It was Friday. Which, to Anesh, meant that it was his Friday, while to James, it was merely Thursday. He jogged up the stairs to their shared home, relieved to be done with classes for the week. The commute into the city to actually get to his college was exhausting, especially since he adamantly refused to drive into that web of furious drivers and one-way streets. Public transit was just easier, even if it required more walking. Classes, too, were exhausting. Though this last week, at least one 400-level math class was almost *too* easy.
The boost from that one skill orb was worth everything. The broken hand, which he still didn't blame James for. The dozen cuts and scrapes and bruises. The lingering stinging soreness in his legs from all the running without proper stretching. The stupid fucking bug phone that James had brought home and still creeped Anesh out. All of it was worth it, and he'd forgive his friend for anything for giving him the chance to bootstrap his knowledge forward a year or two.
"Oh hey, Anesh, you're home!" He was greeted as he came through.
"James, *why*. We talked about this!" The first thing out of Anesh's mouth when he walked in the front door of their second story apartment was a statement of frustrated disbelief. His admiring musings snapped in half by what his roommate was doing.
Their living room, with it's horseshoe of couches and armchairs focused around a big wooden dining table, was currently occupied by James. James, two cups of coffee, a laptop, Lilly the iLipede, and a USB cable. And it was the combination of those last three things that had instantly caught Anesh's attention, and was the focus of his ire.
James looked up, his eyes practically glowing with excitement. He spoke in a rapid pace, tone excited and happy. "Okay, look, I know you said not to do this, but I disconnected the laptop from the internet so it should be fine. I've been trying to copy apps off of Lilly so I can maybe start making non-sentient scanners for things, because it'd be super cool to have a phone that isn't alive but can tell me how many cows went into the burger I'm eating. Also I've been testing out the coffee today, and a lot of it or at least a few drinks don't do anything, but I found one that I think makes us make logical deductions, or maybe that's just what caffeine does. And I wanted to see if it would still work if it sat for a while, because we would want to take thermoses of it into the dungeon, and not take the entire coffee maker back, and it totally does! The only thing is that you have to drink kind of a bunch of it for it to work like half a cup or something and only one drink works at a time. Like, any drink. If you drink water, it cancels out the buff. I don't know why, but we can work around it. How was class?" He broke off suddenly with the question, staring wide eyed at Anesh.
The response he got was, at first, just a silent, blank look. It took Anesh a second to audibly clear his throat, and say, "Okay, first of all, breathe. Deep breath. There ya go." Anesh himself reflexively sighed as he saw James inhale deeply, pinching the bridge of his nose as he did so. "So, you plugged it in."
"Yup." James confirmed.
"And then you downloaded stuff off of it, despite us explicitly talking about how that was a bad idea."
"Yup!" James nodded in affirmation.
Anesh dropped his backpack, his actual backpack this time, onto one of the chairs. "You know what? Fine. Did it work?"
"No!" James said with a disturbing amount of excitement.
There was another long pause, with James grinning, barely able to stop himself from bouncing in his seat, and Anesh just silently judging him. "Sure. So, why're you still here? Skipping work today?"
His friend deflated a bit as his defiance went unnoticed, some of the wind taken out of his sails. "Oh. There was something about training new people tomorrow morning, so I'm going in and staying late. We still planning on Tuesday?"
Anesh threw himself into the chair next to his bag. "I think so. I'm just going to take the weekend to relax and heal a bit. Are you sure your leg is okay? You were a lot more fucked up than I was."
James nodded, even though he didn't really mean it. His leg hurt like hell, but the burn gel he'd kept on it was helping the angry red patches heal up more or less okay. So far, it hadn't stopped him from also going to the gym every other night, a fact which he was hoping to keep from Anesh. He didn't want his friend thinking he was pushing himself too far and calling off their delve this week. "Yeah, I'll be fine. I think that, especially with the coffee as a buff, we can probably just take the day as a mass loot session. Sweep the outer area, amass some cash, and maybe a few orbs."
