I Asked Their Name
rating: +16+x

Finding Paradise

I met him at a bar.
There he stood.
I Asked Their Name

The stranger, Sam, and I were now cornered at the end of a cramped hall, faced with a few monsters who began to clamber over one another to reach us. It all seemed hopeless in my eyes. The stranger with their shortsword stepped ahead of us to guard, though Sam also pushed me back to stand right behind them.

In my panic, I reached to zip open my bag again, blindly feeling for the kitchen knife that I chose to bring. All the while this happened, my vision began to narrow into hazy pinpoints. I could only hear my own pulse in my ears as I grew hot and flushed with fear. My hands shook, and carefully I began to also reach for the open bottle of almond water I drank from earlier. I let go of the knife entirely to try and undo the cap, dropping the whole bottle suddenly with the sound of a squishing cleave.

One by one, each of the beasts ran at the stranger as she swung, cleaving limbs and appendages from the beasts with precision. I stood paralyzed in fear, my hazy vision barely making out the shapes of the humanoid monsters as they began to swarm the hall. Sam seemed to sense that something very wrong was about to come of it, so he seemed to reach in an attempt to pull the stranger away.

“Come on lady! I know a way out! You won’t live long enough to clear the damn town of ‘em!” Sam shouted, distracting the stranger just enough for one of the monsters to grab her free arm, suddenly lunging to bite.

“Agh! Bastard!” She screamed, frantically shaking their arm to free it, though I couldn’t tell exactly how it was going in my delirious state.

Sam tried to pull the stranger back, though when it seemed like he too would be overwhelmed, he suddenly reached into his partially unzipped jacket, pulling out something which he suddenly fired at the creature biting the stranger. There were two loud pops as he fired two shots from a handgun at it, instantly causing everything to freeze. It seemed almost like the strange beasts hadn’t seen such a thing before, though this didn’t stop them for long. Just as they reignited their chase, Sam pulled the stranger back once and for all, turning and shouting for me to run with him.

I almost failed to process what he had said, let alone the chaos that had unfolded in the brief moments after the stranger had practically saved me. Either way, the sudden impending death in the form of a hungry wave of almost human monsters was enough to get me to momentarily come to my senses. I turned and instantly began to run once everything clicked, following right behind Sam and the stranger as we reached the dead end of the tight hall. Instead of stopping though, Sam suddenly dove at the wall, breaking through the flimsy planks and plaster of which it was comprised.

Sam tumbled and fell onto his face after slamming hard through the wall, bringing the stranger down with him. Thankfully, I had been in a good spot to help, even if my “help” was pulling on Sam’s arms fruitlessly to lift him. He shrugged me off and pushed me away a bit in his focus, pulling the stranger up instead.

“My gun Jo! Use my gun!” He shouted to me in an order, quickly gesturing to it among the splintered wood across the carpet.

Instinctually I reached for it in a fight-or-flight reaction, unsure of how to properly hold the thing. I awkwardly dove down onto the floor for it, using one arm to prop myself up as the lumbering monsters approached. Haphazardly, I pulled the trigger and let out a shot, the unfamiliar and worn thing kicked back in my hand like it had a mind of its own. Without much consideration, I tried firing again, but the force of me being pulled off the ground made my finger slip away from the trigger.

Without warning, Sam began to quickly drag me across the carpet by my collar, pulling me past even more of the beasts who had been lying in wait outside of the inn. My vision was still a confused blurry daze, unable to understand why we hadn’t been absolutely swarmed and torn apart yet. I didn’t even feel like myself anymore, nearly blocking everything out as Sam continued to drag me across the floor. The monotonous yellow of all the surfaces began to blur around me as I felt fatigue and panic returned, culminating in me suddenly blacking out from the stress.

* * *

I began to regain my senses when I felt myself being sat up. I exhaled, carefully opening my eyes out of fear that I might barely be alive. Thankfully though, it seemed like Samuel was the one helping me sit up, bringing a bottle to my lips wordlessly. I didn’t spare a moment before drinking whatever it was he offered, though it had the familiar and recognizable taste of almond water. I continued gulping down a good portion of it, allowing myself to calm down from the soothing effects it offered me.

“There kid… You’re alright.” He reassured though the look on his face was still incredibly serious and dire. I began to look around a bit, seeing the stranger propped against the wall closest to us. She had the entire lower half of her left arm wrapped in a bandage.

“Uhh, what happened back there? How long has it been?”

“Skin-Stealers. They must’ve infiltrated the outpost… They gave me a lead though-” Replied Sam, looking back to the stranger. “And that’s Olivia. I assume she’s looking for something, but she’s being pretty tight-lipped about it… Her arm is pretty hurt.”

