"Suffering." Was offered up.
"Can't do that." Came the instant counter.
"I'd die, I think. So, I maybe could do that, but I'm not going to." A good reason, but not the end of the road.
"Okay, how about hunger?"
"Can't remove a negative, I think." You think. Such simple words that could mean so many things.
"Does that imply suffering isn't a negative?"
"Okay, how about war?" A new track, try something different.
"Again, I could, but I'd die." Not different enough.
"One war?" Think laterally.
"As in, half of one war? Or half of two wars, so it maths out to one war?" Not that laterally.
"Tax law." A good plan.
"Might die, but probably worth it." A great plan.
The conversation between Alanna and Dave played out behind James as he stood as close to the edge of their platform as he was comfortable, pointedly ignoring them. Trying to ignore them, anyway; he cracked a smile when they got around to considering using Dave's new ability to blank half of all tax law. But his real mental energy was going to something else.
Thirty or so feet above them, on a different hanging ceiling tile, there was a duffle bag. Each of them had brought one bushel of supplies in through the vent for this hopefully-not-suicidal journey. Dave had done a great job keeping track of his. James and Alanna had swapped which of them was manhandling which bag at one point, but they'd both done their best in the melee to bring the gear along.
The problem was, at one point, Alanna had thrown one of the duffels off the edge before they'd jumped down during their retreat from the... things.
James needed a name for them. Like, pathologically *required* a funny name for them. The fact that there were ceiling spiders was bad enough, but the insult on the eight-legged nightmare was that there wasn't a single good pun to be made. The problem was that they were too bland. If they'd at least had the common decency to be made out of AC units or something, he could call them HVAC-nids, and that was almost certain to get a groan out of Anesh and a smirk from Alanna. But there was nothing there. Just a mental blank, less interesting than the polished faces of their spidery foes.
Okay, getting sidetracked. That was irrelevant.
What *was* relevant was that the bag that had been lost was the one with the guns in it. And *that* was an enormous fucking problem. Because while James was turning into a kung fu movie protagonist, Alanna punched slightly harder than your average truck, and Dave was... well, normal. But getting there. Dave worked with dogs all day and someone had convinced him to sign up for a martial art class, and sure, he picked judo, but it wasn't nothing. So, getting there. But, again, James was getting sidetracked thinking this way; the *point* was that none of them could punch their way through more than one paper pusher.
So, the lack of guns had become a problem, added to their current list of both tactical and strategic issues. Also on that list was how to get down to the actual floor, where and if to set up a camp, what to do if they couldn't find another human to actually rescue within their time limit, and how much effort they should put into continuing to accumulate orb power. It wasn't a small list, and James was feeling a bit overwhelmed. So, he'd left the other two to the most interesting 'use of weapons' debate ever, and tried to fix the easiest, and most foundational problem. They needed to be armed, and the arms were dangling out of reach.
And James really would rather join them. He'd gotten a crick in his neck staring upward for the last five minutes, racking his brain for anything useful. And he'd been too busy trying not to panic at what a horrible idea this all was, that he'd exiled himself from the conversation in self-inflicted punishment. But he was holding it together for now, and he didn't really mind that his friends were keeping relaxed.
It was still pretty astounding how easily they'd all gotten used to being in life or death situations. Even Dave, who was... well, he was a friend, but the guy wasn't the most well put together sometimes.
James caught an errant thought as it went through his head. Turning back around, he cut into their conversation like a verbal bulldozer. "Dave. What was the other power you got?"
"Nullify gravity. Why?" Dave gave him a quizzical look as he cut off what he was saying to Alanna.
Alanna got it first, letting out a long "oooooh" as she saw the smirk on James' face.
"Dave." James asked, still wearing the grin. "What exactly does that do?"
"I haven't tested it. I only have six uses." Dave told him. "I'm guessing you want me to try something now? Is this how we get down?"
That was a good thought, too, and James planned to revisit that in a second. Alanna jumped in though, and finished his thought for him. "It's how we get up. Can you turn off gravity in a sort of pillar up to the platform where the guns are? Because if we're going to go down there, I'd like my shotgun."
