Fort Door welcomed them home like an old friend.
As they approached it, Ganesh burst into the air, tracing a wobbling and tired line toward the ramparts where he slammed into a waiting strider with the drone-bat equivalent of a bear hug.
The caravan was too tired to cheer, but there was a sense of peace hanging over them as the empty half circle of floor space came into sight. People stepped out from the eternal twists and turns of cubicle hallways, and saw the gate of their last camp, and they realized that they’d done it. Their salvation had brought them out of hell. And that emotional moment propagated through the whole group, until even the arrogant and petulant had smiles on their faces.
Or maybe they were just happy this base was already set up for them.
“Joke’s on them.” James softy spoke to no one in particular. “We’ve got two beds and a table; we’re not a hotel.”
“What was that?” Alanna asked, stifling a yawn. James couldn’t remember how long she’d been awake for, but he hadn’t actually seen her sleep since they came out of the conference room.
“Don’t worry about it.” He replied, reaching up to ruffle her hair at the base of her neck where it peaked out past the helmet. “Theo! What’s our time look like?” He called over to where his teammate was leading people out of an adjacent cubicle tunnel. James had almost forgotten what it was like to be in an area where he could see over the walls and everything looked normal. Well, normal if you ignored the curved horizon.
“Two hours to spare!” She bellowed back with a confident energy in her voice.
There was a spattering of relieved laughter, humor at the end of desperation, from the crowd. James smiled to himself. He’d done it. *They* had done it. Three….goodbye Dave… three people went in, and fifty came out. Objective secured, and then some.
“Gonna get out of here. Gonna get a shower, and hot food, and it’s gonna be perfect.” James told Alanna.
“And a shave.” She nodded.
“Doesn’t look like you need a shave.” James smirked at her.
Alanna rolled her eyes. “You, you derp. You’ve got this weird half-goatee going on.”
“Maybe I’ll just grow it out. Get my official guild leader moustache going on.”
“Nooooo you will not.” She replied, casually crushing his dreams as the last of the survivors stumbled into the zone.
Putting that aside for a second, James decided to address everyone. “Alright guys!” James spoke up and a wave of hush fell around him in a ring as the group assembled on the open carpet plain. “I hate to tell you this, but we’ve still got a little left to do. Everyone take half an hour or so to rest up, Alanna and I…” James glanced over at an exhausted Alanna, and corrected himself. “Theo and I will handle getting everything squared away. Anyone who absolutely needs to sleep, we do have a few cots. But I’d like to widen this no-man’s-land just in case, and get some extra walls up so that we can have some moderately safe places for everyone to relax. Shouldn’t take too long, so if anyone’s got the capacity for it, we’ll start breaking down walls in ten.”
There was a collective sigh, but at this point, it was one of resignation and not frustration. Besides, with twenty people working, this would go smooth. It wasn’t like they lacked for practice at this point, anyway.
“Tell them you’re proud of them.” Alanna muttered in his ear.
James blinked once. “What?”
“Something my newfound business degree is telling me. Just tell them you’re proud of them.” She reiterated.
Resisting the urge to shrug, James raised his voice again. “Hey, everyone?” He said, mildly nervous, looking around him. He made eye contact with Theo and Daniel, with Other James and Karen and the new delvers. With a grinning Sarah who gave him an encouraging thumbs up. With Deb, with Harvey, with all the random people whose names he’d apologized frequently for not being able to store in his head, but who had all, every one of them, been part of getting the whole party out alive. Even with those few people, like the football kid who’d been shadowing him, that annoyed the hell out of James and frayed his nerves at the worst time. And with Secret, pooled around his feet. Then a double take on Secret. Then a smile. He wasn’t nervous anymore. Alanna was right. “I’m proud of all of you.” He said with a grin. “We did it.”
*Then* there was a cheer.
“I knew you’d be alright without me.” Secret told him.
“I *knew* there was something off.” James rolled his eyes. “What did you do?”
“Something bold, stupid, ill-advised, and right.” Secret said, peering up at James with six translucent eyes. “As my father showed me.”
As James looked down at the ghostly eel coiled around his feet, he realized that Secret, too, needed to hear something from him. “I’m proud of you, too, you know.” He said. “Get off my shoes, that’s not where you sit.” James gave his friend, his creation for lack of a better term, a smile as Secret looped up around his torso and eventually settled on his shoulders, wrapping James in a pale blue glow. Waves of pride radiating off Secret like an emotional space heater. “Oh, but don’t think that cryptic-ass answer gets you out of this!” James reminded him, remembering to be clear on it. “I know you eat secrets, but come on! You need to give me more than that to go on.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Secret bobbed his head. “I was just making a dramatic entrance. Which I also learned from you, I believe?”
“No comment.” James tried to keep a straight face as he walked into the fort and settled his duffel bag on the desk. Finally, *finally* getting to put down the weight. He unzipped it and started unloading pieces of gear, shifting around the pair of sunglasses and the nerf gun with a sticky note on it reading ‘Chekhov’ to make space. Theo and Alanna followed him in, with Alanna simply dropping her bag, sloughing off her armor, and then dropping herself into a cot, asleep practically instantly, and Theo doing a more civil version of unpacking, but keeping a nervous distance from James. Secret still bothered her, it seemed. “So?” James prompted again, as he unsnapped and removed his own battered and scarred hockey pads.
“I killed the thing that erodes the image of those lost in here.” Secret replied, still being needlessly cryptic. It was when he said ‘killed’ that James took a second to really inspect his friend, and noticed gaps in Secret’s scales; scars, perhaps? Or still open wounds? “When we leave, when *they* leave, their place will be restored to them. Somewhat. I cannot account for the passage of time, or…”
James cut him off, wrapping an arm around the semi-solid snake, and giving him a hug, pulling the serpentine body in tight against his own. “Thank you.” He said softly, eventually releasing a mildly embarrassed Secret. “Just… thanks. I know that sort of thing isn’t free for you. And this is a huge help.”
“Of course.” Secret bobbed his head. “It was my duty.” He said it like it was that simple. And maybe, to him, it was. Secret was, after all, an idea given form, not the other way around like a human. To his eyes, it might actually be almost not a choice at all to take action like this.
There was a thunk on the desk in front of James, and he brought tired eyes down to see what it was. In front of him sat another old friend; a red and black stapler with a single yellow eye in the front, looking up at him expectantly.
“Hey Rufus.” James said. “How’s the home front?”
The strider in front of him looked up for a second, and then reached up a single pen leg, holding it expectantly in the air. Rufus didn’t exactly have an eyebrow, but James felt like he was getting a kind of ‘eh, eh?’ look from his first ally in this place.
James felt a wide, real smile take over his face, and he gave in and high fived his friend.
Dropping his leg back down, Rufus gave a satisfied scuttle on the table. “So, things going okay? Where’s Pendragon? I know it hasn’t been that long, but did she abandon us already?”
Rufus gave a little side to side motion that James was starting to associate with a ‘no’, and then held up two limbs in front of himself. Gradually, he widened the gap between his arms. “She got bigger?” A bobbing nod in response. “Okay, neat. But where is she?” Rufus just pointed. Out, over the wall, into the maze where they’d just come from. “Ran off, eh?” James was about to sigh in resignation, but to that, Rufus gave another vehement no. He tapped his eye, and then stabbed his leg out again toward the wilds of the office. “Looking for something?” Rufus wavered. “Somewhere?” Closer, but still no. James hated this kind of guessing game, it was really more Anesh’s style. God he missed Anesh. “Some*one*? Fuck it, I don’t…” But then he stopped, as Rufus answered in the affirmative.
“Oh.” James said, sadly.
“What’s up?” A passing Theo asked.
James looked over at her, a fresh hurt on his face. “There was another life here, one that Dave made on purpose. She was… like a small bird made out of pens and clips and stuff. He called her Pendragon.” James gazed out at the endless horizon, where the cubicle walls faded into a distant gloom. “She went looking for him”
“Oh.” Theo echoed.
There wasn’t much else to be said.
Then Rufus, trying to cheer him up, started scuttling sideways to draw James’ attention to his little garden. The copper pipes had grown up, it seemed, and were now bearing… fruit? “Rufus, what is this?” James asked. “I’ve been looking at this the whole time you were working on it, and I still don’t get it. Is this art?”
Rufus just did his version of sighing, dipping his snout down to the tabletop. Then, to illustrate why this was so cool, he poked one of the bronze ‘fruits’. It unfolded, until it snapped off its vine and lay on the table in a neatly connected row of…
“Staples.” James looked down at it. “Staples? Wait, hang the fuck on. Is this is *staple crop*? Who taught you puns? Was it me? Am I a bad influence?” Rufus glared up at him. “Okay, yes, this is actually really cool. Can you eat these?” He got a cheerful affirmative. “Well that’s awesome. Makes you less dependant on the orbs, huh? But… yeah, that’s cool. I’ll talk to Anesh later about what the hell this means for the nature of organic life.”
