The shellaxy was having a bad day, though in fairness, it could be worse. It's nap had been interrupted by a bunch of squishy food walking into its nest. And then, when it tried to take a bite - just a small bite! - out of one of them, it had been toppled over. Now, it writhed its cords frantically, but found no purchase at its current ninety degree angle, still held down by some immovable weight.
James kept his foot planted on the shellaxy as everyone else huddled into the cubicle, keeping their distance. "You know, I'm starting to feel a bit like Steve Irwin." He said absently. "We come into a place with all this super-aggressive wildlife, and then wrestle it, and one day, I'm gonna get murdered by a paper shredder the size of a truck."
"That's pretty pessimistic." Alanna commented, poking at the underside of the shellaxy with the crowbar. "You might not die? Is that the proper reassurance?"
A shrug in response. "Eh. I'm not looking forward to it, but everything's been going super well in my life lately, so I figure the scales of fate will balance themselves out eventually. And I'm not gonna stress it."
Alanna chuckled. "How zen of you." She lightly punched him in the shoulder. "But you're not allowed to die within a year of us getting together. I'm not going to another boyfriend funeral."
James started. "Sorry, *another*? How many... wait, I've never seen you date anyone! When did this happen?"
"During college." She answered. "I was with this guy for about a week before he got in a car accident, and he'd sorta lied to his mom about the nature of our relationship, so I awkwarded my way through the funeral service."
"Ouch..." James muttered. "Well, I promise my mom has no idea what our relationship is."
"Given what our relationship is, that's probably wise." Alanna shot him a smile.
From off to the side, Dave rolled his eyes at the two of them as he checked the shelves, signaling them clear of traps and concealed striders. This cubicle had a neighbor that was a bit elevated, and as a result, the shelves on the right side walked their way up the wall in a back-and-forth pattern that went to well over eight feet up. And Dave was acquainted enough with the office to know that any given thing on those shelves might at some point try to murder him, so he was preempting the inevitable strider ambush with a quick check.
While Dave considered commenting on James and Alanna's casual flirting, Theo beat him to talking. "Are you serious right now?" The woman demanded of James as she slumped into the available chair, leaving Daniel to settle himself down on the floor, leaning against the side of the desk. "You need to keep quiet, or they'll find us!" Theo hissed.
"Nah, we're more or less fine." James told her, his voice quiet, but not whispering. "We might attract a stapler or two, but stuff like the tumblefeeds or the paper pushers make enough noise that we can hear them coming before they can hear us talking. Actually, so far, talking at this volume hasn't caused any problems, honestly. It's kinda surprising."
From the floor, through a haze of stinging pain and codeine, Daniel looked up to ask James, "How do you guys know this stuff? You're being... acting... all... like this is a normal place. Is this a shopping mall? Did I hallucinate the monsters?"
"No, the monsters are real." James said, sliding the shellaxy out of the cubicle with bursts of movement from his foot. He shoved it out, giving it a small tilt to help it right itself. "Get out of here." He muttered to the mobile PC, shooing it away with his hand. He turned back into the cube as the shellaxy shuffled away, briefly stopping to consider trying to lunge for James again, but ultimately deciding it didn't want to end up under a boot again. "I don't like the term 'monsters', though. I don't want to think of this place as a video game dungeon, you know?"
"Despite the fact that it's a video game dungeon." Alanna interjected, pulling a candy bar out of a drawer. "Look, it even has loot drops! Even though I'm hesitant to eat something called 'Hella Sweet'." She held the wrapped bar of probably-chocolate at arm's length with a wrinkled nose. "Hrm. Well, nothing ventured..."
James snickered a bit as he turned to look out the door, peering down the hallway to see the small 'hill' of more structured cubicles rising up in the distance. He felt like it should maybe be shrouded in grim, dark grey mists, but for all that it was a dungeon, the office still had really good air conditioning. Dave stepped up next to him, and took a peek. "Looks like about two miles?" James mused to his friend.
"Sounds right." Dave said. "We should rest here for a while, then start moving. Alanna and I can do some looting if you'll keep watch."
