The two of them were sitting in a cubicle a little ways away from their battleground. Anesh was trying to repackage their medical bags into one single bag that was slightly more complete. They'd gone through their big bandages on James' hand and arm, and another large cut on Anesh's arm. Their smaller band-aids, they'd used a ton of on face cuts, with Anesh having to discard several of them when shaky hands soaked them in blood and ruined the adhesive. So, he was spreading stuff out, discarding garbage and things they'd brought too much of, and muttering about how they'd screwed up their choices.
When James got bored with nursing his hand and watched Anesh throwing piles of wrappers and empty gel packs onto the floor, he started digging out and sorting the various orbs they'd both shoved into their bags over the last few hours. The green one in particular was his target, just to see what they'd gotten, and when he found it, he was a bit disappointed to see that it was only about two thirds the size of the first one.
As for the rest, well, after Anesh emptied his pockets to add to the collection, they had eighteen of the smallest skills, along with five more mid sized ones, three tiny blue spheres, and the single bright emerald one that seemed to overshadow the others with its glow.
"This is a pretty good haul." James nodded in approval. Ganesh had come over to poke at the skill orbs with him, and James had started playing fetch with him by rolling one of the small ones away while they waited for the drone's master to finish up. "Hey! Do you mind if I test something with these?" He called over to Anesh, still muttering furiously while rearranging bags.
"Go ahead, do your experiments. We've got test subjects now, after all." Anesh said. He sounded a bit gruff, but James was pretty sure he was just exhausted, and that was affecting his voice a little. So he shrugged, and went ahead with his plan.
James pulled the iLipede out of his pocket, ignoring it's fresh set of squirms in his hand. Setting it on the table, he gently held it down while poking at its back, and firing up the statistics app. Unable to resist having a little fun before serious testing, he pulled off the glove he still had, and put the phone bug on top of it.
A few seconds of the iLipede prodding with its microchip legs later, and a notification popped up on its face. "Fabrics contained : Nylon, Polyester. Product rating : 4.8/5. Blood Loss Prevented : 32 ml."
"That's a distressing amount of blood loss." James muttered. "What did I do, grab barbed wire while I wasn't paying attention?" He pulled the glove back on, pulling it away from Ganesh, who was now poking at the article of clothing. "Well, anyway, good job little guy. Now, I've got something a little more important for ya."
He took one of the tiny, fingernail sized skill orbs, and set it in a clear spot of the desk, right in front of the iLipede. It took a couple pokes to motivate the thing to move forward and latch onto the tiny little golden sphere, but eventually, James got it to do so. As soon as it was situated atop the skill orb, the screen on it's back changed almost instantly.
To a loading bar.
"One percent done. Estimated time to completion, seventy four minutes. Huh. Well ain't that some shit." James said, half disappointed that he didn't have an identify scroll on a stick. Of course, the other half of him was pretty excited to see if this was going to work at all.
His imagination jumped to keeping a pen of these things near the entrance, a dozen or so little iLipedes in a nice nest of Firewire cables, constantly working toward his own personal goals, tirelessly scanning things for him, making his life incrementally easier in exchange for no reward...
James did a quick check of his own internal TvTropes page, just to make sure he wasn't actually the bad guy here. "Hey Anesh!" He called across the cubicle. "Are you okay if maybe we don't do some kind of crazy explotitaive iLipede farm? I'm kinda iffy on the whole 'starting a labor camp' thing, even if they are probably just animal-level intelligence."
"What the hell are you banging on about?" Anesh asked as he zipped up the now-organized bags. "Wait, more of those things? No. No more, thanks."
James nodded, and gave the one he had a little pat. "Glad you agreed. Hey, before we go, do you want to use up some of these smaller ones? I don't really like the feeling of a bunch of slippery balls in my bag."
"...No, I'm sure you don't." Anesh said after a long, deliberate pause of him staring at James. The two of them maintained neutral expressions at each other for only a couple seconds before they burst out laughing. "But yeah, these things are a bloody pain in the ass to sort in an organized way. May as well go through some of the small ones. Let's say, five each? That way you can satisfy your addiction, and I can pretend that I'm not doing the same thing under the guise of some kind of backpack organization obsession."
"Deal." James said. He plucked up the top five of the pile up. "Okay, this feels strangely satisfying." He commented as he held up his hand, brimming with skill orbs, and slowly made it into a fist, popping them one by one.