Rufus just nodded cheerfully, glad that James had plans.
“Alright.” James broke the silence. “We’ll leave the light on for her. In the meantime, let’s go get the walls up and settle in. Time for our state mandated half hour lunch break.”
The walls around Fort Door went down. The new walls of Fort Door went up.
James helped out, but while everyone was pitching in, no one was in a huge hurry. They took small breaks between each panel moved, gradually clearing out a wider and wider area, until they had a hundred meters of empty space cleared away on all sides, and a base with a reasonable amount of space for people to rest without having to worry about random strider attacks.
A lot of desks were moved around into neat rows. A lot of chairs were collected for those with weary feet. There wasn’t really anything left in the way of food around here to scavenge, though. Even though they’d only been doing this for a short time, James, Anesh, and Alanna had pretty well cleared out this opening area.
James did set some people to dismantling the computers they’d taken out of the cubes. With an eye to funding their future operations, and having to take care of any of the people here without families to go back to, they could use a little extra income stream from selling off video cards and RAM sticks. No hard drives, though. At least, not until they could safely wipe them. James didn’t want anyone getting suspicious of what the hell the Wondow’s operating system was.
After that, he’d helped Theo shuffle the metric ton of orbs they’d collected into a single bag for ease of transport out of here. They’d agreed - or rather, James had proposed and everyone else had gone along with it - that the division of spoils should include the rest of his friends, and that he and Anesh would sort it out once they were out of here. Still, even having been cracking yellows sporadically through the trip, James’ still practically drooled at the sight of hundreds of small golden orbs in the unzipped duffel, bulging out of it like fish eggs. A good chunk of those were blues, too. Dozens of them, in case of emergencies that they’d resolved in other ways. Those would probably go to the victims of Karen, to help them through hard times ahead. Reds, greens, oranges, even a purple had gotten in there somehow. The rainbow of luminescent colors tempted James enough that he’d left rather than give in and just start slamming his hands into the pool of potential power.
And then, it was just a matter of settling in for the wait.
Waiting in the Office was not something James was accustomed to. He tried to lean back against the outer wall, hands folded behind his head, Secret sprawled across his lap. But very quickly he realized that he just didn’t want to sit still, no matter how tired he was. He was just too restless, no matter how much his feet ached. Didn’t help that the floor wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of chair, but that wasn’t the big problem.
Just as he’d sighed and been about to stand up, though, James had his lack of rest interrupted.
“Hey.” James greeted Karen as she walked up, and without comment simply folded herself into a cross legged sitting position in front of him. The motion looked fluid, like it came from someone who’d spent a lot of time doing yoga, but James had a hard time reconciling that thought with the fact that the person doing it was old enough to be his mom. Normally, that would have also made it hard for him to talk to this woman, but after everything that had happened, he felt less like an out of place kid, and more like a peer to, well, to everyone here. “What can I do for ya?” He asked her.
“You mentioned setting up a support group for people after we get out of here.” She said. “Is that going to happen?”
“I’m planning on it, yeah.” James said. “I mean, I don’t have any concrete plans right now, but I know a guy who works at the library, and we can check out those big meeting rooms for group events.” He winced a bit. “Not sure how I feel about meeting rooms. Maybe in a park or something.” James trailed off his stream of thought. “Why do you ask?”
Karen tapped the back of her neck. “We all still have these. Will they go away when we leave?”
“They shouldn’t.” James admitted. “I’d actually forgotten about that.” And now that he’d been reminded, he became aware of just how much his own neck itched. “Thanks.” He said as he scratched at it. “But yeah, I don’t have any cyberpunk style doctors on my contact list that can remove wetware. This one might be a bigger problem.”
The look Karen gave him reminded James that, even though he trusted her to work as part of a team at this point, she still wasn’t one of his friends who knew all the weird nerd terms he tossed out were. “I’m just asking because I think some of the younger people, no offense, might actually try using them.”
“Oh, yeah, I’d already assumed that’d be a thing. I need to make a note to warn everyone not to try plugging into the internet until we can make sure it’s safe.” James took out his phone to make a small reminder for his future self, and then scowled at the shattered screen. “Well, suppose *that* was inevitable. Wonder when this happened?”
“But, isn’t it a problem?” Karen brought him back on track.
“What? The upgrade? I mean, it’s gonna be hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t know about this place, but we’re basically abandoning information security at this point. Secret said something about how the office tries to limit how far information about it spreads, so that should keep it from really interfering with someone’s life, but it’s not like we can stop it now, right?” He shrugged. “My biggest worry is if it can spread, like how Kar… um, boss-fight Karen did it. But we’d need a volunteer to test that out. Anesh’d probably be into it, I’ll ask him in a couple hours.”
“That doesn’t seem like a good idea.” Karen said with a restrained frown. “Do you really think it’s okay to make the real world… to break the rules like that?”
James took a deep breath. “I have no idea.” He admitted to her bluntly. “But the way we’ve been doing things has been working so far. So I’m gonna go with my instincts. And my gut is telling me that this isn’t going to hurt anyone, at least, not on its own. My bigger concern is with funding the cleanup operation. We’re gonna need to put a lot of work into helping everyone get their lives back together.”
“You want to do that?” She didn’t seem surprised, but instead calculating. Judging to see if James had any hidden motives. Fortunately for both of them, he absolutely didn’t.
“Nope!” He answered with overblown false cheer. “But if I don’t, if we don’t, who will? That’s why I’ve got people bagging up motherboards and stuff. Theo has a whole list of things we’ll need to pay for in the next few hours.” He shook his head. “We’re getting off topic. I’d say, warn people about using the port, spread the word around, but don’t tell anyone they can’t. Especially not anyone my age; I’m sure you know how that’d go over.”
Karen didn’t exactly laugh at that, but James knew from the look on her face that she knew *exactly* what he meant. “Alright. We’ll trust you.” She said, standing up. “Thank you for your time.”
“No problem!” James told her, leaning back against the cube wall, closing his eyes and just breathing for a bit while Karen walked off.
He was just settling into position when he realized again that he had been in the process of standing up. With an internal chuckle, he opened his eyes and leaned forward, waking up a snoozing Secret and briefly wondering how Secret could even sleep if he didn’t have a real body.
It just so happened he’d timed his motion with his next petitioner, as Momo crouched down in front of where he had settled.
“Yo.” She greeted him, apparently not at all phased by his perfect coincidental timing
James looked back at her. “Yo.” He replied. Now this, this was someone he knew how to deal with, to talk to. “Whadda want?” He spoke in an exaggerated dockworker accent, making it clear he was goofing around.
Momo smirked, idly itching at one of the cuts on her face that had accrued over a number of fights from the last few days. Her hands always seemed to be moving; James had overheard her tell someone it was nicotine withdrawal. “Wanted to ask, um, what’s gonna happen to us when we leave?”
“What? You go home.” James said, his brain trying to catch up.
“Won’t there be questions or something? Like, I dunno, some kinda wizard police that’ll want to know what happened?”
“I fucking told Alanna I was worried about wizard police, and she didn’t believe me!” James laughed. “But no, so far, we haven’t found anything like that.”
“Oh.” Momo said. “Okay, good.”
From somewhere on the other side of the fort, there was a loud yelp that rose over the noise of other voices and activity. James jerked in surprise, and started to stand, but Momo just waved it off. “It’s just a stapler.” She said. “They’ve been sneaking in and biting people for a while now. Theo says the noise is probably attracting them.”
“Ah.” James shrugged. “I haven’t been paying attention to that, I guess?”
“Yeah, the little fucks keep coming one at a time.” She shrugged back. “Whatever. Won’t be our problem for much longer.”
James looked at her, really looked at this fidgety, nervous goth girl in front of him. He hadn’t known this person before, so he had no comparison, but she was anxious about something. And unlike everyone else, she didn’t have that constant undercurrent of fear about everything here. Hell, she’d adopted a wolf made of a magnetic field or something. Though, that part was in character for every goth James had ever known.
Finally, he sighed, leaned back against the wall, and asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, right? We’re going home.” She said. “Or to whatever’s left of it. We’re all saved.” She sounded bitter.
Yeah, that wasn’t suspicious at all. “And…?” James prompted, flourishing a hand in front of himself.
The response came back much more subdued than he was used to with her. “Do we get to come back?”
Ah. There it was. He’d known this conversation was coming. It had been obvious from the early hours that some of these people were just as psyched for a dungeon as he and Anesh had been. Not all of them; even those who’d looted and scouted and sometimes fought weren’t auto-includes. But Momo and her team absolutely were. They were the kind of people that would rather die here than live trapped in a mundane world. Just like James was, really.
