James and Anesh went first.
No matter how much combat experience he and Alanna had together, no matter how eager the others were to get into the thick of things, no matter how much James wanted it *see* the others in action, there was no question that it was going to be him and Anesh. It wasn’t even a selfish thing. It was simple tactics and safeguards. The two of them had a connection that let them do this on a level that no one else could match. And no, it wasn’t the connection from the skulljacks, though Anesh had brought up that it would be a massive tactical advantage. It was more that the two of them had spent so much time together, both in and out of this place, that they could act almost without thinking about the other.
It was more than trust, it was more than skill, and it was more than friendship. They were *the* two man team to aspire to, they maybe even could have been without the Office. And this place had served only to sharpen their bond to something razor edged.
All that added up to them being the best people to throw into unfamiliar situations, for now. And the tower was nothing but an unfamiliar situation. Maybe it was the dungeon’s awkward attempt at a thank you, or maybe it was a giant baited death trap. Or maybe it was just random, and they were overthinking it.
Either way, until they knew better, James and Anesh would check it out.
The first floor was dark. The only illumination came from their flashlights, the entry point, and the desk lamps that would flicker to life intermittently. The base of the tower was probably the widest part, but it still wasn’t a huge amount of ground to cover; six by six cubicles, with two hallways running parallel to each other and a third small corridor crossing their path in the middle. Despite the chaotic layout of the outside, the ground level was surprisingly structured. In the gloom, though, it was hard to figure out if that simple pattern held any secrets.
James pursed his lips as he looked into one of the enclosed cubicles. Behind him, an Anesh held a pair of heavy maglights, one of them angled over James’ shoulder and into the room. On first glance, it looked basically normal. Or, rather, as normal as this place ever got. Desk, shelves, filing cabinet, garbage can, chair. No computer here, not even a laptop. Though there was a keyboard on the desk that didn’t connect to anything, so James made a mental note to keep an eye out for a shellaxy. It just didn’t feel like it was complete, somehow, no matter how average this space seemed.
He stepped inside while out in the hall, one Anesh waited patiently while the other scanned another cube on the other side. Sweeping his own flashlight beam around, it occurred to him suddenly that there weren’t that many trappings here. Not that much stuff on the desk, no extra pencils or more than a couple folders full of paper. No coat hung on the filing cabinet or bagged lunch sitting behind an inconspicuous shelf. He frowned and leaned over to open the desk drawer, confirming what was bothering him. It was mostly empty. No snack stash, no hidden wallet or purse, no personal electronics.
If this place *was* meant as a reward, it certainly wasn’t the kind that provided wealth.
Before he had time to process that thought, the tape dispenser hopped to life on bird claws formed from staple removers, and lashed out at him with a gooey tongue. James let out an awkward squawk as he reflexively caught the tape in the palm of his gloved hand, snatching it out of the air in front of his face, but feeling a sudden and surprisingly strong yank toward the whirling bladed maw of the tapir on the desk.
The light shifted around him, sharp shadows leaping upward, as James leaned into the pull, took a half step forward, grabbed the small monster by its back, and flung it out into the hallway. It slid to a stop, leaving gouges in the carpet, and let out a sticky hiss in James’ direction.
Then Anesh slammed a crowbar into it hard enough that the sticky sap that made up its insides splattered up the interior wall of the cubicle James stood in.
James stepped out as Anesh stooped down to grab up the two small orbs, one yellow one orange, and pour them into a belt pouch, just as they heard the noise of a strider cracking in half from the other side of the hall, and the other Anesh stepped out, dropping the carcass and pocketing his own yellow.
“Okay, well, we know this place is…”. James started to say, before from down the hall, from the cubicles surrounding them, from a dozen different small places, they heard noises. Rustlings, hisses, soft clatters and clangs, as a whole host came to life, angry.
Both Anesh’s looked at James with a pained look. The kind of look that told him that he really should have known better than to deliver a dramatic line like that so low and over the plate. “...Occupied?” Both of them finished for him, sarcasm in their unified voice.
“Yeah.” James sighed, setting his flashlight on the floor to give them some light, and pulling his trusty and notched hand axe off his belt. “Alright, let’s get to work.”
“Alright.” James stood over a series of desks that had been pushed together into what he could only describe as a war room table. In front of him was a sheet of paper onto which he’d sketched out the floor plan of the bottom of the tower, which had been passed around a couple times, and a pile of orbs. “So that’s the deal. Somewhere between ten and twenty life forms, all of them instantly hostile. Nothing new, but some types that we only ever saw deeper in before, like the tapir. Be *real* careful with those. There's a sort of slanted wall *here*,” he tapped the map, “that leads up to the next floor. We peeked up but didn’t see anything, and it’s a lot darker than the bottom. No windows on that one.” James looked around at the team leaders who had joined him here, the main group of delvers still unpacking and organizing gear a little ways away to avoid too large a crowd. “So, questions?”
“Who can go in?” Momo asked. Her three-persons-and-a-dog-thing team didn’t have an official leader, so James had gotten to meet all of them over time as whoever was available came to their meetings or therapy sessions. This time, she’d been the one to come over while the two boys tried to figure out where to clip their radios onto the hockey pads.
“Part of me wants to just say ‘anyone’ and be done with it.” James admitted. “But no. We’re thinking that we’ll rotate through, go floor by floor with different teams. That way no one starts to get exhausted, and we have backup if anyone gets overwhelmed.” He pointed up at the tower that dominated the view of the entrance. “I’d like to clear this out before we go too much farther in. It’s a huge risk to have a potential nest of hostile things at our backs, especially this close to the door to Earth.”
“So, who’s first then?” Momo pressed.
James sighed. “Fine, it’s you guys. Happy?”
“Yup!” The young woman agreed. She’d had to cover up her short mohawk with a helmet, but that hadn’t stopped her from expressing her goth self by painting skulls on the shoulder pads of her armor.
“Alright, any *other* questions?” James asked with an eye roll, while Anesh patted him on the shoulder reassuringly.
“What about the door?” Daniel asked. He was here representing, ironically enough, the faction that James had mentally labeled the guardsmen. Not because they were both security guards, but because their main ethos was that the door itself, if it couldn’t or wouldn’t be closed, was a problem, and should be watched.
“If we keep teams on rotation, there should always be someone watching the door.” James said. “We’ll sort it out so you can actually spend some time exploring, too, so that you’re not tethered here all night as backup. If you want?”
Daniel paused for a second, then nodded. “I actually need to do some exploring.” He said, absolutely failing to explain to the table that he said the phrase ‘do some exploring’ in the same way most people said ‘feed the cat’. Because for him, or the memetic life in his head at least, exploration was quite literally food now.
“Alright, cool. And that will also help us find more resources that can be put to use.” James had almost said the word ‘exploited’ there, but pivoted at the last second. It didn’t *mean* anything negative, in his head, but it was harsh language and he didn't want people thinking of him as a tyrant. Yet. “Next?” He looked around the table.
“My people and I are here for a specific reason.” Karen stated. She was the oldest person here, by far, almost forty years old. It was hard for James to not mentally default to thinking of her as the “adult” of the group, but he had to keep in mind that she just didn’t have the experience that his friends did when it came to this sort of situation. It didn’t help that Momo apparantly thought of her as a backup mom, which made it harder to veto any of her firmly worded suggestions. “We need to be able to pay to fix everyone’s lives, and we can’t do that if there isn’t anything in there.” She raised her eyes sharply to the tower.
