10 Chapter 10


 James was frozen in place. Well, not quite frozen. He'd drawn his machete, slung his backpack to the floor off to the side, and was more or less looking like he was prepared to go down swinging. This was one of many things Anesh noticed through the haze of pain, and it was one that he wasn't that interested in mirroring.

Anesh knew a lot of things. One of those things was what kind of person James was. He was a smart guy; lazy, but smart. But every time they played a board game together, James was the one who took a long time to finish his turns. Analysis paralysis, it was called. He could see the angles, but couldn't make conclusions without thinking every single one through to its end.

The thing was, Anesh could empathize with that. He had the same thing, really. The main difference was, Anesh never stopped running through his options, never stopped noticing things and letting his brain autopilot its way to the conclusions. James was clever, he had a wit to him that Anesh couldn't always match, but Anesh was a Smart Guy.

By the time the cord monster, which he'd decided to call a tumblefeed, had hit the ground, he was already looking for options. While James was resigned to a quite possibly fatal battle, Anesh was checking escape routes.

The cube walls around them were well over head height; vaulting them was out of the question. Knocking them over? No; he'd crashed into one earlier today, and it took a lot of force to even move one of the unbraced walls a little bit. Cutting through? Too long.

Okay, escape to the left or right was out. What other terrain features were around that could be exploited? There were 'vines' of dot matrix printer paper; they'd have to make sure to duck through doorways or risk papercuts. Not relevant though, dismiss that for now. There were three cubicle doors on either side of the hallway still open that the tumblefeed hadn't passed yet at its leisurely pace. Hide? No, he could *feel* its focus on them. They weren't getting away.

In the distance, a flock of sheets of white paper fluttered across the sky. The smell of slightly burnt plastic drifted past them. Behind him, one of the refrigerators clicked its compressor.

Options. His mind didn't stop absorbing details. They needed options.

This wasn't the same tumblefeed James had seen; it was too big. James paid attention, Anesh trusted him. This one was older. Its cords were crumbling. It would be easier to kill. That's a nice thought, he told his brain, but it doesn't save us. Easier doesn't mean possible right now.

Three options, he came up with. First thought, last choice, the sacrifice play. One of them stand and fight, the other one make a break for it. Not good. Low odds of either of them getting away, honestly. Second thought, second choice, try to vault the wall to the left. The classic boost up from one of them, then haul that person over. He dismissed this idea pretty quickly, since, well, he was a math student and James was an IT guy, and neither of them were big fans of the gym. He wasn't out of shape, but he wasn't making that easily, especially with broken fingers.

The pain was making thinking hard.

Last thought, choice made. Get through the break room. The minesweeper plan. Total elapsed time, four seconds longer than he'd like.

"Well, it was fun while it ..." James was starting to say. Anesh wasn't listening. He took a long step behind James, swooped down, hooked the backpack in his good hand, turned, and flung it into the break room at high speed. He then pivoted, back toward the break room door, covering James from the ensuing calamity. "... What..." James got out before hell broke loose.

A series of four deep bassy thuds resounded from behind the duo. Unseen, James' backpack swept across the first table, knocking into a pair of the rigged coffee cups. The detonations from them sent scalding black liquid and fairly significant pressure waves rippling through the air, and that, mixed with the backpack sliding into the base of the next table in line, knocked the next two enough that they added their concussive force to the mix.

Anesh was braced for it, and only got knocked forward a little bit by the expanding blastwave. James wasn't paying attention, though, and turned to try to see and figure out what was going on, and he caught a nice splattering of molten coffee right down the side of his face.

He started to scream, wiping frantically at his face with his off hand. Anesh didn't give him time to recover, though, grabbing at his arm and pushing him onto the tiled floor of the break room. The tables had actual chunks torn out of them where the trapped cups had exploded, but it seemed like the force tapered off pretty quickly. A chair was knocked over, there was coffee splattered everywhere, hissing and steaming. But everything else was intact, and Anesh guided James with a hand on his arm as he kicked chairs out of the way and rushed through the open area.

James got the worst of the hot liquid off his face as Anesh started pulling him along. He opened his eyes, clamped shut to make sure they didn't burn, to see that he'd been dragged into the break room area. "Work Hard And Also Work Hard", were the words on the poster his eyes opened to. He almost started laughing. Almost.

Breaking free of Anesh's grip, he kept up the pace, not wanting to be here too long in case it held more surprises. He looked back, and instantly regretted it. "Man, we gotta go! It's moving faster!"

And it was. The tumblefeed was throwing out clusters of cables, grabbing onto the walls and floors, and yanking itself along in great big spurts. It may have been huge and old, but it was burning energy fast to try to catch up to its prey. And now that they were running, it would do its best to catch them before they could take too many corners and escape.

Anesh started running, a clear line to the door. "There's signposts up from here! Just go!" He shouted. James called back assent, but his voice cut off halfway through, as something punched him in the left side, hard enough to send him tumbling over the still-standing table and into one of the chairs.

Anesh turned at the clattering noise to see one of the large potted plants, this one hanging from a trio of link chains that led all the way up to the ceiling. This one had lots and lots of heavy fronds, none of the vines that the last one had given them so much trouble with. But it looked like it had branches as well, and fake or not, it looked like it hit like a truck. As James staggered to his feet, reshouldering the tattered remnants of the backpack Anesh had hurled in here, he wiped a trail of blood from the side of his mouth. Glancing at his friend, Anesh saw a look in James' eye that worried him. He looked excited.

It took Anesh about half a second to spot the melon-sized skill orb, and another half second to start to say, "Don't you fucking...!" But it was too late, and James was moving in for the fight.

