"And he talks to it?" Theo asked, incredulously.
"Him. He talks to *him*. Secret's pretty set in his gender identity. Though how much of it he stole from James, I dunno." Alanna replied.
They were sitting halfway between the floor and the start of the suspended islands of ceiling tiles. Three stories of cubicle apartment complex up; they'd climbed up the precarious exterior ramp after a search turned up no internal ladders or staircases. The structure was strangely artificial to Alanna's eye, since everything else they'd seen in the dungeon as they got deeper and deeper had been taking on a more naturalistic look.
Strips of paper hung in vines. Lines of staples and paperclips linked together to form webs and... well, more vines. The sheafs of paper turned to birds, the appliances to bugs, and pretty much everything else into predators. Walls became more organic as they warped into curved lines and overhead arches. When things did become blockier, it was when they shared that strange mineral patterning as quartz or bismuth.
But this place? This wasn't anything that occured in nature for the office to mimic. It occured in suburbs. It wasn't a weird technological plant, or a living piece of furniture. It was just an apartment complex; mimicked by beige walls, covered in faux carpet padding material
And, you know, missing stairs.
They'd found a section on the third floor that was accessible from the ramp, large enough to hold their whole group, and dragged a few more chairs into it. Chairs that Daniel and Theo were trying to turn into improvised couches, while Alanna kept watch out of a wide, chest high, window slit; holding a pair of binoculars that had miraculously come through the fall of their gear bags undamaged. James and Dave were, of course, 'scouting'. Which was how James defined what was obviously looting the other apartments of this strange tower, chasing after xenotech and orbs in equal measure; anything to up their odds of making it back to the door alive, and before the food ran out.
Which it wouldn't, really. There were plenty of granola bars and probably-safe bagged sandwiches around here. But they could never actually rely on those to keep them alive. And anyway, their intended rendezvous was in just under 82 hours. The more time they spent foraging, the less time they spent moving for the exit.
Speaking of which. Alanna tilted her head to peer one eye back at the two behind her. Theo had said something, and she had absolutely ignored the other woman. For all that James apparently thought she was a decent boss, she'd been nothing but irritating for the two hours that Alanna had been in her company.
"Sorry, say that again? I wasn't listening." Alanna said over her shoulder before turning back to the window and continuing to not really listen.
She heard Daniel snicker from where he was stretched out on the floor, trying to nap, before Theo answered; the stress and exhaustion of the last couple days turning her voice vicious and angry. "I was asking why the hell you aren't trying to get rid of it! You seem... okay with the whole thing, and I don't get it."
Alanna set the optics down. "Because Secret's cool."
"How can you know that if he lives in James' head? Sounds like some kind of parasite to me." Theo covered a yawn with a scowl. "It's a... a... thing."
"Go to sleep." Alanna dismissed her.
Daniel interjected, also in an exhausted voice, strained from lack of sleep but curious rather than hostile. "I kinda want to know what Secret *is*, if that's okay?"
Taking a much more appreciative view of his question than anything Theo had said, Alanna tried to explain. "Well, he's an idea. But alive. As far as I understand it."
"That's not... that doesn't make sense. Or am I already asleep and dreaming this?"
Alanna snorted a small laugh. "First off, go to sleep. Second of all." She thought for a brief moment. "Okay, you know the places you live? Like, you've got your house, where you spend most of your time, and then a job, or school, where you're at frequently, and then there's just the handful of places that you've *been*, where you do errands or whatever?"
"I understood those words, but have no idea what you mean." Daniel answered, his eyes now closed as he lay on his back.
"That's what Secret is, but with thoughts. Not minds, specifically, I don't think, but the sort of general thoughtspace. He doesn't live inside James' brain, but he's on his mind a lot. And then also often Anesh and mine. And now, probably, sometimes yours."
Theo pulled herself to her feet. "Wait, did you just infect us with this fucking thing?"
"Probably? I dunno how he works. You can probably ask nicely and he'll leave, if it becomes a problem. Like I said, Secret's cool. I talked to him once, in a dream."
