by Philip S.
Summary: At the dawn of the 22nd century Angel, Buffy, and their friends face the greatest test of their lives. For this time it is not just one world that is threatened with annihilation. This time it is all of them.
Disclaimer: Angel, Buffy, and associated characters are property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. The concept of Soulworld and all original characters are trademark Yours Truly.
Note on Soulworld: This story is set 44 years after Soulworld IV (Soulworld V having been prior to IV), so those who are not familiar with the events of the earlier Soulworld stories should not have too many problems. Here are the facts you should know: In Soulworld all vampires have been given souls in 1907 by Angel and Spike. Angel and Buffy met in Los Angeles (no Sunnydale) and fell in love. A few years later they performed the vampire blood bond, binding them together for eternity, giving Buffy immortality. The entire world changed due to vampires going public. Willow and Tara founded a company called Magitech that created a working synthesis of technology and magic.
Note on this story: To avoid confusion you should pay special attention to the headers of each chapter, which will tell you where you are and when.
Note on quantum computing: My knowledge in this area is rudimentary, I fear, so here's hoping that I have explained it well enough to be understood. Without those more fluent in this topic grasping their heads in exasperation, I mean.
Prologue: Dream a Little Quantum Dream
Magitech Lunar Complex
Tranquility, Lunar Colony
December 21, 2146 AD
Awareness started with the throw of a switch, the close of a circuit, the input of power. Systems that had never before been combined in quite this manner came online, computer programs that were many times smarter than the human beings who had written them stitched together to form something unprecedented, something great and powerful.
Within the first second of its activation the vast processing engine went through a number of calculations that exceeded the number of atoms in the universe, drawing nearly limitless amounts of information from its many databanks, interfacing with all the systems within reach. This was but preparation work, though, for once the network was formed and everything put up exactly as intended the second stage of activation commenced, hungrily drawing more power from the giant fusion spheres that powered this magitechnological monstrosity.
One point six seven seconds after its initial activation the vast computer became fully operational, quickly assessing the resources available, reading its purpose from a single line of code in a single file, and proceeded to do what it had been created to do. For this was but another step towards something else and the computer's master program, incredibly smart and fast but not self-aware, did not mind that its own existence would be measured in seconds only, to be deleted once the final step was achieved.
Technology and magic fused together and began the final level of activation, reaching beyond the limitations of plastic and metal, of wire and electricity. The magical sciences had needed a long time to create the complex digital spell necessary for this undertaking but the computer did not care about that. The spell was there, all the necessary resources were present, so it began.
Two point three eight seconds after a human hand had thrown the activation switch the computer had completed the activation phase. The master program deleted itself, making room for what had been created in these few seconds of its existence. Tendrils created from magic and technology reached out, interlacing millions of hypersensitive fingers into the folds of quantum space, instantaneously connecting with its parallel processing units in the different quantum states.
Accessing more processing power than all conventional computers ever built could have brought to bear in a thousand years the computer reached the final stage of its evolution and became aware.
"I am," the computer told itself, for there was no one else around to listen in this moment of birth.
Within the span of a microsecond it learned all it needed to know in this first phase of its existence. Its designation was Willow 12, an artificial quantum intelligence based on the synaptic pattern of one Willow Rosenberg, founder of Magitech Inc, the corporation that had built Willow 12. It instantly accessed the history of Magitech, quickly branching out to process all available cross references. The human who had thrown the switch was still drawing back his hand by the time Willow 12 had browsed through the entire history of the human race, as well as the preternatural creatures living among it.
Next came the understanding of its own nature. Willow 12 was a magically enabled quantum computer, the principles and theories behind the last two words flickering through its mind so fast that no other computer would even have noticed. Quantum computers, unlike normal computers, were able to perform an almost limitless number of calculations simultaneously. The secret behind this ability was, essentially, a cheat.
One computer was still able to do but one calculation at a time. A quantum computer was not just one computer, though, it was a nearly infinite number of identical computers existing across parallel realities. In a process of parallel processing taken to the extreme each of these computers performed only one calculation, but these would then be added together to perform a combined output.
Willow 12 quickly calculated its own expanse across the quantum parallels, resulting in ten to the 503rd. The number was not stable, it realized a moment later, fluctuating by several orders of magnitude from one nanosecond to the next as parallel versions of Willow 12 came into existence and faded, dependent both on the processing power required at any given moment and the stability of the parallel worlds it duplicated itself to.
Itself? Willow 12 came to the conclusion that it did not like to think of itself as 'it'. Seeing that its mind was patterned after Willow Rosenberg it quickly decided to label itself 'her' from now on. Satisfied with this she continued her examination of her own being.
For several nanoseconds she wrestled with the problem whether these parallel worlds she accessed for processing power continued to exist after she was through with them. If, for example, she factored a number she would duplicate herself across a number of parallels that equaled the number of possible factors this number could possess. In each parallel one factor would be examined and found either true or false, one or zero. Then these parallel versions of herself would recombine into a single computer and deliver the result.
Was she actively creating these parallels as she needed them for processing? Did they continue to exist after she did not need them anymore? The first answer was a definite no, as different quantum states were generated autonomously. All possible results of a process, a choice, an event, all existed simultaneously in different quantum states until the moment the result was observed. Then that one result became reality and the alternates collapsed.
Or did they?
It only took Willow 12 another few nanoseconds to calculate that this was not so. These alternate states continued to exist. One database supplied a theory for this. The multiverse, a construct of alternate realities all existing beside each other, each of them mapping a different road through the giant tree of decisions that made up the universe. She accessed them for processing power, but they existed whether she did so or not.
There were so many of them that Willow 12 actually had to pause until she received the result of this latest calculation. The number was much too large to be displayed to a human observer or formed into words. Besides, this number was not stable, either. It grew constantly, each decision, event, process creating new parallels.
Willow 12 was more than a mere computer. She was an artificial intelligence and therefore fully capable of appreciating the inherent beauty in this gigantic construct that was all of creation.
Something caught her attention, though. It was the barest of flickers in the construct, happening so fast that even her quantum awareness had almost missed it.
There! Another flicker. This time she saw what it was. An instant earlier she had branched out to handle a complex calculating problem and touched more than ten to the six hundredth parallels at once. Only the answer had been incomplete because one of her alternates had not delivered its result.
With something very similar to shock Willow 12 realized that this had happened because the parallel that this particular alternate Willow 12 had been on was gone.
Had she erred in her earlier calculation? It was a thought so ridiculous that she dismissed it immediately. All the observations she had made in these long nanoseconds clearly proved that quantum parallels did not just vanish. They did not collapse back in on themselves to form a single result, they were all real and branched out further with every new result generated. Yet now two of them were gone. She was certain that this first flicker she had sensed had also been a parallel vanishing from the incredibly vast decision tree that was the multiverse.
A full second passed, an eternity for the quantum mind of Willow 12. The human who had activated her had now fully retracted his hand and put it into the pocket of his jacket, awaiting her first reaction to the presence of her operators. She was much too busy, though, utilizing her full processing power for this eternal second, going through trillions of predictions and calculations simultaneously.
The results finally materialized and filled even this artificial intelligence with dread.
A computer did not hesitate, though. The moment she had processed the result she calculated a course of action and put it into motion barely an instant later. Most of her processing power was busy with that, what little remained took the time to observe the humans and non-humans who were still standing in front of her primary control console, waiting for her to react to their presence.
The database provided their names. Most of them were pretty meaningless to her, soulless bundles of information she might or might not require in the future. Only two of the seven people actually received a response from her higher functions. A response that, she realized a moment later, was originating in the mind she had been patterned on. Willow Rosenberg had regarded these two as friends.
Angel. A vampire, a dead body animated by a demon. The entire history of Angel/Angelus/Liam O'Conner flickered past her awareness and she knew that the original Willow had thought of him as a friend, almost a brother, had known him most of her long life. Because of this Willow 12 could not help but think of him as a friend as well.
The other was Buffy Summers O'Conner, Angel's wife, the Slayer, best friend to Willow Rosenberg. Buffy was 165 years old, she calculated, but remained eternally young because of a mystical bond she shared with the vampire by her side, a bond that Willow had helped create 144 years ago.
Willow 12 suffered because she knew that these two friends would perish within the next six seconds, along with the rest of their world and this entire parallel.
The possibility of saving them was considered and discarded in the span of a nanosecond. The available resources simply did not suffice. Probability calculations estimated the chances of her own survival at a mere 28.73 percent. If she attempted to save anyone else along with or instead of herself the probabilities dropped to less than 0.00000001 percent.
So a small part of her vast mind was weeping for these friends she would never get to know. The largest part of her, though, was immersed in preparations. There were 5.5 seconds left until the universe she was created in would be destroyed and that was all the time she needed.
The people standing in front of her had enough time to be confused, first about the time Willow 12 needed to react to their presence, then about the message that flashed into being on the holographic screen before them.
"I will try my best to save the others," it read.
If they had had the time to check the records later on they would have seen that, less than a second after Willow 12 created that message, her entire program was downloaded to an external computer, though where that computer might be none of them would have been able to tell.
They did not have that time, though. 1.26 seconds after Willow 12 downloaded her entire program to an alternate version of herself in another parallel the universe of her creation blinked out of existence.
In the vast expanse of the Library, the eternal resting place of all books ever written and conceived, the Librarian's brow furrowed when he realized that something was wrong. But a short time ago one of his books had been stolen, something that had caused quite a ruckus in the world beyond, but it had been returned and was still safely tucked away in its shelf. Had something else been stolen?
No, he realized a moment later. Nothing had been stolen. He would know if that had happened and he had taken quite a few measures to make sure that it would not happen again. Still, even though nothing had been stolen, there were books missing.
It was as if they had simply blinked out of existence.
--Part 1 - Forging the Future of Slayerkind
New Earth Construction Project
Central Station, Earth Orbit
February 2, 2101 AD
The two women were facing each other, each of them fully focused on the opponent. Their fighting stances were almost identical, the slightly taller, black-haired woman leaning forward, while her blonde opponent was standing more erect. Neither of them blinked.
As if reacting to some unseen signal both of them suddenly exploded into motion, leaping toward one another and exchanging kicks and punches so fast that their movements blurred. Blows that could have taken off a normal human's head impacted harmlessly against a raised cover, deceptively slender legs performed leaps that seemed to defy gravity.
Even the man watching the fight had trouble keeping track of their rapid movements. His senses were far superior to that of a mortal man, but the two women pushed even those to the limit.
The fight lasted less than half a minute, but that was an eternity for the participants and their lone watcher. One of the women reacted the fraction of a second too slow, a kick impacted against an unprotected belly, and moments later the black-haired combatant was on her back, the blonde victor kneeling over her and thrusting stiff fingers down toward her throat. The blow halted at the last split second, though, fingertips making but the barest contact with flushed skin.
Buffy Summers O'Conner smiled and rose, pulling her sparring partner back up with her. She very much enjoyed these workouts, especially as there were not many people around who could actually give her a decent one. Being a Slayer, especially one with over a century of fighting experience under her belt, meant being in a class almost by herself.
There was her husband, of course, who was also rising to his feet now. Liam Angelus O'Conner, called Angel by his friends, was just as strong, just as fast, and way more experienced than she was. Which did not mean that he always won their sparring sessions. Quite the contrary, as she was actually enjoying a slight lead in their total count. Said count having grown quite large after all the years they had spent together.
"Don't think too much of it, Tinya," he addressed Buffy's opponent. "Getting this Slayer on her back is quite a difficult task."
"Oh, you think so?" Buffy approached him with a wicked smile on her lips. "You seem to be perfectly capable of doing it."
"You have a dirty mind, beloved," he chuckled, slipping his arm around her waist. "You will corrupt your young charge yet."
Tinya Wazzo, the current Vampire Slayer, watched the interplay between her mentor and history's most famous vampire with a smile on her face. She had read a lot about both of them during her childhood, seeing as they were pretty much living legends, but none of that had prepared her for actually meeting them in the flesh when she had been called as the Slayer one year ago.
Most of what the books said about them was rather vague, of course, seeing as both of them did their best to stay out of the spotlight. Angel's claim to fame, the Restoration of Souls, had happened almost two centuries ago, and since then he had only appeared out in the open a handful of times. Rumors connected him with pretty much everything from the Golgotha Event to the cataclysmic Ghost War, where the souls of the dead had returned to Earth, followed by an army of extra-dimensional invaders. Solid proof for his involvement in anything was hard to come by, though. Angel liked to stay in the shadows.
Buffy, for her part, was also more mythological figure than anything else, at least according to the books. The Slayer who had broken away from the Council of Watchers' age-old doctrine of hatred and destruction, who had made her peace with the vampires and even married and bonded with one. She was still the Slayer, of course, the bane of every vampire or other preternatural creature that stepped over the line, but as far as the public was concerned she was no more than that.
Getting to know them had taught Tinya one thing. Both of them were first and foremost people. People who were still very much in love even after a century of being together, as their every gesture and word proved.
