“It’s not your fault.” Alanna said softly.
They had made camp under a decision tree. Moving under the power of desperation, they’d made surprisingly good time considering they now had almost sixty people in their group. Many of them had been taken from just inside the door where Frank had dumped them, and James suspected that some of the ones he hadn’t had a chance to talk to had actually been kidnapped from reality itself; which added up to a group that was inexperienced, and rubbernecked at the sights of the dungeon constantly. Instead of staying alert.
Two people had been bitten by scavenging striders before they made it out of the field of wreckage that Dave had made of the copiers on the way in. One more idiot had tried to make a phone call on an iLipede without befriending it first, and got a nasty laceration down the ear. Someone had mistaken a paper pusher in the distance for another human, run over to help, and had to be rescued by Theo performing something between a rugby tackle and a wrestling finishing move on it.
One older man had just slipped off the bridge of cubicle walls that went over the chasm, and it was only bare luck that James caught him in time and hauled him up. Some kid - and it was strange that James and Alanna thought of these people who were probably their age or slight older as ‘kids’ - who still had his hair gelled into a paintbrush style had also almost died when he panicked at a potted plant. And one more doofus had just ignored Theo’s organizational orders entirely, proclaimed that he was a US marine, strode off on his own, and no one saw him again.
Two people had died. A girl who didn’t look older than fifteen had simply never woken up after being severed from Karen’s network, and when nothing James tried had gotten her to start breathing again, they had to accept that she was never going to have made it in the first place. The other one was even harder. A gentleman with salt and pepper stubble and a thin hairline who nonetheless carried himself with a steady confidence. He’d made it out into the blasted warzone outside their temporary refuge, and James had found him sitting with his back to the wall, watching the flocks of paper dance against the lights overhead.
“My daughter would have loved to see this.” He’d said in a breathy whisper. It was the last thing he’d said. James had sat with him until the group was ready to move, and taken his wallet at the end on the chance they made it out and he could contact the family. A conversation he wasn’t looking forward to.
Now they sat in a huge ring of cleared floor space. The more physically capable survivors had been tasked with shifting walls and desks, and under Theo’s direction, Fort Big Mistake had come together far more rapidly than James’ and Anesh’s first fumbling attempts to build a secure position had so many months ago. Desks had been set up in clusters to give table space for people to eat what rations they had, all the coats and decorative desk pillows they could find had been repurposed into bedding, and the glow of lamps and flashlights illuminated the shadowed area under the overhanging lip of the edge of the structure. Piles of documents and office supplies and even computers were stacked around the outside edge, useless things here that could be checked later for blue orbs, but right now just needed to be out of the way.
Theo had broken people into small groups, and told them to keep an eye on each other. James recognized what she was doing as an old manager trick that he’d picked up from some skill orb somewhere; give them responsibility for each other, make them feel like a team, and they’ll work to be worthy of it. It may not work in the long term, it certainly didn’t work at call centers when no one wanted to be there. But here, with life itself on the line? No one was going to be stuck together long enough to learn to resent and hate each other.
James and Alanna sat together in the middle of the fortification, under the open ceiling and the decision tree. There was no day-night cycle here, never had been, so it still felt odd to stop to sleep. But James didn’t feel like sleeping, so he stared up at the shifting ‘leaves’ of the tree instead while Sarah slept with her head on the desk next to him. She’d refused to leave his side since they’d disconnected her. And eventually, Alanna joined him after she finished a patrol of the outside.
Theo didn’t intrude. She had stuff to do. Daniel stayed away, too. He had his own problems. And for some reason, the people they’d rescued left a ring of space around James, not getting too close to where he sat spinning in his commandeered office chair.
So it was left to Alanna to talk to James.
“It’s not your fault.” She said, speaking so as not to wake Sarah.
“It doesn’t matter if it was my fault or not.” James replied, after a long silence. “He was here because of me, and now he’s gone.”
Alanna looked off to the side, glancing at the people around them. “He was here because you were right. It was the right thing to do.”
“I know.” James said, melancholy. “I know it’s not really my fault, honestly.” He tilted forward, windmilling his arms out from where he’d had them behind his head as he gazed upward before catching his balance again and tipping the chair back to its normal position. “But that doesn’t matter. As a result of our actions, Dave…” He broke off, not wanting to say the words. Taking a breath to clear his suddenly constricted throat, James took a different track. “It wasn’t supposed to be this kind of adventure, you know? It was… it was…”
“It was supposed to be painless?” Alanna asked.
