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A note from argusthecat

I have rewritten the second half of this three time.  I still don't like it.  This is the first time I've actively hated what I was writing.  So, I'm going to cut it here, because my time isn't infinite, and because I want to just get it down and move forward with the story.

James reached out and grabbed the door handle.

 

It took about two seconds for him to realize that it was locked, or wouldn’t turn, and another two for him to look up with a tight lipped look of consternation. It took six more seconds for him to realize that Dave wasn’t standing next to him anymore, that everyone was staring at him, and that Alanna looked… tired. Desperately tired.

 

It took another four seconds for Theo to harshly bark out, “Turn right. Break the wall precisely two feet in and about one foot up. Trust us.” And another three seconds for James to shrug, turn, and punch the drywall as hard as he could. Where he struck wasn’t exactly where Theo said, but that wasn’t a problem.

 

He could have questioned it, but they all seemed so focused, so James placed his trust in his friends, and took three tries to put his fist through the wall. Eight seconds later, he started to say “Now wh…” and was cut off.

 

“Reach in. Orb.” Was all Alanna said, in an urgent voice that snapped the words out. This time, James didn’t bother to shrug, sensing the rushed need and moving with an edge of panic.

 

He started rooting around in the wall, and Dave added in a simple command of “Right side only.” James adjusted, starting to feel the curling grip of fear as he obeyed his friend’s commands without understanding, in the dark as to the rhyme or reason of it all. It was as if he’d stepped off a cliff, and had yet to start falling, and no matter how hard he believed in these people, gravity was going to kick in a turn him into a coyote pancake eventually.

 

Then, twelve seconds of frantic grasping later, his fingers connected with something sharp and bizarrely geometric. Something that didn’t fit behind an office wall, with the wiring and the pipes and the support beams. Following the pyramid shape to its point, getting a razor thin cut on his index finger for his trouble, James bumped his bloodied knuckles against something smooth and pliable.

 

He didn’t waste time ripping the orb out of its moorings and smashing it in his hand.

 

[Certification Added : United States Military - Air Force - O-2, Second Lieutenant]

[+2 Emotional Resonance Ranks : Passion]

 

“I’m gonna need to learn how to fly a plane…” James started to come up with some quip about flying by the seat of his pants, but was cut off by Alanna staggering forward and crushing him in a bear hug. “Ow. Ow. Ow. My spine. Oh gods, ow.” He muttered out from where he was crushed against the padding of the leather coats she’d been wearing in place of armor. But despite that, he still wrapped his arms around her armored torso and returned the hug.

 

“I’m so glad you’re okay.” Alanna hoarsely whispered out over him.

 

“Yeah, I mean, I’m fine?” James half asked, half stated. He didn’t want to commit to anything too soon if he didn’t know what was going on.

 

Dave stepped forward next, giving James a light tap on the shoulder with the back of his hand, not trying to free him from Alanna’s death grip. “You don’t remember anything?”

 

“Remember any of…” James pushed Alanna back a bit, and took a breath as his lungs were freed up from their crushing cage. “Hang on, hang on. What the hell’s going on? Dave has a moustache thing, am I in an evil mirror dimension?”

 

“No, I just grow facial hair pretty fast.” Dave rolled his eyes. Then he cleared his throat, and looked away sheepishly. “Also you’ve been stuck in a time loop for the past eighteen hours.”

 

In James’ head, he always assumed that he could keep his cool under any situation. He liked to imagine that he could present a soft smile and a wry wit no matter what came his way. As it turned out, he’d learned recently that life-or-death situations were an exception to that rule. And now, he was learning so much about himself lately, he’d found another one.

 

“What.” He glanced around at the other four. “What?!” There it was. The one thing he feared most; being at a complete loss for words.