[+1 Skill Rank : Math - Algebra]
[+1 Skill Rank : Filmmaking - Camera Angles]
[+1 Skill Rank : History - Comics - Silver Age]
[+1 Skill Rank : Cooking - Knife Technique]
[+1 Skill Rank : Jeet Kun Do]
So, two things he already knew, one thing that would only be useful if he took up that career as a YouTuber, one thing that actually got him a step closer to his dream of not having to order take-out every night, and one that brought him one step closer to a completely different dream of *being Bruce fucking Lee*.
While James sat there rubbing his hands together, a wide, manic grin on his face, Anesh reached over and picked up a few of the orbs for himself. Unlike his friend, he didn't just scoop up a handful, but spent some time rolling through them, picking out very specific ones.
"What're you doing?" James asked.
Anesh looked up from making his choices. "Looking for ones that speak to me."
"No, that would be insa.... hm. Okay, maybe that would be normal around here. But no." Anesh responded. "Just trying to see if any of them, you know, resonate. Maybe I can find one that feels familiar, and it'll give me more calculus knowledge."
James looked a little sheepish . "Oh, I got an algebra one. Shoulda let you pick first, I guess, if you were going to be discerning. Sorry friend." Anesh just waved him away, not worried about it now, and went back to choosing his own. After a couple minutes, he made his final choices, and snapped them off one by one. "Do I get to know what you got?" James asked.
Anesh just threw James' repackaged bag back onto his lap while pulling out his own, actual, phone. "Poetry, French, and three different wilderness survival things. Ganesh, you up for a little flyover?" The drone hummed in agreement, rotors firing up as the little device launched itself up into the air; it pushed backward at first before snapping its front 'arms' back into a flat position, and then it pulled up through one of the holes in the overhanging walls that formed the ceiling. "James, you good to keep watch while we look for one of our signposts?"
"Yeah, I'm okay. My head still hurts like hell, but I can deal with any of the small stuff easy." James said. "Three survival things? That's kind of weirdly consistent."
Anesh shook his head, "I'm clumping them together. They're a bit more varied than you think. I know a little more than I want about varieties of snakes now." He made a gesture to the door. "Go make sure we aren't about to get ambushed."
"Oh, come on," James said as he peeked out of the curtain. "If the tumblefeed didn't hear us from that fight and the screaming - I assume there was screaming?" He raised his eyebrows at Anesh, who nodded, "Right, if the screaming didn't summon it, we should be okay. But yes, I shall be your valiant protector." He leaned on the wall as a burst of dizziness hit him. "Assuming I can stand upright.." he muttered under his breath.
James watched Ganesh flit away down the hall while behind him his friend watched his phone screen and tried to sketch a rough map of the surroundings. For his part, he just kept an eye out on the hallway, and tried not to fall over.
To distract himself, he started rifling through the filing cabinet near the door, pulling out files and trying to read them to himself while he waited. He gave up on the top drawer after getting halfway through a report on office heat use that, he took too long to realize, didn't use any verbs. Moving onto the second drawer after listening to make sure nothing was coming, he was thrilled to find a brown paper bag nestled in there with a purse and what looked like a medication bottle.
"Score, lunch!" James said to himself as he opened up the bag, finding a wrapped sandwich and banana. "Hey Anesh, check it out. This... actually smells like my high school lunch period. Is 'unrelenting nostalgia' an enchanted property? Can I eat this sandwich to get a blue orb?" The only response from his friend was a grunt as he stayed absorbed in his scouting procedure. "Fine, fine. Oh hey, candy! Chocolate Chocolates. Hey, want to bet this contains no chocolate?" Again, no response. James just huffed to himself, and just pocketed the money and headphones out of the purse.
It was because of this that he didn't really notice the noise of something moving until it was a little closer than comfortable. James peeked out the door just as the shuffling noise stopped, and he looked around in confusion. It took him a second before realizing what had happened. The hallway, previously devoid of any features, now had a giant, bulky box of a copy machine sitting just across from the door to their cubicle. "Hey Anesh..." He started to say in a whisper, but was cut off as Anesh, not knowing what was going on, jumped up with a victorious shout.
