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A note from argusthecat

Just a short one today, to avoid that whole thing of waiting a fortnight for another cliffhanger.  Enjoy!

Today's music.

Theo was having one of those 'bad day' things that she'd heard so much about as a kid.

 

Growing up, Theo had been an energetic twerp. Always smiling, always bouncing off the walls, always ready for the next school assignment or art project or whatever. Her parents, to their credit, had not just tolerated her, but encouraged her to try new things and enjoy everything in the world. In high school, it continued much the same way, but now, she had a social circle, school clubs, sports, prom... new faces to old joys.

 

The first time Theo could remember ever having a bad day was when she broke her arm in soccer practice. And even then, it was kind of exhilarating, and then she got a sweet cast for everyone to sign. The first time she could actually remember having a bad day with no upside was when she met her boyfriend's parents in college, and they informed him that he was no longer permitted to date one of "those people". She'd wanted to hit something so bad, she went out and signed up for an amateur rugby league.

 

She'd never understood people who had boyfriend trouble, or couldn't make ends meet, or just came in to work some days and not been feeling that great. It wasn't that she was too stupid to understand desperation or depression; just that she'd never really felt it.

 

Well, for what her phone told her was the last two days or so, Theo had gotten intimately familiar with that feeling.

 

"Fucking move!" Her normal command presence cracked and worn after two days of running for her life, causing her voice to come out more as a hoarse scream than a yell. One hand out shoving Daniel along by his collar, trying to catch him as he stumbled. He'd been her charge for the last two days, which felt like a weird reversal.

 

When Frank had shut the door behind them with nothing more than a grunt of mild satisfaction, they had found themselves in somewhere impossible. After it became clear that it wasn't a joke, and the old man really wasn't just playing an overly elaborate prank on them, there'd been a few moments of mixed panic and wonder. This place really was intense, with its strange and twisted geometry, and the bizarre product placement in some of the desks. Even though she knew she couldn't survive on them alone, Theo was perfectly fine sampling the dozens of different kinds of candy that she'd never seen on Earth. So far, the one called Shut Up And Eat This was her favorite, though that might just be subliminal messaging at work. And in those first couple hours, Daniel had composed himself, and really acted the part of a security guard; even though he was new and looked like he was about twelve. He took point, he stayed calm, and he really did his best to act like he was confident in himself, which impressed Theo a lot.

 

Then he got mauled by a computer tower. The thing looked like a cross between a wood chipper and a terminator, crammed into one of the standardized black plastic cases that they used at the office back in the normal world, and it tore into Daniel's leg like it was a starving wolverine.

 

And after that, Theo was the one taking point. For her, the threat and the danger was exciting. For Daniel, it almost broke him. He was too afraid to do anything, now. Theo had barely slept the last two nights, since she was keeping watch, and she didn't trust the kid not to do something stupid.

 

So now, sprinting down this hallway as best she could with a panicked, stumbling, crying teenager in one hand, and the struggling caterpillar iPhone she'd been fiddling with in the other, Theo was having a truly bad day.

 

Because the thing behind her was probably going to kill them all, and she had no idea how to get out of it.

 

It was an IT department's nightmare come to life. A ten-foot wide ball of cables, some of them corded together like rope to form grappling limbs that dragged it forward when it wasn't rolling like some psycopath's idea of a porcupine. It made almost no noise, except for a constant rustling and some thuds when it's arm-claws hit the floor. But despite that, or maybe because of it, Theo was absolutely sure that it was here for their blood. After all, what else would something like this be for, if not draining the precious bodily fluids of intruders? They'd probably be strung up, dried husks by the door as a warning to anyone else, if not for the fact that something like that would break the aesthetic. Their pink slips, maybe?

 

Theo's mind took her down weird paths when faced with certain death.

 

Still trying to run, she shoved Daniel's head down to duck him under a low hanging chunk of cubicle wall, twisted out and turned sideways into a horribly placed ceiling. Theo winced with him as he stumbled, his injured leg not doing a great job of holding him up, and the makeshift bandage not doing *any* kind of useful job keeping his blood inside him. But she kept them moving forward, even though her hope had died about two turns ago when the thing kept coming over walls to ambush them, just when they thought they were in the clear.

 

She was going to die, and she'd never done anything important. This was awful. She worked in a fucking call center. And it didn't matter to Theo that the call center was only one or two floors of the building that contained a whole lot of other things. There wasn't much of a chance she was getting promoted to head of engineering anytime soon anyway. Especially not now, what with the upcoming bloody dismemberment.

 

Passing under the mock ceiling, Theo felt the last of her hope give out. In front of them, instead of anything resembling cover or hiding spots, there was just more hallway. Ten, twenty, a hundred meters of hallway. Cubicles set into the walls, yes, but those offered no real shelter. Theo's shoulders slumped, her legs burning from exertion. This was it. There was no way she'd make it to the next corner, even without Daniel dragging her down.

 

Then Daniel fell next to her, a stumble turning into a topple as his leg and his lungs finally gave out. And for the first time in her life, Theo sighed, and gave up.

 

There was no time to get him up. Nowhere left to run. No chances left, finally. Frank's murder-by-labrinth was a roaring, if delayed, success.

 

Theo turned, dragging in rough breaths of air, and steadying herself. She planted her feet, and took a boxer's stance, turning slightly to toss the still-squirming iPhone onto Daniel's prone form. By the time the thing she'd decided to call a CAT-o'-5 tails crawled its way through the enclosed space, Theo was standing with her back tall and her fists up.

 

"Come on, you Cthulhu-looking mother fucker." She hissed at it. "I'm gonna punch you at least once before you get to eat me." Theo raised her fists, the terror in her chest replaced by just dull emptiness and anger. What the fuck was this monster, to be the thing that killed her? If nothing else, she hoped that her bones gave it indigestion. But as her would-be killer closed in, Theo couldn't find enough left in her to be afraid, just... wearily resigned.

