4 Chapter 4


 He'd called it a break room, and that wasn't exactly wrong. When James had pushed aside the hanging sheaf of dot-matrix paper that was dangling from an arch like some kind of vine, the sight that had greeted him had been immediately recognizable and vaguely uncomfortable. Every job he'd ever worked had possessed what was, essentially, a carbon copy of the same break room. A too-cramped room for the number of people it served, usually with no natural light, terrible ventilation, the time card reader crammed in the corner of the room alongside a billion "know your rights as a worker" signs that the company was required by law to post but never seemed to read themselves, and the faint smell of stale socks in the air. And this new "biome" of this place was basically just that.

The bright lights were a bit closer down here, the ceiling also lower, although it was still so tall James couldn't touch it if he jumped. The air was stale, unlike the slightly too cool atmosphere of the cubical hallways. Across the walls were a bunch of signs, and while he couldn't read them from here, he was almost certain that they were going to be creepily alien versions of OSHA postings and mandatory break laws. And a cluster of dinged up old wood tables, and padded chairs that looked less comfortable than some medieval torture devices, about half of them with scattered corporate-label coffee cups and half-full snack food bags on them.

Actually, that cluster of furniture seemed more like a labyrinth, the more James looked at it from the mouth of the cubicle hall. There were a few clear paths through it, and as he studied the floor plan, he started to think that it maybe wasn't an accident. Against the walls on the left and right, there were counters with sinks, vending machines, microwaves, and pots of coffee like he'd glimpsed on the way here, and on the other side of the room, another long beige wall with a single point leading off into more office boxes.

And in the back right of the room, sort of divided away from the exit door, was a big plastic potted plant, fronds bending over the coffee machine, and a single, very large, very yellow, glowing orb in its middle.

That sight almost made James drool.

Now, James wasn't the kind of person who would have "dangerously genre savvy" written on his TvTropes page. But he was enough of the sort of person who browsed TvTropes on a regular basis to recognize a trap when he saw one. He just couldn't really figure out what it was, yet.

The vending machines weren't moving, but he could easily envision them spitting cans of bizarrely named soda at high velocity at him. The microwaves might actually shoot microwaves. The sink could spawn some kind of water elemental. The chairs... oh man, the chairs could be any number of problems.

And then he heard the hissing noise.

The real problem, he thought, could also be the nightmare ball of tangled cables crawling over the cubicle wall on the left side. Shrinking back as far as he could into the entrance while still keeping an eye on it, he watched with a pumping heart as dozens of power, ethernet, and audio cables slithered down the wall, latching onto cabinets and flooring, and dragging the mass of wires forward. It moved far, far faster than it looked like it could, for something that was large enough to shove James into itself two times over, and its cables poured like water across the counter as it moved. Frozen in fear, James could only watch as the cords, many of which had what looked like teeth or needles on the end, stabbed out over and over to pull the main mass forward, rolling it like a ball, or a tumbleweed. The thing made a noise like rain as it flowed by, moving under or over furniture as it crossed the break room across James' vision.

As it moved, it bumped into the leg of a table a little too hard, and one of the Not-Starbucks cups on it tipped over, off the edge, and onto the back of the monster. Then it exploded. Coffee hot enough that James could see heat waves coming off it sprayed out in an arc, splattering across the back of the wirebeast, but the thing didn't care or didn't even notice the popping shockwave and melting hot liquid. It just kept going, triggering another coffee bomb as it went, before scaling the opposing wall, and hissing away into the distance.

"I fucking knew something in this room was a trap." James said as he gasped in a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

James was realizing, as he thought through possible traps, that he'd been going about this in a really stupid manner. He wasn't some fantasy hero that could react to anything, he was a pretty soft IT guy who could quite literally get stapled to death here. He needed more than a crowbar and a prayer to get through here; he needed a plan. A lot of plans, a lot more resources, and maybe a few months of a gym membership. He poked the muscles of his arm; maybe a few years of a gym membership.

He was wandering around a death-maze, and he hadn't made a plan. He'd let himself be blinded by free candy and wads of cash, and he was preeeetty sure this was about as dumb an idea as getting into someone's van who was promising the same. He needed to back out, slowly, and start using his brain instead of his desire for loot.

As he started making his way back, keeping an ear out for the noise that IT-nightmare had made, he got his first idea for a plan. Being in here alone was, more often than not, terrifying. So, what he needed was backup. He needed someone in here with him, watching his back. Of course, he hadn't really actually tried to convince anyone this was real, though when he'd been up front with Anesh, he'd gotten a "yeh, sure", which was about how he expected anyone would react.

What he needed for step one was, of course, proof.

He stopped outside a cubicle he'd tagged earlier with one of his signs. Peering in through the door, he made a quick scan of the desk with its clutter of "family" photos and crumpled papers. Spotting no stapler-crabs or anything else that looked dangerous, he slung his duffel bag onto the floor. Taking a deep breath, he gripped his crowbar, and took a second to psych himself up by remembering how easy it was for him to accidentally brick a computer when he wasn't trying.