"Yeah, give them a minute to rest." James tilted his head back to throw a glance at Theo and Daniel, both of whom had been basically in constant fear and flight for the last two days. He huffed out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Let's see if we can find anything useful, then move to the tower." He raised his voice to call back to Alanna and the others, cutting off Theo who was now barraging Alanna with questions. "Okay, for those who don't know, our known door out of here opens at T-minus 85 hours. It is also..." He waved a hand of spread fingers off into the distance, "a bit of a ways away. So. We're going to take that hill, set up camp, and after we've had some time to let you guys recover and us to nap, we're going to start the trek home. Questions?"
"Why's it really cute when you take the leadership role?" Alanna called back.
James flushed, glaring at her. "Any *actual question*?" He asked, averting his eyes to Theo and Daniel.
"Do you know what's going on here?" Daniel asked, his face still pale and sweaty from the pain of running on his injured leg. "You didn't really answer Theo."
"Yeah, it's... well, okay, no. We don't know any of the structural answers, no." James admitted. "But we're getting good at the exploits. This place exists slightly outside of reality, it's got some kind of weird time distortion, but don't worry about that. It has life in it that's fucked up, and looks mostly like mutant office supplies. Um... what else?"
"It has candy and money, that's the big draw." Alanna supplied. "I was telling Theo about the money part."
Theo let out a snort. "Yeah, explains why you've been so much more relaxed lately. I would be too, if I had ten grand in the bank."
"Oh, no." James informed her, tactfully. "I'm still broke. I can just make rent. We've been spending all the money on survival gear, for coming back in. We just... well, we came in a different door to rescue you guys, so we had to leave the thermite launcher and body armor behind."
"The... what?" Daniel stuttered.
"Body armor. It's, like, hard shell protection? Covers joints and limbs, makes it easy to tank striders, even in swarms."
"No, the other thing!"
Alanna threw the uneaten half of her candy at James' head. "He does this. The thermite is for killing the tumblefeeds. Ah, what you call the CAT-o-five tails, which is a *great* name. Anesh is gonna love that one."
Clenching and opening her fists, trying to find the words, Theo settled on saying, "And you've just been doing this? A dozen times, now?"
"More like...six?" James asked.
"I've been here for three, I think." Alanna said. "It's amazing how fast you get used to it. I'm here for the chance to change the world, I think James is just addicted to combat."
James let out a "Hey!" at her. "We don't just *say* that." He said. "Anyway. You guys rest. I'm on watch. Alanna, Dave's gonna go loot, want to join up with him?"
"On it!" Came the cheerful reply.
He took a few quiet moments to compose himself as the two left. Just standing in the door, looking down the hallway of cubicles, and taking a few seconds to be alone, and quiet. It felt like it'd been solid socializing and dumb heroism for the last few days, and James was starting to get worn down. But here, staring at the flock of paper fluttering by the stacked cubicle walls of their destination as a ceiling light flickered overhead, he could at least have a bit of breathing room.
It was always interesting to James that he never got bored of the sights in here. Sure, a lot of the time, he just kind of marked off tactical points in his head; door, hall, overhang, paper vines, whatever. But when he did have the time to stop and look, it never failed to amaze him. The office was, fundamentally, unnatural. It was grey and beige instead of green and brown and blue, it was metal and plastic chitin instead of flesh and bone, and it was cords and monitors instead of vines and leaves. But it was beautiful, all the same. He could still see how it curved up into a horizon, far off in the distance, hinting at an infinitely larger space ahead, and he could see those flocks of paper, now peppered with blackhawks, filling the skies. Past the hill that was their target, at one point, he thought he caught a flash of a larger wingspan, but couldn't spot it again. And the sounds, too! Just standing here in the quiet wasn't actually quiet, like he'd thought. It had that dead air feel of an office, yes, but with its own life below it that he'd not noticed on the first few trips. Small squeaks as worn wheeled chairs were bumped, the low hum of the AC kicking away, and the occasional clatter as something wooden was tossed onto a desk. It was vibrant, and startling, and James loved it.
Theo ruined his moment of solace by rolling over to the door in her pilfered chair and lightly kicking at his knee. "So, what's up with the monsters?" She asked directly.
