The end of the first chapter!
You know, I’m not going to give a synopsis at this point. The episode is the end of chapter 1. Chapter 2 is really going to kick Seiji’s ass. So the monks have foretold. I’m glad to be done with this chapter, and reading back it’s not a bad first draft of a story. There’s lots I’d like to go back and change, but that’s not how this exercise works.
If, like me, you wait until the serial is concluded before you start reading, now is your chance to get to know Allison. I finally paid off something I set up long, long ago. It feels pretty good.
Blind! Allison fell to her knees, shaking, her stomach threatening to turn inside-out. She gasped for air, reeling and disoriented. Only moments ago, an eternity, she had been so close. Close to everything, almost one with the pattern beneath the chaos that governed the universe, the harmony of the world. Desperately she reached with her mind, tried to rejoin the communion, but found only blackness.
“Shoot them all,” she heard Lancia say.
“Allison!” Seiji’s voice, maybe. They were all going to die. Because of her. She heard the sound of guns being raised. You’d think they wouldn’t make so much noise. One of the soldiers chambered a round with a distinctive snick-snack. Funny he hadn’t thought to do that earlier.
— You could not win. Not against me.
Allison almost wept with relief to feel even a tiny fraction of White Shadow still in her mind. Don’t kill them.
— They do not matter.
Allison tried to reach through White Shadow, to use it to connect to the world of information. She could almost hear the music, almost feel The Pattern when White Shadow hammered her consciousness back into her own head. Stunned, it was seconds before she could speak, then there was nothing to say.
“Wait,” she heard Lancia say, from far away.
Seiji stared defiantly into the eyes of the woman who had interrogated him earlier. His clenched teeth almost shot of sparks, and the vein in his forehead pulsed in an X. The soldiers raised their guns and paused for a pregnant moment.
“Wait,” the interrogator said. The soldiers hesitated a moment, then lowered their weapons.
Seiji glanced over to where Allison lay curled on the floor, moaning, knocking her head against the tile with a steady rhythm. “She needs help,” he said.
Interrogator Woman looked at Allison and made a face. “I don’t think there is help for her.”
“Who are you really?” Seiji asked.
The woman laughed softly. “So quaint,” she said. “He said ‘really’. Do you have any idea what that means, little boy? Does ‘really’ even exist?”
“Who are you?”
“I am everyone.”
“You’re not me.”
“Only because I don’t want to be.”
Seiji blinked and found himself looking at… himself. “Yeah, right.” his other self said. He blinked again and he was facing his interrogator once more. “There is a way you can live,” she said.
“All of us?”
“… most of you.”
“Then forget it.”
“Seiji, think for a moment. Your nobility is admirable, but nothing you do can save the American. You can choose to die, or you can choose to live. Neither choice will matter to her.”
“I choose to die,” Seiji said.
“I am sorry to hear that,” she said.
“Wait,” Kenzo said.
Ruchia opened her eyes and looked into his. So deep. So expressive. So purple. “You’re not really Kenzo,” she said.
He smiled, dimples forming on each cheek. “No. But is anyone? I can still make you happy.”
“Happier than he ever would,” she allowed.
Not-Kenzo chuckled deep in his throat. “I suspect you are right.”
Ruchia felt the heat rising to her cheeks.
“I wonder if you could do me a favor,” Not-Kenzo said.
His casual delivery put Ruchia on edge. “Maybe.”
“If you are helpful, I believe I can save your life.”
“What about my friends?”
“You do not have to worry about them.”
“No, but I choose to. What about my friends?”
“Each of you will be given the chance to be useful. Those who help me will live. Live very well, in fact.”
“What is it you want?”
“There is a key,” Not-Kenzo said. “The American has it. Not a physical key, but a code of sorts. A thought.”
“You want me to get it from her.”
“You need only make her think about it. We will do the rest.”
“Why should I?”
“Beyond saving your own life? If you help it would not be necessary to kill the American as well.”
“That’s not the same as saying you wouldn’t kill her.”
“The future is indeterminate.”
“You choose to die?”
“I choose to live by my principles.”
