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A note from argusthecat

One more push.

I stayed up until 8 AM to finish writing this.  I know how James feels.

Turns out, Dave hadn’t been lying about only needing a little sleep, much to James’ surprise. When he nudged the shorter guy awake with his foot, Dave had snapped his eyes open like he’d been actively waiting to get up, rolled out from under the desk he was at, and took the crowbar from James with an almost ceremonious nod. He looked like he was prepared to change watch shifts without even saying anything.

Obviously, James was genetically incapable of that.

“Jeeze, you wake up fast.” He commented idly. “You doing okay?”

“Weird dreams.” Was all Dave answered, rubbing at his eyes. He blinked a few times, then cocked his head as he noticed a pile of random things assembled next to where James was sitting. “Um…”

“Sounds about par for the course around here.” James replied before following his friend’s gaze. “Oh. So, I got kinda bored around hour two when Secret fell asleep, and there was literally nothing happening. I think our ceiling works too well. So I kinda just started checking everything in here for enchantments.”

Dave blinked slowly, then nudged the pile of everything that James had been tinkering with. The first thought through his mind was that James was blatantly wrong about what “working too well” meant. The second was asked out loud, aimed at the second pile of actual junk, and was “did you just start breaking things when you couldn’t figure the items out?”

This got him a scowl in return. “That’s slander.” James replied. “Also here, I got two small blues out of it, you can have one.”

“Thanks.” Dave said with what he probably thought was a dry chuckle, and James felt a flash of annoyance at the other guy.

He knew, intellectually, that this was what happened when his brain went for too long without downtime. The orb made him feel physically alert, and even let him think clearly, but it didn’t replace actually decompressing or even just having a little time alone to process things. And now that his mental defenses weren’t quite so sharp, he was reminded that the reason he never spent a lot of time with Dave outside of game night was that his friend had a lot of small quirks that added up to a socially exhausting person to deal with.

“Well.” James said, in lieu of expressing any anger. “I think I have about five minutes of orb left. So, I’m gonna get comfortable, and sleep a bit. You okay on watch for a few hours?” Dave nodded. He knew the plan. Before he could start talking and explaining the whole thing, though, James rolled on. “You know, I never actually asked Anesh what it feels like when the orb runs out? Or if I did, I don’t remember?”

“Really?”

“Yeah, like, I’m assuming I just go back to feeling how I was?” James mused

Dave looked thoughtful. “What if it adds up the time the orb deferred?” He asked.

“Well that’s a great thought, thanks.” James half-snapped back as he turned his tattered coat into a pillow, and another long jacket salvaged from the dungeon into a blanket. “A painful exhaustion headache is exactly what I need to look forward…”

Dave looked over. James was slumped half-covered by his blanket, every muscle relaxed, like a puppet with its strings cut. He almost worried for a second, until a light snore informed him that James really was just asleep. “Guess that’s how it feels.” Dave said to no one in particular.

_____

They woke up one by one a few hours after that. Even James, who looked like he’d be dead to the world for the full human eight hours, let out a sharp hiss of breath only shortly after Alanna rolled herself upright, and pushed himself up with his arms. Coats that Dave had been piled on him sloughing off like the patchwork blankets they were.

Everyone one of them came back to the world differently. For Daniel, it was with a groggy groan, as the aches of being tackled through a wall caught up with him. With Alanna, it was in the same way that she normally woke up; casually fading back to reality with a languid stretch, and getting up almost right away. Theo also got up rapidly, though her movements weren’t so uncaring about the situation as she bolted to her feet with a small wobble and a panicked look in her eyes. And James, well. James decided he could doze for another ten minutes, and let himself back down, dragging a coat half-warmed by his body heat over his shoulders.

Alanna casually whipped the coat off her boyfriend’s no-longer-sleeping form. “Up! Up! We’re on a time budget, let’s move!”

“If you’re going to be like this every morning,” James mumbled the words around a dry tongue, “then our relationship may encounter some errors.” Alanna just laughed at him, already fully awake with the lingering remnants of sleep pushed out of her mind. This didn’t go unnoticed by James, who propped himself up again and leaned back in a sitting position. “How the hell do you get up so easily anyway?”

“Because there’s *things to do*, James!” Alanna said with overexaggerated cheer. “Let me show you the glorious world of ‘being awake before two PM’! You’ll love it.”