"We don't call them monsters." James informed her, trying to decide if he was amused or annoyed. "Life forms, or entities, or something like that."
"Enemies?" Theo asked.
Daniel chimed in from behind them. "What about mobs?" He said.
Now firmly on the side of 'annoyed', James replied still staring out into the horizon. "No. Because those are also hostile terms."
"...why?" Daniel asked, sounding legitimately curious.
When James answered, after a small pause, his voice was soft. "I really believe," he said, "that the first step to being evil, or at least doing evil, is making sure that all your enemies are just monsters." James told them. "So you can say, 'oh, they don't think like us.' 'They don't feel like us.' 'It's okay to farm them, they're not actually alive.' That sorta thing. So, I don't want to start calling things monsters, when we're the ones coming into their house and taking their stuff."
"What about the cord thing?" Theo asked pointedly.
"Oh, if they try to murder me, then it's on." James said. "But, well, like with the shellaxy there, right? I didn't need to kill it, and I *did* wake it up from its nap, so it doesn't feel right. But if one of them really tries to murder me, or especially Alanna or Anesh, or... maybe Dave? Well, then yeah, they're an enemy. But that's different." He turned his head over to look at Theo. "So they're life forms. Or something like that."
She sat there for a second, before snorting in derision. "Nah, this place is fucked. You're respecting it too much."
"He's also getting his ass kicked less than you, though." Daniel chimed in. But as soon as Theo turned to glare at him, he flushed red and turned away.
Turning her glare back to James, she demanded of him, "And how the hell is that, anyway?"
"Well, it's pretty simple." James told her as he eyed a pair of blackhawk paper airplanes dog fighting each other overhead. "We come in, we have a map, usually better armor, and we pick a direction and go. Sometimes we take a lot of time to just toss every cubicle for cash and stuff, but other times, we just go exploring. It's great."
"And you're not dead?" Theo gave another huff. "I don't believe it. You're an easily intimidated nerd." She told him. James pointedly ignored her, and turned back to watch out the door again. "Also, since when are you some kinda conservationist? I've seen you eat meat."
James snorted. "That's a mild hypocrisy on my part, sure. Though I'm sure I can fix it when vat grown meat becomes a thing. Look, the bottom line is, pointless killing just isn't cool. And if I'm anything, it's a cool dude." He trailed off as a spot of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Something moving down the wall toward Daniel's head, in a slow and unnaturally smooth motion that had almost let it go totally unnoticed. "Hold that thought." James said calmly, and he took two careful steps and lashed out the grab the thing.
It was a computer mouse, which was weird. Well, actually, it wasn't weird at all. They'd seen weirder things since coming in here, and James had to do a quick sanity check on the fact that Rufus and his ilk were *pretty fucking bizarre* when you got right down to it. As soon as James grabbed it, he felt relief that he'd worn gloves, as the two front buttons popped open slightly to stab out at him with paperclip fangs. They dug into the leather of the glove slightly, but didn't pierce, and James felt the pressure of multiple trackballs underneath it struggling to get free; it's cord 'tail' whipping back and forth.
"What the fuck is that?!" Daniel cried a little too loudly, pulling himself back as fast as he could to bump up against the other side of the desk.
James held it up and peered at it. "Well, it looks like a mouse." He said. It was matte black now, having changed color at some point, with grey trim that, as he watched, rippled open and shut like it was a pair of gills along the side of the creature. The tail wasn't as long as a cord normally was, maybe two-ish feet long, and moved with surprisingly little motivation. It also ended in something that wasn't a normal connector, and James snagged it in his other hand to check it out.
"I can see it's a mouse." Theo said. "Also, it's moving! Why's it..."
James was going to interrupt, but Theo trailed off herself as she realized what she'd said. "It's the office, it just... yeah, you know." James laughed a little bit. He'd been slightly worried that this thing might be another assuredly lethal threat, but now it was looking a lot more like it was just another small lifeform, like a strider. It tried to dig its claw/fangs into his glove again; a vicious strider, then. He kept a solid grip on it as he checked out the tail connector. "You're a weird one, aren't you? What does this even plug into?" James looked at it with a raised eyebrow. It looked like it had a pair of metal prongs, but neither of them were sharpened, so it wasn't a weapon. "Not anything I've ever seen." James said, and dropped the tail.
