"Is it like this every day?" Alanna asked in a quiet, disbelieving voice to Anesh.
"I'm afraid so." Anesh said in the same tone.
The two of them stood side by side, unable to look away. It was like watching a train wreck. There wasn't anything they could do to stop it, just stare in horror as the inevitable tense nightmare came to its logical conclusion. Most people probably would; what they were witnessing was no less than the end of a human soul. Stripped away, layer by layer; all defenses torn apart and left shattered, only for the soft core to be crushed to nothing.
They were, of course, standing outside James' cubicle.
"No sir." He was saying in a calm, but strained, voice, his teeth grit together so hard his jaw strained. "I *promise* you that I will not be fired for *following protocol*. Now, there is no higher level available at this hour, but if you call back tomorrow at... 9 AM, your time... you can get a supervisor to look at the extensive list of charges on your account for the rather impressive amount of pornography you purchased." There was a pause. "Yes sir, you have made me aware that you will get me fired. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"
Alanna and Anesh just watched as James' face went through a series of tortured twitches. "I can't tell if he's planning to kill someone, or actually having an aneurysm." Alanna whispered out of the corner of her mouth to Anesh.
"Both?" He suggested back with a look of concern on his face.
"Neither." James said, slapping his headset into the desk. Hard enough to make a satisfying *thwap*, but expertly placed to do no damage to the hardware. The maneuver of someone who'd had a few calls like this before, and probably a few mistakes as well. "Oh, don't get me wrong," he answered their disbelieving looks, "I'm still furious. But, like, the dude tried to tell me he 'accidentally' bought four grand worth of porn. That's hilarious." James took a deep breath. "But yeah, I'm not too worried. I can't get fired, I don't think. And also, it's Tuesday now, which is great."
Tuesday. Technically Tuesday. It was what Alanna had started calling it; that time when it was early morning of a day, but the "day" hadn't really ended for some people yet, so it still felt like Monday night. But to James and Anesh, it felt like a lightning bolt of excitement. The thrill of adventure hanging in the air, heavy on their minds and pulling at their spirits.
Alanna wasn't really that into it but she smiled to herself as she saw the two guy's eyes light up while they talked a bit. Unlike Anesh on his first night, she didn't have any thought that this was a practical joke. Lily on her... its?... own was enough to convince her it was real. It wasn't that it hadn't sunk in yet either; she got it, honestly. The temptation of what these two casually offered was huge to someone who wanted to be a power player in the world. It just felt like she had more of a nervous feeling from being in someone else's workplace than from being about to go delving, as those two called it.
But the enthusiasm they had was infectious, no matter how much she wanted to play it cool. It had been one thing to stay calm over the last few days as they'd gone over maps with her to drill escape routes in, or taken a walk out to an open field so she could get a handle on exactly how much force it took to smash something with a sledgehammer. But now that they were here, and both her friends were putting off an attitude that she'd never really felt from them before, it was getting harder and harder to pretend this wasn't just the coolest thing ever.
"Yo! You awake?" The words from James startled her out of her thoughts, though she made no outward sign of it.
Straightening her back from where she'd been leaning on the cubicle wall, Alanna let out a small yawn before answering. "Yeah, still alive. Your work is awful. Are you the only one here or something?" Alanna looked around the nearly empty floor.
James just shrugged, repeating the motion a few times to loosen his shoulders that were still stiff from sitting all night. "Kinda? I'm currently filling in for my boss, and a lot of the newbies that we hired to fill in the empty spots quit. Again. So there's a couple other techs who just got here, and that's good, because I'm so done with this job tonight."
"So you could get away with anything?" Alanna asked slyly, wiggling her eyebrows at James.
"No." He said with a flat laugh. "Because there are cameras, and Frank, who I did not bribe enough to let me get away with burning the building down."
"You bribed Frank?" Anesh cut in as James shoved his personal effects into his pockets.
"Of course I bribed Frank. Why do you think he helped us load carboys full of mystery soda into the trunk of my car? And didn't comment on how we went in totally fine, and you came out six minutes later with your arm in a fucking cast?" James rubbed his hand on his forehead. "He went from reporting us for taking a coffee maker to actively supporting us!"
Anesh cleared his throat. "I... did not notice that. But in my defense, I was a bit, you know..."
"Rekked?" James asked as their group walked down the hall.
Alanna slapped him on the back of the head, while Anesh let out a "Hey!" James just laughed, while Anesh kept walking in front of them. "It's not like I got killed or anything. And I saved your life at the end!" He said, spinning around to point at James accusingly, walking backward for a few steps while he talked.
