Chapter 2 of this story (there will be 4 chapters in total). Part 1, along with the synopsis, disclaimer, etc can be found here.Teaser:
A sheen passed over her eyes; the colour leaching away, pupil and iris and white blending together, becoming glittery like glass, shiny like the surface of a mirror. Flickers passed across the blank surface of her eyes, too fast to track; numbers and words and pictures, breaking down into the 1s and 0s of binary code, sleeting across the reflective surface.
The redhead began reciting something that sounded vaguely poetic, but otherwise just like gibberish to the brunette. One word - perhaps a name? - seemed to recur frequently. A faint tingling like static electricity started in her hands, crept up her arms, making the hairs stand on end. She felt a pulling sensation, a tugging that threatened to turn her inside out; but she'd felt it before, and knew not to fight against it. To surrender, let herself fall, feel the exhilarating rush of the energy flowing through, past and out of her instead of fighting painfully to keep it in, trusting only that her lover would take just enough, and not too much...
And then it was over, sharp and abrupt, as the redhead lifted up her hands and put them onto the keyboard... no, into the keyboard, as her fingers sank in as if the plastic had become water. A sheen passed over her eyes; the colour leaching away, pupil and iris and white blending together, becoming glittery like glass, shiny like the surface of a mirror. Flickers passed across the blank surface of her eyes, too fast to track; numbers and words and pictures, breaking down into the 1s and 0s of binary code, sleeting across the reflective surface.
High walls of green glass stretched up around her, curving like the inside of a womb, meeting high overhead. Motes of electricity danced in the refracted light shining in from all around; whispers and ruffles and a noise like distant waves sighed in her ears. Willow looked at herself reflected in the viridescent surface – cartoon-red hair, silver eyes, simplified features: an avatar. Thousands of avatars, stretching into infinity as the round glass walls caught her reflection, split and multiplied it. Above her, a glowing portal spilled a river of light into the gleaming chamber, pouring over the edge and disappearing into the floor. She concentrated on it, and within an instant she was standing in the portal, the stream washing around her without touching her. Another moment and she was outside. Endless blackness enveloped her, lit by distant stars and wheeling constellations. When she concentrated, she could see the myriad silver and golden rivers connecting them all, tying them together into a vast interconnected web of light.
Her eye fell on the nearest flowing stream, and without further thought she was in it, floating down the current. Behind her, the green glowing dome she’d left shrank instantly to a tiny, achingly beautiful model floating in the blackness. A small green apple, with the Greek word καλλίστη engraved in rather clumsy golden letters on the side. She smiled fondly at the multiple meanings.
The apple was hers, of course. None of the imagery around her was strictly necessary: it just made it easier to interact with this new world if it was represented in familiar ways. Plus, it was pretty. An apple had seemed the most obvious symbolic representation for her PowerBook, back when she’d first laid out the parameters. But she’d brought her girlfriend with her into this world a few times, to share the adventure with her, and it’d been Kennedy who’d added the writing to the apple. “For the most beautiful”. Because that’s who she was in Kennedy’s eyes, and the warmth and wonder that thought still awoke in her every time she read it never failed to inspire her. And on the other hand, the Apple of Discord was a harbinger of war, death, suffering and apocalypse; and sometimes it didn’t hurt to remind herself of what she was capable of. What she once almost did.
What she might be on the receiving end of, if things went wrong now. Another moment’s thought and she was hurtling along the shining pathways, following the route she’d set up manually earlier. Galaxies wheeled and plunged around her, she burst through a hundred new worlds and out the other side, speeding as fast as a photon, and then coming to a halt in front of a vast, perfect sphere, all dark and unreflective like cold iron, absorbing the heat and light from its surroundings.
She lay her hands on the outside, and a portal opened in the featureless sphere. She stepped inside, and then was almost sick with vertigo as the walls dropped away and she found herself at the edge of a bottomless abyss. Far, far away, a ledge on the other side taunted her with its promise of safety.
“OK. Probably a 16-digit passcode. 16 platforms. I can do this”
She closed her eyes and concentrated.
Back in the darkened hotel room, lit only by the flicker of the screens, the redhead’s breathing slowed, only the ceaseless glitter from her eyes sparkling faster than ever. Her anxiously waiting companion watched her carefully, biting her lip in a nervousness she rarely let any outsider see.