I gave a small nod to him, noticing that the stranger had begun watching us after Sam mentioned her name. “Well, why don’t you tell me what it is you two are looking for?” She remarked whilst holding her injured arm.

“A missing person. That’s all you need to know, little lady.” Sam responded, looking over his shoulder at her.

“Ah, well, in that case, I’m looking for a missing object…” Olivia responded with an almost playful smirk, responding with her own vague answer.

Sam rolled his eyes at her a bit, turning fully to face her from where he sat. “Guess neither of us are gonna get an answer… Listen, how about we get a camp going for the night and we can chat more? Maybe then we can open up about what we’re after?”

Olivia gave a small nod at the offer, looking around a bit as she slowly stood. “Guess I’ll try to make some kind of shelter…” She remarked, drawing her shortsword suddenly.

Olivia’s blade was an odd sight to see, especially since it looked pretty new and slightly modern. Either way, she awkwardly wielded it with her one free arm, trying to carve out a small portion of the wall. Sam watched with a little confusion, looking back at me.

“Now you’ll get to see how people survive down here. Don’t worry though, we carried you pretty far from the outpost. There won’t be monsters around these parts, I hope.” Sam reassured me, getting up as he discarded his serious demeanor. It was almost like a switch he had flipped when talking to me and Olivia.

I finally began to get up now that Sam was also busy, choosing to see if my possessions were still in my bag. The first thing I pulled from it was the blanket that I packed, seeing as the group had decided to make a little shelter from the wallpaper and plaster of the walls. I had no real tools aside from the puny kitchen knife to carve, so I simply walked over and saw if there was anything I could do to help.

Olivia had propped the large section of drywall against the spot it was cut out from, creating a triangular shelter to sit under. Sam meanwhile peeled some of the wallpaper off to act as a cover for the front and back of the large shelter for us.

“Well, it’ll work as a home for the next few hours… I’m still tired from that encounter.” Sam remarked, crouching to get under the shelter first.

“You look like you’re forty, no wonder you’re tired.” Olivia responded in a pretty joking manner, choosing to get in, although she kept her distance from Sam.

Awkwardly, the pair both looked at me, expecting me to say something before joining them, it seemed. I just gave them an awkward smile, scooting in to lean against the wall. “Uhh, so camping…”

“Yeah! Your first time out of your little metropolitan bubble, kid. How does it feel? Like being attacked by the body snatchers?” Sam sarcastically teased, nudging me with an elbow.

Olivia gasped, giving an almost concerned look. “First time?! Where did you come from? Is it your missing person you’re searching for?”

I stuttered nervously, not expecting to be questioned by the woman, giving me an intense look as she awaited my response, giving Sam a suspicious glare.

“It’s actually Samuel’s uh, partner that we’re looking for. I just volunteered to come.” I confessed through a gulp.

“What? You’re the one helping this old guy out? Why? Oh please don’t tell me you’re a hostage- I knew that gun was bad news!” Olivia remarked in an almost motherly manner, trying to pull me away from Sam a bit.

Sam on the other hand looked pretty serious and offended, choosing to defend the last comment first. “My service pistol just saved us from being killed! I wasted three fucking bullets lady, you can’t just get those back!”

“It’s a dangerous weapon! How do I know that I can trust you with one?! How do I know you aren’t a kidnapper- or- or someone dangerous!”

“Can’t you see my badge?! I’m a detective! I’ve had my gun for years down here, and trust me missy, I don’t use it lightly…”

The argument paused with that comment. Sam and Olivia stared each other down, though not before Olivia spoke again.

“How about we make a deal… Explain what you and this young man are doing, why he’s with you, and maybe–just maybe–I’ll trust you a bit more with that thing.”

Sam rolled his eyes at her. “Jo here already said part of it. My girlfriend ran off and… I want to find and apologize to her. She’s off at our special place…”

“And… why bring this inexperienced kid?”

“Hey!” I remarked with some offense, having been called ‘kid’ far too many times by Sam already. I didn’t want to give off the impression that I was as helpless as Olivia was making me out to be. “I’m twenty-three, I’m not a kid!”

“Yeah, he’s an adult… and I brought him as a sorta witness. I’ve been drinking at the bar he works at for a good few months to try and forget this shit… wracked up debt. He’s here to help and prove that I’m working to do something that’ll get me in a state to be able to pay them back.”

Olivia slowly nodded at the statement, starting to believe it a small bit. She warmed up at least a little and smiled. “Doesn’t sound all that bad? Where’s the special place?”

