Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol (Asimov's, Sept/Oct. 2010)

Once, David had dared to go to school without a two-millimeter layer of Vaseline slathered over his skin and hair.  He figured he was faster than the Neurals, he could dodge — but at lunch, Claw-Armed Hector used a sound-suppressor to glide up behind David.  David felt the edge of the comb-scraper riffling his hair and jumped away, but it was too late.
“Gotcha,” winked Hector, brandishing a handful of usable DNA at him.
A week later, and Claw-Armed Hector had made a little clone of David.  The Neurals had dressed it up in a football jersey with David’s number, three feet of hairy muscles wearing a contorted version of David’s face that looked like him taking a dump.  That was appropriate, because “taking a dump” was all the clone did; the Neurals brayed laughter as it scampered down the hallway and flung stringy feces at the back of David’s neck as he tried to ignore their screams of, “Runningback just wants to play catch, Piggie!  Go long, Piggie, go long!”
Thankfully, after a week Runningback peed an ugly soup-green, then shivered up and died.  David felt bad for it, but the Neurals just left the body in the hallway, gliding off in their gravchairs to torment somebody else.    When his Mom called the principal to complain, Professor Kakodkar just chuckled and said, “Well, Mrs. Carlisle, scientists will be scientists…”
The Neurals always could find interesting things to do with fresh jock DNA.  They’d made a tailored virus that made Allie swell up in boils for a week.  So David had learned to endure the stickiness and the fouled keyboards, and he never ever entered the brushed-metal halls of Bolyai High without sealing his skin off.
Except today, he’d overslept.
David burst through the school’s glassteel double-doors, late for class and hellishly unprotected, every inch of skin crawling.  He wanted to run through the crowds – he loved running – but instead he slumped down, trying to hide his height.  If he could look very small and inoffensive, maybe the Neurals wouldn’t notice him today.
Except maybe Valencia.  Valencia might save him if he explained that he’d tried to build a clock for her…
He ducked around a corner, and something grabbed at his shoulder.  He dove to one side before it could get purchase, heading for the safety of the locker rooms —  but someone tackled him to the floor.
“It’s just me, you big lunk,” said his best friend Allie, beaming with the pleasure of having wrestled him down.  “And you’re still too slow to corner.”
Allie wore her football jersey, her blonde hair pulled back into a thick, glistening rope.  David hated being around her when she wore that jersey – wearing the school colors was begging the Neurals to pick on you – but Allie shrugged it off.  “It doesn’t matter what we wear,” she said philosophically.
She gave him a quick squeeze, then frowned.  She cupped his chin in her palm.  “Are you unshined?”
“I overslept,” he grumbled, hoping she’d let it go at that – then dove for cover again as the wing of a juddering wasp-servo nearly sliced his forehead open.  He got back to his feet as it reoriented and zipped away, sending a cluster of preppies scattering.
“Five bucks says it fails,” Allie said, watching it struggle to carry a bottle of Bawls Guarana back to its owner.
“No deal,” David said.  It arced up to the ceiling to circle the fluorescent lights in sinking figure-eights, its antenna-sensors fixating on them like a moth.  AI routines were hard, even for Neurals – if David could only understand the principles behind wasp-servo flightpaths, then he could probably build a gravchair, and then he might become Valencia’s assistant…
Allie jarred him out of his reverie.  “Speaking of broken routines, why did you oversleep?”
“Allie, let’s head to class, it’s none of your – “
“As my star quarterback and best friend, you’re my business,” she said.  “So don’t lie.  Why?”
David slumped.  “I tried to build an alarm clock.”
What he didn’t say was how he’d lied to the clerk as he’d bought the Atomika Prefab Alarm Clock kit, telling her it was for his little brother.  The box said it was “a perfect introduction for third-grade adventurenauts to learn how to build a neutronium clock!” – but even though he was almost eight grades over the age minimum, he’d botched whiteboxing the circuitry.
Allie sighed, running her fingers through her hair in exasperation, then used the excess grease to smear her old Vaseline on David’s cheeks.