James shook his head. “Not painless, but… I don’t know. We get hurt all the time. Anesh and I both knew that we might die in here. I think you do, too. It’s not about pain, it’s just… it was over so fast.” He took a long, shaken breath, staring down at the desk in front of him. “It wasn’t a test that he failed. It was dumb luck. Theo ducked, Dave didn’t, and Dave’s… gone. Just like that. Luck.”
“It was unfair.” Alanna muttered. “It’s supposed to be us against the Office, but it’s always been fair.”
“Yeah. A struggle, but one we could approach. One we could beat, if we were better.” James swept his arm around at the crowd around them. “It’s obviously dangerous, but if we were smart enough, fast enough, well armed enough, we could beat it. We could fight the monsters and save the innocent and get out with the bags of gold. We could *win*.” He slammed his palm down onto the desk, causing a startled yelp from Sarah as she jolted away, and for several of the people nearest to them to look over in confusion.
“We did win.” Insisted Alanna. “We did.”
James scowled, but not at her. Just at the world around them. “Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?” He said, his face softening with his voice. “Because this doesn’t feel like winning.”
“We still have to escape.” Came the soft voice from his side. Sarah. He’d almost forgotten she was there. The person they’d rescued, who James had hoped would fill the void in his memory, was different than he expected. She was quieter than he’d imagined, almost timid. And afraid, all the time. Though honestly, that seemed a bit like the fault of her imprisonment, and not her natural character.
She wasn’t wrong, though. “You’re not wrong.” James said. “Maybe it’ll feel worth it when we get everyone out under an actual sky, again.”
“We can’t rest long.” Alanna said glumly. “Well, I mean, *we* can’t. Our rations are gone, and we need to feed about forty people. So it’s time to get scavenging while they sleep.” It was a miracle that some of these people had made it this far without collapsing. Some of them almost certainly did collapse, and had to be carried, because being hooked up to that network had been like being fully awake, all the time. For years, for some of them. Which brought up another question, that she tentatively asked after a minute of enjoying resting their feet. “What was it like?”
“What, being plugged in?”
“It was…” He stopped to try to think about it, and found the action harder than expected. “It’s difficult to actually process.” James shrugged. “I wasn’t me, but I was, but ‘me’ wasn’t something that mattered. I’m trying really hard not to think about it.” He glibly glossed over the looming existential threat to his sense of self. “I don’t really remember anything, because they weren’t my memories. I do remember processing the name Karen, though. That was the… thing… that came up.”
Alanna shuddered. “Was it even human? It’s the first thing we’ve seen that had, like, flesh.”
“It wasn’t.” He spoke with hard resolve. “It was shaped like a human, because of what it was meant to do.” James didn’t realize that he wasn’t fully guiding his own words for a minute. “Design followed the idea of the overbearing employee, function was…” He trailed off, and shared a look with Sarah. At some point, she’d started speaking the same words as him, and neither of them had noticed.
But Alanna had. “That’s fucking creepy.” She bluntly stated, aiming a finger at the two of them. “But I don’t blame you. What was up with the network thing?”
Shaking off the residual overlap that had been left imprinted on their psyches, James and Sarah sat up a bit before he answered Alanna. “I think it was an accident. Or an emergent property? It wasn’t what Karen was designed for, just what she.. it... ended up doing. And then the more people in the network, the smarter it got, and the more it could do…” James trailed off. “I don’t remember a lot, but I remember some of the thoughts I had to process. That thing wanted to be in charge, so badly.”
“It thought itself a god.” Sarah spoke with an uneasy voice. “It bought or stole people, and thought if it had enough, it could run Officium Mundi.”
James started nodding, then stilled, tapped the table a couple of times to help compose what he wanted to ask, and then said, “Sorry, what the hell is Officium Mundi?”
“It’s what we called this place.” Sarah said. “Me and my crew, anyway.”
That got James’ attention, more so than just the quiet contentment that Sarah had started talking for real. “Wait, your crew. Not us?” He said.
She looked at him, puzzled. “No, I never… I never told you, did I?. I’m sorry, but… well, you know that. Wait, why do you ask? Wait.. no..”
“We don’t remember you.” Alanna said, bluntly, getting a wince out of James.