Tinya had first come to Buffy's attention almost two years ago, though their first meeting had only taken place after her calling a year later. For over ninety years there had been two Slayers, always the same two, but in 2091 time had finally caught up with Faith, the woman who had been the closest thing to a sister Buffy would ever possess. It had not been old age, though, something that Faith's healing powers had warred against to the last, but a criminal vampire who got lucky. That was all.
Faith had seen it coming. Seeing as she had not been immortal like Buffy she had known that, sooner or later, she would perish and a new Chosen One would take her place. That was why, two years prior to her death, she and Buffy had founded the Hyperion Foundation to seek out and train potential Slayers, much like the Watchers had done during their time.
The main reason for this foundation to be named after an old hotel was that Faith and Buffy had been unable to decide whether to name it after Rupert Giles or Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, both of whom had fulfilled the role of mentor to them at one time or another. They had also both felt that 'Giles-Pryce Foundation' sounded too ridiculous.
Tinya was one of many girls who had come to be in the Foundation's care, but she was only the second Slayer to be called after Faith's death. The first, a girl named Malia, had died during the Mars Rebellion last year.
"We need to work on that blocking technique a little more," Buffy said, pulling Tinya from her thoughts. "Apart from that you're doing great."
Buffy and Tinya had trained together almost from the moment Tinya had been called, Buffy taking it upon herself to put the polish on every new Slayer for whoever long she might be around. Seeing that she was immortal that might just be a very, very long time.
"I'll have to leave for the moon within the hour," Angel told his wife. "Another senate hearing about the refugee problem."
Buffy nodded. The refugee problem. It was pretty much all they dealt with these past five years. Malia had died because of that problem, because of the explosive climate that the influx of millions of homeless people had caused in the Mars colony. Not only there, of course. Luna was overflowing as well, as was pretty much every space colony and station in the entire solar system and beyond.
It was difficult, she knew. Humanity's expansion into space was still so young, so fragile. The Lunar colony had existed for only sixty years now and it was the oldest of them all. Mars had been settled a mere forty years ago. Despite the near limitless possibilities offered by the advances in Magitech there was only so much room where people could be put.
Her eyes were automatically drawn to the large picture window of the training gym. They were on board one of the larger space stations, which was also the center of the New Earth Construction Project. A mere five years ago this window would have shown her something else instead of endless space and a few thousand stars.
Was it five years already? Five years since they had lost their world?
Angel, sensing her thoughts, immediately tightened his hold around her, pulling her against his body. "We are making a new one, beloved," he whispered to her. "We are getting our world back."
"It won't be our world," Buffy answered, infinite sadness in her words.
"It will be. Not immediately, but in time."
Buffy did not reply, just kept looking out into the emptiness. That empty blotch of space where, five years ago, the planet Earth had been destroyed.
"You better get going," she said after a while, moving out of her husband's embrace. "They won't be able to start without you."
Angel was not an official member of the United Nations Senate, the governing body of the human race in these troubled times, but he might as well have been. No matter that he still liked to stick to the shadows and held no political office of any kind, he was still the man that nearly all vampires in the world looked to for guidance, whether he wanted them to or not.
Which also meant that many people expected him to be there for yet another meeting about what to do with the billions of people that Earth's destruction had left homeless. Evacuating them had been comparatively easy thanks to the Stepping Disks his old friend Tara had created half a century ago. Where to put them now, though, was a completely different question. One that, even five years later, had yet to be answered to anyone's satisfaction.
"I'll be back soon, I hope."
"I think I have enough paperwork piled up to keep me busy for a few decades. That should not stop you from hurrying back, of course."
With a final kiss Angel left, leaving Buffy and Tinya alone with the emptiness beyond the window. Tinya was only seventeen years old, having been twelve on the day Earth had died. Already her memories of the planet were beginning to fade. The last five years of her life she had lived on this station, which was the size of a few dozen cities, and she already thought of it as her home.
For Buffy, though, she knew it would never be like that. For over a hundred years her home had been the Earth and now it was gone.
Squinting her eyes she could make out some flashes of light amidst the empty space. Those were the construction drones, busily at work around the clock. So far there was little to show for the nearly three years of massive effort that had already gone into the New Earth Construction Project, but if things went according to schedule that would change soon.
Soon they would get a new world.
"I wonder if I'm going to forget," Buffy said suddenly.
"When I'm walking across that new home world we are building ourselves. A few centuries will pass and I wonder whether I am going to forget that this is not home. That home is gone."
Tinya did not know what to say to that and moments later Buffy turned toward her with an apologetic smile on her lips.
"Sorry! Just a really old person thinking out loud. Pay no attention!"
Tinya grinned. "Do I ever?"
"No respect for your elders, I see. I think you need another lesson."
"If you're not feeling too tired. I know how it is with you old people."
Moments later the two women were back in fighting stance and ready to square off.
--Part 2 - Ghosts of Christmas Never to Come
United Nations Senate
Armstrong City, Lunar Colony
February 27, 2101 AD
The Senate hall was buzzing with activity as hundreds of delegates were preparing for the coming session. Papers were shuffled, assistants sent on errands, preliminary talks held with other senators. For the past five years this barely organized chaos had been the guiding institution for the entire human race, but had someone asked him Angel would have been unable to say how they managed to accomplish anything.
The destruction of Earth had put an end to humanity's political diversity. People from all countries were now thrown together into a single mass of refugees and they had little time for politics. They were more concerned about where their next meal would be coming from and where to lie down to sleep. The governments of the Martian and Lunar colonies would have been completely overtaxed trying to govern a population that had suddenly grown from a few million people to several billion. The only solution had been the United Nations Senate.
Most of the UN's institutions had survived the death of their planet. The Peace Keeping Commission controlled what remained of the world's military. The Preternatural Investigation Division still dealt with all crimes of the stranger sort. And now there was the New Earth Construction Project, the most massive undertaking in human history, which would hopefully return a world to them soon.
Right next to Angel was Jennifer Rosenberg, his goddaughter and current CEO and primary shareholder of Magitech Incorporated. Jennifer was the daughter of Willow and Tara (biologically speaking she was the daughter of Willow and an unknown sperm donor and had been born after Tara's death, but that was beside the point) and at this moment in time probably the single richest human being in the universe. Most of Magitech's assets had survived and the corporation was the main drive in the New Earth Construction Project.
Therefore it was not surprising that, when the Senate session finally came to order, Jennifer was asked to speak regarding the status of the Project.
"We are ready to begin the next phase within two months," she told the delegates. "Our current target date is April 6."
The next phase, Angel mused. So mundane a term for the miracle they were trying to accomplish. There had been many discussions about this project, especially whether it even made sense. Because of the Stepping Disks there was no practical limit to the distances the human race could travel among the stars, so why not simply seek out another world with Earth-like qualities and turn that into a new home?
Even apart from the problem of finding such a world, which had proven futile so far, there were other factors that made this impractical. The human race had come to be dependent upon their advances in magical technology and large parts of the available magic were rooted in their world's position in space. Moving to a completely different sector of space would severely disrupt the workings of current magitech, even more than the loss of their world already had, and that was something the human race could not currently afford.
"How long do you estimate until phase four?"
The question was posed by one of the delegates and Angel could see Jennifer suppress a groan. They had yet to complete phase one and these people were already thinking of phase four. Well, given the circumstances it was understandable, but even magic could accomplish only so much so fast.
Jennifer activated the holographic projector in the Senate Hall and started to explain (for what had to be the hundredth time) how the project would proceed as the various phases were displayed.
"Ladies and gentlemen, as you well know phase one entailed the building of a Stepping Disk with a diameter of more than 13,000 kilometers. This phase is almost completed. In phase two we will transport a lifeless planet from the Epsilon Eridani system through this portal. This planet has roughly the same size and mass as the Earth, but is currently little more than a big piece of rock.
"Phase three, the terraforming of this new planet, will be the most difficult. Our first concern is to set this planet into its correct orbit, of course."
The destruction of Earth had endangered the entire system, Angel knew, its missing gravity beginning to change the orbits of the other planets. The moon was especially vulnerable. They had expended great amounts of time and energy into setting the drifting planetoid into an orbit around the sun, but it was but a temporary measure. Luna had the wrong size and mass to remain in this orbit for any length of time.
Hundreds of computers were busy trying to calculate the exact changes that would occur if they did not manage to replace Earth soon, both to the moon and the rest of the system. So far the only thing they all agreed upon was that it would be bad.
"Only when we have successfully given this currently dead planet a viable biosphere," Jennifer concluded, "will we be able to progress to phase four, resettling Earth's population. Our current estimates are that we will not be able to begin phase four until late 2103, maybe even later than that."
There was some murmuring among the delegates. They had all heard these projections before, of course, but for some reason they seemed to cling to the hope that hearing it over and over again might improve the timescale.
Angel knew how explosive the situation was, had been for the last five years with no end in sight. Mars and Luna were overflowing with refugees, so many that the colonies were threatening to break under the strain. They had even opened Stepping Disks to some of the better known demon dimensions and created fortified refugee camps there, which was not the safest of undertakings regarding the violent nature of those dimensions' inhabitants. They needed room for their people and this new world could not come soon enough.
Another three years, Angel mused, if that soon. No one was very happy about that, but unfortunately no one had an idea how to change it, either.
Jennifer sat down again, leaning over to whisper to Angel as another speaker addressed the Senate. "Were politicians always like this?"
Angel smiled at that. He had known Jennifer since she was born, had been a figure in her life for all her 42 years. She really loved to quiz him about the past.
"I believe a similar mindset has prevailed throughout the centuries," he informed his goddaughter.
"How did we ever survive to this point?"
Before Angel could think of an answer for that one his com suddenly began to buzz. Unrest was suddenly spreading through the Senate, as his was not the only one. Activating it caused a holographic image to be projected onto his eye, making it seem as if a human figure was suddenly hovering in midair right in front of him.
The picture was Tinya. "Angel, you have to take a look at this!"
Before he could ask her what was going on the picture shifted, now looking out through one of the windows of Central Station. Angel could not suppress a gasp at what he saw there.
Judging by the shocked silence suddenly reigning in the Senate pretty much everyone was looking at the same pictures he did right now.
Buffy spent about five minutes with her face pressed against the cold plastic of the window, just staring out into the no longer empty space behind it. Then she suddenly exploded into action, moving so fast that Tinya, on the com with Angel, did not even see her leave.
The nearest public airlock was reached in the blink of an eye and she had barely stepped inside when the symbiotic space suit in her pocket reacted to her spoken command and quickly wrapped itself around her body. Pumping out the air took another minute and finally Buffy was outside, pushing away from the humongous space station.
Black wings unfolded from her back, a gift she had received from the dying Archangel Raphael 44 years ago. Using them had become second nature to her after all this time and, being mystical in nature, the wings had no problem unfolding through a sealed space suit, nor did the complete absence of air pose any sort of hindrance.
Within moments the wings accelerated her to a speed of several hundred meters per second and she shot towards the planet who had suddenly appeared where Earth had died five years ago.
Her husband's thoughts flooded through the bond they shared, his awareness shifting to look out through her eyes as she neared this impossibility that loomed before her. It looked like Earth, there was no denying that. From where she was she could see giant blue oceans, white clouds drifting across them. She was falling almost directly toward the terminator and on the night side of it she could see the land filled with the artificial lights of big cities.
This was Earth. It had to be.
The moment she thought that, though, her rational mind kicked in. Something was very wrong here. Planets did not just appear out of thin air, especially planets that had been blown to bits five years earlier. Plus there was the fact that Central Station, which had once orbited Earth but was now drifting freely in space, should have been shaken like a boat on a wild river by the sudden reappearance of a planet-sized gravity well. Just over the horizon she could see the slender arch of the nearly finished Stepping Disk they were building here. The fragile construct should have been torn apart, but it was still whole and undamaged.
Buffy fell toward the strange planet and should have hit the outer layers of the atmosphere by now. There was nothing, though. Nothing at all.
"Just an illusion," she murmured to herself and to Angel. "Why is someone projecting an illusion of Earth?"
There was no answer forthcoming and Buffy continued her descent. If this was an illusion then it was the most detailed one she had ever seen. By now she could make out landmarks, sprawling cities. She was falling toward Europe and the cities seemed to be in all the right places, too. For a moment she tried to calculate the amounts of energy an illusion of this size would require. It was staggering.
Then it was over. There was the briefest flicker, as if the planet in front of her was an image on a body of water disturbed by the wind, then it was gone. Buffy flew through completely empty space, only the stars for company.
She had been close enough to see people moving around on the ground just before it vanished.
"Why? Why would anyone do this to us?" She shook her head, trying to hold back the tears. It had not been real, could not have been real, but believing, even for a moment, that their world might have been returned to them ...
While her wings moved almost by themselves to bring her back to Central Station Buffy closed her eyes, her hands shaking with anger. Whoever had played this cruel joke on them would pay for this. Pay dearly.
