Alternity, p.1

Alternity, page 1

 

Alternity



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Alternity


  ALTERNITY

  By Mari Mancusi

  ALTERNITY

  Marianne Mancusi Beach

  Copyright © 2012

  All Rights Reserved.

  AGENCY INFORMATION

  NLA Digital Liaison Platform LLC

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Writers spend years laboring over a single book. Please respect their work by buying their books from legitimate sources. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  CONTENTS

  Prologue

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-one

  Twenty-two

  Twenty-three

  Twenty-four

  Twenty-five

  Epilogue

  An excerpt of Mari Mancusi’s TOMORROW LAND

  About the Author

  PROLOGUE

  Running.

  I am running for my life. That much I know as the heels of my silver boots click a staccato beat against the metallic road below. But where am I? Who’s chasing me? And, most importantly, why?

  I have no idea.

  Run faster. Run harder. Run from the moon.

  A strange chant echoes through my head, with urgency I can’t comprehend. Endless demands competing with my own frantic thoughts skitter across my brain like a bum needle on a worn record.

  Where am I? Run faster. Who’s chasing me? Run harder. And why? Run from the moon.

  But there is no moon. The corridor is black, skyless, and deep underground. And I’m already running as fast and as hard as I can.

  Sucking in a breath I take in my surroundings without slowing down. Trying to think, to process, to find a shred of familiarity in the dark steel beams crisscrossing the tunnel’s ceiling, the mammoth fans cut into the walls expelling hot, sour air. It all seems so familiar and yet completely foreign. Like an episode of déjà vu pricking at the dark recesses of your brain, or a name on the tip of your tongue—the one you always remember at 3:00 A.M., when it no longer matters.

  Except, this time I think it might still matter. And 3:00 A.M. may be too late.

  “Don’t let her reach the hatch!”

  My heart slams against my chest as I realize my pursuers—whoever they might be—aren’t far behind. Sweat pools in the hollow of my throat, then drips down, soaking my breasts. My muscles burn, my lungs refuse to take in air, I can barely swallow, and my vision has gone spotty. Soon I’ll have to stop.

  But to stop is to die. That much I know. And so I keep running.

  I turn a corner and catch sight of a ladder in front of me, embedded firmly into the wall, a potential salvation ascending into the darkness. Where does it go? Could it lead to the hatch my enemies seek to keep me from? To stop and check it out will eat up valuable time—time I don’t have. But I have to take a chance. I can’t run forever.

  I throw myself against the ladder, wrapping my hands around each rung as I climb, step after step. The ground falls away, and with it the dim tunnel lighting. Soon I am engulfed in blackness.

  A few seconds later I bang my head against something, almost falling off the ladder from the impact. I steady myself, then reach up with one hand, fingers exploring the ceiling until they come upon a latch. More frantic exploration reveals a handle. There’s definitely some kind of trapdoor.

  “Up here! Get her!”

  I hear feet clanging against the metal rungs as my pursuers start up after me. I don’t have much time left. Wrapping my hand around the trapdoor handle, I yank on it with all my might. This is my one chance to escape.

  It doesn’t budge.

  I pound on the door, my heart exploding in my chest as I realize that I likely have precious seconds to live. Surprisingly, my life does not flash before my eyes; in fact, I’m still having difficulty remembering any life at all. Who I am. What I do. How I got into this mess.

  Run from the moon, the mysterious voice in my head demands.

  “Shut up,” I mutter, tired of its nonsensical advice.

  The first man reaches me, paws at my feet through the darkness. “We’ve got her!” he cries. And indeed, it seems he has.

  Not willing to give up without a fight, I slam my foot down on his hand, the stiletto heel driving into his palm. A crunch of bone. A yelp of pain. I repeat the blow, then follow up with a wild kick to where I estimate his head to be, all the while clinging to the ladder for dear life. I don’t miss. Knocked off balance he loses his grip, falls backward, and hurtles into the blackness below. A sickening thud, followed by silence, tells me he’s likely met his maker.

  But his death is not enough to save me. The second guy is right behind him and much more prepared for my alley cat tactics. There’s a flash of light—a crimson beam cutting through the darkness—then a sharp, icy pain spreading up my ankle, shooting through my veins at a lightning pace, reaching my toes, my fingers, my brain—one after another. My grip loosens, my head swims, my muscles fail. At first I fear he’ll just let me fall to my death. But my attacker grabs on instead and starts dragging me down the ladder.

  Not good.

  At the bottom, the men flip me over so I’m lying on my stomach, spread-eagle. I can’t move, my body is Jell-O, my muscles are useless.

  But I can see. I can hear. I can feel.

  Three men kneel above me, armed with scary-looking tools, including something that resembles a high-tech electric syringe, complete with gauges and lights and a really long needle. I’m not sure what it does, but I know that I don’t want it done to me.

  One man reaches into his bag and pulls out a small silver box. He presses his thumb against the top. The box beeps and flashes a green light, then pops open, revealing a vial of some sort. He presents the vial to the man with the syringe, who takes it and sticks the long needle inside, sucking up the unidentified contents. The syringe beeps in approval and a few green lights flash in sync.