“Right.” He said, fumbling for words as panic started to spread across Sarah’s face. “We didn’t really have time to go over this. And I’ve been… um…”
James flicked his hand at Alanna, mock trying to topple her out of her tipped back chair. “Fuck off.” It got a small smile out of him though. “But yeah. Moping. Anyway. We don’t… know who you are. Or, like, we don’t recognize you. Alanna and I figured out that you *existed*, but when we look at you, we see a stranger.”
It looked like Sarah was caught somewhere between exhaustion and tears, and James had no idea what to say to help with it. The dungeon just kept taking things from people. Maybe it was retribution, maybe it was just straight up mad at them for kicking in the door and taking skill orbs and candy out. But either way, it left him without solid footing to explain or try to repair the damage.
Fortunately, Alanna wasn’t as mentally frayed as he was, and came to his rescue. “I think the dungeon, which I’m not going to remember your name for, took interest in you for some reason. James recognized a few other people in here, so it didn’t wipe everyone’s memories. Might have been because you were a delver. Or maybe it just adds up over time. But yeah, we… we know you were important…”
“But we don’t *remember*.” James said, bitterness in his words.
There was a quiet period, a ring of silence that surrounded the three of them. The other survivors near them threw worried glances at their rescue team, and toned down their own conversations to hushed tones. Even Theo altered her stomping path back from the perimeter guard, sensing something wrong and veering away with a grumble to recheck their walls, giving the trio some time.
“What… what now?” Sarah eventually asked, stabilizing her voice and wiping away drops of tears from her cheeks.
James sighed. “Now, we have about forty hours left until our window of exit closes. So, we get off our asses, stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and go scrounge up some food for everyone. And get Daniel to do the shitty job of poking every piece of crap we found in here to see if it’s magic.”
“Xenotech.” Sarah said, on pure reflex.
“God dammit.” James muttered as Alanna pounded the table in laughter next to him. “How. Fucking *how*. Anesh and I are going to have *words* when we get back.”
“Don’t yell at our boyfriend.” Alanna smugly told him as she stood up, arcing her arms over her head in attempt to stretch out the lingering soreness of the fight. “Anyway. James isn’t wrong. We can give everyone some time to rest, but we’re going to have to move soon. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and we need to have an allowance for sleep for all the malnourished civilians. Also, it’s not going to help that we were beating the shit out of some of these people an hour ago.” Sarah rubbed at her bruised jaw as Alanna brought that up.
“Also also,” James said, “just because we don’t remember you, doesn’t mean you’re not part of our group. This place, so far, has a pretty bad track record of actually taking anything away from me.” He thought for a second, and then shrugged, “And you clearly already know all the jokes, so, you know… don’t worry about our social situation right now. We’ve got bigger problems with the people here, like Alanna said.”
It was true. For all that they’d gotten everyone out of the conference room at the end of the universe, these people weren’t saved yet. There were miles of office to traverse, and even though they had an extra hundred eyes to watch for threats, people who were untrained, starved, exhausted, and until recently traumatically imprisoned and linked to a monstrous hive mind network may not be the very best at actually responding to those threats. And, again, it didn’t help that they’d just had a scrap with those very same people. And won.
Not that James was going to trade away coming out on top, just that the situation sucked.
He frowned to himself. It felt like there’d been a lot of things just sucking over the last day. His mind again turned to the loss of Dave, and the pang of guilt that he still felt in his chest. It was, as Alanna had said, not his fault. But not his fault was different than it not being because of him, and that feeling of responsibility, of wanting to save everyone, it left him with a hole in his heart. It stole his breath and fogged his thoughts, and reminded him that he’d failed. And he’d failed almost as badly as possible.
“What am I supposed to do. How are we supposed to get everyone out of here safe?” He muttered to himself.
Overhead, the decision tree flickered to life, options dancing across its many screens.
Below, James sat up and snapped his fingers. “Alanna! Get me the bag!” He exclaimed, pointing upward. It took her about five seconds of staring at his finger before she looked up where he pointed, and another heartbeat to realize what he meant.
“Oh. Oh!” She dragged the duffel onto the table, where they’d been keeping the orbs. Unzipped it, and shoveled a double handful of glittering gold treasures onto the desk. Then another. Then *another*. James stood, grabbing a few of the size one orbs. He scanned the branches of coiled black cables, looking for the ubiquitous monitor lizards that called these trees home. And when he spotted a couple - hard to do when they kept themselves the same color as their backgrounds - he raised his hand up with the orbs between his fingers.