 

Dave just nodded, and did what he unknowingly did best; gave James the facts. “I think it was built into the handle. Once you tried to turn it, it activated, and stuck you in a one minute loop. Nothing we could do helped, because if we tried to do anything, it just looped us back too and blanked our memories. So, since Daniel and Alanna were on the outskirts, they dragged Theo and me back bit by bit every loop until we were out of range in the second or two before you touched the knob.”

 

“Theo and I.” Theo corrected.

 

“Theo and me” James recorrected, mind not at all focusing on that part of the conversation.

 

“*Anyway*” Dave continued, “it took a while, but we eventually worked out exactly what to say to make you do what we needed. The good news is, free will is real. The bad news is, given enough time to shape our words and tone, we can basically make you react in a suitably predictable way.”

 

“I have a lot of questions about that.” James muttered.

 

“You’ll have to ask them later.” Alanna said, wiping what was absolutely not a tear out of the corner of her eye. “We’re on a serious clock now.”

 

James blinked, then something connected in his brain. “Sorry, you said *how many* hours? On a one minute loop?”

 

“Yeah, you got reset a few thousand times.” Dave told him. James looked again, really looked, and noticed that Dave was now wearing what looked like the external plates from one of the copiers around his legs and forearms. A glance across the others showed that Daniel and Theo had similar makeshift armor.

 

He glanced back down the hall to the receptionist room, to see what looked like a couple couches covered in improvised blankets, and a table that hadn’t been there before with one of the bags opened on it and various supplies and tools laid out.

 

“You’ve been busy.” He commented. Ah, that was the cool comment he should have made to start with. Damn.

 

They had been busy. Theo was starting to feel more capable of moving again, no matter how much the holes in her skin itched like hell under the bandages. Daniel had been taken out time and again by Dave to scrounge up more food, and to resupply their water, as well as to try to get a handle on the dungeon itself. He was still green as hell, and somehow seemed resistant to actually learning, but he was getting better. Alanna, well, Alanna hadn’t wanted to leave. She kept watch on James through his endless loops, trying option after option.

 

Even when she was punching holes in chitin plate and threading near-indestructible cable through them, she was sitting there making sure James wasn’t in trouble. When she ate, she kept her vigil. When she slept, she did so in brief spurts in one of the blind spots that James never, ever, checked during his unattended loops, so she could keep track of him without being awoken fresh every minute. And in the time when everything else was quiet, she talked to him. One minute at a time, conversations about everything she could think of.

 

It was impossible, and painful, and it made her realize just how much she didn’t want to lose him.

 

And now, finally, they’d gotten him to find the orb powering the trap by random chance, and he was free.

 

“Yeah.” Alanna said with a startled coughing laugh. “Yeah, we have.”

 

James looked around, dusted off his hands like he’d just finished a hard day’s work, and then winced as he rubbed over the cuts on his fingers. “Okay! Do we have any disinfectant left? Maybe a diced up shirt or something I can use on this before I lose all my blood?” He held up his hand. “After that, well… I dunno where you guys are personally, but I was ready to go in a minute ago, and nothing’s really changed for me.”

 

“Okay, hang on.” Alanna stopped him while as Theo rolled her eyes. “Before you rush into the next trap, there’s some good news and bad news to catch you up on. Also the outline of a plan.” She started in on her next sentence, but didn’t get far before James cut her off. “The good news…”

 

James spoke with a tense smile. “Is the good news that I’ll now live slightly longer relative to the rest of you, and the bad news exactly the same thing depending on the context?”

 

“Um…” Dave and Daniel shared a befuddled look from where they were going through the bags looking for something they could cut up to use as a bandage. Theo rolled her eyes again. Meanwhile, Alanna just got angry. “Jesus fucking Christ, that’s grim! Why would you say that?!”

 

“Yeah, holy shit, I am so sorry.” James leaned his back against the wall, rubbing at his forehead with a still bleeding hand and leaving a red smear on his skin. “I think I just realized I almost died, and I’m overcompensating.” He looked up at her, anxiety showing on his face. “Actually sorry, really.”