"Are you sure there's no downside to the coffee?" Anesh asked probingly. He didn't fully believe that James had done rigorous testing on the liquid, especially not in just the time that he'd been at class.
The answer was, of course, ambiguous. "Well, I mean, I felt slower when it wore off. But of course I did, right? I wasn't moving at super speed anymore. I'm sure you got the same. But no other side effects. Anyway, I want to get the money for a couple bikes that we can take in. It seems like damage gets repaired, but not redecorating, right? So I wanna do that thing where we make a path through, so we can just skip to the deeper areas without worrying about a thousand twists and turns."
Anesh nodded. "Good plan, though how are we supposed to take bikes into your building, and then not take them back out? We already got a weird look from your night security guy when we lugged the coffee machine out."
"Ah, but he didn't stop us!" James said smiling and waving a finger in the air. "Because he doesn't care!" He concluded.
Fundamentally, James knew that the heart of his business was rooted firmly in the idea that employees should show up, half-ass their jobs, and go home vaguely unsatisfied with their lives. It helped keep costs down, or something like that, but it also meant that no one really cared to be there. Even the security staff always felt like they were suffering fools when they checked badges and did patrols. As if they were well aware of the fact that they didn't really need to do any of it, because there wasn't anything worth stealing in the first place.
So, when he and Anesh had just strolled past Frank, the one guy on duty at the front desk at 4 AM, the man had looked up, said goodnight, and given not a single fuck about the expensive coffee machine they were in the process of walking off with.
"I believe you." Anesh said. "Really, actually. Which sort of scares me, if I'm being honest. Your building needs better security protocols." James just started frantically shaking his head. If the building upgraded security, that was a bit of a problem for both of them. "Ah, right." Anesh said, brain catching up. "Well, regardless of all that, can you please unplug the iLipede? I know you said it didn't work, but I don't want to accidentally proliferate any of the stuff from the Office out into reality, and this seems like one missed keystroke away from doing just that."
James sighed as he popped the USB cable out. "I don't get that, really. I mean, even if I did accidentally upload a torrent file of an arcane scanning app that didn't follow the laws of physics..." He trailed off, looking down at the array on the table before glancing back at Anesh. "Okay, that sounds bad when I say it out loud. But even if that did happen, what's the worst case scenario? Everyone gets an amusing app? The police can solve murders a hell of a lot better?"
"I don't know, James, that's sort of the point." Came the strained answer. "We don't actually know what the purpose or function of these things is. I mean, come on, you're the nerd that introduced me to the SCP Foundation. I'd think you'd understand the importance of not spreading this around."
"The Foundation are the bad guys, though."
"That's subjective. But it doesn't really matter." Anesh said, smirking at their side banter. "We're two twenty-somethings with minimal resources. Even if, like you said, it made police investigations easier, that's not really our responsibility to do. We can't prevent abuse of it, so it would be irresponsible to try to improve the whole world."
James rolled off the couch, closing the laptop as we did so. "Stay here, Lilly. Just gotta get ready for work." He walked off to his room, calling back to Anesh who was now staring at the iLipede on the table with suspicion. It wasn't tethered to the laptop now, and he constantly felt like it was eying him with its camera. "You remember how we wanted to try to get Alanna in on this?"
Anesh yelled back, keeping his eyes on the phone bug. "Yeah, sure. She'd probably love this. Also she owns weapons and works out more than either of us."
"Right," James came back out pulling on the singular polo shirt in his wardrobe. "But you do realize that if you make that argument at her, she's going to yell at us for a few hours about the utopia fallacy?"
Anesh looked like he was about to say something, then cut himself off. Words hung unsaid in the air. "Right." He finally decided on. "She's going to be pissed. Hm."
"Yeah, see?" James said as he laced up his boots. "You can talk about civic responsibility all you want, but as soon as she finds out, and she *will find out*, she's going to be furious with us for not trying to do more to help the world with this."