To that sort of person, he really only had one possible answer. Letting them in would make him responsible for their injuries, their failures, their possible deaths. But what a *monster* it would make him to shut them out. To show them magic, and then tell them it wasn’t theirs to use.
He could tell that’s what Momo was already thinking; James was the authority figure here, and she’d clearly had some problems with authority in the past. He was going to tell her to go home, not tell anyone, be a good girl, and forget it ever happened. That was the anger on her face, the bitter drip in her words.
“You can’t just fucking…!” She paused in her preplanned retort. “What?”
“Yes. You can come back in.” James savored saying it. This moment was just glorious. He got to crush someone’s expectations, and make their day, all at once. “We’re going to have to change how we approach this place, but yeah. Were you planning to be independent, or join up?”
“I don’t… you can’t just... “ She thwapped a fist into the floor. “You fucker, you planned for this!”
“Yes!” James said, unable to contain his amusement. “So?”
“We want to join you guys, yes! Fucking happy?” Momo demanded. It was all just too hilarious to James.
After he got control of his laughing, he reached out a hand, shaking Secret off from where the infomorph was coiled around his wrist. “Welcome to the team.” He said. “We don’t have a name, or a cool catchphrase. Anesh and I tried once, and it was super awkward. Let me know if you think of one; I’ll make a suggestion box or something. There’s no signing bonus or health care, and you might die. It’s basically perfect.”
Momo shook his hand, the palm of her fingerless gloves rough against his skin. Then she stood on unstead legs, and looked around before glancing back to James. “I have to, um…”
“Yeah, go let your team know.” He smiled at her. And she smiled back, before turning on her toe and bolting away back around the outside of the fort wall.
James sighed and propped his hands behind his head again. “Okay, *that* one felt good.” He spoke facing the ceiling, but with words directed at Secret.
“Of course you enjoyed that. You love yourself the role of champion.” Secret snarked back at him.
“Hey, that’s…!” James couldn’t come up with a single thing to say in his own defense. “Yeah. That’s.” He settled on. “Also, stop distracting me, I was going to…”
“Stand up?” Secret asked as Theo dropped into place across from him.
Theo didn’t fold into position like Karen did, or crouch to eye level like Momo. Instead, she just dropped, slamming one knee into the ground in a way that James was almost sure had to hurt, and then leaning forward with an elbow on her bent leg. “We need to talk.” She said.
“Of course we do.” James groaned. “Fine! I’m ready! What logistical nightmare do you have for me?”
Theo looked grim. “I need to know how we’re handling everyone once we leave. We haven’t done any kind of budgeting or planning, and…”
James held up a hand. “First, it’s going to be 3 AM. No one’s going to be awake to receive family members. So, step one, book everyone into a hotel. There’s two places within walking distance of work, but we can always get a ride or something. I’ve got a car, I can shuttle people. Step two, tomorrow morning, we establish communications. Start getting people phones, and getting them in contact with their social groups. Step just before two, we eat breakfast.” James had a sudden mental image of a raspberry danish and some bacon, and his stomach rumbled. “Maybe two breakfasts. Anyway. Step three, we create a method of group communication, probably just a room in the chat server we already use as a group, and set it aside for survivors. Er. ‘We’ here is Alanna and Anesh and me. Anyway. The point is, we keep in touch, organize group therapy sessions, and discreetly contact a couple good psychologists to help deal with the longer term problems.” James took a deep breath. “Oh, step… somewhere back there… probably step one actually, we need to get a few people to the hospital. A lot of people, actually. After that, we work on getting everyone’s lives back on track until they don’t need our support anymore. Permanent places to live, jobs, moving on with their lives, that sorta thing. Let the people who want to forget, forget.” James paused, then, in a shakier voice, finished his list of things to do. “Then I tell Dave’s mom what happened to him. And also Johnson’s daughter.” It took James a couple heartbeats of silence to find his voice again. “Anyway. Our operating budget is thirty thousand dollars. You're in charge of accommodations. Want to negotiate a salary while there's still time?”
There was a moment of incredulous shock from Theo as she stared at James disbelievingly. “What happened to the James who always showed up ten minutes late and stressed over every call?” She asked him.
“James died.” James said. “And the specter of adult responsibility filled his corpse and puppets it to this day.”
“You seriously overestimate what adults have to be responsible for in their daily lives.” Theo informed him with a flat tone. “This is a bit beyond normality.”
James shrugged back at her, bumping Secret and getting a blinking look from the meme. “I was never much of an adult, so I wouldn't know.”
“Well, you seem to have picked up the basics.” Theo told him, pretending that she was more than a year or two older than her supposed subordinate. “I want lunch.”
“Like, a real lunch. No! *Brunch*! I want a goddamned masterpiece of brunch.” Theo clapped her hands together to punctuate the declaration.
“What, like, right now?” James was confused. Even if he could get behind the brunch idea.
Theo rolled her eyes. “I'm trying to negotiate for pay in a way that's kinda silly, but shows that I'm willing to help just to help, you idiot.”
“Why is every woman in my life so bloody tsundere?” James asked Secret, who showed wisdom well beyond his years by choosing not to respond.
“I don't know what that means.” Theo stated. “But I'm mad at you for it.”
“Exactly.” James replied.
“Whatever. I’ll invoice you for my time.” She rolled her eyes and stood to leave, shaking out the leg she’d been leaning on. It looked like Theo was about to say something else, but then there was another yelp in the distance. Theo snorted and turned away. “I’ll check on that. We’ve been…”
“Having a lot of striders, yeah, I heard.” James said. “Despite trying to get some peace and quiet.”
Theo grunted at him, clearly not sorry. “You guys picked a hostile place for a base.”
“It wasn’t this bad when we got here.” James told her. “Also there’s the exit. So.”
“Isn’t it bad luck to call attention to that?”
“What, the exit? It’s right there, it’s not like…”
Theo cut him off. “No, the fact that this place is supposed to be safe.”
“Yeah, well… yeah…” James took a bit a of a confused pause as his brain processed that. “It’s…” But by the time he started to say something, Theo was gone, off to see if there was a real problem and solve it if needed. She was a good manager, really. But it did make James mildly worried what she’d brought up. It was probably just because of all the noise they were making with all the people they’d piled in this space that they were attracting more attention. It was probably not a big deal that they kept having to deal with strider bites.
Probably. Almost certainly. For sure.
No, it wasn’t. James sighed. It absolutely wasn’t going to be.
“God dammit, I really need to stand up and see what’s happening.” James told Secret.
“I am napping.” The meme replied.
“Is that why people keep coming over here? Are you summoning people? Can you *do* that?” James lazily mused.
Secret let out a small huff of something that wasn’t air. “I am very powerful.” He bluntly said.
The two of them sat in comfortable quiet for a few more minutes. James just starting to feel like maybe he didn’t have to be so on edge as he rested. In a way, it was kind of reassuring, all these people coming up to him. If there was a problem, if someone needed clarification on something, or if there was an overwhelming assault on the front door, then James could rest easy knowing that *then*, someone would let him know. And so, for now, he could just sit, and let his sore feet rest. He wasn’t exactly happy, not really. Losing Dave still sat heavy in his heart, and no matter how many people they rescued, the cost was still so very high. But he was content, in this moment, to do nothing. Finally, to do nothing. Just for a minute. To be comforted by the sounds of humanity moving and talking around him, to stare up at the flocks of printer paper overhead, to be unbothered.
“Hey, um, James?” The voice sounded nearby, young, male, and nervous.
James looked down from the artificial ceiling to meet Daniel’s eyes. “Yeeeees?” He drawled out, running his hand down Secret’s back ridges, imagining himself looking for all the world like a supervillain with a white cat. Except wearing torn slacks, with a half dozen wrinkled bandages on his face and hands, and instead of a spinning office chair behind a massive oak desk, he was on the floor behind a makeshift shelter. But he had a pet leviathan, so close enough.
Daniel didn’t miss the symbolism, but it didn’t seem to help his nerves. “I just wanted to apologize again, and to say thank you. A lot of people wanted to say thank you, but they didn’t want to bother you.”
“But you did?” James said with a smile. He was getting used to having his break interrupted at this point.
“No no! I mean…” Daniel held up his hands defensively, backtracking before he saw James wave his panic away. “Er, I just wanted to ask you, what happens after we leave?”
“Man, everyone looking to the future today. This is way more adult responsibility than I was prepared for.” James mildly complained.
Daniel looked around them like he was afraid of being caught in a verbal trap here. “Aren’t… aren’t you an adult?” He asked.
James’ brain stuttered for a second, before he realized something, and leaned forward to ask, “Danny, how old do you think I *am*?”
“I… don’t have to answer that?” Daniel tennatively replied, the hint of a question on his words.
