“This is fucking brilliant.” Alanna said, watching the preparations being made. “You’re a genius. Like a human astronaut.”
James decided he didn’t need to correct her by saying that it was mostly Sarah’s idea. He was, after all, a genius. He had an image to maintain. “Thanks, it was Sarah’s idea.” He said, before his mouth caught up to his devious scheming. “Mostly, anyway. I just organized things.” He glanced over at her.
Alanna had been following him closely for a while now, and James had started to notice it. ‘A while’ was only the few hours since they’d come back from snapping up the briefcase, but it still seemed weird. She hadn’t gone off to talk to the scout teams, or do any personal looting of the local area. She just turned herself into a constant presence at his side. Maybe it was because of the comically high number of life-and-death situations they were getting into finally taking a mental toll. Or maybe she just wanted to have some mutual defense against that one annoyingly overeager kid who had also started following James around, albeit a lot more loudly.
“I thought Theo did all the organizing these days.” Alanna’s words took James out of his reflection, and he realized he’d been blankly staring at her.
“She’s gotta sleep sometime.” James shrugged. “Besides, if everyone’s intent on listening to me, I should put that power to use before they realize that I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Are you turning into a dictator?” She asked without a smile, head tilted to the side in a tiny way that still said a lot to James. It told him mild curiosity, a splash of amusement, but with a colder and sterner core to Alanna’s feelings. The look told him that power came at a price, and while they’d paid up front for a lot of it, he shouldn’t get into the habit of being the guy who had total control over everyone.
James saw all this, but his good mood wasn’t deterred by his girlfriend’s sociological policies. “I rule with an iron fist!” He declared, punching a fist into his other palm. “I command utter obedience! I command the vertical and the horizontal!”
“That last one…” Alanna trailed off, then cracked a smile. “Okay, just don’t let the power go to your head.”
She coughed out a surprised laugh. “Fuck, you’re in a snarky mood. Okay, what’s your dictatorial title?”
James didn’t miss a beat in answer. “Wall Lord.”
A blank look from his partner. And then, “No.”
“Aw, come on. Because I’ve got everyone…”
“No!” She repeated, a bit louder. That got a few heads from the group turning their way. Well, more so than they got normally from the crowd.
It turned out, more than a few people were aware of the fact that James and Alanna were, for lack of a better word, heroes. Even though many of them still had residual memories of having the shit kicked out of them by those same people, they all stole glances of the duo as if they were knights, or champions.
If James hadn’t had a paladin complex before, he sure as hell would have by now, if he’d noticed. Alanna certainly noticed, but didn’t react beyond a few knowing nods to the people when she met their eyes.
Regardless, it didn’t cause more than a brief pause in the work happening. That work, incidentally, was a combination of ideas from Sarah, James, and a few of the others who’d tentatively offered up small suggestions during the planning phase. And right now, it was carefully collecting and stacking a pile of wall panels.
The problem, really, was that they couldn't let the dragon spot them. If it casually woke up from its nap for even a moment while they were moving past it, then it was inevitable it would spot one of the fifty-ish people through the glass walls of its home. Similarly, they couldn't rush, because they didn't know how good exactly its hearing was.
Which led to a stupid, silly, brilliant solution.
Just make a new hallway.
They didn't need to sneak the entire length of the plateau, they just needed to cross the forty feet between the last wall before the server room, and the door through the Wall. And, as Sarah pointed out, James was too used to actually working in an office, where the walls didn't move.
But here? No one was going to stop them from quietly dismantling a whole row of cubicles, shifting the walls around to make a new hallway, and then saving the extra pieces to very, very, *very* carefully build themselves a corridor to the door out. As Sarah also pointed out, the interior floor plan of this place did change. Not that much around the portals to reality, but this far in? It wasn’t uncommon to have maps go obsolete within a couple weeks of each other. A new wall where one wasn’t an hour ago shouldn’t be enough to arouse suspicion from their biggest concern.
Shouldn’t. What a tenuous word.
Regardless. It was tedious, but not too slow at their current rate. And then, for the last leg of their construction, it would be both tedious and insanely dangerous.
That was why James and Alanna were watching the work happen now. Because when they were ready to silently take the last wall down and begin putting up their camouflage, they'd be the two doing it.
Initially, it was just going to be James doing it, but then Alanna had caught wind of his stupid-ass idea, and punched him. Hard.
“Did you seriously think this was something you'd have to do yourself?” She'd demanded of him.
“I'll be honest,” James replied, “I didn't really plan for any of this.”
Then he'd hugged her, laughed off his own idiot idea, and that had been that.
And now they were almost through.
“Any second thoughts about this?” Sarah asked, striding up to them from the construction site. She'd been helping with security, as it turned out she had the same kind of casual ability to herd shellaxys around that James did. Keeping things from devolving into a screaming, grinding fight between the survivors and the machinery of the office was her job; making sure that nothing was around to suddenly spike the volume of their party enough to wake up the terrorbyte. “You look pensive”. She told James.
“Hm? Nah, just...tired.” He sighed. “Overall tired. Hard to keep consistently energetic.”
