Author: Chris Cook
Willow found herself sprawled on the ground, in a- she didn't know where she was. A room of some kind. The walls were perfectly flat, their edges outlined by yellow glowing lines, like neon tubes, except Willow couldn't see the mechanism, only the light itself. The floor beneath her was cool and steady, but she could feel a regular pulse reverberating through it, like a slowed-down heartbeat, or a ship's engine felt through the deck. She ran a hand across the floor, and then jerked back, falling backwards in her shock. She held up her hand and looked at it again - it was a metallic blue-grey, smooth and featureless. She turned her hand over and studied it. No nails, no fingerprints, no lines on her palm, just a form - the shape of a hand without the details, like a tight glove. Her gaze ran up her arm, where she found an intricate pattern of green light beginning at her wrist, like a glowing tattoo. She stared at it in disbelief - the pattern covering her body was actually glowing, giving off light, and even as she watched it, tiny details in the circuit-like tracery were changing, some lines flowing into one another, others branching off to form new pathways. Her eyes travelled up her arm, past her shoulder, and down to take in her body as a whole - she was entirely covered in the stuff. She picked at it, trying to lift the material off her, but she couldn't - and, to her slight horror, she found she felt her touch as if it were on her skin. She pressed her fingers to her stomach, scratched, tapped, pinched, all with the same result. Somehow, the grey material and its glowing lines were her skin. She wondered, in a detached fashion, if she should find something to wear, but there didn't seem to be any pressing need - the rest of her body was as featureless as her hands, shapes without fine details.
She fought down a rising panic. 'What the hell have they done to me?' her mind demanded. A pointless question - she didn't know who 'they' were, or even what had been done to her. Or even where she was. She got slowly to her feet - her legs seemed to work as normal, and she could balance fine. She took a few steps, to the edge of the room. Each step caused a soft noise, a tone almost, low and metallic. The walls around her were totally blank, devoid of anything suggesting a door, a hatchway - any way out at all. The only details were the glowing yellow lines at the edges. Willow hesitantly reached towards one of them. It didn't feel warm at all. Tentatively, ready to pull back at the first sign of heat, she let her fingers touch the light.
For a moment she felt nothing at all, as if the light wasn't there at all. Then the green lines at her wrist began to turn slowly yellower, until they matched the walls. Willow jerked her hand back, and watched in stunned fascination as the new colour travelled up her arm and flowed out across her body. In the space of a few seconds, the entire tracery covering her had turned the same shade. She wondered if she should be alarmed, or curious, or what - her capacity to deal with the situation at all was being sorely drained.
Willow was about to try touching the light again, to see what would happen, when the room exploded around her. She had a momentary sensation of weightlessness, flying through the air, then a massive impact on her back shocked her back to her senses. She staggered to her feet, eyes darting around, trying to take in everything at once.
She was in a city of some kind, or at least that was the only way she could think of to describe it. Giant towers rose around her, perfect blocks of solid grey, outlined by yellows, red, blues, oranges, all sorts of colours marking the edge of every flat surface. The ground beneath Willow was segmented, some square blocks raised higher than others, the whole surface uneven, like a badly-set pavement. Debris was everywhere - most of the buildings showed some damage, huge chunks missing from their sides, some of them broken off half-way up their height. Off to her right was the remains of the room she had been in - two walls were still standing, the others were shattered, an entire part of the building blasted to pieces. The rubble was still lying around her - and, as she watched, the fractured shards of wall began to crack and dissolve into squares, triangles, spheres, breaking down into simple geometric shapes. The sky overhead was night, of a sort, but instead of twinkling stars there were regular rows and patterns of blinking coloured lights.
"There she is!" Willow spun around at the sound behind her. Several men were jogging towards her, holding some sort of weapons, like rifles with wide, flat discs mounted where the barrels should have been. All of them wore armour, widening their shoulders and concealing their faces beneath solid steel hoods. Their bodies and armour were covered like Willow's in light-patterns, but theirs were solid red. Their footfalls rang out against the ground as they neared, the ones on the left and right circling out to cut off her escape. Behind them, from the shadow of one of the half-demolished buildings, a strange vehicle moved into view, a tank fashioned from simple shapes, its hull a narrow, angled prism, its treads curved grey ovals. Its turret, on which was mounted a long, flat barrel, swivelled from side to side, scanning like an eye. Willow fell back a step, then something hit her from behind.
She screamed at the sudden pain and fell forwards, clutching her arm. A deep gash had been opened in it - no blood, but where the surface was broken there was a ghostly echo of the tracery covering her. It hurt just as much as a real wound, though. Willow ground her teeth and pressed her other palm against the cut, rolling over to scramble away from whatever had hurt her. When she saw it, she screamed in shock.
It was a woman, more or less, if a woman had been taken to pieces and reassembled as a half-machine nightmare. She was staring at Willow with an expression of total rage. From behind her jaw a pair of razor-sharp blades curved out, like an insect's mandibles, flexing on tiny joints as she breathed. Instead of hair, she had a crest of glittering blades, jutting up from her brow and curving down behind her neck. From behind her shoulders, along her back and behind her hips came long, tapering limbs, knife-edged spider-legs fanning out behind her. Her abdomen was hollow, and housed a pair of arms tipped with long, vicious claws. Her legs were long, triple-jointed, and ended in claws like a mechanical hawk. From the inside of each forearm sprouted long, jointed limbs bearing sword-blades, and on one of these was a smear of yellow, where it had cut Willow. She took a step towards where Willow had fallen, the claws unfolding from her abdomen, tasting the air.
"Program! Halt!" The terrifying machine-woman snarled and stopped. The voice had come from behind her, and as she stepped aside Willow saw another figure standing there, in front of another of the strange tank vehicles. It was tall, powerful, with an aura of command and authority about it. Willow was shocked to see, beneath a glowing red coronet, Warren Meers' face staring resolutely at the woman. She hissed at him, arching her back and flexing all her arsenal of blades. Warren ignored her display - if it was Warren, Willow mused. She had little idea what was going on around her, but the Warren she vaguely knew, despite his pretence of power, would have been the first to cower in front of such a monstrous creature. This Warren regarded her as a subordinate, and seemed to have no fear of her at all.
"This is not our designated target, Rain," he said calmly, "return to your patrol parameters. Acknowledge." The woman recoiled as if struck, and bowed her head.
"Acknowledge," she repeated. She stalked away, and Willow couldn't help but watch her in horrified fascination - even her movements, which had something of the beauty of a lioness in motion, but perverted to a sickeningly destructive form. If an artist of rare genius had designed a creature of evil, this would be it.
Two pairs of hands grabbed Willow's shoulders and hauled her to her feet, none too gently. She stood between two of the armoured red soldiers, as Warren turned to her and gazed levelly at her. There was nothing in his expression that said he recognised her.
"What about this one?" said one of the soldiers. "This partition is supposed to have been evacuated."
"She's just a Cycorp program," said Warren, turning his attention to the soldier, "nothing of consequence. Send her to the Game Grid."