James had been prepared for this, and nodded. Karen’s goals didn’t exactly run contrary to his, but she wasn’t interested in the orbs that much, although her team that she represented might be. “I agree.” James said. “But fortunately, there’s enough of us that we can cover both. Momo, you guys will be on tower duty with us. JP, you and Dave will go with Karen and start exploring out a little bit. That way we’ll always have at least one group here on rearguard in case of emergency.”
He closed his eyes and winced briefly as he realized that that one team would only ever be able to cover one emergency. The knowledge that as their numbers grew, the number of problems went up along with it, was very annoying.
“So, how are we splitting the loot?” JP asked pointedly, cutting to the root of the mild tension in the air as he pointed at the orbs, one of which Rufus was casually rolling away.
“Well, first priority goes to feeding the familiars.” James poked Rufus with a gloved finger. “Though they should *ask first*, you dink.” That got a laugh from the table, and even a small smirk from Karen. “After that, I think now more than ever our method of shares is appropriate.” James took a breath and looked around at everyone, making eye contact to show he wasn’t just goofing around this time. “There is literally nothing to stop teams from pocketing cash or cracking orbs in the field. I get that. And hell, if you have a few dozen yellows, go ahead and treat yourself. Same if you need to use blues or purples to get out of tight spots.”
“That’s not fair.” Karen flatly stated.
“It doesn’t have to be fair.” James said. “We just have to agree to it.” He spread out the orbs on the table, knocking down the pyramid that Alanna had carefully and idly constructed and earning an annoyed exclamation from her. “Anesh and I ‘earned’ these, but we’re putting them into the pool. I trust everyone else to do the same, because I want to. If we start arguing over who deserves more money, or more orbs, or whatever? We are fucked. We will *never* survive this place, or each other.”
There was a blanket of silence, as even the others within earshot stopped rustling with their gear and making quiet conversation to listen in. The point James was making was solid. If they didn’t work together, then they may as well just quit now. There was no point in specializing or having backup if that backup would be bitter about not getting paid as much.
“That said,” JP contributed, “we should also set aside a percentage of the physical cash toward the group fund.”
Perfect timing, James realized. JP shored up the one thing that had *actually* been Karen’s complaint, that James himself had totally forgotten to address. “Yes.” He nodded at his more socially apt companion. “As our guild treasurer so astutely brings up, we do have dependents out there in the real world, who are counting on us. So we take care of them first.”
Karen leaned back, mollified. “That’s all we want.” She said. “We’ll take turns in the tower in that case.”
“Appreciated. “ James told her, not quite smiling, but much more relaxed than normal when talking to her. “But I actually do think we should be exploring. If we can find, and unlock, even one more briefcase, we can pay for a month of operations. So that’s your primary goal. Well, that, and getting acquainted with the tactics of this place.”
JP nodded again. “And we can help with that. Well, Dave can. I’ll also be learning as we go.”
“Dave is a good squire.” Alanna agreed.
James grimaced. “Sorry, squire?”
“You’ll figure it out eventually.” Alanna patted him on the shoulder. “So, anything else?”
No one had any more questions.
Simon clicked his radio twice as he knelt in position, signaling as quietly as possible to his friends. Two clicks was yes, three was no, and right now, he was looking at a big old “yes”.
They’d crawled up the stairs with Alanna and Anesh as backup, while a different Anesh had bandaged up Leader James’ arm down on the ground. He’d ignored his own warning about the tapirs, and it turned out that his favorite coat was no match for a few dozen spinning, gnashing blades. So, this may be the last floor they cleared tonight, which was strangely disappointing to Simon.
He hadn’t really understood what was going on, when they were first cut loose from the monster’s network. His chest had hurt, and it had later turned out that someone - probably Alanna herself - hat hit him hard enough to crack ribs. He’d stumbled from camp to camp, brain still catching up to being an individual again. And then, after either two hours or a whole day, James had talked to him. Just some random guy, who’d sat next to him and taken the time to make conversation, no matter how tired he was. And Simon had started to wake up. Momo, too, had been pulled in. And before they knew it, the three of them were friends. And then companions. And then had a dog made out of a magnetic field. And then, somehow, *back in here*.
Only this time, they were predators, not the prey. And when he looked up at the motivational poster on the wall that seemed to just be a blocky image of a printer with the equally blocky text of “copy” underneath, it amused him rather than creeped him out like it would have a month ago. It was a liberating feeling.
James, Simon’s James that is, was on the other side of this enclosed hallway with Momo, waiting on just the other side of the vending machine. This was the first floor where they’d found a spatial warp; with this hallway that only went one direction. So Simon had backtracked, looped around, and made his way carefully through the dim hallways in the light from his camp lantern and the two windows on the floor, until he could see what had been concealed from them by the towering form of the vending machine at the end of the intersection.
Two clicks meant yes. Yes, there was a potted plant on the other side. Yes, it was waiting to ambush you. Simon couldn’t see that well, having turned off his light to sneak up on it, but he could make out two long bulbs facing at an angle toward the vending machine’s corner. Waiting for anyone to poke their hands or heads around that obstacle.
He crouched, waiting for a reply from his friends. He had more weapons on him than he ever thought he’d own, and he took the time to quietly draw the machete that he’d been given by the organization. Leader James had given him a weird look when he’d handed it over, and promised it was “better quality”, whatever that meant.
His radio came to life briefly. Two clicks of static in reply. Simon nodded to himself, got into a runners position, and after a deep breath to steady his nerves, took off in a sprint toward the head-high potted plant. He made it to within maybe five feet before the thing started to turn toward him, and by then, it was too late. Simon wasn’t a swordsman, but he did know how momentum worked, and his swing took off one of those ominous pods and left the machete burried halfway through the stalk of the other one before he stumbled past it, and into Momo and James, who were already moving past him.
Momo *howled* as she came around the plant’s hiding spot. They’d tried to convince her that alerting everything on the floor to their presence was a *bad idea*, but she’d said it was important to keep morale up. Both Simon and James had haggled her down to only doing that when they were pretty sure most of the floor was already dead, just so they didn’t have to deal with another swarm. The first one wasn’t too bad, but then, they’d had a lot of backup to call in then. None of them, they had agreed, fancied trying it again, but harder.
None of this was relevant to Momo swinging her own blade at the plant, and chopping into the thick stalk that made up its trunk before several of its broad, waxy leaves flicked upward from the pot and shoved her away. Hard. Hard enough that she tumbled back down the hallway intersection, head over heels. Momo hadn’t needed to borrow a machete from the greater gear library; Momo was, Simon had learned, *exactly* the kind of person who already owned functional swords.
Then James stepped in, with his wrestler’s build and heavy armor, just in time for the half-severed pod to burst into a spray of thorns. Many of them bounced off the plastic plating, some of them caught on the cloth parts. One carved a thin crimson line down his cheek. None of them stopped him from grabbing and snapping important parts of the plant, even as it resisted and rained down solid, heavy hits onto his shoulders and chest with its branches and vines. While he held it, a shimmering rainbow waver in the air roughly shaped like a dog lunged in and gnashed vibrating teeth at exposed vines and flowers.