“I hear that.” Alanna said. “When we get out of here, I'm gonna take the longest bath.”
“Same.” James nodded along.
Sarah gave them a beaming smile that made them both want to return it in kind. It was the smile of a comfortable old friendship, a personal groove worn deep. In his chest, James felt the tug of it, even if he'd forgotten Sarah, he still felt the old resonance of that missing connection. “Alright, well, we’re almost to the end. If you two are ready, we’ll have you lovebirds out of here and to your ‘bath’ in no time!” She told them with a thumbs up.
James flushed red while Alanna just laughed. “Are you sure we were friends and not mutual antagonists or something?” He jokingly accused Sarah. Then he froze as he realized what he'd said, watching Sarah’s face freeze for the smallest moment. “Wait, shit. I'm sorry, that…”
“That's the most familiar thing you've said to me since I unplugged.” She told him, the smile still on her face. Then punctuated her heartfelt moment with a muttered “You dork.”
“Alright, enough of Sad Hour.” Alanna decided. “It's our turn.” She pointed down the newly created tunnel to where the last couple of survivors were sitting on the plateau edge, catching their breath.
They'd asked for volunteers, and the most fit and healthy had eagerly jumped at the chance to be useful, but “most fit” didn't mean that muscles weren't unused to moving or that malnutrition hadn't set in over the last however many months of captivity. Still, they'd gotten it done, and without waking their biggest threat.
Now it was up to James and Alanna to finish the job, and then they could all get out of here. It was all downhill from the door.
James just barely caught himself before he could think “what could possibly go wrong?”
The wall panels were heavier than James wanted them to be. Even with Alanna’s boosted strength, his arms were *burning* when they moved the third one up.
Sidestep, sidestep, adjust, don’t - *do not* - let it fall. Get a good grip. Another step.
James signaled Alanna that he needed a break, and they oh-so-gently set the wall down. He took a few heaving breaths, massaging his biceps. In his head, James had so many things he could say right now; wisecracks about his delicate flower arms, or about how Alanna got to be the strong one in their relationship, or even just a mild complaint that this thing was *so fucking heavy*. But he didn’t voice any of them.
Because about ten or twenty feet away, the contents of a server room that had been reassembled into a school bus sized monster slumbered, its snores the aberrant whirring of coolant fans.
He took one more breath, then gripped aching fingers that only barely obeyed his brain back onto the side of the wall. Alanna gave him a worried look, but James simply steeled his gaze and nodded at her. They lifted, his arms screamed at him, but they moved the wall.
James leaned back and poked his head around the corner. Just a little bit, the smallest bit. Enough to see if the terrorbyte was still actually asleep. From this angle, right up against the outgoing wall, he could see its massive head and the rows of LEDs that he’d come to associate with eyes around here. All of them in a rhythmic blinking pattern; sleep mode. Turning back, he nodded to Alanna, and the two of them started moving as fast as they dared.
Step into the open, keep going, don’t look at the monster. Step, step, step. Toes pointed down, let your shoe press against the floor softly, don’t stomp of clop your feet. They’d done this four times now, and James had it down to a mathematical solid. Six steps, exertion to move the wall out a little bit, then back into the waiting clips. Gotta do it at ground level, at the perfect height, or it would threaten to fall. And *that* was unacceptable.
But they did it. On time and under budget; silent and undetected. The wall clipped into place with a *click* that sounded like the crack of thunder to James at the moment. But then, there was still that whirring snore from the dragon, and he and Alanna breathed a huge joint sigh of relief.
But not too loudly.
They sat there for a second, on the floor mere yards away from something that could eat them without a second thought. Then, they stood, and stiffly stalked their way back to their waiting crowd. Taking extra care to be as quiet as they could as they plodded their way back to the ledge
Time to get out of this place.
Fifty people were not quiet.
First off, they still had another ten hours of office time to get through, so they couldn’t just abandon the supplies they’d gathered. Which meant hauling luggage and bags and other things that rustled and made walking awkward. That was the first thing that added to the level of caution needed.
Then, they had the injured or sick. Two people had legs that couldn’t sneak. One person actually had broken bones. And three others were just too sick to do anything, probably from malnutrition; and that was a problem that no amount of candy bars and break room lunches would fix. This place needed fucking fruit. But health concerns aside, they still had to move those people. Which meant either makeshift stretchers, or just helping them walk, which meant more chances for slips or yelps of pain or other noises. Which meant going slower, to be careful.
Third of all, they had to pack up all the xenotech they’d nabbed. Most of it was trinkets, that they’d broken into blues and distributed to group leaders for use in emergencies, as a last minute panic switch. But some things were a bit more useful, and they’d carefully packed them for transit. Especially the ones that were dangerous. The scissors that had an unfortunate tendency to cut emotional connections had been taped shut, and that would be enough for them. But the plastic desk plant that generated mild gravity shifts when it was poked needed to be very, *very* carefully carried; ditto for the pen that launched you an extra five feet past where it should land if it was moved without touching a solid surface. They’d taken a council vote, and decided that these things were absolutely worth the risk to move, but they needed to be careful with them, and so, obviously, more time.