Alanna dropped the conversation sharply and pulled the binoculars back to her face. She ignored the further sleepy questions from Daniel and whining complaints from Theo. Because there was something wrong. Something was moving out there; something that was always just out of the corner of her eye, and never in view long enough for Alanna to get a solid look at it. It was small, maybe the size of a cat, and it had an almost solid black coloration. And she had no idea what it was, but it was certainly out there. Moving in the rows and aisles around their improvised apartment.
She hoped Dave and James got back soon. This place was giving her the creeps, even more so than the dungeon normally did. Something about the little tower felt like it was too heavy, too sharp a concept in Alanna's mind. It was almost too real for this place, and the longer she kept her watch, the more the rest of the dungeon felt almost fuzzy to look at, even if it never visually showed up that way.
Her focus on the moving shape and the distortion of the outside was so complete that she nearly swallowed her own tongue when a hand clapped lightly onto her shoulder. Alanna scowled as she caught the binoculars that almost clattered out of her fingers. "What the hell, man." Voice dropped to a whisper when she caught James holding a finger to his lips and pointing to the two sleeping figures on the floor under the desk. "Still not cool." Alanna muttered to James' sheepish grin.
"Yeah, sorry. Just wanted to let you know Dave and I are back. He's one cube over clearing off a desk for us to eat at, if you wanted to have some lunch." James motioned through the improvised 'door' that they'd carved out of the back wall of this cubicle, opening a way into the claustrophobic hive of tight hallways and small doors that was the interior of this tower. There didn't seem to be an actual way into it, and it was far more cramped than the rest of the dungeon environment. Like the outside of the structure was just a shell, around a compressed piece of environment.
Hell, maybe it was. Maybe towers like this were how the dungeon grew more cubicles.
James shook that thought off as Alanna answered him. "Yeah, I could eat. But I want to keep an eye out here. I keep spotting something moving. Could you bring me a sandwich?"
"Ah, the flipping of traditional gender roles. Sure, I'll get you something. What're you seeing? Tumblefeed?"
"Smaller than that. Also less messy." Alanna replied.
James leaned forward to rest his elbows on the thin window sill, looking out over the sprawl below. "Striders?"
"Looked more like a cat than anything else. But I never got to see it except when it was running behind something." Alanna shrugged. "Honestly, it's probably something that'll show up and try to kill us eventually, but since size has been a good indicator of threat level so far, I don't think we need to worry. I'm just curious." A pause. "And nervous." She admitted.
Pushing himself off the window, James stood up and arced his arms over his head. "I'd be surprised if you weren't nervous. I mean, I'm being pretty cavalier about this, but there's still a chance that we're wrong about the time dilation thing and we're here for a year or so."
"Oh fucking *thanks*, I didn't even think of *that*." Alanna took a halfhearted swing at his arm, which James stepped back from. "Anyway. You guys find anything good out there?"
Now *that* question got a smug smile from James. "Oh, a few things! We ran into a few more mice, and Dave almost got his arm chewed off by trying to be Friend To All The Animals with a shellaxy."
Alanna rolled her eyes. "You're too excited about that. What'd you get from the orbs?"
"Nothing yet. We're saving them in case we need to absorb them to stay awake or moving." James said, and Alanna nodded in approval. That was good thinking ahead. "Anyway, what's really sweet is that we found a power strip."
"Great, we can charge our phones." She said dryly as she tried to refocus the binoculars after James had fiddled with them.
"A power strip that's had the plug cut off."
"So we can't charge our..."
"Let me finish, dammit." James rolled his eyes back at Alanna. "So, the plug isn't connected physically, but as long as it's actually plugged into something, power still routes through."
Alanna looked at him steadily. "So, we *can* charge..."
"Oh my god, just appreciate how fucking cool our physics-warping power strip is, please." James huffed out. Then he saw Alanna trying to hide her own smile, and broke into a grin as he realized that she was just messing with him. "Alright, anyway. We've got a couple reds, a blue that I accidentally made, and also a notepad that writes out whatever you think when you hold it."