At which point, the mouse promptly took full control of it, and stabbed it into James' neck.
Well, it tried to. The hockey armor made the rounded copper prongs skid off for a second, and James instinctively dropped the mouse to try to distance himself from it. But as he fell, the cord jerked down and the tip caught him just under the chin.
Pain flashed through James' skin, like he was on fire, but underneath the surface. His legs almost gave out as thousands of volts of electricity coursed through the connection with an audible crackle. Then the connection broke, the creature hit the ground, and James staggered backward, cracking his head on the shelf behind him. It hurt so bad, he couldn't think, couldn't react properly, in that horrible way that pain clouds the thoughts. He didn't even register that the creature was zipping toward him in sporadic back and forth darts of motion, until it was almost upon him again.
Before James could think of what to even do about it, Daniel smashed it with a keyboard.
In fairness, that probably stunned the creature even less than the taser-tail had stunned James. Daniel clearly hadn't put a lot of follow through into the hit with his improvised weapon, maybe thinking that this thing had the bone structure of a squishable bug or something, or maybe just not mentally prepared to murder a thing after James had spent five minutes talking about why he didn't want to murder things.
Still, it got the mouse's attention, and seeing it was outnumbered, it made a lunging roll for the door. Daniel threw the keyboard at it, which it somehow *ducked*, flattening itself by overlapping its chitin plates just enough that the spinning discus of an input device sailed over it and clattered raucously into the wall. James lunged for it, and tried to just stomp the thing, but woozy balance and pain made the kick come down way off target.
Theo didn't even try, staying up on the swivel chair, knees tucked in, watching the thirty second skirmish with alert panic. She just kept a sharp eye on the creature as it darted out the door, to the wall of the adjacent cubicle, and then up that wall, and then out of sight.
As James slowly knelt down onto the hard floor, and tried to sit down in a way that would make his head stop throbbing, was when Dave and Alanna got back. Alanna arrived first, sliding into view in the door as she cut momentum from her sprint. Dave was close behind, but more controlled. "You guys alright? We heard screaming."
"Shouting." Daniel quietly muttered.
"Yeah, we're okay." James said, poking experimentally at his chin and getting a spike of weirdly numb pain in response.
Alanna knelt down in front of him. "What the fuck happened to you? There's a black mark on your chin." She reached out and touched it, causing another wince from James.
Holding up a hand to keep any more poking away from his face, James took a breath and felt his head starting to clear a bit. "Yeah, so, here's a question. We know the dungeon learns from us, right? So, was anyone dumb enough to teach it about Pokemon somehow?"
Dave and Alanna looked at him, puzzled. "Did you hit your head?" Alanna asked.
"Whyyyy... would..." Dave started to ask, before being preempted by Daniel.
The probably-ex-security guard chimed in cheerfully, "Oh, because it's an electric mouse! I get it!" He said, perhaps with a little too much enthusiasm.
"New problem?" Alanna asked, taking the nylon bag of medical supplies from Dave as he handed it over to her from the duffle.
"New problem." James nodded. "Computer mouse, finally. I'm kind of shocked it... I'm kind of surprised it took so long for us to run into one." He rubbed under his chin again, feeling the weird texture of the skin where he'd been zapped. "I hate it." He followed up.
"Stop poking that." Alanna said, knocking his hand away. She opened up the medkit and looked down at the neatly slotted bandages, ointments, and tools. "I... also have straight up no idea what the fuck to do here, either. It looks like it's burned under your skin? Is that what electric shock does? Dave?" Alanna looked over at him, but he just shrugged. "Okay, well, fine. Thanks."
Theo was the one who answered, finally getting off the chair, though still watching where the mouse had run off to. "It's fine. Just disinfect the area, and keep it clean when the skin starts peeling off in a day or two."
"Oh. Um. Thanks." Alanna said, moving to do just that, a little put off by Theo suddenly being helpful after mostly being silent or belligerent on the jog here.
