When at last the doors opened again, Lara Yue was there to meet the players in the hall.
The red emergency lights granted the dim corridor a menacing air, but the darkness hid the scratch marks on the floor and the blood the cleaners’ quick and frantic rubdown hadn’t managed to erase. An alarm pulsed, loud and heavy.
“Okay, everybody out!” she called, fighting to convey just the right amount of urgency. Too little and they wouldn’t take her seriously. Too much and they would panic. “There’s an emergency in the building. Time to follow the exit lights. Let’s go, everyone!”
Angela was first to emerge from her room. “Where’s my dog?” she asked. “I need my dog.”
“Your dog will be fine,” Lara promised.
“She’s in Comrade–uh, Henry’s room,” Angela said. She rushed to the entrance of Pod 1 and rang the bell. No answer.
“He’s already evacuated,” Lara told. “He brought your dog with him. Now come on. We’ve got to go.” She raised her headset to her lips and made an announcement over the Enrichment Center’s loudspeakers. “There has been a small fire in the building. Everyone please evacuate the Big Box immediately. Leave your personal possessions; you will be able to get them later once the building is safe again.”
Scout came next. “Is Dave-O okay?” she asked.
“He’s fine,” Lara said. “Dr. Parikh came and got him. Now hurry up.”
Terrence came next, a look of fear in his eyes. Lara hated to think of the memories this must have been stirring up in his mind. “There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “Just a small fire. Someone put something in a microwave for too long. But we have to go.”
Then Fredi came, lugging her laptop bag.
“Don’t worry about your things,” Lara said.
“This laptop was two thousand bucks,” Fredi replied. “I’m not leaving it behind.”
“Maybe I should get mine,” Terrence said.
“I need to find my dog,” Angela said. “I need my dog.”
Scout gently touched Angela’s arm and whispered, “Come on. We’ll see her on the surface.”
Lara inhaled deeply and did her best to breathe the fear out from her lungs. In a calm voice, she said, “Let’s all head to the emergency exit. Pronto.” She made the announcement over the loudspeakers again: “There has been a small fire in the building. Everyone evacuate the Big Box immediately. Leave your personal possessions; you will be able to get them later once the building is safe again.” Then she added the two LPers who’d failed to show up. “Rico. Jeffrey. Come on.”
Lara dashed to Pod 7. Her feet slipped once along the way. She tried not to think about what the mess was made of.
She found Jeffery stuffing two pillow cases full of collectibles from the shelves of his pod.
“Leave them,” she said. “You have the same stuff at home.”
“These are authentic collectables!” he cried. “Do you know how much I can make on this stuff?”
“Do you know what smoke inhalation does to the human body?” Lara replied. “Move it.”
Jeffrey scowled at her and stepped to the door, lurching as he dragged his heavy loot.
“What about Rico?” Terrence asked.
“He’s fine,” came a voice they all recognized. Out of Pod 6 stepped a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a stone brow. His already enormous frame was even bigger in a suit of metal armor. Rico dangled over the man’s shoulder, unconscious.
“Major Hawks?” Fredi asked. “Holy shit.”
“Yep. It’s me. The famous Major Hawks, star of the hit sci-fi action-adventure series Hive,” he said, wearily reciting the words. “Now hurry up and get to the exit. Jeffrey, drop those sacks or I’m gonna beat you to death with them.”
Hawks took Lara by the arm. She let him. She knew she wasn’t supposed to show him affection in front of other people. The company frowned on office romance. And IG wanted her to seem available, attainable, unclaimed, so as not to interfere with the geeks’ fantasies. But at the moment, none of that mattered.
Spurred by Hawks’s inspiring speech and threats, the LPers hurried down the hall, following the red EXIT arrows.
They passed the empty café and Dr. Parikh’s office, which as always was closed. The double doors at the end of the hall opened to allow them down a long corridor with no visible doors, just two glowing red lines running along the floor into the distance.
“What are you doing here?” Fredi asked Hawks.
“I work here,” he said, readjusting the weight of Rico’s unconscious body on his shoulder. “I was supposed to show up in person later for a big surprise.” Then he added a monotone, “Surpriiiiise,” with a sarcastic wiggle of his fingers.
The group passed through another heavy door, into a small room with an elevator. A guard dressed in space marine armor stood by the door, accompanied by a tech in a disheveled polo shirt. Lara had worked with the tech for months now, but somehow he was the only coworker whose name she could never remember. Was it Reynold? Randy?
“Even the security guards are wearing Hive costumes,” Fredi said.
“That’s awesome,” Jeffrey replied.
“We’re ready to go,” Lara said. “One at a time.”