The voice was a breathy whisper in Tasuke’s ear. “Good idea,” she said. She opened her eyes and looked down the muzzles of the rifles pointed at her.
“You wish to live?”
“Yeah, I think that sounds like a pretty good idea.”
“All you have to do is—”
“You haven’t even heard wh—”
“If it starts with ‘All I have to do is’ then I’m not interested.”
All her friends were talking at once, but not to each other. It sounded like banter, the kind that came before violence. She glanced around the room, seeing with her eyes what only minutes before had been so complete inside her own head. There was only one door, and there were a lot of men with guns between her and it.
Lancia was the key. Before she could even think she launched herself at the woman who held all their lives in her hand. She drove her shoulder into the rib cage of the woman, lifting her off the floor and then piling her hard into the cold tile. Allison rolled and put her arm around Lancia’s throat. She started to squeeze. “Let my friends go,” she said.
“Very well,” Lancia said, perfectly calm. Allison squeezed harder.
“Shoot that one,” Lancia said, gesturing at Tasuki from where she lay.
“Wait!” Allison shouted but her voice was lost in the popping of firearms being discharged in a closed space. She couldn’t hear the screams of her friends as Tasuki’s chest exploded in a fountain of blood. The skinny girl convulsed and dropped to the floor.
Allison tightened her grip, wanting nothing more than to kill Lancia, no matter the consequences. At least keep her from saying anything else.
“Now that one,” Lancia said, this time pointing at Ruchia.
A bullet caught Ruchia in the throat, another in the forehead, and several in the torso. She fell and lay still.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Allison screamed. “No more! Please!” She didn’t have the strength to strangle her adversary anymore. She relaxed her grip but Lancia made no effort to rise. They lay in a tangle on the floor.
“You know what you must do,” Lancia said.
“No!” Seiji shouted. “Don’t give her anything! Damn—”
Lancia made a gesture and the soldiers cut down Seiji mid-curse, blood and gore coating the wall behind him. Allison was out of words. She just stared at the bodies of her friends and wept.
“You may as well shoot me, too,” Kaneda said.
“You belong to me,” Lancia said. She sighed. “Allison, I had hoped to be friends. Or at least partners. But that will never happen now.” She rolled away from Allison. “Shoot her,” she said.
“Noooo!” Kaneda shouted, even as the soldiers trained their weapons on Allison with a clatter. He threw himself on top of Allison as they opened fire, holding her, shielding her with his body. He jerked and twitched as the metal tore through his body, his face inches from hers. Blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. “In your arms,” he whispered, and died.
“Such a waste,” Lancia said. She looked at the captain of the soldiers. “Finish the job.”
Allison closed her eyes but she couldn’t erase the image of her friends lying dead around her. Her fault. Her doing. The bullet that took her life couldn’t come soon enough.
Only, this wasn’t her fault. She didn’t make White Shadow. She didn’t enslave the city. She didn’t give the order to shoot innocent kids. Anger stirred in her breast and with it the will to act. She opened her eyes and watched as the finger of a soldier pulled at his trigger with impossible slowness. She reached outward with her mind and found a tendril, a connection that led to White Shadow, a link it was using to watch her.
A bullet emerged from the barrel of the gun in a rippling cloud of vapor, and began its irrevocable journey to her heart. No stopping it. No getting out of the way. She was already dead.
Nothing to lose. She threw herself through the connection and right into White Shadow’s virtual lap.
—Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in.
Around her, almost within reach, was what she had once had. The world. Beyond that lay a new world, enticing, limitless. The Computer. White Shadow had not yet taken that power. It was waiting for something.
From far away Allison felt the bullet press into her flesh. Someone else’s flesh. She looked at White Shadow and smiled. “Reset,” she said.
Allison Crenshaw walked up the nearly deserted street toward her new school. She felt awkward in her uniform; the skirt seemed shorter on her than it did on the other girls. She walked alone, clutching her books to her chest, practicing her Japanese under her breath.
“Hey, watch out!” Allison turned just in time to see the kid on the skateboard before he crashed into her. She fell, books flying, conscious of her short skirt. She felt like she should have seen him coming.