“We’d like to make a trade.” He told them, using that calm, low voice that his uncle always used when training a new dog. It took a while, but eventually, one of them crawled down, and James smiled and stood statue still as it plucked one of the orbs from his fingers.
It scuttled away, and after a minute of patient waiting, returned with a gleaming purple sphere, the size and color of a ripe grape.
James grinned wide, and presented the other orbs. Next to him, Alanna did the same. More and more monitor lizards flowed down the tree, bringing fair exchange for their treasure.
They could do it, James thought, if they were more than human. If there was even the slightest chance they could reach past the limits of the natural world, they could get these people home. And as the pile of yellow orbs rapidly converted to purples, he knew they had a chance. When they ran the tree out of its stock, and he, Alanna, Theo, and Sarah turned the orbs into concrete power, he knew they were going to make it.
Overhead, seven of the screen leaves flickered in happy response to his earlier question.
“Don't give up yet.”
And by the end, here was what they’d gotten.
[Shell Upgraded : Improved Symmetry, -4 flaws]
[Shell Upgraded : Vocal Range, +/- .6 octaves]
[Shell Upgraded : Acceleration, +14 m/s^2]
[Shell Upgraded : Taste Range - Salt, +16 clarity]
[Shell Upgraded : Blood Production, +.85 pints/day]
[Shell Upgraded : Bone Density, +2,350 kg/m^3]
James results made him bare his teeth as the feelings of the changes warped his body into something not new, but now refined. He was ready. He was just enough more than he was to make it through. Though he did wonder at whether or not the shell upgrades changed how he actually thought about himself and his actions; because right now, he felt like kicking off the ground and seeing just how far he could sprint, and he wasn’t sure if that was just childlike joy at the upgrade, or something deeper changing in him.
[Shell Upgraded : Hair Durability, +1,510 TFU]
[Shell Upgraded : Fingernail Sharpness, +46 HRC]
[Shell Upgraded : Facial Expression Emotive Clairity, -45% chance of misunderstanding]
[Shell Upgraded : Alcohol Processing Speed, +4 oz/hour]
[Shell Upgraded : Arm Muscle Mass, +4.8 kg]
[Shell Upgraded : Dermal Heat Tolerance Offset, +/- 18c]
For Alanna, the changes were equally uncomfortable. Especially all at once, feeling her face shift along with the flesh under the skin of her arms, was akin to the sensation of a thousand bugs crawling across her all at once. And she would have hated it, if it hadn’t made her feel so fucking *alive*. Alanna wasn’t a weak person, by any means. And while she didn’t think of James as weak, either, she could probably have casually pinned him with one arm, no matter how much gym time he was putting in. Now, though? Now she could *throw* him one armed, and not even feel it.
[Shell Upgraded : Cancer Cell Generation Speed, -180%]
[Shell Upgraded : Fingers, +1]
[Shell Upgraded : Jump Height, +.8m]
[Shell Upgraded : Limb Regrowth Speed, 5%/day]
Theo wasn’t especially impressed with her upgrades. Certainly not after the searing pain left her with a case of polydactyly, which ended up feeling far less awkward than she thought it should. It felt wrong, to be able to vault one of the cube walls like it was nothing. Her muscles weren’t tougher, she hadn’t trained or earned this, it was just something she could *do* now. And it annoyed her that James and his team had been snapping up things like this, taking the cheater’s path to physical conditioning that she’d had to work for. Though it stung less that they shared with her; and damned if she wasn’t going to enjoy it. Twenty days to replace a lost arm? Theo never had to worry about a motorcycle accident going wrong again.
[Shell Upgraded : Magnetic Field Control, +2-8 Tesla]
[Shell Upgraded : Oxygen Requirement, -26%
[Shell Upgraded : Memorability, +1]
Sarah knew some things about Officium Mundi that she hadn’t had time or reason to share with the others yet. For all she knew, they were already clued in to the fact that this place would, on a long enough timeline and over enough orbs, give you what you wanted. Not what you were asking for, but what you really wanted, in the back of your mind. She’d taken fewer purples, partly because she wasn’t entirely on board with the decision to leave Daniel out of it, but also because she knew she wasn’t fit to fight. It was nice of James to include her, but she didn’t… she didn’t know how to act around him now. She was a stranger in her own social skin.