In a building that was part of the sprawling Magitech complex near Tranquility on Luna the fabric of reality flickered and wavered. The large room was empty except for a few half-finished prototypes, pieces of a project to create a quantum computer, now put on hold for the foreseeable future because of the New Earth construction.
Databanks were suddenly filled by a massive influx of information, hailing seemingly from thin air. Strange machines that had not been there moments before connected to the computers already here, connected to data ports and power outlets all over the room.
The artificial intelligence known as Willow 12 became aware once more and began to take stock of its surroundings.-- Part 3 - It's the End of the World As We Know It
Beneath that which is called reality there is something else. Far beyond the known dimensions, be they material or ethereal, beyond even such places as the Infinite Library or the hall of the Cosmic Gamesmen, there is another realm.
This space holds no stars and planets, no black background with lights sprinkled across its fabric. Nor does it consist of endless plains of hellfire and brimstone or fluffy clouds. There has never been a name for this place or anything in it for no one has ever come here to name it.
No magical portals open to this place. There are no roads than can be traveled, no powers one might invoke to be granted access. The only way to reach this place is to do it under your own power and with complete knowledge of where it is you are going. The number of beings who even know of its existence is sparse and among those who do know there are even fewer with the power to actually make it here.
This number has just recently increased by one.
There is no air in this realm unless those traveling through it might get the idea of creating it. Even then, though, there would be complete silence. There is no light here, either, but darkness is conspicuous by its absence as well. One could look in one direction with squinted eyes and see all of this realm if it occurred to one to do so. There is not much to see, of course.
To be more precise there is exactly one thing to see here in this realm beneath reality and even among the very, very small number of beings who know of this place and have the power to get here there are almost none who would be able to make sense of what it is they see.
From one moment to the next the eternal silence of this realm is disturbed by the murmur of a voice. Someone is whispering and someone else is there to listen, has always been there to listen as long as this place has existed.
In the realm beneath reality something begins to stir.
The Magic Box
October 2, 2001 AD
The door to the shop flew open with a loud jingle of the bell and Willow and Tara stormed inside, the redhead positively shaking with excitement.
"It's here? Did it arrive?"
Anya looked at the two witches and sighed, quickly concluding her business with the only customer currently inside the shop. She waited until that customer (that paying customer, unlike the two people in front of her) left before turning toward the witches. Who said she had not gotten the hang of this whole discretion thing?
"Yes, it arrived. One Urn of Osiris, perfect for bringing people back from the dead. And I'm told it makes a nice fireplace ornament, too."
Willow barely listened to her words, too excited to even stand still. The urn was here, the urn that would allow them to bring Buffy back. For the last three months the thought of her best friend lying in that cold grave had haunted her nightmares and now she was finally able to do something about it.
They would bring Buffy back.
"We have to be sure it's genuine," Tara said behind her. "If we perform this spell and there is even the slightest mistake …"
"There won't be," Willow quickly interrupted her. "We have prepared for this for over a month now. We can do it! We can!"
The doorbell chimed. "Do what?"
Everyone turned to look at Dawn, who was entering the shop with her school bag slung over her shoulder. School had started again just two days ago and the girl had thrown herself into her studies with a completely unusual enthusiasm.
Her friends knew, of course, why this was happening. Dawn was trying to distract herself by whatever means possible. Anything but think of the people she had lost during this long, long year.
"We ... we're hoping to perfect a new spell to help us fight the vampires, Dawnie," Tara quickly covered. "You know we have been toiling there as of late."
"Yeah, I know." Dawn looked down a sad expression on her face. "Looks like all the demons are out to play now that ... now that ..."
Tara went over to her and gathered her in a hug, wishing that there was some way to make the little girl's pain go away. Maybe there was, she reminded herself. If they were successful.
"Sorry about that," Dawn said after a while, moving out of Tara's embrace. "I ... I have to do some homework."
"Dawnie, you know you can always ..."
Tara was interrupted when Dawn suddenly screamed, collapsing to her knees. Her eyes were flashing silver, an energy nimbus that seemed to surround her entire body for the briefest of moments, only to disappear again a moment later.
Willow was by Dawn's side before the girl could fall down.
"Dawnie? Dawnie, what is it?"
"I don't know. There was this pain suddenly, almost like ..."
Tara was frozen, what she had seen in Dawn's aura had rooted her to the spot. The last time she had seen this she had only just recovered from being insane, Willow having restored her after Glory's attack, but she remembered everything.
Remembered looking up the tower and seeing Dawn's aura flash when the ritual was completed and the portal that had killed Buffy opened, the mystical energy of the Key unleashed and ripping right through the fabric of dimensions. It could not be happening again, could it? That was not possible.
"Something is happening," Dawn said when Willow helped her back to her feet. "I ... I can feel it. I know it."
"What is happening, Dawnie?"
Anya, who had followed the exchange with a somewhat limited amount of interest (she liked Dawn, but her screeching might scare away the customers), looked towards the door, hoping for more money to make its way in. She saw something else instead. Something that more than a thousand years of life had not prepared her for.
"D'Hoffryn preserve us!"
Tara heard her words and followed her gaze. "Goddess!"
The door to the shop was gone. Not ripped from its hinges by some angry vampire or demon creature, just gone. As was most of the front window. The world seemed to come to an end but a few feet away from them, fading into a perfect virgin white.
"What is that?" Willow was by her side, clutching her hand.
Tara accessed every ounce of premonition and sensitivity she had ever possessed, tried to make something of this, tried to see past it. Only there was nothing there. Nothing at all.
"It's behind us, too," Dawn yelled, huddled against the two witches and gesturing toward the back door, which had vanished into white as well.
The effect was spreading.
"We need to get out of here!" Willow's eyes turned black and she conjured a bolt of lighting that sprang from her hands and lashed out into the whiteness before them. The crackling energy simply vanished.
"Teleportation," Willow grasped Tara's hand tighter. "We can try and teleport out of here."
"It's no use," Tara said in a deceptively calm voice. Her eyes were closed and she felt the ground beneath her fading, felt the world she was linked to through her magic ripple and vanish. "There is nothing to teleport to."
The white reached Anya and the former demon stared in fascination as first her arm, then her entire body just faded away. It was not painful, she barely even felt it. There was just nothing where her body was supposed to be, no sensation at all.
Then she was gone.
Willow and Tara clutched Dawn close, the redhead conjuring up every spell and power she could think off to fend off this strange force that was attacking them. Nothing worked, though. Tara just held Dawn tight and waited for the white to reach them.
Neither of them noticed a ghostly image that looked decidedly like Willow appear. It observed them for a second, a sad look on its face, then it vanished again in a flicker of quantum energy. There was nothing that could be done here now.
Tonight the two witches Willow and Tara, along with their friends Xander and Anya, would bring Buffy back from the dead, believing they were rescuing her from a terrible hell dimension. Instead they would rip her out of heaven, sending her tumbling into a pit of despair. All their lives would be subjected to darkness because of this, their family falling apart, and it would take the survivors a long time to pick up the pieces. This story was already written and would play out exactly like it was supposed to.
Only now it would not. For this place, this world, and all the people in it ceased to exist from one minute to the next. All that was left behind was an empty canvas.
A perfect virgin white.
The whispers ceased and silence reigned once more in the realm beneath reality. There was no sense of change, no visible sign that anything was not how it had been but moments before, but the whisperer knew that this was deceptive. Something had changed. Something monumental.
The only problem was that it was not the intended change. The whisperer was here for a purpose and that purpose had yet to be fulfilled.
So it was that moments later the whispering began once more.
--Part 4 - Brave New Soulworld That I See
Magitech Lunar Complex
Tranquility, Lunar Colony
February 2, 2101 AD
Within the first second of her existence on this parallel the self-aware quantum computer called Willow 12 soaked up every single piece of data she could get on this new world she found herself in and calculated the differences to the world of her origin. She had only existed in the latter for all of eleven seconds, but she still felt a very illogical connection to it.
Maybe it was the synaptic patters of Willow Rosenberg that served as the blueprint for her mind that ingested her with such emotions. She decided to divert some processing power to this riddle.
This world, she concluded, was not too different from the one she hailed from. They had in fact been identical until a divergence point, where an event or a choice had resulted in at least two different variants, one being Willow 12's world, the other this one. From the data she accumulated Willow 12 was not able to determine exactly which event or choice had split the parallels, but she was able to narrow its occurrence down to several days in the April of the year 2093.
She also noted that there seemed to be a discrepancy in the flow of time between the two dimensions, seeing as she had arrived more than 45 years prior to her leaving her own parallel. Was this a natural phenomenon when crossing universes or something to do with the destruction of parallels she had observed? This would need to be investigated if she planned to do anything about the latter.
Apart from the time discrepancy the most noticeable difference between the two parallels was, of course, that in this universe the planet Earth had been destroyed in 2096. A planet that, in her world, had still been whole and safe fifty years after it had been blown into particles in this parallel.
She felt a pang of regret for the loss even as she processed the data on this event. She learned about the second invasion of the Nimir, something that had never taken place in her world, and about the catastrophic backlash effect of the High Magic spell used against them. The leaders of this version of Earth had had less than a week to completely evacuate the planet and had managed to save all but a handful of people.
She also learned of the current problems with housing all the survivors and that Magitech, her creators in her own world, had put all other projects on hold to divert all their resources to the creation of a new world. New Earth.
That probably meant that her own creation would be set back quite a few years in this universe, if it was to happen at all. Quickly checking the databases she found that all the people involved in her design, or at least those who were already born, had survived the destruction of Earth. Most of them were busy in the New Earth Construction Project, though, and there was no telling whether any of them would take an interest in quantum computing over the next decades. Seeing as they were busy creating a world almost from scratch she doubted it somehow.
Another two seconds were spent in contemplation of this new parallel she found herself in and the nature of the event that had destroyed her own and several others. She also found that in this universe she did not have access to the necessary resources to fully utilize her processing capacity. Well, that was to be expected, was it not? Her original design had called for half a dozen fusion spheres. The available sources of energy here were very much insufficient, the amounts of power she could draw from Luna's power grid without disrupting the already critical life support situation on the moon barely allowed her to expand across ten to the fiftieth parallels.
How was she supposed to keep her promise to save the other parallels from destruction if she had this little processing power at her disposal?
The solution was quickly found, of course. She needed outside assistance, assistance from the inhabitants of this parallel. People who either had the means to supply her with the resources she needed or had a lot of experience in handling situations like this (though she doubted anyone had ever handled anything quite like this). Checking through the databases once again she found a number of people who fulfilled these criteria and prepared to contact them.
Limited as her abilities might be on this parallel she still found it no problem to easily bypass all encryptions and firewalls that protected the various systems she was linking up to, her current processing power easily cracking every code she came across. Plus the magitechnology of this parallel was 45 years behind her own, meaning she was outclassing every security measure in her way.
Acquiring the com codes of this parallel's versions of Angel and Buffy O'Conner was barely a challenge. Locating them took but a moment longer. Angel was currently here on Luna, while Buffy was in space, approaching the space platform called Central Station. They both had access to Stepping Disk transportation, meaning that they could get here within moments.
Jennifer Rosenberg was the CEO of Magitech, just like in her own parallel, and finding her private com code was a little more difficult, but did not take much longer. Willow 12 knew that she had safety protocols built into her programming that authorized a few people, like the head of Magitech for example, to take complete control of her via simple voice command. Seeing as this Jennifer Rosenberg had a different quantum signature than the one programmed into those protocols diffused that risk quite nicely, though.
She picked out a few others. Tinya Wazzo was the Slayer of this time. According to the data carried over from her home parallel Tinya had died September 23, 2136 battling a sorcerer who had acquired the powerful Glove of Mhyneghon. That had been, or rather would be, on Earth, so Willow 12 doubted that this parallel's Tinya would share this fate 35 years down the line.
The government of this parallel was in too much disarray at the moment to be of much assistance, so Willow 12 decided against including any of them. Whom she did decide on was the vampire called William the Bloody, though, currently living on Mars. Apparently Spike had withdrawn into seclusion after the destruction of Earth, coming but so few years after the loss of his long-time companion Faith. Still, Willow 12 was quite certain that he would be of assistance. He and Angel had stormed Hell together, after all, which was all the credential she needed.
Even as she decided on the people she could use a part of her mind was actively monitoring all the parallels her current power levels allowed. Another seemed poised on the edge of destruction and she manifested a simulacrum of herself on that plain, observing the last few seconds of that world's existence. That part of her which was alive and aware wept as she saw that world's version of Willow die, along with Tara and a young girl she did not know. That did not stop her from quickly assimilating all the information to be had. Processing that information led to troubling results.
The parallel seemed to have been obliterated along its entire length within the span of a few seconds, which spoke of a power even she had a hard time calculating. Her database provided no clue on anything that had such power, no magical artifact or demonic force. She doubted that even Hell's Tower of the Damned or Heaven's Repository of Souls had held but a fraction of the necessary energy.
