"This pencil has another 36,000 words in it!" James whispered excitedly.
The two of them were creeping along what felt like a secret tunnel. The cubicle walls here were so close together that they almost hadn't noticed it as they snuck out of their hiding hole, hoping to circle around past the tumblefeed before it caught up to them. The rough semi-carpet of the walls left a gap that was maybe a little less than a meter across; which meant that the two people in football pads, helmets, arm and leg guards, with weapons and medical kits strapped around their belts and bodies, and carrying travel packs, had a *bit* of a difficult time maneuvering through it.
"This binder is seven months old!" James said softly, trying to get Anesh's attention.
Anesh was taking point this time. He'd had to forfeit his claim on the next half dozen blue orbs to James in trade in order to convince him that they shouldn't go back down the other hallway to where the empty people were. James, for his part, wasn't actually super interested in getting into another fight while being chased by a bundle of angry power cables, but he was having fun playing with the iLipedes, and didn't exactly want to leave. The "compromise" that Anesh had hastily suggested, he'd accepted almost at once, and was only mildly offended that his friend thought he'd willingly rush a bunch of inhuman office drones unprepared.
"Anesh, this thing is so cool. You should get one and see if we can get a spectrometer app for it or something." He poked at his friend.
Up ahead, Anesh twitched with rage. "Why did you bring that? I hate those things, and we are enemies now." He said the last part flatly, not exactly angry, but certainly displeased. He'd been annoyed ever since his ploy to get James to move had sort of backfired, with his bug loving now-enemy grabbing one of the iLipedes on his backpack before shaking the others off, and declaring it his new pet.
James slid the iLipede, twitching copper pin legs facing out, into his pocket. "I'll tell you later. If it works, it'll be cool, and you'll be happy I grabbed one."
"I already know you're gonna try scanning one of the orbs. It's clever, but it feels like we're starting some kind of harem anime of office supplies around here now." Was the returned gripe as Anesh squeezed his way underneath a small arced feature jutting out of the wall at head height. "Personally, I was hoping for some kind of inherent ability to just know things, but then, you can't always get what you want."
"It's not that bad, is it?" James asked, legitimately concerned that their collection of mobile devices was a problem.
As Anesh stopped at the end of their little cramped path, blocked by an array of paperclip webs, he reached a hand back and said, "Bolt cutters please, assuming they're still non-sentient. Also no, it's not really a problem. It's just that you're way too excited about something that grosses me out, and also we're in dire peril, and yet, you keep talking about meaningless statistics, instead of, I don't know, trying to find us a way out of here?"
James sighed. "Look," he said, trying to diffuse the tension, "I don't know anything you don't, we both heard ourselves talking about what to do ten minutes ago." Ten minutes ago, they'd heard the slithering sound, so much like rain against metal, of a tumblefeed passing nearby. They'd decided then that holing up and hoping it went away was a bad plan.
So here they were, trying to keep the twists and turns of their path in mind, and hoping to recross their old path. Or, at least, find a place far enough away that seemed safe where they could hunker down for a bit and let Anesh deploy his drone friend to take a quick look around for them.
As Anesh clipped his way through the mass of clip-webs, James leaned against one of the cramped walls, trying to make enough space to feel like he could take a breath. Between the soreness in his legs from sprinting (an activity he didn't much care for normally), the pain of the cuts on his hand and arm, and his own short attention span, he found himself reaching into his pocket to start to pull out the phone creature, and maybe figure out if his arm guard had an estimated lifespan. It was due to this lack of focus that he didn't notice anything amiss until he heard Anesh scream, and a similar whining noise from the drone.
Snapping his view over to his friend and off of the half-arch protrusion from the wall that he'd been staring at, James saw a stapler, this one with legs made of gleaming gold-and-black pens, attempting to give his delving partner a new ear piercing. The little drone on the other shoulder fired up its rotors and flitted back, still screeching, perching on one of the small brick-shaped chunks that made for the perfect drone shelves on the wall near them. Letting go of the squirming phone in his pocket, he didn't even think as he lashed his hand out and grabbed the thing, jerking it off of Anesh.
