“I have a plan.” James whispered to Alanna.
The two of them were seated near the end of the table, in chairs that were elegantly shaped, plushly padded, and somehow impossibly uncomfortable to sit in. Alanna had shuffled her chair over to the head of the table, and their ‘guards’, the puppeted humans who stood behind them in dual ranks, hadn’t objected. They weren’t reacting as whispers were passed between the four of them, Theo and Dave sitting opposite of James.
Their capture had been a lot less violent than James had been expecting. They’d simply been surrounded, and when they’d stopped fighting, their assailants had too, in perfect sync. Then they’d been corralled into the empty chairs here at the end of the table, and the puppets simply stood behind them as a motionless wall.
Not that it mattered much, since the door was gone. Disappeared back into the dark when Daniel had closed it behind him when he ran. James tried not to snarl as he remembered that little factoid.
Now, though, there was no time for being angry. There may not be much time for anything; James didn’t know how long they’d be kept here. Because right now, they were being subjected to the most aggravatingly obtuse powerpoint presentation that James had ever seen in his life.
Alanna was less angry, and more just tense. She was also absolutely uninterested in whatever James was going to say to lighten the mood. “If your plan includes the power of love, I’m breaking up with you.” Her hands clenched on the edge of the table in front of her. On the far side of the table from them, the slideshow scrolled on, explaining in iconography and clipped language about the benefits of upward scaling power hierarchies.
“I was more thinking an actual plan for how to stop a hive mind.” James whispered back.
“The power of love can’t stop a hive mind?” Alanna returned, then winced as she realized she’d risen to the bait.
James smirked. Briefly. “I kinda feel like if any human emotion could, it would have worked by now.” He made a small gesture around at the four dozen other people in the room, all with ethernet cables running out of their skulls. He kept the hand motion small because he wasn’t sure how much their guards were paying attention to them. Or rather, if the hive itself was.
The problem - the real fundamental problem beyond the fact that they'd been captured and James had failed and they were all going to be turned into mindless toys of an all powerful monster realm and oh god dammit it had all gone so wrong - the *problem* was that they had no idea what they were dealing with.
When James and Anesh had taken on their first tumblefeed, they'd done an amount of research and planning on how to turn a ball of wires into a corpse. They knew, roughly, what they were getting into, and what gear and tools and tactics they could bring to defeat it. When they went exploring deeper and deeper into the Office, they kitted themselves out with flexible armor, a variety of tools, and increasingly dangerous weapons. They may not have known what they were getting into, but they moved on their own terms, and did so carefully and efficiently. They weren’t surprised too often, and when they were, they had numbers and equipment to balance the scales.
Here, though? They’d come in expecting a prison of some sort, sure. And guards, of course. They just hadn’t expected the guards to be the prisoners, and the prison to be a conference table and a network.
James didn’t even know for sure what the ethernet wiring was for. They couldn’t know, really, until the moment that the rest of the controlled people here held them down and shoved those same cords into their own heads. It was something James was trying really hard to not panic about, while still taking it into account. It could be that it was just how whatever the fuck was hiding under the floor was controlling its captives. Maybe it was a voluntary thing, and this was him and his friends finally fulfilling that imperialist prophecy Anesh had made so long ago, walking into someone’s home and trying to fight them over misunderstood differences. Perhaps it was an actual hive mind, for whatever purpose that served. Or maybe this was just the Office version of a drug den; his mind stuck on that one for a second, and he imagined faceless paper pushers coming here at the end of their ‘day’ to plug into Office intranet and download some humanity.
Almost made him laugh.
“What are they whispering about?” Theo leaned in next to Dave to pass the question to him.
He looked away from the increasingly convoluted explanation of diversified metaphysical assets, and glanced across the table. Then he turned back, tilting his head backward a bit to whisper in response, “James has a plan.”
“You heard it?”
“No, I just assume he has a plan.”
“Do *you* have a plan?” Theo asked him, absolutely unhappy with the lack of concern Dave seemed to be showing.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not good at plans.” He pretended to focus on the presentation, wondering if it was just as random as everything else in here, or if it was actually trying to communicate something with them. “I let James do the plans. Used to let JP do it, but he didn’t want to come in.”