“I won’t.” James responded as he sipped away the last of his water bottle. Letting out a small gasp of air, he stood and rubbed at his eyes. “Okay. So, breakfast, human maintenance, and then we roll out?”

Alanna rolled her eyes at James as Dave unpacked the last of their food from the bag and lobbed one of their rolls of toilet paper at Theo. “Oh, so, *now* you’re awake.” She needled him.

Torn between a joking scowl or a smile, James split the difference with a yawn. When he recovered, he replied, “Yeah, I mean, we’ve got stuff to do.” Which got a laugh out of Alanna and a snort out of Dave as he walked by and handed them ‘breakfast’.

Breakfast was half a tuna sandwich, slightly smushed by either a bottle of water or a flare gun. James didn’t think about it too much before choking down the sandwich, instead focusing on trying to push away the throbbing headache behind his left eye, and psyching himself up for the coming ‘day’. He sat and watched what he realized suddenly was the modern equivalent of an adventuring party breaking camp. People eating, stretching, checking bandages, sorting packs, swapping out gear for less battle damaged pieces, and unlikely companions trading tips and plans for the day. James sat and allowed himself ten minutes of quiet; an eye in the sudden storm of activity. He watched with amusement as Dave tried to politically explain that there weren’t any bathrooms around to Daniel. He saw Alanna feeding Ganesh a yellow orb out of the palm of her hand, cracking one of the smalls for herself as she adjusted his lance. He saw Secret, prowling around the edge of the ceiling, casting a dim blue shade over their lamp, and sometimes whispering to Theo when he passed by her.

He saw his friends, and his new allies. He saw them worried, on edge, nervous and afraid of what was to come.

Then he saw Alanna stand up, and whip a new coat she’d taken to replace her shredded one onto her shoulders. He saw Dave check the blade that JP had bought for him, and then clip it into place on his belt. He saw Secret coil down from the roof to pool around his feet and disperse back to wherever Secret went when he wasn’t physical. And he saw the almost casual determination painted on their faces. Even Daniel and Theo had a bit of it; they stood taller, walked with confidence. And a limp, in Daniel’s case, but he tried to hide it.

And then James slapped on the greaves of his armor and stood up himself.

Time to go to work.

_____

Dave cracked the blue.

[Problem Solved : Location Known]

[+1 Skill Rank : Templating - Wikipedia]

“Well that didn't do it.” James said to his right, and Dave just gave a small “Hmh.” in response.

The two of them were standing on the edge of a chasm the size of a street. Overhead, cavernously tall cubicle walls blotted out almost all of the light, leaving shafts of white beaming down into pools around them on the ledge. It wasn’t exactly a perilous position, they had about five feet of clearance between the last row of cubicles and the canyon, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant to be near.

James had this thing about high places. When he used to wear glasses, before he switched to contacts, he was constantly afraid that he’d lose them whenever he peered over a railing, despite the fact that his glasses had never just randomly fallen off before then. Sometimes, when walking over a bridge, he’d imagine dropping his phone into the river below, despite never once having dropped his phone while out walking. And now, staring down for who-knew how far into the total blackness of this pit, he pushed his glasses up his nose to secure them. Even though they weren’t there.

The canyon walls seemed to be made of strata of cubicle. Different shades of beige and light grey, bands of non-color barely illuminated in the false twilight. Out of the sides, cables seemed to grow like roots, tough and gnarled and burrowed into the walls with grim certainty. Above, a flock of paper nested among glittering paperclip vines that dangled down a hundred feet and still didn’t reach the floor James and Dave stood on.

It was a beautiful sight. And none of it, in any way, helped them figure out how to get across the thirty-ish feet of hole between them and where Daniel insisted they needed to go. “Maybe a rope swing of some kind?” James suggested.

“The problem there.” Alanna stated as she walked up and propped herself next to them, hand on her chin and leaning on the fire unextinguisher she’d brought, “Is that we’re going to have to come back this way.”

Two major junctions ago, Daniel had pointed out the path that would be their return trip. Which meant they'd been much more deliberate about marking out traps since then, knowing this was the only reliable path back.

“Ah, and come back with possibly a lot of people.” James followed up. “So no rope swing?”

“No rope swing.”

