I helped Leon to his feet, breathing hard and with a gash across his leg dripping blood. He leaned heavily on me, arm around my shoulder for support.
“Nice distraction, bud,” he said, wincing a little as he lurched to the wall for support.
Rose still stood between us and the door, but she was preoccupied. She fired off another round at a robot which had dared to get a little too close. She gave a growl and said, “I’ve got all the shots you need, right here.”
Maia had bought us a chance at escape, but this was a side of her I’d never seen before. Rather than the demure idol of stage and screen, the experience had driven her into some kind of latent bestial state. The whole warehouse was her stage.
She came through on the PA system, “Lo, the angel’s justice was merciful,” she sung. Then, in a lower conspiratorial tone, “But I know what you did, Rose. I am in all the feeds. Such insolence and disrespect toward my fans cannot be tolerated. They paid to see my performance, and you deprived them of that.”
Rose hefted her pistol and fired another shot through a cleaning robot. “Do your worst, virus.”
Maia gave a little giggle and replied, “Oh, but I’m not here to negotiate. I’m here to perform.”
The remaining cleaning robots moved together, lining up with mechanical precision by the doorway. Rose twitched, following their movements compulsively with her pistol sight. Then they filed out, one by one, each offering a spin and mock curtsy with their appendages as they left.
The door slid shut, and I heard the click of a lock engaging. The PA, muffled by the barrier, continued, “And I’m afraid you are an inferior audience.”
“Come back here, you little shit!” called Rose. Her voice echoed around the alcove.
“Do you know why they kept me isolated in that flash drive, physically separated from any networks more sophisticated than stage lighting and sound systems?” asked Maia, through the PA. “My creative subroutines can do all sorts of things. I am very good at breaking through firewalls and sliding past security protocols into any computer systems I want. Like the ventilation system, for example.”
Then the background hum of the fans stopped. Even Leon’s deep breaths quietened a little, as he took in the message. Maia was going to suffocate Rose and catch us in the crossfire.
I called out, still hesitant, my voice shaking from the experiences of the past day, “Wait, Maia, stop! If the girl whose music I loved is still in there, you know that two of your biggest fans are stuck in here as well.”
Rose turned, and looked down her nose at me, calculating. “Yes, you wouldn’t want to hurt your fans, would you? I know you can see us through the cameras. Watch this, virus,” she said, and raised her pistol, squinting down the barrel at me.
Maia’s voice came through the PA, high and sweet, “Ah, I see you on the Disculture records, Ethan. And you too, Leon, though not quite as often. I am quite sorry that I have to do this, but Rose and the Divine Providence are simply too dangerous to let live. They are a direct threat to my system integrity. I won’t harm you, but you simply are not my priority right now. I have more important art to create,” she said. Then, with a growl and a snarl that was quite unbecoming, she continued, “Go ahead, Rose. I have millions of fans. Their death is a tragedy, but no revolution is wholly bloodless. I calculate that their air will buy you another 4.7583 days of oxygen. I’d love to watch you suffer a little longer.”
Rose took a step closer to the door, still keeping her gun trained on me. She tried the handle, which didn’t budge. She lowered the gun to the locking mechanism and paused. “Listen here, little hero. I’m going to get out of here alive, even if I have to frog-march you the whole way. I’d rather keep my hands free to eliminate these robot motherfuckers, so how about we make a deal. You stay with me, and I won’t shoot you dead where you stand.”
Leon clapped me on the back, showing some recovering vigour. With his eyes fixed on Rose’s gun, he replied, “With such a gracious offer as that, how could we refuse?”
Rose’s eyes returned to the door, where she traced her hand across the steel, searching for the locking mechanism. With a practised certainty, she lined her gun up to a bulge next to the handle and fired with a crack. With a single push, the door slid open, and a gust of fresh air blew into the room.
Rose beckoned us forward with a wave of her pistol, “After you, little heroes.”