Norelle glanced over her shoulder, watching as the young couple she spied earlier walked hand in hand out of the main hall. She hesitated ever so briefly by the cordon, listening for sign of building security. All she could hear was the sound of the couple's footsteps fading down the back hallway, the girl laughing once.
Now she was alone.
Without hesitation, Norelle stepped around the cordon, plunging into the blackness beyond. She inhaled sharply, grinning as excitement threatened to bubble over. Anxiously, she glanced over her shoulder again, the archway behind her a dull glowing portal left behind. She nearly slammed into the back wall, the cold bricks racing up to meet her.
Taking a calming breath, Norelle fumbled for her stager, flipping on the flashlight app. She blinked as harsh pale light flooded the dark corridor, revealing a branch to her left. Beyond that…well, that's why she was sneaking around in here, wasn't it? Honestly, Viera had talked up this place so badly, Norelle was burning with curiosity. She didn't really expect to run into any ghosts, but...still! There had to be some interesting sights in here. And when Viera heard all about it, she would be a tad jealous, now wouldn't she?
The corridor ran the new direction for about a minute before coming to a service stairway. Norelle could tell by the metal steps and safety rails that this was new. But the stonework surrounding it and the crumbling steps beneath looked ancient. These stairs had been put in so others could come down here. Not tourists, mind you, but someone. That left many more questions for Norelle. Who was allowed down here?
Norelle placed a tentative foot on the first step, testing the sound of her shoes on the metal surface. She stepped a few more, satisfied that she wouldn't make a horrible ruckus going down. Not that anyone would be listening. She hadn't seen any sign of wiring or lights or cameras so far. She even scanned her stager around, looking in vain for security devices. But she was completely and utterly alone.
And suddenly the gaping black maw stretching out beneath her seemed a whole lot scarier. Norelle was definitely sure she didn't belief in specters. So why was her heart pounding?
The staircase went on forever. Norelle wondered just how deep beneath the city this cavern ran. She had to be at least five floors down now. She was sure of it. In fact, she was wondering if it wasn't time to turn around. The thought of climbing back up that monster staircase didn't sound very appealing.
Just as her resolve was about to give out, the stairs bottomed out. A simple landing sprang to life under the intense beam of her stager flashlight. The floor here was also made of stone, the surface worn smooth with age. And as Norelle touched down off the staircase, she heard a low echo from her footstep. There was a hollow up ahead.
Casting her light up nervously, her mouth gaped open at the sight of the new room. It was huge. At least six floors over her head, like a domed cathedral. She had gone far deeper under the city than she realized. The architecture and design to the massive room was gorgeous.
It all paled in comparison to the pit.
Norelle walked forward slowly, drawn to massive circular hole in the wide room. It easily took up the majority of the space, so far across that the light from her stager barely illuminated the stone lined wall on the opposite side. There were no railings, and intense vertigo washed over Norelle a few steps from the edge.
She hesitated, uncertain if she wanted to see. Then, remembering the glow stick Mikel had given her after the party last night, she dug into her purse. Sure enough, the darn thing was still there and unused. Norelle quickly cracked it, the internal chemicals burning to life in bright magenta, almost the same color as her long hair. Then, taking a steadying breath, she stepped the remainder of the distance to the edge.
Looking down into the abyss, she extended her left hand with the glow stick. Mentally counting down, she finally let go, watching it fall.
Her mouth hung agape as the bright magenta light became pinpoint, finally disappearing from her vision as the bottomless pit swallowed it whole. She heard no plink; no sound that it had reached any sort of bottom. For all Norelle knew, it dropped into the center of the very planet.
The thought made her shriek briefly in terror, leaping back. Suddenly the whole thought of sneaking in here seemed horribly stupid. She realized it was a bit late to think such things, but…hell! Why wasn't there a barricade over the corridor above? Didn't the curators know some idiot such as herself would come poking around down here?
Of course, maybe they did. Maybe they knew exactly what would happen. And a hole this big and this deep was the perfect way to get rid of the curious.
Something shifted, echoing in the massive room, making Norelle shriek again. She spun around on her heels, searching in vain for the source of the sound. But as far as she could tell, she was alone in the death pit room. No one had followed her down.
There was that sound again. Something electrical. It had to be. Like someone's music synthesizer humming to life. She heard it pulse twice more. And that's when she realized where the sound was coming from.
Curiosity more powerful than fear, Norelle stepped back up to the edge. Gazing down, it took her eyes a moment to spot the single orange dot far below. She hoped for a brief moment she was just seeing her glow stick; that it had bottomed out after all. But the orange light began to grow. And so did the rushing pulse of electronic synthesizers that Norelle was beginning to realize was not someone's music equipment.
Everything happened fast.
The orange light materialized into some sort of metallic shell, but Norelle didn't get a good look at it. The moment it exploded out of the bottomless hole, it radiated the most intense burst of light Norelle had ever seen. She forced her eyes shut, screaming out as her nerves singed with pain. Then there was the most strange sensation that her clothes had blown off her body, replaced by the sudden force of tight, metal plates wrapping around her arms, legs, abdomen, and every inch of exposed flesh.
All of this happened in a split second, leaving Norelle so dazed and unsteady, that she felt vertigo again at the thought of toppling over the ledge into oblivion.
Her missing clothes, the heavy weight of her new metal shell, and stumbling blindly all vanished. Something burning white hot sparked at the base of her skull, flaming to life along her spine. Liquid fire poured through her veins, and Norelle collapsed to her knees in agony. She screamed, but whatever had encased her dampened the sound. Or maybe the throbbing in her ears had drowned out whatever cries she could produce.
