by Fred Warren -
Anya Sherikov's virtual office was a tidy environment with a wide desk, high-backed leather chair, walls lined with video monitors, and a collection of fragrant flowers in terracotta pots at the corners. A little ceramic dog with a bobbing head adorned the desk, and she gave it a nudge out of habit before unlocking the door to grant entrance to whoever was leaning on the visitor’s chime.
Security Officer Nigel Cromwell came bustling in, followed by Victoria Remsen, who was looking uncharacteristically professional in a white lab coat. Vicky slammed her hands onto the desk and leaned forward until she was nearly nose-to-nose with Anya. “Miss Sherikov, we’ve got a big problem! Somebody broke quarantine, and there are spiders running loose on the station!”
Anya gently pushed her back a few inches. “The pest-control systems will deal with them. This happens occasionally. Some gourmand lets his delicacies incubate a day or so too long, and…”
Cromwell waved her off. “No, Anya. This is a large-scale infestation. Some stupid gaggle of meat-bag revolutionaries have brought up fertilized eggs from Eclectia in quantity, and not just the small species. The hatchlings are moving through the ductwork and in the gaps between decks. Lasers and microbots are getting some of them, but not enough. I can keep our habitat safe, but the colonists are in for a fight like none they’ve seen since the original Founding. They’ve brought Hell onto Avenir. Again.”
Vicky nodded. “I’ve been reading up on what history we have about the first time this happened. It isn’t pretty. They grew fast, and some of these things were huge. The spiders’ venom caused hallucinations and psychosis before it killed. Most of the casualties were from poisoned colonists attacking each other.”
“Any help we provide must appear to spring from a routine order issued by the Avenir leadership,” Anya replied as she did her own historical search. “What do you think, Victoria? Is there anything we can do that won’t stir much attention?”
“I can direct a nanofactory to accelerate production of the standard antivenins we manufacture for Eclectia, so there’ll be more on hand once they figure out what’s going on. Until then, I can cycle pesticide into the ventilation system, but it won’t work on all the bugs, and it could make a lot of people sick on the lower levels where there’s no filtration.”
“Better than them dying, I suppose. Have you informed Captain Aziz?”
“Yes, but he doesn’t seem very worried. He said something about ‘acceptable losses’ and ‘facilitating the Plan.’ He smiled a lot.”
Anya sighed. “When is he not smiling? I’ll monitor the situation and try to identify the conspirators. Victoria, dispense the pesticide, but begin with small doses, so we can gauge its effects.”
“I’m not stupid. You think I’d just dump it all in at once?”
“Yes. Despite your many wonderful qualities, dorogoya, you have an affinity for mayhem.”
Vicky’s self-righteous ire dissolved into a sullen pout. “Okay, I would have, but now I won’t. You’re no fun at all.”
“Off with you, then. Nigel, let me know if there’s anything you need in support of our habitat defense.”
“Hmph. I can’t imagine needing your help, but thanks for the offer.” Cromwell scanned the displays covering the walls of Anya’s communications nexus, and jabbed a finger at one of them. “What were you doing when we came in? Who’s that girl?”
Anya didn’t look up. She began typing commands on the keypad set into her desk. “She’s one of the Gamers I’m watching until you finish repairs on the network firewall. She seems to be oblivious to our presence, so all’s well.”
Cromwell glared at her. “Just make sure she stays that way. I’ll have no time for anything but spiders for the foreseeable future.”
Anya paused her typing and smiled affably at him. “Of course.”
It took a few moments to make the transition back into the valet. Melanie was poking him in the shoulder and squinting into his vacant eyes. “Sir? Mr. Butler? Are you okay?”
Anya shook his head and blinked his eyes. “Ah, I’m sorry. Software update. They happen at the most inconvenient times. However, we must end our conversation, and you must return to your quarters immediately and secure all doors and vents. I’m told there is a security problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“One that will become your problem if you don’t hurry. I enjoyed our chat, and I think I can help you, but we must meet again later.” Anya clamped one of the valet’s arms firmly around Melanie’s shoulders and ushered her outside. “I will make what arrangements I can in the meantime to ensure there are no negative repercussions from your excursion into the private network. Until then, farewell.”
Melanie lingered in the corridor a moment, still shivering but elated that she’d accomplished her mission. Carson would stop chasing the Dreamers, and things would return to normal.
Something skittered across the toe of her boot. She looked down to find a small, red-striped spider lifted up onto its hind legs a few meters away, forelegs waving in the air, fanged mouthparts working rapidly and drooling viscous slime. She stared at it in fascination—bugs weren’t supposed to be able to get onto the station, especially not the upper levels. Where did this one come from?
It looked like something out of ArachnoHunters. She hated that game. When one of the spiders caught someone, it wrapped them in silk and then slowly sucked the life out of them. Whatever sadistic method the game employed to simulate internal organs being liquefied gave her diarrhea in real life for two days afterward.
She backed away from the spider, trying to keep her body as still as possible. Without warning, it hurled itself at her, leaping a half-meter into the air and nearly closing the space between them.
Melanie screamed and sprinted down the corridor, not daring to look behind her.