Light and darkness spun around her. Althea stumbled into space. She slipped out of control, falling forward – reacted automatically – legs and arms extended, palms flat; fingers outstretched.
She felt sudden solidity. The vertigo and free fall spinning slowed, stopped.
Althea collapsed on a hard, cold surface, shuddering. Her body curled up in defensive instinct. Lights flashed around her, the portal roared its chimes – and against that – saturating Mirror Maze visions warred.
…“Your Consortia crutches!” …“Who will save you?!” …opponent is playing …taunting …earth shakes …taller than buildings …puppets …corpore …beyond arrogance! …thoughtless amusement …so fast …blow after blow …again and again …taste of blood …swing and kick …fist against flesh …measure and lunge…
The air, sharp and cold, brought her back to reality. She willfully calmed her racing heart and mind.
Althea pulled herself to her knees, fought the dizziness, turned to look at the silvery light beaming from the active portal looming over her.
“Oneness,” she breathed. “That was…”
Memory returned. There was no time to waste. Vital, essential actions came to mind. She thought of Dorian – and the Macro risk – took in a deep breath.
“Transmissions?” Her voice didn’t sound right, it sounded choked, haggard.
Standard portal responses, Dorian told her, his words comfortably inside her head.
She felt relief – he was still with her. Althea checked herself. Everything seemed in its proper place. Kneeling, she brought her cold hands up from the freezing floor, waited a moment for her NANs to send warming blood to them. Around her, the lights flashed a kaleidoscope in monochrome from the still active portal. She rubbed her face, tried to focus.
The transit had been almost unbearably long. Filled with experiential fragments so intense she struggled to shake them out of her mind. But– that might mean she had reached her destination. Elysium was a long way from home.
“Good… good,” she forced out. “Check for Macro fragments in the control system’s foundation code.”
The last thing they needed was an active, alert Macro responding to their arrival when she was in such a vulnerable, dizzied state.
“Does– does it know we’ve arrived?”
…click click …clank clank …robots …hissing …cutting burning …surface warming shaking …vibrations stronger and stronger …what programming? …eyes into eyes …sorrow …predatory hunger …not kind …he believes …empathy …must not be abandoned …nodding agreement …shifting mirrors …portal winks …pounding behind her …pounding through her …heart pounding …legs pumping … metal screams …thrashing metal …last steps …push off …shattering glass…
“What did you say?” She’d heard his reply, but couldn’t make it out. The hallucinations had been that intense.
There are traces of code, Dorian repeated, but I am not detecting any queries. It is surface embedded and inactive.
She smiled, again relieved. That didn’t mean that they were safe, but it did mean that they had time. She needed time.
Are you all right? he asked.
“It was such a long…” She couldn’t finish, couldn’t express what she’d experienced. “Did you–?”
Only the transition. You?
“Too much… too much,” she told him. Dorian didn’t experience nightmares or physical pain either. There were some advantages to being constructed from trinary code.
Brushing hair from her eyes, Althea tried to will the sensations away. She had to resist them. The real world demanded her attention.
“Begin shutdown,” she commanded.
Her vision was clearing as the portal lights began to slow their dancing, sharp chimes turning to low, treacle bubbling. The hall darkened, the afterglow from its massive columns now dominating the growing gloom. The air was still harsh and cold. She was beginning to feel the chill all over; alarms in her mind rang about circulation, heat loss, hypothermia. Her adaptive clothing wasn’t compensating. That wasn’t right at all. Her travel tunic and her memsuit underneath were capable of responding to categorically extreme temperatures. It was too cold!
She tried to stand, but vertigo and flashes of images, sounds, sensations, stopped her again.
…the mirror leans …pressing …staring down …deep …in the depths …woman …older …her …not her …behind another …and another …find us …all of us …who you are …you must …“How?” …“How do I get through?” …fists beating cold glass …harder and harder …will not break …each blow hurting …fists throbbing …figures fading … disappearing …crying out …hot tears streaming …falling …sliding down …clutching fist …pain…
Althea was back again on her knees, looking down at her outstretched hands pressed hard against freezing solidity. How could she think that was not her? Straight black hair, smooth adult features with dark brown eyes and near the same shade of skin – that was who she was. She gritted her teeth.
Follow the plan!