James and Dave strode back through the entrance of Fort Door to little fanfare, which was sort of a letdown. Ganesh flew out to greet them, doing a quick loop of Dave's head before buzzing back inside, where the other three were sitting around the map-desk that Anesh had dragged out to the center of the main 'room'.
"I really don't like that he does that." Dave muttered.
James just smiled and replied, "Obviously; that's why he does it." He raised a hand in greeting to Anesh, who looked up as they walked in. "Hey! We're back! I brought shimmering treasures and cryptic hints! We almost got killed by a mail cart!"
Helmets sat on the floor, backpacks were set against desks. The loot table that they'd set up had a big plastic bowl, the kind meant for chips at parties, sitting on it, half-filled with small colored balls.
For a half second, it looked like both Alanna and JP wanted to say something, but the rapid fire nature of James' greeting left them with vaguely confused and bemused expressions on their face. In that vacuum, Anesh stepped in. "Well, that would have been a weird post mortem." He said, without missing a beat and with a totally straight face.
"Hrgh!" Alanna groaned out through bared teeth. "Ow, fuck, I think I actually took damage from that one." She grasped at her torso theatrically. "My one weakness! Terrible puns!"
"My one weakness is bullets." James said casually, getting a snicker from JP, as he walked up to the desk and slung his backpack onto the floor. "So, how was your guy's trip?"
Anesh groaned, and Alanna scowled at the table, avoiding eye contact. It was JP who actually answered, delivering bad news with some grace. "Not great." He said with a shake of his head. "The map has detail to it, but it doesn't match up. Either the terrain changed, or it's just wrong. So, we ended up, well, lost."
"Ganesh-bail-us-out lost." Anesh said glumly. "It's actually really kind of unsettling, yeh? We just..."
Alanna half cut him off. "Well, it was partly our fault for just trusting a random map from someone we don't know." Her tone had a hard edge to it.
"...Just got a little out of sight of the main aisle, and got totally turned around." Anesh continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Ended up being an Escher, so not *entirely* the fault of our misplaced trust, but still. Feels pretty shitty to waste half our night here, and it didn't help that you didn't answer your radio."
James and Dave traded a quick confused look, before James turned his gaze back to the rest of the party. "Sorry, half the night? It's been an hour, tops. Also... wait, hang on." James pulled out the small handheld radio from one of the pockets on his armor. "No, I *did* remember to turn it on! This one isn't my fault! Finally!"
"An hour?" Alanna asked with suspicion. "So we're now..."
Anesh sighed. "Okay, the oranges screw with time too. Good to know."
"Might be what makes the door work, and the three-minutes-to-eight-hours thing we've got going on." JP suggested. "Should we try to dismantle the doooooh no, nope. I realized what I was suggesting as I said it. Nevermind!"
"Yes, please, let's not destroy our exit." Alanna grumbles.
Anesh took over the conversation again to deliver a more complete, and less upset report. "So anyway! We have an orange orb, a handful of yellows, one blue from a spreadsheet that told you the favorite colors of people in your social circle, and the usual pile of money and food. Also, confirmation that we still need to find an actual path back to the bathrooms, because Sarah's map isn't... correct, I guess, is the best word? And that's all, I think. JP, Alanna? Anything to add?"
"I got in a swordfight with a plant!" JP burst out with a grin. With the tension of wasted time torn away, and the failure of the map and their misplaced trust now aired, he'd been almost vibrating to tell someone else about this. It wasn't often that JP bragged about anything; bragging, he believed, was almost always done by people who didn't have a damn thing worth bragging about. He preferred to let his actions and attitude speak for him, and for the most part, he did. It was why it was so easy for James and Alanna and Anesh to form comfortable friendships with him, it was why he got along with so many different types of people, and it was the source of his aura of confidence. But sometimes, well...
Sometimes you got in a duel with foliage, and it was hard to not want to share.
"What! That's not fair! I didn't even get a sword, and we just went to see a tree!" Dave bemoaned.
Anesh raised an eyebrow. "You didn't like the Decision Tree?" He asked, surprised.
