Authors: B. R. Collins
He knows he’ll get killed here, and he does.
He swings round the corner, a micro-em from the edge of the wall, trying desperately for the extra millisecond that might make all the difference. In front of him there’s only the dark and a pale tunnel of light that lurches as he runs. Somewhere there has to be a door, if he can just get to it. But he’s only human. His lungs are full of fire, his throat burns with acid, his heart is going so quickly it’s a roar in his ears. The floor slips backwards under his feet. Faster, faster, faster . . .
And behind him the shadows have woken, spun themselves into shape and gathered speed, thirsty with keen, deep malice against the little people who carry lights and speak aloud, breaking the old rules. The dark has turned against him like a tide: mindless, malevolent. It’s his own fault, he knows that, and it slows him down. If only he hadn’t — the light, the stupid
. . . but it’s too late now. The feeble cone of silver bounces in front of him, not showing anything but long blank walls and floor. He feels liquid spatter on his hands and doesn’t know whether it’s his own sweat or spit spluttering out of him. He’d call out, but there’s no help here.
There’s a glint. A fractional corner of something, sliding in and out of the torchlight like a metal tongue. He can’t stop, can’t run straight any more, can’t think, but somehow there’s just enough energy left in his body to throw him forward. A door, there has to be a door . . . He grabs for his belt, undoing it as he runs, feeling the weight drop away, but it’s too little, too late. Just ten more seconds, five, two . . .
Suddenly the back of his neck is burning, an electrical itch pressing on his atlas vertebra like a thumb. The in-range signal: the shadows are close now, close enough to get him. It’s too late — or almost, almost too late. He could turn and fight, but he’d lose, and in any case
— he chokes with bitter laughter and fury — now he’s dropped his weapon-belt . . .
He sees the blade just in time. It flicks out at him, waist-height, smooth and automatic as an insult, and he’s lucky — no, he’s
— and his body takes over and smashes him to the ground, his chin hitting the floor with an impact that hurts more than he’s expecting. He hears the air sing above his head and the whine and click as the trap resets. But there’s a flash in the corner of his vision — one, two, three flashes. The impact’s damaged something, and for a split second he thinks it’s his eyes. What has he done? His torch, oh no, his torch . . . The whole world pauses. Then the torch goes out.
He knows it’s all over, then. He lets his forehead rest on the clammy floor, lets his lungs fill with a long, slow breath of defeat. Because without the light . . . how could he run this quest in the dark?
, goes the blade-trap again. And he only has a second left, maybe two, before the shadows swallow him. Maybe in the dark they’ll take longer to find him — but it’s seconds, not minutes. He knows that. So really there’s no point jumping to his feet, especially with the trap
ing above his head, making it even harder . . .
But he’s desperate. So he struggles to his hands and knees, his triceps aching, the pressure on the back of his neck almost painful now. Somewhere there’s a door. There’s always a door. The first rule: nothing is impossible.
Zing. Zing. Zing . . .
One second more, while he closes his eyes against the dark, learning the rhythm of the trap. And then — gods, if he could only see himself . . . because even now, even hopeless and gasping for breath, he can’t help admiring the way he leaps up — sharp as a flame — and dives forward to the floor, dropping and rolling. He knows he’s judged it perfectly because he’s still alive. Brilliant. It’s such a shame that he’s going to die anyway.
There’s something ahead. He blinks frantically, forcing the sweat out of his eyes. A doorway outlined in gold; somewhere there’s sunlight, gods,
, which means he’s nearly out, he’s nearly done it —
. He drops, rolls, automatic now, ignoring the fire in the muscles of his back.
. And again.
. And again —
Only this time he sees it, in the faint daylight that clings to the metal like grease. A long scythe, whipping round, rhythmic, slow, at the level of his ankles. Easy to avoid, if only he wasn’t already throwing himself forward; easy enough to avoid, if he hadn’t smashed his torch, if he’d only seen it in time . . .
It’s too late to stop himself. He hits the ground. Everything slows down, so he has time to watch the scythe swinging round on its arc, deliberate, leisurely, leaving a silver trail in the air. The corners of the world go red.