"Also sorry." Dave said sheepishly, idly kicking at the keyboard on the floor at his feet as he spoke. "I may have brought Pokemon into the dungeon. So, that's my bad." He admitted.
"How?" "When?" James and Alanna asked more or less at the same time.
"I found a gameboy in here last time that shows up when I'm bored." Dave told them. "I've been playing Pokemon on break at work."
James sat back and sighed, resisting the urge to keep picking at the now-itching spot where he'd been struck. "That's... unbelievably cool. You should remember to tell us about those things. Anyway, no, it's probably spawned from Anesh and I losing a taser in here a long time ago. Or maybe it's just another dungeon thing that we should've been worried about from the start. Either way, no hard feelings. Now, more important than that, what'd you guys find on your little loot-n-scoot?"
Dave and Alanna cleared a space on the desk, pushing more stuff away from where Daniel had already ripped the keyboard off, and started pulling stuff out of pockets.
"Two hundred-ish dollars, real. Eighteen point seven nonreal."
"Nonreal?" Theo asked, confused.
"Money the dungeon generates that isn't legal denominations. Hold onto it." Alanna offered the sheaf of bills. "We can use it for vending machines."
Dave plopped a flash drive down. "A wikipedia entry on local fauna in Movali."
"Where the hell is Movali?" Daniel asked from the floor.
"Nowhere. That's why it's interesting, and I took it."
Alanna set down two blue orbs. "We found two pencils, one that drew in straight lines only, which made actually writing impossible, and one that had liquid graphite in it, which was kinda worrying."
"The fuck is that?" Theo asked from the side.
"The actual color blue." James said. "Dave, anything else?"
"A granola bar labeled 'One Punch Gran', which Alanna said you'd appreciate?" Dave ignored James suddenly dying in peals of laughter, and continued as his friend gasped for air on the floor. "Also, we got into a fight with a couple striders. I got a point in human resources protocol, Alanna got... medicine recognition?"
Alanna snorted. "Not even. It's a rank in medication side effects. I'm turning into a walking WebMD."
"Right." Dave nodded. "Which is useful. Anyway, we also found a really long straight shot hallway that should get us pretty close to the base of the hill. You guys ready, or should we sit for another five or ten?" He asked the assembled group.
Catching his breath, wiping small drops from the corners of his eyes as he sat back up, James smiled widely. "Oh man, that's good. Points to you, dungeon, that one caught me off guard." He inhaled deeply, smelling the rarified air, the thin scent of sweat, the coppery tang of blood. "Before we get moving, and before I forget. Theo, what happened to that iLipede that you had?"
"The what?" Theo gave him a blank look, before understanding hit her and she let out an "oooh, yeah. The phone! I... um..." She reached into her pocket, a bit hesitant, and pulled out the iLipede, apparently in sleep mode as it was unresisting. "Shit, I didn't break it did I?"
"Nah, it's just sleeping." James said. "Did you check it at all? Any apps, or contacts or whatever?"
Now her expression went from blank to outright puzzled. "Why would it have apps? It's not a real phone, is it? Like, if you plugged that mouse into a computer, it wouldn't work as a mouse."
"...Would it?" Dave asked hesitantly from the door. "We should try that." He stated confidently, and Alanna nodded along, pointing at him in affirmation.
"Irrelevant. The point is that ilipedes - we call them iLipedes, by the way - have apps. Well, the one we found has one app. Yours might too. So give it a check, and if it's useful, ask it if it wants to come along." James told her, leaning back to rest his head on the wall. He'd only been in here for an hour or two, at most, and he was already feeling exhaustion catch up to him. He'd just sit for a minute while Theo, with Dave's help in case the phone turned hostile, poked at the screen. Then he'd get up, he promised himself, as he dozed off.
All too soon, his nap was cut short by Alanna crouching in front of him. "Hey." She said in the softest voice she had in her arsenal. "Time to get up, sparky. We're moving out."
"I'm up." James garbled out, not meaning it at all. Still, he let her pull him upward, and winced at how sore his neck was from even shortly sleeping in the armor. "Ugh. This thing gets more uncomfortable by the minute." He groused. Then looked around; it was just the two of them in the cubicle. "Where..."