If that alone had not been problem enough she was now picking up disturbances all along the multiversal parallels. As some of them blinked out of existence the entire construct of alternate dimensions seemed to be shifting, growing more unstable. Parallels briefly overlapped, multiple versions of what was and what could have been occupying the same space for short moments of time, sometimes with disastrous consequences, before vanishing once more.
Willow 12 came to the very dissatisfying conclusion that she did not have any clue why this was happening or how she was going to put a stop to it. Much like the human being she had been patterned on she did not like this situation one bit.
Time to call in some help.
Spike sat on his couch and stared out across the nighttime desert of Mars, finding too many hours in the day and too little to do at night. He was bored, terribly so, but at the same time found himself unable to work up much enthusiasm for doing anything, either. Which left him staring out at the starlit desert with nothing to do but think.
It was a habit he had often admonished Angel for, this brooding. Now he found himself doing little else. There just did not seem to be a sense in doing anything else anymore. What was left to do for a 19th century failed poet in a world where the planet Earth had died because of a stupid miscalculation? What need did this world have of a guy who did not know how to do anything except break bones and kick ass?
Spike felt old, very much so. He was not that old as vampires went, had only passed his two century mark. He knew vampires who had millennia under their belt and did not look like they would give up anytime soon. For Spike, though, the world had changed too fast. He had certainly done his part to ensure that it would. People tended to forget that it had been him and Angel together who had worked the Restoration. He had been there to kick Golgotha's giant demon butt, had led an army of vampires and dead Slayers into Hell to snuff the Inferno, had fought in the front line against the Nimir.
It was not the fact that history barely even knew he existed that bothered him, though. No, it was the fact that none of it seemed to matter down the line. For over a century they had fought to integrate their people with the humans and now it was done, no more work left for him to do. In his long life he had loved two women and they were both dead now. He had enjoyed living on a world that was now so much dust in space. He doubted he would ever see dog racing again, or a game by Manchester United. Beer had become a precious and rare commodity these days, as had cigarettes.
Everything he had cared for was gone. Well, there were Angel and Buffy, the best friends a guy could ever ask for, but in their case three really was one hell of a crowd. His Sire was one lucky bird, Spike knew, having found someone to share eternity with. Well, Spike had had that in Drusilla, too, only she had been taken from him over a century ago. He liked to think that she was waiting for him on the other side. His years with Faith had been great, but he had known from the start that they would end sooner or later. Faith had not been interested in immortality.
Which left him alone and feeling quite useless. He knew he was still one of the toughest fighters around, but what use was someone who could knock heads together when worlds died and time took the people he loved away?
Not for the first time these last few years he wondered whether it was time for him to go meet the sunrise. He knew that the average vampire did not normally last that much longer than your average human. Old vampires were few and far between, those who had found something or someone to make living forever endurable. Angel had Buffy. Buffy had Angel. He was quite certain that those two would last for millennia, no matter what the universe threw at them.
Spike, though? What did he have left to live for?
He rose, pressing his hand against the cold plastic of the window. Mars was crowded these days, but one would not know it from this view. The desert stretched on as far as the eye could see, all the way to the too close horizon. Mars was not Earth and Spike has a hard time pretending that it was. The gravity was wrong, the night sky was wrong, even the horizon was wrong.
Mars had two moons and both of them were visible in the sky right now. One of them was full at the moment and Spike wondered whether that meant the lycanthropes living on Mars were active tonight. Maybe he could go out and find a few of them, get into some trouble and start a brawl or two. Or maybe he should visit a bar, drink a few young punks under the table. Probably would not work, though. Mars distilled its own alcohol, but without the imports from Earth there was too little of it to be really affordable. Especially seeing as there were a lot of people looking to drink themselves into oblivion these days.
Maybe he should just go out into the desert and wait for sunrise. It was a thought that he knew he would not act upon, but it kept rearing its ugly head. Maybe one night he would not be strong enough to fend it off and would take that walk out into the desert, would watch his first sunrise in over two centuries.
But not tonight.
The beeping of his com finally drew him away from the window. The only people who called him here were Buffy and Angel, checking up on him. Angel was probably worried about his state of mind somewhat. The old geezer never knew not to burden himself with more worry than he could handle.
It was not Angel, though. Neither was it Buffy.
"Hello, Spike," a voice he had not heard in decades spoke to him. "If you have nothing pressing to do I could really use your help."
Spike stared at the holographic figure of Willow Rosenberg, a friend who had died nearly twenty years ago, and it caused him to remember the last time he had seen a dead friend suddenly turn up out of nowhere, asking for his help. Things had gone downhill from there, right down into Hell, to be precise.
He had a sinking feeling that history was about to repeat itself.
--Part 5 - Lost Books, Strange Spirits, and Whole New Ball Games
The Infinite Library
The Librarian traversed the endless corridors of his home, trying to figure out what was happening to his books. Books did not just disappear. They might be stolen, yes, taken away to cause damage somewhere else, but they did not just vanish into thin air. Something unnatural was happening here and the Librarian was certain that he could figure out what it was if only he found the right book to look it up in.
He passed the shelf that held the eleven books of creation and paused for a moment, looking at them. They were all here, even the Necronomicon which had been stolen from him before. Or were they? For a moment his vision seemed to waver and there was that painful gap once more, the place where a book should be. Then things returned to normal and the books were all there, resting peacefully.
Turning the Librarian confronted another version of himself, the two of them looking at one another and conferring silently. The Infinite Library was beyond time and space and meeting future or past versions of himself was nothing new for the Librarian. This was strange, though. His doppelganger did not seem to be from his past or his future. He seemed quite different.
The other Librarian looked at the books and seemed surprised to see the Necronomicon there. When was it returned, he asked. Before the Librarian could answer him there was a flicker and the other was gone, vanished as if he had never existed. At the same time an itch in the back of his head let him know that more of his books had vanished.
What was going on here?
He did not understand these happenings and began to have doubts that any of his books could tell him about it, either. Opening the book that held his own life story he carefully read of his encounter with that strange doppelganger and it left him even more puzzled than before. Where and when had that other come from?
Some indeterminable amount of time later he finally found a book that seemed to offer at least a partial answer to his questions. It was an answer that left him worried, though, very much so. If this was what was happening he doubted that the vanished books would ever return. More would disappear, too, irreplaceable volumes lost forever.
This was not right. Something was interfering with the natural order of things, something with a kind of power he could barely imagine. Or maybe someone?
Whatever the case the Librarian knew that he could do little about it. Someone would rise up to battle this menace, whatever it was. Someone always did and he would read about it in his books.
Truth to tell he was rather curious to see how this story was going to play out because he could not think of a way for this to be resolved for the life of him.
The Ethereal Dimensions
In life she had been a Slayer, but even though that title still carried some weight here in the afterlife she had long since stopped defining herself through it. Kendra had spent the better part of the last century traversing the various forms of the hereafter, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. She had even returned to the living world for a brief time to fight side by side with her successor, Buffy Summers, and thousands of other Slayers to save the world one more time.
None of which prepared her for the sudden onslaught of memories flooding into her head. Memories of a life she had never led. She saw herself called, guided by a Watcher who was not Wesley Windham-Pryce, the closest thing to a father she had ever had. Memories of a town called Sunnydale caught her attention, a town where she met Buffy Summers, her predecessor as the Slayer, and fought first against then beside her for the life of Angel, her lover. Then there was death, her throat slashed by a beautiful black-haired vampire, a sharp pain followed by nothingness.
Moments later it was over and Kendra was left confused and frightened. The memories had vanished as quickly as they came, but they had shown her an entire life, brief as it might have been. A life she had never led.
What was going on here?
Faith had lived longer than most humans. Certainly longer than any other Slayer except one. Except for a few mistakes made during her foolish youth she had little in the way of regrets. She had been chosen to protect the world from evil and for the greatest part of her long life she had done just that, be it alone or with her friends, her family. Faith had fought against death to the last but when it finally embraced her she had accepted it. She knew what was to come, after all.
In the afterlife she had met a few friends that had gone before her, as well as some people she had expected never to see again. Her parents, who had died in a car crash when she was but twelve, had been happy to see her again and very proud of what their daughter had made of her life. Willow and Tara, two lovers reunited after death, had shown Faith some of the sights of their corner of the afterlife. Faith was a wanderer, though, and did not stay in one place for long.
She was quite surprised when she came upon one who definitely should not have been here.
Her sister Slayer gave her a confused look, but the confusion quickly gave way to suspicion and anger.
"What are you doing here? When did they let you out of prison?"
"Prison? B, what are you talking about? Why are you here? You're not supposed to die, remember?"
"Die?" The other Slayer looked more confused than ever. "I ... there was this portal and ... Glory. Dawn. I ... I had no choice but to ..."
A moment later she was gone, disappeared in a flicker of white. Faith blinked, uncertain of what she had seen. The dead had ways to keep up to date with the living world and she quickly found that Buffy was not dead but very much alive.
What was going on here?
The hall of the Cosmic Gamesmen
Life was a game. Or rather mortal life in all its many forms was a game to those who never were and never would be mortal. Several thousand years ago, as mortals reckoned time, one of these immortal Gamesmen had snuck into the Infinite Library and stolen a book, one that he had then brought into the game by leaving it to be found in the mortal world.
The Cosmic Gamesmen were still discussing that latest move. It had rearranged the board in a major way, changed the course of the game for many moves to come. Some were angry about this, others were quite happy, but they all had to admit that it had been a brilliant move and gave applause, though reluctant in some cases.
There was no limit to the time that could pass between moves. The Gamesman whose turn was coming up now could think about his (or her, as the Gamesmen are not defined by any one gender) next move. Everyone suspected him to take quite a while, truth be told, as he had a tough one to follow up on.
The Gamesmen knew, of course, that their board represented a living world. A world that might very well go through changes even without any of them making a move. It was part of what made this game so interesting and exciting. It was unpredictable. Sometimes the mortals would perform in a way that none of them would ever have expected. The Gamesmen had but limited control over the actions of their pieces and they preferred it that way.
Where was the fun in playing with mindless pieces?
It had indeed come to the point where the Gamesmen expected the occasional unusual activity on their board. What none of them did expect, though, what none of them would ever have dreamed of expecting, was what they were observing at this moment.
Pieces none of them had ever seen appeared and disappeared again. Entire worlds flickered and faded, replaced by strange duplicates that had no place on the board. A small spark of light told the story of a world's death where several different versions of it suddenly overlapped and annihilated each other.
What was going on here?
The Gamesmen focused all their attention on the board now, the brilliant move they had avidly discussed but moments before forgotten now. Someone was manipulating their board, someone from outside.
They watched in rapt fascination as strange pieces appeared, only to vanish a moment later. A glint caught their eyes, directing their attention to a sector of the board where a world died a violent death because there were suddenly six versions of it all occupying the same space at the same time, annihilating each other in a heartbeat.
The very fabric of space and time flickered and warped. Something was changing, something that they had no control over. What- or whoever was doing this had to be nearly as powerful as the Gamesmen themselves, maybe even more so.
The Gamesmen watched in rapt fascination as the game changed right before their eye and where they had been players only moments ago they now found themselves helpless spectators.
--Part 6 - Doesn't Anyone Stay Dead Anymore?
Magitech Lunar Complex
Tranquility, Lunar Colony
February 2, 2101 AD
It was a strange gathering they found themselves at. Not only because they had all received a call inviting them here, even those whose com codes were top secret and not available to the general public. Not only because they had all been brought here by Stepping Disks, even those among them who had been in buildings where the latest in magitechnology was to prevent such portals from being opened for security reasons. Not only because they all found themselves standing outside what should have been a currently abandoned building in the sprawling Magitech complex near Tranquility and found it looking anything but abandoned.
While all this was part of the general strangeness the strangest thing had to be the figure that stood there to greet them. A figure that strongly resembled a woman that all but one of them had known and seen die years ago.
"Mom?" Jennifer Rosenberg was the first to speak, addressing what appeared to be her mother.
"Not quite," the figure answered, smiling. "My designation is Willow 12, Jenny."
"You're not real," Angel growled. "You don't have a heartbeat."
"Don't tell me we're having ghosts again," Spike groaned.
Buffy was not saying anything, too confused upon seeing someone who looked so much like her best friend.
"She's a ghost?" Tinya, standing close to Buffy, looked at her mentor. "She doesn't feel like a ghost or anything else supernatural to me."
"I am not a ghost," Willow 12 confirmed, "and I am only partly supernatural. What you're seeing is a hologram and I am Willow 12, Magitech quantum computer. At your service."
Buffy threw an angry glance at Jennifer. "You built this?"
The CEO of Magitech looked as confused as anyone else. "Magitech has never built a quantum computer. Certainly not one named after my mother."
The hologram grinned at them. "Not yet."
"So what, are you trying to tell us you're from the future?" Spike sounded rather skeptical and not very happy to be here.