“Good, you’re learning. Anyway, what about what happens after we leave? Theo should have the roadmap for most people, but you’ve only been in here a week. You should be able to just drop back into your old life if you want. No offense, but I don’t feel like you’d want to come back.”
“I don’t. I don’t!” Daniel said. “But, um… what about Path?”
It took James another few moments of trying to parse the words to remember that Path was the name of the map in Daniel’s head. “Oh yeah, we never really talked about… him?”
“It, I think?”
“Have you asked?”
“I… I will! I will ask.” Daniel declared, like he’d forget if he didn’t say it with enough conviction.
“That’s good. Honestly, you should be talking to them, not me. Infomorphs, like Secret here, well, they grow up fast.” James ran his fingers over one of the spines on Secret’s hide, eliciting a noise somewhat like a purr. “They aren’t exactly human, but they’re still people, and they should be allowed to make their own decisions. So talk to them when you get the chance. I don’t know what your line of communication looks like, so maybe you won’t be able to until we leave, but if they want to come back in and roam here, they’re welcome to. If they want to stay with you, they can do that too. We’ll work it out.”
“Why…” Daniel started to ask something, but seemed to think better of it, and stood in front of James, opening and closing his fists a couple of times.
The words broke through at the prompting before Daniel could stop them. “Why are you so nice?! How do you deal with all of this?! I feel like I’m about to fall apart at any moment, and you’re just sitting there being calm and reasonable, and it’s not really fucking fair, is it?!” He shouted, his voice cracking a little as he rose in volume. He stared at the floor, his face bright red, like he’d just accused James of murder or something.
James just shrugged it off. He didn’t want to dismiss Daniel’s concerns, and he wasn’t going to get offended over something so small, especially not now. “I’ve got a lot of experience with my life falling to pieces. Hey. You’ll be fine. You made it through this, just take it one problem at a time, man. It’ll work out, if you give it a real effort and a chance. And if it doesn’t, we’ll be here to help.”
It looked like Daniel might have had an angry response to that, something that he was going to reflexively snap back at James for trying to be kind again. But fortunately for both of them, he never got a chance to say it, as Daniel got distracted by the electrical snuffling nose of the mongausse that came bounding over to them. He yelped as its rainbow snout made contact with his hand, and then yelped again, nearly jumping out of his skin, as Sarah clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey Danny.” She greeted him. Reaching down, she ran her hand along the back of the mongausse, the spines of colored distortion curling where she stroked them. It glanced up at her, and she swept it away from Daniel, sending it over toward where James sat, watching as the magnetic dog-shaped form tried to make friends with a falsely sleeping Secret. “James.” She spoke more directly to James, not exactly shutting Daniel out of the conversation, but certainly sidelining him, making it clear that she had something important going on.
“What’s up?” He asked her, now fully resigned to the lack of personal time. “Dragon attack? Rain of molten printer ink? Plague of tack flies?” He paused for a second as he ran out of ideas, and Sarah looked like she was about to explain, but then James got a second wind and kept rolling. “Oh! Someone found the office pet, but it’s the size of a bear! Orrrr, the bathrooms are flooding? Or, no, um… The vending machines are all… turning people into… half candy, half human… things? Okay, I’m out of ideas. Go ahead.”
“None of those, you dork.” Sarah couldn’t keep a small smile off her face, even though she wasn’t here with good news. “But seriously. We’ve got a problem. You should come see this.”
James let out a long groan, before stretching his arms out in front of him, elbows locked, Secret held on his forearms. Still hyperbolically groaning, he dumped the snoozing snake onto the back of the mongausse - he really should ask Other James what he’d named that thing - eliciting excited barking from the dog, and startled flailing from Secret. As the two of them tumbled away, Secret clearly having picked up James’ own aversion to surprise hugs and struggling to get away from the affectionate magnetic field, James stood. “Alright Daniel, we’ll have to finish this later. Just, remember, man. One thing at a time. Open and honest communication. You’ll be fine. You’ve got this.” He told the kid as he dusted off his own ass. That taken care of, he turned to Sarah. “Okay, let’s go.”
As she turned to walk away, and James fell into step beside her, he took a second to appreciate how much work their group had put into this place. It hadn’t even been an hour since they’d gotten here, but everyone working together, with a good chunk of practice under their belts, had thrown up a wide series of double-tall walls, braced from behind by desks. The interior divided into a few small rooms, offering a small amount of semi-privacy for those who wanted to spend their last couple hours in this place napping or turning what was left of their limited food supply into lunch.
“So, talk to everyone you need to?” Sarah casually asked him as they circled around to the front of the fort. It was becoming obvious even to James, who didn’t consider himself the best at reading people, that she was having some serious emotional trouble. Over the last few days of hard travel through the office, Officium Mundi as she called it, her easy, casual attitude toward James and Alanna had gone from natural, to almost forced.
It made sense, in a twisted way. Sarah had been James and Anesh when they first started; full of wonder and stumbling through this place. She’d not recruited anyone, but instead been brought in by a few other employees, all of whom were dead now. She had, she admitted, known instantly how much James would have loved it. But she’d been sworn to secrecy, and something had kept her from sharing too much, even though she’d had a plan in the back of her mind to make a trip in as part of a birthday gift to James. And then her compatriots died, and she was captured. And held, for months.
And the first face she sees upon being pulled out of networked hell was James’. Her best friend, the guy who’d been with her since elementary school. Who she’d helped with physics homework while he helped her through breakups. The one person she was comfortable being roommates with, even as Anesh had started to really grow on her as a person. He’d come for her, somehow, against all laws of common sense. Just like always, he was *there* when she needed it, no matter what his own problems looked like.
And he didn’t remember her.
There was a Sarah-shaped hole in his life, in his soul. And talking to him felt like trying to cut through concrete with a butter knife. He was *right there*! The same James that she’d always known, right there in front of her. He talked, he laughed, when he thought no one was watching he kissed Alanna (finally), and he *didn’t remember her*.
But Sarah refused to give up. Because he was James. He was her *best friend*. Not a single person, not a partner or a parent on the planet, would ever be more important to her. And the worst part was, he was *trying*. He tried *so hard* to be the person Sarah needed, or was looking for, or remembered.
And so, even knowing that there was some kind of wall between them, James kept trying anyway. “Yeah!” He said. “I’m not sure exactly how that happened. I honestly just sat down, and then everything I needed to happen, happened, without me having to put in that much effort.”
Sarah stopped walking, and tilted her head sideways to look at James at a right angle. For just a second, everything felt normal between them again, their old, natural conversational style reasserted over a harsh reality. “I’m trying to think of why I should be mad at you for this one, but I kinda feel like you earned it? Congratulations! The universe is finally happy with you!” She cheered him.
James laughed through a toothy smile. “I mean, you’re gonna jinx it. Also, aren’t you literally taking me to something right now that you said was a problem?”
“The universe is fickle!” Sarah declared, one finger held up in the air overhead as she led the way into Fort Door.
The awkwardness seeped back in after a few moments. But not as much, and not as quickly.
“Alright.” James got serious and inquisitive as they got into the fort itself, passing the groups of people sitting around outside, some of them keeping watch on the borderline where the tamed construction of Fort Door and its surrounding cleared area met the wilds of the Office proper. He pitched his voice low, and addressed Sarah without letting everyone overhear. “So, what’s the problem here?”
She led him around a corner, and into one of the private rooms they’d put together. This one had neat lines of paper stapled together and taped to the ceiling to form a bit of a door. Or, well, a curtain at least. Holding the sheets back to let James in, Sarah stepped to the side and let him see what was going on.
Theo stood behind a table, her arms folded, and a grim look on her face. Like James and Alanna, she’d stripped away the armor, but she still had her xenotech improvised glaive propped up against the wall. It took a quick double take from James to realize it wasn’t propped on anything, and actually just stabbed into the floor, which he kinda took offense to. If Theo kept doing that, they’d end up with more holes than floor, eventually. Not that they planned to be here long enough to let her turn their foundation into swiss cheese, but still, it was the principle of the matter.
The problem, though, and there was an obvious problem, was what was sitting at the desks in front of Theo. The thing she was watching with a hard stare, that she’d sent Sarah to find James to make a judgement on.
In the middle of the table sat a router. And around it sat Other James, Simon, and Momo. And running from the router to their skulls were three ethernet cables. Near the router, Rufus sat, like he was ready to snap the things in half if anything started to go wrong. The trio sat in a small circle, hands on the table in front of them, eyes closed, breathing steady. None of them reacted as James came in.
“Oooooh. Yeah, I can see how this might be a problem.” James said, idly rubbing the back of his neck and the port contained on it.
“You’re here. Good.” The voice - no, the *voices* - came from the three seated kids. All of them opened their eyes and looked up at James in unison.
“Is it?” James asked them, suspicious. “Is it really good?”
