After taking a dozen more right turns, and never overlapping with their own path, Anesh had felt the novelty wear off. "Okay," he told James, "let's turn around, see if we can backtrack and get out of this trap."
They backtracked. After thirty left turns, they had not gotten anywhere, instead seeing the same four hallways repeating over and over. A quick discussion, and they started trying different movement patterns. Anesh started keeping notes, leaving up sticky note signposts that they never passed again. One of them would go to the end of the hall and wait, while the other one looped around. They'd communicate by radio, and find that they should have passed twice, but never saw each other.
Undoing their steps and meeting up again, they put their heads together. "This is a bit awful." James had said. "But not a big deal. We can try punching through the walls, right? Let's just cut our way out, and meet up with Ganesh."
So, they'd shifted one of the desks away, and taken their hatchets to the towering wall. After punching a perforated door pattern in it, they did a quick three-count and kicked inward. Checking through the poof of dust from the shredded fabric of the wall, they looked into the cubicle on the far side. "That was easy." James said, as he ducked his tall frame through.
Anesh just grunted as he thumped the sledgehammer through the breach and stepped in next to him. They went out to the hallway, and James had grumbled a bit as the ceiling still covered the 'sky' above them. "Well, no Ganesh back yet. Let's get outta here."
They'd walked for exactly three hallways before both of them had stopped again, and Anesh had facepalmed. "It *was* too easy." He said accusingly at James. "You buggered it by taunting the dungeon!"
"The dungeon isn't alive." James said with more confidence than he felt. "But whatever. Okay, fine. We're in twisted space. There's still a solution. We just need to find the orange orb, and rip it out, right? That's what worked on the copier; this is just like that, but... you know, bigger. And we're in it."
They started being extra meticulous, scouring cubicle after cubicle, going through every drawer, searching behind furniture, in plant pots and folder holders. They even started opening up the mundane computers. But they didn't find anything aside from more exploding lamps, more staplers, and one very lethargic shellaxy that James had simply patted and told to go back to sleep. The computer had rumbled, and settled back down; annoyed at being disturbed, but willing to let it go.
James also tried more than once to 'disarm' a lamp before they detonated, even going so far as to smash them before they could pop themselves, but it never worked. "I think I need to try getting the bulb out without them seeing me." He told Anesh, which earned him a wide eyed raised eyebrow look.
Still, their hunt didn't turn up one of the orange orbs, or anything else that might be holding them in these cubicle-surrounded Penrose steps. Half an hour later, they stood at one of the corners, having earned nothing. Well, not exactly nothing; seven small skill orbs, one blue orb from a stick of RAM that Anesh had fried when he touched it, and three new small staple cuts on hands. They were both annoyed that they'd never know what weird things that RAM did, but at least now they knew that computer components could be enchanted.
"Okay," James said for the tenth time, drinking the last of his water, "this isn't good."
"No, really?!" Anesh said with a mock shocked gasp, hand on his chest like he'd just heard the world's most offensive joke. "How did you ever.."
James cut him off. "Okay, okay, yes, I get it." He dropped the potato gun he'd been lugging around this whole time, and sighed, stretching his arms. "Alright, new plan!" He'd announced.
But while James was busy getting cut off by Anesh, neither of them really noticed that, around them, in the cubicles, things were moving. Shifting slowly at first, but moving more directly as they started to get into position near the doors of their respective cubicles.
Anesh spotted the first one when its front panel clicked open. A smooth, rounded oval of a case, white plastic glimmering a bit in the dim light. An upgraded shellaxy, the kind that had mounted beam weaponry. He smacked James' shoulder and pointed, and his friend turned to look, but stopped two cubicles before seeing where Anesh was pointing. "Shit, over there too." He muttered, causing Anesh to jerk his head back and forth between the targets.
The two of them backed slowly down the hallway, getting two or three steps, standing shoulder to shoulder, angled to try to keep an eye on all of them. "Seven. Seven of them." Anesh said.
"Are they hostile?" James whispered back. The 2.0's had their weapon ports open, a dozen small metal orbs in each one rotating back and forth, tracking as a unit on the duo standing in the hallway. A few of the shellaxies scuttled out into the hallway, their cord legs moving in meticulous patterns, but none of them opened fire.
"Alright." Anesh said. "We just calmly, and slowly, back away, and turn the corner, and never see them again. Ready?" He shuffled a couple steps, and James moved with him, gripping the cannon tightly.
James flicked his eyes between the two foremost shellaxies. "I think we can just go. They don't look like they're-" Light flared and the wall to their left burst into flames, a cup sized portion of it blackening to ash as the beam traced toward them.
"RUN." Anesh barked, and they turned and bolted.
James felt his back heat up, and a searing pain as the molten plastic of his armor dripped through the breach and onto the small of his back. Beside him, he heard Anesh scream and throw his helmet off behind him, the metal clanging onto the ground as they scrambled around the corner. "They're fucking hostile! I figured it out!" James shouted as they stormed down the hall and nearly tripped. "I'm a genius!" He yelled as they ran on.
The air smelled cold and dead. Not rotten or anything, just empty of life. James felt like he was suffocating, no matter how fine the oxygen was. He was breathing a bit heavy now, sweat starting to bead on his forehead before he wiped it away. Legs sore, arms burning. He hadn't had a break in five minutes, keeping at a constant jog.
They'd taken over twenty corners, but still heard pursuit behind them. Their legs pounded, and James had yelled at Anesh to think of a way out of here ten turns ago. Every now and then, a beam would lance out from a cube door and nearly catch them as another shellaxy joined the chase against them.
After two more turns, Anesh panted out to James, "I don't fucking know what to do! The only place we haven't checked is through the walls farther in!"
"Then check there!"
"How!?" Anesh screamed.