"I figured I'd get the shotgun." James butted in, a mock hurt look on his face. "You made such a big deal about looting Frank's sidearm. Thought you'd want that."
"James, that gun is mine by right of dibbs, but I will allow you to use it, because I am magnanimous. But seriously, if we're going down there, and raiding manager offices, I'm going with the big gun." Alanna informed him pointedly.
James nodded, pursing his lips. "Fair play."
Ignoring both of them for the last few sentences, Dave stood over on the edge, unheeding of the five story drop as he looked upward, idly poking the exposed surface of the orb in his palm. "Hey James," he called over, cutting off the semi-flirtatious banter between James and Alanna, "how did you make your thing work when you blew up the mail cart?"
Out of the corner of his eye, James caught Alanna raising her eyebrows at him. "First of all, 'maul cart'. This is important to me. Also, I didn't 'blow it up', but that's not the point. And third, I got Secret to do it. I kind of assumed you'd know how to do this, since you figured out how to absorb them in the first place." James answered in sequence.
"Hm." Dave looked down, contemplatively.
What was a blue orb? He considered it. It was a tool. The shape of that concept was locked in his mind already. It was metaphysical function, made solid, and then wielded by his body to do... things. Useful things. Useful things? Well, things. Dave supposed it was up to him to make it useful. Though, in some context, literally everything the blues did was useful somehow. But what was it? Was it just the concept of a tool?
Dave could work with that. Tools were something he understood. He wanted to be useful, and in a sense, thought of himself as a tool with a personality attached. Did the orbs have a personality attached? That was almost a scary thought, but Dave didn't really get scared by stuff like that, the same way James seemed to sometimes. Instead, he dove into it. Maybe the orb in his hand was just like him. Maybe it just wanted to help.
Maybe all it needed was to be asked the right way.
Dave reached out with his hand, and drew an imaginary line from where he was, to where they wanted to go, and just asked nicely in his head. "Please?", he appended with a whisper.
And inside his palm, something that he couldn't feel but knew was in motion shifted, and around him, reality changed.
"Yes." He said out loud, causing James and Alanna to look over at him and break off their own conversation with confused grunts. He turned his head back with a small grin. Holding out his hand, he let go of some loose change in the air, and watched it just float there lazily. "Yes, I can do that. Who wants to go grab the bag? I need to sit down."
Getting the bag turned out to be a huge fucking problem, and the pillar of null-gravity turned out to be both a huge help, and a colossal threat to life and limb.
James tried making the jump, after spending a few minutes playing around with the feeling of his limbs being weightless. But he didn't put enough effort into it, his nerves getting the better of him just before the leap. That turned out to be what saved his life, since while everything inside the invisible pillar wasn't affected by gravity, any bit of a person sticking out totally was. And the pull of ten-meters-per-second-squared wasn't that bad, until it started pulling more and more of you out of the pillar. It also didn't help that 'no gravity' didn't mean 'reverse gravity'. Momentum from parts outside could yank at you, and with nothing to brace against, it was basically the same as being in gravity anyway.
So after he slipped out, and started falling to his death, it was only by a narrow margin that Alanna and Dave caught him and bounced him against the edge of the platform once before dragging him back up.
"Okay, that didn't work." Was how James tried to cover up his shaking limbs and internally screaming panic.
While James curled up in the middle of the platform and sipped at some water, they deliberated on a solution. What it came down to, and what worked fairly well, was using the spear gun to fire a harpoon with a rope looped through the end like some kind of Batman gadget through the floor of the platform over their heads, through the gravity tunnel, and then Alanna shimmying up it while doing her best to keep her arms in the invisible corridor of relative safety.
It took a couple tries, but with the backup of just sliding down the rope, it didn't seem to bother Alanna a lot. This actually boggled James' mind; how the hell could someone just casually pull themself along this far off the ground? Like it was normal?