"It's not that exploitable on a large scale!" Anesh threw up his hands in the air. "I've checked! Also, why are you so sure she's going to find out?" He asked as James grabbed his coat and opened the door.
James just chuckled. "Because we're both garbage-ass at keeping secrets, and you know it. I'm off to work, I'll see you later. Take care of Lilly!"
"No, wait..!" And then the door was closed behind him, and Anesh slowly turned, avoiding sudden movements, to see the iLipede on the table, staring at him. "Fuck..."
James wasn't sure if he'd arrived late, or early, given his weird schedule for today. He wasn't super concerned about it though. No matter what happened, he didn't think he could get in trouble today, what with how his floor manager was supposed to be training new people, and not focusing on when he was or wasn't showing up.
He'd just clocked in and sat down at his desk, about to set up his headset and start taking calls (or pretending to take calls), when that same floor manager walked up to his shared cubicle. "James, please see me in my office." She said, before turning and walking away.
Weeeeeeeellll shit. So much for that theory.
He got up from the small fortress of office chairs he'd built to serve as a makeshift couch. One of the benefits of working nights when he was one of three people who hadn't quit was that he got to mess around with furniture pretty much at will. The reverse of that was that when his boss did show up, he looked unprofessional, and was also trapped by chairs.
After maneuvering out of his walls, he headed through the empty cubicle space for her office. The call center was always pretty dead around this time of night, but with the number of people who'd quit lately, it was a ghost town. He saw exactly one person on his walk through the floor, and that was just a brief glimpse of their back as they turned a corner.
If he hadn't known better, he would have been able to mistake this place for a slightly-better-color-pallette version of the dungeon.
He found it weird that he could be so nervous. He'd literally faced death multiple times a few days ago. But now, here he was, walking slowly to put off a meeting with his manager. But, sadly, this floor wasn't an infinite dungeon, and in short order he found himself at her office door. He knocked once, heard a summons from inside, and went in.
"James. Have a seat." She gestured to the lone, uncomfortable chair on the door side of her desk.
Theo, well, Theodora, was a fairly unimposing figure as a manager. She wasn't the kind of person, as far as James knew, who wore power suits or kept her hair in a tight bun. Instead, her order of business was keeping her brown hair in a short pixie cut that would have looked unprofessional if it was a couple decades ago, and the same style of button up that pretty much every tech support person in the office wore. Though she was either exercising her manager powers to defy dress code, or just getting in a small defiance of head office, by having hers be a raucous plaid pattern.
She also hated makeup. James knew this mostly because he'd had coworkers making some pretty shitty comments about her imperfect face, and he had to admit, he'd been tempted to join in sometimes. She wasn't the best boss. But then, she'd also been one of those people promoted above her level of skill, and James could easily recognize how he could have ended up in the same position.
He was also pretty sure that she played casual rugby in her downtime, and he had absolutely no desire to piss off someone who could snap him in half.
He took in her office in a half second, mostly because there was nothing there to talk about. No pictures or decorations, just a flat desk and blank walls.
She cleared her throat. "I suppose you're wondering why I've called you here."
James stopped himself before he could make some wiseass remark about her confessing to secretly being an alien. "No?" He settled on.
"Well, there's a couple of things. First of all, I'd like to give you a warning that there might be some layoffs coming." She said that in the most bitter, mocking voice he'd ever heard from his boss.
James struggled to keep from snapping, his face contorting into a half-scowl against his will. "Why?" He finally said, his anger getting past his desire to not annoy anyone who could fire him. "Why the hell? We're already short on people, why are you firing more?"
If Theo was offended by his comment, she didn't show it. Her response made James think she was just as angry as he was. "The company has been losing contracts, and upper management isn't doing anything to fix it. So we can't afford people, but we can't cover the contracts we have."
"So we need to fire more people and tell everyone else to work harder?" He growled out.
