by Fred Warren -
“Let me in!”
“I need your help! Open up! Now!”
The narrow corridor that dead-ended at Carson’s room was deserted, a welcome relief after Melanie’s flight through the smoke and chaos of the ring sector beyond, choked with fleeing colonists and swarming spiders. She figured she had only a few minutes, at best, before the spiders decided to investigate this passage. Her palms were already fiery red from banging on the door. Why was he being so stubborn?
Her brother’s voice was maddeningly calm, a bored drone of indifference magnified by the commbox’s tinny vibration. “You know the rules, Sis. That door opens for nothing and no one. If you want to talk, log yourself into the game net or message me.”
There was a rumbling sound in the distance, followed by a long, warbling shriek that climbed slowly in both pitch and volume, then stopped, as if it had been cut off with a knife.
Melanie swallowed hard and fought to keep her voice steady. “Do you have any idea what’s happening out here?”
“Don’t know, don’t care. This is a really inconvenient time to pester me. My guild’s getting ready to run the Fathomless Catacombs in Wizard’s Realm, and I still have to equip.”
“Carson…I…am…in…trouble! The whole station’s gone haywire. Things are exploding, and there are spiders everywhere!”
“How do you expect me to help? Go back to your apartment, or call an Enforcer.”
“The corridors to my apartment are sealed off, and the only Enforcers I’ve seen are running as fast as they can in the opposite direction. These spiders are aggressive…the brown ones are attracted to motion, the gray ones move in packs, and the red ones go straight for the throat. I need a safe place to hide. You’re all I’ve got.”
“Don’t be such a baby. They’re bugs. One-shot kills.”
“This isn’t a game, idiot. I don’t have a gun.”
“Fine. Step on them. Hit ’em with…with a book or something.”
“Aaggh! Would you please link into the public cam server and actually look at what I’m dealing with here?”
“Will it shut you up?”
“Oh, all right. Hold your water.”
The corridor was still empty. Melanie stared at the commbox, wishing she could pull words from it by sheer force of will. “Carson? Are you there? Do you see it?”
Silence, then a metallic hiss. “Yeah, yeah, I see it. What a mess. This is the sort of thing that started me gaming in the first place. I still don’t understand how you can bear living outside.”
Something tugged at the edge of her awareness, a faint crackling—or scratching. She checked the corridor again. It was clear, but a whiff of acrid smoke tickled her nostrils. “Understand it later. For now, just open the door and let me in.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I don’t believe this. You’re going to leave me out here to be eaten by…by who-knows-what, while you go scamper through some infantile fairyland with your pathetic friends?”
“Is that what you think of me?” The boredom was gone. Even through the commbox, his voice was soft, almost plaintive.
She stiffened. “No…I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…” The scratching sound was louder now, and her hands pounded a staccato drumbeat on the door. “Carson, this is not the moment for this particular argument! Let me in, and we can spend all the time you want debating the pros and cons of your lifestyle choices!”
“Stay where you are. You’ll be fine. I’ll watch you on the door camera. There’s nothing in this corridor that would interest a spider. Once the Enforcers get a handle on the situation, you can go home.”
The skittering of a million fingernails across aluminum plate preceded a fuzzy river of tiny grey spiders that surged into the corridor and flowed toward Melanie.
She flattened herself against the door’s cold, unyielding metal. “Carson!”
Then something gave, and she tumbled backward into darkness. Her right foot barely cleared the threshold as the door cycled shut again, and myriad tiny nails clicked and scraped outside.
It took a few moments to figure out which way was up. There was light—dim, but sufficient to begin making sense of her surroundings. She groaned and rubbed her shoulder, stifling a yelp as she found herself flanked by two tall, black-clad cyborgs, faces blank, eyes empty. They made no motion to assist her.
Carson’s voice whispered behind her, thin and reedy. “Stay there. Don’t look at me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I visit Hamsa all the time. I know what the nutrient feeds do to you guys. It’s no big deal. I understand.”
Melanie turned, and her brother was there. Her hands flew of their own accord to cover her mouth, to stop the sharp intake of breath and the pungent, antiseptic tang that knifed into her lungs.