"I know, I know," James said, "I'm just pointing out that whatever painkillers you were on may have muddled your mind a bit."
The three of them talked a bit more while they made their way through the strangely maze-like halls of the building James worked in. Alanna was actually kind of impressed that Anesh had navigated to James' desk so easily, even though he'd been here a few times before. Even if she'd known which of the seven floors of this building to even go to, Alanna figured she would have been lost and somehow two floors down from where she started before realizing that she had no way to find her friend at all.
When she asked, James just shrugged and said, "Yeah, it's like that. They've remodeled a few times, so some of the hallways are sorta 'extra'. It gets confusing sometimes."
She'd asked him if that seemed a little suspicious, given the nature of the extradimensional nightmare-space that the building housed the doorway to, but James just shrugged. It was just one of those things, to him, that corporations did. When there were too many people in charge of things, he figured, then there were always going to be small greebles in the plans. Things got misplaced, doors got stuck in weird spots, no one corrected the contractors because they didn't know if the orders came from their own boss. It was like how, sometimes, the company planned for layoffs even when they were doing hiring to replace lost employees.
Just corporate nonsense at its finest.
Before Alanna could complain to James that this was probably something worth looking into, they'd arrived at the door.
"Just in time." Anesh said. "We've got about thirty seconds."
"You ready?" James asked Alanna, a smile on his face.
Alanna nodded. Of course she was ready. What a silly thing to ask.
James and Anesh leaned forward, each of them placing a hand on one of the door handles. Together, they pushed down, and pulled the heavy metal doors outward. Sweeping their other arms down with a slight bow, they presented the scene to Alanna.
"What the fuck?" Alanna barked out.
James jerked upward, confusion on his face. He leaned around the door and looked in. "What the fuck?!" He stuttered, looking in.
Anesh, unable to stop himself any longer, laughed. Loudly. James and Alanna both whipped their heads around to glare at him. He shut his side of the door, still laughing, even as both of them silently scowled. "So, is this all one really impressive practical joke on *me*?" Alanna asked, "Or is this Anesh being a dick to both of us, but in a much smaller way?"
"That second one." James said with a roll of his eyes, letting his side of the door pull shut. "He thinks he's funny sometimes."
Still giggling a bit, Anesh responded with, "Hey, I'm hilarious." He couldn't quite get through the whole sentence without snorting with laughter as he saw the exasperated look on Alanna's face, though.
"Okay, so, for real this time, and with a bit less gravitas." James said, checking his phone's clock to make sure that it was actually 3:44 AM this time. "I wanted this to be kind of a moment, but *someone*..." Anesh broke into another fit of giggles as James glared at him, "...couldn't let us have nice things."
He opened the door, and this time, Alanna saw something different.
There was something strange about the dungeon, Alanna decided.
Well, apart from the obvious.
It was that it had an outside wall. While James and Anesh fell into what had become a ritual for them - greeting Rufus and Ganesh, and then Anesh checking gear while James just sort of soaked in the beauty of the horizon - Alanna couldn't stop staring at the wall behind them.
She'd met Rufus. He seemed... interesting. Alanna got a strange vibe off the little guy, who was in the process of rolling what looked like a ball of staples around when the trio had come through. It felt like he was a lot bigger than his form looked. Rufus hadn't really acknowledged her outwardly, but she got the impression that he was upset; it reminded her a lot of how her mother would act whenever Alanna had come home from school with new bruises and scrapes. Not angry, certainly not going to say anything, but somehow, the atmosphere of the house had been disappointed.
She hadn't said hi to the thing that Anesh referred to as Ganesh. She had asked why he'd named it something just one letter off from his own name, and he'd thrown up his hands and said something about how it was a clever reference before deliberately walking over to the other side of the little fort and busying himself pulling sets of body armor out.
Of course, Alanna had been curious about a lot of things. She'd just wanted personal experience before rapid fire asking Anesh things that would probably be obvious when she could see in person.
But now, after getting a good view of the interior, she had questions. The cubicles seemed to go on forever, sure, but that wasn't as weird as the fact that she could see them starting to curve toward the ceiling in the distance. It reminded her of what a ringworld would look like, though not nearly to the same massive degree. Of course, the higher walls cut off vision before it was really noticeable, but Alanna wouldn't have been surprised to learn that there really were hundreds or even thousands of miles of dungeon out there.
And the dungeon itself was huge and terrifying in its scope sure, but... it had this outer wall.
That's what she kept staring at as the guys discussed the plan for the night's delve, and what things they wanted to show her to ease her into the operation. The wall.
"Anesh." She interrupted their conversation. "Why is there a wall?"