“David, I know Valencia stopped Intron’s nanobots from devouring your clothes last week — but she just wanted to crack his encryption matrix.  We’re all just lab mice to that girl.  Did you enjoy building that clock?”
David frowned.  “Maybe I just get tired of feeling dumb.”
“Maybe you should be tired of worrying what those stupid Neurals think about you.”
“I’ll stop that when they stop thinking I’m their chewtoy,” he grumbled.
Allie nodded in sad acknowledgement.  Allie didn’t like the Neurals, but she couldn’t ignore them.
“Got any more Vaseline?” David asked hopefully.
She rummaged around in her duffle bag and pulled out a small plastic container – just enough for emergency touch-ups.  “It’s all I have,” she said, then reached out to smear some on his arms.
“I’ll, uh, do it myself,” he mumbled, snatching the container out of her hands.  “Get to class, I’ll catch up.”
He knew Allie didn’t mind the freakishly hard bulges of his biceps, but his stomach still churned whenever anyone touched his body — especially Allie.  She was so disgustingly toned that you could actually see her muscles flexing underneath her skin; when her shirt hiked up, you could see her ribs, the concavity of her stomach.  And when they were together like this, with all the students staring at them as they marched by, it was as though her ugliness magnified his.
The first-period bell rang, oscillating up through the scale.  David’s stomach quivered; the Neurals had hacked the alarm system in yet another attempt to find the Brown Note.
“Well, now we’re both late for Robotics,” Allie said, crossing her arms.  “I’ll wait.”
“Thanks.”  He was glad to have Allie as a friend – he loved the way she went after anyone on the football field, no matter how big – but two jocks dating would be asking for new worlds of humiliation.
He ducked into the bathroom and smeared a thin layer of grease over his arms, sickened by the way it brought out the pukish brown of his tan.
They snuck in through the wide double-doors of the robotics lab.  They crouched behind the pallets of loose circuit-boards, avoiding the dim amber glow of the spectrum analyzers as they made their way to the front of the class.  David never knew what any of the big equipment did, aside from produce wriggling sine waves – but their heavy black cases gave them cover as they snuck towards the front of the room.
The robotics lab was so huge and spacious, yet the football field was a gopher-infested patch of unmowed lawn.  David felt a pang of envy as he and Allie padded towards Professor Oblongata’s droning voice.  There were rumors of backwater schools where people respected football – places where football had as much cachet as, say, the drama club.  And wouldn’t that be nice?
David saw Valencia, and froze.
She was at the front of the class with the Neurals as always, their gravchairs bobbing like silver buoys, but David could pick her out because of her paper-pale skin.  Valencia was Bolyai High’s top science whiz, and had the flesh to prove it – a body that had barely seen sunlight, but lit up beautifully when the hails of electric sparks rained down and she raised her flabby arms in triumph.  He imagined slipping his arms around Valencia’s perfectly pear-shaped body…
Allie jammed her elbow in his ribs.  “Stop gawking and find a seat,” she hissed.
They crept into the back, where the jocks and burnouts sat.  Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to sneak by Professor Oblongata; she’d been one of Bolyai High’s most promising graduates until a lab experiment had blinded her.  Now she had two webcams jammed into her eyesockets, which she claimed allowed her to see in every spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet, but everyone knew her motion sensors were glitched; if you moved slow around her, she almost never noticed.
“…and that’s how you create a field-programmable gate array using a hyperdimensional whitebox,” she finished.
A couple of seats over, Freddie Kossover raised his hand.  Freddie was half a head taller than David, an outfielder on the understaffed baseball team, and looked just as confused as David felt.
“Ma’am, I barely know what a whitebox is,” he stammered.  “Or why I’d use a gate array over a, a…”
“Digital signal processor?” Valencia sniggered, leaning back like a queen in her custom-built gravchair.  Her sycophants thumbed buttons on their armrests; “RTFM, N00B” holograms popped up to do insulting dances, just before the additional strain on their power supplies sent their floating chairs rattling down to the linoleum.
Professor Oblongata’s scarred lips pulled up in disgust.