His eyes are stinging from the sweat. He doesn’t even bother to watch the last micro-ems of the scythe. He lets his head drop back and looks up at the ceiling, waiting to die. The adrenalin’s fading, now. He can’t even be bothered to swear.
Blackness. Total blackness, like blindness. And the temperature drops so sharply it hurts. The sweat on his skin burns with cold. He holds his breath and counts, feeling a drop slide down his ribcage like a fingertip. Ten seconds, twenty . . .
And then light so harsh he has to cover his eyes. He screws his face up, filtering the glare through the gaps between his fingers. This is the bit he hates. The world in front of him wavers as if he’s underwater. Slowly, stickily, he peels his hands away from his face. He’s back where he started, looking at the entrance to the quest. Nice of them, he thinks, to put the soul-tree just outside. That way I can start all over again, straight away . . . Ha. The doors are massive, forbidding, even now, seen through the pale haze that ripples across them. He has to tilt his head back to see the arch at the top. But he doesn’t care how impressive they are, any more. His corpse is there, slumped on the steps, and he sits down next to it, turning his head to stare through the ghost-shimmer, narrowing his eyes, stupidly, as if that could help him see.
Oh, brilliant, he thinks. Three hours, and now he’s dead and it’s all wasted. And it was a solo, so no loyalty, no owed favours —
. Not even a debt or a vendetta. He hasn’t gained anything but a reason to be grateful that he’s got an infinite account. If he hadn’t . . . but he does. Daed has his uses, after all.
He squints through the mist at his corpse. It looks like him, except for the hair and the eyes and the muscles. He wishes, suddenly, that he could just reach out and pat its shoulder — comfortingly, paternally — but of course he can’t. If he touches his corpse, he’ll resurrect, and he doesn’t feel up to that right now. He stands up, glides up the steps and pushes at the door, because this might be the day he’ll find a bug — maybe it’d let him run the quest again as a ghost . . . Gods know he deserves one, statistically, after this much time in the Maze, but all he gets is a line of text at eye-level:
You are a ghost. To open this door, resurrect and try again.
He pushes again, until his shoulders burn with the effort. More text hangs in the air:
To resurrect, touch your corpse.
He skims down one step, then two, towards his sprawled body, then pauses. He could go back into the quest, but there’s no way he’ll get further than he just did, not the way he’s feeling now. His legs are shaking all over the place; it’s just as well he’s a ghost, or he wouldn’t make it down the steps. No; enough’s enough.
He ought to cool down, but he can’t face it. Normally he’d spend a dutiful ten minutes flying, skimming over water, whatever — it’s the only thing being a ghost is good for, after all — but he’s too sore, still aching and fed up. Another five seconds in that corridor, and he might have made it . . . He says, ‘Log off, please.’ The screen in front of him goes to flat mode, and he blinks, fighting the nausea as his eyes adjust. He’s been playing too long. The gateway music swells and loops, once, twice . . . He says, ‘Shut up,’ through the pounding drums, and grins mirthlessly at the gateway ikons when the tank goes quiet. He eases the gamecap off his head, then the undercap. He feels the wet silk catch on the stubble on his scalp, and makes a mental note that he needs to shave his head before his next session. He drapes the cap on the hook behind him and leans against the wall. The tank is filled with dim electric light, making his skin look green. He licks the salt off his lips, taking deep, conscious breaths. He hasn’t been this tired for ages. His wrists tremble as he undoes the straps on his waist and ankles. The screen says,
and snaps to black.
It was a relief to get out of the tank into the liquid grey of real daylight. He paused for a moment, taking in the wide-screen windows, the huge panorama of the real world, the way he did every time; and thought — the way he did every time — how depressing it looked, compared to the Maze. Even when you were dead, there was sunlight in the Maze . . . He pressed his hand on the outside panel of the tank to sign out and grabbed his towel and water-bottle from the locker. He caught sight of himself reflected in the window and winced. There was a real bruise on his jaw. He watched the water pour down over his face and imagined himself standing where his reflection was, in mid-air twenty storeys above the streets of Undone, unprotected in the acid rain . . .