To be fair, James could totally do it. But, well, he'd totally do it with a lot more calm certainty if he was doing it two or three feet off the ground, as opposed to two or three stories.
A thud of a duffel bag hitting the platform jolted him from his thoughts. He'd been watching Alanna, but had sort of drifted off at some point, and the impact of the bag, followed by his friend, woke him back to reality.
"So, you guys ready to go down? I see Dave's got the rope out." Alanna said with a too-cheerful tone. It was true, Dave had unpacked the rest of the rope, and was sorting it into spools.
"Already?" Dave asked.
"Already?" James parroted incredulously. "What the hell does that mean? You want to stay up here?"
"It's safe up here." Dave said. "Peaceful. I can see all the stuff moving around down below."
James half-glared at him. "You can also see all the walls that terminate twenty feet below us, and yet somehow meet the ceiling. Also, we're too high up."
Dave nodded. "The height is how you know it's safe."
"Oh yeah, why not just set up camp here?" James asked sarcastically, while he passed the water bottle over to Alanna at her insistent gesture. "We can just set up here, sleep nice and safe away from all the monsters, and our deaths will be painless when we *roll over the side in the middle of the night*!"
"You never had bunk beds as a kid, did you?" Alanna smirked at him.
"Why would that make a difference?" James responded.
"Oh, I'm just having a hard time imagining you fighting for the top bunk. No one who's had the top bunk would worry about rolling over an edge like this." She told him.
Dave crouched near the edge as he responded. "Why don't we set up camp here? We can use the rope and gravity thing to get up and down. I doubt any of the dungeon life can figure it out."
"Bet you you're wrong." Alanna and James' words were almost perfectly in sync, and they gave each other a quick smile. James continued on; "The striders would almost certainly figure it out. If we're gonna need to keep watch anyway, it might as well be down there."
"You just don't want to be at risk of falling to your death."
"Hmph." Alanna snorted. "Well, that's... perfectly reasonable, and I hate it."
"Yeah, I hear that a lot. It could be on my tombstone." James said with a grin. "So, yes, we should head down. But Dave isn't totally wrong; we should take a moment to look around first. I don't suppose we packed binoculars or something?"
"No dice." Alanna said, shaking her head. She moved over and crouched next to Dave, letting James crawl his way up to the edge on his belly with a roll of her eyes. "Okay, what do we have down there that matters?"
"A lot of strider movement, looks like." Dave said. "I wonder if the swarms you and Anesh talked about were natural functions, and not because you guys made noise. Just a coincidence, maybe?"
James hummed in his throat. "It's possible, but that's a pretty big coincidence. Coincidences seem unlikely here. Though it would explain why we've stopped seeing them, even though we've got more people usually and are making *more* noise, not less."
"Maybe something about the office changed." Alanna said.
James took a deep breath, eyes widening. "Ooooh, no. I hadn't thought of that."
"The office changing. What you said. Anesh and I at least have been treating this place like it's static. But what if it's not? What if it's growing or something, and the swarms were just a phase of its life cycle?"
Dave added in, "or maybe it's dying off, and the swarms were a migration thing. Maybe parts of it become uninhabitable, and the critters inside flock away from the disasters."
"This almost makes me want to watch a lot more from up here." James said, taking a minute to appreciate the view now that he'd gotten used to it and his stomach wasn't churning in fear.
He looked down and watched a ripple of small objects that were probably striders moving down a hallway. They stopped suddenly, and one of them got snapped up by a camraconda, or something that looked like it, while the others fled. Scenes like that played out all over the dungeon; small moments of combat, life or death situations that often ended in something's death. A circle of life, but... it was everywhere.
James found it quite strange that they'd never found any children. No baby striders or 'teenage' tumblefeeds. Where were all these things coming from, that their lives could be taken so frequently and there never seemed to be a dip in population?
"Okay, what do we see that's not staplers being herd animals?" James prompted wryly.
They looked, and it was Dave that pointed first. "Well, there's the offices. I mean, the whole place is an office, that's a given. But those are office-offices. With doors and things."