Theo steepled her fingers and leaned forward on her desk. "Pretty much. Now, here's the other thing. You're a pretty good employee. You go through a lot of calls effectively, even though you spend twenty minutes at the start of every day doing nothing." James wanted to object, but she seemed to already be onto him, so he decided against it. "But I'm supposed to look at firing you first, because our security guy told another manager that you stole a coffee machine."
"I didn't..." James was going to defend his honor. And also his job, which was less important to him. But he was cut off again.
She nodded as he started to speak, and then overrode him. "I know you didn't. Well, I know there's no coffee machines missing from the building. The problem is, you and your friend are on security camera walking out with a coffee machine. So, where'd it come from?"
And there was the sixty four thousand dollar question. The one thing James couldn't actually manage to say the true words about. Because, of course, it came from the dungeon. It came from outside reality. It wasn't from Earth, or if it was, it had been changed into something else, and it was his (well, Anesh's) by right of victory.
But his mouth wouldn't let him say those words anymore. He was locked into lying, or saying nothing. And now, for the first time, he found himself furious with the dungeon itself.
So, he just shrugged, and lied as best he could. It wasn't like he hadn't planned for this moment in his head. "It was just in the stairwell" Technically true, in a weird way. "It was advertised as free, so we took it home." Also technically true. Everything in the dungeon was 'advertised' as free, in that nothing stopped them from taking stuff.
His boss just gave him an appraising look, before looking down at her computer. "When do you get off, James?"
Again he had to avoid wisecracking. "3AM, usually I'm around until 330 finishing up calls. Why?"
"Just checking something." He watched her tap away at her computer, and noticed as she turned her head in that direction that there was a long, angry red scab on the side of her neck. The hardened blood mark ran down from just under her ear to just past her jawline.
James pointed at her wound, and asked trying to deflect away from her judging him, "That looks pretty bad, are you okay? What happened?"
"Hm?" Her hand went up to her injury. "Oh, a sports thing. You wouldn't understand." Ouch. That stung a bit; James wasn't *that* ignorant of rugby, and he knew she played. She did a bit more typing, and then looked back up. "Okay, look. I'm going to try to keep you around." James breathed a sigh of relief. "But just one thing first. Have you heard anything around here?"
He cocked his head to the side, thinking. "Wait, like, rumors?"
"Anything." Was all she said, staring at him.
He thought over what he heard over the course of the day. Most of the time he spent with his headset on, so he didn't get a lot of sound coverage of the office. "Nothing, really, I guess? The air conditioner gets weirdly loud at the same time every day, which is annoying, but not bad. Oh, and I think Other Luis is thinking of quitting. He's mad about management denying him a shift change. But that's all?"
"Nothing else at all?" She asked, leaning forward a bit.
James wasn't sure why, but he felt like a rabbit facing down a wolf all of a sudden. He wasn't being tested, he was being hunted; or at least Theodora was hunting for some piece of knowledge she seemed to think he had. "No, no, nothing else. I mean, I don't talk to anyone enough to get the gossip, you know that."
Theodora nodded a bit, though her expression looked disappointed. "Well, thank you for your time, and for explaining the coffee maker. Not sure who left it there, but there's too many holes in the security cameras anyway." She muttered the last bit offhandedly, perhaps James wasn't supposed to hear that. "You can go back to work now." She gestured him out of her office.
And he was happy to oblige, practically running back to his desk. He'd never liked the feeling of pressure of being in a bosses office.
*I think my boss might be a good dungeon candidate*, was the message James sent to Anesh midway through his shift. There was a moment of downtime, and in between calls, there was only so much that James could get done aside from staring at the ceiling tiles as he spun around in his chair.
*Why dat* Came Anesh's poorly formatted reply.
James scowled at his phone as he read his friend's minimalist approach to communication. *She plays high impact sports, so she's used to getting hurt. She's in our age bracket, which is nice, or it would be weird. And she just has a kind of combat ready attitude.*
*You at your desk?* Anesh's message came back. James growled out loud at the ping from his phone, as his internal text editor flagged half of his friend's message.
