Prompt: You’re on your way to work like any normal morning, when your cell phone vibrates. Without a second thought, you pull it out of your pocket and glance at the screen. What you see makes your heart drop. It’s a single text: “Your cover has been blown. Report to HQ immediately.”
#6: "Office Rescue"
There is a certain level of safety and comfort in the mundane. My job wasn’t anything special; I made sure request forms were properly filled out, you see. My cubicle was almost in the middle of the room. There were at least three other people in the same position as me. We took in request forms from major corporations all around the country, fixed them up, and sent them off to the appropriate distribution center. We were a small company at the behest of all the larger ones.
I lived alone, too, in a modest apartment that offered an “auto-pay” method so my rent was never late, and the direct deposit of my paycheck ensured I always had money in the bank. I had fallen into a routine of habits that almost nothing ever broke. My entire life was a continuous system of patterns.
It began with a text message on Tuesday.
“Your cover is blown. Return to HQ immediately.”
The only thing I did “immediately” was assume it to be a prank, a wrong number, or a prank sent to the wrong number. The sender had been blocked so I couldn’t find out who sent it. I resumed my normal routine, but as far as I could tell, absolutely nothing else had changed. I arrived at work and sat down at my desk to check forms. I had just gotten into a rhythm so deep that I could spot errors at a glance, when a series of random words in entirely the wrong sections jumped out at me.
Nature of Request: OUT OF THERE
Related Department: RIGHT NOW!!!
Okay, maybe not random. But still strange. I shredded the improper form, and resumed my duties.
The next form I picked up didn’t bother with appearing to be a filled-out form. Scrawled across it in bright-blue ink, “I WARNED YOU.”
The next form was by far the most sinister.
“THEY ARE COMING.”
Come to think of it, now would be an excellent time for a break. There was clearly something wrong with my stack of forms, and I thought it best to let QC handle it.
I popped out of my cubicle, headed for the break room. A knot of security guards emerged from the outside hallway.
“There he is!” Among the burly, white-shirted men, a short, round woman in a severe pencil skirt—Janine, my supervisor—pointed them in my direction.
“Stop right there, sir!” one of the guards ordered.
I obeyed, my mind sputtering and racing as I tried to comprehend what was going on. Where did this disturbance come from?
“Sir, you are going to need to come with us—“
They had almost completely surrounded me. I could still here keyboards clacking and phones ringing, as those around me kept on with their duties like nothing was wrong.
Why would anything be wrong? I hadn’t changed anything in my routine for years!
At that moment, a voice in my head screamed, ”RUN!” and I didn’t question it.
I bolted between two security guards and scrambled for the nearest hallway between rows of cubicles. I felt something like a tarp against my hands and face, and I stumbled forward into a section with very different lighting. Sure, it was still the carpet and I could still see the cubicle partitions, just something filtered out most of the light.
“He did it!” said the voice in my head. “Just like I said he would. I win! Pay up, Yaug!”
I squinted at the two figures calmly sitting on the desk in an empty cubicle.
Truth be known, I almost preferred the security guards now combing the floor for me, to the sight of these two. One looked like a woman with strange eyes, long, wavy hair, and scales on her exposed skin. The other looked like an anthropomorphic elephant with grey, leathery finger-appendages on his front legs. I figured he must be Yaug, as he shoved a handful of coins at the woman.
She accepted her winnings and waved at me. “Nice of you to join us.” She hopped to the floor in dark, thigh-high boots and emerged into the hallway. “Let’s get going, eh?”
I stared at these two, their garish appearance like something out of a fever-induced nightmare. Suddenly I preferred the company of the security guards. At least they looked normal.
“Uhhh...” I stammered. “Nope!” Just as quickly as I had entered, I pushed back through the invisible tarp and landed back in my old office—while nearly bowling someone over in the process.
“Sorry!” I regained my balance and caught the papers that had gone flying. We made eye contact, and I realized that I had just collided with Terri, the redhead in cubicle 309 whose voice and demeanor I had admired from afar for so long.