"It was fine, I guess." Dave said, "But now I know I could have been fighting potted plants. With swords."
It wasn't an entirely unreasonable complaint. But James still rolled his eyes. "We fought a mail cart. You got to eat weird candy. You are living the dungeon life, come on, man." He chastised his delving partner. Dave just let out a huff of air and didn't respond. "Well, sounds like you guys got at least something done."
"Yeah, I mean, now that we know we only spent an hour on it, it seems pretty good." Anesh said. "I am starting to get hungry, though. Hungry for something that *won't* give me diabetes." He cut off Alanna as she reached to offer him a Baby Things. "So, what's your report?"
James shrugged as Dave went over to one of the chairs and started peeling off his armor. "Well, we took a trip to go see the Decision Tree. Got jumped by a mail cart, which I am now calling a post-mortem, thanks Anesh. Oh, it was an ambush predator, so you know; there were some pencil sharpeners, the big bricks with motors in them, and they shot out smoke and dust, and it used that as cover for charges." James paused as Anesh made a note of that, his friend starting a new page in the three-ring binder that was becoming their bestiary. "Then we got to the tree, no real issues there, and then I traded it a few yellows for these."
He held up the purple orbs, and everyone stared.
There was no holding back the smug smile on his face. James just couldn't help it.
"Next time lead with that, you fucker." Alanna said, starting to smile herself.
"How?" Anesh asked. "No, wait... no, let's stick with how."
"I asked it nicely. It turns out it might be semi-sentient." James replied.
"Did you ask it anything about the dungeon? About Sarah?" JP prompted, curious.
James opened his mouth, then closed it again. "I... did not think to do that. We were sort of just dropping by, then heading back. I didn't actually know if it would work."
"Why did it have purples in the first place?" Alanna asked, watching with open greed as James walked over and added them to the bowl, the color splashing against the hotter yellows, reds, and orange.
Dave was the one who answered. "It grows them." He said.
James nodded. "Yeah, turns out, they're what's in those monitor blooms. Like fruit, or maybe seeds? Still not sure what it 'eats' though."
"We're really assuming that it works like a normal life form, though, aren't we?" JP questioned. "What if it doesn't eat anything? Just casually violating conservation of orbs."
That was a worrying thought. And while it brought some laughter to the group, it still left James and Alanna, and especially Anesh, wondering if maybe they were going down the wrong path in their 'studies' of the dungeon. The problem was, the place was all unreal, but still recognizable as real-adjacent. But how much of the foundation could you take out before it started to become unrecognizable? How many assumptions had they made about the basics of life that just didn't apply anymore?
They knew Rufus and Ganesh and the other 'life' here had to eat, in a sense. So they had a little bit of the real world to bring with them into the dungeon, in terms of how they thought about the world around them. Really, it was just about how fake the dungeon could get, and how hard it would be to form new assumptions and theories when the basis of their worldview was thrown off like that.
"That's an unpleasant thought." Anesh said. "So, thanks for that."
"No problem." JP gave him a thumbs up.
Alanna sighed and hopped up onto one of the empty desks braced up against the walls, turning it into a seat for a moment. "So, what now? I'm pretty hungry, Anesh looks like he's gonna fall asleep soon. Do we just pack it in and head back?"
"I packed food." James said. "So we have that covered, it's in that cardboard box over there with the red tape. Personally, I don't want to go yet. There's so much we can still get done." He was trying not to sound too greedy, but, well, it was a challenge. "We've got those cots, and the expanded 'bedroom wing' of the fort, if you want to take nap." He aimed that comment at Anesh. "And really, I want to go take one more shot at finding the way to the bathrooms. Get some experience working as a larger group."
That wasn't exactly the only reason. The other, unspoken impetus was the loot. James specifically wanted to go hunting for a tumblefeed, now that they were rearmed with weapons that could kill one. But besides that, just taking the cart out with thousands of dollars worth of computer hardware, office supplies, and coats, was a pretty appealing prospect.
Theoretically, if they acquired enough money, they could just buy out the building's lease, and he could quit his job. Which was almost a more magical prospect than the dungeon itself.