Willow’s eyes opened again: and there, floating in the void, was the barest shadow, a glimmer of light. Fighting terror, she stepped out onto it; and almost collapsed with relief when it bore her weight. One down. Now for the second… an eternity slipped by, and there it was. Off to the left, a long pace out over a million miles of nothingness. She took the step, carefully not looking down until she was safely stood there, then looked back…only to whimper in fear as the platform she’d just left faded from sight.
No going back.
There was a wind here in the abyss, a hungry wind that wanted to claim her, pull her down with it. Faint voices seemed to chitter on the edge of hearing, calling her down to them. “Just my imagination,” she said to herself firmly. But unfortunately, the rest of her body found her imagination remarkably convincing. Summoning up every reserve of courage and determination she had, she forced herself to concentrate on visualising the third platform. And then the fourth, and then the fifth…
Here, she had no heart to pound in her chest. No breath to catch in her throat. No glands to flood her body with adrenaline, no sweat to bead cold on her brow and run down her back. Only an occasional flicker in her avatar marked the stress of that crossing, and after twenty lifetimes (5.39 seconds by the clock) she crossed to the safety of the other side.
Relative safety. She knew that every step she took now would be recorded, logged. Random security programs would check her connection, try to locate and identify it. She’d done everything she could to delay that process: set up false leads, disguised her identity; but she knew it would only slow down the security programs. Eventually they’d find her – unless she was already long gone. So, with only a moment to catch her breath, she set off deeper into the construct.
Here past the security barrier the environment took on more of the appearance of a corporate office building, although the iron-grey colour scheme remained. Corridors stretched away into the distance, signs over each turn-off indicating directions: Human Resources, Client Database, Special Projects, Demon Resources, Files and Records, Finance… seeing the last sign, she turned in that direction and picked up the pace, striding down the steel corridor confidently. She even recovered something of her sense of humour. “Look at me,” she thought, “Challenging a perfect, immortal machine… only not so much with the panting and sweating, ‘cause that would be gross.” Moments later, she passed through another portal and found herself at her destination. Grinning in triumph, she sat cross-legged in the middle of the room, cupped her hands, then opened them to reveal a gleaming crystal orb which she set on the ground in front of her.
In her visualisation, this place looked much like a bank vault, its walls lined with rows of safety deposit boxes stretching high overhead. Each was locked, of course: the individual security on each account was probably as strong or stronger than that on the system as a whole. She could have cracked into them, of course, given time… but time was very much a finite resource at the moment. Fortunately there was a better way, which was why her intrusion had been so carefully planned for this precise occasion. It was month-end, when clients settled their accounts, bills were paid and staff salaries disbursed; and when…
…there was a click and one of the vault doors swung open. Seconds later it closed again, but too late: she’d logged the combination. W&H.AR.5624554523c56gh3. She picked up her crystal and touched it to the door: nothing happened for a second, and if she had breath here she’d be holding it… but then the door clicked again and it was open. No time to waste: in her hands there was suddenly a sack, and she began to pull out crisp bundles of cash from the vault and shovel it into the bag. In reality, of course, she was transferring electronic funds through a complex series of cut-outs and relays to a blind account she and Kennedy had set up earlier that week, relying on a combination of her computer skills and Kennedy’s financial acumen to keep it secure and secret; but the sack metaphor was more fun. In a fit of whimsy, she’d even inscribed the word ‘swag’ in big letters on the side of the bag. Before long the vault was empty, and she waited, for seconds only, until a second vault door opened further down the room.
Once again the crystal absorbed the combination, and she hurried to open the vault. This one, though, had very little money in it… probably just petty cash or an individual project account. She checked the time nervously: there was probably still enough leeway for one more before she would have to leave, or –
There was absolutely no warning at all, and only some sixth sense allowed her to roll desperately to one side as the razor-sharp, metre-long blade scraped down her side and embedded itself deep in the floor instead of piercing her heart. Gasping with pain, the crystal clattering unheeded from her hand onto the floor, she turned – and looked into the eyes of nightmare.
Glittering, cold, black and evil. Multiple limbs of coiled wire and steel. Claws like swords. It pulled itself free of the earth with contemptuous ease and fixed its poisonous gaze on her, poised to spring, to tear, to rend…
To be continued...