“Secret… It’s pretty personal to her and me. Let me guess, you’re going to withhold where you’re going to now?” Sam questioned with a little sarcasm.

“Ah, I’ll tell you. I’m on a journey to find some special medicine for something… It’s supposedly on Level 831. Does it sound like we’ll be going the same way?”

Sam listened with a bit of interest, having to ponder it for a moment. He even went into one of his pockets, trying to scribble something out on one of the pages of a notepad. Soon enough he gave a nod, thinking a bit to himself as he showed the paper to the both of us.

“I plotted a course that’ll have us going the same way. We’d have to go back to the hub, though…” Sam said, showing us the numbers and arrows he sketched out.

“Clever old man… No doubt you’ve been doing your research?” Olivia questioned curiously, moving some of her loose brown hair behind her ear as she had a look.

Sam chuckled a little. “Well, I’m a detective. Research is what I do best. Helps that there’s a whole site I can look through with information and all sorts of documents.”

Both Samuel and Olivia chuckled with each other, though it slowly fell quiet when the two stopped. Sam began to pocket the list he had written, and Olivia looked aside in thought. It seemed like she had some unanswered questions, and with how sudden our proper introduction felt to me, I also had some questions of my own. I looked at her, Checking the armor padding she wore on her arm and shoulders. Her other arm–based on the bandages around it at least–still seemed to be bleeding just a little.

“…is that arm going to be okay? One of those creatures bit you, right?” I suddenly piped up, catching Olivia’s attention in my awkward whisper.

Olivia gave me a slight nod and smiled, opening her messenger bag to reveal several different medical supplies. Some of the stuff was your average run-of-the-mill first aid; Gauze, isopropyl alcohol, basic painkillers. However, there were other glass and plastic vials of odd things that I couldn’t figure out the use of. She picked a small container for some ointment, unscrewing the cap.

“I’ll put a bit of my healing balm on it. I’ve got a lot of effective remedies I’ve personally worked on.” She informed, putting it away after showing me the pink and sparkling jelly inside.

“So you’re a doctor of some kind?” Sam questioned before I could get a word in.

“You can call me that, yes…” Olivia chuckled back. “But I’m also a fighter. There’s a reason I have the sword and armor.”

I looked between the two silently. Sam had beaten me to the statement I wanted to make, so I continued to watch on before I was spoken to.

“What about you, Jo? What are you?” Olivia questioned curiously, tilting their head.

That question made me ponder a bit. Surprisingly, I didn’t have a clear definition of what I did, honestly. I wasn’t adventurous in any way, and I lived my fairly average life on Level 11 and even back home before all of this. I suppose I was a quiet-thinking person, though I didn’t think that would be an acceptable answer.

I stammered for a moment, looking between Sam and Olivia. “I guess I’m just a uh, food service person?”

The pair seemed a little entertained, though they didn’t look to be judging me all that much like I subconsciously expected. Either way, the pair both stuck to themselves. It seemed like we were all starting to settle down to sleep.

Olivia began to scoot back to give themself space, and Sam leaned against the wall which we had slightly gutted to make our temporary shelter. On the other hand, I began to get the blanket out of my bag, trying to lay down on the slightly gross carpet to get comfortable.

“Promise me one thing though, Mister Detective…” Olivia spoke, propping themself up with their arm.

He glanced over silently, raising an eyebrow. “Uh, yes…?”

“Don’t use that gun you’ve got so much… I know you mean well, it’s just… you know.”

“Aye, I hear you…” He responded to her, choosing to reach into his jacket to draw his pistol. Surprisingly, he began to remove the magazine from it entirely. “It’s the only one I have, and I only use it for life or death situations… but I’ll let you keep the magazine with the bullets as we sleep. See? It’s empty now.”

Olivia reached to take the pretty old pistol magazine from Sam, checking it a bit before inspecting the gun itself in Sam’s hand, nodding. “Looks all clear… goodnight Sam,” she remarked, looking to me after, “and goodnight to you, Jo.”

* * *

By morning, we had quickly collected our things and began to move on our trip again. As Sam had promised, we didn’t encounter a single entity again, and in only an hour of walking, we ended back up at The Hub. Unlike when Sam and I had first passed through, there were a large number of people and small groups traveling about. People looked at us with confusion as we exited the Level 0 door, including a few passersby who chuckled at us.

Sam mostly ignored it, taking both me and Olivia through the crowds. There were a good number of fellow adventurers, including several people who seemed to have more scientific roles. Presumably, these various people were researchers and contractors tasked with whatever jobs the major organizations compensated them for completing. From what I heard from some of the more knowledgeable people, it was a well-paying job with a wide range of possible things you could be doing. It was the backbone of how we as people figured out things about these strange places.