The guard shook his head. “I can’t let you do that,” he said.
“There’s a fire,” Lara said. “Remember? You hear that alarm?”
“I’m sorry ma’am,” the guard said, “but—”
“I know what company procedure is,” Lara said, “and I know we’re violating it, but corporate hasn’t gotten back to us and we need to go. Now.”
“Ma’am,” the guard said, “I’m going to have to ask you to remain calm—”
“There’s an emergency,” Lara argued.
“Shouldn’t we take the stairs?” Scout asked. “You’re not supposed to take the elevator during a fire, right? So where are the stairs?”
The others ignored the question.
“Move it, rent-a-cop,” Hawks commanded.
“Sir—” the guard began.
But then the tech—Raymond? Rory?—piped up at last, shaking his head. “You can’t,” he said. “You can’t use that thing.”
“Where’s my dog?” Angela asked.
“Gary tried to make a break for it,” the tech said. “It–it turned him inside out.”
Lara’s stomach suddenly felt very heavy. She noticed that the tech’s hands were shaking. “Escape pods?” she asked.
“You know we don’t have those,” the tech said. “The expense…”
“Where are the stairs?” Scout asked again, her voice squeaking with panic. “Are there stairs?”
Lara looked to the tech, to Hawks, even to the guard. None of them had answers for her. Hawks frowned tightly, as he always did when she brought him a problem he was not strong enough to solve.
Then a soothing female voice cut in on the headset in Lara’s ear: “You are in no immediate danger. The players may return to their pods and await further instructions. Do what you can to calm them down.”
And then the alarm died and the lights winked on once more. It was as though the whole facility had bolted awake from a nightmare. The assembled company stood stunned, blinking, as their pupils adjusted to the sudden brightness. Lara noticed for the first time that Terrence’s eyes were wide and his face had gone ashen. The stress and the loud noise must have been especially hard on him, given his experiences.
“What just happened?” Scout asked.
“That,” Lara said, scrambling for an explanation, “was a test of evacuation procedures. A fire drill.” It was the best she could come up with so quickly in her frazzled state.
“Are you kidding?” Fredi asked. “That was really upsetting.”
“What was all that stuff you said about pods and getting turned inside-out?” Scout asked.
“Your psychological evaluations showed that you are all emotionally resilient enough—” Lara began.
“This is not okay,” Fredi said. “You really could have triggered someone. You have a vet who probably has PTSD.”
“Oh, d–don’t be a snowflake,” Maximus stammered.
“I’m okay,” Terrence muttered, staring blankly.
“Where’s my dog?” Angela asked. “If this is just a drill, then where’s my dog?”
“Where’s Dave-O and Henry?” Terrence asked. “And why is Rico unconscious?”
“I’m going to find my dog,” Angela said, and she sped away.
“Follow her,” the voice instructed through the headset, and Lara took off in pursuit, running as fast as she could on stiletto heels.
“Hold on,” Lara called down the hall. “You’re not gonna find your dog there.” But now that the lights were back on, Lara knew, the girl would find smashed pod doors, shredded metal and linoleum, and perhaps a few missed spatters of blood and tissue. Unless something stopped her.
Lara’s attempts at negotiation were failing and the facility’s operators knew it, so the next set of double doors Angela came across were closed and locked. The girl punched and kicked at them, human flesh and bone useless against metal. “Let me in!” she screamed.
“Angela, I need you to settle down,” Lara said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“Where’s my dog?” Angela screamed. Her face was bright red, with tears streaming from her eyes and snot leaking from her nose.
Lara knew where the dog was. She’d seen the footage—the Maiden slashing through a thick metal wall as though it were made of paper, the dog rearing up and barking, Henry Wentworth swinging the bat, and the horrible mix of animal and human shrieks that followed. Thinking about it made her queasy. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Calm her down,” the voice in Lara’s ear commanded.
“Angela,” Lara pleaded, “Sweetie, please don’t yell. For everyone’s sake. You don’t want to get kicked out, do you?”
“I don’t care!” Angela cried. “Give me my dog and let me go home.”
Under normal circumstances, a participant who appeared to be a threat to the operation would have been sent away. But now, there was no escape from the facility. But if Angela kept on making trouble, she would have to be dealt with, and Lara didn’t want to see what that entailed.
“Angela,” Lara said, “think about how much money you’re going to lose. There’s a massive fee for a breach of contract—”
“I don’t care. I will sue the shit out of you for kidnapping my dog.”
“Lara,” the voice said, “the subject must be pacified.”
“Give me time,” Lara whispered back.
“The subject’s behavior suggests extreme emotional distress and a high probability of irrational behavior.”