“Jason?” she gasped, frowning in confusion. “What—where did you come from?”
I squinted at the sudden brightness of normal light after the dimness of—whatever that was I came out of. I glanced behind me. The hallway stood empty. There was the vacant cubicle on the left—but no lizard woman and no mutated elephant. Had I hallucinated?
I turned back to Terri, wanting to explain everything, but something closed around my windpipe, cutting off any sound. My eyes bulged as spots danced in my vision, but I couldn’t feel whatever it was.
Terri squinted at me, concern in her beautiful blue eyes. “Jason, are you okay?”
The thing on my neck pulled, dragging me back into the hallway. This time, I felt the invisible tarp slide over my face as I was dragged back into the shadowy place.
Yaug held me with his trunk, and he growled something at me in a series of deep, booming, grunts.
Lizard-lady shook her head. “I said grab his HAND, chizzwit!”
Yaug grunted at her.
“No, that’s his neck.”
My eyesight faded from lack of oxygen. I welcomed unconsciousness.
“Let him go. He can’t breathe!”
Air! Blessed, stagnant, putrid air, smelling like elephant hide and a reptile habitat! I coughed and gasped as I staggered to my feet.
“Wh-What’s happening?” I stammered. “Who are you guys?”
Lizard-lady smiled, letting a dark, narrow, forked tongue flick in and out of her mouth. “We’re your handlers, Ben Pondrake.”
“That’s not my—“
“Sh! We have no time.” She signaled Yaug, and the big elephant immediately wrapped his trunk around me—but this time, my chest—and lifted me off the ground. “We need to get you back to HQ before They find us.”
She stared at me, and something in her eyes flickered. My mouth snapped shut all on its own, and I couldn’t open it.
“I’ll explain on the way,” she said, her voice echoing among my thoughts. “We need to get out of this building before they strike.”
“Who are you?” I demanded again, as Yaug followed the woman down the hallway, still apparently covered by the tarp that obscured the light. No one seemed the least bit curious about us, not even looking in our direction as we passed several doorways out to the main lobby.
“My name’s Selet,” she murmured. “You are safe with us. This oscuris is impenetrable to eyes of your dimension.” She stopped and whirled in every direction. “Blast! There’s no way out!”
“The exit is through those double doors on your left,” I muttered from three meters up.
Selet looked down at her black leather shift. “My what?”
I wriggled and wrenched till my arm came free of Yaug’s grip. “That way!” I pointed.
Selet skated forward, Yaug’s heavy strides keeping pace with her. She pushed the door open, and an alarm split the air. Voices rose in a babble, and more security guards than I ever thought possible flooded the lobby behind us.
“Find him!” They shouted.
“Have you seen this man?”
“Don’t let him escape!”
We emerged onto the sidewalk, and Selet finally relaxed. Her hair went from fluffy-afro to sleek in the space of a blink.
“Are we safe now?” I dared to ask.
Selet tested the air with her tongue. “Yes,” she replied.
I turned to Yaug’s nearest eyeball. “Hey, Jumbo! Mind putting me down now?”
Yaug rumbled, and I swear I could feel his trunk squeezing tighter, but one small nod from Selet, and the pressure left my rib cage.
I dropped the three feet to the ground. Selet waited rigidly till I stood.
“Now, suppose you tell me what this is all about? Oh, and my name isn’t Ben Ponder-whatever. It’s Jason Clark.”
Selet’s eyes did the weird shifting thing, and she smiled. “It’s gone deeper than we thought. Looks like we’re headed to Amalgama’s place.”
“What’s gone deeper?” I had half a mind to stand right there and let them walk away… but Yaug was standing behind me, and I didn’t really feel like letting him bowl me over or pick me up again. “Who’s place are we going to? What is happening?”
“All in good time, young william,” Selet didn’t look at me, but her voice resounded close to my ear, as clear as a thought. “As soon as we’ve cleared your mind of the constructed reality you’ve been living in to keep you safe, I’ll explain everything.”
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