Theo glared at him, clearly unhappy he wasn’t taking this seriously. But she stayed silent, as did Sarah, while the trio spoke. “It’s easier to remember this way.”
“That really clears things up.” James blatantly lied. “Would you guys mind unplugging so we can talk about this without the worrying hive mind thing going on?”
The group nodded. Not exactly in unison, but they all made the gesture together. “We planned on that.” They said, again not exactly speaking with one voice, but the same words and close enough that it was understandable. It gave their speech a weird reverb effect. “But we needed to tell you something first.”
“Is it going to be something that’s literally dangerous to know?” Sarah asked them.
“Those are called cognitohazards!” James helpfully supplied. “Also yes, will it be that? Because I’d like to leave first and come back with Secret.” He didn’t feel like there was a big threat from these three, or the one that they currently comprised, but despite his outward snarkiness, James was still apprehensive.
Not that he was specifically against them linking up. Shit, he’d basically assumed that it’d already been happening. And now he suddenly knew how his dad had felt when he’d walked in on James having sex when he was a teenager. Super. But on a more serious note, James had just kind of figured that the curiosity, mixed with the bonds formed on their exodus, along with the ready availability of ethernet cable, would have led to people to experiment on their own.
“No, dumbass.” The group responded. Well, Momo said the dumbass part. The two guys simply gave a negative.
James nodded. They were linked up, but not entirely sublimated into a single mind. This was a lot less existentially terrifying. “Okay, so, what’s up?”
“The office is waking up.” They said together.
“Can you expand on that?” James was starting to get frustrated with people giving him incomplete answers today.
They nodded. “It’s hard, but yes.”
He waited, and then when it became clear they weren’t going to say anything, James spread his hands in front of himself. “Aaaaand?”
They bowed their heads, like they were thinking. After a few long beats, where James shushed Theo before she could make a demand, they raised their eyes back up to look at James. “Part of what Karen did with our minds was to shut down parts of this space.” They stopped, as if waiting for confirmation that they had said something understandable. James nodded at them, and they went on. “That shut down was outsourced to us. Not only us, but we were part of it. We remember flashes. Together, we remember more.” James nodded again, this time slowly and not specifically at them. This explained why they’d chosen now to link up. They were trying to put together a puzzle while each of them was holding a handful of the pieces.
“So what happens now?” He asked. “Why did you want to talk to me specifically?”
They blinked at him, each of the with an unhappy look on their face. Other James winced, while Simon just frowned, and Momo scowled like she wanted to punch someone. “We aren’t doing that anymore.” They said.
“Yes. That was rather the point of all this.” James told them. Then he paused, and a thought occurred to him. “Hang on. Wait. *What* exactly was the group mind keeping turned off?”
None of them sounded happy about the word they replied with. “Oversight.” They told him. “And now it is waking up.”
“Ah.” James said. He nodded a couple of times, and then calmly turned and started walking out of the room. Before he left, he threw back over his shoulder, “Sarah, go wake Alanna up. Theo, get them unplugged. Rufus!” James stopped, holding the paper curtain aside. “I don’t have anything for you. You’ll figure something out.”
He strode out into the first room of Fort Door. With a frown and a shake of his head, he shot a glance toward the metal double doors that would, soon, lead back to Earth. James took a second to make sure the smile on his face was fixed in place, then turned back, and started moving toward the plastic bins that they’d brought in here oh so long ago, pass through the small number of people who were milling around here.
“I don’t get it.” One of them spoke, in a voice that was forcefully curious. James eyed the kid, trying to remember a name for the face and attitude. A little shorter than him, the kind of guy who James would call ‘burly’ if he were an adult. A linebacker build. High school jacket, hair that looked like a patch of a wheat field came to life. Ethan! That was it.
“What don’t you get?” James asked, using the back of one hand to encourage the kid to step aside so that he could reach the stockpile. “Basic common courtesy?” He clicked his tongue at himself as soon as he’d said that. Just because this guy was a doofus didn’t mean that James should be mean to him all the time.
Though if Ethan noticed that, he didn’t say anything about it. “What’s oversight, anyway?”
James knelt on the floor, pursing his lips in an incredulous look that he shot over his shoulder at Ethan. “Were you seriously eavesdropping on us?” He asked, not so much offended as just confused why anyone would bother.
“I wanna learn how you do it!” Ethan said. “You’re like a mysterious coach who doesn’t know his own power.” He made a slow waving gesture with one hand in front of himself.
That got James to pause for exactly have a second as he snapped open one of the lids, before deciding to ignore the comment, and pulling out the stashed pieces for the durable black shell of body armor that he’d missed so much this last week. “Oversight refers to… okay, how to phrase this. Have you ever had a job?” Ethan shook his head no. “Are you aware that jobs exist?” That got a ‘duh’ out of James’ follower. “Okay. Oversight is when your manager is regularly checking in and offering both advice and direction on what you’re working on.”
“Ooooooh.” Ethan nodded, folding his arms across his chest. Then he stopped. “No, I don’t get it.”
James made a noise halfway between a sigh and a groan. “We are not inside a building right now, man. This place is alive. Some of the living things we've seen here are it's personal minions. And *now*, it's *waking up*. And it likely knows where we are. Which means?” He looked up at Ethan, wide eyed and expectant, as he clipped the first leg yard into place.
“It means… that this whole place…”. He looked so deep in thought, James didn't say anything to interrupted him, just nodded. “It means this place is going to… try to take us back?” There was fear in his voice, suppressed by bravado but still there.
“That or kill us, probably.” James clapped his hands once in recognition of the feat of mind from Ethan. “Alanna! You're awake! I have good news, your gun is still here!”
“Murgymnle.” Alanna muttered back at him as she dropped down next to James, eyes half closed. For a second, it looked like she was reaching for the bin for the other set of armor, but then she just slumped over and rested her head on James shoulder, letting her half lidded eyes fall shut.
James scratched at her scalp. “This is adorable, but we’ve gotta get ready. Armor up, buttercup.”
“Whyyyyyy.” Alanna moaned.
It was Ethan who answered. “He’s doing some kind of oversight.” He ‘informed’ Alanna.
She rolled her head around on James’ shoulder so she was staring up at him. “Wut.” She said in a sleep voice. Alanna had gotten approximately ten minutes of actual sleep since they’d gotten back, and James absolutely understood how bloody awful it was to be continually woken up with some crisis or another.
But right now, tired or not, he needed to actually fill her in. “We keep getting random strider attacks.” He told her. “And we’ve become aware that the office itself might be waking up, and causing it.” James paused as a well time yell of shock and pain echoed from outside the walls. “And they’re getting more frequent.”
“Oh.” She said. Then her eyes snapped open. “Oh!” Her voice was still groggy, but with a hard edge in it. “Gimmie my armor.”
“Guys, I can’t lie to you.” Ethan told them as they suited up, causing James to roll his eyes at Alanna. Technically, Ethan was correct; he *couldn’t* lie to them. “I don’t get what’s going on.”
James was about to sigh and try to explain again, when Alanna leaned in, grabbed the kid by his shoulders, and bluntly told him, “A lot of monster are going to show up, and we might need to fight until we can leave.” She said.
“Oh!” He looked at James. “Why didn’t you just say that? You’re not a great coach.”
“I’m gonna kill him.” James muttered to Alanna. “Don’t think I won’t.”
“I think you won’t.” She nudged him back. “Now, what’s the plan.”
“The plan is, we get the people who can fight, arm up as best we can, and get ready for whatever’s coming. If it’s nothing, then fine. Great, actually! We just leave! But if it’s something, then we hold it off for…” James turned and called back down the hall. “Theo! Time!”
“Forty nine minutes!” Came the brusque reply.
“That long.” James told Alanna.
“Okay.” Alanna said, her brain not subject to the same wakeup period that James’ normally was, and already running on all cylinders. “Go find me Karen. Let’s get a perimeter set up.”
“Oh thank god.” James hugged her. “I was not prepared for more planning today.” He stood, watching as a now black-shelled Alanna carefully checked and loaded the trusted Mossberg that she’d left here the last time they’d come in the front door.
Ten minutes later, a strider cluster came at them. It had to cross no man’s land, so despite coming over the walls on the left side in a sneaky fashion, one of the posted sentries still spotted it ahead of time. A carpet of shifting metal and chitin plates, dull light reflecting off of a forest of shifting pen legs.
Against four prepared humans, twenty striders never stood a chance. Against ten, it was a massacre. One person took a staple to the back of their hand, and one got bit in the ankle, and that was that.
James and Alanna and those others who had learned the trick absorbed enough yellow orbs from the fight to keep them going for another half hour. And then… nothing happened.