"I also wouldn't mind sticking around." JP said. "I want to try to find an iLipede nest, and make friends with one. Even though I'm not that into Apple products."
"Good news for you, their logos are legally distinct." Alanna told him.
JP gave her a smile. "For copyright reasons, that makes me quite happy, thank you!" Dungeon diving was one thing; dangerous, sure, but acceptable. Upsetting a brigade of lawyers? Not on his to-do list.
"Okay, that's two of us going back in. Dave? Alanna?" James asked them, noticing that Anesh really was about to doze off.
"I'm gonna stay here." Dave said. "I haven't hiked that much in a while. So I'll keep an eye on everything, especially if Anesh is gonna be sleeping."
Alanna nodded. "Good call. I'm in though. Just let me actually eat first."
"Yeah, it'll give me some time to figure out where we're going, and what to bring." James said, unzipping his backpack and beginning the process of preparing for part two of tonight's adventure. "Anesh! Go to bed!" He tried to pick up his friend who was attempting to steal away the bag for use as a pillow, wrapping his arms around his chest and pulling him away from the table. Anesh wasn't totally asleep, and comically ragdolled just to see what James would do, for his own amusement. "We bought beds specifically for this! Also, wake up and tell me what box you put the thermite in!"
"Part of me feels offended that two of us are working while one of us is eating lunch." James commented, as he and JP looked through desk drawers for the password to the computer in the cubicle they were in.
They were about a quarter of a mile down Hallway One, or whatever they were calling it. James had lost track, since they never actually used it that much anymore. It was the first hall, the one that he had first stepped into when he'd found this place. The one that was most thoroughly explored and looted. Well, up until the break room, that is.
James and JP were in one of the cubicles near the breach, the point where hard carpet turned to harder linoleum tile, and brighter lights cut through across cafeteria chairs, vending machines, and a fridge that no one was ever going to open. Currently, they were casually, but thoroughly, looting. The whole routine; drawers and dry cleaning, files off the computer, then hardware out of it, and lightly fiddling with as many objects as possible to look for blue orbs.
Right now, though, it was proving frustrating. Every now and then, they ran across a computer that wouldn't have an obvious answer to it's "puzzle". Normally, it was simply social engineering; James had found so many passwords on sticky notes that he was starting to get angry at the staff that didn't exist here. The IT guy in him wanted to start leaving passive-aggressive memos around the office about information security. That said, the dungeon delver guy in him really didn't mind so much that the keys were always kept within arms reach of the treasure chests. Sometimes, they'd had to do a little more trial-and-error to get the passwords; looking at any pictures on the desks for pets with names on the collars, checking wallets for IDs with birthdays, that sort of thing. This one, though, none of that had worked so far, and it was starting to bug James.
"At the risk of violating my oath on the altar of digital security, I'm really starting to get annoyed that they didn't just write their password down." He said aloud, sitting in the cubicle's chair and staring at the desktop in front of him. His brain felt fried, like he was thinking in circles; he knew the solution had to be here, but he couldn't make that last connection.
JP was currently looking through the filing cabinet near the door. "Hm. Maybe we should have brought lunch as well." He commented, nodding out the door to where Alanna was sitting perched on the cart, eating leftover curry while she kept an eye on the break room area for any signs of tumblefeeds. "That looks a lot more relaxing than banging our heads into the monitor."
James considered banging his head into the monitor. "Why is this one so awful! Like, if it's one of the ones that doesn't actually work, or it's a shellaxy, then there just isn't a prompt! Why is this one so stupid?!" He threw his hands out at the monitor on the desktop, surrounded by opened folders and sheafs of paper, as if gesturing at it would cause it to surrender its secrets.
"You know, we don't have to do this one." JP told him warmly. "We could just move on, go a little deeper in. There's no need to get too stressed about one password, friend." He was really trying to help James calm down, without sounding condescending.
"I have decided this computer is my enemy." James stated flatly.