James skidded to a halt. They were, undoubtedly, faster than the computer shells chasing them. The benefit to legs, even ones that got tired, was that you got to cover a lot of ground pretty fast compared to anything with legs that could generously be called 'tiny'. So he had at least two halls of distance before they caught up. "Take out the wall! Go!" He pointed into the cube to their left.
Then, he flipped down the bipod on the potato cannon.
"This thing better fucking work." He muttered as he pulled the pump trigger, flooding the base with propane from the tank. As he saw Anesh shove the desk to the side and plant the first hit from the sledgehammer in the wall, he pulled one of the upgraded thermite grenades that Anesh had made for him off his belt. Ripping the safety case off, he carefully slid it down the barrel of the cannon, and then sighted it on the end of the hall. "Anesh, how's it going?" He called.
Another crunch, followed by "I'm working on it!" Came back to him.
James grit his teeth, and pulled the other two grenades out, pulling off the safety case on one of them, setting it gently to his side. Anesh said the impact triggers wouldn't just randomly go off, but Anesh wasn't a weapons engineer, so James was a bit wary. But as he glanced to the left and saw Anesh frantically punching his way through the wall in their last ditch attempt, he felt a wave of protectiveness.
He turned back, and waited. He didn't have to wait long.
The first shellaxy came around the corner and paused when it saw him. Before it could open its port, it was pushed sideways by another, and another, the first trio that led the pack blundering into the open corner in a neat cluster that made James think he couldn't have asked for a better target.
James looked down the sight of the cannon. "Please work." He whispered, and pulled the ignition trigger.
*Fwummmmpph* James was braced for a lot more recoil than he got. Even with the long burst noise as the propane lit off and flung the canister downrange, it wasn't that loud either. Kind of an echo, he noticed the strange detail as he fired. And then it impacted. His shot hit the front shellaxy perfectly, and went straight through the case, catching inside the vitals. The impact trigger set off the thermite, and a blaze of temporarily molten metal sprayed out the front of James' first kill with the cannon.
As the fire continued to spray, the shellaxy slumping as it melted, the other two made a screaming noise like multiple error messages going off all at once. They scrabbled away from the melting corpse of their brother, but seemed panicked to James. They weren't opening their weapon ports, they weren't shifting their cases to a defensive form, they were just backing away, staring at the molten slag that he'd just turned one of them into.
James didn't wait. He was already filling the chamber with more fuel, and with his other hand, slid the second grenade down the tube. As soon as it was in position, he tracked at the shellaxy closest to the corner, and fired again.
This shot caught it broadside, and went straight through. Another shellaxy from the swarm that was moving in behind it took the canister, half sticking out of shattered plastic. More error window bells and chimes went off, escalating in volume as the thermite lit off and started burning through the newcomer, even as the sleek white monster that James had aimed at rocked back and forth, a chunk of its internals ripped away.
Smoke and a fountain of sparks now filled the hallway, and James couldn't even see what was going on. Though he could certainly hear what sounded like a hundred furious screams from behind the billowing smokescreen. "Anesh, we are out of time man!" He called over, as he primed the third and final grenade. Shapes moved in the smoke as it filled up the hallway, and started pouring closer and closer to James.
At least it would weaken the lasers, he thought grimly. And then, the first one burst through, laser already tracking and firing. James pulled the trigger.
The *whump* this time was accompanied, almost instantly, by a second slamming crunch. James grinned with smug satisfaction as the lead shellaxy, the one that was bold enough to step forward first, died burning. And then, the rest of the hoard poured through the burning breach.
Then he looked down. A dozen tracking lasers zigzagged down the hallway. James saw one of them, burning a trail on the floor, track its way up to the propane tank. He dropped the cannon, and bolted into the cubicle where Anesh was still hacking his way through the thick wall. "Out of time!" He yelled, and heard Anesh scream in frustration, slamming his hammer into the wall one last time.
The laser had melted a clean hole through the barrel of the cannon, and burned into the small propane tank. The propane tank did what it was designed to do, and split neatly in half, as pressure and fire poured out. Half of the tank flew off to who knows where, while the other half clipped James in the back of the head as he ran, causing him to stumble into the shattered portion of wall, and fall forward, taking the damaged cube wall with him.
Anesh jumped forward over James through the breach before the shellaxies caught up to them. And right there, hovering between two fluorescent metal pyramids that reached from the floor and ceiling to form a pinpoint grip, was an orange orb. A big one.
He didn't wait. Anesh just lunged forward, letting the hammer slam it out of place.
The orb popped out of its case, and it rolled onto the floor. And then, there was a rumbling in the back of their heads. A pair of lasers cut through the dust and smoke, alighting on Anesh's torso as the rumbing increased in tone. As he spun around, he saw the shellaxies in the door to the cubicle, lining up for full power shots. And then, they were just... gone.
The cubicle was also gone. There was a blink of blank space, of nothing, and a snapping pressure that rebounded over and over in their heads. James slammed his eyes shut, and Anesh clapped his hands over his ears. Both of them screamed against the pressure that built and built, and then, just like that, it was over.
James opened his eye, and Anesh looked up. They were sitting in a hallway. James almost groaned, but then Anesh nudged his arm from where he was slumped against the wall to his right. He pointed, and he saw that the hallway ended with a vending machine, and a T-intersection.
He just layed back down, resting his head on his arm. "I'm gonna... I'm gonna take a nap. Here." He said, curling up a bit to rest his head on his backpack. And then he felt his spirits rise and his energy come back, as he looked down the hall behind them, and saw four glimmering green orbs sitting neatly on the ground, and a single orange one rolling out of the door of a cubicle.
Anesh reached over and picked up the orange one. "Dibbs." He muttered, and James gave a weak laugh.
"Yeah, okay. All yours." He gasped out.
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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!