“Obviously,” Lara hissed.
“Who are you talking to?” Angela asked. “Is it one of the assholes in charge? Tell them to give me back my dog.”
“I’ll be sure to pass the message on,” Lara said, remembering barking and insect chittering and blood and fur.
Angela took a step toward Lara.
“According to my analysis, the subject’s movements suggest a potential for violence,” the voice said. “Is that correct?”
“This isn’t a good time,” Lara replied, gritting her teeth.
“Hey, you!” Angela shouted to the voice she could not hear. “Give me back my goddamn dog!”
Before Lara’s contact could find out whether or not the assessment was true, Scout appeared. She zipped past Lara and wrapped her arms around Angela, refusing to let go until the girl collapsed in sobs.
“I need my dog,” Angela wailed.
“I know,” Scout said gently. Then to Lara, she said, “Ms. Yue, I think we have a right to know what’s going on.”
Lara’s mind scrambled for an appropriate story to tell, but instead of finding excuses, it kept digging up horrible images and sounds from the video feed in pods 1 and 2. Dave-O gaming, oblivious, as the creature slipped through his wall and crept up behind him. Jagged insect mandibles tearing apart a human belly.
Lara was on her own now. She hadn’t heard from the executives since That Thing entered the base.
Lara’s job was to make the players feel comfortable whenever IG made a miscalculation, but this was too much. The company was supposed to offer her guidance for something big like this. Now all she had was that unsettling voice in her ear.
“Lara,” the voice said, “your hands are beginning to shake. My assessment of your emotional state suggests extreme agitation.”
Dave-O screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
Lara knew her eyes were getting wet.
“Your current mood is sub-optimal,” the voice said again. “Potential measures used to boost mood can include breathing exercises and yoga.”
Henry running for a door that would not open.
“Ms. Yue?” Scout asked.
“You’re right.” The words squeezed out through a lump in Lara’s throat. “Come on.”
Wordlessly, she led the two girls down the corridor, to the café, where narrow windows offered a view of the courtyard of the Palace, where IG employees scurried back and forth between the various towers of the complex.
“Are we supposed to climb out the windows?” Scout asked. “I don’t think we can fit.”
A sleek, pale Maiden slipping through a gash in steel.
Lara searched the café for an object of the right size and weight. The tables were bolted to the floor, and all the food from the dispenser was served in soft plastic containers. So Lara lifted one of the benches and heaved it like a battering ram.
With a spark and a pop, the glass shattered and turned black. No more courtyard. No more Palace. No more outside world. What once were windows could now be seen as a broken screen.
“So are we underground?” Scout asked. “Is this, like, a big bunker or something?”
“The subject’s question suggests a suitable explanation,” the voice told Lara. “I highly recommend you answer in the affirmative.”
Human flesh disappearing into an insect mouth.
Lara shook her head.
“I think you know what’s going on,” Lara said. “Come on.”
She found the rest of the group, including Rico, who was now groaning back to life, still slung over Hawks’s shoulder. She led them through one security door, then another. The voice in her ear told her, “Players are not authorized to enter this sector of the facility.” Lara ignored it.
“You sure about this?” Hawks asked.
Lara nodded. “The execs aren’t here to tell me no,” she said.
She brought them up a winding staircase to a wide, empty room. There was no furniture and no fixtures except for a panel on a wall made mostly of glass. At the moment, nothing could be seen through the window; it was covered by a heavy layer of metal.
“Lara,” the voice said. “If you open that shutter, your position here will be terminated.”
Dr. Parikh shaking his head, muttering, “I can’t.”
Lara nodded to show she understood. She knew she was being watched.
“This is the only room where you can really see outside,” Lara told the players. “The rest is underground. We look out using cameras. It’s safer that way.”
“So can we leave through here?” Fredi asked.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Lara said.
Hawks roused Rico with a gentle slap. “Eyes open,” he said. “You’ll want to see this.” He shifted the player’s weight to give him a better view.
With the touch of a button, the shutter began to open. Dusty blue light leaked through a crack that widened to reveal strange, sickly trees, pale grass, distant hills, and above, visible through a veil of mist, the ghost of a gas giant and a distant sun.
“Tithoria,” Maximus whispered.
“This is a screen, right?” Terrence asked quietly. “Just another part of the simulation. Right?”
Scout gently ran her fingers across the glass and examined it for pixels, plasma, signs of fakery. “It really does look like a window,” she said.
Angela covered her mouth with a quivering hand. She shook her head as if to say, No no no no no.
“Well, everyone,” Lara said. “Welcome to the Hive.”
Hive is a serial updated every Thursday.