Behind him, JP tried really hard to resist the urge to roll his eyes as he closed the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, kneeling on the ground. "Well, if you're that dedicated to... oh, what about this?" His eyes had found, tucked behind the filing cabinet, a brown leather briefcase. He pulled it out and held it up to James, who raised an eyebrow.
"Well, crack it open, see if it's got the hint in it." James told him, encouragingly.
JP assumed a cross legged position on the floor, propping the briefcase in front of him. Thumbing the brass latch, it didn't open. He started turning it over while James watched like an excited hawk. "No number lock. No keyhole? How is this supposed to open?"
"There's a thing on the back." James reached down and pulled off a small folded piece of paper taped to the case. He opened it up, and read from the printout of what looked like an email. "Wow, this is weirdly worded. Um... okay.." James started muttering his way through the words. "Delivering for the... unto on for cubicle of R-4401... Okay, this is super badly written. But I think it's a work order?"
"Want to just try prying the case open?" JP asked. "There's a crowbar on the cart."
"Sure." James agreed, and the two of them stepped out of the cubicle to where Alanna was finishing her lunch.
She tossed the empty carton of rice and curry into one of the wastebaskets in the cubicles as the two guys came out. "Hey. Find it? I heard you swearing."
"Not yet. Hand me the crowbar." James said, holding up the briefcase to show her his intent.
Alanna shook her head. "Won't work. Anesh and I found one of those... last week? Two weeks ago? Anyway, no lock, right? They don't open for anything." She shrugged, somehow making the motion look casual even through the plating of the armor. "We were going to take it with us and try more drastic measures, but then you got in a fight with the cable snake, and we had to go bail you out, and I think it just got forgotten."
JP let a bit of worry show on his face. "Now, when you say drastic measures, are you talking about anything that might get all of us arrested?"
"Probably." James said. "Well, fuck it. Just throw it on the cart, we'll get to it later. I like to think I'm genre savvy enough to know that the note on it is the 'quest' to open the fucking thing, but hell if I know how to find cubicle..." He checked the paper. "R-4401." He looked back up at the other two. "Does that sound familiar at all? Have we even seen numbers on the cubicles at all?"
"Not that I've seen." JP said. "I'll pay more attention though. What now?"
James threw the case onto the wire frame base of the little wheeled hand cart that they'd been bringing along, sticking it between a pair of cardboard boxes that they were using to sort out cash and electronics. "Now we keep hanging out here, I guess. The idea was to take out another tumblefeed. Though if you guys want to keep moving, we can. I don't want to go too far, though, and risk meeting a stuffed shirt."
"I'd still like to find one of the phone bugs, if that's alright." JP offered. He was never one to try to guilt his friend's into going with his ideas, so he presented it honestly and cheerfully. "If not, well, maybe we could just circle around the break room and try hunting some of the neon-laser-dog computers."
"That's how you described them, that's what I'm calling them until proven otherwise." JP sniped back with a smile.
Alanna let out a groan. "Let's just cut through, for fucks sake. What's it going to do, jump us right in the middle? We just clear the mines, and if the tumblefeed shows up, set it on fire."
It was a pretty simple decision for Alanna. Sometimes, she was a very straightforward person. Most times, really. In her world, there was almost always a direct path to success. That didn't mean that you couldn't apply cunning and guile, but just that moving forward was usually better than sitting still.
And she was sick of sitting still. They'd been here for half an hour, James and JP casually and methodically strip mining the cubicles around her, and she was *bored*.
James thought about it, then bobbed his head in a nod. "Yeah, okay. How do we do this?"
He almost jumped out of his skin as, just next to him, JP flicked the ten foot pole out to full length with a metal ratcheting sound. "I'm on it!" He said with childish glee.
"Sweet Christ on a bike, please don't do that!" James said, clutching at his chest. Or at least, the chestplate of his armor, which he couldn't really feel through. "Fuck, man." He tried to breathe while Alanna and JP suppressed smiles. "But yeah, good. Let's do this."
Five dull, bone-rattling thuds later, the break room was more or less clear. There was still a pair of potted plants in the corner, one of them hanging from a pot hooked to the top of one of the high walls around them, the other planted firmly on the ground in a wider ceramic base. The two green chunks flowed together somewhere midway up the wall, creating a verdant column that clearly sent a message. The message was: "Fuck off. This is our break room."