“Damn. I wanted a rope swing.” He put on a mock dejected face.

Alanna looked over with raised eyebrows. “Hey Punchy, out of curiosity, how big a part of you is trying to be Indiana Jones, even now?”

“Oh, like, thirty percent, at least.” James admitted with a nod. “We’re not on a pure exploritative adventure anymore, but that never really stopped Indy. Kinda a requirement for most of his adventures, really.”

“I would have assumed you were going for more of a Matrix thing.” Daniel interjected as he and Theo rejoined the group. “You know, ‘I know kung fu’? Kind of, like, *the* iconic line from that movie.”

“Wasn’t the iconic line the spoon one? Also I already kinda know kung fu.”

Dave scowled and cut James off. “Weren’t you two supposed to stick with Alanna?” He asked like a disappointed dad, casually hiding the Gameboy that he’d been fiddling with while James and Alanna went off on their own little tangent.

“We were.” Theo explained. “Then she left us to repack the bag, and now we’re back.”

The three of them had split off when they’d reached the canyon, leaving James and Dave to set up some of the small LEDs they’d brought as waypoints in the dark. They were actually just the indicator lights for bicyclists, but James had picked up a few of them and tossed them into one of the bags on the assumption that the dungeon constantly threw spaces like this at them. Places where the bright light was deflected off the hard shell of a cubicle ceiling. Meanwhile, while they’d made sure they had a visual indicator of where the exfiltration hallway was, the other three had gone out to try to find a water cooler.

It was Alanna who’d wagered there was a pattern to them, thinking she’d noticed them occurring at regular intervals. James thought she was wrong, but they hadn’t seen anything too hostile in a while, and seemed to be in one of the safer parts of the dungeon, despite the massive hole in the floor. So when she’d said she thought there was a water supply nearby, he and Dave had okayed their little sortie.

Alanna wasn’t going to admit that she was actually wrong about the pattern. She’d led Daniel and Theo to where their map said a major intersection was, but the only thing there was a vending machine and a potted plant, and they’d collectively agreed not to pick that fight. But, on the way back, with Daniel constantly playing with their mapping laser pointer, she’d picked out the only circular marker on the displayed red projection, and they’d taken a long shot on it.

Turns out, she wasn’t *that* wrong. Just off by a couple hundred feet. And now, they weren’t thirsty.

“Well, welcome back.” James said. “You guys test the water first?”

“Yeah, about that. What exactly are drinking water test strips going to do here?” Theo asked.

James and Dave traded a puzzled look, before turning back and speaking almost at the same time. “Test drinking water?”

Rolling her eyes, Theo held up one of their refilled bottles. “If this place wanted to poison the water, why wouldn’t it just do it with literal magic instead of throwing off the pH balance?”

“Ooooohh, I mean, I guess it could totally do that. So far, though, everything that’s been food has been totally safe. So the theory is that if the water is safe drinking water, it can’t have any negative effects.” James got what Theo was worried about, really. But after a certain number of candy bars, he’d kinda gotten over the reflexive thought of worrying about poison. Though, he mused, if the dungeon *was* trying to get him to eat lava or something, this was sort of the perfect way to lull him into a false sense of security.

Theo didn’t have his confidence. “Well, you drink it then.” She said. “Once you don’t die, fine.”

“Sure!” James said, swiping the bottle and taking a sip. The water was cold, clear, and crisp. It felt like his throat, still a bit sore from the rarified air in the office, was rejuvenated at the first touch of the liquid.

It wasn’t magic. James was just really thirsty.

“Yeah, looks fine.” Alanna nodded. “So, you guys ready to get going?”

“Going… where? We need to figure out how to build a bridge or something.” James said, pulling out another blue orb from his pocket and rolling it in his fingers. “Or get Dave to create an AG corridor across here, but that’s gonna be *super* risky if we come back with civilians.”

Daniel shouldered the bag he’d been assigned. “Or we could take the bridge that’s down that way.”

“Wat.”

“Yeah, we passed a little bridge when we were out. It’s even on my mental map.” He said it like it was obvious.

James turned to Alanna. “You know you’re allowed to share information before it’s funny, right?”

“I’ve heard that!” She responded.