Then Simon and Momo caught their balance, looped back around, and hit it again. And the three of them kept hitting it until it stopped moving entirely, and a trio of yellow orbs dropped; one the size of a golf ball, and the other two both the smaller versions.
“Yeah! Fuck you, plant! That’s what you get for not being a mammal!” Momo triumphantly yelled, jamming the blade of her gladius into the dirt of the pot. “No offense, Mags”, she followed up to their dog, running a hand through his back in a friendly pet.
James gasped for air, rubbing at the soon-to-be bruises from the multiple hits he’d taken. “I’m really worried that you’re way too into this.” He told her. “Maybe you can wear the armor next time.”
Simon just shook his head and smiled as he collected the orbs into the pouch. Friends, companions, and now comrades in arms. The three of them were ready for anything as they got ready to check down the last hallway.
“Ow.” A brief pause, and then, again, “Ow.” Same tone, same volume, nothing changed. “Ow.”
“Stop that!” Anesh tapped a finger against James’ lips in a gesture that he didn’t realize was strangely intimate until after he’d done it. He was, even after months, still getting used to this. “And sit still. This is hard.”
James made a childish groaning noise in the bottom of his throat. “But I wanna complain!” He whined, before Anesh poked at his cut flesh again. “Ow!”
“Look don’t blame me. You’re the one who should be doing this, you have the first aid training.” Anesh muttered as he stitched closed the spot on James’ arm where the tapir had rent a series of tears in the skin.
“You have the ranks in sewing, though.” James countered. Which was true, but for Anesh’s money, it didn’t really make him feel any more comfortable sticking a needle and surgical thread through his boyfriend’s skin.
But fortunately, he was almost done. “Okay, antiseptic, which is gonna sting, and a bandage, and you’re done.” He told James, who continued his whining until the bandage was firmly in place. “Now what have we learned?”
James sighed dramatically. “Don’t get cocky. Actually, seriously, don’t get cocky. I feel like the worst example right now.” He flexed his arm, getting a feel for the range of motion he had and seeing if he could move without popping the stitches. Anesh actually had done a good job, though, so it would be okay for the time being, and it wasn’t bleeding anymore. “I think, being weirdly introspective, that I may have tried too hard to impress everyone.” James admitted.
“You know you literally saved a lot of their lives. I don’t think you…”. Anesh tried to console him, but James cut him short.
It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate that Anesh instantly jumped to trying to cheer him up, it was more that he really did want to be more honest with himself. “It’s not about what they actually think.” He told his friend. “More about what the voice in my head tells me they think. Anxiety’s kind of a shit, sometimes.”
“Ah. I don’t really understand, but that makes sense.”
“Good enough for me! And I do appreciate you trying to be supportive.” James said. “Also for the medical aid. Think I’m good to give it another try?”
“No!” Anesh gave him a shocked look.
“That’s a firm maybe. Got it.” James smiled. “Okay, where’s our other half? Still sweeping the area?”
“Yeah.” Anesh nodded. “Me and Alanna were gonna get some cash looted while I took care of this. Because neither of us know how to take a break, I guess.” He shrugged a bit.
James grimaced. “Okay, we’re inventing new pronouns for you. This is getting difficult.”
“I admit, it’s a challenge.” Anesh finished packing away the first aid kit, after disposing of the bloodstained gloves and needle, and eased into a chair next to James at their makeshift map table. “Want to see how the tower group is doing?”
“You just said I shouldn’t be running around.” James gave a disapproving frown to Anesh.
For his mockery, he got another irritated flick on the forehead. “No, you wanker. I sent Ganesh to keep an eye on them in case they needed saving. Here.” He pulled out a phone and the two of them watched from a dark perch as a trio of humans plus one other thing dismantled a potted plant.
“They’re not bad.” James admitted. “My namesake there needs to get hit less, though.”
“Is that your professional opinion?” Anesh smirked. “Besides, it’s not like we did any better the first time we found one of those.”
James barred his teeth in a grimace. “Thaaaat was a surprise, yes. And technically, I *am* a professional at this.”
“Don’t get hit is not tactical advice, my friend.” Anesh informed him in an aloof tone.
“Don’t sass me.” Was the only reply. “How long until the check in with the away team, by the way?”
They had, of course, brought radios in. With Karen dead, they were slightly safer to use without threat of interference, though everyone was made firmly aware of the fact that electronics of any kind could be compromised. It was why James had insisted on handing out notepads, and telling people it not just make notes on their phones. Still, radios were useful tools, even with the potential for tampering, and they had a schedule for check ins to make sure everyone was still alive and kicking.
“Thirty minutes.” Anesh answered him. “And we’ve got about five hours left before we leave, counting our buffer time. What do you wanna do with it?”
“Well, that’s only about two hours of actual adventuring because we’re gonna have to divide up loot and do debriefings and stuff. And I’m realizing that I don’t… I don’t..”. James voice caught for a second as he struggled to catch his breath. “Man, I don’t know if I wanna do this. This feels like responsibility I didn’t ask for, again. What happened to the two of us just wandering around and having fun?” As soon as he said it, he felt guilty. Fun? Fun was for places that didn’t have kidnapping victims and death traps. Not to mention the potential ways to upgrade the world, or humanity as a whole. James didn’t get to have fun, he got to…
“Yeah, I miss that too.” Anesh derailed James’ panicked train of thought like the end of the tracks. His boyfriend shrugged. “We picked up all these extra people, and now I’m doing all this organizational work because I’m good at it, but I don’t really *want* to. I guess kinda like you with the leadership thing.” He sighed and leaned back in the chair, tilting his head to look at the tower behind them. James turned to see what Anesh was staring at, twisting in his seat, before Anesh spoke again. “Want to see if we can call dibs on taking the next floor? Just us, maybe Alanna too if she’s not tired. Oh! We could get Daniel and… um… other guy. They’re probably bored.”
James almost cried. Without even really thinking about it, or meaning to, Anesh had just shattered about a month’s worth of guilt that had been building up in his chest. And then, casual as can be, asked James out on a dungeon date.
“Fuck, I love you.” James told him, quietly. Then he rolled forward onto his feet as Anesh gave him a surprised glance. James stood from his chair, swinging his good arm around. “I’m gonna go see if we’ve got a box of glow sticks anywhere. I’m sure *someone* brought some!”
As he walked away, Anesh grinned and shook his head. As he watched Rufus fiddle with the growing pile of orbs on the table, he wondered if he was having fun with Alanna looting cubicles. Outwardly, he looked idle and calm. But in his chest, Anesh felt that little spark of excitement at being in a literal dungeon flare to life, and start to grow into a fire. And when he cast his eyes up the tower that stood as a challenge over their doorway, that fire *burned.*
They weren't pushing the time limit yet, but they were getting there. Two hours left, with a small safety margin, and they had only made it this far.
It occurred to James, as he and a single Anesh made their way carefully up to the ragged hole in the side of a cubicle wall, that he and Anesh *had* technically had a dungeon adventure together today already. But he decided that one didn't count, on the grounds that it was official business, and not just this kind of messing around.