James took two big steps forward, planted his feet in a batter's stance, and swung the crowbar in an upward arc as hard as he could into the faceplate of the computer creature lurking under the desk. A noise somewhere between a failing cooling fan and a hard drive exploding responded to the assault, as chunks of plastic snapped off and the case bent inward a little bit. The beast seemed to unfold under the desk, a slithering base of power strips and loose wires bursting out from under it and propelling it forward as it lurched toward its attacker.

It was not that fast.

James was still a bit panicked by it, though, and he startled backward, dragging the office chair between him and the now mobile computer. It slammed into the wheeled chair, and in the time it took for it to figure out how to maneuver the obstacle out of its way, James brought the crowbar down on it another two times, aiming for the openings for the fans on the side. The first one just dented it, but the second strike bent the metal far enough inward that it caught in one of the fans, making a rattling screech as it ground to a halt. He planted his feet, and prepared for another swing, but didn't realize that his hits hadn't really slowed it down, and as he was bringing the solid steel bar down again, the front of the machine split open into four segments, splitting outward like some kind of high tech flower, revealing several rows of teeth made up of what looked like jagged and broken circuit board. James screamed as it clamped down on his leg, just below the knee, the vertical segments doing their best to saw through his pant leg and into flesh.

Kicking it off, he fell backward, and it lunged again. He kept slamming the crowbar into its now open front, weak hits bouncing off the casing, until one finally landed right inside the snapping maw. The monster paused for a second, then made a noise that sounded for all the world like a computer choking on something, which, well, it was. Pushing himself backward, he got a bit of distance on the thing, which was now trying to use its cable base to pull the crowbar out of its insides. When he was sure it wasn't going to lunge again, he aimed a kick for the head of the crowbar still sticking out, and with a sound of tearing metal that made his skin crawl, punched it straight through the hostile machine.

In the aftermath of the skirmish, it took James about twenty minutes to get moving again. First, he had to come down from his adrenaline high. Then he had to make sure he wasn't seriously hurt, and when he learned that his pants were sort of shredded and he was leaking blood everywhere, bandage his leg. And in the process of doing that, he had to deal with several stapler-crabs that came scuttling in, probably to investigate his totally masculine battle cry, and not at all because his scream was high pitch enough to be heard by dogs in low earth orbit.

But eventually, he got himself situated, loaded some stuff into his bag, and left that cubicle with a handful of new candy (Heckums), a magazine on Auks that looked almost certainly factually incorrect, several sticks of RAM (possibly still functional), and six skill orbs. One of which was quite a bit larger than the small fingertip sized ones that he'd been getting from the stapler-crabs.

Following his signs back, wincing a bit when he had to put weight on his injured leg, James considered his options for people to tell about this. Co-workers seemed like an awful idea, considering one wrong word and he'd never be allowed back here again. His only close friends were already his roommates, and he trusted them, but none of them worked here so getting them in would be hard. It was tricky, but even if he decided that it was too risky to really try to bring anyone in, he still had the skill orbs. Assuming they could leave this place, he could use them as novelty gifts. Or, just, like, use them himself.

Fortunately, his signposts worked perfectly, and he found his way out pretty easily. Of course, he wasn't really that far in anyway, and had been going mostly in a straight line, but he still felt a bit of satisfaction that he didn't have to stress about getting lost.

As he approached the main door, he noticed something. Sitting in the hallway in front of the exit door, in plain sight, was a stapler. It wasn't moving, but it was clearly one of the living ones. Matte black, heavy, and stationary. As he started to raise the crowbar for an easy kill, James remembered the one that he'd encountered at the outset of the night. It hadn't been too hostile, and he'd feel kind of bad killing it if it was the same one. So, skirting around it, he made for the door. As he did, it moved, because of course it did, but it didn't just charge for him. This one moved a bit like a cat; stepping side to side as it approached cautiously. He knelt down, sticking out a hand to it, curious if it wanted to be friendly. Of course, he kept one hand on the crowbar just in case.

But as it moved up, it nuzzled into his fingers, again reminding him of nothing more than a strangely metallic cat. He scratched the top of it's... head? Wondering if it could even feel it. But as he did so, it made a strange little chirping noise, before pulling back and scuttling off.

"Well... have a good night, little guy." He called after it, before standing up. But before he could turn to the door, the thing came rushing back from around the corner of the cubicle it had retreated into. Except this time, as it ran up to his feet, it deposited from it's pincer jaws a single, small, glowing yellow orb. And then, before he could react, it was off again, scampering off back into the labyrinth. "Th...thank you?!" He yelled after it, confused.

After a moment, he decided that trying to think about it was too much of a burden, so, he just smiled, grabbed up the orb, and made the choice to enjoy the benefits of random kindness.

"Now," he thought as he swung the metal security door open to reality, "if all the other ones could stop being so psychotically violent, that would be great."