“You should have been thirsting for knowledge, Frederick,” she said, slapping her palms onto Freddie’s desk, “You should have been reading manuals, looking up schematics, figuring things out on your own.  It’s not my job to save you — nor can I at this point.  The world has left you behind.  What did you do all those years, Freddie?  Played ball?”
Freddie’s lip quivered.  Valencia tapped a button; a holographic bugle glimmered into existence and played “Taps.”
“Too late now, I’m afraid,” said the Professor, limping to the front of the room to stand proudly among the Neurals.  “Some of us will never understand why a digital signal processor is best used in artificial intelligences with pathfinding requirements… And others will master that technology.”  She rapped her leather-gloved knuckles briskly on Valencia’s forcefield, producing a shower of sparks.
Valencia looked up at the professor with a loving respect.  David quivered with jealousy.
“If the professor is so smart,” Allie whispered, “Why isn’t she making a fortune off her patents?”
“I assign you to smarter students,” Professor Oblongata continued, “In the faint hope you’ll scavenge some crumbs of knowledge.  Today, you geniuses will teach the dimwits how to fabricate AI circuits using a nanobit whitebox.”  The Neurals groaned; the professor held up a finger.  “Tut!  Valencia!  You’re with Carlisle today.”
David leapt to his feet, standing at attention as the professor called out the other pairings – but Valencia looked past him, searching the class.
“You’re with Piggie,” Claw-Armed Hector told her.
“Oh, him,” Valencia said.  She sailed past David without a glance.
Crushed, he followed her to her workstation, which had a pair of spotless whiteboxes nested in tangles of wires.  Dust motes winked out of existence as they kissed the whitebox’s translucent frame; it absorbed dust and stray particles to use in its fabber engine.
“We’re supposed to make a visual tracking chip,” she said absently, scanning the broadcast schematics.  “Too simple.  Let’s make a six-foot robot that kills flies with a paperclip Gatling gun.”
“S-sure,” David said.  Maybe she’d need a case welded together – he was good at doing stuff with his hands.
“I didn’t ask for permission, Piggie.  Now go fetch me 5ccs of mercury and a jar of grapheme while I hack these paltry antiques.”
When he returned she was rewiring the whitebox, giving David time to sneak a glance at her.  She sure knew how to dress – a black “GOT ROOT?” T-shirt with stylish orange Cheeto smears, overalls, perfectly mismatched socks.
“Uploading the schema to the boxen,” she announced, dumping the materials into the input slots and pulling brass goggles down over her eyes.  The sparkles on the generators shifted spectrum from an opalescent white to a deep, molten red.  Acrid smoke squirted out the sides.
“Valencia,” he said.
“Not now,” she said, looking down at her holodisplay.  “I’m calculating the gear ratios for the central motor.”
“But Valencia…”
She was scowling at her CAD program, dragging schemata on top of each other.  The boxes began to emit a shrill whine, rattling on the countertop as the glass began to crack.
Valencia!” he cried, tackling her away – but it was like bellyflopping onto a hot grill.  His shirt caught fire, blistering his stomach as his body flattened against her force field; it flexed like a balloon.  The motors in her gravchair whirred as they fought to keep her upright, her emergency wheels scraping a rubbery squeak across the floor.
To his embarrassment, the boxes didn’t even explode – they just collapsed inwards with a pathetic tinkle.
Valencia frowned as equations streamed across her readouts.  David braced himself for punishment.  If he’d damaged her chair, he might wind up smashed through a wall, or miniaturized, or  —
But when she looked up, those beautifully gray eyes stared at his arms with wonder.  She chuckled, exposing perfectly yellowed teeth as she nudged her gravchair closer to him.
“The accelerometers show they dampened a shock-force of almost 89Gs.  That’s in the ninety-fifth percentile – quite an anomalous cluster of muscle mass you’re packing there.” She reached out to stroke his biceps, tracing their muscle structure.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re heroic, too.” She palpated his shoulder experimentally, and he felt like his knees had melted; he grabbed the counter for support.  “You could have just taken cover.”
“I wanted you safe.”
“Excellent motivation,” she murmured, licking her perfectly chapped lips.  “So, Piggie – ever been to a science fair?”