"Dave's leading them forward. We're the rearguard. You seemed tired." She said, smiling down at him.
James grinned back at her, before reaching up to pet through her hair and give her a short kiss. The romantic gestures between them always felt natural to both of them when it happened, but James was well aware that they were both still learning that they had to actually *do something* if they wanted them to happen. "Thanks for letting me sleep a bit." He told her. "Was there anything cool on the iLipede?"
She nodded at him, putting her hair back where it was supposed to be as they moved out, Alanna taking point and moving quickly to catch up to the others. "It's name is Steve now, and it has a timer feature on it. Also it's got a name in the contacts list, which is weird. Tried calling it, didn't do anything."
James peeked through the paperclip webbing around the door of a cubicle as they passed by, dismissing what he saw inside as Alanna kept them moving at a speedy clip. "So, why're we lagging behind? Also, why Steve?"
"It's an Apple reference, I think. Also, I needed to take a shit."
"Delightful." James said, coughing to hide his laugh. "Are we at the stage in our relationship where we share that sorta thing now?"
Alanna held up a hand as they reached a corner, and James silenced himself as he hustled up to the opposite wall from her, hand on his holstered pistol. Alanna glanced at him, and he nodded, circling out into the new hallway, alert, before taking his hand off the weapon and casually signaling her to move up too. She untensed, straightening up, and started walking down the hallway a half-step in front of James. Not casually, but a bit less on edge. "I figured we've been at that stage for the last five years, and now I don't need to pretend otherwise. Also, good call on going back for the third duffle, by the way. Because it turns out, we packed the toilet paper with the guns."
"Where it belongs." James said snarkily, getting a snort of laughter from Alanna. "How far ahead are they gonna be?" He asked next.
"Not far." Alanna responded. "We were only behind for maybe a few minutes, and they're gonna be moving slow. Dave'll take care of them; and I think that once Theo gets her shit together, she'll be useful here. Not sure about the other kid."
"Well, we can always..." James stopped as they took another corner, and saw the other three ahead of them, one delver and two... civilians? Daniel noticed them first, since he was watching the rear, knelt in the door of a cubicle and peeking backward, sometimes remembering to look up too, while Dave and Theo were standing at the end of the hallway. "Oh, this looks unpleasantly familiar." James muttered to Alanna as they approached.
Ahead, the confining walls opened up a bit. The ceiling peeled back to let brighter, harsher fluorescent light bear down on the area. And the floor shifted from hard packed carpet, to scuffed white linoleum tile.
Tables, chairs, counters, a microwave, a fridge, and about two dozen cardboard coffee cups balanced on the edges of everything was the sight that awaited them inside this break room.
"Okay, they're here, let's go." Theo started to say, before Dave stuck an arm across the threshold to keep her from just walking in. "What? Why aren't we just going? Don't we need to be moving?"
"We're in no hurry." James said. "Also, as I'm becoming a real fan of telling new people, the coffee cups explode."
There was a moment of silence that went so long, James stopped waiting for anyone to talk and just started making a mental map of how to navigate the room safely, letting his mind wander. Under that table, yes. They'd have to crawl, make sure to push the bags through first. Then around the outside, not near the cupboards, just in case. What he didn't see was Alanna and Dave, both quietly watching the two newcomers as their faces turned from uncertainty, to shock, to, in Theo's case, outrage. Both of his friends hid smiles and tried very hard to look like they were on watch, as Theo grit her teeth in absolute rage.
"Okay, so..." James started to say as he turned around, prepared to share his plan on how to carefully navigate the equally carefully placed office obstacle course. He got about as far as "...we can start with..." Before someone angrily cut him off.
Not even paying attention to James, who trailed off as he was talked over, Theo simply loudly and firmly barked out, "I fucking hate this place." Causing Dave to bite his lip to keep from laughing, and even getting Daniel to laugh through his pain.
Not even trying to hide her own laughter, Alanna came up behind her and clapped a hand onto the shorter woman's shoulder. "Don't worry, Screamy. It gets better eventually."
"Really?" Theo asked, naive hope on her face.
And everyone else, including Daniel, choroused, "No."
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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!