James ducked the next branch sweep coming for his head. His machete, somehow held onto through getting roughed up, slammed into the next incoming attack. He and the plant locked weapons, his blade digging into the wood, before he pulled back, grabbed the branch, and snapped it while it wasn't moving. Shouting wordlessly in triumph, he brought the oversized knife back for another swing, ignoring Anesh's frantic warning about running out of time. Unheeding, he slammed forward, hoping to shatter the pot, get the kill, and get the loot in one fell swoop.

The machete hit the pot, and the blade snapped off at the hilt.

Before he could even realize that he had a problem, the plant slapped him across the throat with the other branch, staggering him back and leaving James hunched over, holding his neck, coughing madly.

The next thing he knew, Anesh had him half over his shoulder, and was running the two of them out of there. Behind them, the wirebeast stormed itself into the break room, and then settled down in a nest of loose cables and sparking wires to watch its prey take a corner. It could chase them down, it thought, but it was tired. There would be other chances. The creature gave a great heaving sigh, which manifested as several cable chunks unknotting themselves and the whole mass settling down. For now, it would rest. Later, it would hunt. They could only run for so long.

____

"You bloody idiot." Anesh dragged James around another corner. "You fucking bloody damned idiot." He half-repeated as he tried to get his friend to move faster.

After another, last, large cough, James spoke up in a rough voice. "That hardly seems fair."

This earned him a very pissed look from Anesh. "We were clear. We could have just left, and you turned around. Twice, actually, though the first one wasn't really your fault."

"Yeah, shouldn't I be mad at you for covering us in coffee?" James asked halfheartedly.

"No." Came the answer. "Now, can you stand on your own? We need to go. I had to kick over one of those shellaxies a minute ago and I'm worried it's going to get up and come after us."

James sighed and looked at him. "You keep giving things weird names. What's a shellaxy?"

"Shell.exe, pronounced phonetically. It's what I'm calling the hermit crab computer things, because 'hermit crab computer thing' doesn't roll off the tongue." Anesh stepped up to the next intersection first, gave a quick check both ways, and waved James forward, face still pale and sweating. "Now let's go. I need to get to the hospital, even if this is kind of down to a dull roar of pain."

James nodded, frowning. "I'm really sorry." Anesh waved him off with his splinted hand. "No, really, I fucked up. I owe you a big apology." Before Anesh could say anything about how it was okay, James continued, "As my way of saying sorry, I will let you tell me what you've named the hairball back there, and accept your name as canon."

Anesh glanced over his shoulder. "Hairball?"

"It's a big mass of CAT-5 cable. What else would I call it?"

"I've been calling it a tumblefeed." Anesh said, followed by a string of curses as one of the staplers tried to get the drop on him.

After the brief scrap, which in turn attracted a few more from nearby cubicles, James caught is breath, throat still aching. "Tumblefeed is... way better than mine. Fuck. Yeah, that's good."

The pair stumbled on in silence, just trying to conserve stamina in the home stretch. They could see the end of Hallway One, the exit door coming into sight.

"Hey," James said, holding his side as he paused for a second. "I bet you our whole haul that there's some bullshit there that we'll have to fight to make it out."

Anesh looked back at him. "You ass. Isn't that the one thing you could say that's garun-damn-teed to make sure it happens?"

A shrug. "We're well outside the laws of the universe here, I think it's fine. What do you say? Double or nothing?" He drew his hunting knife and drew himself upright.

"No deal." Anesh said, making sure everything was secure, and gripping the crowbar tightly in his undamaged hand. He was pretty sure this one was James'. They'd gone through a few iterations of drop-and-retrieve with these things so far. One of them was lost forever, for sure.

The two of them took one deep breath at about the same time, which caused Anesh to snort with laughter. The tension eased away at that point, and the two of them stepped toward the end of the hallway together, ready to face whatever was there.

Of course, it was nothing. Everything was as they left it. And then it was a mad scramble to get things sorted out, and out of there as fast as possible. They stripped off the pads and tossed them in a pile under one of their supply desks, poured all the candy, cash, skill orbs, fancy pens, and unreal magazines that Anesh insisted on grabbing into one of the duffles, which James then took. And with one last pat on the head for Rufus, who was now burrowing in the scraps of James' tattered, coffee-stained backpack, they opened the big security door, and stepped back into reality.

___

It was seven AM. The emergency room had been a nightmare almost as bad as the Office Beyond The Doors. James was exhausted, Anesh was high on painkillers, but they were out. They made it.

They were currently sitting in a coffee shop.

There had been a long conversation in the car on the way back from the hospital. They'd talked about the danger, the risk, whether or not it was even worth it. Anesh had gotten the distinct impression that James was, even after all that, almost eager to go back in again. He could understand, but still...

They weren't doing this right. They needed more people, better gear, real maps, and maybe a hint of intel on what the dungeon even *was*. He'd talked to James about some ideas, but he wasn't sure if he'd said the words right, or if his roommate was awake enough to even hear.

What was important now, though, was that they'd survived. They had a pile of skill orbs. A *big* pile this time. And also money. Anesh was almost always broke, and he knew James had trouble keeping himself fed sometimes too. But now, they had almost two grand sitting in the bag under their table. That was rent, sure, but that could also be an investment. There was more, just waiting there. Waiting for someone to come and take it...

Okay, Anesh was eager to go back too.

As the two of them sat there, drained, injured, patched up, exhausted, they both knew, without having to say anything, what their future was going to hold. Just as soon as they were actually ready again.

"This," James said, "is the best bagel I have ever tasted."

Anesh sipped his drink. "I don't think I've ever felt like I've earned a mocha as much as this one."

They smiled. The risk wouldn't stop them, was never going to stop them. It was just the seasoning on the biggest opportunity, the biggest adventure, of their lives.