 

And the cord beast looked inclined to oblige her. But then, without any warning, the end of a brand new black cord slapped loosely into the floor in front of her, the rest of it leading up to the ceiling. And then another one. Not living creatures, just... loose rope?

 

Before she could even check to see where it came from, a moving shape hit the floor in front of her, sliding down the rope with nothing but a gloved grip before slamming into the ground. It took Theo a second to realize that the thing in front of her was human, and not one of the creepy ones around this place either. Another woman, broad frame made broader by what looked like sports padding, and towering a foot over Theo's head, rose up from where she'd landed in a crouch on the floor, dull black hair in a small ponytail over tanned white skin. As soon as she stood up, she shouldered a heavy duffle bag to the floor with another thump; shrugging the pack past a crowbar clutched firmly in hand.

 

"What..." Theo started to say, before a second body slammed into the floor. This one, howling something she couldn't understand, and not nearly as coordinated. He hit the ground, no bags or anything holding him back. Theo spotted the gun in a holster on his belt, but as the young man rolled to his feet, he made no move to reach for it.

 

Instead, he finished the epitaph as he skidded to a crouched position between her and the CAT-o'-five tails. "...Yooooooooouuuuu!" He bellowed out, one arm raised in front of him, traces of something blue, ephemeral, and serpentine coiled around it.

 

And then the monster fucking exploded.

 

When the blinding rush of dust passed, and she could blink her eyes clean again, Theo was treated to the sight of the woman stalking forward with a hunter's movements, and driving her gloved fist into the core of what was left of their former predator. All that remained of the thing that had been about to kill Theo and Daniel was a wireframe skeleton; copper strands perched in the form of a stalking animal, it's last moment about to lunge for a kill captured forever in metallic relief.

 

Then the girl ripped out its polyhedral heart and smashed it.

 

Daniel struggled to his feet next to Theo, keeping the iPhone thing in a cuddling embrace, as if afraid to let go of a favorite dog and not something that they'd sort of accidentally picked up. "What in the hell..." He started to say, before breaking off into a coughing fit.

 

"Come on down, Dave!" The man called up the ropes, and Theo glaced up to see someone with a pair of large duffel bags on them struggling to climb down in a way that was less hazardous to the ankles than just sliding down and kicking the ground at mach one. It took her a second, but she was startled to realize that she knew that voice, and knew the face of their savior.

 

Maybe he expected it, but Theo was kind of surprised that the first words out of her mouth were, "James, what the fuck are you doing here?!"

 

"Looting." Her employee responded seamlessly, like he was born in the fires of banter. "Alanna, you got the thing? Oh, also, hey Theo. I wanted to have something witty to say here, but I didn't think of anything on the way down. Sorry."

 

"Yup." The other girl - Alanna - said, holding up a shimmering green orb.

 

Theo blinked, staring at the object. The color of it... "What the hell is that?" She demanded of them. "No, seriously, James, what is that thing?" Theo took a half step backward, afraid of what it might do.

 

"It's an orb. Look, we need to get out of here. Dave's gonna be down soon, I don't think you guys are in any shape to climb forty feet up, so we need to find somewhere safe."

 

"Apartments?" Alanna prompted.

 

James nodded back at her. "Yeah, let's set for that. Got the path?"

 

"Mostly. Dave'll know, he's good at that." She confirmed.

 

Theo broke in again. "No, James, that thing can't be real." She pointed a finger, trembling from exhaustion and concern in equal measure, at the orb. "That's impossible."

 

James just smiled back at her. "Oh, so, you've cracked some of these? Takes some getting used to, but it..."

 

"Why does it look that way?!" Theo half-yelled at him.

 

"Ssh!" James and Alanna hushed her in unison, with James asking the question. "Look like what?"

 

"That! It's a color I have literally never seen before!" Theo hush-yelled at them.

 

Alanna raised an eyebrow. "Are you colorblind?" She asked.

 

Too tired to do anything but answer, Theo just nodded. "Yeah, red-green. Why?"

 

"Okay, this is green." Alanna said. "You can see the color green. Or at least, you can in the orb. That's horrifying for a lot of reasons, we'll get into them later. Dave!" She cut off from talking to Theo to address the new arrival to the ground. "Get this guy bandaged up. Um... you..."

 

"Daniel." The kid provided.

 

"Yeah, Daniel. We're gonna get a patch on your leg, and then we're gonna need to run for a bit. Can you guys do that?" Alanna asked of them.

 

It was impossible. They'd barely slept in two days, they hadn't had a real meal in just as long, they'd sprinted for the last hour just to stay alive. Their legs ached, their lungs burned, they were frayed and exhausted to a level that normal humans never reached.

 

But Theo and Daniel shared a glance, and then nodded. "Yeah, I can run some more." Daniel said, his blood still dripping down his leg.

 

"Good." James said, taking the crowbar from Alanna as she pulled a shotgun out of the duffel bag that Dave set down, before awkwardly shouldering the bag. "Because we may have attracted some attention. Grab your iLipede and let's get going."

 

Dave finished the bindings on Daniel's leg, snapped the medkit shut, and with a strange haste, shoved it back into the bag and got ready to move. Theo was about to ask what the hurry was, but then, in the distance, a series of noises like pen scratches on paper echoed in the silence. James leaned down to where she was taking the opportunity to sit for a minute, and offered her a hand up. And Theo wondered if maybe it wouldn't have been easier to just die at the hands of the cable monster.

 

But at least she wasn't having a bad day anymore.

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A note from argusthecat
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There is no terminus to the relationship between our three primary characters.

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About the author

argusthecat

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!

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