 

Fortunately, Alanna didn’t take it personally. Or at least, didn’t show it. “It’s fine, but come on. Joke about mortality when we’re out of here. Or, ideally, when the dungeon has made us all immortal.”

 

“Oof. Let’s have *that* conversation some other time.” James tried to laugh off his beating heart. “Anyway. Um. Still bleeding, right.” He held up his hand and splattered a few more drops of blood onto the floor. What followed was a slight rush as Dave clumsily carved up a scavenged dress shirt from one of their looting runs, dusting it into a blue orb, and then found a *different* dress shirt that could actually turn into cloth strips. Then figuring out a way to secure it to James’ finger that didn’t leave his hand so bulky and inflexible that he couldn’t hold a weapon. *Then* James redid it himself when he insisted on actually using disinfectant. “I know this place seems, like, hospital-sterile.” He explained to them. “But I’m not taking chances on catching an extradimensional plague.”

 

Everyone agreed that was fair.

 

While all this was going down, Alanna was trying to explain their modified operational strategy, and being constantly interrupted by a nervous Daniel.

 

“So, we tested the coffee we brought, and it turns out that you actually *can* reheat it, so-” She told him as he rewrapped his bandage for the third time, trying to get it comfortable.

 

“Basically we’re going to buff up before we go in.” Daniel cut in. “I don’t know why you didn’t-”

 

“Yes, thank you. Fucking stop that.” Alanna glared at him, and James got the impression that this had been a growing problem for a little while. He knew Alanna got exhausted around people fairly quickly, and Daniel being more comfortable here didn’t seem to have made him easier to get along with as the more annoying character traits started to show through the constant fear of death. “*So*, the coffee can be split up and we can get probably five minutes of it for each of us. Or, a bit more for one person.”

 

“Ah, the classic choice.” James nodded. He turned to where Theo was limbering up and told her, “The correct answer is one person.”

 

“How in the hell did you know…” She half barked, half questioned.

 

While Alanna and Dave laughed, James motioned at the two of them. “This kind of thing shows up a lot in the games that we’ve replaced our blood with, and you looked like you were super unconvinced by them. The thing is, if we split it up, and get into any trouble that lasts more than the duration, then we’re all going to have a moment where we slip up as our ability changes.” He shook his head with tight lips. “It’s a bad plan. Five minutes, or thereabouts, isn’t enough time. Better to focus it on one person, and rely on it. Also, five minutes? Didn’t we bring more coffee?”

 

“Dave’s been using it when he takes Daniel and Theo out.” Alanna explained, gesturing at their friend who was currently perched on the end of one of the brown leather couches, playing a Gameboy.

 

“Yeah, that stuff isn’t as helpful as we thought, is it?” James muttered.

 

Alanna nodded. “It’s because the things that we need it for tend to be surprises, and we totally can’t stay wired on it all the time.”

 

“Why not?” Theo asked. “You said that, and then there was that thing with the legal paper, and I never got a straight answer.”

 

“Legal paper?” James queried, but was ignored.

 

Alanna snapped her fingers. “Right! If you drink too much, you just… conk out. Not dead, just asleep. It’s super restful! But there’s a hard upper limit to how long you can stay on this stuff.”

 

“Legal paper. Don’t do this to me.” James said with an exaggerated scowl.

 

“Got it.” Theo said. “You should tell him the other bad news.”

 

“Is it about legal paper?” James said with an exasperated sigh.

 

“No, it’s about your rubber thing.” Alanna said with a wince. Before James could ask another obvious question, she explained, “We tried to get you to use your power during some of the early loops to check certain spots, or just to see if it could help. Turns out… orb bullshit *doesn’t* loop.” James glanced down at his hand, unfolding his fingers to stare at the flat of his palm. He didn’t feel any different, but then again, he’d never been able to see or feel the orb under his skin to begin with. “We figured it out when it stopped working. But by then, obviously…” Alanna looked kinda sheepish about the whole thing. “Sorry. We screwed up.”

