No one was happy.
James snarled as he caught a projected strip of tape. Twisting his wrist around and gripping a handful of it, he yanked the thing it was attached to off its perch. The tape dispenser hit the ground with a grinding noise; they’d started encountering these things about five miles back. They moved a lot like striders, only their legs were composed of the blades of scissors instead of pens. Also unlike striders, they had extruding eyes; two big bulbous *things* that they could unspool like string and that made them impossible to get the drop on. They used their tape like toad tongues, lashing out to try to yank the human intruders off balance. And they were surprisingly strong; even if they were large for what they were, they were still office supplies.
Oh, and instead of a small strip of serrated metal to tear the tape on, it had a maw of whirling steel that was physically wider than the space the creature occupied.
Because of course it did.
James slammed his crowbar into the side of it, regretting the loss of his glove as the impact opened a small tear in the flesh between his thumb and index finger, even as the tapir indented on the side from the hit and skidded across the desktop, sending papers and miscellaneous junk flying.
Behind him, Alanna knelt with her back pressed against a wall, trying to stem the bleeding from a mangled hand, burning through the last of their bandages. Her shotgun flat on the floor next to her, laying on the tattered ribbons that used to be her coat. She moved with the edge of someone who was trying very, very hard, to not be frantic in their motions. Which was hard as she dripped her life out onto the floor.
But with the last tapir down - and James made sure it was truly dead - there was no more of a rush. The sounds of chitin crunching into shards from the cubicle next to them confirmed that Theo and Dave had taken care of their own problem as well.
Not that James needed to hear that to know what had happened. The adjacent cubicle was wide open to them, from where Daniel had been toppled through the wall, bringing it down to lean at an angle against the desk with Daniel himself still laying on top of it, temporarily unconscious. He’d been startled by the movement of a shellaxy, and then further pushed over by that same shellaxy in its boxy case ramming him in the knees. Fortunately, the cubicles they were in weren’t really cubicle-sized anymore, and there was ample room for him to headbutt the ground without distracting James and Alanna from their skirmish, or Dave from carefully trying to figure out how to disarm the pencil sharpener on the desk.
The fight had escalated, though they’d kept control through it. They kept everything away from Dave so he could do his work on the trap that they’d already triggered, but hadn’t fired yet. Theo acquitted herself pretty well for the first fight where no one had the time to give her directions; moving to tackle the mobile device that was going after Daniel’s ankles, and spreading them out to both of the den sized cubes. Ganesh also continued his role as air support; everyone had sort of gotten used to his aggressive flybys mid-battle as the drone lanced down ambushing enemies with the nuclear pen that he carried.
And now everything was quiet again. One more skirmish survived.
“Daniel’s still out.” Theo broke the quiet as she checked on the downed security kid. “Alive, though.” She was panting slightly, her athletic background and physical edge over James and Dave had let her keep up, but they’d been going for a long time now, and exhaustion was starting to set in. “Can we…” She thudded to her knees and leaned back against the propped up wall like it was a bed. “Can we take a nap?”
Dave tossed James a red orb, and missed wildly, the sphere going to bounce off Alanna’s head as she poked her bandage into a secure position. “I wouldn’t mind.” Dave slurred his words.
Alanna just nodded, digging some water out of a bag and taking sips to clear the gum out of her mouth.
They’d been on their feet for almost fifteen hours since the water cooler break. Daniel had led them through twisting halls that grew less and less straight and more and more narrow as they moved. They took constant pauses to map out upcoming sections, to plan for ambushes, and to set up their own traps for pursuing lifeforms. It felt like every ten minutes they were bandaging wounds, draining down their water supplies, reloading, rearming, shuffling around equipment, or just trying to turn something they’d found into a usable weapon.
Dave was wearing a cloak made out of dot-matrix paper that couldn’t tear. Theo had a cobbled polearm made out of the leg of a chair, with a monofilament-edged protractor tied *very* carefully to the end of it. There was a fire extinguisher that Alanna kept porting around, insisting that it would come in handy eventually, that *unextinguised* anything it was sprayed on; the obvious downside that the thing had to have at one point been on fire didn’t stop her from seeing it as potentially useful.
And their stockpile of orbs had swelled with each combat. It felt like as they went deeper and deeper into the office, the creatures not only got stranger, but more hostile as well. Dave had a series of pinprick holes on his wrist now from where an iLipede turned out to be more thirsty than friendly, and talking it out was getting less and less useful. This, of course, meant more fighting, but also more rewards. They’d initially intended to save them for absorbing the yellows if they needed to stay awake, but now, they’d run out of space and had started cracking the smaller ones.
As ranks in car insurance policies and Australian parliament etiquette trickled in, it was Alanna who got the first immediately useful skill with [+1 Skill Rank : Perception - Battlefield]. After that, she’d almost immediately become their shot caller. It wasn’t that her eyes were any better, but simply that, even during the frantic chaos of a life and death situation, Alanna could now spot the details that made the difference. She and Ganesh worked together like a unified mind sometimes, with simple hand gestures from the tall woman flicking the drone-knight out to strike down striders or masks that were encroaching on blind spots.