Not that they were messing around, really. They *were* here to clear the floor, to secure the tower, to establish a base, all that jazz. But they were also here after handing command over to Alanna and other Anesh, who were both kind of tired, and fine letting them abdicate responsibility for a little while. The away teams had checked in, everything was fine, there were no disasters to solve. And so, James and Anesh got to have some fun.
Right now, that fun came in the form of ducking from jagged door to jagged door, avoiding the patrols that plagued this floor.
Those patrols were 2.0s, and they were both strangely active compared to some of the lower floors, and also strangely inattentive relative to same. They lurched down the hallways, stopping at not-quite-random spots to check inside cubicles or under desks, their eyes occasionally glittering with light as they shot low-intensity lasers through the gloom. But, for all the fact that they were patrolling here, they also didn’t all instantly react when James and Anesh killed one the first time; not until one of them stumbled across the wrecked hull anyway. And so, it had become a game, of picking off isolated patrols one at a time.
This floor had more space to it than most of the others; James had already suggested and everyone had agreed that if they found the oranges powering the spatial warps in here, they leave them alone. If this *was* going to be their staging area, he wanted it intact. The other thing it had, that had started showing up the closer they got to the top, was windows. *Reasonably speaking*, they should be well above the line of Officium Mundi’s ceiling, given how far they’d climbed. But reason didn’t always apply here, and so, there were chunks of bright white light beamed in from outside, giving parts of the outside edge of this floor a bit more visibility.
James leaned just far enough to get a sight angle down a hallway, saw it was clear, and tapped Anesh on the shoulder. His partner rose from his crouch to move with a few calculated steps across the gap between this cube and the next, briefly illuminated clearly in the sharp light beamed in from outside. They were up against the outside wall, here, as they snuck into position, and right near the window on this side. The two of them had been at this for half an hour now, not counting the minutes that it took to climb the tower. Fortunately, this place didn’t seem to have a respawn timer, so the floors that were cleared stayed cleared, but that didn’t mean it magically got an elevator. So, legwork it was.
Across the hall, James saw Anesh hunker down in the shadows of the doorway, pulling a folder stand into place to give himself a little extra cover. He shot his friend a thumbs up, and the two of them settled in to wait.
They didn’t have to wait long. By this point, between an old perception skill of Anesh’s, James’ lasting love of stealth games, and liberal use of the non-alive drones that had been brought in as scouts, they’d more or less mapped out all the guard routes. So it came as no surprise to either of them when a 2.0 turned a corner and started making its way down the corridor toward them.
It had an off-white shell, smooth like an egg. The tentacle cables at its base moved it with precision and pattern, not haphazardly like the other shellaxies. The clear ring on the front that they suspected was its eye glowed a muted blue, with blinks of red occasionally betraying the weapons hidden there. It wasn’t the first one they’d fought today, and the wealth of green orbs they’d collected was a testament to their improving tactics. No more fair, head on fights for them, no. If these hostile machines were going to play by rules and mappable routes, then James and Anesh were going to exploit the hell out of that.
The upgraded shellaxy came closer, and James counted down in his head. He was a little off, hitting the count of two and not zero when it stopped, made a ninety degree turn, and swept its glowing eye over an uninhabited cubicle. It was unclear to James what the shellaxy was actually looking for, since the warped geometry in the cubes here left the normally open door of the one in front of it covered in a band of beige material that should have perfectly blocked the shellaxy’s sight. If it wanted to see in, it just had to shuffle a foot to the right and look through one of the semicircular holes near the base of the cube wall. But that wasn’t really relevant. What *was*, was that after this set part of the thing’s route, it would turn - just like that, yes - and walk down to the end of the little dead end hallway, and pause for ten seconds.
The instant it stopped, James and Anesh burst out of their hiding places, took a series of bounding steps down the hall, grabbed the suddenly confused and furious shellaxy by the underside of its case, and threw it out the window.
“Kobe!” James yelled as they lobbed the flailing mass of cables and toothy ports out into the open air. It seemed to hang there for a breath, and Anesh almost had time to worry that these things could fly, before gravity took hold and it plummeted out of sight.
When you ran a dungeon delve on a budget, and you didn't want to further damage your favorite axe or have to replace any more expensive 5.7 ammo, you found ways to get the job done for cheap. Bandages weren't free, and neither was burn gel, and every one of these things that had been subjected to the harsh mistress of gravity was one less that they had to actually get hit by.
“Alright!” James rubbed his hands together, running a finger over a small scrape he'd gotten for forgetting his gloves. “That should be the last of them. Wanna go see what slim loot this floor has?”
Anesh peered over the edge, looking down to the base of the tower to try to see where they'd cratered their latest target. A quick check showed that everyone had moved far enough away thanks to a well timed radio warning earlier, before the shower of shellaxies began. “Yeh, sounds good.” He responded cheerfully. “Also, kobe?”
A single energetic nod from James. “For accuracy!” He unhelpfully explained.
“No, I mean, I don't know what that means.” Anesh said as they started sweeping the cubes. They weren't being as careful as they had been, this floor had shown no signs of any non-2.0 life; but they still kept an eye out all the same.
“Impossible!” James called back from one cube farther in where he was going through the drawers of a storage cabinet. “You have access to the internet. There is literally *no way* that you don’t get that reference!”
“I mean, I know it’s a basketball player.” Anesh told him, as he came to stand in the door of the cube where James continued to go through cupboards in a futile attempt to secure something of value. “Well, *he’s* a basketball player, thanks to either constant exposure to JP or one of the skill orbs, not sure which. Are you done here? I really don’t think that this place has anything worth taking, unless you need scrap paper.”
“It’s for accuracy.” James reiterated, again unhelpful. “And yeah, I don’t… hang on.” He shoved aside a pile of unmarked manilla folders in the bottom drawer he was looking in to reveal something that actually stood out in this place. “Score! Coffee!”
“What, like, a cup of coffee?” Anesh asked, puzzled. The tower had, so far, been stingy with the loot, but not totally devoid of it. It was more like it was… unfurnished, rather than spiteful. But the idea of a cardboard cup of espresso in the bottom of a desk drawer was… worrying. Especially since Anesh’s brain chose that moment to make the connection that sometimes coffee cups in here exploded.
Fortunately for James, Anesh had a pretty good reaction time. And while he’d already started moving to dive-tackle his boyfriend out of the way of any potential molten blast of caffeine, he was also fully capable of pulling up short and stopping before contact after James held up a brown paper bag of ground coffee.
“No brand name.” James mused. “Suspiciously corporate green branding on the front. Smells okay?”
“Stop sniffing the coffee!” Anesh complained. “Every time, this thing! We can’t trust the food in here!”
“Oh, stop freaking out. We can absolutely trust the food here. Almost everything in this place has, at some point, been a trap and tried to kill us, *except* food.” James retorted.
Anesh frowned. “What about the actual coffee? The coffee cups, you may recall, *explode*.”
“I don’t think coffee over a certain temperature counts as food.” James rubbed a gloved hand over his mouth. “There was that one McDonalds case about that a while back. Or maybe the coffee itself is perfectly safe to drink, but it’s the cups that explode.” It was an interesting thought experiment. If ‘food’ was safe, where exactly was the line for what counted as food? It must be human food, otherwise half the stuff in here that some dungeon life could eat wouldn’t count. Hell, the plants wouldn’t count, since at least *some* of them were organic, and goats could totally gnaw through those.