The three of them made a quick plan, and then moved through as a unit. JP pulled the cart at a slow walking pace, while ahead of him, Alanna and James quickly and efficiently shifted coffee stained tables and chairs out of the way to clear a path.
They didn't speak, and tried to keep the scraping of table legs to a minimum. But the whole time, James was eyeing the coffee machine that had remanifested over on the counter, wondering what the coffee it produced would do. JP was scanning the high walls around them, keeping his ears open for the sound that James had described to him as 'like rain, but hostile'. That is, when he wasn't stealing glances of the plants, and wondering if his sword was sharp enough.
As they finished shoving the last long table off to the side, making a neat corridor through the previously labyrinthian territory of exploding coffee, James took a minute to glance around. He was struck with a quick idea as JP pulled their convenient loot platform through under Alanna's escort, and seeing no immediate danger, he took the chance to hop over one of the tables to the counter and sink against the wall.
Old green faux-tile countertops and a grimy metal basin, on top of cupboards that looked like they were installed by the lowest bidder. The break room, James realized, was really the most human part of this whole place. Because it didn't look warped or mutated, just kind of dirty and shoddily put together; like a real office. Even the refrigerator, somehow plugged in and running, had that weird click in its hum that let him know it was old, and no one had bothered to fix it for at least a year or two.
He didn't dwell on it though. Instead, he stepped to the side, and opened one of the cabinets. Standing out of the potential zone of doom if anything went wrong, of course. But nothing did, so James ducked his head down to see what was in there. "Score!" He muttered, grabbing a whole box of hot chocolate packets, sliding them back onto the table behind him. JP noticed what he was doing, and settled the cart down to a stop long enough to grab the box, and situate it in its new home on their treasure truck.
"Really? Really, guys? Now?" Alanna griped, looking back at the two of them handing off a half-full cardboard container full of water bottles. "I mean, I get that it's been a bit dull, but this place is seriously not where I want to waste time."
"It should be fine." JP said calmly, in a low voice. "I'm keeping an ear out, and I'll stop him if he tries to open the fridge." James threw a quiet protest back over his shoulder as he opened the next cabinet. "I know you were the one that told me it was probably a trap, but I've *also* seen that episode of Cowboy Bebop, friend. And I know how curious you get." JP clicked his tongue slightly. "I mean, I'm also curious;" he said to Alanna, "it might actually just have some kind of bizarro world leftover lasagna. But I'll risk that later, and take the bag of coffee grounds now."
A yelp cause both of their heads to snap back to James. JP displayed lightning reflexes, jerking his head at a forty-five degree angle just as a flailing strider whipped through the air. Alanna hefted her hammer as JP shoved the table out farther to open up a path to where James was now tumbling back on his heels as the entire nest of striders he pissed off poured out of the cabinet.
"Gentlemen, please! We can resolve this peacefully!" JP called into the growing pile of hostile staplers as he strode forward.
James disagreed. They'd run across a few varieties of the basic stapler crab/spider species in their time here; the royal fancy type, the sleek and streamlined version, the heavier bricks that preferred falling from the ceiling in ambush, and of course, the occasional strangely intelligent ones, like Rufus or the team that harassed James and Alanna to a standstill. But he had yet to see ones that looked quite as... feral... as these.
They were old. Not aged, but the models that you'd see in movies from the 60s or 70s. Big solid steel hulks of things, with the weight to match. No coloring or plastic coating, just bare metal, sometimes not machined quite right, leaving burrs and sharp edges in places. In one of those moments of unasked for clarity through the swarming horde, James noticed that they had more legs than they should, probably to accommodate their longer and heavier frame. Ten or twelve of those click-open pens, actually tilted like crab legs this time; the legs angling up out of the side of the creatures before spiking back down toward the ground. The legs didn't form perfect angles; instead, the connection to the main body met the leg midway up, leaving the 'clicker' part extending upward like something from a mecha anime.