A couple fights later, Theo had gotten [+1 Skill Rank : Medical - First Aid - Triage]. And even though it was too specific to be of any huge boost, it still put her on par with the rest of them in terms of keeping cuts and punctures clean and protected.
Those small gains, though, were fleeting moments of elation among the grinding pace that they set for themselves. When they got too tired to go on, they’d sit for ten minutes in a cubicle, then keep going, pushing forward. When ten minutes turned to fifteen, then twenty, then thirty, they all knew that they were running up against a wall.
And all of that was compounded on the gradual wearing away of resources. Water, they could probably find more of; most of the normal water coolers in this place seemed to be just that; normal. Food, also, could be supplemented with candy and weirdly well preserved bag lunches. But shotgun shells were a finite resource, and Alanna hadn’t been holding back on that front. Especially not after they realized that there were enough ambient noises in this part of the dungeon, some of them *quite loud and startling*, that gunfire wasn’t going to trigger hordes every time. Similarly, James had been called upon to sublimate a pair of tumblefeeds that had almost ripped Dave in half, bringing his own internal ammo supply down to only five uses left, if he was counting his practice uses correctly.
They were getting tired.
“How far away are we, anyway?” James asked out loud as he leaned forward on the desk. Idly, he pressed down on the orb from the tapir as he waited for an answer. “We’ve gotta be close. Right?”
[+1 Skill Rank : Music - Metal - Folk - Tunisian]
Alanna swallowed hard before answering. “You know Daniel’s still not awake, right?”
“Fuck.” James muttered. Then he said it again, as his exhausted brain caught up to the skill notification. “Fuck.” It felt like he was thinking through a layer of heavy cotton, and it itched against the inside of his skull. Still, while everyone else sat, he felt restless. Like he just couldn’t stop his hands from trying to do work. So he swept the remains of the tapir off the desk, and started going through cabinets. The shelves here all held the exact same photo of a young girl in a blue dress, except the background changed in each one. Normal James would have looked at that and rolled his eyes at the random nature of the dungeon; tired James looked at it and flinched as something deeply uncanny rooted itself in the fear portion of his mind. Looking back to the boxy wooden containers on either side of the computer monitor, he popped one open and started rifling through it. The he swore a third time, but loudly. “Fuck!” He yelled as he jumped backward, heart pumping.
“What?!” Alanna dragged herself up with her good hand, dropping to a kneeling position and scrabbling for her shotgun while she looked around.
James caught his breath, and tried to suppress the bitter taste of terror in his mouth. “Nothing. Sorry! Nothing! It’s… there’s a…” He let out a shaky breath that was half sigh, half mocking chuckle. Reaching into the cupboard, he pulled out the stuffed fox that had greeted him when he opened it, and tossed it at Alanna. “Found the employee with the beanie baby stash.” He said with attempted humor.
No one laughed.
They were just too on edge. Theo was right. It was time to take a break. But they were down to around two and a half days left to make it out, and every day that they spent going deeper was one day less they had to leave.
But there was no helping it. Not now.
“Okay, let’s break for a little while.” James looked over at where Daniel was still sleeping on the broken cubicle wall. “Actually, hey, Alanna, can you…” He paused. “Dave, actually. Help me lift this up.”
The two of them, after some quick explanation and rolling Daniel onto the floor where he started to groan as he finally woke up, maneuvered the wall onto the roof of the cubicle. Despite the slanted nature of the walls, it was still a solid fit, and they had to circle around outside to push it into place, where James was promptly assaulted by a strider from the lip of another cubicle across the narrow hallway.
[+1 Skill Rank : Puzzles - Number]
“Why is everything in here so fucking suicidal?!” James demanded, rubbing his shoulder where the stapler had slammed into him. Dave could only give him a shrug in response, as much in the dark as his friend was.
It took them a little while to intentionally break down the wall of another cubicle to cap off the other side of their own, and actually getting it high enough to slide on was tricky given how tall the walls were here. After that, though, blocking off the doors with filing cabinets and tables was easy enough.
James looked around the now darkened room, lit by the single camp lantern they’d brought along. Theo was already laying down, stretched out on the remains of her coat and using the hockey pads as a shitty pillow. Alanna, similarly, had her back against the far wall from the doors, propped up against a duffle bag; one hand on her Mossberg, eyes drooping as she tried to keep herself watchful.
Didn’t seem like she’d be the best guard, to James. Not that he could blame her, as he had that feeling of cold warmth in his hands and legs. Like if he blinked, he might drop asleep in the instant his eyes were closed.
“Dave.” He said softly, and his friend looked over. “Get some sleep. Ganesh and I have watch.”
Dave looked at him strangely. “You need to sleep too.” He yawned out. “How…” He looked down when James held up a yellow orb.