This turned out to be a bad idea. The pens of its legs weren't sharp enough to do anything but futility scrabble on the armguard, but James hadn't really thought through *where* he'd grabbed it, and it drove a staple into the meat of his palm as it slammed itself back together on his hand, metal 'teeth' biting through the flesh that James had never found his lost glove to recover.
Gritting his teeth, he shifted his grip, metal tearing slightly large holes in his hand. He couldn't get enough room to slam it into the floor, his weapons were stuck in his belt and weren't really designed for fighting this thing anyway, he sure as hell wasn't tasering it while he held it, so he frantically looked around for some way to deal with it.
The waste of time got him stapled again, this time as it jerked slightly out of his grip and nicked him in the back of one of his fingers. Bleeding and furious, trying to not howl in pain, James grabbed the thing in both hands, and felt a strange burst of nostalgia for his first time in here, as he slowly pried the thing's 'jaw' apart. Black sticky ichor spilled out of it, along with a pile of staples. The slit eye on the front of the stapler panickedly flicking back and forth as James strained his arm muscles, ripping it in half.
As soon as it stopped moving, he plucked the skill orb out of the air where it spawned, and dropped the corpse. "My hand is really starting to hurt." He muttered to Anesh, who was looking at him with wide eyes.
No, he realized, not at him. Past him. He turned his head a bit, and saw with some apprehension another trio of the things crawling toward him, using the chunks of architecture sticking out of the walls to move at about head height.
"Get the damn web out of the way!" He snapped out, causing Anesh to jolt a bit and turn back to furiously snapping through chunks of paperclips. They weren't individually anything that could stop them, but they'd discovered earlier that they were hooked into the walls with something that seemed to defy physics. Not surprising, exactly, but also almost impossible to tear out quickly. So, just running through them wasn't going to be a good way to get anything except a thousand tiny stabs and the ends bent and punctured cloth and flesh.
Facing down the incoming threats, James noticed that they all seemed to be a little sleeker than the ones they'd seen before. Fancier pens for legs, a glossier black hull. They were still clearly staplers, but they had a bit more of an organic feeling to them, and he had a sinking feeling that they were going to be a little more flexible when it came to landing bites.
His hand dropped to his belt, but he already knew he didn't have enough room here to actually swing the hand axe in here. It was compact, but he could barely move his arms already. So, he unclipped the taser, flicking the switch on it and muttering a quick, "Man I hope this works.."
As soon as the first one got a little too close, he shuffled his feet forward in a half step and lashed out with the device. Thumbing the button, a pair of prongs popped out the end of the small metal box, and made contact with the hissing stapler. James thought he could almost feel the electrical charge transfer, but...
The stapler didn't even flinch. Instead, it dove forward, seeking out the exposed flesh of James' hand. He dropped the stun gun without even thinking about it and jerked his hand away, before darting back in to grab the stapler. Glancing back as he held it's 'mouth' shut like he was some kind of crocodile wrestler, he saw Anesh almost had a person sized hole cleared in the web. Only needing to buy a bit of time, he used what limited range of motion he had to fling the stapler-crab at the next nearest one that was encroaching on them, knocking it off its perch and sending both of them tumbling back in a metallic clatter.
"Okay, go!" He heard behind him, and he started moving backward down the tiny hall, just trying to outpace the things chasing him. He dragged himself past obstacles at a furious pace, knocking his elbows and ribs against chunks of cubicle wall that felt more like solid stone as he tried to get out and away from the now seven little demons swarming at them down the floor and walls.
And then he was free. A metal scraping noise burning his ears as his helmet went against the top of the webs, and then, he could move again. As soon as his arms were clear, he yanked his hand axe off his belt, continuing to backpedal.
To the side of the tiny tunnel, he saw Anesh was crouched. And as soon as the first stapler cleared the breach, Anesh wasted no time smashing down with his axe. The compact blade was durable enough, and Anesh put enough force behind it, that it caved in the top of the stapler right in the middle. A small spray of black liquid and a hissing screech that trailed off was the last thing James really got to focus on before the others poured out into the light.
The next few minutes were a series of moments to James. One of the first things that happened was that he'd been jumped from behind by a shellaxy, this one looking almost like an Apple product. The smooth white shell must have been attracted by the sounds, as the cubicle it came out of was right next to the cramped tunnel he and Anesh had just come out of. Propelled forward by what looked like a writhing mass of USB and Firewire cables, it had slammed into James at the back of his knees, and he'd toppled forward, head cracking against the ground with the helmet doing little to negate the concussive force.