And unlike all the other ones that they'd seen, these ones could actually flex open their mechanical jaws wide enough, and hit hard enough, that those staples were threatening to break into James' skin again. An experience he'd really like to avoid living again, if at all possible.
To that end, he grabbed another one of the fuckers that was currently trying to dig furrows out of the plastic shell of his armor, climbing up his chest while he pushed backward with his legs. It hissed in his hand, mad with rage, and he was more than glad for the thick gloves keeping his hands save from the stabbing motions of the wickedly legs. He flung it backward over his head, just trying to put distance on it, and from behind him did not see, but heard, the metallic smash of Alanna taking a batter's stance and slamming the helpless strider into the floor.
JP pinned one of them underfoot, and tried to use the metal pole to prod and flick back the rest of the nest, though their weight made it a less than effective move. Alanna vaulted over the table, the piece of furniture tilting dangerously as the combined weight of her weapon and armor and her own form pressed down on the edge of it before she landed and started taking long steps toward the mess. And James, well, James just kept kicking. He was flat on his ass now, trying to get clear of them, but there were more than ten, more than twenty, so many of the sharp terrors. So he just kept trying to push himself backward as more and more of them pushed their way out of the cupboard.
"Where the fuck are they all coming from?!" James yelled as Alanna started laying into them with the warhammer. Her first two swings were golf; teeing off with metal biting targets, sending multiple members of the packed swarm flying. But after that, she switched to just pounding them into the ground, sending chunks of metallic chitin and tiny splashes of inky blood spraying across the floor near James' legs.
Lashing out with his foot and barking out a yelp, JP skitter stepped back with a new hole in his sneaker, and a new appreciation for how fucking much it hurt to get stapled in the foot. "How long are those?!" He barked out.
James got his feet under himself, and shoved himself to his feet. The three of them put some distance between themselves and the growing carpet of staplers, some of which were climbing on top of each other as they snapped at the trio. They didn't rush right away, and between the pole and hammer, and the spear that James quickly snagged off the cart, they managed to create a bit of a barrier between them and the encroaching mass. "Okay, this is fine." James gasped out. "We just hold them back, pick them off one at a time, and..."
There was a rattle like falling rain.
James and Alanna shared a half-second terrified glance, before Alanna tapped him on the shoulder, yelling "Go!" and sending him scrambling for more distance to safely yank one of the improvised thermite bombs off his belt. His head was on a swivel, and he only briefly caught a glance of JP catching a stapler to the chest as one dove off the fridge that it had climbed up and threw itself forward as he continued to watch the walls. His friends would be okay, he had to trust in them. Even through JP's lack of experience or real armament for this situation, they could hold off long enough for him to torch a tumblefeed.
The armament problem he could fix, actually. "JP!" He got his friend's attention for a second. "Catch!" And underhand lobbed him a cool brass pen. JP snapped it out of the air with his left hand, already turning back to the battle line with the striders, and clicked it open. A thin wisp of smoke trailed from the tip where it burned away the thin dust in the air, and that line in the air followed it as JP arced his arm around to stab another lunging strider out of the air. The scent of cooking acrylic filling the air as the black blood of the target boiled away in seconds, leaving a strangely limp metal corpse hanging inches away from JP's face.
JP panted hard, even as he kept tapping the pole into the mass to keep them back. "We didn't have to do this, you idiots." He rasped out as he let the dead strider slide off the pen onto the floor in a heap.
Alanna and JP were both backing up now, and James kicked a chair aside to help give them room to maneuver. If they needed to, they could easily just abandon the cart and run, but these things were moving in shockingly fast bursts sometimes, and James wasn't interested in turning his back on the mass.
But the two of them, while giving ground, were still dishing out punishment on the pile of staplers. If they had an ounce of sense, they'd cut their losses sooner or later. Either that, or just rush them, James thought.
And then, he spotted the tumblefeed. It was right on the other side of the mass of striders; James only barely saw the tips of a dozen cables, just starting to snake up over the edge of the wall. He opened his mouth to say something, throwing out one arm to start to pull JP back, but before he could say anything, it flung itself over.