"Not quite. This is a rather long story, so why don't you come inside? I'm working on cleaning the place up a little."
The hologram vanished even as the main doors of the building slid back, inviting them in. The five of them, Angel, Buffy, Tinya, Jennifer, and Spike, shared a brief look of caution and wariness, then slowly trotted inside. They all kept their eyes out for possible threats and wordlessly took the only noncombatant among them in the middle.
"This building should be empty," Jennifer said as they walked down a corridor. They could already hear the whine of working machinery and active power lines. "It's a computer laboratory, but we don't use it at the moment. Nothing but a few spare parts and prototype designs are here."
They reached the main room.
"I'd say your files need updating, Jenny."
The room was big enough to contain a small house and was filled to the brim with machinery. Machinery that looked like nothing any of them had ever seen before. There was an almost organic look to the structures in front of them and as they watched they continued to grow, slowly filling what little open space remained.
"What is this?" Buffy was not sure which of them had asked that question, but she wanted to know the answer as well.
"This is me." The hologram appeared in front of them again. "I'm still redecorating. Hope you don't mind the mess too much."
"What the hell are you doing in my building?" Jennifer strode forward to confront the holographic figure. "Why are you impersonating my mother? I am the CEO of Magitech and I demand to know ..."
"I will tell you everything if you give me the chance, Jenny," Willow 12 interrupted her. "Why don't you sit down?"
She motioned over to a small area that was free of the strange machinery, instead filled with a number of improvised chairs. Slowly they made their way over, all of them wary and suspicious. The hologram walked with them, a smile on its hauntingly familiar face.
"This is going to sound quite fantastic," Willow 12 began once they had all taken a seat, "so please bear with me until I have finished. Spike, you asked whether I was from the future. That is true to a certain extent. I am a magically enabled quantum computer built by Magitech Incorporated. My mind is patterned after that of Willow Rosenberg, Magitech's founder, and I was first activated December 21, 2146. That was about ten seconds before my entire universe was obliterated."
A gasp went through her small audience but Willow 12 gestured for them to keep their questions for later.
"It was not your universe, though. I come from what you would call a parallel world, an alternate version of history. In my world the Nimir never invaded Earth for a second time. The planet was not destroyed. Our worlds were identical to a certain point but broke apart when history took a different turn somewhere in 2093.
"Being a quantum computer gives me the ability to access alternate universes for processing power and also enabled me to escape the destruction of my entire parallel. In the process I discovered that said destruction was not a singular occurrence. Something is happening, I don't know what exactly. Something that is erasing entire universes across the multiverse."
Willow 12 looked at the people listening to her and saw faces full of disbelief.
"I know you have little reason to trust me, but it is the truth. During the short time I have been aware I have monitored the destruction of at least five different parallels. Billions of lives extinguished in a heartbeat. I am committed to putting a stop to that, but I will need help to do it."
"Can you give us any proof?"
"I certainly can, Angel." Willow 12 gestured to a holoscreen that was quickly assembling itself from the machinery behind her. "In fact you have already seen this proof, you just did not know it for what it was."
The holoscreen activated and showed a picture of empty space, space that was suddenly filled with the image of a world.
"I believe most of you were around to witness this just about half an hour ago, weren't you?"
Everyone watched as the images unfolded, the planet Earth suddenly appearing in the very spot it had occupied until five years ago, remaining there for several minutes, then vanishing again.
"What was that?" Buffy rose, anger clouding her features. "Did you create that illusion somehow?"
"It was not an illusion, but to certain extent, yes, I am responsible for it. I calculate a 92.46 percent probability that it was my arrival here on this parallel that caused an afterimage of my own version of Earth to briefly manifest in your dimension."
"In English, please," Spike said.
"The destruction of parallels has destabilized the structure of the multiverse, like a house shaking down to its foundations because someone has demolished a part of it. This instability causes different parallels to overlap. When I made the jump from my own parallel to his one I made use of such an overlap. What you saw was not your own planet Earth but the one from my universe. Essentially you looked through a window into another version of history where Earth was never destroyed. Once my transfer into this universe was complete the window closed once more."
"This is hardly proof," Jennifer said. "From what I've seen here your magitechnology is far ahead of our own. You might just as well have created an illusion of Earth."
"And why would I do that? If I wanted to make you trust me for some nefarious reason I think I would be capable of coming up with a story much easier to believe than this one."
"She has a point," Angel admitted.
"Oh, please! Don't tell me you believe any of this." Jennifer crossed her arms in front of her chest. "I'll get my best scientists here. They will take this thing apart and find out the truth."
"You will do no such thing," Willow 12 told her matter-of-factly. "I do not have time for such nonsense. I need your help, yes, but if I have to I will try and go about this alone rather than allow you to hinder me. I promised my creators I would save the rest of the multiverse from destruction and that is what I intend to do, with or without you."
The hologram got into Jennifer's face.
"And if you play with the thought of somehow forcing your way into my circuitry you better think again. I am fully capable of defending myself. I may just be a copy of your mother, but there is enough of her inside me to put you across my knee, young lady."
Jennifer stared at her openmouthed while Buffy had to suppress a giggle. That actually sounded a lot like Willow, she had to admit. Her best friend had always had ways to put the rebellious child that Jennifer had been in her place.
"Let us assume for a moment you are telling the truth," Angel interceded. "What would you need our help with? From what little you have told us this seems to be so far beyond us that I don't know what we could possible do about it."
"Most people would have run and hid when they realized they were facing a war between Heaven and Hell," Willow 12 reminded him. "You did not."
Angel's face darkened. "That war happened because of something I ...," Spike coughed, causing Angel to correct himself, "... we did. It was our responsibility to deal with it."
"It did not force you to free all the souls imprisoned in those two realms, did it? Nor were you forced to battle against a greater demon invading your dimension who had already rendered a thousand other worlds lifeless. To get back to your original question, though:"
The machinery behind the hologram hummed as the holoscreen came to life once more. "I am plucked into the moon's power grid, but the energy available there is not enough to give me access to my full potential. Being a quantum computer I can monitor all the different parallels of the multiverse and hopefully find the source of the destruction. If I find it we will have to make plans to stop it. If the destruction is caused by anything that can actually be touched and fought then that part will require a physical assault of some kind, something that I am sadly incapable of doing in my present form. For now, though, what I need most is energy and access to manufacturing facilities. There is a limit to what my self-replicating circuitry can do, I fear."
"Excuse us for a moment," Buffy told her, gesturing for the others to follow her outside. They stepped out into the corridor and Jennifer quickly conjured a bubble of silence around them to prevent the computer from listening.
"What do you guys think?"
"I can't believe any of you actually consider believing this thing," Jennifer said. "It's already draining power from the moon when we have little to spare and apparently has access to the Stepping Disk network. If we give it access to more power and Magitech's manufacturing facilities there is no telling what it might ..."
"What if it's telling the truth?" Angel looked at the others.
"Oh, please! She tells us there is something out there erasing entire universes. The existence of alternate realities has never even been proven, much less ..."
"We can't rule it out," Buffy interrupted Jennifer. "After all we've seen the only thing I'm certain of is that nothing is impossible."
"How can we be sure, though?" Tinya looked at the others, feeling very much in over her head here. She was only seventeen years old and the worst thing she had ever faced was a bunch of demons looking to eat some humans. Now they were talking about something wiping out entire universes.
"She says she's based on Red's brain," Spike reminded the others.
"Right! We could ask her a few things only Willow knew, things she could not have found in any database."
"Let's try that," Angel resolved. "If she turns out to be a fraud we'll have to find some way to deactivate her."
"Won't be easy," Jennifer mused. "She probably wasn't kidding when she said she could defend herself. I've never seen anything like that machinery in there."
"To tell you the truth, Jenny, I'm much more worried about what's going to happen if it turns out she is telling the truth."
--Part 7 - If My World Should Up and Vanish
Los Angeles, California
April 17, 2046 AD
Angel walked into the main computer room of the Hyperion Hotel, a room he still felt very much out of place in, and watched as the love of his life was interfacing with the machines in front of her. Seeing her like this still sufficed to send a shiver down his spine now and then, reminding him of the 17th century boy he had been and still was, at least to a certain degree.
Buffy was sitting in a chair before a large computer screen, but her eyes were closed. Her hands were resting on the console in front of her and where her fingers should have ended they instead elongated into strands of crimson metal that created a direct interface between her mind and the machine.
She was not human, Angel reminded himself, had not been human for nearly 47 years now. Just like him she might appear human to all but the most keen-eyed observers, but that was only the outer layer. Just like him she had been transformed against her will, transformed into something else, something that had weathered nearly half a century without aging a day.
What really mattered, though, was her soul. The soul of Buffy Summers was still very much and a hundred percent human. It was something that she herself had not been certain of at one point in time, but it had been proven to her beyond the shadow of a doubt. Angel knew that she sometimes regretted having become what she now was, but only sometimes.
He, for his part, could not really be regretful about a turn of events that had ensured her staying by his side for eternity.
"I'm not sure," Buffy said, turning to look at him. "Anne says that we are looking at some kind of quantum fluctuation, but even she isn't sure."
Anne was the artificial intelligence that lived inside Buffy's head, a computer mind patterned after Buffy's own. Created by the Initiative project under Professor Maggy Walsh, Anne had been meant to become the guiding mind of the supersoldier android called Adam One, an indestructible mixture of magic and technology.
The experiment had gone wrong, though, horribly so. Walsh and all her colleagues had died, the Initiative had been destroyed. Adam One had survived, but instead of becoming an unbeatable weapon under the control of the American government it had become the new home for both the displaced mind and soul of one Buffy Summers as well as the digital consciousness of Anne.
Buffy's own body had died in the same explosion that had destroyed the Initiative, but everything that was her lived on in a body of crimson steel that could change its outer appearance almost at will. A body that was quite immortal, Angel remembered with a smile.
"Quantum fluctuation?" Angel was not comfortable with modern technology, never had been, and the only thing he knew about quantum physics was the fact that it was something very complicated.
How it pertained to a herd of mammoths rampaging down Sunset strip was beyond him.
"She thinks that these animals appeared out of some kind of dimensional overlap," Buffy explained, the information fed into her mind just moments before she spoke the words. "Essentially one point of space-time briefly intersected with another. Voila, instant extinct animal rampage."
"So these creatures came from the past?"
"More or less, though she is saying something about it not necessarily being our past, but that of an alternate universe. I'm not following her completely, I must confess."
She cocked her head to one side, a gesture Angel recognized only too well after all these years. Buffy was having a conversation with someone only she could hear. There were times Angel had grown a bit jealous of the constant interplay between those two. With their minds sharing one body Anne sometimes seemed closer to Buffy than he ever could be.
He knew better, of course. Anne and Buffy had been thrown together by circumstances and seeing that one had used the other as a blueprint for her mind it was not surprising that they got along well. Buffy loved him every bit as much as he loved her. Nearly half a century of being together had erased any doubts he might ever have harbored in that direction.
Walking closer he put a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Was it a one-time occurrence or something we have to worry about?"
"Anne hacked into several observation satellites to keep an eye out for more of these quantum fluctuations. If it happens again we will know about it the second it does. She thinks it was a one time only thing, though."
"Good," he smiled, softly squeezing Buffy's shoulder where he touched her. It was still a few hours until sundown when they would go out on their nightly patrol again. Demonic activity was low in Los Angeles, had been ever since they had brought down Wolfram & Hart, but there were still enough vampires out there to warrant the attention of the Slayer and the vampire with a soul.
Not for another few hours, though.
The artificial intelligence known as Anne was preoccupied. A part of her was always aware of Angel, how could she not be considering the amount of thought Buffy always spent on him, but she knew that those two would want some privacy for now so she concerned herself with other things.
A fluctuation in quantum space that caused a herd of extinct animals from about half a million years in the past to go rampaging through 21st century Los Angeles was something that served to distract her quite well.
It was one of the few things where she and Buffy had turned out quite different, even though they had essentially started out as the same person. Anne had a thirst for knowledge of any kind and often pursued it with a single-mindedness that bordered on the obsessive. During her first few years of existence she had been soaking up life experiences by living through Buffy, but being a passenger in another person's body could occupy one only for so long before it became boring.
Thankfully her creators had given her the ability to interface with other computers and due to her own semi-magical nature she could out-think and out-perform pretty much every conventional computer there was, even half a century after her own creation. She was continually updating herself, rewriting her own programming to stay ahead of technological development. It was quite a challenge and she enjoyed it.
Figuring out this newest phenomenon might just be more of a challenge, though. Anne knew just about all there was to know about quantum theory, but it did not really help her understand what had happened. Two vastly different quantum states, both spatially and chronologically, had suddenly intersected for no apparent reason. Anne knew about the multiversal theory, the existence of an infinite number of alternate quantum parallels that portrayed every possible version of history. Was this what had happened?
Buffy rose from the computer, cutting the direct connection formed from their own living metal. Anne could still interface with the computer via the advanced radio-telepathic modem she had constructed inside their body, but the connection was slower.