 

“I was stuck in a fucking time loop.” James stated with a quiet intensity. “Did you forget the part where you got me out of a time loop? *You* don’t have to apologize for anything.”

 

She gave a small facade of a smile in response. “Well. Once we figured that out, we tried throwing some orbs to you. None of them worked, but you’ve got a few more skills that you might not have thought about yet. Um… history of the Cree, some kind of cattle handling thing, and I think you said bluetooth programing?”

 

“I can for some reason tell you why bluetooth always takes eight tries to work properly, yes.” James nodded as he turned his thoughts inward. “It makes more sense than I expected.”

 

‘He’s making jokes now. Does that mean we can get on with this?” Theo growled out.

 

“Hey, you didn’t have to come in the first place.” Alanna dropped the smile entirely.

 

“What other options did I have? Get eaten by a ball of wiring? Besides. You idiots aren’t wrong, this is worth doing. I said I’d be with you, I meant it. Stop being insubordinate.”

 

“We aren’t your subordinates in the first place.” James tried his hand at humor as he took the blue orb Dave offered him, freshly carved from a mildly hypnotic photograph of a cat. “I mean, *I* am. Sort of. I think you’ve been replaced, though, so not even then.”

 

“I’ve been gone a day!”

 

“Several days. Also everyone forgot you when you got thrown in here. So…”

 

“This is bullshit.”

 

“Well, in that case, want to go take out your anger by breaking whatever trap or monster the dungeon has behind that door that’s been kidnapping people?” James had the flow of the banter now, and he leaned into it.

 

Theo’s glare lessened, then she smiled grimly. “Yes.” was all she said.

 

He looked around. Alanna stood ready, Ganesh now in his comfortable perch on her shoulder until his actual human could come back. Daniel hauled himself to his feet, trying to look cool and relaxed under pressure. Dave actually *did* look relaxed, casually tossing the Gameboy back into bag as he waited for their little camp stove to heat up their last portion of coffee to an acceptable, if only barely palatable, temperature. In the back of his conscious mind, he could feel Secret’s presence, comforting if not right there with him.

 

“Okay.” James said with renewed conviction. “Let’s do this.”

 

They stacked up at the door, armored, armed, gritted for a fight. Slugging back the half cup of coffee, James gave the stern faces of his friends and allies one last look over, and then nodded, and reached out to grab the door handle.

 

The he turned it, and shouldered the door open, barging into the room beyond and rattling the interior blinds against the window to the side of the door.

 

No traps to the face greeted him. No screams of monsters were incurred. In fact, after such a violent entry, he felt almost stupid at the mundane scene that greeted him.

 

For a second, anyway.

 

While he stumbled to a stop and his brain caught up to what he was seeing, everyone else piled in behind him, spreading out in a fanned out formation. Alanna stepped up next to James, tapping him on the shoulder lightly as she, too, tried to parse what they’d walked in on.

 

It was a conference room. That much was easy to grasp. There was a big, solid oval of a table composed of one of those sturdy brown woods that James’ brain always just defaulted to ‘oak’. A really big table, actually; almost comically long. There were dim lights, and a powerpoint cover slide projected on the far wall, there were nice chairs. There were fucking doughnuts on the table.

 

That’s about where the normalcy ended.

 

The conference table had people sitting around it, for one. They were, every one of them, facing the bright white square of projected words on the wall, but they were also visibly human. Not the uncanny valley non-person faces of the stuffed shirts, or the blank construction paper nothingness beneath the masks of some of the drones. No, these were humans. They didn’t react as the door thudded open, not even flinching and certainly not turning around. And some of them looked like they had a layer of dust on them. But they were all breathing, all of them gloriously alive. Men and women, young and old, just waiting here.