“There’s more of you?” Theo was kinda surprised. Partly that James had found and convinced more than two people to come in here in the first place, but mostly that he hadn’t brought every weapon he could with him to this fight. From what she understood of what Alanna and Dave had explained to her, James had known full well that this might be a one way trip. He’d also known that at the very least, they’d need to fight their way through potentially days of hostile territory. So it struck her as weird and kind of stupid that he hadn’t brought everyone he could.
“Yeah, there’s a few more people.” Dave told her, half keeping his eye on the presentation. He still wasn’t sure that it wasn’t trying to tell them something vaguely important; every time a villain did a monologue, it gave something away. That was just a fact. But the fact that the last ten rapid slides had been about measuring relative corporate size left him wondering if he wasn’t just panning for gold in a koi pond. “One of them was afraid. One of them was too important to risk.”
Theo started to lash back at that, angry that they could have done more, but caught herself. Something about how Dave said that made it sound almost mythic. “Too… important?”
“He’s relevant to humanity.” Was all Dave responded with a casual shrug, like that was just a *thing* that people said.
That made Theo blink, holding her eyes closed for a second as if she could reset her brain to a state that didn’t have to deal with this. Then she turned across the table to Alanna causing one of the guards to shift slightly as she leaned over. “Does James have a plan?” She stage whispered.
Alanna looked back with an almost pained look on her face that she quickly schooled back into confidence. “It’s a secret” She whispered back.
“What’s that supposed to…”
Theo was interrupted by Dave rapping his knuckles on her shoulder. “Hey.” He said as he cut her off, waiting until he had her irate attention. “It’s a Secret.”
“Ah.” Was all she could think to say in response. Clearing her throat lightly and trying to change the topic to something less suspicious, she turned her eyes back to the scree and casually asked Dave, “Why is this presentation so long? Or is this part of the prison thing?”
“It’s to make us bored, because boredom removes the immediate panic that makes integration into the network problematic.” Dave replied.
Both Theo and Alanna heard that, and gave a simultaneous “What.” James may have noticed, or he may have been asleep. Dave didn’t know, since their leader was currently sitting with his eyes closed, like taking a casual nap was the perfect option for right now.
“What, haven’t you been paying attention?” Dave asked them curiously.
“Of course not!” Alanna said. “I’m waiting for James’ secret plan to work out!”
The projector in the ceiling flicked off for a second, catching their attention and dropping them into darkness, before it came back on with a new set of bullet points. “Lack of attention” read the first one. “Attempted corporate sabotauge” said the second. The third point just said “disrespectful”. Then the next slide flicked over, and it simply read, “commencing integration.”
“Oh fuck!” Alanna yelped as the people behind them started moving, and cords started unspooling from the phones that were placed in front of them with an almost organic quality. She jerked away as the first one stepped forward and placed their hand on her shoulder, but then another one was there. And another.
Next to Alanna at the table, James opened his eyes, and intoned his next words in a formal voice as the hive mind surrounded him. “One secret spoken in the open. One secret kept in the dark. One Secret, here with us now.” He held out his hand, and around his arm, a pale haze of a serpent with too many eyes and too many mouths coiled. Then James’ tone changed to one of defiant anger. “One snake and one drone! Cut the fucking cables!” And he flicked his hand forward, sending Secret across the table.
As soon as he’d started speaking, they’d converged on him. Two of the people in the room held his arms down, but his wrist still moved, and Secret’s manifestation burst out of James in a flare of false light. The infomorph was just as tired as the rest of them, but he came when he was needed, and though he was small right now, he had a plan. As James’ head was slammed against the table ‘behind’ him, Secret reflected on one fact that he held to himself.
He’d evolved a lot in his time alive. He went from a single use weapon to a curiosity to a sort of pet, and then to a friend. To family. James treated him like a person, and to a lesser extent, so did Anesh and Alanna. It pushed him out of what he was, changed the Idea that he was shaped from. But at his core, Secret was one thing; the obfuscation of information, the destruction of communication.
And now, as Ganesh dropped from the ceiling to fly at his flank, he tapped into that, and turned himself into a blackout razor.
Swerving along the conference table, partially physical, Secret bobbed and weaved through a forest of hands that hammered down at him from the human bodies still sitting. Curving past wrists and forearms, Secret ran himself across ethernet cables, phone lines, and sometimes straight through the boxy plastic phones themselves. Plastic ablated away, metal boiled and frayed, and delicate circuits shattered as he passed, their metaphysical meaning ripped away by his wake, and their physical function soon following.