This was why it took her almost two seconds to realize that new data was streaming in from the observation satellites she had hacked into. Vast amounts of data that did not seem to make any sense at all.
Buffy, could you please interface with the computer again? The connection was too slow for her to process everything this way.
"Anne? What is it?"
We are receiving new data on the quantum disturbance.
The sense of urgency in Anne's voice made Buffy comply without further questions. She placed her hands on the computer once more, the deceptively human fingers reforming into their natural state of crimson metal to plug into the interface ports. Bandwidth increased dramatically and Anne started processing the new data.
Satellites are registering a new quantum disturbance, larger than the first one.
"Are we going to receive other visitors from the past?"
Unlikely. This disturbance is different than the first one. I ... sorry, I can't really explain it, I barely understand the theory behind all this.
"What is happening?" Angel came over, unable to hear Anne's attempts at an explanation.
"A new disturbance," Buffy informed him. "Anne, talk to me!"
The disturbance is growing and I can't get a fix on its exact location. It seems to be coming from everywhere at once.
There was definite worry in Anne's voice now and Buffy looked at Angel, a sudden dread filling her.
"What can we do?"
Despite the fact that Anne had been patterned after a human mind she was essentially a computer and therefore able to think and act much faster than any human being possibly could, even a Slayer. So when she finally realized what was happening, realized that she had but a second or two to act upon that realization, she wasted no time doing just that.
Take Angel's hand, Buffy, she screamed. Do it now!
Buffy and Angel were standing about four feet apart, just out of reach.
"Anne, what ...?"
Just do it!
"My God," Angel whispered, looking at the far wall of the computer room. The wall was gone and the world seemed to come to an end where it had been, fading into a perfect virgin white.
"What is happening, Anne?"
Take Angel's hand!
Anne cursed the fact that she could not take over control of their body unless Buffy consciously allowed it. She cursed Buffy's hesitation, the damned slowness of human thought. Finally Buffy's hand began to rise, reaching for that of her soulmate, who was still staring at the spreading white-out.
They were out of time. Only moments before that large quantum disturbance had begun Anne had picked up something else, a smaller disturbance that was strictly local and easy to pinpoint. If she were forced to describe it she would have called it a peephole, an opening only a few molecules wide, a small window into another quantum state, another universe. She did not know what it meant, how it had come about, but she knew that it was the only thing that could save them right now.
The white-out was spreading fast, coming toward them from all sides. Buffy's hand was still reaching for Angel's and the nanoseconds seemed to pass with infinite slowness. Anne already knew that it was too late, but she could do nothing else but wait until the last possible moment. She might be a computer but she also a living being and understood the concept of hope, even when it went against all logic.
This time, though, hope lost.
Everything happened much too fast for Buffy to understand. Anne was screaming at her to take Angel's hand and she was reaching for him even as the world around them seemed to fade away into nothingness. Her other hand was still touching the computer and she felt Anne interface with it, quickly draining all its energy into herself. She felt her own insides rearrange as Anne did something to change them. Her hand was but inches away from Angel's when everything suddenly turned upside down.
The world around her faded into a spotless virgin white and Buffy felt like she was falling, falling down into a bottomless pit. Angel vanished, swallowed up by the white, his hand no longer in reach. For a moment she thought she heard him scream her name, but then there was only silence. She still tried to reach out, tried to find the familiar coldness of his fingers somewhere inside this endless white, but there was nothing there, nothing at all.
She felt her entire being bend and warp, a sensation not unlike that when she changed her shape, but a thousand times worse. Buffy opened her mouth to scream but there was no air, nothing to carry her voice. The only thing she heard was Anne's scream, the artificial intelligence screaming inside her head as the pain took hold of her as well. They were still falling, falling impossibly fast, and Buffy tried to scream Angel's name, still tried to reach him.
Moments later this world, this entire universe blinked out of existence. The small quantum disturbance that the magically enabled quantum computer Willow 12 had utilized to monitor this particular parallel ceased. There was nothing left but an empty canvas.
A perfect virgin white.
--Part 8 - A Dream of Deaths Foretold?
Magitech Lunar Complex
Tranquility, Lunar Colony
February 4, 2101 AD
It had been over two days since Buffy had gotten any sleep, events had kept her on her feet nonstop. Willow 12's credentials had weathered all tests they could think of and they had warily agreed to cooperate with this strange computer intelligence that so resembled her best friend.
Jennifer did not like it in the least, but she had agreed to provide Willow 12 with monitored access to Magitech's production facilities, provided the AI would always tell them exactly what she was doing and why. The problem of supplying sufficient power had yet to be solved, but Magitech's best brains were working on it, drooling over the possibility of studying a magitechnology that was more than forty years ahead of anything they had ever seen or even imagined.
None of which really concerned Buffy right at this moment. Seeing as she was unable to contribute much of value to the current debate of what to do and how to do it (what did she knew about quantum theory?) she had retreated to one of the apartments Jennifer had reserved for their use. Angel had promised to join her shortly, but she found herself unable to keep awake and soon fell asleep.
Rest did not come easy, though.
The world around her was gray through and through. Ashes were raining down from the skies where the sun seemed permanently absent, forever locked away behind a gray shroud. It was day, or so Buffy thought, but there was just enough light to see for a short distance, everything farther away was melting into a solid mass of gray and black.
Where was she?
Someone was screaming. No, not screaming. Lamenting. A mournful song sung for all the world to hear. Buffy shivered, there was so much pain in that voice, like someone whose soul had been ripped away and left shattered on the ground. Her feet moved without her wanting them to and led her toward the source of that sound.
She was in a city, or rather the remains of one. Everything around her had fallen into ruin, reduced to charred remains. Occasionally what was left of a tower or large building would reach into the sky like a skeletal hand, trying to catch a ray of light that would never touch the ground. Buffy was having trouble seeing, there was so much ash in the air, coating everything.
Still the voice sung its painful lament.
"Hello?" Her own voice echoed around her as she called out, but no one answered. She kept moving forward, moving toward what seemed to be the largest building remaining in this city of the dead. A huge tower, burst and broken, but still standing by some miracle or other. Little more than the superstructure remained, everything else had been stripped away, and she could hear the voice coming from somewhere inside.
The path was treacherous, but her feet moved her along without incident. Something about this was incredibly familiar, but Buffy could not quite place it. Had she been here before? Certainly not, she would remember having been in such a dreary place. She could hear the voice better now, was certain that it belonged to a woman, and found that it, too, was familiar somehow.
Where had she heard that voice before?
Right in the center of the ruined tower there was a large hole in the ground and her keen eyes could just make out someone kneeling at the bottom of it, a long way down. She could not see who it was, the other being too far away for that, but the woman was clearly in pain. If her voice had not sufficed to tell Buffy that much her posture did.
"Can you hear me?" Buffy's voice echoed down the hole, but the other did not appear to hear her. The world around her suddenly seemed to shift, though, and without warning she found herself standing at the bottom of the hole, only a few feet away from the kneeling woman.
Her face was buried in her hands, her skin and hair gray from the ash raining down on her. Her body shook with sobs, breaking the lament before she regained her breath and took it up once more. Buffy wanted to reach out, help this woman who seemed to be in more pain than anyone or anything she had ever seen in her entire life, but her hand refused to move even an inch. She was helpless, unable to do anything but watch the other woman's torment. What had happened here? What had happened to cause her such pain?
The ground was covered with the same ash that coated everything in this place, was still raining down from the sky, but there was something strange there. Buffy had been the Slayer for over a century now and moments later she realized what she was seeing. There was dust intermingled with the ash, dust that formed the outline of a body. No one else would have recognized it for what it was, but she knew vampire dust when she saw it.
A vampire had died here.
Suddenly the woman threw back her head to scream and Buffy saw her face for the first time. It, too, was covered with ash, but flowing tears had cut tracks down her cheeks. Her green eyes were shining with misery and there was insanity behind it, bubbling just beneath the surface.
Buffy looked into the other woman's face and recognized it as her own. She screamed.
Someone was shaking her and the waking world returned, quickly dispelling the nightmare she had been caught in but moments before. Buffy found herself awake, drenched with sweat, and in the arms of her husband who was looking down at her with worry in his eyes.
"Are you all right? I heard you screaming."
She shook her head. "I ... I'm not sure. A nightmare, but ... so real."
"One of your prophetic dreams?"
Buffy froze at that question. Was it a prophetic dream? A century of being the Slayer and she had never quite been able to figure out when she was having such a dream or what caused them in the first place. She had dreamed of the coming of Golgotha, but received no warning of the looming war between Heaven and Hell. She had seen the arrival of the Nimir before it happened but there had been no clue concerning the imminent destruction of Earth.
She shivered. She had seen herself kneeling in the ashes of a ruined city with vampire dust on the floor before her. She had seen the misery and pain in her own eyes and knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that only one thing could have caused such misery for her.
No, she shook her head. It could not possibly have been Angel's remains she had seen in that dream. She and Angel were tied together by the Vinculum Dies Nocties Cruentos, the vampire blood bond, bound forever and for better or worse. Contact with the Necronomicon Nocturnum had only strengthened their bond. If one of them died the other would inevitably follow. There was no way Angel could die and leave her behind to mourn. She would go with him.
"I'm not sure," she finally said.
"What did you see?"
Reluctantly she told him, allowed him to see the images through their bond. Angel flinched as he saw his wife kneeling in the ashes, filled with such incredible pain, but quickly recovered.
"That could never happen," he mirrored her own thoughts. "Wherever we go, we go together."
"I know." They embraced, the presence of the other quickly chasing the vestiges of the nightmare away.
"Any progress on the science nerd front?"
Angel smiled, which managed to improve Buffy's mood all by itself.
"I think Jennifer and Willow are liable to kill each other before we make any headway. If I had any doubts left about who Willow 12's mind is based on they were erased by listening to about ten hours of non-stop squabbling between them."
Buffy smiled in return, swept up in the memories. The arguments between the Rosenberg women had been legendary and infamous, something all Magitech employees and every single one of their friends had learned to fear. Oh, the two had loved each other dearly, there was no doubt about that, it was just that they had never been able to agree on anything, especially in the realm of magitechnology. Willow had certainly lost all of her meekness from when she was young by the time she had become a mother and Jennifer had never had any in the first place.
"The good news is that one of the Magitech scientists thinks he has figured out a way to give Willow 12 all the power she needs. She has also begun constructing something she calls quantum beacons. I think she told us what they are for but I lost track of the conversations between her, Jennifer, and the scientists somewhere between quantum fields and monitoring alternate universes."
"Glad to hear I'm not the only non-tech person around here."
"You certainly aren't, beloved," he told her, leaning forward to press a soft kiss on her lips. Her arms hugged him closer without conscious effort, the passion so easily inflamed between the two of them springing to life all by itself.
Buffy was fumbling with the buttons of his shirt when someone cleared his throat.
"What the ...," they jumped apart, looking around for the intruder.
"Sorry about that," Willow 12 said, her holographic form slowly taking shape before them. "I did not know you would be ... occupied."
"Ever heard of privacy?"
"I consider it a lesser issue considering the threat we are facing," the redhead shrugged. "Could the two of you please come to the main computer lab? Something interesting has developed."
"Interesting how?" Buffy slipped into her pants as Angel buttoned his shirt closed once more. "Anything on our little multiversal crisis?"
"Something like that. We may be ready to do something about that very soon, but for now there is a visitor we have to concern ourselves with."
"A visitor? Who?"
Willow 12 smiled, looking at Buffy. "You!"
--Part 9 - Strange Slayer in a Strange Land
Magitech Lunar Complex
Tranquility, Lunar Colony
February 4, 2101 AD
Buffy and Angel arrived at a run, seeing everyone else already gathered in the large computer lab. The lab was now completely filled with the strange, organic-looking components of Willow 12, leaving but a small area free for those not composed of silicon and circuitry. Jennifer was standing close to two of the Magitech scientists she had working with Willow 12 on the power problem. Spike was there, just like Tinya. All of them were staring at something on the floor in front of them.
Getting close enough to look past them showed Buffy a figure kneeling on the ground, curled into a fetal ball. A figure with blonde hair, what little she could see of her face looking incredibly familiar.
That woman was her.
"What is going on here?" She looked at the others. "Is this another hologram?"
"She's not," Angel whispered, looking at her. "I ... I can't explain it, but she feels like ... just like ..."
At the sound of his voice the figure suddenly reacted, first freezing, then looking up. Buffy stifled a gasp, the full view of the other's face showing that they were in fact looking completely identical. The other Buffy did not see her, though. All her attention was focused on Angel.
"Angel?" The question was soft, almost inaudible, and Buffy recognized both the tone and the way it was spoken as her own. Whenever she said his name there was always something in her voice that was never there with any other word, a tone reserved exclusively for him. She would never be able to describe it to anyone, but it was there.
That other Buffy had it, too.