  “Are you ready, my dear?” the man with the gun asks, his lips curled in a sneer. He’s big, built like a soldier and sporting a trim gray beard. He’s wearing a shiny metallic jumpsuit, pulled tight by a black tool belt.

  “Please!” I beg, not thinking for one second that anything I say will make a difference, but at the same time desperate to try. “Just let me go!”

  The men laugh, shaking their heads in mirth. “Oh, you’ll go all right,” replies the second guy. He’s smaller than the first, but no less menacing. “Pow!” he quips. “Straight to the moon.”

  They grab my arm and flip me over. I watch helplessly as they stab me with the syringe, injecting silver liquid into my unwilling veins. I scream and scream and scream, knowing it will do no good. Knowing that there’s no escape.

  Like it or not, I’m going to the moon.

  ONE

  “Skye, Skye! Wake up! Wake up!”

  I clawed through the blackness, trying desperately to regain consciousness at the sound of my roommate’s voice. My eyes flew open, an
d I struggled to take in a breath. My throat had constricted … the air cut off to my lungs. I waved my arms frantically in Felicia’s direction, praying she would get the message before I asphyxiated in my own bed.

  She did. Not surprising, I suppose. It wasn’t as if this was the first time I’d woken up to a full-on asthma attack. Especially recently, when I’d been trying to cut back on my medication and use yoga to control my breathing instead. A moment later I felt my inhaler being stuffed into my mouth, sending lifesaving Lunatropium into my airwaves.

  My muscles relaxed, and I sunk into the pillow, allowing myself a luxurious sigh of relief. I was back. I was safe. I was me again. I pulled the inhaler from my mouth and scanned my dorm room, enjoying each and every shred of familiarity. My raggedy teddy bear, Melvin, at the foot of my bed. My overstuffed bookcase across the room, crammed with well-worn fantasy epics and textbooks. My prized Alienware laptop, souped up to run the latest and greatest video games, on my desk. And my movie posters above my bed. Star Wars, The Hunger Games, Phaze Runner. I smiled a little as Luke, Katniss, and Deckard all glowered down at me, as if daring me to claim that my nightmare adventure had been more hellish than their everyday realities.

  “Are you okay?” Felicia asked, peering down at me with concern, her long blond hair framing her heart-shaped face. “That looked like a bad one.”

  “It wasn’t good,” I agreed, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. I realized I was still shaking and wondered if it was from the nightmare itself or my abrupt awakening. “But at least it woke me up. I was having the worst dream ever.”

  “Another one?” Felicia sat down on the side of the bed, reaching out to squeeze my hand. I squirmed under her gaze, not liking the pity I recognized in her eyes. “What was it about this time?” she asked cautiously, knowing I didn’t always like to talk about them.

  “I can’t remember the details,” I said with a shrug. “You know how dreams are. But it’s like I’m trapped in this underground world, fleeing for my life. Someone’s chasing me and I don’t know who—or why for that matter. In fact, in the dream, it’s almost as if I’m not even myself, but some other person.” I trailed off, not knowing what else to say. It sounded so silly when I explained it out loud. How could I convey how terrifying it had been? How real it felt? It wasn’t like a normal dream that fled with the break of dawn. It clung to me, even now, as if it were reality and this was the dream.

  “Is the guy chasing you hot?” Felicia asked, a mischievous grin crossing her face. “‘Cause if so, I suggest you let him catch you next time. I had this one dream a few nights ago where I was being chased by Clive Owen and …”

  I tried and failed to muster a smile. I knew she was just trying to cheer me up. And normally it probably would have worked. But after three weeks of horrible, unrelenting nightmares and asthma attacks, accompanied by very little actual rest, I was in no mood for jokes.

  “Look,” I interrupted, just as she was getting to the TMI section of her Clive Owen fantasy. “It’s really not funny, okay? I don’t even want to go back to sleep at this point—just in case I have another dream. It’s that bad.”

  Felicia’s face softened. She leaned down to give me a comforting hug. “Have you told your parents?” she asked. “Maybe they could have you see someone. I mean, if you’re not sleeping …”

  I scowled. Sure, many of my classmates at NYU saw shrinks. In fact, it had become almost fashionable to talk about what “my therapist said” at parties. But I’d always resisted the idea of seeking answers from a stranger. I liked to be in control of my own destiny, thank you very much.

  “Maybe you’re right,” I said noncommittally, mostly so she wouldn’t press me. “I’ll think about it, anyway. In the meantime, you can go back to sleep. I know you have that big test tomorrow. I’ll be fine. I swear. I’ll keep the inhaler nearby, just in case.”

  Felicia looked at me suspiciously. “And what are you going to do?” she asked. She knew me way too well, and I felt my face warm at the accusation in her question. I considered lying, but if she woke up again, I’d be busted, so what was the use?

  “I was thinking I’d play some RealLife,” I admitted. “Just for a little bit. So I can relax and stuff.” I added the last part a little defensively, preempting the attack.