The last tumblefeed had been slow. It rattled and hissed and dragged itself along the ground on its own time. This one, though, launched itself a good foot over the wall; it was a bit smaller, but it lacked the lazy aura the other had. The ball of cables slammed into the ground right in the middle of the striders, not quite totally clearing the counter and sink behind it as some of its bulk rattled against the tile, and there was a moment of quiet and stillness. Then dozens of corded CAT-5 serpents started striking out, piercing through the hide of the striders nearest to it, and hissing screams filled the air.
The striders nearest to the tumblefeed tried to bite into it, and landed staple after staple, but it had thousands of feet of cable in its amorphous mass, and none of them cut any connections that mattered before they were dragged inside and torn apart.
"What the fuck..." JP started to say, his pleasant demeanor breaking for a minute as he watched the slaughter, before the tumblefeed began stalking toward them; two massive stalks of power cables bound by tangled headphones serving as mantis legs pulling the tumblefeed forward. James tried to yank him back farther, but he stumbled, and wasn't fast enough to stop the tumblefeed from rolling itself and lashing forward with an uncountable number of cable whips toward JP. He got his arms up in front of his face, and most of the cables were pretty small, but he still felt the impacts a lot more than he was expecting. And when the teeth from the CAT-5 cables started digging into his armor, and tugging him toward the bulk, he started panicking.
James turned the activator on the thermite, and pushed in the button of the 'grenade' Anesh had made them, and threw it into the tumblefeed. Not wasting any time to see if it worked, he grabbed onto JP's arm with one hand, and pulled out the sword at his friend's waist with the other, bracing himself to start hacking through the cables. James was actually pretty surprised when the blade went through the first cable pretty easily, though he did have to pull back on it to get the blade to do its job. JP digging in his heels and holding the cords taut was helping.
There was a strangely warbling howl from the tumblefeed as the thermite started to go off, and James almost sighed in relief. But that moment of hope was short lived, as the creature flung the melting ball of cascading molten sparks off to the side to bounce off Alanna's hammer held in a guard. Seemingly no worse for wear, the ball of cables kept pulling JP in, and also split its attention to keep snapping at striders, and also try to wrap its cords around Alanna's leg and hammer, though she refused to give ground to it.
As James kept trying to free JP, with one hand, while fumbling for another thermite grenade with another one, the striders suddenly scrambled away from the tumblefeed and the team alike, creating a strangely empty space on the dance floor. And before any of them could figure out why, another strider came to the mouth of the cabinet, dragging a black backpack with it. The bag looked empty, and James caught glances of the strider fumbling to unzip the thing while he hacked the last cable tendril away from JP. Good timing, too, because as soon as the strider caught one of its legs under the zipper and started to open it, the whole room seemed to shift.
Lighter things moved first. The flimsy plastic and hollow aluminum chairs, and the corpses of some of the striders shifting first, sliding across the floor toward the row of cabinets to thunk into them. One of the chairs clipped Alanna across the back of the legs, but it was so light, she didn't even budge from her position holding against the tumblefeed.
Then heavier stuff, as the bag was opened wider. A couple of still living staplers that were on top of the tumblefeed and had gone unassaulted were yanked backward, one of them clattering into the sink. James was starting to feel the pull, too. This one was different; he wasn't being pulled, his feet just weren't attached as much anymore. It was like gravity itself was shifting.
"Everybody back!" He yelled, shoving JP back and off to the side, before throwing himself over toward Alanna and slicing through half of the cables around her ankle. This freed her up to kick out of the rest, and yank her hammer back. The two of them pulled back to the sides, James making sure to keep them clear of the plants still alive and now quite active in their corner.
The tumblefeed tried to claw its way after them, but it was too late. The strider's manipulation of local gravity had it stuck. It could hold itself in place, but the looser of its cables began to radiate behind it, pulled backward like it was forcing its way into hurricane winds.
James stood up fully, pushing off of JP, and plucking a toothed USB connector out of his shoulder plate, and casually tossing it into the growing vortex. "Let's try this again." He growled, triggering the second thermite grenade, and pitching it into the center of the tumblefeed.