Molten fire, like sunlight or lava, burned through her neck and into her skull, the most intense and violent sensation Norelle had ever known. Unconsciousness was a mercy she just couldn't quite drift into.
And then it was over.
Norelle was sobbing. She felt hot, stick tears stain her face. At some point, she had collapsed on all fours, her equilibrium completely shot. She reached out in agony with one hand, not sure which way was up or down anymore. Hell, she didn't even care if she tumbled over the edge of the pit. That would at least put her out of her misery.
Then everything reset. Norelle felt the sticky mess on her face suddenly evaporate, physical relief and muscle relaxation washing through her body like a powerful drug. It immediately followed by a spike of adrenaline and pure energy.
Norelle stood up. A lot of new things suddenly entered her sphere of awareness.
She wasn't wearing her clothes anymore. Something heavy, rubbery and smooth to the touch of her skin, covered every square inch of her body. Gazing down, she examined her hands, which were covered in high-tech metal gauntlets. She held up one hand, squeezing and releasing her fingers. Between the little metal plates surrounding her fingers, she saw a matte black undercoating—the rubbery substance. It acted as a barrier between her bare flesh and the dense gray plating that now coated her like a suit of armor.
Reaching up to her face, Norelle realized her head was encased in some kind of helmet. Her field of vision was limited only to a specific view through what she realized must be a visor. Still, she felt as though she had a pretty good awareness of the room around her. She could even see the back wall of the pit now across the room.
She could see the back wall.
Glancing down, Norelle spied where she had dropped her stager, the flashlight off to conserve power. There wasn't a single light on in the room, yet she could see everything around her with decent clarity in the blackness. She could hear it practically. As she took a step back, her armor-clad feet scraping against the stone floor, she was suddenly aware of exact dimensions to the room, the sound waves bouncing with perfect pitch back into her ears. In a split second, she knew every measurement and crevice to the cathedral sized room.
Norelle even felt she could think more clearly.
In that moment, she realized several things. She was wearing some sort of unknown, advanced power armor system that had augmented all of her senses. It seemed to help her understand and focus on all of these changes, even if the scared girl that had wandered down here in the first place was struggling to capture it all. She could feel that part of her bubbling below the surface, ready to have an emotional breakdown. Something really weird and terrifying had just happened to her. Strange machines had flown out of deep pits in the ground, wrapping her up like a cocoon.
But the higher reasoning part of her brain, somehow augmented by the power of the armor, knew she was in absolutely no danger at the moment. The armor itself was no threat to her. In fact, it was doing everything it could to protect and help her. Whatever the burning sensation was that she had experienced before, the armor was doing a good job mending the damage. She was more than all right; she was probably the safest person in the city right now.
Propelled by that thought, she spun on her heels, snatching up her stager in a single fluid motion. As if by instinct, she clipped it to a spot on her armor, as if she had known the slot was there all along. Then she dashed on her feet back to the stairs and up out of the mysterious room.
It felt good.
She ascended the stairs in record time. Without need to take a single breath, she zipped around the corner and out into the closed off museum. Sliding to a stop on poised feet, perfect balance keeping her from crashing into the opposite wall, she became aware of new senses.
There were people in the building with her. Or, at least nearby. Two individuals just down the corridor, near the exit, and a third one somewhere behind her in another room.
Guards, her clear mind reasoned quickly.
Naturally. Security was just doing routine patrols. And judging by her awareness of their movement, none of them had sensed her sudden transformation below. Whatever it was. She would need to make an exit, though, and the two standing near the front doors were going to be a problem.
Keeping to the shadows, she dashed into the next room, grateful that she could see in the dark. She hesitated in the corridor outside the lobby, aware of more things. There was a maintenance door off to her right down a separate corridor. It was unguarded and she could easily burst through it. She didn't know how, but something in her mind told her she could.
Running again on quick legs, she felt a spike of awareness from the two guards near the front doors. They had heard her running through the halls. She could tell from their slow steps that they weren't certain, but she didn't have time to play around.
Spotting the door, Norelle raised her right hand instinctively, plowing right through the handle and lock as if it were cardboard. She hesitated briefly as the security alarm went off. How the hell had she done that?
Now she could hear the guards full out running. Not wasting another moment, Norelle shoved the shattered door out of her way, and jumped down into a small parking area where she guessed staff probably parked. There was a wire fence and a guard shack just beyond. But that wouldn't be a problem.
Norelle turned, leaping into the air with surprising strength and dexterity. She easily grabbed hold of the museum second story ledge, hoisting herself up. Then she jumped again, this time high enough to make it onto the roof, landing with catlike reflexes.
Norelle giggled inside her helmet, delighted at her sudden new strength. Below, she was aware of three guards meeting at the service door, unmoving and unaware that she was standing right above them. But she lost interest in their plight.
Stretching out before her, she gazed upon the canyons of high rises stretching out across Annattan's skyline. And suddenly Norelle saw a new playground. The dark skies and late hour only made it more appealing.
Crouching low, Norelle sprung forward with a powerful burst of strength. The little part of her mind terrified with heights was screaming out somewhere deep within, all too aware as the museum disappeared far below, and the fortieth floor of some stonework skyscraper came up to meet her.
Norelle ignored that terrified part of herself, grabbing hold of the stonework of the building with ease. She laughed, starting to climb higher.
Oh what fun she would have tonight.