*Yes, I 'at my desk'. Stop typing like you don't speak better English than I do.* He sent.
At that point, his headset went off, and he had to take a call. After resolving an actual technical problem, which was a rarity for him, he turned back to his cell phone with a satisfied feeling to see a series of messages. *Your boss can probs see your screen* *Don't talk bout OD on text there* *too risk*
Well, at least for one of them, Anesh tried. That was good enough, James thought, as he typed out and sent back a *No, I'm on my phone. Though that would have been a good way to tell someone if I hadn't thought of it. Now I don't feel like I even can, what with the weird mind control bullshit.*
*Oh. Oops.* Was the text that almost made James facepalm. Trust Anesh to use punctuation on his phone only when he was admitting to guilt. Ah well, that was the problem, wasn't it? James wouldn't be able to bring anyone in, unless he was doing it more or less by accident. Maybe just start shopping online for an armory upgrade while at work, or get really careless with leaving skill orbs out in the open. Would that work?
They hadn't really tested the limits of the mental coercion. It certainly felt like he couldn't just tell anyone, or let anyone he knew was watching know. But James was pretty sure that if he, for example, left Lilly lying around his house, and then his friends came over, that he wouldn't be forced to hide her. Probably.
It was honestly quite confusing. He almost felt like he had a second set of thoughts in his head, and he didn't really like it. Hell, that was an understatement; he fucking hated it. It was awful. It really was the one major downside to this. Being physically hurt, he knew he could heal through, if he lived. But this? Humans didn't have defenses for this.
Or maybe they did. Maybe he should take up meditation or something. James leaned back into his desk as another call came in, but not before opening up a browser tab to look into local classes on that.
The workday kept going, on and on. It was only a half day, but it still felt like a lifetime to James, especially once a wave of exhaustion from lack of sleep kicked in. He'd been waking up early to go to the gym and take martial arts classes, which felt great, but left him bone weary at work.
It really didn't help that for some reason, Friday nights were always dead. So in addition to being stuck at work and nearly asleep, he was also bored out of his mind. He spent most of his time browsing around the internet, but his company locked almost everything out, so his options were limited. Really, James was at a point in his life where he felt like he relied on the internet for entertainment, but couldn't actually tell you what he did with it beyond read webcomics.
He did find out that his company had a fairly extensive employee reimbursement program for education. He wasn't really interested in going to college again, but they also inexplicably paid for classes from the local parks and rec district, and that was a pretty extensive catalogue.
The business James worked for honestly confused him sometimes. They were nominally a call center, but he was also aware that sometimes people got transferred to all sorts of bizarre projects. He and Anesh had talked once about how it was probably a front company, designed to move money around without actually accomplishing anything of value. Anesh disagreed with that, instead positing that the whole thing was just a grand experiment in how far a company could push employees before they started asking questions.
And yet, this organization that was apparently throwing away its biggest customers and paid its workers as little as possible, would also pay for elective education.
Well, James wasn't going to question it. So, the experiment could continue, he thought, as he signed up for a course on guided meditation. And then another one-off class on mediterranean cooking. That one was just for him.
He kept spinning in his chair for a while, whittling away the time. He almost fell off when he got surprised by 2:30. 2:30 AM was the time, every other day, when the air conditioner in the ceiling about his desk stopped working. Loudly.
The grinding *chunk* noise was usually something he anticipated, but he'd more or less zoned out, and the sudden sound was enough to almost make him jump out of his skin. He stared at the ceiling tiles for a while, before shrugging to himself. No one was around, and he didn't have any work to do, *and* he was curious. It was a dangerous combination at the best of times, and even worse now that James was bored.
Setting his headset aside, he got up and started stretching, just looking around and seeing if there was anyone nearby. Theo was still in her office, and the only other coworker who was here tonight that was within eyeshot was at their desk, on a call, and around a corner that James could only see from one specific spot near his cubicle.