James slowly wiped his hand down his face, fingers splayed out as if he could somehow contain the frustration contained in his head. “Okay. Okay, cool. Yes. Let’s go check out the bridge. I’m guessing it’s narrow, wobbly, and made of cubicle walls?”

Alanna scratched him on the head like a favored hound. “See? I didn’t need to tell you anything.”

“Well, at least I get to feel like Indiana Jones for the hour I take to crawl across.”

_____

Daniel fumbled forward, blind.

Well, blindfolded, technically. A strip off of Alanna’s previous coat, which she’d kept for sentimental reasons even after it had well and truly ceased to be ‘a coat’, was wrapped over his eyes. He knew he wasn’t alone; the hand on his shoulder made it clear that James was still walking with him. Or was it Alanna now? Didn’t matter.

His job was simple. He was the guide. The map. He needed them to keep their eyes open for danger, and they needed him to guide them when their eyes weren’t to be trusted. Or, more accurately, when their eyes were a liability.

They’d discovered the trap largely by accident, and they’d survived it by pure luck. And fortunately, it was sort of topographical, so Daniel could tell them that it really only showed up in the next thousand feet of dungeon. But he couldn’t disable it. None of them could, without a really tall ladder.

The ceiling lights were pretty far away, after all.

James had seen the first one, and that was why James had taken the hit from the first one. “Hey, that’s cool. The lights here have some kinda pattern to them. Looks like a magic eye puzzle.” He’d stated as they checked down yet another endless corridor. This corridor at least didn’t have any ambush arches over it for striders or tapirs to dive down on them, but that didn’t make it much better.

Theo had, as humans do, instantly looked up to see what James was looking at, not realizing that James had gone totally slack next to her. If she’d waited, she would have had the warning of his crowbar hitting the ground. But she didn’t, and the next thing either of them knew, they were being dragged backward by Dave and Alanna, waking up with a jolt to realize they’d lost time and also what they were holding.

Backtracking, being very careful not to look upward, they’d found that the two of them had meticulously unpacked and organized not only the duffel they were carrying, but also the contents of each of their pockets. Theo had even removed every card from her wallet and alphabetized them on the floor. It would have pissed Dave off after the work he’d put in making everything in the bag neat and tidy, except it was already set to be repacked again, so it was kinda hard to be mad.

Then *he’d* looked up and they’d repeated the process in annoying parallel.

So, the next step was trying to get through the zone without looking up. Which wasn’t that hard, until one of the electric mice catapulted itself off an overhang and dropped Alanna into a twitching pile of torched nerves before James smashed it. Which meant now *Alanna* was looking up, and it turned out you didn’t need to see it for very long, or even think about the patterns, for it to take hold.

They’d started over again. They’d gotten farther this time, and thought they were safe when the group went underneath a long tunnel-style corridor, blocking off the view of the overceiling. James and Alanna were still nervous about the idea of stuff that modified their behavior that apparently even Secret didn’t protect them against, but Daniel had relaxed when they didn’t have the option of falling into the trap again. Until they turned a corner, and there was a slant to either the floor or the ceiling above them here, and he’d looked straight at them.

The pattern was beautiful. A fractal of whiteish-blue light that spiraled in on itself, while still having only neat rectangles as shapes. It was important, Daniel knew. He just had to figure out…

Daniel had woken up from his stupor ten meters back down the tunnel, with his pocket knife clenched in his hand and an angry red mark on his other arm where he’d tried to draw what he’d seen.

*Then* he got paranoid with the rest of them.

The plan they’d come up with was simple, and flexible. Daniel went first, makeshift blindfold on. He could guide them down the correct halls, and he was basically the first warning sign that something was wrong. If the person walking with him stopped moving and didn’t say anything, he was supposed to call back a warning, and the direction they’d been looking at the time. The thing in his head that he’d been calling a map could tell him when the ceiling changed patterns, in a small way, so he knew when not to look up; it was just all the tricky ones that made this a problem.

One of the things that made this a problem, anyway. The other one was that they were out of the relatively quiet part of the dungeon, and back to that ebb and flow of things trying to murder them.

And Daniel was back to his original role of jumping at small noises and scratching his arms like he was surrounded by ants, while being led by someone who might go mad at a moments notice. Admittedly, that last part was new.