This time, the fountain of melting metal was accompanied not by resistance, but by howling. Sparks flew and the scent of burning plastic filled the air as the weapon melted through the tumblefeed's core. And in seconds, it went limp, released its hold on the floor, and was crushed back against the counter.
Then gravity snapped back to normal, and the pile of plastic slumped to the floor, revealing the strider holding a closed backpack.
"Well shit. That was pretty cool." James said, nodding at the strider holding the bag as he helped JP back to his feet.
JP let out a deep breath as he looked out at the thinned, and not charging strider nest horde. "Ah, see? No need for us to fight at all." He said. "We can..." He didn't get any farther before the strider turned the backpack toward where the two of them had pivoted off to the side of its original fire path, and yanked it open again.
James let out a short "Ffffuck!" As he felt himself start to be pulled (falled?) toward the cabinet and the awaiting swarm. JP grabbed the doorframe of the break room, holding onto the light cubicle wall for all he was worth, throwing out one arm to grasp onto James' forearm as he started to slide forward.
Then there was an ear splitting crack, and the backpack jerked sideways. Gravity reasserted itself in an eyeblink. The strider holding the bag looked almost surprised for a second, its forward eye blinking in for a stunned moment, before a second crack split the air, and it jerked sideways too, with a clean hole through its snout.
Alanna shifted out of her firing stance, reholstering the pistol that she'd borrowed from James. "Enough of that shit." She said, leveling the Nerf gun at the remainder of the swarm that had packed itself to the sides of the cabinet to avoid being crushed by the changing gravity. "You all have five seconds to get out of here." She curtly delivered the ultimatum to the survivors.
The remaining striders, as heavy and sharp and angled as they were, didn't need to think too long on that one.
As soon as the break room was empty, the last of the skittering nightmares over the wall, Alanna and James didn't waste any time. "You get the yellows, I'll grab the cabinet." James calle to her, and she nodded and started snapping up the drops from all the striders. "JP! Help her with the tumblefeed!"
"Wha..." He gasped out. "What just happened?"
"We won! Now we need to move, because we made a *ton* of noise! So let's get going!" Alanna called back, shoving small yellow beads into her pockets.
James, meanwhile, went straight to the cabinet, and stuck his head in. It wasn't too hard to see how thirty striders had made their nest in here; there was an orange orb embedded in the wall down at the end, lengthening the shelf to a couple meters long. The nest itself was covered in bundles of shredded paper, loose staples, and the occasional pencil stabbed into the wall. James leveraged himself in a bit farther, the bulk of his armor making it almost impossible to fit his shoulders inside, but he was still able to reach down far enough to grab at the orb, and pry it loose.
Remembering what had happened the last time they'd done this, and from what Anesh had told him of his own experience, he jerked back quickly as the space collapsed. He also tried not to look at the folding ripples in reality as the cabinet went back to just being a cabinet. And then, he was out.
"Alright, are we ready to go?" He asked, throwing the orange orb into the box of hot chocolate packets on the cart, and following up with the blue orb that the backpack had left behind.
Alanna and JP had rolled the bulk of the tumblefeed sideways, revealing the dozen strider's it had dragged in and killed off. There weren't nearly that many yellows, though, so the thing must have eaten some of them while it was busy... eating them. "We're good." Alanna said, wiping melted plastic off her gloves and onto the floor. "Let's get the hell out of here before a million more of these show up."
They stuck JP on the cart, and Alanna and James fanned out to the front and back, keeping an eye out and prepared to ruin the day of anything that moved with extreme prejudice, as the three of them made their way back down hallway one. They moved fast this time, going more for just getting out without any problems, rather than caution.
And after that, they all had enough rattling their nerves to forget about caution just a little bit.
But either they drove everything away, or there wasn't enough left nearby to feel like swarming the trio was a good idea, because after fifteen minutes of jogging, taking it a little easy to make sure nothing spilled off their cart, they managed to get through back to the area near the door where the walls were lower, and Fort Door was in sight.
It was a little strange to James, just how much it felt like coming home.
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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!