So, he climbed up onto his desk.
The air conditioner had been an ongoing problem for him. It was always too loud, and it failed on a basis so regular he could set his watch to it. Old James had complained to building maintenance about it, and they'd never done anything. New James knew a little more about mechanics than he'd ever actually learned in his life.
So it seemed like the perfect solution for him to just open up one of the ceiling tiles, crawl over to the unit, and see if he could fix the ongoing problem. Assuming no one noticed him up on his desk peeking into the ceiling space.
Standing on his work platform, James crouched low, peeking one more time over the walls to check for anyone approaching before rising up and reaching up to the ceiling. Moving his hands up to push up one of the tiles, he suddenly got a strange feeling, and froze.
He narrowed his eyes as he pushed his hands against the tile above him, trying to tune out the hum of fluorescent light to his left. He put his hands flat against the ceiling, but didn't lift it up. Instead, he just focused on the feeling. And a second later, his eyes widened as he felt rapid tapping on the other side of the tile, moving farther down the ceiling.
"I should probably let Theo know that there's a raccoon or something living in our ceiling." He muttered, already having decided that he was not going to let her know if he had even a chance that he could add a raccoon friend to his growing list of "animal" companions. Standing up on the tips of his toes, he pushed upward and moved the tile to the side, laying it down in the ceiling compartment. Grabbing at the edge of the ceiling frame, he pulled himself up a bit, just enough so he could see into the dark space.
A second later, he got his phone out and brought it up to turn on the flashlight. He could hear the tapping now, soft and inconsistent, but still nearby. He rotated around and swung the light to try to get a good view. There was the air conditioner fan unit. Looked like it had the whole side panel removed, and he could see a little whisp of smoke in the air near it. That was almost certainly an engine problem, and James bet he could fix that. But first, more importantly, finding a raccoon.
He kept turning, and then, he spotted it.
Except, as he should have expected by now, it wasn't anything as cool as a raccoon. There, off to the left of the AC vent, was a stapler. It wasn't a very fancy one, just a simple plastic-shelled model, fairly small and frail looking. The octet of mechanical pencils underneath it, methodically propelling it forward, making a soft tapping noise as it moved.
James almost screamed, but instead froze and kept himself from panicking. The stapler crab, caught in his flashlight, also froze. The two of them sat there for some time, before James lowered the light a little bit. The stapler backed up, inch by inch, taking each step very deliberately, as if trying intentionally not to spook James. James, for his part, was trying to decide if he should lunge for the potentially hostile target, or just let it go. It hadn't manically attacked him, so maybe this one was more like Rufus. He'd told Anesh before; he didn't need or want to just slaughter everything in his path.
Decision made, he nodded a bit at the stapler-crab, and let it go. It backed away slowly at first, before deciding it was out of his reach, and scrabbling off. James watched as it crawled into the HVAC vent, and dropped down. He dropped from his perch in the ceiling, to see... nothing. Just the normal office he worked in. Nothing weird at all. Pulling himself back up, he tried to see where the stapler had gone, and couldn't really tell. It looked, as he got a better angle with his light, like the bottom of the fan casing simply wasn't there, and instead dropped into somewhere else.
"Ah, fuck." He muttered.
This was either really bad, or really good, and he couldn't tell which one. Crawling down from the ceiling, James replaced the panel, and casually dropped back into his desk chair. He took a minute to wipe off the boot prints he'd left on his desk before anyone could come by and ask him why he'd been walking up there. A quick check showed him that he'd missed exactly zero calls.
Above him, he heard the air conditioner fire up again. He checked the time. 2:39 AM. He wondered about the maintenance report he'd have to file to get this fixed. "Part of HVAC system is temporarily a time dilating wormhole. Please fix. Not urgent"?
James sighed. For all that his job was turning more and more into something bizarre and amazing, he still found that, dungeon or no, the night shift was boring as hell.
He went back to spinning in his chair. This time keeping a much closer eye on the ceiling.
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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!