Scout ushered her sobbing guest into the room, sat her down in the desk chair, and ordered a hot chocolate on the wall panel. Then she stood beside Angela and hugged her again and rubbed her shoulder and said, “I know. I know. I know.”
They stayed like this until the doorbell chimed and Scout found a cup of cocoa waiting for her on a little stand by the pod door.
Wiping snot from her face, Angela said, “How the hell is there still room service?” She choked out a sob-laugh.
“Crazy, right?” Scout replied. “They can’t let us leave, but there’s still toys and snacks.” She handed Angela the cup and took a seat on her mattress. “Are you cold?”
Angela shook her head and sipped her cocoa. She was only wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a pink T-shirt featuring a picture of a Wookie eating bubble gum and the phrase Chew-bacca.
“Is that from CheezMonkey?” Scout asked.
Angela nodded and squeezed out the words, “I’m wearing it ironically” between sniffles.
“I guessed,” Scout said.
Angela quieted her tears for a moment and sat looking at the floor. To fill the uncomfortable silence, Scout said, “They should have the elevator—the, uh, teleporter—running again tomorrow morning. If it is morning. But we’ll get out of here, right? The Maiden is dead, and we’re safe now, and we’re going to go home soon and we’ll all be super rich from the million lawsuits we’re going to file because of this. Okay?”
She didn’t fully believe the words. But she needed to say them. Like a prayer.
“Are you sure it’s dead?” Angela asked.
“It would be messing with the electronics if it wasn’t, right?” Scout replied.
“I guess,” Angela said, but the look on her eyes said she wasn’t satisfied.
Scout messaged @l.yue, but there was no response. So she picked up the VR headset.
“You’re not going to play again, are you?” Angela asked.
Scout shook her head. She put the helmet on and hit POWER. Once the game was running, she said, “Hey, Ms. Yue or whoever. I know you’re watching this. Could you let us see the dead Bug? It’d make us feel a lot safer. Thanks.”
She took the helmet off.
“You think they’re listening?” Angela asked.
Scout nodded. “I think they record everything we say into these headsets.”
“Including Dave-O’s last words…” Angela murmured. ”Jesus.”
To keep their mind off of things, Scout put on a movie—Labyrinth. The two sat together on Scout’s mattress to watch it on her old laptop. And even through teary eyes, Angela couldn’t help but find herself mesmerized by the sight of David Bowie’s goblin king in those startling tights.
“I can’t believe they put that in a kids’ movie,” Angela said. “You can see literally every contour of his junk.”
“The 80s were crazy,” Scout said.
Angela yawned and wrapped the quilt around her. “Did you make this?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Scout replied. “Hand-stitched out of old Christian youth group T-shirts.”
“There’s a ton,” Angela said, marveling at the many squares. “Paisley Park Pilgrimage 2005. Chanhassan Christian Bible Study Jamboree 2006. Lake Susan Swim Camp for the Saved.”
“My family was really religious,” said Scout. “Gaming was sort of my escape.”
“How’d your family handle your transition?” Angela asked.
“They offered to pay my way through college if I’d go to a conversion camp. And if I didn’t, they’d cut me off.” Scout gestured to her room: the bookshelf made of boards and cinderblocks, the milk crate end table, the mattress on the floor. “So that’s how I ended up in this grandeur.”
“That sucks,” Angela said. “Okay, now I have to tell you my tragic backstory I guess. Here it goes. People think Asian girls are all naturally skinny. I’m not. If you watch my old videos, I’m really thin. I looked fantastic. Well, I looked that way because I was starving myself. I got therapy and stopped doing it. Obviously.” She poked the chub around her waist. “But people liked me a lot more when I had an eating disorder. I lost a lot of subscribers.” Her lip quivered. “The dog helped. I thought, she’s fat and hairy and people love her anyway, so—”
The door chimed. Scout answered it. Upon seeing her new guest, she blinked with a mixture of surprise and sleep deprivation. There was a man there she didn’t recognize. He was short and heavyset with a ginger beard and wrinkled business casual clothes.
“Who…?” she began.
“My name is Sam,” he said. “I’m your, uh… I’m the guy who watches your streams on the monitor.”
“The one spying on me at all times,” Scout said.
“We prefer the word observing,” he said. “Anyway, I got your message. If you want to see the dead Maiden, now’s the time. Lara took a Valium, the execs have no contact with us, and all the techs are busy working on repairs.”
Scout looked to Angela, who was already stepping back into her slippers. Realizing she had nothing on but boxer shorts and a terrible T-shirt, the girl wrapped the Christian camp quilt over her shoulders and padded into the hall.
Sam led the girls down the corridor, through locked doors, down a flight of stairs, to a little foyer with a wall panel. After waving his card over the scanner, he said, “Permission to enter.”
A gruff voice came from the speaker. “Those two aren’t supposed to be out of the Enrichment Center. You’ve got to bring them b—”
“Oh, who gives a shit?” a voice with a middle-eastern accent cut in. “Permission granted. Come in. Don’t touch anything.”
The door opened, and the trio entered a bright room whose floors, walls and ceiling were covered with the same soft, white material. There were big metal cabinets and gurneys and shelves covered in strange instruments and sample jars. Near the door, there stood a security guard wearing space marine armor (which Scout now knew to be real) and a short, bald-headed doctor in a white coat.