"Found one of our signs! We can get outta here!" Anesh called over. And a second later, his face turned to one of panic as a series of whirrs and beeps sounded from hall outside.
James threw his backpack on, and snapped up his axe. "More bullshit. come on, we gotta go. Get Ganesh back here." Anesh nodded and tapped at his phone screen before shoving it in his pocket.
"What this time?" He asked.
James strapped the one reorganized medkit onto his belt. "Copier. Let's hope it's not literal. Come on, before it blocks us in here."
The two of them steeled themselves, and then rushed the door. Anesh went first, less weighed down, and James followed hot on his heels. They burst out into the hallway, and Anesh moved to take a hard right, ducking under something by reflex.
Behind him, James took the hit from the blast of ink that Anesh dodged right in the face, and yelped in pain as he lost his balance. The copier shifted in front of him as he fell forward, and when he reached out to brace his fall, what he actually caught himself on was the flat glass pane of the machine's scanner with both hands. There was a flash of light that James only barely saw as he wiped ink out of his eye, and then he was up and running again.
The copier made no move to chase, and after a couple hundred feet of running, the two of them slowed, and glanced back.
It sat there in the middle of the hall. James could hear it from this far away; it was whirring and making the soft chuffing of paper that all copiers made as they pumped out duplicates. But it also wasn't chasing them. He supposed it would be difficult for something that large to move fast, especially with no visible legs. It was just as he was about to poke Anesh and tell him they could take it easy with the sprinting, that he saw the first copy come out.
It was a hand.
It ended with about four inches of arm behind it, though no blood dripped from the opening. It was a kind of pasty white color, and it had long slender fingers. Keyboard fingers, James always called them. He knew those fingers pretty well, considering they were his. And the copy was not, as he had desperately hoped, a piece of paper. It was a full chunk of flesh, as if it had been run off a 3D printer and not a regular one.
A couple seconds later, and next to the hand dropped out another limb from the slot. This one a mirror to the first, but holding the haft of a short hand axe in a closed fist. James couldn't tell from here if it was all one single object, or if the axe itself was a separate part of the whole object.
But either way, fuck everything about that. He shoved Anesh forward, yelling something about getting them out of here, and his friend obliged with minimal swearing. Both of them had probably yelled something obscene when they saw the first copy drop, but they tried to contain their profanity for now, both to save breath, and to not attract any *more* attention. They could stockpile all the swearing and use it later when they talked about this nightmare over coffee.
James had a feeling he was going to ask Anesh to make a lot more thermite for them.
Right now, though, they just ran. Beige walls and paper vines flashed by as they beat feet. Anesh, seemingly from memory, took them around two corners that James thought might as well have been random. But somewhere along the line, Ganesh buzzed down from overhead and did a hard landing against Anesh's pack, so they must be close to on the right track.
And then, up ahead, a pink sticky note with an arrow on it, at about head height on a corner. Their signpost, their way out. Just one more right turn, and they were back on the correct path. They could take it easy, make it out safe, and not worry about whatever was chasing them.
James made the mistake of looking behind them, and seeing about ten sets of his own hands crawling after them across the walls.
He almost screamed; "I am sick of everything in here looking like fucking spiders!" He gasped out between breaths to Anesh.
Anesh didn't even say anything. He just grabbed James' arm and yanked him to a stop. James almost came crashing down, but managed to keep his balance. He was about to give a shout of panic, tell his friend they needed to move, to *run*, but then he saw what Anesh had seen.
Above the archway of the intersection, perched on one of the overhanging walls where it transformed into a ceiling, watching the water cooler and vending machine that they'd seen what seemed like a month ago, was a tumblefeed. It wasn't camouflaged, but it was out of eyesight to anyone not paying attention to "up" as well as everything else. If James had just walked forward, he'd be dead now.
Behind them, there was a trio of beeps and another whirr. A copier rolled itself into position at the end of the hall. A legion of false hands lurched forward.
In front of them, there was a series of thuds as the coiled limbs of the tumblefeed impacted the floor. It's single red LED trained on the pair.
There were four cubicles around them, but nowhere to hide.
James looked forward, Anesh looked back. They stood there, trapped between two monsters, weapons ready, but their hearts and minds were totally unprepared.
"Okay," James said, "okay... let's everyone just... calm down..."
He didn't get any farther than that before both sides charged them.
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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!