That got a low hum of approval from Alanna. "Yeesh, that should save you a lot of time."
"Yeah, it's cool. But not, like, tactically useful. So I'm prepared to break it if we need to. But I'm psyched to use it for a D&D game sometime." James' words betrayed the truth that, at his core, he wasn't really a hardened adventurer, but in fact, a total nerd. "Anyway. I'll bring you some food. I figure it shouldn't take us more than a couple days to get back to the entrance, so are you okay staying here for a 'cycle' while they recover, and we do some more casual lootn' and plundren'?"
"I'm okay with that." Alanna said. "I just wish we could have gotten that mapping laser pointer from Fort Door. I know that it wasn't possible, but it would be cool to actually get to use all the *real* equipment we stockpiled."
James nodded. He felt the same way; this entire trip would be a lot less stressful if they had a plasma gun on their team. Not to mention armor that actually stopped stabs, and didn't itch. "Well, unless you find something that summons things to us, then..." He trailed off.
"Did you just realize that the blue orbs might be able to summon things to us?" Alanna asked with pursed lips, trying not to smile. "It's a nice thought, but probably a waste..."
"No, I just realized that I can charge my phone." James said cryptically. "Hang on, I'll be right back."
Alanna spread her hands in a 'what the fuck is this' gesture as James turned and scurried away, ducking through the low door they'd cut. She looked around to see if Theo or Daniel had noticed his unhelpful behavior, but found them still fast asleep, exhausted from their ordeal. She started to turn to tell Rufus that his human was an idiot, and sighed at how much she somehow missed the absent stapler.
"They promised me this would be cool." Alanna said, forlorn, as she resumed her post at the window. Eyes forward, binoculars at the ready, she stood sentry for them, trying to catch a good look at whatever it was that stalked the hallways and corridors between their tower, and the exit.
She kept up her vigil while James brought her one of their wrapped sandwiches, only trading a few words with him. She didn't turn away when Theo woke up and wandered off to find a quiet spot to use as a bathroom. She stared outward when James came in to nap, and Dave took Daniel out to show him some of the basic traps that they'd run across as a safety measure.
In fact, the next thing that caught Alanna's attention, aside from James snoring and making her blink at *just* the wrong moment to miss sight of her quarry darting around a corner, was a solid thud from the desk behind her.
One again, Alanna nearly jumped out of her skin. Choking back the bitter taste of a small adrenaline rush, she whipped her head around to see what had made the noise, and then instantly back as a small black blur darted across a visible hallway below. Growling at the frustration of missing it again, Alanna stood up, feeling the blood start flowing back to her legs. Turning for real this time, and pointedly ignoring the flash of movement, Alanna looked over at the desk that James was sleeping under.
There was a briefcase on it. And it hadn't been there a second ago.
"James, wake up." Alanna spoke firmly, but in a low tone. But if there was one thing that she'd learned over the past two days, it was that James slept like a stubborn brick, that was also a constantly exhausted brick, so of course he didn't move. "James... fuck, okay, fine." She muttered to herself, cautiously approaching.
A poke at the briefcase revealed nothing. It didn't catch fire or explode. In fact, it looked like the few they'd found before, right down to having a piece of paper folded on top of it with a dry memo written on it. A bit more confident it wasn't going to kill her, Alanna pushed the case back on the desk, and opened up the note.
It was a work order. Neatly printed, with the date and issuing management name completely and pointlessly randomized. She somehow doubted that Ms. Blarcolozit ever existed, or needed something done on the fourteenth of a month that was abbreviated as 'Jug'. But under that nonsense that Alanna shook her head at, was the actual job that they expected someone to do. And instead of, like the others they'd found, being a pointless task to find that needle in a haystack cubicle in the maze somewhere, it was a lot simpler.
"Answer the phone?" Alanna read aloud, concern and confusion in her voice in equal measure.
And then, next to her on the desk, the phone rang.
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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!