“I’ve got first watch. It’s not perfect, but I’ll wake you up in…” James focused. He needed to keep moving, he needed to be awake, alert, ready. This thing in his hand was nothing more than a complex meal. He wrapped his brain around it, and then, *pulled*, and watched it sink into his skin.
[+3.25 Operational Hours : Ready]
Fatigue didn’t just fade away. It was gone, entirely, in one moment. For a second, James was both dead on his feet, and snapping his eyes open in wakefulness. Then it faded, and he felt… well, ready. Prepared. Good to go, for whatever challenges were coming.
“Three hours.” He finished his sentence to Dave. “You okay with a short nap?”
“Oh, yeah.” Dave answered with a waved hand. “I don’t need a lot of sleep.”
“You always say that, but then you’re always oversleeping game night…”
“I don’t need a lot of sleep *in this situation*.”
“Fine.” James actually laughed at that one.
Fifteen minutes later, Dave had passed out under a desk, Theo was now fast asleep, Alanna had dropped off, and Daniel had used the rest of their bags and salvaged coats to build himself a nest before drifting to sleep himself. Even Ganesh was sleeping. Though the little drone power cycled much faster than his human companions, it turned out that he did still need something like sleep.
It was strange to James how alone he could feel in a room full of people. This wasn’t like a childhood sleepover where he was the last one away. Instead, it felt like he was in an empty house, where every creak of the floor was a monster sneaking up on him. Defenseless and alone, all on his own against the night.
“Not alone.” The whisper in his ear this time didn’t shock him. For some reason, nothing Secret ever did came as a true surprise to James, even when he didn’t actually know what was happening. James didn’t even need to glance to his left to see Secret there, the pale blue serpent half-present in the physical world. It constantly amused him that his friend sometimes wore a half-remembered copy of James’ own coat when he was among the real. “But where are we?” Secret asked.
“Pretty far in.” James said in a soft tone, and Secret bobbed his head in acknowledgement. “From what I got from Daniel before he zonked out, we’re about a mile away from where his mental map leads.”
“Ah, yes, the Map.” Secret whispered disdain, somehow managing to pronounce the proper noun with a capital letter. “I do not trust them.”
James sighed. “So, it’s a meme, then?” He asked, and got a nod in answer. “Well shit. But hey, that doesn’t mean it’s instantly hostile.” James lay a hand on Secret’s flank, careful to avoid the eyes as he pet the leviathan. “You’re here, after all.”
“I am special.” Secret replied matter of factly, and James was suddenly struck with the urge to laugh at how much his friend sounded like a teenager. Then he remembered that Secret was only a couple months old, tops, depending on how you looked at it, and it got a little less funny.
“So, where have you been, anyway? It’s been a bit hectic down here.” James asked, trying not to sound hostile about it. Even though, he knew, he had a lingering feeling of annoyance at the thoughtform for seemingly ditching them.
Secret wasn’t offended, though. “I have been exploring as well. It is good that you are here, and I can rest within your space, because there is something else within this place. At first I thought it was the walls and floors, but now, I suspect that the places I have been are not places at all, but a person.”
“Person in the sense…” James started, but was cut off.
“Another like me. But not. And also orders of magnitude larger. Older, as well. It has the feel of my core, though. Secrecy and deception.” The meme answered, and for the first time, James thought he sounded worried.
James tried to give a casual shrug, but Secret was heavier than he looked. “Don’t worry.” He told his friend. “I think it’s just the thing that keeps blanking people that come in here from everyone’s minds. Some kind of memetic security system. If it were actually sentient, we’d already be dead, right?”
“That is not at all reassuring.” Secret huffed.
“Yeah, sorry, I’m working on that.” James grinned back at him. “Anyway. It’s quiet and I’ve got three hours before I wake Dave up. Got any ideas? I’m already bored.”
“Yes.” Secret coiled himself around James until he laid his serpentine head onto his friend’s lap. “You could tell me a story.”
James held back a burst of laughter, not wanting to wake anyone up. But then, realizing Secret wasn’t kidding, he took a small breath, paused, and asked, “Aren’t you inside my head? Why do you need me to tell you things I know?”
“I’ve never been able to read your mind, not in the way you mean. Your memories are no grand library to me.” Secret replied. “Though when you dream, it feels… familiar. And I remember how you felt when your father would read you to sleep at night when you were younger. Is it strange, to miss something I have never had?” He asked.
There was a long moment, that stretched on into the false night of their campsite. Outside, there was a thunk of an air conditioning unit cycling, and the skittering of a dozen things moving around. Bars of white light pierced through the few uncovered slots, but not enough to break the gloom, just enough to highlight the outside. James sat, not exactly thinking, but feeling something, letting his brain process. No matter how many orbs he took in, no matter how much it could wake him up, nothing could really undo mental exhaustion like sleep, it seemed.
But after a couple minutes of the two of them sitting there, one human, one idea, keeping an eye on the others, James started to speak. And Secret closed his eyes, and listened.
“Once upon a time, there was a princess in a prison tower, and a dragon that she made her friend…”
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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!