"Yes, that's what James meant twenty minutes ago when he quipped about meeting management, and then didn't clarify that." Alanna said, glaring at James. "Still, that's probably a good point to start at. Also, here's a note; there's a door in that 'exterior' wall over there." She pointed, and James tried to get a look at it. "No, there. Look. Follow my fucking finger, man." Alanna grabbed James' head by the crown and tilted it so he had the right line of sight. "There, see?" He nodded into her hand with a chuckle. "Okay, well, that's not an office. In fact, it looks like a janitor's closet or something. That might be worth checking out."
"Why? Won't it just be full of hazardous chemicals?" Dave prompted.
"Name one horror film set in an office where there isn't at least one important clue in a janitor's closet."
"Name one horror movie set in an office."
"Nevermind. We'll put it on the list." James cut Alanna off. "Although, that might be a window next to it? So we should be cautious. I'm also curious what that is."
Following James' point with a lot more accuracy that James had for anyone else, Dave took a glance toward the spot on the floor that he indicated. "It's just an open area. So?"
"I think it's a drinking fountain?" James said. "Like, look at the support collum there. I think it's actually four of those standard water coolers, back to back, and then kind of... improved."
"Why?" Alanna asked, a little too harshly.
He shrugged. "I dunno, I've just seen those things a lot in school and around here and stuff, so it reminds me of..."
"No, dummy. Why is it *there*?" She corrected her tone to a more jovial one.
"Oh! That's much less offensive." James shook the growing gloom out of his head. He was finding it too easy to get knocked on his mental ass by a misplaced word these days. "I have no idea why it's there! But it's kinda weird, and also not that weird, since there's water coolers all over the place. Maybe it's just the dungeon acting more like a dungeon and putting a water feature in?"
Dave shrugged, projecting the gesture backward as he kept looking. "I think it's a lot priority." He stated bluntly. "Are we concerned about the buildings?"
"What buildings!?" James swiveled his head around, trying to see what Dave meant.
"Those buildings." Dave would have rolled his eyes, if he was the kind of person who really disliked clarifying questions. "Over there. They look like... maybe two story apartment buildings?"
They did. The cubicles in some points rose above those around them, and this was pretty normal. They'd all walked through the hallways, and seen the places where the walls rose up over their heads, and the geometry started to warp into strange fractal patterns. But these protrusions that Dave had spotted weren't quite like that. Among the patterns of cubicle walls, rising and falling, there were a few points where the walls formed up into recognizable structures.
Most of them were, as Dave mentioned, only two stories or so. But they were... well, buildings. And taller than anything else around. There were windows carved into the sides in strange shapes, showing off the still standard desks inside. One of the handful of structures had a balcony that they could see; a flat plane of cube wall, turned on its side and jutting out at a slight upward angle. Spots of greenery adorned it, potted plants enjoying the artificial sun; and James' imagination told him in no uncertain terms that there was a rolling office seat also positioned there, posing as a folding deck chair.
"Those sure are buildings." Alanna said. "Hey, maybe that's where we set up camp. Those are sort of in the direction back to the main door."
"Hey, follow up thought." James said, looking up to other parts of the ceiling. "From up here, we can see the upward curve of the floor, right? And now we know... there's stuff inside the ceiling. Are we... is this place a ringworld?"
Dave looked back at him with a puzzled expression, eyebrows raised. "A what?"
Both of his friends turned to him, Alanna biting her lip and James with his mouth half open. "No, impossible." James said. "There's no way. You live on the internet, you play sci-fi games all the time. You've played fucking Halo. How do you not know what a ringworld is?"
"Oh. I know what a halo is. Is that the same thing?"
"...Well, you see, the array shown in Halo isn't quite a true ringworld in the Niven sense. You'd have to have..."
"Yes." Alanna cut in, loudly. "Yes! It's that thing you said! James, please, stop explaining science fiction from the sixties."