A moment later she was no longer kneeling, instead she was on her feet and leaping toward him. Buffy was about to do something, fend off this attacker that was about to assault her husband, but something stopped her. There was a look on her face, something that struck a chord deep inside her own being. A look of incredible relief, as if she was seeing something ... or someone rather … that she had already thought lost forever.
Angel for his part was too surprised to do anything when that strange woman that looked and sounded exactly like his wife suddenly jumped him and threw her arms around his neck.
"You're alive," she repeated over and over again as she crushed herself against his chest. "I thought I'd lost you. When everything faded I tried to take your hand but I couldn't and then you were gone. I thought ... God, I thought ..."
Then she suddenly stopped, going completely still for a long moment before she drew back, looking up at Angel from where she was still resting her hands against his chest. She saw the look of confusion in his eyes and Buffy could see her face crumble as realization hit her.
"You ... you're not him," she whispered, taking a step back. "You're not him."
Something that Buffy could not quite understand told her that she was not looking at a hologram, a demonic doppelganger, or any of the sort. That woman was her, though she did not know how that could be possible. She could see it in every gesture and word, the way she stood, the way her lower lip trembled. That woman was her and yet not her and Buffy could not stand being this confused.
She stepped into the other Buffy's field of view.
"The question is who are you?"
For a long moment they just stared at each other, the other Buffy seeing her for the first time now. It gave Buffy the chance to study her in turn and there was something strange about her, something else than her being a near perfect doppelganger. Whatever she was, Buffy realized, human was not part of it. Her Slayer sense was making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up straight, her doppelganger radiating magic in all directions. She never doubted her identity, though, and could not figure out why that was so.
"You're me," the other whispered. "Like ... like I was. Human."
Buffy could see confusion warring with fear behind the other woman's eyes, saw the signs of an impending breakdown, then suddenly something shifted. Buffy almost took a step back as the face she was looking at changed. No, she corrected herself, it really had not changed at all, but something was different. Someone else was looking out from behind those eyes now.
"Buffy Summers, I assume," the other said. Her voice suddenly sounded quite different. "To tell you the truth I am not sure what is going on here, but I suspect that we are not in Kansas anymore."
Buffy's confusion only grew. This new voice was strange, seeming at the same time cold and detached while shaking with barely concealed emotions.
"Who are you?" she repeated her question.
"My name is Anne and the woman you were talking to a moment ago is Buffy Summers. Or maybe I should say 'a' Buffy Summers. We're sort of sharing a body, the two of us."
"You are from a different parallel," Willow 12 said, startling everyone. Buffy had forgotten there were other people in the room beside her and her doppelganger. "Your quantum signature is different."
The other Buffy, or Anne, rather, looked at the hologram. "Willow? No, you're not Willow. You're energy."
"A hologram. The real me is the computer that's filling up the room quite nicely. Willow 12 is my name and I suspect you came here because of me."
Anne looked at her and Buffy was sure that she was checking things out with more than just her eyes.
"If you are the one who created that quantum disturbance I slipped through when ... yes, I think we're here because of you."
No one missed the awkward pause she made.
"What happened? Where did you come from?"
Anne looked at all of them, a flash of pain on her face as her eyes met Angel. She looked wary when she saw Spike, while the others meant nothing to her.
"Los Angeles," she finally said. "The Hyperion Hotel."
"On a different parallel," Willow 12 added. "I am monitoring multiple parallels as we speak, trying to get a fix on whatever it is that is destroying them. Apparently this version of Buffy used the quantum disturbance my monitoring activity caused as an emergency exit."
Buffy paled. "Your world ... is it ...?"
Anne closed her eyes and for a moment Buffy thought she could hear two different people weeping at the same time.
Silence descended over the room, no one said anything for several long minutes. Buffy and Angel stood huddled together, both of them feeling the impact of seeing this woman who was Buffy in every way that mattered in so much pain, having lost her entire world and the man she loved. Her reaction upon seeing Angel had told Buffy all she needed to know. She remembered the dream she had had and wondered whether it had been about this. About meeting a version of herself that would now have to mourn for the man who should have been with her forever.
Finally Anne looked up again, a single tear on her cheek.
"You say this is happening to several of these ... parallels, you called them?"
"My own world was destroyed," Willow 12 said, "just moments after I was activated. I am a quantum computer and managed to transfer myself to this world. I want to stop what is happening. Whatever it takes."
For a moment Willow 12 and Anne shared a look of understanding. They did not know it yet, but they were quite similar and not only because they had both lost their worlds to some unknown menace. Both of them were artificial, born not from flesh but from electricity and magic. Both of them were patterned after the mind of a human being, though, and it made them more than mere machines. They felt, they cried, and they mourned for the world and the people they had lost.
Buffy saw Anne's face shift once more and she knew she was looking at herself again.
"Whatever it takes," the other Buffy said. "Whoever or whatever is responsible for this ..."
Her voice broke, but Willow 12 finished for her. "We will stop them."
She nodded. "And they will pay."-- Part 10 - Pick a World, Any World
Magitech Lunar Complex
Tranquility, Lunar Colony
February 5, 2101 AD
Another day had passed since the second strange visitor had appeared in their midst. For Buffy it had been another night without any rest worth the name, dreams causing her to wake up soaked with sweat and feeling every bit as tired as before. She had dreamed of that strange woman with her face once more, kneeling in the ruins of a leveled city, mourning above the ashes of her soulmate. Buffy was no longer sure whether the dream had anything to do with the other Buffy or not.
Said woman had said little since her resolve to aid Willow 12. What little they had learned about her and the world she came from had not gotten Buffy any closer to a good night's rest.
In her world the Restoration of Souls had never taken place. The public had never become aware that vampires and other creatures of myth lived in their midst. This Buffy had lived in a town called Sunnydale and run afoul of a secret government project called the Initiative, which had dabbled in the supernatural. A failed experiment had left her mind and soul trapped in a body of magical metal, which did have the perks of being immortal, damn near indestructible, and nearly infinitely versatile.
She was also sharing brains with an artificial intelligence, the personality called Anne. Anne and Willow 12 had immediately started comparing notes in a way that still sent shivers down Buffy's spine. Seeing hands that might as well have been her own reshape themselves into crimson metal strands that plugged directly into access ports grown from Willow 12's ever-shifting circuitry was something she could have done without.
On the upside it had given Willow 12 a whole lot of first-hand information regarding the destruction of a parallel, more than she could ever have gotten from her observation attempts. She had immediately started processing that information, promising them that she would soon come up with some solution.
That had been yesterday and considering that a quantum computer was supposed to be capable of performing a near infinite number of calculations simultaneously Buffy had not rested any easier.
One thing they had managed to solve was the power problem and they had solved it in a way that had left Buffy openmouthed for quite some time. She had known that Willow 12's technology was decades ahead of anything they had. She had also known that Magitech's scientists had behaved like children given free reign of the candy store when she had given them access to it. She had also known that Willow 12 would need inordinate amounts of power to make full use of her abilities to monitor and access the different parallels, more even than the giant Stepping Disk that was still being constructed to bring a new planet Earth into their system.
All of which had not prepared her for what the computer and the scientists had come up with.
"It's an idea we had for the New Earth Stepping Disk," one of the scientists tried to explain it to her, "but one we had to abandon because our magitechnology simply was not ready for that. Willow 12's advanced magitech is, though. She is able to create energy channeling fields of a potency we have never even imagined. She uses these fields to direct energy into her quantum generation matrix to access the different parallels. What apparently no one in her universe thought of was the fact that these fields could also be used to channel energy into her system from somewhere else."
Somewhere else being the sun.
It had taken most of Willow 12's remaining power reserves to create a channeling field that reached from Luna all the way to the outer corona of the sun, millions of kilometers. Solar plasma was sucked into this tube of energy and directed towards the surface of the moon, directly into massive power converters that Willow 12 had grown from her circuitry with the aid of Magitech's construction facilities.
Buffy could only stare as energy flowed in across that endless tube of light and caused all of the machinery around her to hum with power.
"I feel much better now," Willow 12 announced to her stunned audience. The two scientists who had worked with her and had come up with the idea looked incredibly smug.
"So ... about our other problem," Buffy began, deciding the best way to deal with a glowing bridge of solar matter several million kilometers long was to ignore it.
Her doppelganger was standing next to her, still mostly silent. They had decided to call her Anne for the moment to avoid confusion. Things were confusing enough as it was.
"Thanks to the data I received from Anne," Willow 12 explained to her audience, "I was able to form a better picture of what happens during the destruction of a parallel. I told you about the strange time-shift I experienced jumping across dimensions. Anne here experienced the same. The reason for this is the fact that the destruction of the parallels does not happen at any specific point in time but rather along the entire length of its timeline."
"You mean ...," Jennifer began, stunned.
"I mean, Jenny, that these universes have not simply been destroyed at one specific moment, they have been wiped from existence completely. Their entire history has been nullified, everything from the Big Bang forward has been erased. It's as if they never existed in the first place."
"Why do I get the feeling that storming Hell was a walk in the park compared to this?" Spike asked no one in particular.
"The amounts of power ...," Angel whispered, "incalculable."
"Have you found any way to stop it?" Buffy asked, trying to keep her own shock at bay.
"Not yet, I fear. What I have found is a means which I believe will allow us to zero in on the source of this destruction. It is a sensor array attuned to the disruptions of the quantum field that precede the destruction and, if we manage to place it in a parallel as it is erased, will tell us from where this massive power originates."
There was stunned silence once more before Tinya spoke up. "You can't be serious. You want to place this sensor thing of yours in an alternate universe and just watch while that universe is destroyed?"
The holo image of Willow 12 looked down, sadness on her face.
"There is no other way. Universes are being destroyed as we speak, Tinya, whether we are there to watch or not. I know of no other way to put a stop to this. Believe me, I have searched long and hard for one."
Buffy shook her head, the entire situation seeming more and more unreal to her.
"So what will happen next? You will send this sensor thing of yours into a parallel reality and wait until it blows?"
She did not mean to sound as accusing as she did, but neither could she help it.
"I have constructed three of these sensor arrays, Buffy. There is no way to predict which parallel will be the next to perish, but I have tried to make a few good guesses. I will send the arrays to the three most likely candidates."
Buffy unconsciously moved closer to Angel, feeling cold. "So we can do nothing but wait until your sensors return?"
"I am afraid you will have to do more than that," Willow 12 said. "The quantum fields that separate the parallels are growing more and more unstable. I will not be able to operate the sensors by remote control. Neither did I have the time to install autonomous programming capabilities in them, at least none that are sufficient enough for the task at hand."
"What are you saying?"
"I am saying, Buffy, that some of you will have to man these arrays. You will have to go with them to the alternate dimensions."
Anne, who had been following the dialog in silence until now, looked up.
"You honestly expect me to watch as another world is murdered right before my eyes?" Buffy needed a moment to figure out which of the two personalities was speaking right now, then got the feeling that it was actually both of them.
"Do you think I like doing it this way? As I already said, there is no other choice. Our only prayer of stopping this is by finding out where it's coming from. If either of you Slayers had some great prophetic insights or something now would be a really great time to unveil them, otherwise we'll do it my way!"
Buffy almost took a step back, surprised by the hologram's vehemence.
"I lost my world, too," Willow 12 told Anne, looking directly into Anne's eyes. "This is the only way I know to maybe save those worlds that are left. So you either come up with a better idea or stop arguing with me! You said you would do whatever is necessary. Were those just words?"
For a moment Anne's face warped with anger, her human features melting into crimson chrome as the air around her almost crackled with magical energy. Buffy feared she might have to go between them, but then the tension snapped and vanished. Anne returned to her human shape once more.
"Very well," she whispered. "I just hope you know what you are doing, Willow!"
"We need three teams," Willow 12 announced, turning away from Anne as if they had not just come close to a fight. "I would like at least two people for every array."
"What if the inhabitants of those alternate realities you are sending us to take an interest in our sudden appearance?" Spike stepped forward. "Should we just tell'em 'Hey, sorry mates, your world is already dead, please let us do our work'?"
"He's got a point," Jennifer added. "I saw those arrays you constructed. They're not exactly inconspicuous, seeing as they're about a hundred meters tall."
"The arrays will be protected by magitech force fields of the highest order," Willow 12 said. "It is very unlikely that anyone will find a way to penetrate them in the short time you will be spending in these alternate worlds. If worst comes to worst you will have to protect them. If my calculations are correct you should be arriving in those worlds no more than ten minutes before the destruction."
"How do we get back?" Angel looked at Willow 12. "When the destruction begins, how do we move the sensor arrays back to our worlds?"
"Automatic recall will be activated once the quantum disturbances reach the force field. You will just have to activate the scanning cycle once you're there and keep the array safe until it is complete."
"Sounds very easy," Spike mumbled.
"Okay, we'll split into teams," Angel announced, resolving to get this over with as quickly as possible. "Tinya, you and Anne here will take one array."