Allie stepped in between them.  “His name’s David,” she said.  “He can’t build a damn thing.”
David should have been angry, but when Valencia smiled like that he felt as weightless as a Neural in a gravchair.  He stepped around Allie to put his hands on Valencia’s console.
“I’ve built stuff,” he begged.  “Not good stuff, but I try hard.  Real hard.”
“All good heroes try hard,” she purred.  “I’ve got an opening on my crew for someone who’s not scientifically gifted.  Someone who’s willing to delve the depths of his strength.  Give me a DNA sample for access, and you’ve got an invite to this Saturday’s fair.”
She fished a buccal swabbing kit out from her toolbox.  She was asking for prime DNA from live cheek cells – full chains, not stray snippets extracted from dead hair.
Allie grabbed his arm.  The other Neurals crowded around them.
“David,” she whispered, “They’re sniggering.”
They were.  But Valencia wasn’t.  Her cool gaze held no promises; she merely waggled the swab at him.
“They won’t be laughing come Saturday.”  He jabbed the cotton tip into his mouth, then offered it to Valencia.  “Count me in.”
David drove out from the suburbs, hoping no one would see him in a dirty puttering car as he steered the Pinto out to the farms at the outskirts of town.  Only preps and jocks lived in the suburbs, tiny places where your lawn had barely enough room for a toolshed workshop.  Valencia’s mom, flooded with money after she’d invented a method of accelerating isotope decay, had bought a sprawling farm for her experimental facilities.  The old cornfields had been cut down and buried under clean white corridors filled with cutting-edge equipment – the perfect place for a weekend science fair.
He called Allie again; no answer.  She hadn’t talked to him since he’d accepted the invite, which sucked.  Here was his big day, and it felt empty without her.  Why couldn’t she just be happy for him?
His shoulders ached as he turned the steering wheel, but the pain comforted him – he’d been bench-pressing way past his limit for the past two days, hoping to impress Valencia.  He’d even bought a lab coat, and though the largest size was still too small for him, he looked stylish.
As he pulled up to the house, Valencia’s lab was as impressive as he’d dreamed – a huge wooden dome nailed together in a mostly-circular shape by her family workbots, shimmering with hologram-projected neon colors.  He stopped, breathless, as the dome became the Earth – and then a series of volcanic eruptions formed a jagged “V,” scarring the face of North America.
The hulking sentrybot analyzed a lock of David’s hair then unlocked the gear-gates… And David realized that this was not just a science fair, but a Darwin Dance.
All Bolyai High’s most accomplished Neurals were here, shuttling back and forth between steel vats, the motions of their gravchairs stirring patterns in the oily meat-smoke that clung to the floor.  There were dangle-armed monstrosities suspended in vats of green fluid; thorned tentacles flopped out of the murk as each Neural strived to force-evolve their creations into the deadliest bio-soldiers.  He could smell the vomitous stink as the assistants hauled the slick, tumorous failures out of the vats and shoved them into the incinerator.
David flexed his hands eagerly.  He could drag bodies.
He searched the crowd for Valencia – but as the doorway ratcheted shut behind him, all the gravchairs hummed to a stop; the Neurals revolved to face him.  Claw-Armed Hector stuck out one gleaming arm to point at him, a diamond-tipped laser winking angrily on the end.
“First level,” he declared.
Malicious laughter rippled through the crowd.  The Neurals closed in, and David shrunk away from the glint of their force fields.  His feet felt too heavy – he had no chair to lift him up…
They backed away as Valencia coasted up behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder.  Her touch was firm, possessive.
Third level,” she riposted.
Hector chuckled.  “TPK.  Guaranteed.”
David didn’t like the way they encircled him.  They seemed to be stalking him, like cats.  He pressed against Valencia’s chair for protection, and realized with a thrill that he was touching warm metal; she’d let down her forcefield for him.
“You want me to haul bodies for you?” he asked, eager to satisfy.  “I’ve been working out…”
She laughed, amused, and once again he felt that humiliating rush of gratitude.  She glided towards the center of the room, parting the Neurals before her.