He flinched as Alanna tapped his shoulder, then tried to stay steady before she thought too harshly of him. When she spoke, though, he heard annoyance in her voice, and hoped it wasn’t aimed at him. “Threat up ahead.” She said, and Daniel realized that the words came out harsh because she was worried, and something had tipped her off to a problem, not because he’d screwed up.

Checking the visualization in his mind, Daniel responded as calmly as he could, trying to give useful information without rambling. “There’s, uh, a four way intersection coming up. If you can’t see anything, it might be around one of the corners. Probably the one to the left, since it’s a dead end, kinda. The lights above us aren’t safe, so do you want to try to lure it back? I don’t know what…” He utterly failed to curb his desire to go off on a tangent, and Alanna cut him off with a quick hiss.

He heard the click of a hand radio, and Alanna spoke in a slightly raised voice, clear enough to be picked up well. “Hey, we’ve got something up ahead. I think it’s a shellaxy, but I didn’t see it clearly. You guys want to move up, or draw it out?” Daniel felt a flush of pride that he hadn’t been totally stupid to suggest that.

The radio crackled to life with a burst of static. “...***undo th..** .. efforts. ***”

He could almost feel Alanna’s angry expression. “What? Come again? Over.”

“I said let’s just fight it there. Upset the ambush. The lights are just above, right? We’ll press up now. Over.” James’ voice came back intact that time.

“Okay. Daniel, stay here, crouch down so you’re a smaller target. We’re gonna go have a scrap.” She addressed him. “Is there anything around that corner that we should worry about?”

“I don’t think so, but there could be more patterns.” He told her. “I don’t see any more up ahead, so I think this is the last hallway that has them, but I still can’t make out details on walls, so I don’t know if it’s going to be a problem. It kinda seems like there’s *something* weird at the dead end? So be careful, but it doesn’t feel like the lights do, so it…”

Alanna patted him on the shoulder. “That’s all I needed to hear. Okay. Everyone ready.”

Daniel almost jumped out of his skin as voices spoke around him in a choir of “Yup”s and “yeah”s. He’d been too busy trying to say something useful he’d kind of just ignored everyone walking up. This, Daniel reflected to himself, was probably why he kept being the one getting nailed by ambush predators.

“Should I keep the blindfold on?” He asked.

“Probably not.” James told him from his right. “Also, Alanna’s gonna stay back here with you so we can drag them back if something goes horribly wrong.” He nodded at Alanna as Daniel opened up his eyes to the world again and blinked away the pain of the harsh lighting. “Ready?”

“Ready.” She sent a nod back his way, shotgun in her grip held with tight control, a pair of extra shells settled on the floor next to her just in case.

James moved first, darting across the hallway without looking. Dave pressed himself up against the corner wall, with Theo behind him and Ganesh on his shoulder, weapons out and ready. They looked like a proper team, to Daniel; even Theo, who was totally new to this just like him.

Then the oversized shellaxy exploded out into the intersection, grabbed James in one of the pincers that tipped its oversized power cable tentacles, and slammed him *through* the far wall.

James had just enough time to realize something had gone wrong when he saw the shellaxy was the size of a smart car. And then he was hoisted into the air, followed shortly by impacting the cubicle wall. His sharpest reaction was to slam his eyes shut before he got a glimpse of the ceiling, and then he crashed into something unyielding.

The thing was still obviously a PC of some sort. But it was a Frankensteinian creation, a heavy black metal and chitin shell that was split in places to show the inner workings of screaming motors and crackling electronic components. It’s locomotion method was similarly larger than normal, with a half dozen pieces of thick metal cabling that was normally used for industrial equipment providing a series of legs, some of them tipped with pincers like the one that had removed James from the field, in addition to a serpent’s nest of smaller cables that seemed to guide its direction and give stability more than anything. All across its shell, bulges for components showed behind breakaway panels. Some of them obviously eyes, or other sensor methods, but some, Alanna and Dave suspected, were weapons systems.

And no one wanted to give it time to bring those to bear.

Dave threw himself to the side as another tentacle whipped over his head, the massive shellaxy turning his way. Its limb crushed a hole in the corner of the cubicle walls as it hit, embedding it in the material in a way that left it semi-stuck. Ganesh buzzed off Dave just as the human moved, and scored a line of fire across the nearest plate of armor. Theo, to her credit, didn’t hesitate for a second before lunging forward with her polearm, turning an upward strike into a severing blow as the monomolecular edge of the measuring tool at the end of her weapon simply removed the leg.

