I ran towards the closest of the two remaining doors. I had a lot of experience doing stupid things while holding my breath, but my chest still felt like it had been kicked by a mermaid wearing a flipper shaped wedged heel shoe.
This isn’t the right door, said Axon. Move on.
Right. Does that mean you are fully synced? I asked.
Enough to know this is null data zone.
Okay, I’ll be quick. I didn’t want to leave out any door if she wasn’t fully synced. There was an outside chance she was wrong, and even if she wasn’t there might be an Axe of Smiting or something behind the door. Also, I play too many video games. I grabbed the handle.
Stop. The word smashed into my consciousness, like there was an anvil in my head, and someone had dropped it into a cartoon piano player who was also in my head, then hit the anvil with a big stick.
What the fuck? What was that for? I’m only taking a look.
There’s no axe of smiting. Damn mind riding. We have less than two minutes. Don’t waste time.
Alright, I know better than to argue with you when you’re like this. So I didn’t. I started to turn the handle instead. But she was too quick for me.
Stop or I’ll fill your head with close up pictures of red monkey ass.
Damn. My kryptonite.
Can you…can you do that? I asked.
Do you actually want to find out?
Nutsack. Okay, fine. If it’s that important to you. I turned away. Then it hit me. There was only one explanation for this behavior. Okay, there were probably five hundred, but only one I was smart enough to come up with in the moment. She’s in there, isn’t she?
Axon didn’t answer for a moment. It felt like a long time, taking into account the fact that this whole interchange was at the speed of thought and only took a few seconds.
There is a greater than 74% chance that she is.
God fuck it, Axon! You know how important this is to me.
That’s why we can’t get sidetracked. If you open that door you are going to get sucked in like you always do, and the timer will run down. This is destructive behavior, Dendrite. We can’t allow it.
I sighed. She had won, and there was no point arguing. Instead, I twisted the handle and shoved open the door.
And there she was. The scene that greeted me looked different than anything I’d seen in the slug-building so far. Oh, sure, the classroom inside didn’t look too far out of place with the rest of the office. The walls were a different color, and the chairs were a different design. And the esoteric engineering specs and mathematically paradoxical building blueprints that cluttered the walls, ceiling, desks, and every other available surface didn’t fit with anything I’d seen so far. But it was more fundamentally different than could be accounted for by any of that. It didn’t belong. I knew, because she was sitting there. The girl with the raven hair.
She sat hunched over a notebook, furiously scrawling away. She didn’t see me as I lumbered in; she was too intent on her writing, like there was a bomb in the paper that would explode if she wrote less than 50 words a minute. As she wrote, something bizarre happened to everything else in the room. All of the notes and drawings and everything taped all over the walls and drawn on the blackboard pulsed, like they were trying to peel off of their surfaces and fly towards her.
“Hello,” I said. My voice cracked a little, because of course it did. “My name is Darius. I’ve been looking for you, and…”
Her head jerked up from her writing towards the sound of my voice. She looked straight at me, eyes wide.
“Darius?” she mouthed the words, but no sound came out. Then she said something else, something very urgent that I couldn’t make out.
“What are you saying?” I said, my voice thick with urgency. “I can’t understand.”
“You need…” and then a string of unintelligibility.
“What? I need what? Tell me!”
She started, as if she heard a terrifying sound. She looked behind her. Then she looked towards me, a look of terrified panic on her face. I blinked. For that micro moment while my eyes closed everything was dark.
Then I heard Axon’s voice in my head.
I’m glad you are finally seeing sense. Now let’s go. One more door.
I was standing outside the door I had just opened, my hand still on the handle. Apparently, I had never even opened it. Did I imagine all of that? No, it was too real. I was struck with a moment of ontological agony at the paradox of what had just happened, but it was balanced out by relief that I wouldn’t have to find out if Axon could make good on her monkey ass threat.
I turned, and ran towards the next door. One of the office workers, or slug blood cells, whatever the hell they were, stepped around a corner and into the hallway. A man in a dark grey suit. I almost collided with him, but at the last moment I dove to the side and narrowly avoided it. The momentum was too much, and I couldn’t slow myself down. I crashed into the door. It knocked the air out of my lungs.
“Excuse me?” The man turned around and looked me in the eye. “And who might you be? I don’t think I know you, and I know everyone around here, yes I do.”
Fuck. My cover is blown.
It’s okay, said Axon. Stay calm. They’ve noticed you, and will certainly do horrible things to each of your orifices if you give them the opportunity. But all you need to do is get through that door.
Right. Just needed to get through that door.
“Don’t mind me,” I said. “I’m just the new janitor. I just need to get into this door here, do a spot of cleaning.”
Why are you doing an Indian accent? asked Axon in my head.
It’s Pakistani. And I don’t know; I was nervous.
“The new janitor?” said office guy. “I didn’t hear anything about a new janitor. No, that doesn’t seem very likely at all. It’s not like we’re running out of janitors.” He turned around and called out to a woman at the other end of the hall, the only other person visible in this area, “Hey Meg, have you heard anything about a new janitor?”
Now’s your chance, said Axon. Go.
I turned around and faced the door. I took a deep breath, but chances were it was too late for that; he had already noticed me. I wouldn’t be able to hide. But like Axon said, this was it. Whatever mission goal I had in this place, with this package hanging under my left arm, was through this door. All I had to do was enter, and perform whatever task I needed to, and this would all be over. I reached down to turn the handle.
The door swung inward rapidly before I had a chance to touch it, and someone on the other side started to leap out into the hallway. Then she saw me, and she stopped. It was Decker, still wearing her ski mask, brandishing what looked like a chair leg in her hand like a weapon.
“Darius,” she said, “you’re here, awesome. Did you drop off the package? Can we get out of here, because there’s a lot of people right behind me just that would totally get off on killing us.”