So it didn’t really surprise her that much when the purple gave her a point in ‘memorability’. It was one of the ones that didn’t give a concrete definition, which she’d found were the more powerful ones, because of how broadly they chose to apply their vague abilities. And she did want it. She never wanted to be forgotten again; not that she’d asked in the first place. But if this hell was going to erase away her mark on the web of people in her life, the least it could do was give her the firepower to put the pieces back together.
“Alright.” James broke the silence of the groups thoughts. “We’ve got six hours before we start to try to get everyone moving.” He looked around at the other three delvers with him. “Who wants to see who can pull in the dumbest named candy bar before then?”
“Oh, yes!” Sarah couldn’t help but answer, her excitement overriding the awkwardness she felt at the feeling of isolation. This was exactly the sort of stupid thing that James always came up with that made him the kind of person she wanted to be friends with in the first place. “Did you know I once found something in here called ‘Baby Things’? God, that was weird.”
“Hey! Don’t mock Baby Things! That was the first one I found!” James railed, mock indignant, hand to his heart. “Well, whatever. Teams of two?”
The four of them picked up weapons, strapped on armor, and headed out. Ganesh trailing with Alanna and Theo, while Sarah and James took the other side, both teams promising to not overcommit to anything and vowing to bring back the food for everyone. James stopped to speak to a few people on the way out, letting them know what was going on, and asking them to pass word to the others.
“How do they do it?” A man name Harvey asked the younger kid in a tattered FedEx uniform sitting next to him. His arm still ached from where it had been dislocated, though he’d been fortunate enough to be unconscious when it was popped back in.
“Do what?” The other guy, Dominic, asked with a raspy voice. They’d had to ration water, and there hadn’t been a lot to go around. And this place had pretty rarified air on top of that.
“How do they get up and go out again? I can barely stand up.” He wasn’t complaining, though he’d considered it. Instead, he spoke with almost a note of awe.
Dominic shrugged, and didn’t answer. From the floor on the other side of him, a middle age man by the name of Stephen answered, curled up with his head on a salvaged coat. “Obvious, right? They’re not hungry.”
“They gave up their lunches for us. And they walked just as far. Hell, they kept jumping in to save us.” Harvey shrugged back, though the other guy had his eyes too closed to see.
“Saved my ass.” A girl in a studded leather jacket with an unkempt mohawk chimed in, scooting over to join their conversation. “Anyone got a smoke?” No one had a smoke. “Eh. But yeah! I mean, that black chick absolutely fucking *ruined* one of those faceless fuckers when it tried to grab me.”
“I saw that.” Harvey nodded to her. “What’s up with that drone following them?”
“I think it’s alive.” Dominic cleared his throat. “Looks like a bat.”
The goth girl snapped her fingers, getting a few other people nearby to look over at her for a moment. “And it has a laser! That’s just sweet.”
“Did I hear that one of them died?” Someone asked, and the conversation went quietly somber.
Eventually, Steve rolled himself into a crosslegged sitting position. “And they’re still going? I saw them smiling, that’s fucked up.”
“I think…” A woman pulled herself into the conversation. Long hair, torn dress suit. Her name was also Karen, and she remembered enough of the network to feel awful about that. “I think they’re trying to be strong.”
“Trying?” Dominic asked, getting a snicker out of Momo, the punk girl, and also Harvey.
“Yeah,” Harvey said. “Yeah. I don’t think they need to try very hard. You guys remember that field of wreckage after they pulled us out?”
“Not strong like that.” Dominic said.
Momo nodded to a beat only she could hear. “Yeah man. They’re, you know… Fuckin…”
“They’re heroes.” Someone said quietly.
Their little group huddled closer together. They all felt a kind of poison emptiness, something missing from themselves now that they’d been ripped from the network. But here, talking, together, it was a little like that link they missed. A few of them rubbed at the still present ports in their skulls, a few others wondered if maybe staying in the office might just be better for them. But those who watched the delvers leave, who saw their hero stride out holding a crowbar casually at his side, or give a friendly tap to the autonomous drone on her shoulder? Those who saw the reforming wisp of some serpentine sea creature coiling friendly around the legs of a hugging couple, or watched one of their rescuers literally leap the wall just to see if she could?
They felt a little more hope.
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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!