying to swallow the pills, but eventually got them down. "Thaaaat doesn't feel better."
James ignored him, busy splinting Anesh's fingers, wrapping them in gauze. It was about that time that the stapler-crab that had been lurking behind the monitor on the desk chose as its moment to strike. The hellion lunged out, intent on inflicting damage to the fleshy hand going for the strip of tape near it.
Absolutely uninterested in playing that game right now, James grabbed it mid lunge with his right hand, not letting go of the splinted fingers he was holding with his left. Deftly flipping the switch that let the stapler swing freely, he raised his arm up, and slammed the tiny enemy into the desk three times, until a splash of black ichor sprayed out onto the floor and the leg of his pants. Then he flipped the unmoving shell into the pile of computer wreckage, and went back to trying to fix Anesh's hand.
Between gasps of breath, Anesh, trying to regain his composure through the throbbing pain of having his bones broken and his flesh bulging at odd angles, asked, "Where did you even learn how to do this?" As James put the finishing seal of tape on the temporary splint.
"I took a first aid class over the last couple weeks, in case one of us got hurt in here. You know we're allowed to learn things without skill orbs, man." He stood up, repacked the medkit, threw it, and also a pack of sticky notes off the desk and the dropped orbs into the backpack. "Okay, we gotta go. We need to get you to the hospital as soon as possible. Can you move? Let's go, come on."
His voice was shaking, he was worried, but Anesh wasn't. He wasn't mad at the injury. It was bound to happen eventually. But he trusted his friend. He stood up, kept his legs steady. "Okay. Let's go."
The two of them moved, steadily, but not running, down the new hall. Anesh pointed them in the right direction, and James took point. Up ahead, a T-intersection awaited them, with another of the vending machine and plant setups. James wasted no time; breaking into a sprint as soon as he made sure Anesh was okay. He slammed at full speed into the plant, slamming it to the ground; punched his gloved hand into the faux-ceramic pot, hitting it while keeping the plastic vines and fronds pinned with his feet. When he cratered it enough to rip chunks away and look inside he saw... nothing.
This one wasn't hostile. Or alive at all. Okay.
He walked back to Anesh. "Crisis averted. Let's go." And turned to keep moving.
Even in extreme pain, Anesh still had the presence of mind to mutter out, "my hero.."
They took a quick turn, but only because they saw another hallway that let them move in the right direction. And on down that hall they went. James took out two ambush staplers from the tops of the cube walls, on high alert and in no mood for their shit. Anesh was in just enough of a mood for this shit to stop to grab the orbs they dropped with his good hand.
Finally, finally, they spotted a landmark James recognized. "I know this place. I know this." He said out loud, speaking to himself.
Anesh didn't catch the tremor in his voice. "Oh, thank the stars. Get us out of here. I would like to hopsital now, yes."
"No. No, this isn't good. We need to find another way. Cut some tunnels around it." James said, starting to back up.
Anesh pushed a hand onto his back. "Why? What's up?" He looked past James, and saw the floor cut from hard office carpet, into smooth white linoleum tile. Ahead of them, a small maze of chairs and tables filled the room between a set of refrigerators and vending machines on one wall, and a counter with a sink on the other. A few scattered cardboard coffee cups sat around on some of the tables. "Oh, coffee. Is this a break room?"
"No no no. We've gotta go. We need to move, NOW." James was panicked now. Legitimately worried, and Anesh wasn't out of it enough to miss it this time.
He started looking around. "What's going on? What are you..." He stopped as he heard a cascading hissing noise. Jerking his head around, over the wall at the end of the hallway behind them, he saw what looked like a car-sized tangled mess of CAT-5 cables drag itself down the wall, and then down the hall. It didn't speed up, it didn't acknowledge them at all, but he had a sinking feeling in his gut, that this thing was a predator, and they were its chosen prey today. "Oh, fuck me running." He cut a quick look at James, fear pushing the pain away. "You said you haven't fought this thing, right? Anything I should know?"
"The coffee cups explode."
"I am so angry right now, you have no idea."
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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!