“Are you okay?” Anesh asked, breaking James’ train of thought.
James twitched a bit as he stopped puzzling over the food question in the middle of a hostile dungeon. “What is food, anyway?”
“Nope. We’re not doing this here. Grab your beans and let’s go.” Anesh said with a smile.
“Alright, alright.” James laughed. “Up or down?”
Anesh slowed his walk briefly, and James did the same to avoid bumping into his friend’s backpack. Both of them knew what they *wanted* to do, obviously. No matter how tired their legs were from hiking up nine stories, or how much James’ hand hurt. Despite having expended half their ammo, long distances to any support, and a clock that was pushing them to play it safe. Despite *all of that*, well…
They still wanted to try just one more.
They stood there in silence for a couple seconds, thinking. Responsible, or exciting?
James sighed and knelt, unzipping his backpack to check inside. “Okay. I've got room, for sure. We haven't used the medkit too much. Stitches are still holding - good job by the way.” He slung the rifle strap around his chest around the check the gun, perhaps unnecessarily, as they hadn't actually fired either of their backup weapons yet. “Yup. Still here.” He idly joked.
“Is this leading up to you trying to justify going up another level?” Anesh asked, amused. “Because I'm already willing to agree, but we should be quick about it. Also we've got all these melted parts of the armor now, which is a problem.”
It was a problem. The parts of their shell plating that had taken sustained hits from the 2.0 lasers had melted and then reset in sometimes quite jagged formations. They took the time, with imprecise use of James’ axe, to trim back some of the worse ones that might trip them up or stab them if they made a particular dodge, but it wasn't a clean repair job.
“I want to keep going. One more.” James said. Anesh wavered a bit, and James took the chance to make his case. “Look. We’ve got so many greens out of this. And we didn't even get seriously hurt, aside from…” he rubbed at the small cut on his cheek where a piece of plastic shrapnel had nicked him, “small things. The rewards are piling up, we should keep going.”
“Thaaaat,” Anesh pointed an accusatory finger at him, “is *exactly* the greedy mindset that I would expect from the person who once turned around to fight a plant while being chased by a deathball.” James winced at having that memory of stupid behavior brought up. “But still!” Anesh continued. “Even if we are on an adventure-date, you need to remember a lot of people are counting on you. I might be expendable, but *you aren't*.” He jabbed his finger gently into James chestplate.
“You are in no way expendable.” James softly replied, the quiet words doing very little to hide how suddenly *angry* that thought made him. He looked away awkwardly after realizing how dramatic that had been. “But still. I mean, we’re here for the orbs and the money, mostly. It would be kinda silly to not do the efficient thing and take another floor without making someone walk all the way up here.”
“James.” Anesh said, ignoring the second half of the explanation. “There's two of me. Not two people who are very similar, two of *me*. If one of me dies, I'm still alive, and I can make more of myself. It is an objective fact that you cannot be replaced, and I can.” He leaned in and laid a hand on James’ arm. “I don't know much how to think about it yet, but it's there. And it would just help… you know.”
James did know. Thinking about stuff like that alone never helped. He turned back, and looked down at the face of his partner. Anesh was, against all odds, smiling at him. A quiet confidence that he knew James wasn't trying to be an ass in any way, and was prepared to wager anything on that.
James leaned forward and the two of them shared a small kiss, the feeling electric on James lips. “Yeah. I'm sorry.” He said with his own smile.
“Good. Now pack up your coffee and let's see what the next floor has.” Anesh said, slinging his own bullpup around for easy access in case something jumped them at the top of the stairs.
After doing as ordered, James joined Anesh at the foot of the stairs. “Dark up there.” He said calmly, unclipping a flashlight from his belt clip and flicking it on. “Ready?” He asked Anesh with a glance and a smile, light in one hand, axe in the other.
His friend nodded with an equally excited grin. “Yeah. Just one more, right?”
“One more.” James agreed.
When JP, Dave, and Karen and her team came back, it was to the sight of Alanna and Anesh piling up small armfulls of shattered plastic shards and components in an otherwise empty cubicle on top of the much larger wrecked hulls of a half dozen shellaxies.
“Are those Macs?” One of Karen’s followers, the young nurse by the name of Deb who’d probably kept a good handful of survivors alive on their escape, asked.
“We don’t call them that, for legal reasons.” Alanna told her without missing a beat as she dumped her armful of collected scrap into the graveyard.
“Were you attacked?” Dave asked with the kind of concerned voice that said that he was more interested in the tactical information than if they’d actually been hurt. Alanna didn’t take offense, though, because she was aware that he had probably already come to the conclusion that if they were doing this, they weren’t dead or hurt, and jumped to the question he found actually important.
She dusted off her hands as Anesh came back with another cleanup load. “Nah. James and Anesh hucked these things out of the tower and let gravity do their job for them. We already got the orbs out, they’re on the table with the others. If you guys wanna just pile your stuff up there too, we’ll probably divide it up after the boys come out of the tower.” She looked over their group as they moved back into the cleared area around the tower itself, and noticed that Deb was actually supporting a limping JP. “Are you alright? You guys have any trouble?”
“Team Four learns quickly.” Dave said flatly. “JP does not. He sprained his ankle again, possibly hurt his knee.” He said as he strode past them and dropped the brown leather briefcase he was holding onto the same table that held the pile of orbs.
Alanna and Anesh both sighed in unison. It was kind of fun, to them, to establish this level of closeness. While Anesh and James got on perfectly, and James and Alanna had a kind of warrior poet romance going on, Anesh and Alanna themselves hadn’t really felt like they’d exactly clicked quite all the way. Which was a problem, if they were going to be in a relationship together. So, the two of them had been sitting around and just talking to each other, enjoying the down time while James and the other Anesh were in the tower, and Daniel and his teammate were mapping out the immediate area. With no one left to watch the door, the two of them had been in a kind of enforced proximity to each other, and they *did* care about each other, so they’d talked.
And now, they rolled their eyes together, as each shot the other a knowing glance that said, “Yes, I am aware that JP is kind of… this… but we are friends with him, yes? So let’s not tease him. Too much.”
“JP…” Anesh started hesitantly. “We brought you here in the confidence that…”
“I know.” Came the response.
“It’s just, *last time*...” Alanna said, spreading her hands in front of her in a helpless gesture.
“I know!” JP restated, getting laughs out of a couple people, and even the ghost of a smirk from Karen. “Well, mock me all you like. *I* got the arm of a beautiful lady on the way back.” He comically stuck his tongue out at Dave, who didn’t even notice. The comment elicited a hint of a blush from Deb, who was still supporting him. It was hard to remember for their friend group, sometimes, that JP was actually startlingly good when it came to flirting; his confidence and cocky grin lending him a hidden strength in the field.
Alanna and Anesh grinned, and dropped it. “Alright!” Alanna said. “We’re low on time, so everyone start stowing your gear, and we’ll get ready to move out. Daniel’s due back in ten minutes, and if someone… um… Deb? Deb. Can you radio up to James and tell him to get his cute ass back here? Use those words, thanks. I’m needing to talk to Dave, everyone else have fun.” She momentarially tapped Anesh on the shoulder as the group, fresh off their first actual success, moved around them. Some injured, some remembering close calls, but all of them abuzz with the energy of a win. “Hey, Anesh, can you get the details from Karen on the briefcases? I’m gonna go talk to Dave and see how they did.”