He remembered kicking the thing hard enough to crack the plastic casing. He remembered Anesh calling his name as several of the staplers swarmed over his prone form. He had a memory that made him snicker when he recalled it, of Ganesh swooping down over him, the little drone latching onto one of the staplers trying to take out James' eyes, and lifting off carrying it, rotors screaming in protest as it hauled the weight away. He remembered hitting one repeatedly, until he'd shattered the chitinous outside and almost severed it in half. There were several flashes of himself and Anesh throwing stapler-crabs away to clear space to finish off others. And he distinctly remembered trying to convince Anesh that they should call them stapler-spiders, because of the webs, in the middle of nicking the blade of his axe hammering through the innards of the shellaxy.
And then the next thing he remembered was opening his eyes to a panicked looking Anesh shaking him. He was sitting on the floor, his back against one of the walls. Around them was the shattered remains of about two dozen hostile things, mostly stapler-crabs, though James also saw a second shellaxy corpse, and a crumpled pile of paper that he would have missed if not for the orb over it.
"My head kinda hurts." He droned out in a dull monotone voice. And Anesh sagged his shoulders in relief.
His friend had bandages on his cheeks, and was missing one of his arm guards, which James found off to the side in chunks of plastic. "Oh good, you're okay. Bloody hell, I was so worried." A deep breath, almost a shaky sigh. "You've got a bit of a concussion, I think. Can you see? One of your eyes is super bloody."
James nodded, and then regretted that a whole lot. "Yeah, I can see." He rasped. "Can I have some water?" He asked.
Anesh shook his head. "We went through that. All I've got is a couple 'drinks' from the vending machine. Want to try one, or has it not come to that yet?" James extended his hand and made a grabbing motion, and Anesh shrugged as he pulled one of the bottles out and gave it to his friend, opening the cap for him.
After a few gulps, James took the drink away from his lips with an "Aaaahhhhh." He rubbed at his head a bit, before looking around again, only just now starting to feel like he was awake. Or alive. "That's surprisingly good. Tastes like a salty mango."
"That's not an endorsement at all." Anesh said, trying not to grin wildly in relief. "Are you okay? I want to gather up the orbs and do a quick check before we move. And we do need to move."
"Yeah," James said, "I need to sit for a bit, but I can walk for now. Let's find a spot once you get those." He watched Anesh grabbing orbs for a while, before noticing something else. "Hey, why is my leg guard gone? And the bottom half of that pant leg? And what the fuck happened to my leg?"
Anesh came over and helped him to his feet, bag now packed with well over twenty skill orbs. "Okay, what do you remember?" He asked, helping James walk as he realized how much pain it took to put pressure on his injured leg. James described the fight from his perspective, but ran short of words at some point, and didn't have any details for his friend. "Ah, the shellaxy. I need a new name for the iPhone-looking ones. So, after you kicked it the first time it tried to bite you, I think it decided it wanted its food cooked. Turns out, those things have actual for-real lasers. Not Star Wars style, sadly, or I'd have cracked it open more carefully. But like one of those illegal laser pointer things. It had about five of them, and it just started slicing into you."
James bent down to rub at the burn lines on his lower leg, feeling the gel that Anesh had put on it. "No bandage for it?"
Anesh shook his head. "We ran out of the big ones. We need to get out of here, get you to an actual hospital."
"Okay." James said. "One step at a time. Let's get moving again. Is there any good news I missed while blacked out? Did Ganesh spot anything?"
“No,” Anesh said, “though here’s something we didn’t know; he ate one of the skill orbs from the stapler he killed. We should maybe be feeding Rufus. I don’t know where he’s getting the ones he brings you.”
James staggered down the hall, looking around for a cubicle that looked safest. “I was more hoping for good news. Like, extra loot. Not having to give up some of mine.”
“The shellaxy dropped a green one, if that makes you feel better?” Anesh asked with a sideways glance at his friend as they checked an intersection.
James thought for a second, then nodded. “Yeah, yeah, it does.”
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!