  Sure enough, my roommate groaned loudly, grabbing Melvin from the foot of my bed and tossing him in my direction. The bear fell short of the bed and landed on the floor with a soft plop. “No wonder you’re having nightmares!” she cried, rising to her feet and heading to her side of the room. “Staying up all night, playing your little games. That cannot be healthy.”

  Blah, blah, blah. It was always the same. Felicia was a good roommate, but she would never understand my attraction to virtual play. She lived in the real world—playing lacrosse, shopping on Fifth Avenue, getting manicures at J Sisters. She would never understand the appeal of losing one’s self to another world. Her world was already great.

  “Have you ever considered playing some real real life once in a while?” Felicia added dryly as she slipped under the covers. “You know, maybe start your ‘sleeping quest’ tonight so you can be well rested enough to continue your ‘college graduation’ quest chain tomorrow morning?”

  “Yeah, yeah.” I waved her off. “Go back to sleep, will you? Tell Clive Owen I said hi.”

  She giggled, and I knew I had won. As she turned to face the wall, I walked over to my computer, slipping my headphones on. After waking up the monitor, I logged on to the server and selected my game character, ready to get down to business.

  And yes, I did mean business. These days I didn’t just play games for fun. They were my job, too. At age eighteen, I was the youngest paid beta tester at Chix0r, the world’s first all female-run gaming company. I’d been working hard all year, testing their soon-to-be-released multiplayer online game RealLife: Medieval Times. The game was scheduled to launch in under a month and had already been hyped by PC Gamer as the biggest thing since World of Warcraft. The company had put their trust in me to help them find all the bugs before it went out to the public, and I wasn’t about to let them down, nightmares or no.

  The launch screen loaded, revealing a virtual medieval village along with my character Allora. The place was deserted, save for some computer-generated, nonplayer characters (or NPCs as we called them in the game biz) wandering around. It was hard to believe that in just a few weeks this silent world would be buzzing with activity—crammed with avatars from around the world. Players logging in to experience an entirely new virtual life. Creating characters to fight fantastical beasts, competing for epic weapons and gear, and even forming lifelong friends with fellow gamers. In short—a life far more exciting and interesting than their everyday reality.

  But for now, this world was still empty—and mine to explore. Allora peered out from the screen, tapping her foot impatiently, awaiting my next move. As an all-female company, Chix0r had gone one step further than the traditional guy-centric games like World of Warcraft, where the characters were flat and static and did exactly what you told them. RealLife’s characters had their own personalities, their own artificial intelligence built into their code. Sort of like the Sims in chainmail. So while you could control your character’s movements and direct his or her path, you couldn’t make them do things they didn’t want to do. They wouldn’t fight if they were hungry. They’d refuse to accept a new quest if they were tired or sick. They got lonely if you didn’t properly socialize them and angry if someone did them wrong. Sometimes they were scarily like real people.

  “Okay, fine, Allora, let’s go to the pub,” I whispered, moving the mouse to direct the character to the local tavern. “We’ll get you a tankard of ale.” Allora grinned in excitement as I directed her to her favorite establishment. Not that she had many to choose from. Because we were only in beta mode, the programmers had temporarily sectioned off Allora’s hometown from the rest of the game. My poor character had no idea there was a whole other world outside
her city’s walls. To her, the outskirts of Mare Tranquilitatis were the ends of the earth.

  As I sat her down at a nearby table, an NPC promptly brought her a beer. She raised her glass and drank it down happily. She looked so content it almost made me wish I could crawl into the computer and join her for a pint. Block out my reality for the night and become part of a better world.

  But that, I knew, was just another dream.

  TWO

  I open my eyes.

  I’m underground again. Halfway across a large suspension bridge made of fraying rope and rotten planks, anchored by cracked stone pillars on either side. Looking down I see a chasm of undeterminable depth. Above, inky blackness stretches on forever. The cavernous walls emit a dim glow, as if embedded with some sort of phosphorous material. The air smells acrid. Of sulfur, sweat, or really cheap cologne.

  I take a hesitant step, gingerly placing a foot down on one of the creaky wooden planks. A slight wind catches the bridge and it sways in response. I grip the handrails tightly, my heart beating fast and furious.

  I look up, seeking out my destination and to my surprise I see Glenda, standing at the bridge’s end. Glenda’s my personal trainer, the one who’s been teaching me yoga breathing techniques, to help lessen my dependence on asthma medication. She waves, offering me one of her trademark brilliant smiles.

  I try to smile back, but my mouth refuses to cooperate as my mind buzzes with questions. Why is she here? What does she want from me? And why are her eyes, shining through the darkness, glowing an iridescent green?

  Realizing there’s only one way to find out, I draw in a breath and dare another step. The bridge groans under my weight; it must be ancient and the rope is beyond brittle. I look behind me, but I’m too far to go back now. I have to keep going. I have to hope it will stay together for at least one more crossing.

  “Keep walking,” Glenda encourages, her voice sounding almost ethereal as it bounces off the walls of the cave. “You’re almost there.”

 
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