“I bet you have, David,” she purred; he trotted behind, trying to keep up.  “In fact, I’ve bet on your strength.  Ever read Tolkien?”
“I never got into that fantasy stuff,” he said.  “It was too fake.”
“Fake?” she retorted.  “Do you know how linguistically consistent the Elvish language is?”
The Neurals laughed again, and he wanted to say that it wasn’t the language that was fake, but the fights.  Allie liked to read fantasy books out loud and then have them reenact the fights exactly as described, which invariably ended with them falling over in an unbalanced Twister pile.  But he couldn’t say that; it’d just remind them that he played sports.
Then again, he’d never understood why they should be reading books.  Why press your nose to a page when there was an outdoors to explore?  He and Allie both adored the simplicity of running across the football field on a hot summer day, feeling their legs pumping, exulting in the way their bodies pluck footballs out of mid-air.  He loved the squeeze of Allie’s arms around his ribs when she tackled him, the smell of being mashed into the grass.
For the first time, it occurred to him that the Neurals only learned how the world worked so they could turn it into something else.
“I just don’t like fantasy, is all,” he said, and was surprised to find no hint of apology in his voice.
“Of course,” she said.  “You probably don’t read much.  But smart students love fantasy.  We play D&D in our spare time.  Ever roleplayed?”
“Once or twice,” he said.  The math had confused him.
“Enough to know the basics, then,” she said.
A trap door opened up underneath him.
David flailed at empty air as he dropped straight down.  He rolled with the fall, landing on a pile of straw before he smashed his forehead into a stone wall.  Blood spattered onto the flagstones.
Flagstones? he thought, feeling the first sickening glimmers that Allie was right.
He peered through the shadows; the walls were made of limestone blocks, furred with mold, lit by blazing torches jammed into iron holders.  It was a small room, maybe ten feet by ten feet wide, with a shut, iron-banded door leading out to the north.  Fluorescent light streamed down from the party above, broken only by the shadowed tops of gravchairs poking in as the Neurals peered down.
A set of brown shoulder pads rested on a wooden table.  He picked it up; it was made of hardened leather.
“We got curious,” Valencia said.  “How accurate were those hit point stats?  What were the to-hit roll percentages in real life?  It occurred to us that there’d be a lucrative market for the first scientifically-tested roleplaying system.  And there was only one way to get that information…”
He wiped the blood from his eyes.  “You want me to fight?”
“Think of the applications for videogames, David!  Statistically-correct fighting tables!  Even the military might want in!”
He shuddered at the thought; he’d kicked the clone-monkey of himself once, and even though it was halfway dead it had still been able to stuff him into a locker.
“You should be complimented, David; after that chair-shove you gave me, I rated you at 16 strength.  Tonight you’ll prove that you are a third-level fighter!”
“I’m not budging,” he said, checking his cell phone; of course it was jammed.
“Finicky roleplayers always need a motivation,” she sighed.  “But no worries, I gave you one.  You, David – you must save the princess!”
A cloudy pool of smoke rose up at his feet, an effect spoiled by the choppy resolution of the holocams embedded in the floor.  The cloud dissolved to reveal Allie, dressed in an unflattering chainmail bikini, fastened to a workbench with bungee cords.  Behind her, a seething mass of tentacles lashed against a precariously thin force-wall.  Allie yanked at the cords, her face red with fear – and David leapt at the pool as if he could save her, feeling dumb when his hands splashed around in the light.
“She’s in no real danger,” Valencia reassured him.  “Well, probably.  That is a Shoggoth-class biohazard.  All you need to do is get to the end of the dungeon before it breaks loose.”
“This isn’t science!” he yelled.  “It’s just… crazy!”
“Now, now.  You won’t get a cut of the proceeds if you keep that up.  Hurry, now – I don’t know how long my force field will hold back my little love-craft…”
She tossed a sword down; it clanged off the flagstones.
With a growl, David hooked his fingers into the cracks in the stone walls.