James hadn’t been too worked up by the fight, if it could be called that, but he saw that a few of the people out here had. Combat wasn’t easy to get used to, and it took time to realize that fighting the striders wasn’t actually a *fight*, exactly. So he did a quick head count while adrenaline rushes wore off around him.
Himself, Alanna, and Theo. Other James’ and his crew. Karen and hers. Harvey and his backup, which James really wanted to tag as irregulars, even though they were *all* irregulars. Ganesh and Secret taking turns on overwatch. And then thirty exhausted, injured, malnourished people behind them, waiting in the Fort and hoping, praying the fight didn’t make it to them. Their last ditch, final line of defense was Rufus and Daniel, and of the two, James would put his money on the strider doing a better job of it.
As everyone moved back to their positions around the walls, James caught a screech from overhead, a drawn out howl of the word “meeetiiinnnngggs”, abruptly cut short. Overhead, the hum of a drone arced by, and James brushed away the scraps of smouldering sticky notes that drifted down to his head. One problem carved in half by their air support.
Then a shout from behind him brought James attention back to one of the gaps in the labyrinth of cubicles surrounding their little clearing. He glanced over, and saw a shellaxy and a handful of escort striders wandering in.
And then the shellaxy pulled itself forward over the tripline they’d set up, connected to one of their oh-so-delicately collected coffee cups. And in a burst of heat and pressure, half the striders were gone, and the shellaxy was on its side, screaming in error tones until Alanna ordered two people forward to finish it off with crowbars.
Crowbars were one of the few things they had to arm people with. James and Anesh had left them here after gradually upgrading to things less inclined to leave bruised palms and torn skin, and he was thankful now that he had. Between the halligan bar and the crowbars, along with the sledgehammer that Alanna had lugged in one time, they at least had a passable way for most of their fighting force to be able to take on some of the more threatening creatures. James had handed off the pistol, *his* pistol, not the one he’d stolen from Frank and been using this whole time, to one of the rearguard. Alanna had done the same with her shotgun, expressing quiet confidence in her ability to just punch her problems away, and maybe a few other tricks up her sleeve. Fortunately, in a group of fifty Americans, there was always going to be a few people who had experience with a gun. James himself had swiped the pen away from Ganesh, leaving the drone with “only” a high powered laser as a main weapon. And then, as a backup for if and when they had to deal with paper pushers, they had those spears leaning against the exterior fort wall.
Half their force was still unarmed, though. Mostly just there to pluck striders up and run interference. They’d also be the first to pull back, James knew.
So far, it wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d feared. But the clusters of things wandering in trying to murder them *was* picking up.
As soon as he thought that, another shellaxy plowed through a coffee trap, melting away its internals before James stepped up and finished it off. He was actually kind of annoyed, they didn’t have that many of these things and they were all getting used up fast, even if they did still have one big trap left. As James stepped back, flexing his hand that was getting stiff from his grip on the pen, he traded a few words with Theo.
“How long left?” He asked her.
“Stop asking me that.” She scowled. “And twenty minutes or so. I’ve got a couple people constantly checking the door so we know.”
“That’s fine. We should have a few minutes rest here.” James told her. “How’s everyone doing?”
Theo snapped at him. “Badly!” She snarled. “None of us are soldiers, James! This is horrifying! And..”
Her anger was interrupted by Secret dropping from the ceiling to twist and twine around James’ arm and shoulder, until he could pull himself up and speak to James at eye level. “There are Puppets coming.” He said.
“How did you pronounce the capital letter?” James asked. “Nevermind, not important now. Which way?” Secret pointed, and James nodded at him. “Theo, tell Alanna I’m on the first one. But be ready for more.” He laid a hand on the head of his ethereal friend. “Get back up there. And thanks.” Secret just bobbed in acknowledgement, before glancing… sideways.
“We have incoming.” He said. “I will need help.” And then slithered through a direction that wasn’t there.
At Theo’s distressed stare, James shrugged. “He probably means he needs backup from the people who aren’t fighting. Or, like, the idea of backup. Look, I don’t know. I’ve gotta go.” He waved her off and started moving.
James walked toward where Secret had indicated, passing through the ranks of Karen’s small team who were in the process of dealing with a few striders. “Stay back.” He told them. “But gimmie a hand if it looks like I’m about to have my arms ripped off.”
They didn’t have time to ask questions before one of the stuffed shirts stepped out from around the corner. It didn’t make a noise aside from the rustle of its polo shirt and cardstock skin. It didn’t tell James he was breaking company policy or trespassing. It just spotted him with its blank face, and started sprinting toward him.
It still unsettled James how these things seemed to have an uncanny valley aura. Like you could tell they weren’t real people without ever seeing the blank faces or knowing that their blood was just confetti.
“God, I need coffee.” He muttered to himself as he slid into a martial arts stance, fists out in front of him, the pen held in his left hand and casually clicked open with a sharp note that echoed through the noise of the fight happening around him. To his left, shouts sounded, but he tuned them out. He considered opening the fight by lobbing one of the thermite grenades at his belt at it, but it was too fast and already closing in, and besides, those things were better spent elsewhere.
The false human didn’t let him complain anymore, though, not breaking the sprint as it zeroed in on James like a missile, arms outstretched to tear into him. James ducked the first vicious swipe, half stepped forward, and lashed out with a cruel kick to a passing knee that would have crippled a human, but here just sent the stuffed shirt stumbling. Even with his enhanced speed, it didn’t make the creature fold, but it did turn its speed into a disadvantage instead of a threat.
As it tipped sideways, still pumping its legs to keep moving while almost steering itself with a hand pressed to the floor, James whirled and lashed out with a low punch that caught it in the neck. It was good that the blow staggered it, because James was already following up with a curving knife strike with the pen that atomized the thing’s shoulder as the hissing tip of the Object weapon slammed into it. Its garbled scream was overridden by the noise of gunfire, which distracted James for just long enough that he dropped his guard a fraction.
Then James was skidding backward as the creature’s casual flailing struck his guarding arms with the force of a truck.
He snarled, then rushed forward in a flash of motion, not waiting to be put on the defensive again. James twisted his feet, kept his momentum, and slid through the grip of the paper man as it tried to grab him. Then he was inside its guard, and he slammed fist and weapon into it in a flurry of rabbit punches, until he had to catch a strike on his forearm, and spun away again before it recovered and grabbed him. Without stumbling, he felt his feet move exactly as he needed to, circled around behind it, dropped the pen, got a perfect grab on the arm that was reaching for his throat, and then *pulled*.
James tossed the torn limb aside, grabbed the pen off the ground, and shuffled back to face his opponent.
Taking heavy breaths, James held his fists up again. “I can do this all…” He was cut off as Karen and one of her teammates rushed in from behind it, carrying the boar spears they’d fallen back to collect, and vivisected the creature. Stab, stab, yank, and it was on the ground to be finished off. James stayed in his combat stance for a second, still balancing on the balls of his feet, before he straightened up, dusted himself off, and said, “Well, that works too, I guess.”
“Alanna said to not let you die.” Karen told him, knuckles of one hand white around the haft of the spear, face beaded with sweat. It was then that James noticed her other arm hung loosely at her side.
James snorted. “I wasn’t *that* close to losing my arms. How’s the other side?” He asked.
She shook her head. “Bad.” She just said. “People got hurt.”
“How’s your arm?” James commented, already scanning the outer edge for anything new coming in.
“Sore, but I’ll live.” She told him. “We have to get back with these. Good luck.” She said, motioning to the spear as an excuse before pulling back.
James stood there for a few seconds, looking around. He hadn’t been able to pay attention to what was happening during his brawl, and now he tried to catch up on the scene that was taking shape. A dozen human defenders were engaged with an almost constant influx of enemies now. Striders in ones and twos and sometimes small swarms, shellaxies occasionally trundling in with them, even a spattering of iLipedes and some other phone based creatures that loped forward on spinning jointed legs. James saw a tipped over maul cart near where they’d planted some of the coffee traps, and he hoped no one had needed to fight that. There were two other paper pusher corpses on the ground among the piles of crushed striders and gutted shellaxies, and as James watched, Ganesh cut down another mask as his job switched from ‘keep an eye out’ to ‘keep our airspace clear’.
God, Ganesh. He and Rufus couldn’t stay here, not after this. They were going to have to come along. James hoped that they’d be okay on the outside.
As he watched, he saw Alanna directing the others into an ambush position, then baiting another paper pusher into a fight while the other women got behind and stabbed it down to the ground. She did this while covering a couple guys who were pulling someone who’d been bitten by a shellaxy back from the fight. It was at that point that James realized he’d drifted pretty far from the main battle, and he took one last resting breath before he tensed up his muscles again and started running toward where a 2.0 had wandered out and was trying to melt its way through someone’s torso. He lost himself in the fighting, jumping from crisis to crisis, half pleading with fate for things to stay manageable just a little longer.