His wingman, following his lead and James’ barked command, accomplished a similar feat on the other side of the massive wooden table with a laser and an Object Weapon. And behind them, disconnected puppets dropped with their strings cut, slumping back into chairs, onto the floor, or draped forward over the table itself.
The two of them blazed across the end of the conference table, and as they crossed looping paths in front of the cloth screen, casting shadows on the projected word “SUBMIT”, Secret felt a resonanant thrumming in his core.
This, he decided, was a thrill he couldn’t leave to James and the others every time.
Then he plunged back toward his targets, buying his more physical friends the chance to strike before he exhausted his ability to stay in this shape.
Theo dislocated the shoulder of the guy holding her with a snarl as she saw the opportunity. Next to her, Alanna just stood up and threw off her would-be captors. Not every puppet was down, and many of the ones near them hadn’t had their connections caught in that strafing run, but enough were that this was back to being a fair fight. Dave rolled out of his chair, dropping to the floor with his back to the sturdy center pillar of the table, his feet lashing out to trip up one of the guards around him before making a hopping lunge and grappling the cords out of their skull with a wet pop.
The three of them had an advantage, though. They’d all had at least one or two of the mob around them drop when Secret and Ganesh started clipping the cables trailing across the table. James, though, may have launched Secret a little too far, and he remained pinned down against the wooden surface.
He kicked out, trying to trip one of them, but lacked the leverage to make it stick. He tried to throw the chair back and get free, but two of them held it in place. James couldn’t even get his head off the table from where four hands held him down.
And then, one of them almost delicately picked up the cords coming out of the phone in front of him, and with no preamble, located two specific spots on James’ skull, and slapped them in. If anyone had been watching, they would have seen ports that weren’t there before manifest in a twisting of flesh and bone. But no one who cared could see, and all James felt was a warm flood through his skull, and then…
Consciousness is not discrete. Individuality is an illusion.
Panic mitigated. Nothing strange this time.
Several connections lost. More falling.
Update, loss of control of broadcast bands to 20%.
Update, loss of entity suppression to 50%.
Connections dropping. Emergency state initiated.
Covering input points. Prioritize high processors.
Reactivate Karen shell. Lethal option required. Pause network actions.
I can’t lose now.
Update. Pride suppression falling with connections within expected parameters.
Deal with problem before emotional compromise becomes an issue.
Another one lost.
Another one lost!
Who am I?
Update. Coherency falling. Connections approaching zero.
Kill them. Kill them. Ki…
James woke up to the sound of screaming, and then ran out of breath at about the time he realized that it was him. He shut up so he could breathe, and process the existential dread his mind was still trying to broadcast to him. Him. Himself. He was one person. For now. This wasn’t wholly unexpected, James could deal with this. A lifetime of transhumanist science fiction had prepared him for the possibility that his persona wasn’t anything more than a set of information, it was just a little hard to cope with it in the instant.
He opened his eyes, and saw Alanna staring down at him, tears in her eyes.
“Oh, come on, I’m not dead yet.” He croaked out through a hoarse throat. She laughed, and then got kicked in the head and toppled backward. And James realized they were still in the fight. He rolled over, pushing himself up and flinching as the cords that were previously embedded in his head slid off him.
There were still about a dozen people up, with perhaps another five or so under the table trying to cover the phones from Ganesh and Secret. James felt his ears ringing, and then realized it was because there was an ongoing shrieking noise in the air; a high pitched wail that escalated in pitch a small bit as he watched Dave disable one of the people that Theo had in a chokehold.
It was irritating, but as James weakly blocked a grab by one of the last standing, he realized something. They were winning. These people were weak and clumsy, and he could do this all day one on one. Which is what they had now, as there were only five of them left. They could do this, he thought with a smile.
Then the screaming turned up in volume as the source of it crested the side of the floor platform. One huge, warped hand, with fingers each the size of a person themselves, hit the side of the platform so hard that James could have sworn the ground tilted under them. Alanna and Dave *did* swear. Loudly.
Then the hand gripped at the floor, the elongated fingers finding purchase on the carpet, and into view over the ledge was dragged a face.