Then it shot her.

One of the pods on its right side spun open with a whir, and what looked like spiked sticks of RAM began firing out in three round bursts. The first one went wide, but the second caught Theo dead in the chest, and punctured through the armor in a diagonal pattern going up and to her right, with the last one deflecting off her shoulder and sending her spinning to the ground, bleeding lightly. The armor stopped that from being a killing blow, but this was the first time she’d been wounded that badly here.

This was the first time anyone had been wounded that casually here.

Daniel was frozen in fear. What the hell was he even supposed to *do* here? He didn’t have anything more dangerous than a crowbar! Next to him, Alanna stood up smoothly, and unloaded two barrels of slug into the outer casing of the boss fight. The noise washed over Daniel like a heavy wave, and in that moment, he almost broke and ran. Then he saw the strider coming down the wall on the other side of Alanna, and his role came into focus.

He didn’t need much gear to just run interference. While she reloaded, he grabbed the stapler, and, unknowingly mirroring James on one of his first dives, overhand pitched it out into the office.

James came out of the wreckage of the cubicle firing. He’d been hoping to conserve ammo, but this wasn’t even close to the time for that. But after Alanna’s slugs tore chunks out of the thing’s chassis, he was just in time to see a series of CD trays pop open across its hull, and his own bullets splashed harmlessly off a green pane of light projected from the extended things that came out of the trays. Then James had to move, because Dave was being tracked by the now four weapon pods that were on rotating fire, and his friend was moving his way.

Rolling past Dave as they crossed paths, James took a gamble on the one way he had to breach the shield. He didn’t even need Secret anymore to help him, and so he simply raised his arm, and snapped out his own tool.

A roiling cloud of gritty black smoke burst out from the shellaxy’s hide as James used up another sublimation charge on it, vaporizing away the coverings to half its cables, as well as the extended CD trays, and a handful of other plastic bits that lined the outside of its shell. Behind it, the connector strips to some of the cube walls also dusted out of their solidity, and a couple more panels toppled to the ground, opening up the battlefield further. And *now* James well and truly had it’s attention, as the thing didn’t even hesitate to smash Dave into the floor after an unlucky dodge, and turn its front toward James himself.

But it wasn’t going to be enough. Even as he threw himself into a cube door, and grabbed a broken chunk of wall to try to deflect RAM bullets, the shellaxy was faltering. James felt a sting in his leg as one of the bursts traced a line up his calf, but the hostile hardware got a similar pain when a wounded Theo dragged herself upright and started chewing away at its exposed rear limbs with her glaive. When James saw a break in the shots, he tossed away the shard-riddled pane of wall that he’d been using as a shield, and started limping out of range. The shellaxy, though, had already switched to a different tactic and simply opened fire on where he was hiding. Literally. A gout of flame poured out of one of its half dozen grinding mouths, and it spewed forth like liquid toward where James had been sitting a second prior.

The second burst went way off target, after a pitch from Daniel cracked a strider against one of its eyes, and knocked it off balance. Before it could recover, Alanna had unloaded even more firepower into it, now keeping up a steady tempo of kicking it off balance with a blast from her gun, reloading, shifting position, and repeating. Each shot boring holes deeper into its interior, or knocking out crucial components.

The shellaxy, as powerful as it was, wasn’t a very smart beast. But even in its dim mind, it realized that it may have made a mistake, as Dave and James stood up and started to circle flank it, as Theo harried it when it tried to put range on them, as Alanna continued to fire single shells into it when openings presented themselves. Even Daniel got the occasional hit in, flinging random heavy objects just as a distraction when he could grab a paperweight or keyboard off an exposed desk.

Then it caught Theo again with a sweep, and as she hit the ground, the beast lurched up, and actually *jumped* toward her. For a brief second, she saw the coiling nightmare of cords that was its underbelly, at the top of its arc and about to plunge downward.

And then Dave caught it. Gravity no longer held sway over it, and Theo didn’t question the sudden arrested motion, rolling out of the way, before James hooked it with his crowbar and plowed it down into the ground again. That may have been a mistake, giving it more leverage, but it also kept it from going over their heads, and the lack of gravity left it unstable, and let James and Dave start chipping away at its systems, leaving cracks on the shell and driving strikes toward the holes Alanna was leaving in it.