And then, all of a sudden, there was quiet.
Well, not exactly quiet. There was one person who was still screaming from a broken leg while someone tried to get them enough blue orbs to fix the problem. There was a metallic clatter as they shifted the piles of smashed bodies up against some of the hallway entrances in not quite barricades, but tripping hazards at least. There was panting, and erratic panicked laughter, and the sound of people picking over the wreckage for orbs if they had a moment of free time and no pressing injuries. And there was whatever Alanna was saying to him.
“What? Sorry, I zoned out there.” James said, eyes refocusing on Alanna as he realized his partner was right there, talking to him.
“I said we need to get everyone back.” She said, punctuating it with a sharp point of a finger. “We’ve got five minutes left, we can cluster around the door! We can’t stay out here, people are getting hurt, and we’re not ready for a large scale war! We’re gonna lost people, James.” She sounded like she wasn’t sure, like she was asking permission as much as giving an order.
But James agreed. “Everyone!” He called out, and a hush fell, punctuated only by the hiss of burning paper and something screaming about coffee as it was burned out of the sky. “We’re pulling back! Collect over here near the main door, but keep an eye on the tunnels!” He turned to Alanna. “Go help get the wounded ready to move. I’ll hold here until it’s time to go.”
She started to say something, then froze. Not just stopped speaking, but locked in place, and James felt a cold fear go up his spine. He started to turn, and then felt his own body start ignoring his commands, shock still and half facing away from the fight.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a camraconda slithering its way across the battlefield. No, not *a* camraconda. Two of them. Several of them. *More*. The one rule on these things had always been to outnumber them, and be fine. But now, James could see everyone who was out here was frozen stiff, locked in place by the overwhelming number of basilisks pinning them down.
James was torn between terror at the fact that they were absolutely screwed, and a slightly different terror at the fact that their one trump card was in the hands of Daniel.
One of the things they’d brought back, taking quite a bit of care to do so, had been a potted desk plant that produced gravity whenever it was moved too suddenly. One of the things that James had delegated to someone with an actual engineering degree when they’d realized they were going to have to hold back a monster hoard was a way to abuse that. And when they’d left Daniel back in the fort, they’d left him holding the rope to the makeshift pulley system that was their one get out of jail free card.
And now, paralyzed and watching enough snakes to get a sarcastic quip out of Indiana Jones bear down on him, James hoped that Daniel, just this one time, hadn’t already run for the exit.
Then he felt his stomach drop as a small part of what counted as *down* shifted directions, and suddenly he could move again, as a ten foot column of space turned sideways and the camracondas fell against each other as they tumbled through turbulent air into a crumpled heap.
They were already moving, the effects of the plant weren’t long term, and they could only pull it so far. So James did the only thing he had time to do, as the ball of corded snake bodies tried to untangle itself and come back around on the defenders.
“*Open fire!*” He bellowed the order out, unclipping one of the thermite canisters that Anesh had made for him what felt like years ago off his belt in each hand. Slamming the triggers against his legs, he flung his left arm out in an underhanded pitch, turning the momentum into an overhand throw for the one in his right. They caught in midair, sending streamers of molten sparks spewing across the floor before they landed in among the cluster of hostile drones, setting off unearthly howls of agony.
The blast of flame was exactly the signal the defenders needed. Those with the firearms and their limited ammo didn’t hold back, opening up into a target so large they couldn’t help but hit *something*.
And then, *finally*, Alanna pulled the trigger on the nerf gun. And a ball of plasma the size of a watermelon exploded through the air with a dire thunderclap as it left behind an artificial vacuum before punching through a knot of snakes, and then out the other side, and then on through wall after wall of the endless rows of cubes until it was either out of sight or somewhere buried in the floor.
And then, with a plastic ratcheting noise that no one could possibly miss in the silent dead air that followed, she cocked the gun and did it again, cutting down the last couple of survivors.
“Two minutes!” Came the yell behind him from Theo. “Everyone get your shit together! We are *leaving*! Two minutes!”
“Two minutes.” James repeated to himself, almost disbelieving. “Perfect time for…” He looked out over the low cube walls as he heard a snapping crunch, the sound of plywood and plastic breaking. As if on cue, both Secret and Ganesh descended on him, one of them speaking, the other just stabbing wilding in the right direction with a wing. James didn’t even process what Secret said, he just stared at the top quarter of a maimframe as it slowly made its way through the corridors that were wide enough, and smashed a path when those weren’t available. “Oh, that’s gonna get here sooner than two minutes.” He said.
People rushed by him, those who had fought before, but had no way to deal with this, or who were just hoping to beat the timer, all flooded back into the fort. Theo came up and clapped him on the arm. “Come on! We gotta go!” She yelled over the increasing noise of human panic.
James nodded at her. “I’ll be right there.” He said, standing at the door, watching the massive creature approach. “Hey, can I borrow your glaive?” He asked her. Theo stared at him for a second, before wordlessly handing James the weapon while he handed her an exhausted Ganesh in trade, and then jumping back to organizing the lines for the exit.
He hefted the makeshift device. It had been upgraded at some point, he realized. No longer was it a simple chair leg with the monomolecular protractor taped to the end. Now, it was bound with duct tape, probably from his personal secret stash, onto a much longer branch from a potted plant. It felt just heavy enough to weigh down James hands, just durable enough to be useful.
“Alright.” He said to himself. “One more minute.”
And started walking toward where the maimframe was visibly plowing its way through walls toward them.
Secret pulled off his shoulders, still coiled around James’ torso protectively, to rear up behind him. The impression of a blue cowl of eyes and scales around his back. “Are you ready?” He asked James.
“Never readier.” James told him, voice wavering.
“We have other choices.” Secret said.
James laughed. “You know, there’s a scene in one of the later Matrix movies, where they make a big deal about how the choice was already made, and the process is just about understanding it.”
“And this inspires you?” Secret asked.
“No, I hated that part.” James told him. “But I don’t think I was ever going to make a different choice.” He told his friend. “You can still get out of here, though. I know Alanna can carry you.”
“Ah, about that.” Secret sounded almost sheepish.
A hand, clad in the same black plastic and cloth armor that he was wearing, clapped down on his shoulder. “You didn’t fucking plan on you being out here alone, did you?” She asked him, stepping up alongside James.
James snorted. “I’ll be honest, I hadn’t actually made much of a plan.” He told her, before his face broke into a smile. She flashed one back at him, before handing over the nerf gun with its one remaining shot, and hoisting her own shotgun.
“Think we can take it?” Alanna asked with a mountain of false bravado.
“I think we can hold it off.” James said. “Or make it *really* angry.” He leveled the nerf gun at it, aiming for the top half that was now visible where it was cutting its way through a sea of cubicles, and pulled the trigger.
The crack of air pressure and the ball of plasma didn’t catch it by surprise. Or at least, not nearly enough. It caught on a pane of glassy force hovering just over the maimframe, the massive cobbled together PC’s forcefield holding back the miniature sun trying to melt a hole in it. It seemed to hover there in the air, grinding against the panel for an eternity, before there was a shattering noise, and the force field collapsed, but the plasma deflected upward to fly off toward the ceiling. It carved its own path through a flock of paper, dropping smoking remains from the sky in an apocalyptic backdrop to the massive computer lifeform as it started kicking aside the last few walls in its way, and came face to face with James and Alanna.
And then, the tumblefeeds that had been following in its wake spread out around it, and rushed past to be the first to join the battle. Two of them, along with a half dozen paper pushers. Striders and tapiers and iLipedes began dropping from the hull of the maimframe, scurrying across the ground toward them, eagerly taking the lead on their larger allies.
“Alright.” James said, tossing the empty gun aside. “You take the one on the right.” He told Alanna.
Her shotgun snapped up to her shoulder, then kicked against her. James felt like he watched the ripple of force move through her armor in slow motion. Then she fired again, dropping one of the paper pushers, and James lunged forward on the other side, sweeping the glaive out around him.
He didn’t know how many smaller things he casually bisected as he leapt over their lines, trailing the weapon along the ground. But he did certainly catch the first employee by surprise, opening up a gash across its chest that leaked dust to pool on the floor already slick with strider blood.
The others didn’t care. They charged in, and James was suddenly a flurry of ducks and dodges, shifting footwork and blocks with his armored arms. He took hits that he would never have been able to cope with if not for his reinforced bones, and he used the armor to his advantage, ignoring the smaller enemies at his feet unless they became tripping hazards. He caught a fist on his wrist, but then the strike turned into a grab; before James could feel his bones start to crumble under the deadly grip of the employee, Secret was there. The ghostly serpent suddenly a lot more solid for a brief moment as his seemingly endless maw clamped down on the arm of the paper pusher, and came away leaving nothing but a wound dripping shredded paper, before Secret faded out to a barely visible blue shade. His burst of effort leaving him too tired to keep a hold on reality.