It was a woman. Blonde, with impossibly red eyes. The red of a fire exit sign, shining perfectly through the gloomy murk. The nose was sloped too far, the cheekbones raised too high, and the mouth stretched into a twisted sneer that went on for too long. But it was a human face. Skin pulled eerily tight against disproportioned bones.
And it was screaming at them.
“Theo!” James bellowed over the all consuming noise. “Get your fucking spear!”
Dave and Theo raised themselves up from where they’d just finished off the last of their assailants, and stood for a brief second in stunned observation of the thing that glowered down at them. Then Theo jerked into motion, ducking for where she’d left her weapon embedded in the floor.
It was pure luck that doing so saved her from the second hand that rushed over her head with a gust of air, backhanding Dave off into the void, his indestructible paper cape fluttering around him.
“*No!*” James screamed as his friend just vanished. Howling in unrestrained fury, he stumbled forward, hands pushing off the ground. One of them clenching around a broken shard of a phone casing. He rushed the hand holding the thing onto the platform, throwing himself to the side to dodge a flicked finger that moved too fluidly for something attached to a normal human hand. Feeling the skin of his hand tear under the blow, James lashed out as the finger passed him, driving the shard of plastic into it and *pulling*, opening up a red line that oozed something that wasn’t blood onto the floor. Then he had to stagger back as the face itself jerked forward, snapping teeth that were more like rock formations than anything used for actually chewing food.
His momentum stolen, James tripped to the floor, rolling aside from a smashing giant palm to again try to stab out with his makeshift weapon. It sunk into the flesh easily, but didn’t seem to be more than a pinprick to the thing in front of him. Then the hand balled into a half fist, and struck him hard enough that he saw stars in his vision.
A second later, his head hit the table as he slid across the floor, and he slumped in a boneless heap. Dazed, but not dead.
Through the fog of sudden head trauma, James watched Theo try to ward off the other hand at the end of a multi-jointed arm that reached across the whole room, stabbing and sometimes leaving small wounds. He saw Alanna having trouble avoiding the other hand, it’s fingers lashing out while keeping the creature perched on the ledge, that face constantly moving to intercept her whenever she looked like she might break away. She wielded his crowbar, and Ganesh spun around her, sporadically firing off lines of coherent light to try to leave wounds and pain the monster enough to drive it away. But they were losing ground, and much more quickly losing the energy and luck needed to stay alive.
James’ slightly glazed expression caught movement in front of him. He’d been hit hard enough that he’d lost one of his shoes, he noticed. Heh. Literally punched out of his boots. His discarded shoe lay near his arm, and it had just been bumped into by the blue orb that had rolled out of his pocket.
Dave had given him that, James realized. Right before they came in here. Dave. Dave was gone.
Dave was gone.
He looked around again, trying to clear his head. Secret was gone. Dave was GONE. Alanna had just been knocked down, Theo was losing ground. Ganesh was nowhere to be seen. The freed and disconnected people around him were screaming or unconscious or worse. What was one blue orb going to do? He thought as he picked up the small ball.
They didn’t need a solution, James mind informed him. They didn’t need a tool.
His eyes locked onto the monstrous warped face of a woman, hovering around and trying to spot either him or Alanna where they both had cover under the table. No, James knew, they didn’t need a tool. They needed a *weapon*.
The orb slipped into his palm just as a much more massive palm crushed the wood to splinters over his head.
[+8 Activations : Refill]
Two fingers like an industrial assembly line grabbed his torso, and James felt his ribs creak in protest. Lifted off his feet, he hung loosely from the creature’s grip as it brought him to hover right in front of that enormous visage.
“Yooooou Ruuuuinnned Everyyyythiiiinng!” It screamed at him, voice shrill and warbling. Its teeth waited for him just ahead, guillotine and tombstone all in one.
James let the power flow down his arm, into the thing he needed, *needed*, refilled. “Yeah, well.” He tried a shrug, but couldn’t get the leverage to move while held this way. He could still move his arms though. “I’m not done yet. Fuck you, Karen.”
Then he raised his pistol and pulled the trigger into her eye as fast as he could.
The scream was enough to make his ears bleed. The impact of being thrown into the floor was also pretty bad. But James emptied the magazine at her, not letting up. Then he rose to a shooter’s stance, shaking legs holding up steady hands, and flooded the gun with another burst of power.
And flooded Karen with another fifteen bullets.