It didn’t go down easy. It did go down, but it took its toll on the way out. By the end of the fight, not a single one of them was totally unscathed. Theo was left bleeding from multiple shots, James felt like he’d sprained all four limbs, Dave had his entire chest covered in a bruise. Alanna had, at some point, stopped being fire support, and glimpsed the light patterns on the ceiling. It had been a lot harder to kill it once she’d stopped shooting, and started laying her shells out in order of weight. Ganesh had, miraculously, avoided the anti-air blasts of sound and pressure that the shellaxy had started putting out, but he’d been grounded by an errant tentacle slap and forced to stay low or risk more than just a cracked faceplate.

But finally, it had been worn down. It’s guns clicked empty, it’s limbs failed it, and its countermeasures faltered. And when Theo, blood dripping from her nose down her face like dark oil, stalked forward with grim determination, and stabbed her unnaturally sharp tool through its chest, it died quietly. With a small sputter of blue smoke, and a grinding noise that cut off as soon as it started.

It dropped six yellow orbs, each the size of a coconut.

And one green globe that shifted with a brilliant inner emerald light.

_____

Alanna looked over the ledge they were perched on.

Behind them was another hallway, unsurprisingly. Though they had gone through some interesting cubicle forests to get here, where the walls sprung up like trunks of ancient trees, and connected via branching lines in strange geometric shapes. But none of it had been as exciting as the shellaxy fight, which James had named a ‘maimframe’, and none of it had distracted any of them from how much their cuts itched.

Theo in particular was having a hard time. The shots she’d taken hadn’t cut deep, but they’d still cut. And Theo was a girl who knew damn well that guys, or at least, the kind of guys that she dated, did *not* dig scars. That, and she had soaked the first bandage through with her own blood before it got under control, and felt woozy and lightheaded as the rest of the crew had helped her stumble away from the combat zone before something showed up.

They were entirely out of bandages now.

But they weren't dead. At least, not yet. Though that might change, if they didn’t have a plan to deal with what was in front of them.

The hallway ended at a ledge. James was two cubicles back, securing their knotted escape rope to the heaviest desk they could find, and Dave and Alanna were looking over the edge while grumbling about the increasing number of vertical shifts in the dungeon over the past mile. While Theo and Daniel rested, and Daniel fussed with Ganesh’s cracked faceplate and tried to figure out a way to secure it from snapping farther, Alanna looked down on their next opponent and assessed their options.

There were three of them. Copiers. They’d never come up with a clever name for them, and she had to have James fill her and everyone else in on some of the details she’d forgotten, and they’d never known. He’d only fought one, apparently. Anesh had technically fought two, but he wasn’t here. Also Alanna maintained that it didn’t count the first time, from what James had told her of the ‘foresight’ orb. The problem was, three was significantly more than one, and one of them was *big*.

“What’s the plan?” Dave muttered to her as they looked down.

“Find a way around?” Alanna asked hopefully. She knew it was a doomed question, but she still asked.

Dave shook his head, like she knew he was going to. “Talked to Daniel.” He pointed across the open linoleum floor in front of them to where the walls bled from carpeted panels into actual wood, and transitioned into a simple hallway with a relatively low ceiling. “That’s where we need to go. We’re too close to find another way, that’s it.”

“Balls.” Alanna sighed out. “Okay. Well, that’s kind of a problem. What now?”

“Shoot them.” Dave commented as if it were obvious.

“Low on ammo. Like, five shells left.” Alanna held up a hand and corrected herself. “Okay, not *like* five shells. Just five shells. I unloaded most of what I had left into the maimframe.”

“God I love that name.” James said as he slid up next to her.

She snorted. “Of course you do. Where’re the others?”

“Theo’s trying to figure out if her iLipede can get on the wifi, Daniel’s having some kind of personal crisis or something. I didn’t check.” James couldn’t really shrug from his prone position, but he tried anyway. “Anyway. Dave. Like, yesterday? You were talking about how you couldn’t use the ‘remove half of’ thing without killing yourself. Was that an absolute, or a matter of scale? Because I’ve got an idea.”