When James saw another opening, he went for the kill, lunging in to drive the glaive through the chest of one of the stuffed shirts. And that’s when things started to go south. One of the others grabbed the haft as the weapon was still plunged into their comrade, and snapped it. What James pulled back wasn’t a perfect killing device, but a stick, and suddenly, he was a lot more surrounded than he was before.
Taking kick to the stomach, he let the force of it carry him away from the writing tendrils of the tumblefeed that was now steadily advancing on him, spreading itself out into a crescent to begin to envelop his fight with the paper pushers. James pulled the last thermite device off his belt, but then his arm was yanked backward, and he turned to see the one armed employee holding him again at the wrist, this time jerking his arm until James was forced to let go.
The explosive fell to the ground, bounced once, and then lay undetonated.
James felt his legs swept from under him, and suddenly, he was looking up at the ceiling. Shadows moved in the corners of his eyes, and he tasted blood in his mouth. For a second, the lights overhead looked like clouds.
He tried to reach out for the thermite one last time, but a foot that bent in a way that feet weren’t supposed to wrapped around his wrist. He heard a hissing, like rain on dry pavement, as the tumblefeed closed in on him, and James let his head thump back against the floor. To his side, he caught a glimpse of Alanna jam her ungloved hand into a stuffed shirt’s chest, fingers extended like claws, before she twisted her wrist in a circle and tore something out of the thing in front of her before being mobbed down by the tumblefeed.
“That must have been two minutes.” He said. “That must have been enough.”
James laid back. They’d done enough. He hoped… he hoped so many things. He hoped it was worth it.
Then a dog hit one of the things holding him.
He rechecked that sentence.
Then another dog, a great dane from the size of it, slammed into the other one, who looked just as confused as James was. But when the fangs met its neck, there was no more confusion, only a wild screaming as its life was torn apart by a furious canine. *Then*, a dog that wasn’t made of anything except an angry magnetic field tackled the third one.
And then, with a noise like someone hammering two flat rocks together over and over again at high speed, the bullets started hitting the tumblefeed. And it was *not* happy about that.
James, hearing gunfire and seeing an opportunity, rolled over to his knees and stayed low, grabbing the thermite as he scrambled past, and lobbing it back over his shoulder without looking. From the hiss and the wail that came after, he assumed he hit *something*. Then he was up, on his feet, patting himself down for a weapon, an orb, an *anything* that would…
He came face to face with Anesh.
His friend was wearing a fresh set of body armor, his head covered by a helmet that had goggles resting on top of it but not on his eyes. He had a compact assault rifle tucked into the crook of his arm, the kind James recognized as a P90. And he was *here*, and *perfect*. James could have kissed him, but he had another priority.
“Alanna!” He suddenly exclaimed, spinning around, looking for her. But she had already been pulled out from under the tumblefeed that had engulfed her, with help from the mongausse and Secret and… Anesh?
James looked back and forth, from Anesh, to Anesh. His brain tried to catch up to that.
But there was no time. The maimframe crashed through toward them, weapon ports already spinning up. James and Alanna each grabbed an Anesh and started running sideways, trying to juke the incoming fire, while a sharp whistle called back the pack of dogs from their assault on their new chew toys toward Fort Door.
James felt a sharpened RAM spike drive into his back, but he didn’t slow down, just shoved Anesh to the side, and dove the other direction himself, rolling to avoid any more shots. He heard gunfire, but the maimframe kept shooting, so it clearly wasn’t having the required impact.
Then there was a thrumming noise, and suddenly the cubicle wall in front of James was approaching much faster than he intended. And also his feet weren’t on the ground. And then he crashed through it, knocking the barrier off its connections and falling sideways through into the desk space behind it, awkwardly pressed against a chair.
Through the gap, James could see the outside of Fort Door. And down past the central room of it, he could see a sliver of something that wasn’t cubicles. The door was open. The survivors were out, only a handful of the bravest staying just on this side. Waiting for them, for James, to get up and walk through.
All he had to do was get past fifty feet of open ground, against something covered in turrets.
“Easy as breathing.” He whispered to Secret.
“I do not breath.” Secret replied, concerned.
Shaking, bruised, out of breath, James dragged himself to his feet, picking up a discarded crowbar that had ended up near where he’d fallen. The maimframe was still firing on *something* as it strode through the burning wreckage of a tumblefeed, grinding the corpse of wires into the ground. And James saw, as it turned its back to him, an opening.
He started moving. Slowly at first, as he clambered over the fallen walls, then faster. He hit open ground, and started running, making a beeline for the maimframe that currently had its remaining shield facing forward, taking gunfire from a pair of sources. All James had to do, he reasoned to himself, was get on its back, climb up, and then start hitting vulnerable bits until it stopped moving. Nothing to it, he lied to himself, feeling his heart hammering in his chest.
And when he was twenty feet away from the towering monstrosity of computer hardware, a fucking dragon fell on it.
James was starting to feel like a bystander. As the monster started howling like an old modem, a massive beast made of cardstock wings and plastic bones bore down on it, pecking down with fangs that looked an awful lot like pens. It was covered with ridges of plastic clips, the metal bands on them fluttering like feathers in strangely hypnotic patterns.
And it tore into the maimframe like it was out for coolant blood.
The element of surprise combined with the machine’s old wounds didn’t let it last long against this new assailant, and within seconds, it had lost legs, lost guns, lost plating, and lost the fight. It collapsed into a pile leaking blue smoke and sparks with a final error noise cry that echoed across the field.
Above it, Pendragon cawed her victory.
And off her back, someone trailing a cloak of printer paper jumped down to the ground.
It took James exactly four seconds to figure out how he wanted to handle this. “Oh, fuck you, Dave. Who told you that you could one up my dramatic moment.” James yelled at him.
But another crash in the distance, and the sight of more maimframes, more masks, more *everything* headed their way, cut their reunion short. “Stop fucking around, we gotta go!” Alanna yelled at him. “I mean, we gotta go *now*!”
She didn’t have to tell him twice. James was already sprinting for the exit, making sure everyone else was with him. Alanna limped along beside him, supported by Anesh, while Anesh ran in front of him, throwing shocked looks around at the warzone that they’d turned the front door into. As they ran into the fort, James saw a familiar face leading a group of a half dozen dogs back out the main door. He heard himself yelling something, and then saw Theo nod, wide eyed. She and Momo and Other James and Daniel, the last ones in, all stepped out of the door, into the crowd, and started trying to shout people back away from the breach in reality.
James grabbed Rufus off the desk where he’d been patiently waiting, and then, without thinking about it, dropped the crowbar and grabbed the small box that Rufus had planted his staple crop in. And then he was *out*.
Air. Air that didn’t taste dead and old and recycled a million times. That tang of late August hanging there, making him want to just stand against the big window and *breathe* for a while.
But he had to move. He and Anesh and Alanna and Anesh helped press people forward, yelling over the crowd of weeping, cheering, crying people to be heard. Also yelling over the actual security guards, who were *very* confused.
Because a second later, Pendragon forced her way through the gap of the door.
The little creature that Dave had created so long ago had grown up to be the size of a semi truck. Being made of mostly laminated paper made her flexible, but it was still a feat of having a few trusted and brave people helping to pull her wings through that let her fit her way into the now very cramped space in the elevator waiting area.
James looked back into the office, possibly for the last time. He saw Fort Door, and beyond it, a million cubicles unexplored. He saw a thousand adventures they’d missed, a hundred near death fights. He saw a horizon that curved up, a fluorescent sky, and a place where he sometimes felt he belonged more than Earth. He also saw the incoming, *shrieking* form of the terrorbyte. Or a terrorbyte, anyway.
He closed the door.
The noise brought a solemn silence to the assembled group. Even the building guards stopped trying to demand answers, and took a few steps back. Well, maybe it wasn’t the door, but the dragon in their midst, but either way.
“Anesh.” James asked quietly. “Did you bring my sister and an entire kennel with you for this?”
One Anesh cleared his throat. “We have a very good reason.”
Alanna broke the moment. “Is one of you evil?” She loudly demanded across the sea of people toward Anesh.
“No! Why would you ask that?” The two Aneshes responded in unison.
“They’re not evil.” She confirmed to James.
“Look, it’s very simple.” An Anesh told him. “I can explain all of this, if…”
He smiled, the first smile that felt *real* since he’d dropped into the vent a week ago, and then he stepped forward toward the nearest Anesh, and bowed the other boy down for a long, long kiss. Next to him, from the other direction, he saw Alanna do the same.
He finally let Anesh go when he felt his aching arm starting to give out, but that was enough. They’d done it, and it was, finally, at long last, enough.
“Let’s go home.” James said.
END BOOK ONE
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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!