And then everyone was tired, and hungry, and hurt, and, and, and…
It wasn’t great. It also wasn’t helped by the fact that apparently, none of the survivors could absorb yellows either. James had already been made aware that no one except himself and Sarah could absorb blues. And even then, he could barely manage it, and Sarah could only hold one. She’d also informed him that hers allowed her to ‘improve wood’, and then given him an expectant look with wide smiling eyes. James hadn’t risen to that bait. But he had also gotten it confirmed, as he suspected, that you couldn’t just ditch an absorbed blue, or put it in storage while you used another one. And Sarah hadn’t been able to exhaust hers to replace it with something else; apparently using them really was as tiring as he’d felt, and you couldn’t just machine-gun through one you didn’t like.
They took the wounded through first, after a long enough rest that everyone felt like they could manage it without mistakes. One at a time, people being carried by one or two others who were a bit more upright. James was a little surprised to see that Collins, the man who had almost gotten into a shouting match with him about organized worship not even six hours ago, was among one of the volunteers to go first, helping a woman who was older than he was and couldn’t stand on her own to make her way out.
Well hell, if even he could get over being a jackass for ten minutes in a life or death situation, James could sure as hell muster the energy to smile while he got everyone home.
Alanna and Sarah went through first as well, to secure the other side of the door, and make sure that it was safe to follow for a crowd. Daniel went with them to start the process of getting them the last couple miles to the front door. In theory, the other side should be ‘safe’ by dungeon standards. But they still needed to be constantly alert for strider swarms, tumblefeeds, dart traps, mobius halls, 2.0s, ambush plants, maul carts...
Fucking hell, how had they ever survived more than twenty minutes in here, James wondered as he watched the last guy, a kid with a broken leg in a splint, get helped to hobble down their artificial hallway toward safety.
Then the scout groups had gone, leading with them a few people each. Then Harvey and Deb had lead some of the more skittish people who absolutely were afraid to go first, including that one guy who’d gotten a little gun shy even after the paralysis poison of the camraconda wore off. Those two were seen as authority figures more than James was by a certain population of the rescued people, and their influence really helped get those who were more frightened by the environment and the bizarre wildlife moving.
And then James and Theo were left to bring up the rear.
“Are you sure about this?” She asked him warily.
“We’re about fifty people too late for that.” He’d told her, and started walking.
James spent the whole time with his fear singing in his veins. At any second, a shellaxy was going to start something, or one of the walls was going to fall over, or the dungeon would just arbitrarily decided to turn off the lights or something. And then, when that didn’t happen, he was forced into a new set of fears. What if the terrorbyte woke up? What if he tripped? He hadn’t tripped in the last week, but what if it happened *now*?
He was almost ready to start hyperventilating when Theo shoved him through the open door, stepped through herself, closed it softly behind her, and bluntly said, “Stop freaking out, you wuss.”
James felt a flash of anger and humiliation, but buried it before it could show too much on his face. “Sure.” He said. Then, he looked around at what was on this side of the door. “Is this… a janitor’s closet?” James asked. A sea of mops greeted him, along with Momo and the mongausse who’d stayed behind. “Where is everyone?”
‘Closet’ was the wrong word. This was a *tunnel*. It stretched on into the distance, and took a bending left turn a few hundred feet away. And the mops weren’t neatly stacked on the shelves that lined the walls like old-timey mining shaft supports. They grew out of the damp ground, like cattails with poofy fabric heads, and they were *everywhere*. The shelves looked like they were hewn from the wall material, and they held a huge assortment of random junk. Buckets, gloves, toolboxes, and a thousand jugs of poorly labeled cleaning solutions. Overhead, dim yellow lights connected by hanging loops of wire lit the place in an orangish glow. It smelled harsh, like a chemical scent, but not the sterilized smell of a hospital.
“Went on ahead.” Momo told him, ending her fidgeting with a lighter as they came through. “I’m just here to keep everyone moving. Mops are safe, don’t touch anything else.”
“Does it explode?” Theo asked dryly, and Momo gave her a ‘are you fucking with me’ kind of look. “Nevermind.” Theo followed up, flicking a hand at the other girl. “Let’s go.”
They pressed through, James being about a foot or so taller than the other two meaning that he got to deal with ducking under frustratingly damp mop heads that sat at almost exactly head level, some of them drifting in unfelt wind like they were sea anemones. The tunnel seemed to go on for a lot longer than the wall’s width from above made it look when he’d first come in, but around here, that didn’t mean much. Momo idly chattered to them, and to her dog, as they walked. Talking about anything and nothing, just enjoying the freedom to walk again without worrying about waking anything up.
And then they took the turn, another length of bitter scented cavern, and a propped open door, and just like that, they were back in… well, “normal” might be the wrong word, but the office James recognized.
He took a deep breath through his nose, enjoying the clean air, and the feeling that they’d just crossed the last boundary. They were, he decided then, absolutely going to make it.
Then a flailing sheet of paper hit him in the face, and he sputtered as he tossed it off to the laughter of the people around him.
But it didn’t matter. That wasn’t going to get him down. They were already on the move, into safer territory and toward the front door.
It was time to go 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!