 

Phones sat on the table in front of everyone. The old plastic shelled desk phones ubiquitous to offices across America. In the murky lighting, cables could be made out running down the side of the table, and Alanna made a motion to check under the table itself, just in case. But what really caught the eye was that, all around them, there was nothing. Behind them, there were a couple windows with the blinds drawn, and a door sitting in its frame, and there was the far wall of course. But aside from that, there were no walls. No floors. Just black, inky, nothing. It was as if the room melted away at what should have been its edges, and left it suspended in an endless void. Even the ceiling overhead dissolved away when it hit the boundary.

 

“Fuck.” Theo breathed out a whisper. “That’s a lot of people.”

 

Then the slideshow audibly clicked to the next frame, and the projection on the back wall drew their attention.

 

It had three bullet points. ‘Greeting’ sat at the top. Followed by ‘recruitment’. And finally, ‘subdual and integration’.

 

“Wow, thanks, I hate it.” James said softly on reflex as he started taking a few cautious steps forward, sliding around the right side of the table, looking up to the ceiling for where the projector must be mounted so that he could break it.

 

Behind him, he heard Dave say his name in a low tone. Followed by another, more worried “Jaaaaameees.” From Alanna.

 

He was already stepping back into a relaxed fighting stance when she finished calling him. And as he swept his gaze back over the room, James realized with a spike of pure fear in his heart that every one of the people here was now looking at them. He hadn’t seen them move, he’d just looked up for a second, and in that span of heartbeats, they’d shifted. The dust hadn’t even been disturbed off some of them. And now all of them stared with unblinking eyes, devoid of color and left a milky grey.

 

They must have moved when the slideshow had shifted to the next image, leaving the large screen reading a simple “Good evening.” in black text on white light. It was creepy as hell, to everyone in the room. Even Ganesh, who felt something unfamiliar and unbearably deep staring at him out of those eyes.

 

“Okay, let’s establish a baseline here.” James raised his voice, and his companions winced as the silence dripped away around them. “Are you actually talking to us?” He leveled his crowbar at the screen across from them, on the other end of seventy feet of table. The slide ticked over to the next image, leaving the screed reading a header of ‘James Lyle’, followed by more personal information than his driver's license had on it. “Okay, first off, no way that height is accurate.” James said, half to the screen, half to his friends.

 

Then it flicked to a page for Alanna, and Dave, then Theo, and finally Daniel.

 

“I’m not even happy with how much Facebook knows about my life. This is way worse.” Alanna murmured as the five of them unconsciously shifted closer together. “Do we just leave?”

 

*No*. Declared the powerpoint projection.

 

“Wasn’t asking you.” Alanna told it, keeping her shotgun ready to bring to bear on anything that moved. She would, naturally, hesitate to shoot an actual human. But if these people were already dead or zombified or something, the priority of life went to her and her friends.

 

“We can’t leave. We need to get these people out.” Dave laid it out as if it were obvious.

 

James nodded, even though no one was really going to notice in the dark gloom. “Okay.” He said, intelligence starting to overcome uncertainty and fear. “Alanna, stay ready. Daniel, watch the door.” He knew Daniel had been having problems with panic, and couldn’t blame the kid. But blame or not, if it came down to a fight, he’d rather that he run instead of getting in the way. Also, it really wasn’t a bad idea to have someone keeping an eye on their exit. “Dave, let’s… let’s check that guy.” He motioned to one of the seated humans, still staring glassy-eyed in their direction. Not *at* them, specifically, but toward them for sure.

 

“What the fuck *is* that.” Theo whispered, staring at the screen as the slide changed again, this time to one giving bullet points on the benefits of corporate mergers.

 

“It’s a hostile powerpoint presentation, it’s probably going to try to kill us, but we don’t know how yet.” James bluntly stated. “Stay alert, but don’t panic. We need to see if these people are still alive, and if we can get them out of here.” He looked over at Theo, who had shuffled back a few steps from the conference table. “Also be careful not to fall off the edge.” He told her with a nervous tone to his voice. She almost instantly checked behind her, and took a step forward in response, which put her far enough away from the bottomless abyss for James to be a bit more comfortable.