"Because buildings have walls." James responded as Anesh furrowed his brow and put a hand to his chin. Then, a second later, James followed up with, "No, wait..." And unconsciously mimicked the motion Anesh had made. "Because there has to be a boundary?"
"But the door on the other side just leads to stairs when it doesn't lead here. So where does this door, here, lead, when it doesn't lead back to the little lobby area outside the elevator?" Alanna asked.
James and Anesh looked at the door, then around at the rest of the wall. "I don't like that thought at all." James said quietly.
"It's fine, it's fine." Anesh said. "We've gone fairly far down both directions. The wall curves a bit, but we haven't found a place where it terminates, and no other doors. And we are *never* here when this door doesn't lead back out, so we never have to know what's on the other side." He sighed a bit. "I don't think that's a perfect answer, but it's what we've got."
"Oooookay..." Alanna drawled out. "I'll take it, but I'm not happy with it."
There was a silent, awkward moment as she continued to stare at the wall. Eyes drifting over the clock, the large whiteboard a few meters down, and the endless grey monolith that was the rest of the outer boundary of the dungeon.
James broke the quiet first. "So! We've been thinking. Yes, we're okay, don't worry, we survived the experience." He cut off Alanna's joke before it could come out. "Anyway. Anesh wants to do some experiments here by the door, double check all our time dilation calculations. Also do a little scouting farther along the windershins wall."
"The fucking what?" Alanna asked incredulously.
"Um... that way." James pointed. "Counter-clockwise. Right. Anyway. He's basically staying in the safe zone, which is good, because we only have two sets of the security armor, and I want to try going deeper in. So, do you want to come along with me, and I can show off some of the more interesting stuff to you?"
Alanna cracked her knuckles dramatically, rolling her shoulders. "Yeah! I'm getting into this now. This place looks so much weirder than I imagined. And I want to see how the wildlife stacks up to what you said about the endless series of murderbots you described."
"They're not really robots..." Anesh started before Alanna waved him off. "Alright, alright. Well hey, let's get you two suited up. You're about our size, so this armor should fit you. It's class one, so it's gender neutral, which is good. This isn't full SWAT armor, so it isn't fitted or too bulky."
They took about twenty minutes to get both Alanna and James geared up. Thick grey armor, padded cloth around a layer of kevlar. Plates of arm and leg guards that slotted into each other and strapped tight, giving the impression of a person truly prepared to take damage. For James, his trusty axe in its sheath was strapped to the clip on the hip of the main portion of the armor before he threw on a backpack with one of their first aid kits and a thermos of coffee that Anesh had brought in it. Alanna got a similar backpack, at Anesh's insistence, and had the small sledgehammer that they'd brought back in. Both of them slid radios into the outside chest pockets of the armor. James was really into all the little pockets and clips that made the armor look like it had a complex combat webbing on it. He'd wanted to throw his maglight and all that rope he'd brought in so long ago on there as well, until Anesh pointed out that they'd never found anywhere dark, and the rope was absolutely more of a liability than anything else. He'd relented, but only begrudgingly.
Finally, they were ready. James asked Anesh a few more times if he really wanted to stay behind today, and Anesh had to really reassure his friend that yes, this was actually what he wanted. Even if he didn't have some ideas to test out, he had also just gotten his cast off. His arm felt fine enough, but he didn't want to push it too far today getting into fights with bone-snapping monsters. Again.
Anesh did send Ganesh with them. The little drone perched on James' helmet, still tossing glances at Alanna every now and then. She didn't seem to have noticed that the small creature wasn't warm toward her, but Anesh hoped this would be a good chance for them to become friends. Alanna was, at heart, a nice person, no matter how many times she swore in casual conversation, and Ganesh would learn to care for her the same way Anesh did. Also, on a more personal note, he wanted to be able to check through Ganesh's camera just to keep an eye on things, and stay up to date on any new discoveries.
"Alright, so, the first thing to remember is that we need to be pretty quiet when we're in there." James was saying as he led Alanna across the open space toward the first row of cubicles.
Anesh nodded to himself. They'd be okay together. In his heart, he wanted his friends to be safe, but he didn't worry too much about them as he watched them take a corner, James showing Alanna how to do the quick one-two check-and-move-up pattern that a duo of delvers needed to perfect to stay safe.
Then he was alone. Well, almost alone.
"Rufus." He said quietly, inclining his head toward the stapler who was carrying another of his little staple balls across the top of the desk. The little stapler-crab stopped briefly, and looked up at Anesh, who pulled a chair up and sat in it, turning to fully face Rufus. His tone dropped, becoming stern, but not angry. "I think it's about time we had a talk."
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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!