“Got it.” He nodded at her. “I’m looking forward to them getting back. It’s always a bit hype to combine experiences.” Anesh said with a wistful glance up the stacked pillar of cubicles that his other self was currently in.
“I’m gonna assume that’s good.” Alanna said, patting him on the shoulder before they split off. “No one says that.” She grumbled to herself good-naturedly as she waited for the group to pass by, leaving her at the mouth of the cube farm with Dave as he walked back over to her. “Okay, debrief me.” She said when they were more or less out of earshot.
Alanna hadn’t known Dave for very long, but she knew how to talk to him. Or, more specifically, she knew what it meant when someone behaved the way Dave did. Alanna had a younger sister who was on the spectrum, and she recognized the same traits in Dave; no pleasantries or small talk, no time for wasting time, not out of malice but just because it was hard for him to see the point. While she could, and sometimes did, find it kind of exhausting to deal with, Alanna still appreciated knowing how to talk to her friend and companion in a way that worked for him. So, when she asked him about how Karen and her crew had done, she did so in the least number of words possible. He already knew that she wanted him to keep an eye on them and let her know what she needed to know, and so, ‘give me the info’ was pretty much enough.
Dave nodded, sloughed his backpack to the floor, and answered her. “They’re pretty alright. They all hesitated when they might get hurt, which got some of them hurt. Including JP, who probably shouldn’t actually be going that deep.” He nodded back at the table where he’d left the briefcase. “We found two of those. One of them had a camera snake on it, so we left it, but brought this one along. I kept the work order for it, it’s also on the table, but I don’t know how we’ll find the place we’re supposed to deliver the box of pencils to. The numbers here don’t go in order.”
“Find anything good? No, wait, find anything weird?” Alanna asked.
“We found a bottle of aspirin that no one wants to test, and also Karen pulled several PC components that she suspects are special. I found a paperclip that bends in more directions than you think it would. Also here.” He tossed over a USB stick. “It converts files.”
“Good question.” Dave said blandly.
“Okay, worrying. How far out did you guys get?” Alanna asked.
“Not that far. Karen is… meticulous. She also sort of started giving orders to people. But she’s smart enough to not try to counter on commands that are about safety.” Dave shrugged. “Eh. It just took us a lot of time, because she wanted to check everything. Like, *everything*.”
Alanna winced. “Frustrating. I wanna say she’ll learn as we delve more, but I should talk to her anyway.” She looked back over her shoulder at the group. “I dunno about you, but I know James and I both find it weird that someone almost twice our age is here. I know I *shouldn’t* find it awkward, but…”
“But she acts like she’s everyone’s disappointed mom.” Dave finished with a little half shrug. “And her being older means some of us might listen on reflex, even if it’s wrong. We should tell her so she knows that might be a problem.”
“Ugh. Yes.” Alanna agreed, tilting her head back in frustration, and noticing that she needed to cut her hair down again to the point it wasn’t getting caught in the armor slots. She had no idea how James handled the ponytail in these things. “Alright. Well. No one died, and it’s not critical. Did you guys have fun?”
Dave wrinkled his lips for a second, slightly opening his mouth before closing it again. Alanna gave him an expectant look with raised eyebrows and amused wide eyes, before eventually, he decided, “Yes. Yes, I did.”
“Good enough!” She exclaimed. “Let’s go see if James is back yet, and we can start dividing up orbs.”
There was, absolutely, some kind of sound and light dampener between the floors. James had a fairly reasonable suspicion that if they ever just threw this place piece by piece into a woodchipper instead of using it as a home base, that the number of orange orbs to come out of it would be enough to eventually make him a five star general or something. It felt kind of weird to *not* go with Plan-W-For-Woodchipper, really. But then, what would the point of that be when the only uses for oranges were getting certifications (and potentially responsibilities) that they didn’t need, or absorbing them? And so far, no one had come close to the understanding that Anesh had to absorb one, and Anesh already had one, and couldn’t take in another.
Besides, this place was rad, and James wanted to make it *his*. A grimly fortified tower rising over the surroundings, stretching taller than it could physically fit or support? How could he *not* want to own a piece of that?
Regardless, the reason he’d decided there was a noise filter was that, as soon as they’d ascended the spiral set of sideways wall chunks laid out like a staircase, and poked their heads through the floor of the top level, James had instantly been able to hear what was going on here.
“Meeeetttiiiinnnngggg!” Howled a chorus of wailing voices.
“Oh good.” He whispered to Anesh, who was grimacing beside him. They both had bad memories about these mask things. Sticky notes shouldn’t have bone claws inside them, they agreed with a shared look of frustration.
The other thing James noticed, as he turned off the flashlight, was that this floor was lit. There were ceiling tiles above them, complete with their own fluorescent lights much like the main ceiling of the dungeon itself. It probably wasn’t the *same* ceiling, given how warped this place was in space; James didn’t know how hard it was for the dungeon to line up non-euclidian structures with each other, but he was prepared to cut it some slack here.
The lights were set dim, only half of the white bars of illumination actually on. And in the open space they lit up, the whole floor devoid of any walls except the exterior, a strange scene played out. In the middle of the floor sat one of those wide conference room tables, though this one was mercifully devoid of emaciated humans sitting around it. Instead, it had eight chairs. And on its surface, the smooth greenish wood paneling was empty of anything except for one of those old overhead projectors that James remembered from high school.
Sitting on the surface of the projector was one of the masks. Its normally wildly fluttering sticky note form was instead still, and on the wall behind it, somehow, despite not being made of polystyrene, a vision of it was projected against a cloth backdrop. It was only barely visible from the angle that James was at, still half in the floor, but that wasn’t even the weirdest part.
While the one on the projector was still, the *others* weren’t. Too many masks to count floated in lazy loops around the table, the chairs, the projector, everything. It took James a second look at the prompting of a nudge from Anesh to notice that they were trailing something with them; lines of some substance poured onto the floor or table as they passed. Their movements may have been sluggish, but they weren’t random; whatever they were doing, they were drawing specific circles on things with…
“Is that coffee?” James asked Anesh quietly, with a little concern in his voice.
His friend squinted into the dim light and tried to make out what was going on, before finally making an unseen shrug. “No idea. What do we do?” He kept his voice low as he asked James, not wanting to alert a whole swarm of the masks.
But James didn’t answer. He was distracted by the sudden stillness of the brightly colored masks in the air over the table. They’d all come to a stop, facing the projection on the far wall. And below them, small grains of matter floated upward, smouldering. It *was* coffee grounds, James was certain now, he could smell it burning in the air.
Then there was a flash from the projector’s surface, and a split second later, so fast that only Anesh really caught the difference, a similar blaze of light from the screen.
And then, the mask that was projected wasn’t anymore. It was sitting there, floating in the air. The one that had been laying flat righted itself and went to greet its copy, a howl of “hiiiiriiiinnnnngg!” echoing through the floor.
And then, another mask took its place, and the rest of them went back to redrawing their circles of coffee.
James pulled Anesh back down below the floor level, and the two of them turned and sat on one of the wide steps. “Okay.” He said, nervously clipping his axe back into the small belt sheath he had for it. “That is clearly a problem. There’s, what, thirty of those things in there?”