The Neurals backed away, exchanging worried glances; they were so used to their gravchairs that it had never occurred to them that someone might simply climb out.  David felt the power in his arms as he hauled himself upwards, watched them flinch backwards…
The limestone peeled away underneath his fingers.
David’s ass hit the floor.  He clutched two rectangular tiles of façade in his hand; they’d been hot-glued to the wall, and now two squares of modern cinderblock looked out at him.
Valencia regained the presence of mind to mash the button that slammed the ceiling shut.  But even though he was trapped again, David felt better.  Valencia’s family had a lot of workbots, but even she couldn’t dig a full dungeon.  They’d just tricked out her basement to look cool.
Better yet, they’d been afraid of him.
David put on the leather armor over his lab coat.  The sword had the words “+1: MAGIC” engraved on the hilt, but when he swung it experimentally a gyroscope buzzed and threw off his aim.
David tried to remember what sorts of things were in dungeons as he tugged the doorhandle.  It was hard to see through the smoke of the guttering torches, but he could just make out a long, wide corridor with the same limestone pattern – and…
A hulking bruiser, its bloodied knuckles brushing the floor.  It held a Louisville Slugger with crooked nails hammered into the end.
“Goddammit, Valencia,” he whispered under his breath.
“Get moving, David,” Valencia’s voice buzzed in his ear.  “I promise you the Princess is in this castle, but I don’t know how long she’ll last.”
He sized up the brute.  It stared at the wall across from it, waiting for David to make his entrance.  It dug a finger deep into its nose, so far back David could swear it was scratching the back of its skull, then pulled it out with a slorp.  Then it let the hand drop back down to the floor, disinterested in it and everything else.
It looked sad to David.  It was just dead inside until he showed up.  And after their battle, win or lose, Valencia would incinerate it like so much scratch paper.  This thing was designed to be used, discarded, and forgotten.
David knew that feeling.
He charged down the hallway, determined not to kill it.
But his sword whirred eagerly, drawing its attention.  David was surprised how slow it was, moving with arthritic reluctance – but it bared sharpened teeth at him, raising its bat high to smash him down.
He head-faked left and juked right, leaping strong, flinching as the end of the bat splintered near his heels.
“Our first dodge!  Start populating those combat tables, folks!” Valencia said.
“Goddammit, this isn’t funny!” he shouted, ducking as it grabbed for him.  He raced down the hallway, determined to leave the bruiser alive just to spite Valencia.
His sneakers slapped against the flagstones with a scuffing noise, which turned rapidly to a plastic, hollow thrap.
David dropped the sword and hurled himself forward just as a door salvaged from the lid of an old dumpster pivoted downwards to reveal a ten-foot pit.  His knees banged against solid stone.
“Okay, that jump was five hundred – ” Valencia said, and a sharp squeal of feedback arced into silence.
He turned just in time to watch the sword plunge into the pit.  Lathed wooden stakes poked out of fresh loam.  Are they trying to kill me? he wondered — then realized they probably had experimental healing potions to try on him.
The bruiser was still coming for him.  It had his face.  Now he knew why Valencia wanted his DNA.
It jogged to the edge of the pit.  It was maybe eight feet wide, easily crossable with a running leap for something that big.  But it wasn’t bright enough to understand that it needed forward momentum – so instead, it took a standing jump, almost a hop.
It almost made it.
Its chest smacked against the side of the pit.  It squealed in panic, its hands scrabbling on the flagstones for purchase.  Its face had the same brainless fear David had when he ran through Bolyai High’s hallways …
David grabbed its hand.
Its clammy skin felt like raw chicken underneath his fingers.  He heaved backwards.  As the bruiser realized what David was doing, it cooed like a startled baby.
“Come on!” David screamed, tugging.  It was too heavy, still falling towards the stakes.
But it fell slowly.  The bruiser’s spadelike feet pushed the stakes aside.
It grunted.  Then it hunched down and leapt upwards, its hands hooking over the lip of the pit like a basketball player going for the dunk.
David scrabbled backwards.  It grabbed his foot and clambered out, pushing itself up with its free hand, its muscles bulging like tires about to blow…
It let him go and stood up.