“Hello again,” Dr. Parikh said, weariness in his voice. “How are you holding up?”
“Not great,” Angela replied.
“Anything broken or bleeding?” the doctor asked.
The girls shook their heads.
“Good enough,” he said. “Unfortunately, the company decided it was too expensive to hire a second doctor, so I’m stretched a little thin. But I can give you sleeping pills if you need.”
“They want to see the Bug,” Sam said.
“We want to make sure it’s dead,” Angela added.
“Sir—” the guard began.
“Why not?” the doctor sighed.
“The execs wanted—” the guard said.
Dr. Parikh dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand. “I don’t care. The execs aren’t here. They’re not paying me enough to care.” He reached for a handle on a large cabinet.
The guard stepped forward.
“Yes, go ahead and lock me up,” Dr. Parikh said. “Lock up the only doctor on a base of fifty people. Very smart.”
The guard stopped.
Dr. Parikh pulled the handle open. Cool mist drifted to the ceiling and a metal shelf slid out, upon which lay something dark and lumpy covered by a plastic sheath.
“Should we be wearing masks or something?” Scout asked.
The doctor shook his head. “It’s not carrying anything airborne. Just don’t lick it.”
He pulled back the plastic sheath, and there they saw it: the Maiden, half its pale body burnt brown, chunks of exoskeleton melted off, legs missing, eyes burst from internal heat.
“That’s it?” Angela asked.
The Bug was hardly bigger than a German Shepherd–far too little to have done so much damage.
Scout pointed to the burn marks on the creature’s body. “Is that where Hawks shot it?”
A response came from the guard. “We are not at liberty to disclose—”
“Yes,” Dr. Parikh interrupted.
“I hope it hurt like hell,” Angela said.
“And this one,” said Dr. Parikh, pointing at a bend in the Maiden’s sleek antenna, “that was your friend Henry—Comrade Ogilvy. He went down fighting.”
They took a quiet moment to compose themselves. Holding her blanket around her shoulders with one hand, Angela reached for the dead creature, but Parikh grabbed her. “It secretes a corrosive fluid,” he said. “You’ll get a skin condition if you’re lucky. Here—you can use this if you want.” He handed her a strange-looking pair of pliers.
Angela poked the alien cadaver with the instrument, gently at first, then roughly a few times. “Looks like it’s not getting up again,” she said.
“Oh, certainly not,” said the doctor. “It’s extremely dead.”
There was another silence, which Angela broke to say, “It’s all real, isn’t it? This is happening.”
The doctor nodded.
Angela shook with a mixture of laughter and sobs. “Jesus,” she said, wiping her eyes.
“Why are you telling us all this?” Scout asked.
“‘First, do no harm,’” Dr. Parikh said, quoting the Hippocratic Oath. “We all thought that keeping it a secret would protect you, but…” He shook his head.
Scout turned to Sam, who had been quiet through all this. “Did you see the footage of the attack?” she asked.
He nodded, his face pale. “We all did. It was horrible.”
“The observers. There’s eight of us—one for each LPer.”
“Are they watching us right now?” Scout asked.
“I don’t think so,” Sam replied. “We have to sleep sometime. And the monitors are all messed up right now. I wouldn’t risk talking to you otherwise.”
“Why is all this happening?” Scout asked. “Who’s in charge?”
“I don’t know much more than you do,” Sam said. “I’m a low-ranking employee. I don’t even have dental insurance. My job was to watch the monitors and take notes. That’s it.”
“Can you contact home?” Scout asked.
He shook his head. “Even under normal circumstances, communication to Earth is tightly controlled. But now, we’re totally cut off. They’re still fixing the transmitter. We haven’t heard from IG since everything went to hell.”
“Are we going to die here?” Angela asked.
“Probably not,” Dr. Parikh said. “They’ll have the portal fixed pretty soon and we’ll all go home and swim in hush money.”
“I’m not going to be quiet about this,” Scout said. “People need to know.”
“Who would believe you?” Sam asked.
Scout’s heart suddenly felt very heavy. She knew he was right.
“You’ll be amazed at how much money they offer to keep you quiet,” said Dr. Parikh. “Everyone has his price.”
“Then why did you let us in?” Scout asked.
“My price goes up when people die,” Dr. Parikh said.
Dr. Parikh covered up the dead Maiden and shoved it back into the cabinet. “I’ve got to check on some of my other patients. You two, get to bed. Or go stress-eat in the café. I don’t care. But you can’t stay here. Shoo.”
And with that, Sam ushered them out. He brought them back to the Enrichment Center and said, “I’d better bail before I get caught helping you. I hope you feel a little better. Take care, okay?”
And then he was gone.
Angela hesitated by the entrance to her pod. Finally, she said, “I can’t go back there. It’s right next to Dave-O’s room. I know that thing is dead, but…”
“We can switch,” Scout said.
Angela shook her head. “I don’t want you in there either. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt. And to tell you the truth, I don’t want to be alone right now.”
“You can stay with me,” Scout said. “All I have is that crappy mattress, though.”
“That’s okay,” Angela said.
The two of them spent the night—or whatever IG designated as a night—together, side by side. Scout drifted off first. She woke once in the darkness and found Angela nestled against her, breathing hot against her neck, fast asleep.
Hive is a sci-fi serial updated Thursdays. The rest is here.