“I estimate there’s forty six.” Anesh said with a shaky calm.
“Um… that’s a specific estimate.” James momentarially forgot the massed enemy formation above them.
Anesh looked over at his boyfriend with a wry grin. “James, please. Just trust me when I say that I can do maths in my head.”
James thought about that for a brief second, then nodded. “Yup. That checks out. Okay. Forty six masks. And they’re making more. That’s a problem.”
“And we want the projector.” Anesh said, nodding along.
“We do?” Anesh raised an eyebrow at James’ question. “Okay, yeah,” James relented as soon as he thought about it. “we do. So, how do we deal with that? Call for backup?”
“I keep forgetting we can do that.” Anesh said. James agreed with him; it was hard, after so many days of independent adventure, to remember that they had a whole squad to call up if they needed help. “But I was actually thinking of something simpler.” Anesh pulled the PS90 in his hands up, keeping a grip on the compact little rifle. “Why don’t we just shoot them?”
James looked at him like he’d grown an extra head. Well, *another* extra head. “I hadn’t thought of that!” He exclaimed. “Which is weird, since I totally thought of that when we got jumped by the first batch of 2.0s.”
“I feel like you’re just better at reacting in combat than planning for an ambush.” Anesh shrugged. “Either way. We’ve still got, what, eighty bullets left?”
“I like that you can create complicated geometrical estimates to count batches of flying tentacle monsters, but you can’t keep track of ammo use.” James said. Waving away Anesh’s protests, he popped the magazine off his own gun and checked before he continued, “Okay. I’m ready if you are. On three?”
“On three.” Anesh rose to a crouch, rotating on the step alongside James, the two of them dropping their backpacks to the floor below them, leaving the stairs clear in case they needed to run. He smirked back a bit of annoyance and James reached over and adjusted his firing grip, pulling his elbow up and the rifle back into his shoulder a bit harder. “I’ll take the left. Don’t hit the projector.” Anesh told him.
“Duh.” James responded. “One. Two.” They stepped up, legs tensed to move. “Three!”
They exploded up the stairs in perfect unison. For once, just for *once* in this damn place, they weren’t the ones being ambushed. It took four ear splitting cracks, followed by the metallic *tings* of the firing pin slapping back into position, before the masks realized they were under attack.
James was already moving when the swarm turned toward them. Steadily planting his feet one over the other as he swept out to the right of the room, heading toward the wall with the screen on it and keeping the projector itself out of his firing arc. Anesh, less experienced in this, simply planted his feet and kept shooting. Both of them sighted down their guns, pulling the triggers as fast as they could line up new targets.
It wasn’t hard. There were a *lot* of targets, and once the masks started swarming toward them, missing became difficult. Shreds of paper and chunks of bone sprayed into the air as James knocked targets out of the air, twisting his shoulders in short, precise jerks if any of them got too close. A bullet may not do much structural damage to a cluster of papers, but the masks weren’t exactly normal biology, and a hole through one of their ‘hair’ strands, or a shot to one of their rib-like bones was more than enough to drop them from the sky.
Clumps of them fell from the sky as they wasted time trying to form up into an overwhelming wave. James felt sharp pain in his ears with every bullet he fired, smelled the burning gunpowder with every 5.7 round that got sent into the aerial crowd. But the masks’ lack of strategy, their numbers were thinned rapidly before they started breaking. Ones and twos started lunging toward them, their teamwork clearly not at the same level as James and Anesh as their disorganization, confusion, and perhaps even fear drove them to try to close in for their spinyspined attacks without the swarm as backup. And that, above all, is what let the two men methodically gun down their enemy.
By the time James ran out of ammunition, he’d had to take two firing breaks to drop his rifle to hang by the sling, and grab a mask out of the air that got too close. In frontal attacks like this, they were nothing. Just paper and a few brittle bones, easily torn apart. When James’ rifle clicked empty, the surviving masks didn’t even notice. Anesh was still shooting into them, taking careful shots as long as none of them were charging him, and slightly more frantic shots when they were. But it didn’t matter, James realized, as he drew his axe and used it to unsatisfyingly smash one of the masks down to the floor where his boot finished its screaming face. Their foe was *running*.
Out of the windows, they fled, and the boys let them. Their screams about hostile work environments and poor management trailing into the distance as their diaspora sent them fluttering into the well lit air outside. And then, they were left alone, ears ringing, in the mostly empty room. Nothing but the brass on the floor around them, pockmarks of bullet holes in the walls, and the table and projector that they had deliberately, but still miraculously, avoided shooting.
“Well that worked pretty well!” James yelled to Anesh.
“*What*?!” Anesh yelled back.
James blinked at him. “Yeah, we need to get earplugs. Earplugs!” He repeated loudly, motioning to his ears.
“Yeah I can’t hear either!” Anesh shouted.
James laughed and shook his head as he set his hatchet on the table and pulled his radio out of a pocket. “Hey, ground floor. Be on the lookout for some masks in case they head down there. We’re fine and alive up here, and… uh…” He looked over at Anesh, who had a notebook out already and was making careful notes of the patterns of coffee grounds spilled on the floor, some of it clearly scuffed up by the masks crashing to the ground in mass. “Well, we found something kinda cool. Tower’s cleared now, anyone who wants to come up and take a look should. Over.”
The radio in his hand lit up, and he jammed it to his ear to try to hear more. A dim, tinned facsimile of Alanna’s voice came over it, but James still couldn’t make out the words. He checked his watch, and shook his head to no one in particular. “Alright, didn’t hear any of that, sorry. Kinda deaf right now. We’re just gonna head back down. See you in a few, over.”
Now for the real challenge, James thought.
Convincing Anesh that it was time to leave.
Alanna rolled her eyes at the radio as James responded loudly enough that she had to turn down the volume. “Alright, guys, let’s get this started.” She turned to the actually quite large crowd surrounding the desks they’d pushed together. “They’ll be down in a second. Anesh can speak for Anesh, and James can just go last.” There were smirks at that, after the confusion played out on their faces.
On the makeshift table was a pile. A *large* pile, Alanna noted with some satisfaction. She’d added to it, but it wasn’t all her. And she knew some of the people here would have snuck themselves one or two yellow orbs, but she didn’t begrudge them that. Because the stack here had a lot going for it.
Over a hundred yellow orbs of varying sizes, one of them standing out at the size of a healthy grapefruit. Maybe two dozen blues, some of them even acquired on purpose. A smattering of magical items of varying useless effects. A big-ass pile of greens from that whole business with the rain of Apple products. Even a few small oranges from the tapirs that had them - surprisingly not all of them, maybe it was a maturity thing, and older ones grew the extradimensional space?
And then the still locked briefcase, set aside for a later delve. And the absolute harvest of petty cash funds. Alanna had directed their newer guild members to sort it out into stacks of five hundred each, figuring that was worth a share of loot, but even then the rubber-banded piles still occupied a decent chunk of real estate on the surface.
No purples, because that would be too good to be true. Especially since everyone was explicitly told not to go in too deep, so there shouldn’t be any chances to encounter a decision tree. No reds, either, because James had made it incredibly clear that if you encountered anything on his list of ‘this explodes’, you were not to touch it. No really powerful magic items, no life changing phenomena. But still, for a handful of hours, even if it did involve risking your life, this represented a life-changing amount of power to any one of them.