 

Cautiously, James and Dave began approaching the first man seated at the table. He was an older guy, greyish hair barely noticeable in the light of the projection. Dress shirt and tie making him look like a caricature of a businessman half-napping during a meeting. Only the gleaming grey eyes gave away that anything was wrong.

 

Well, that and the cords.

 

“Hey. What’s up with this?” Dave asked James as they got closer and details began to become clearer. They were almost within arms reach now, and the thing Dave was pointing out was that some of those cables that were running around the base of the table were dangling down from the back of the chair.

 

No, not the back of the chair, James realized as he stepped up to the man, breathing a sigh of relief as the human in front of him didn’t suddenly lunge out to try to eat his brains. They were coming out of the back of his *head*. Two lines, one ending at the base of the neck, the other plugged into the skull just above the ear. James swallowed hard at the sight, pulling a face and sharing a grim look with Dave. He’d bet anything that those were the tail ends of the same cords currently leading out of the phone on the table in front of them.

 

Then the slide changed again, and in that flicker of darkness, the world shifted under their feet.

 

When they looked up, to a chorus of curse words from Alanna and Theo, it was to see that they were now slightly farther away from the door. ‘Please find a seat’, read the far wall. It hadn’t grown closer, the room had actually expanded. Or at least, the table had. Another five or so feet of oak now sat at the end, with five fresh, empty chairs. There were even phones sat there for them, red lights blinking to indicate incoming calls.

 

“Fuck that.” James only barely restrained his desire to flip off the screen. Instead, he did the next best thing he could, and smoothly reached out and unplugged the first cable from the man in the chair.

 

In an instant, everything went to shit. The displayed slide flickered from a fairly innocuous looking explanation of the perks of good communication, to a direly glowing red image of a clipart frowny face. From beneath them, there was a squealing sound, like an animal in distress, and around them, the phones all started ringing at full volume. And in front of James, the man he’d just unplugged opened his eyes - clear, human eyes - and gasped a coughing breath like his lungs had been full of dust.

 

Then he started screaming.

 

“No, no!” The words came out like sandpaper, almost drowned out by the noise around them. “They see! You… you…” He broke off into a fit of coughing, gasping for air as James jerked back.

 

Alanna screamed at them over the din. “What the fuck did you do!?” She bellowed as Ganesh panickedly took to the air.

 

“He’s alive.” Dave informed James, looking up at him from where he was checking the pulse of the guy they’d unplugged. “What the hell is going on?”

 

“They’re all plugged in!” James yelled back. “Dan, come get this guy out of here! You two get that side, we got this one, just wake them up and let’s get the fuck out before…” A hand grabbed him around the throat from behind, followed by another one. They were clumsy and weak, but still managed to yank him off balance before he saw Dave’s fist flash by his head, and the grip on him loosen. “Before that!” He yelled, turning to see the crowd of humans standing up with jerky, puppeted motions.

 

Dave didn’t hesitate to rip the plugs out of the head of the man who’d attacked, sending the short, bearded figure sprawling to the floor, howling, “Run, run! We want you!”, before choking on his words and splattering vomit across the hard carpet.

 

Despite the overwhelming noise, though, not a single one of the other people in the room spoke or made a sound as they tripped over chairs and each other in a jerky rush to make it to the unplugged friends. ‘Sit down’ declared the projection in all capital letters, as a dozen pale faced and grey eyed men and women pulled themselves over the table, knocking phones and doughnuts alike aside in a rush to make it to James and Dave.

 

Alanna stepped in like an intercepting knight, just as the first of the human swarm reached them. A plated arm clotheslining one of their attackers as Alanna kept moving forward and turned the motion into a curved punch that slammed another puppet off its feet. Stepping over the young woman in torn cargo pants that she'd left bleeding on the ground, Alanna took up a boxer’s stance, facing down dozens of unflinching enemies. The next one went down easy, too. And the next. She batted them away like flies, her strikes bowling them to the floor to get tangled in their own limbs and skull cables.

