Angela’s vision returned to normal. Her sight stopped flickering, and the HUD de-garbled itself.
With their faculties returned, the team had little trouble dispatching the rest of the Drones. Angela softened them up, peppering their armor with pits and pocks with each blast of her shotgun, and Scout jammed sticky bombs into the holes, or Terrence rolled concussion grenades beneath them to break open their hard bellies.
Angela sliced a Drone to death personally, shredding its entrails with her chainsaw as the Bug lay prone on its back. Another took one too many blows to the head from Terrence’s rifle, and began to stroke out until a grenade crammed between its mandibles put it out of its misery. And when the group was out of explosives, they turned to an endurance trial, shooting a Drone with every bit of ammo they had until its exoskeleton lay in splinters on the ground, and its flesh was as tender as a rare steak, and it could no longer stand. Then the players leapt upon it with their ion blades and their chainsaws. The death of a thousand cuts.
When it was all over, the team surveyed the carnage. They had killed six Drones in all, though it was difficult to surmise an exact number based on the scattered chunks of meat and shell.
“Not bad,” Terrence said.
“The wedding’s off,” Angela quipped.
Scout looked at an upturned Drone whose insides were now outside, strewn about the ground all around it. “That’s a lot of guts,” she said.
“Let’s take a minute to recoup,” Terrence said, “and to let Dave-O play Banksy on all the dead Drones. Where’s Fredi and Max?”
“They went down the hill,” Rico reportedd. “I lost track of them.”
“VicksXWedge,” Terrence called over the comlink. “Come in, Fredi.”
“I’m way down in this valley,” came the response. “It’s gonna take me a million years to get back to you. Meet you halfway?”
“Sure thing,” Terrence replied. “Max? Maximus, you in?”
There was no response.
“I think he might be in trouble,” Fredi said. “He was doing something he wasn’t supposed to. Maybe he got suspended from Elite Mode.”
“What a shame,” Angela said flatly.
“And Comrade Ogilvy?” Terrence asked.
“Still playing with Fluffinator, looks like,” Angela said.
“Well,” Terrence said. “We survived Elite Mode.”
“Now on to another two hours of walking, I guess,” Angela said.
That’s when Dave-O started screaming.
It was a single yelp at first, and a thud as he fell, hard, to the ground. Angela turned her head to look for a Drone the team had failed to exterminate. But there was nothing.
Dave-O’s arms quivered as he tried to push himself up again. “What—?” he began.
But before he could finish the sentence, something unseen—something powerful—slammed into his body, sending him tumbling across the ground. He came to a sudden stop as though crashing into a wall that wasn’t there.
Dave-O cried out in surprise and what sounded like real pain.
This was the fake-out, Angela thought. In horror movies, there’s usually a scene early on in which the comic relief character pretends he’s being attacked by monsters. That’s all it was. A joke.
“The model didn’t render,” Rico said with a laugh. “We’re going to have to kill an invisible Bug.”
Angela breathed out something halfway between a chuckle and a grunt. But it came from habit, not amusement. Her stomach had begun to feel very heavy.
“Are you okay, Dave-O?” Scout asked.
Dave-O screamed and fired his flame thrower and kicked and flailed his arms. “Oh God! Oh my God!”
“Dave-O?” Terrence called. “Talk to me. What’s happening?”
“Something’s wrong,” Scout whispered. She clamped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, this is bad.”
“Dave-O,” Fredi called over the comlink. “This isn’t funny. You’re upsetting people.”
Angela felt a sickening lightness in her head. She’d seen enough films to recognize this. This is the scene where the characters realize they’re in a horror movie.
She chased the thought away.
On the ground, Dave-O touched his visor, and the image of his face disappeared.
Angela began to approach Dave-O with her shotgun raised, taking slow, careful steps, hoping that somehow, whatever problem was happening would fix itself by the time she arrived.
Dave-O screamed again, his voice strangely distant, his words unintelligible. Angela realized he must have taken his VR helmet off in real life, but the microphone was still picking up his shouts from wherever he’d placed it.
And then his arm jerked and bent at an impossible angle in a way that was cartoonishly absurd and yet somehow horrifying.
“It’s glitching,” Rico said.
Dave-O groaned and clutched his distorted arm. He tried to stand. He stumbled. He crawled. But something got his leg and dragged him back, and he screamed again.
“Is he having a seizure?” Scout asked.
Angela grabbed Dave-O’s good arm and tried to steady him or save him or pull him away from whatever it was that was hurting him. But it didn’t help. Dave-O curled up into a ball and covered his head with his usable hand, and from somewhere deep within him those distant screams grew weaker.
There was nothing she could do for him here on Tithoria. Angela pulled her visor off. The real world—the fake bedroom IG built for her—came back into view: Munch’s The Scream, framed Day of the Dead poster, vine-patterned wallpaper, dog bed, hockey mask collection, squeaky toys scattered across the carpet.
Angela ran to the door, hoping to make it to Dave-O’s pod in time to save him, or at least find out what was wrong. Maybe it was a prank. Maybe it was all a horrible prank.
The door was locked.
This is the part of the horror movie where the characters realize there is no turning back.
Hive is a sci-fi serial updated Thursdays. The rest of it can be found here.