David would have preferred a slobbering hug as confirmation that it wasn’t going to kill him, but understood that was too much to ask.  The brute was not – and never would be – a cuddler.  Instead, it gave him the disinterested look that a cat gave to a mouse that wasn’t quite worth eating.
“I’m… going to go,” David said.
It rumbled past him towards the other end of the hallway, which opened onto a circular stone chamber.  There were three doors with three separate carvings — a treasure chest, a blurred cat, a bundle of twigs.
The brute walked to a blank section of wall and punted, hard, into the limestone tiles.  The tiles shattered, revealing a metal door.
A secret passage, he thought.  Of course.
The brute kicked again and the door crumpled inwards, revealing a maintenance tunnel with fluorescent lights, snaking cables, half-built props.  David walked in.
“You coming?” he asked, looking back, but the bruiser had returned to its post in the hallway.  He supposed a personal escort had been too much to ask.  David ducked into the tunnel, weaponless; the far end was obscured by thin tendrils of smoke.
The hallway opened up to reveal the restraining cages they’d used to move the monsters to their starting locations.  David realized that this wasn’t a door that he’d been meant to discover; it was the way they’d brought the bruiser in, and the only way it knew out.
He waited for some protest from Valencia as he entered the backstage.  None came.
The hallway arced around to a control center, a semicircular bank of monitors and fader switches.  Masking-tape labels listed the horrors he’d been scheduled to face: KOBOLD TRAP, DISPLACER BEAST, MIMIC.  But half the monitors were staticky, and the remaining cameras showed nothing but smoke and flame.  A spilled can of Bawls Guarana dripped caffeine into the control panel, evidence that the directors of tonight’s performance had rushed off.
What’s going on here? David wondered, searching the screens for signs of Allie.  She wasn’t there, and he wasn’t sure what he’d do if she was hurt.
A distant ululation echoed down the hallways.  A thud shook the hallway.
He took off down the tunnel, feeling the bite of the smoke in his lungs.  He ran all the way towards the last door, labeled with a sign saying “BOSS BATTLE” — and was surprised to find Allie running back down the corridor to meet him, the links of her flimsy chainmail bikini disintegrating with each succeeding step.  She covered her breasts when she noticed him, blushing.
He flung his armor to the ground, wrapped his lab coat around her.  “How did you – ?” he asked.
“They’re good with force fields,” she said, shivering miserably.  “But the bastards can’t tie a knot to save their lives.  Come on, David, we have to go – “
“What’s happened?”
“The shoggoth self-evolved past their restraints.  Really, they should have seen that coming.  Come on, there’s no time for questions – “
But he had to know.  He kissed Allie on the forehead, then stepped past her to peer through the final door.  They’d laid out a huge, alien temple for David to fight in, but the monster had broken free.  It clawed its way towards the generators, its body sweating acid, eating ragged holes in its own skin; it heaved against the ceiling in anguish, threatening to collapse the dome with its dying convulsions.  Its tentacles snapped out to grab the Neurals and their assistants as they rushed to euthanize it; they looked panicked, like ants trying to swarm an anteater.
Valencia led the charge, firing rockets at the thing’s star-shaped head.  But as David watched it surged forward to grab her, its coiled appendages sinking through her force field.  She screamed in protest as it reeled her in.  Her acolytes burned the tentacles away with lasers, but its acid ate into her face…
In a flash, David saw Valencia years from now, her cheeks so scarred that bits of grooved jawbone poked out, teaching a class she hated, enduring a thousand dim students to try to find the one who might succeed where she had failed.  And every night she’d lie in bed with the knowledge that if she was lucky she might, might be a footnote in someone else’s biography, all her futures squandered, the best years of her life long gone.
All of this would pass, and make way for them.
“Hey,” he said to Allie, who was standing behind him; she was covering a guilty smile as she watched Valencia shrieking orders.
“Forgive me?” he asked.
Beaming, she took his hand.  They grinned at each other with the knowledge that their best days were all ahead – a smaller future, perhaps, but one that was only going to get better as time went on.
“Come on,” he said as the explosions began.  “Let’s run.”