Amongst all of them were a variety of people trying to sell things. Hustlers of all types, some with carts and stands trying to sell tools, exploring equipment, even food. There were also tours to certain levels were being sold in the form of informative pamphlets being handed out to some people.

For the most part, we brushed them off like most people were, although there were some fairly inexperienced and new folks just like myself who were buying into it. They were all dressed like they were ready for camping, almost like me. I could see myself reflected in them somewhat, understanding how little they probably knew. However, I didn’t feel it was my place to step in. After all, I had no clue what they were stepping into.

Olivia and Sam slowed down a little to let me catch up, who decided to spark up a small conversation in our downtime.

“So, where are you two originally from?” Olivia asked, tilting her head to look at me a bit. Now that we were in better lighting, I began to notice a streak of pink in her hair. I wasn’t sure if it was something she had hidden with how she kept her hair earlier, something I didn’t notice, or something new entirely. Either way, I just shrugged it off.

“I’m from Alexandria, it’s a town near D.C.? It’s a super nice place, at least back when I still lived uh, in the real world…” I reminisced, expecting Olivia to give their own answer.

Olivia tilted her head and listened with a curious smile, looking at Sam as they also answered. “Denver, Colorado… The mile high city.” He said with some slight sarcasm in his voice. Much like me, he looked at Olivia expectantly.

Oddly, Olivia seemed confused, looking between me and Sam awkwardly. “Oh, uh… where I’m from isn’t too important… not that you would really know it?” She shrugged off, although Sam and I looked at each other with a bit of confusion.

The three of us went back to walking in silence, ignoring the loud crowds of passing people as we came to a small line near a door. People were trying to enter and leave in an orderly fashion to wherever it was Sam was leading us to next. We stood in silence as we waited, though Olivia soon spoke up again.

“Listen, sorry I didn’t answer… I know I asked you two, but I just realized that uh, my old home is personal to me. Bringing it up just brings me bad memories. I was simply trying to strike up a conversation…” She sincerely apologized, looking down in a bit of guilt. She also seemed to not fully have the courage to look at us directly.

I at least understood and nodded back, giving her a reassuring smile. Sam was pretty neutral, giving a little shrug.

“It was a little hiccup. I get you have your own secrets and trauma, lady. I still got my own. Relax.” Sam reassured before he continued. “Could you at least answer what you were doing at Silver Springs?”

“At the trading post? I always go around seeing if I can help. Someone had told me there was some strange affliction that was going around the outpost, so I tried to see for myself…”

“Hey, you got the answer. Those folks weren’t sick at all. They weren’t even human anymore.”

Sam’s statement made me wonder a little more about what exactly we had encountered. They still acted somewhat like people who Sam knew and even carried their memories. They clearly had to have something that was close to human within them. What even had to happen to the person that made up the shell of those gross monsters?

“What were they then?” I curiously asked, standing between Olivia and Sam as we waited.

“Those people were killed by Skin-Stealers. They literally just- gut you and slide right into your body like a hermit crab.” Sam informed me, leaving much unanswered.

“But- how do they still know how to act?”

“Well, scientists can’t truly tell.” Olivia chimed in. “I believe some theories suggest they might absorb the brains of their victims. It lets them retain enough information to be able to fool prey.”

“Something like that. I’ll let the medically experienced woman answer it.” Sam also added, causing Olivia to respond with an amused chuckle.

“I’m glad you’re recognizing my qualifications,” she teased back, prompting a bit of laughter even from me.

The three of us continued to chuckle and make little jokes for the extra minute or two we were in line. Stuff about our own experiences. Sam made some teases about interrogating us to figure out our personalities. A whole lot of jokes about him being a detective, and some quips Olivia made about being a doctor. Not long after it was our turn to enter the door, and we stopped our conversations to enter one by one.

First, Sam stepped through to confirm things were safe, and then Olivia decided to nudge me along. Just like the previous door, it was a seamless transition, leading me to my next new path of discovery. It didn’t look that different from Level 0 though. Olivia entered right behind me, patting me on my shoulder as we stood near a caravan unloading some goods onto the carpeted floor.

I jumped at the foreign sound of thunder, looking at the completely darkened windows of the space we were now in. Everyone else was so casual despite the sound, with very few people paying much mind to it. The drab manilla yellow was now replaced by the drab beige and white of drop-tile ceilings that resembled some form of office complex.

“Welcome to Level 4, Jo. You’ve officially reached yet another level…” I heard Sam tell me in a pretty genuine congratulatory way, allowing me to take in what I was seeing.

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