James grumbled under his breath, "Ringworld was actually published in 1970..." Before clearing his throat at a glare from Alanna. "Right, not important. So, we'll check out those buildings. Anything else?" He asked
They sat there for some time, just passively taking in the sights. The view from up here was, again, once James got used to the height, staggering. So much movement, so much activity. He imagined this was how an explorer from the early days of the age of discovery would have felt, standing on a cliff over an unexplored jungle. There were so many options, and almost none of them were what he was here for, or led him back to home safely.
"Is that a copy center?" Alanna asked?
Well that was a terrifying sentence.
James had to crawl over to another side, where Alanna had walked comfortably, to see what she was looking at. It was on the other side of one of the walls from the offices. "Yeah, looks like it." About a half dozen of the copiers, positioned in an semi-open area, all of them roaming freely. They were large enough that they were pretty easy to spot, even from this height. "Floor down there looks weird." James mumbled to himself. "Okay, we need to avoid that place at all costs." He told the others.
"Dave, did no one tell you about the copier we fought? It made a hundred replicas of Anesh's face, and they were all trying to kill us and covered in teeth."
"That's a good reason why." Dave acquiesced almost instantly.
"Hey, why do the tumblefeeds always seem to cluster around break room areas?" Alanna asked suddenly, pointing down. "Shouldn't they be in server rooms or something? Or, like, in between cubicles where all the cords get tangled up?"
"That is strange." Dave stated frankly. "Maybe they just like it there?"
"I think we're doing that thing where we're counting on everything having metaphorical consistency, when the dungeon totally doesn't have a reason to make it that way." James answered. "Also, I've seen a couple of them roaming the aisles from up here. Or, well, over the aisles. They *do* seem to prefer going over walls to following paths. That's weird."
"Not that one." Dave pointed.
They looked where he was pointing. It was pretty close to right under them; headed their way at least. And sure enough, a tumblefeed was just rolling along, dragging itself forward at a pretty fast clip.
"Okay, not that one." James said. "But I think... wait..."
Alanna picked up the sentence. "That one's chasing something."
James scooted forward to keep them in his line of sight. "That one is chasing *someone*. Holy shit. Fuck! We need to get down there!"
"Wait, hang on." Dave raised a hand to make a point. "That's probably not a person! Like, all the 'employees' here, right?"
"Every stuffed shirt is instantly recognizable as not human." Alanna said. "Those two aren't. We need to move." She unzipped one of the duffles with a harsh yank, spilling a couple slightly-flattened sandwiches in plastic baggies onto the platform while she pulled out a break action shotgun. It wasn't as useful in an actual fight as her Mossberg would have been, but right now, it was what they had to work with. "James! Let's move!"
She didn't need to shout. James had already pulled out the hockey pads from the other bag and was putting them on. Dave was doing the same, hesitation still on his face, but no slower for it.
"Dave, take the spear gun! Alanna, hand me that pistol!" She passed over the holster to him, along with a box of bullets that he poured into his pocket without ceremony. Fumbling to undo his belt and get the holster onto, it, James looked up to find the other two ready to go by the time he was done.
They looked a fierce group, the three of them. Armed with improvised guns, real guns, and the spare crowbar and cheap machete that they'd been able to scrounge up, and one pair of gardening shears in a duct tape sheath on Alanna's back. Plated with hockey pads, work gloves, and shin guards repurposed into bracers. They looked like extras off the set of Mad Max who hadn't had the spikes put on their armor yet. But they also looked like they were ready for a scrap. Maybe not ready to be the cavalry, riding to the rescue, saving innocents and other such heroic deeds. But certainly ready to kick some ass.
James looked down over the edge. The fear burned away by righteous anger. Below them, just passing under the edge of their platform, two people ran at a frantic pace to try to outstrip the ball of hostile cables and copper fangs lurching after them. James looked up at Alanna, and saw that same angry determination in her eyes. Glancing over to Dave, the reluctance from earlier was being replaced by calm acceptance as he met James' eyes.
"Dave." James said, calmly, iron in his voice. "Make us a path down."
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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!