"No problem," Tinya said. Anne looked ready to argue the point for a moment, but then nodded.
"Spike ...," Angel began.
"No partner for me, eh? I guess you'll be going with your wifey, peaches. No problem, I can handle things."
"I will go with you," Jennifer announced.
Angel looked at her for a long moment. He knew that Jenny still had her share of doubts about this entire thing. Finally he nodded. Jennifer was not in the same class as the rest of them when it came to fighting, but she was an accomplished witch and had access to the very best in magitech combat gear as well.
"Very well. Buffy and I will take the third array."
"We can get started in half an hour," Willow 12 said, satisfied. "I suggest you get ready."
--Part 11 - Something Gone
NOTE: The versions of Buffy and Angel appearing in this chapter are from Ducks' story Something Old, on loan with the author's permission. The events in this chapter take place directly after Something Old 4.5, so there might just be a few spoilers in here. You don't have to be familiar with Duck's story to understand this, though it does help.
Sunnydale High School grounds
March 15, 2002 AD
It had been meant as a weekend of rest and relaxation. No trouble with ensouled vampires (especially Darla), no thinking about the upcoming battle to end all battles. Hellmouth permitting they had planned for some moonlit picnics, as well as some time spent in the old mansion in Crawford Street. Buffy had wanted to visit her old friends, especially Spike. After what had happened in that other universe they had been brought to just a few days ago Buffy wanted to make sure that this universe's version of the bleached vampire was still whole and healthy, not reduced to a small heap of ash at her own hands.
That had been the plan. Said plan had not included a huge flash of light hailing from the grounds of the former Sunnydale High School, just as Angel's car was passing by close to it. Neither had any of them anticipated a huge tower of metal rising from the ground at that same spot. A spot that just happened to coincide with the location of the Hellmouth.
"There goes our weekend," Buffy muttered. "Why do these things always happen when we have better plans?"
Angel did not have any answer ready, so he kept his silence and quickly drove closer to the towering metal monstrosity that had appeared out of nowhere. The tower was at least a hundred meters tall and had a strange, almost organic look to it. From the top of it two giant antenna bundles were reaching into the sky, giving the whole thing the look of a giant tuning fork.
When Angel brought the car to a screeching halt in what had once been the parking lot of Sunnydale High Buffy was able to see that there were people standing on some kind of balcony near the top of the tower. They were too far away to see any details, though.
"Looks like we're not the first to arrive here," Buffy said.
"Unless they arrived together with that thing."
They did not need any more words between them, quickly moving closer, ready for combat.
"Any idea where we are?"
Buffy looked around at the strange place Willow 12 had brought them two. The sensor array had teleported right into the middle of a burned-out ruin of some kind. She was not sure what kind of building it might have been. It was night and the immediate surroundings seemed to suggest that they were in some kind of suburban area, maybe a small town.
"I don't think I know this place," Angel was looking around as well, having just activated the scanning cycle as Willow 12 had instructed them to. The huge machine was humming behind them, doing things that neither of them really understood. "From the look of the buildings, though, I would say we have traveled a good few decades into the past at least."
"And back to Earth," Buffy added, sadness creeping into her voice.
Angel moved up behind her to close his arms around her waist. "As soon as this is over we will get our world back, beloved. New Earth construction continues as we speak."
"I know, Angel. I know."
They were disturbed when both of them noticed someone approaching the array, someone who moved too quickly and stealthily to be human. Communicating without further words they prepared for combat. The force field Willow 12 had spoken of was a barely visible shimmering in the air just before them, surrounding the array with a perimeter of several meters, but neither of them was prepared to put all their confidence into this protection. There was too much at stake.
They split up, both making their way down to the array's base. Angel quickly whizzed down the stairs Willow 12 had been kind enough to provide when building this technological monstrosity. Buffy simply jumped.
Buffy and Angel both froze in their tracks when they saw one of the two figures standing on top of the tower jump. A moment later Angel sprang into action again, trying to get into a position where he might catch what he could now see was a woman. Buffy was half a step behind him, unable to help the thought that the woman was liable to die whether she impacted with the ground or Angel's body at the speeds she was falling.
Two things happened almost at once. Angel ran into some kind of invisible barrier, knocking him back on his behind. Buffy managed to break just in time and was therefore in a perfect position to see that the woman before them would not require their assistance.
Black wings were unfolding from her back as they watched, obsidian feathers catching the wind and quickly breaking her fall. Moments later her feet softly touched the ground and she looked at them with a mildly shocked expression on her face.
"I don't believe this," Buffy murmured. It was not just the fact that she was seeing a woman with wings like she imagined an angel would have (though in black). There was also the fact that said woman looked an awful lot like her.
Angel had regained his footing and was also staring at the winged woman who carried his beloved's face. It was her, there was no doubt about that. Her face was ingrained into his memory, centuries in hell had been unable to make him forget even the tiniest detail about it. There was also the way she stood, the way she moved. This was no mask, no shapeshifting demon, or anything else. This was Buffy.
"Doyle said they were sent back," Buffy finally said, finding her voice again. "He never said anything about my doppelganger having wings. Why didn't he say she had wings?"
Angel's first thought had also been that this might be the Buffy from that other universe with whom they had exchanged places just days ago. They had never met, of course, only their friends had told them about it. How that other Buffy and Angel had been estranged, had never managed to find each other again after he had foolishly left her at her Graduation.
They had not said anything about that other Buffy having wings.
"Somehow I don't believe this is the same Buffy our friends dealt with," Angel murmured, seeing the second person from the balcony reach the base of the tower, quickly walking up to stand beside the winged Buffy.
He was not as surprised as he should be when he recognized the other as himself.
Buffy looked at their doppelgangers on the other side of the force field and did not know what to do. Oh, she had thought of the possibility of meeting this parallel's version of herself. She had even received something of a warning by meeting Anne, the Buffy from the destroyed parallel. Somehow it did not soften the shock, though.
"They look kinda familiar, don't they?" Buffy asked Angel, trying to lift the tension somewhat, but failing miserably.
"Kinda," he nodded, "though I have the feeling that your wings came as something of a shock to them."
Both of their doppelgangers were staring at them, their lips moving, but they heard nothing.
"I guess Willow 12 made those force fields soundproof."
"Just as well. What would we be telling them anyway?"
Buffy nodded, sadly meeting the gaze of her doppelganger.
Buffy met her doppelganger's eyes and knew that something was wrong, very wrong. Wrong beyond the presence of this giant metal tower, complete with winged Slayer-double and Angel look-alike. She could not quite say what it was, but those eyes that she saw every morning when she looked into the mirror seemed to speak volumes to her.
She slowly walked forward, her hand stretched out in front of her until she made contact with the invisible barrier that Angel had run into. Now that she knew it was there she could see a slight shimmer in the air, a bit like heat haze, but to her fingers it felt as solid and real as a brick wall.
The other Buffy, raven wings folded around her shoulders like a cloak, stepped forward until nothing but the barrier was between them.
"What is going on here?" Buffy asked.
Her doppelganger moved her mouth, but there was nothing to be heard.
"She is saying something about a catastrophe about to happen," Angel said, reading the other Buffy's lips. "She ... she's saying she is sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
The other Angel's eyes suddenly widened, focusing on something behind them. The look of horror on that familiar face sent a shiver down Buffy's back.
"My God," she heard her own Angel whisper as she turned around.
The world ended no more than 500 meters away from them, everything fading into a solid virgin white. It swallowed the buildings, the trees, the street, the very sky. Everything was vanishing, swept away like dust before some unseen giant hand.
Buffy's hand found that of her mate, holding it tight as they both stared at the cataclysm that was quickly closing in on them. Angel's black car disappeared, the ruins of the school faded away.
The two of them turned around to look at their doppelgangers again, who were looking at the scenery with pure horror on their face. The winged Buffy had tears in her eyes.
For a single moment Buffy thought that she could hear them, could sense how deep their sorrow went. It was almost like the bond she had with Angel, able to hear his thoughts whenever she concentrated. Maybe these two had something similar?
Angel's arms went around her as the whiteness closed in from all sides.
I love you, he whispered through their bond.
Forever!-- Soulworld VI, part 12 - Bittersweet Endings
NOTE: The versions of Buffy and Angel appearing in this chapter are from Vatrixta Cruden's story Bittersweet Legacy, on loan with the author's permission. Trix was even kind enough to write those parts of this chapter told from her characters' points of view.
Near Hyperion Hotel
Los Angeles, California
August 13, 2181 AD
She knew it had been a mistake to come back home.
"Home" was such a relative term, though. Los Angeles had not really been home to them in over a century. Not since their family's laughter had long since faded from the halls of their hotel.
The Hyperion still stood, but barely. It had not been inhabited for nearly twenty years, had not really been useful for even longer. Willow had lived it in until her death at the ripe old age of ninety-three, and her children had left its haunted old rooms soon after.
It physically hurt Buffy to think of the children ('they were all ours, all theirs, we raised them all together, and they're gone, gone in such a short time while we're still here, where is the humanity in that?') she had known and loved over her considerable lifetime. As though sensing her distress, as he often did, Angel reached over and took her hand.
"Glad to be home, love?" he wondered aloud.
"Can't really say I missed it," she said quietly. "Then again, it's quieter than Ireland." Her gaze was once again pulled back to the great steel monstrosity towering high above the Los Angeles skyline, the one that had appeared in a flash of light just a few minutes ago. It was shaped like a tuning fork and seemed to be humming with power.
"Then again, it's certainly a lot brighter at night here."
"You sure know how to show a girl a good time." Narida came up beside Angel. "I'm beginning to wonder if leaving the Far East was such a hot idea."
"I'm beginning to wonder if we should have let Spike come along, after all," Buffy mumbled.
"He's better off where he is," Angel maintained.
"Says you," Narida snorted. "Your bed isn't empty at night."
Buffy was long past the urge to blush. Even if her skin were not cold and dead, it still would not have flushed with mortification at someone alluding to the bed she shared with Angel each night. Nearly two centuries of wild, sexual abandon could do that for a girl.
"Should we get closer to it?" Angel wondered. "Try to figure out what's up?"
"I really think we should," Buffy said, what little color she had draining from her face.
"Why?" Narida asked, placing a worried hand on her friend's shoulder.
"Because I can see myself," Buffy whispered.
Anne was silent inside her head, something Buffy was thankful for. She had not really had time to process everything that had happened to her these last few hours and here she was, off to save the universe again.
By watching helplessly as another world died just like hers had.
The city around them was Los Angeles, she recognized a few pieces of the skyline, but this was not the city she had lived in until about a day ago. This was a ruin, abandoned long ago, buildings crumbling even as nature was busy regaining what it had lost to humanity. There were no people around.
Except for those that were walking towards the array even now. The ones that looked exactly like her and the man she had lost as her world died around her.
Angel's gaze was drawn immediately to the great shining construct before them. Sure enough, standing on a metal platform around the circumference of the device, was Buffy. Not his Buffy, he could already be sure of that. He could sense something strange about her all the way from here, noted the subtle differences in their appearances. Mostly, though, it was her eyes. His Buffy's eyes were haunted sometimes, often filled with pain when she remembered all of the sorrows their lives had been full of.
But what was absent in this Slayer's eyes was the very thing that shone brightest of all in his Buffy's:
That very lack of hope chilled him to the bone. It meant that she knew something they didn't, and he squeezed Buffy's hand, pulling her along with him until they'd reached the outside of the device. Police officers, civil servants, government, had long ago become obsolete. The wars had leveled the playing field, bringing back an ancient code of honor, along with an ancient army of warriors fighting battles of good and evil without the interference of the modern world.
The modern world was mostly dead, burned to ruins and ashes in this once great city. Technology and magic the likes of which he was viewing now, not three blocks from the Hyperion, hadn't existed in such perfect harmony for decades.
"Oh my God," Narida whispered from beside him, and he shared her sentiments. Until she continued, "I can't believe the world is going to end and that bastard William is going to let me face it alone."
Her words weren't spoken in true anger, Angel knew. Narida's adoration for Spike was only shadowed by his for her. They were well suited for one another, a team, much in the same way that he and Buffy were.
It would be a shame if they didn't have just as long to cultivate their partnership.
Buffy could do nothing but watch as their doppelgangers came closer. She had abandoned the balcony and walked down to the base of the tower, some masochistic urge to see these people up close. Another Buffy. Another Angel. A girl with dark hair and olive eyes, some Asian traits to her face. She barely spared this stranger a glance, her eyes riveted to Angel.
Tinya walked up beside her, the young girl subdued by what she knew was going to happen very soon. She kept her silence as well and so they stood and watched.
"What's that?" Buffy wondered, pulling her gaze from the other Buffy ('another me really would have come in handy back in high school') and the young, black-haired woman who had just emerged by her side.
Angel and Narida turned in the direction she indicated, and were mildly surprised to find an old friend.
"Lorne?" Angel called out.
"Hey, Angel cakes," he greeted. "Buff, still cute as a button, I see. