Looking back, James would be certain that his mistake had been to look at himself in the mirror.
The terrifying thing was that as far as he could tell, there was nothing at all unusual about his reflection, yet he felt as though he were looking at someone else. They reflection of the pale-green wall behind him gave the scene in the mirror a surreal quality, almost as though he were superimposed on some background reality that had not yet been filled-in. A memory was jarred -- he was in the middle of a Jump. This room was at the top of the unfinished Central Tower One skyscraper that was to be the focal point of the city his team had built online. He looked down at his hands -- they seemed so real, so warm and perfectly detailed. How could this be part of the Construct? He looked back up at his reflection and started -- his face was lined with wires, trailing in and out of his skin, and his eyes were black with old CRT green cursors blinking, waiting for input, one in each eye.
James reached one hand up to touch the mirror and found it was like mercury, a liquid suspended in a perfect plane until he touched it, sending ripples in all directions, lapping at the edges of the mirror's frame. It was cold to the touch -- much colder than he had expected. But when he tried to pull his hand away, he found he could not. The liquid silver, freezing the tips of his fingers painfully, was sucking him in -- centimeter by centimeter his hand was drawn into the mirror, so cold it felt like burning. He struggled in earnest now, feet braced against the wall, trying to push him away from the deadly pool. When his entire arm had been drawn in, his chest shocked by the terrible chill, his head arching back to avoid the rippling plane of impossibly icy metal, he screamed.
James opened his eyes. He was safe inside his pod, the white plastic and steel of it solid to the touch, comforting. Goosebumps lined his bare forearms -- he was chilled, shaking slightly. Looking around, he was surprised at how dark the network room was -- it appeared that all the lights were off, and he could not hear the typical hum and whir of the fans and computers that ran the simulation. The entire room was off -- in the dim light coming in through the windows, it also appeared he was completely alone. "Rivka?" he called out into the darkness. "Cerberus?" His voice sounded small and plaintive -- his nerves were clearly getting the best of him. Irritated at himself and his co-workers, he made to get out of the pod.
But his feet were stuck -- he couldn't move them. Leaning over to take a closer look, his eyes widened in horror. Huge, black metal clamps anchored in the floor of the pod had his feet and ankles in a vice grip, the pointed ends digging deep into the flesh of his foot and lower calves. "Anyone! Help!" He tried to get either foot free, but it was hopeless. Turning the handle on the pod door and pushing, he found the door jammed shut. Panicking, he pounded on the door with both hands, his heart pounding and his breath coming in ragged gasps. "Hey, guys, help me! I'm stu-"
A deafeningly loud clacking sound vibrated and shook the pod, and suddenly four gleaming black metallic claws at the ends of huge, snakelike steel coil arms crashed through the glass of the pod's front and side plexi glass windows. Shoulder, shoulder, arm and stomach were painfully clasped and James was thrown back against the back of the reclining chair inside the pod. His head thrashed back and forth as he struggled uselessly, and then he saw a human arm squeeze through one of the holes, reaching for him. A woman's arm -- a hand he recognized all too well.
"Rivka!" He called out, stretching his hand to hers, almost able to reach... almost there
James opened his eyes. Several of his teammates were standing around his pod, looking with concern at the readouts and at him. He was drenched in his own sweat and his heart was racing so fast he felt like was going to throw up. He felt a cool hand on his forehead and closed his eyes, trying to catch his breath. Someone whispered in his ear what had happened to Sarena and KingBear. He was supposed to say a name -- at this point, any name was as good as any other: he just didn't know who could be responsible. "Starlequin
," he muttered, simply because it was the first name that popped into his head.