The other hand came up to block the hail of gunfire, and in that opportunity, Alanna fired her last two slugs into it from the side. Chunks of skin and bone, hair and brain, splattered down around James, as he directed his orb power sideways and popped two new shells into the Mossburg. Alanna didn’t even question it, just continuing to fire alongside him. While she focused on the face itself, James turned his gun onto the fingers keeping it up, blowing holes through fingernails and fingertips, causing the thing to jerk back in shock every time. Small cuts were one thing, but this was the sting of wasps. Not so easily ignored.
And the wasps were fucking angry.
The screaming ratcheted up another notch as it slipped backward, somehow, until James couldn’t hear anything except the howl of his prey. But it didn’t stop him from using one more refill on his weapon, and emptying it into the joint of the last finger holding it on, until the bone splintered, and the scream abruptly muffled as it vanished into the depths below. The last note of noise in the symphony being Alanna firing one last time at its falling mass, leaving another spray of blood drifting into the void.
“Goodbye, Karen.” James muttered. Then he dropped to his knees, gun falling loosely from his hand, and tears falling freely from his face. “Goodbye, Dave.” He half whispered.
Cleanup was hard. Alanna and Theo were both hurt; Theo might have a fractured arm but they couldn’t be sure, and Alanna was just half bruise. Her face looked like she’d watched Fight Club too many times and thought that it had good ideas in it. And all the people who were here weren’t in good shape. One by one, though, they woke them up, and started to put together a plan.
Almost none of them knew what was going on. They weren’t starving or dehydrated somehow, which was a small mercy. But they had no idea what happened, or how they got here. Some of them remembered being thrown into the dungeon, but not much after that. They *all* remembered the terror of what had been done to them, though not always why.
Men and women of all ages and styles would break down silently crying rather than describe it. James wasn’t a therapist, and even if he was, he wouldn’t know where the hell to *start* with helping with this. So, instead, he gave them the next best thing. A short term goal.
“We’re not out of this yet.” He’d tell them. “We came to save you, but we still need to get out. If you can help us figure out how to open the door, that’s good. Otherwise, save your strength. We’ve got a lot of walking to do after this.”
It helped. On most of them. Most of them were also terrified of Ganesh at first, too, so James had to keep explaining that over and over. He almost got used to it.
Then he got to a young woman in what looked like biker leathers, the jacket torn in some places. She had a nose piercing, a face that looked like it smiled a lot, and eyes that lit up as soon as she saw him when James rolled her huddled form over.
“You… you…” She gasped out. “You came.” She lunged forward, wrapping stiff arms around James’ bruised torso, causing a wince as he was almost sure one of his ribs just cracked again. “You came for me. You remembered. I knew. I knew you’d come. I knew it. I called out, and I knew it got through. I knew…” She trailed off, her words dissolving into voiceless sobs of relief.
James didn’t have the heart to tell her he’d never seen her before. But he had a decent idea of who this might be.
“Sarah?” He asked, in a quiet voice. And she nodded from where she was huddled against his chest. “Yeah, we’ve been looking for you.” James told her softly.
All in all, after the final count was made, there were fifty four people kept here. All of them confused, and scared, and looking to the three surviving rescuers for help. And finally, for once, James was glad that Theo was the manager. She started sorting people into groups, giving instructions on keeping an eye on each other, setting up a system for passing information. All the things that James knew he should be doing but was just… too tired.
In so many ways, he was suddenly very tired.
Even after the two hours that everyone spent trying to find ways to open the door, even going so far as starting a small fire of every piece of paper they had on hand to try to trip the theoretical emergency exit system, James still felt like he was just barely swimming through an exhausted haze. Maybe it was the concussion talking, but he didn’t think so.
He already missed Dave.
When the door finally did open, and a penitent Daniel begged forgiveness for running at a crucial moment, James didn’t even join Theo and Alanna in slugging him as they walked by. Instead, he just took up the rearguard, walking stiffly with the help of Sarah, who hadn't said anything else but had stuck to him like glue.
And when he stepped out into the bright white glare of the overhead lights, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the intensity along with the people who hadn't seen anything this bright for far longer than himself, he let himself feel just a bit of hope.
Fifty four lives for one. It wasn't a trade he'd ever make on purpose. But it was done now either way.
He took a deep breath. Time to make the sacrifice count.
Time to get these people home.
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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!