Copyright 2001 R. Christina Lea. All rights reserved. CLICK HERE to return.


Digital Howl: Part 3

The darkness seemed to take hold of her and drag her down even faster as she fell. The tiny splash of light on the platform, where she had fought Rathlind, shrank and vanished, consumed by the hungry darkness. She had time to consider her imminent death. Her enhanced regeneration wouldn't save her from a fall like this.

Then the impact shattered all her thoughts. The surface broke and pulled her under, surrounding her. Glowing shapes swirled around her. She could feel the darkness pressing in on her as she blacked out. A final image of Rathlind leered down at her out of the darkness before the end.

The echo of the fall died out. The ripple of waves on the sloping steel shore slowly quieted. Then there was a splash and a slap, followed by another. Something dragged across the floor, dripping and coughing as it went. Then there was a splatter of soaked clothing and flesh collapsing on the ground. The void was silent.

Caraway clawed her way up from unconscious darkness into waking darkness. She was laying on her stomach on a smooth, cold surface and her clothes and hair were soaked. She sat up, checked herself for wounds and found none. Her right leg was sore, however, and the blade assembly wasn't functioning. Luckily, it was already retracted. She wondered when she had done that.

She looked around, straining to penetrate the opaque atmosphere. Then she smiled and pressed a button on her watch. A pale glow spread out in front of her. She was surprised at how bright it seemed. She stood up and winced as pain shot through her right leg from the damaged cyber-systems.

The waterway she had crawled out of was a wide, straight channel stretching out of sight in both directions. (She shuddered at the thought that she might have been immersed in overflow from the Potomac.) Her light didn't shine far enough to see anything above or around her. As she turned, though, she saw what seemed to be an answering light in the distance.

Quickly, she let go of the button and stared at the weak, pulsing glow. The world around her gradually solidified in the new light. She could see huge concrete vats connected by pipes rising into the abyss. As she stared, she could hear and feel the sound of old machinery shuddering to life. Curious, she limped slowly towards the light.

It was flanked by a pair of twisting columns formed from pipes and cables stretching up out of sight. The thing itself looked something like a giant pupa case. It was smooth and organically rounded, and the metal (?) had a strange luster. Gleaming copper spines projected into the ground in line with several ridges that ran along the thing's surface. As she approached, a lizard that had been sitting on top of it scurried away. She touched the casing and a screen that she hadn't noticed flared with green light, nearly blinding her.

A single row of characters appeared on the screen. "Good morning, Doctor Marriot." Caraway froze. She knew Doctor Marriot. She had studied him in depth. He was the principal researcher on the original vampire treatment and the founder of the gang that Rathlind had just wiped out. When Marriot left Tsuriago and tried to take all his research with him, she had tracked him down, killed him, and taken his place. It wasn't just the mention of his name that sent panic crawling over her skin on spider legs, though. It was his reflection smiling at her in the screen. He was standing behind her.

***

Rathlind paced angrily back and forth in Khabarov's tiny apartment. He stopped and stared at Balthazar, working in the computer station, for awhile.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," Balthazar said, "I'm having enough trouble sorting out all of this bastard's systems without you distracting me."

Rathlind snarled. He had grown fangs after recovering from his fight with Caraway. He started pacing again. Then he stopped, looked around warily, and darted out the door. Balthazar stared after him, then went back to work. Joining Rathlind's cause had given him new life, and he was determined not to fail his new master. Still, there were things about Khabarov's computers that he hadn't mentioned to Rathlind. There were certain facts - options - that he was putting aside for later.

***

Multicolored sunlight waves crashing waving vines live wires thrashing sparking whipping snakes writhing hissing knitting themselves into a tapestry of awareness ... and suddenly he was alive.

Alexis Khabarov sat up and unplugged the ESP cable from the back of his neck. The hibernation coffin had already disengaged its various life-support connections and opened automatically. He had been living through an Environment Simulation Program until now, controlling a specially prepared host body while his real body slept safely. Now the host was dead, and Rathlind had his computer center.

He tried to put together what he knew of Rathlind while he got out of the coffin and got dressed. Not enough. There was no way he could have known when and how to strike to get past those security systems. Khabarov shuddered at the memory of his encounter with Rathlind. The maniacally grinning face was frozen in his mind, but beyond the feral snarl, the eyes were empty, almost serene. And familiar.

Suddenly Khabarov froze and smiled. He shook his head and chuckled quietly to himself. He remembered looking in the mirror at his puppet body. It was a fully functional human body, but there had been something odd about the eyes. It was the same dead glaze he had seen in Rathlind's eyes. Rathlind wasn't just a crazed solo killing everything in sight. He was part of something.

***

Caraway spun to face her enemy and drew back for a punch, but Marriot wasn't there. She didn't exactly see the presence in front of her. Before she could move, it plunged its fist into her skull. The darkness shattered and suddenly she saw everything around her in sharp resolution.

Then those images dissolved as well, and she could feel the pulsing flow of information that gave life to the metroplex. She could see into every machine connected to that network, feel the touch of every operator using it.

The hum of data sang to her. It drew her out of herself and into an ethereal euphoria. She felt herself expand beyond this metroplex, into the whole internal network of the country.

As she sank deeper and deeper into the astral symphony, she became aware of something else. Beneath the music, there was another sound, a scream cutting through the whole pattern, twisting every chord. The scream jolted her back into her body and flooded her nerves with fire. She sank to her knees and echoed the inhuman cry with her own voice, then her head dropped and her arms sank limply to her sides.

When she looked up again, it was through cold, reptilian eyes.

 
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Copyright 2001 R. Christina Lea. All rights reserved. CLICK HERE to return.