It’s easy to come up with the most horrifying passage I’ve ever read, but I had to think a bit before coming up with “terrifying.” I’m not easily scared, but scary and terrifying are subtly different in that the terror seems to be more prolonged and speak to something deeper in the human psyche.
Rachel was almost dozing herself when – at 0215 — her comlog chirped, the detectors screamed, and she jumped to her feet. According to the sensors, the Sphinx had suddenly grown a dozen new chambers, some larger than the total structure. Rachel keyed displays and the air misted with models that changed as she watched. Corridor schematics twisted back on themselves like rotating Mobius strips. The external sensors indicated the upper structure twisting and bending like polyflex in the wind—or like wings.
Rachel knew it was some type of multiple malfunction, but even as she tried to recalibrate she called data and impressions into her comlog. Then several things happened at once.
She heard the drag of feet in the corridor above her.
All of the displays went dead simultaneously.
Somewhere in the maze of corridors a time-tide alarm began to blare.
All of the lights went off.
There follows a description of why the lights shouldn’t have gone off, the effect of which is to take our minds out of that primal terror-state and be analytical, something we’ve all done when we’re scared. But at the same time he’s doing this, Simmons is also subtly reinforcing that yes, she’s deep inside a structure created by tons of stone and with only narrow passages to get out again.
“Melio?” called Rachel into the blackness. “Tanya? Kurt?”
The scraping sounded very close. Rachel backed away, knocking over an instrument and chair in the blackness. Something touched her hair and she gasped, raised her hand.
The ceiling was lower. The solid block of stone, five meters square, slid lower even as she raised her other hand to touch it. The opening to the corridor was halfway up the wall. Rachel staggered toward it, swinging her hands in front of her like a blind person. She tripped over a folding chair, foun an instrument table, followed it to the far wall, felt the bottom of the corridor shaft disappearing as the ceiling came lower. She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off.
Rachel sat down in the darkness. An oscilloscope scraped against the ceiling until the table cracked and collapsed under it. Rachel moved her head in short, desperate arcs. There was a metallic rasp, almost a breathing sound, less than a meter from her. She began to back away, sloding across a floor suddenly filled with broken equipment. The breathing grew louder.
Something sharp and infinitely cold grasped her wrist.
Rachel screamed at last.
What I find most compelling here is how Simmons leverages so many human fears at the same time: the fear of being trapped, the fear of being alone, the fear of the dark, and the monster in the house. There’s the risk of dismemberment and the certitude of being crushed. And yet in the next scene, we find her physically whole, safe on a space station med center, and no one notices anything unusual about the readings on her devices. Did it happen at all? Which in and of itself adds to the horror of this scene. But yes, it did happen, and we come to find the permanent effect of this encounter over the next pages of the novel.
Jane Lebak’s first novel The Guardian will be re-released as The Wrong Enemy this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). She is one of the bloggers at QueryTracker.net, a resource for writers trying to find an agent. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children.