Dave’s eyes lit up. “It was scale, yeah. Someone kept suggesting I remove half of impossibly large or abstract things.” The words got a bark of complaint from Alanna before Dave continued. “But yeah, I could take out half of them. I don’t know how it rounds? Maybe it would cut the third one in half literally.”

But James gave him an even bigger grin in response. “I’ve got a better plan for you. How about ‘half the space inside them’? Because let me tell you something; it is *packed* in there.”

Dave nodded. Slowly at first, then with vigor as he caught on. “Yeah. Yeah! I can do that.” His voice reinforced with confidence.

“Okay. Let’s round up the others, clear this area, and get ready for the last push.” James crept backward, and Alanna and Dave joined him.

They were almost there.

_____

Turns out, when there’s too much stuff in a space that can’t hold it, it explodes. Violently.

They picked their way through the shredded remains of machinery that used to be the three copiers. The creatures had died silently, unexpectedly, and almost too easily. But James stopped even pretending to be complaining when Daniel found the first orange orb, and the rest of the oranges and greens followed.

Pieces of assembly machines and pools of strange liquid material dotted the tile field between where they were and their goal. It was one of the few places in the dungeon that didn’t have carpeted floors, and James felt like his boots made the loudest possible clopping noise as he walked. Some of the assembler arms were still upright, jutting out of the floor like they’d fused with it instead of simply being projected outward. It left him the feeling of walking through a patch of cattails, only tipped with metallic hands instead of seed pods.

They reached the hallway without incident. It left everyone kind of unsettled; it shouldn’t be this easy. But then, there’d been a whole herd of copiers. It probably wasn’t supposed to be easy.

James tried to engage in banter about what you’d call a herd of copiers, but no one was in the mood for light jokes now. They were too tense. Too prepared for something to go wrong. The hall seemed too damn long, and it was strange after so long to have what felt like an actual building ceiling overhead. Fluorescent lights shouldn’t be closer than forty feet above.

When they saw the potted plant and the lamp, it was almost with a sense of relief. The hallway went on for about two hundred feet of walls with random portraits in ornate frames, before opening up into a small ‘reception’ area. A wavy curved desk, flush with the floor and twenty feet long, cut through the middle of the room, and kept the set of padded waiting room chairs separated from the smaller hall set in the back of the wall that they could all see was much shorter, and led to a series of doors. Off to the side, a water cooler and vending machine cast a sense of normality on the scene, like they hadn’t just fought their way here tooth and nail; like they’d just stepped off the street for a job interview.

Behind the desk sat an office employee, blank face calmly staring at a wall, but tilting at a forty five degree angle as they moved in, and swiveling to face them. “Tresspass…” It got out before James almost casually drew and fired into its face. Three bangs traced lines of sound and violence through the air, and the stuffed shirt died in a spray of dust and confetti. The rest of them moved into the room as James unloaded the last of his ammunition, with Theo extending her arm as far as she could and uprooting the plant with an almost perfect twist of her glaive that she’d never be able to replicate if asked, and Dave toppling the lamp and dropping a spare coat over it before it detonated with a hot bang.

Then it was quiet again.

Alanna looked around, then dramatically sighed, stalked over to the water cooler, poured herself a cup, and took a sip. “Welp. Looks like my work here is done.” Ganesh didn’t even bother to launch off her shoulder.

*That* diffused the tension a little bit.

“Okay. Daniel. Where now?” James asked after they’d all had a chance to laugh and breathe.

The kid pointed down the second hallway. “Last door on the left.” He said simply, and everyone nodded.

They checked themselves as they walked down the hall, staying spread out and prepared for action if needed. Weapons ready and intact. Armor covering vital bits. Wounds bandaged and not bleeding, no new cuts unnoticed. Lungs full of air, legs that could still run.

Everyone was prepared. Or as close as they were going to get.

James looked up at his group of unlikely companions. Four other humans and one sentient drone. Three reckless idiot heroes, and two equal heroes of circumstance. He took a deep breath, and Alanna met his eyes and gave him a small smile. It was a little thing, but in the sea of chaos that had been the last two days, it spiked into his heart like a ray of real sun. Here was someone who he’d been infatuated with for years, and he was wasting his days risking his life instead of staying in bed with her. James almost burst out with laughter as the thought hit him, but instead, just returned the smile, with all the love he had.

Then he reached out and grasped the door handle.

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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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