 

But there were a lot of them. And even as Alanna fought them overwhelmingly, she realized that they weren’t mindless zombies. They were moving in unison, and they weren’t just lurching forward; they were surrounding her and her companions. They grabbed at her in timing windows that left her off guard, or put them in position to make lunges for the shotgun hanging off her shoulders.

 

“James! How do I fight a hive mind!” She yelled at him as he and Dave hauled the man they’d unhooked toward the door, while Theo got the second one that James had gotten the cables out of.

 

His head snapped up and he dropped the semi-conscious suit back onto the ground. James had tunneled in on the problem of getting people out, and hadn’t actually realized that the *entire room* was shuffling toward them. “How should I know?” He shouted back over the wailing of the phones and unseen horror below them.

 

“This is your area of expertise!” Alanna responded, grabbing the wrists of a blonde woman with a sneering face who came at her neck. “You do this all the time!” She got one hand free, and pulled one cord out from behind the woman’s ear with a sickening plastic pop, before shoving her back into the press of the crowd.

 

James overhand hurled his crowbar at a man about to jump Alanna from her left, sending him stumbling back with either a broken rib, or a bruise in place of a torso. Either one. “I have no fucking idea! Just keep unplugging them! And Theo!” He pointed over at her accusingly, “No stabbing! They’re still alive!”

 

His boss had already come to that conclusion herself, stabbing the monoblade of her makeshift weapon into the table, before grabbing the boney leg of a guy in a mail carrier’s uniform off the table, and slamming him down onto the floor, turning the motion into a pin with a practiced effort. Wrestling with humans was actually something she knew how to do, and this guy’s muscles didn’t let him put up much resistance before Theo fumbled her fingers to the ports in his skull, and pulled him free. “I got it, I got it.” She shouted back. “What do we do about the *rest* of them?”

 

That was a good question. How do you fight an enemy that’s a hundred hands and no brain? James’ mind raced as he looked around the room. The four of them were getting surrounded, and every time Dave or Theo took advantage of the clumsy movements of one of the marionette humans to clip their cables, the babbling screams of the newly freed joined the cacophony of the room before they lost consciousness or collapsed heaving to the floor. But there were so many of them, and they may have disconnected a half dozen, but five times that many were left, and they were getting smarter. They moved with more confidence, and while Alanna and James were still laying into them with practiced moves, the duo were getting tired. It had been a long trip, and no amount of martial arts training or combat experience was enough to take the exhaustion away from a prolonged journey. And even the small difference of it taking two extra punches to stagger a jerking human body that was slowly gaining more control over itself was a lot of additional work.

 

As the semicircle of wired fighters closed in on them, James tapped Dave on the shoulder and started to pull him back. “Fuck it,” he said, “let’s just leave. We can come back and…”

 

“You mother fucker!” Theo screeched, causing James to look over at her, then at where she was looking. The door. The door they'd left Daniel to hold open.

 

Daniel, who had just run out on them.

 

And a door that was swiftly dissolving back into the fuzzy darkness of the blank space all around the precarious platform they were on.

 

The squealing below them stopped. The four of them were surrounded in truth now. The few people they'd unplugged feebly struggled as the back line of puppets hauled them back into chairs and hooked them back in, while a mob stared down the would be heroes. Theo had, at some point, retrieved her spear, and James saw Alanna slowly reaching down for her shotgun. Would it even help if they started killing these people? Would it get them out of here?

 

He was afraid enough to consider it. Not enough to do it without thinking though.

 

On the wall, the projection shifted, still a blood red light, to a simple set of words.

 

‘TAKE A SEAT’. It said.

 

“Aw, balls.” It was the only thing James could think to say.

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About the author

argusthecat

Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!

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