Now they got to split it. Which didn’t feel quite as good to Alanna, who mostly looked at the orbs as a way to focus potentially useful knowledge into a single, incredibly capable individual. But the aura of the room was one of excitement, and there were more than a few proud grins around the table.
By the time JP, at Alanna’s prompting, had finished explaining their loot share system to the people who hadn’t been in contact with them over the week, James and Anesh had actually gotten back to the ground floor. Their return coming just in time for them to enter into the ongoing argument.
“Your saying the loot system is dumb.” James said, nodding. “I get that, we certainly need something better for a larger group.”
“I am *saying*,” Karen emphasized, “that this is childish.”
JP winced, quietly talking half to himself and half to those seated near him. “Ah, she said the C-word.”
“Childish?” James replied, his voice seeming torn between iron-cold anger, or shocked amusement. “Lady, I didn’t invite everyone to the extradimensional infinite office Dyson sphere thing so that that we could fuck around with accounting spreadsheets!” He exclaimed.
While that got laughs, especially from the younger delvers, Karen wasn’t deterred. “You’re treating these like toys, not tools!”
Around them, the others awkwardly cleared throats, shifted chairs away, and desperately tried to not get caught up in the escalating argument.
“They’re both!” James retaliated. “And a lot more besides! And I already agreed that we need a better system, so maybe don’t belittle the one that worked for us before *you* joined!”
“Well if you’ve been doing this professionally, you should know better!” Karen practically yelled back.
“Okay, hang on.” Anesh laid a hand on James’ shoulder. His voice, in contrast, was still calm. James wasn’t sure which Anesh this was; which small part of his life he’d shared with that one and only that one. But he was still Anesh, and James would trust him, no matter what. As James fell silent, his friend spoke again, voice calm, his accent coming through heavily as he enunciated. “We *have* been doing this more than you, but that doesn’t invalidate your point. But it also doesn’t make it not rude when you act like we’re idiots.”
JP chimed in as well, taking the opportunity to add his opinion. “James *did* agree with you that we need a better division, too. Twice, actually.”
“Yeah, that’s mostly what I’m mad about.” James said. “It kinda feels like you’re treating me like a kid, instead of… I actually don’t have a title in mind, but *anything* else.”
Their debate shifted away from any heated words after that, as everyone calmed down and apologies went around. But it still left one big problem.
“Okay.” James got them back on track. “We’ve got this *massive pile of treasure*.” He gestured to the table in front of him, where Alanna had been helping Rufus to carefully stack up orbs in pyramid formations. “Do we actually want to split it now, or do we figure something else out and do it later?”
There was a chorus of voices, all at once, and a room full of hungry looks that told James the answer right away. Even with everyone talking over each other, the intent was clear.
“I think they want the money.” Alanna stage whispered to James, who rolled his eyes.
“Okay! New plan!” James declared. “Until we can think up anything better, we split everything more or less evenly, with someone deciding if anyone has earned extra, okay? Then you can figure it out personally if you want to trade.” When the crowd started demanding who would ‘figure it out’, James simply dragged Dave in front of himself like a human shield. “Does anyone here distrust Dave? No? Great, it’s Dave!” He pitched his voice lower. “Congrats, Dave, you have a new job.”
There was more to it, of course. Karen and Daniel, who it turned out was an accounting student before he’d had to drop out of college, got into a discussion about attribution of wealth. They had to figure out what to set aside for group expenses. There was another argument on feeding Rufus, which James stomped down with zeal. Some people complained they got the ‘bad orbs’, whatever that meant, but James was almost certain that was just good natured grousing.
It felt weird, and wrong, to him. This was supposed to be the fun part, and Karen’s interjection left it with a blanket of tension and annoyance.
But eventually, with about twenty minutes before they all had to be out the door, Dave had found James while he was hauling crates of stuff into the ground floor of the tower, pressed a pile of stuff into his hands, and told him to go nuts.
And by the end of the ten minutes when people started stashing their own delving tools in the tower themselves, and began exiting the dungeon, James had made enough strategic trades to feel happy again. Well, strategic may have been a strong word. Mostly he’d given up anything that wasn’t a green, for a green.
“Why.” Anesh asked, rubbing his forehead as James showed him the eight lustrous emerald balls. “I mean, I get it, but why?”
“Oh, I also kept this paper clip that bends in weird ways.” James said cheerfully as they finished securing and inventorying their stuff. Everyone else was gone now, it was just James, Anesh, and Alanna. The entrance felt quiet, peaceful. Like it *should* be when they came here, James realized. The crowd distracted him from what was important; the people he loved and the dungeon he lived for.
“Right, but you traded away blues. Those literally save lives.” The other Anesh said. This one had a slightly less judgmental tone, and James realized in a flash that this was the one he’d taken the top of the tower with.
“I feel like the greens provide more long term economic benefit since I’ll be using them in my… our… bedroom.” James shrugged. “Also I kept some of the money, so we can go get dinner. Hey, wanna see if the cool kids want to go out to get pancakes? 4 AM pancakes, anyone?”
“You should use them in a rented business space, so we can have a place to conduct operations that isn’t our house.” Anesh told him.
Alanna, dumping the last hand truck full of MRE’s on the ground, glanced at Anesh. “Wait, why didn’t *you* get any greens?”
“I did, I just want James to use his so I can use mine on a college campus.”
“Oh my god, you two are selfishly adorable.” She threw her arms around their shoulders, then shot an apologetic glance at the other Anesh. “James! Add him to the chain!” She commanded. “Good! Now, I heard pancakes. Are you paying?”
“Wait, am I the only one who took money? Where did it all go?” James asked, concerned.
“Karen traded for a lot of it, and a big chunk went into the survivor fund, and the operations budget.” Anesh answered instantly. “And I would like to nominate Daniel to be our group accountant, since apparently that’s his actual job?”
Alanna scowled. “I’m still mad at him.”
“Mad enough to make him do spreadsheets so we can go adventuring?”
“...yes.” She said stoically.
“Okay.” James steered them toward the door. “Fifteen minutes before this closes. Rufus and Ganesh are in the pack, everyone’s out, let’s go see if we can discreetly invite Team Two to dinner without anyone catching on. And Dave. And, I guess, under duress, JP. Happy?”
Alanna stopped smirking at him. “Yup!” She said cheerfully, unaffected entirely by James weirdly soured view of tonight’s dungeon delve.
It wasn’t until an hour later, after everyone had gotten to their cars, after he’d reassured Theo no one was dead, after he’d texted Sarah that no one was dead and invited her to pancakes, after the cameras were back on and the dungeon sealed and their scavenged candy and orbs and whatever else packed away, that James’ brain clicked on what the problem was. Sitting in a large booth at their local twenty five hour diner with a few chairs pulled around for the people who didn’t quite fit, JP had just commented to Sarah that it was a pretty good haul for six hours of work.
“Oh fuck.” James said, tossing his ensyruped fork down.
“What?” Alanna and Anesh instantly looked over to him, concerned.
“This turned into a *job*.”
There was a silence that seemed to stretch through the entire building. Even the waitstaff taking orders a few tables down seemed to pause.
Then the laughter hit him like a waterfall.
Support "The Daily Grind"
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!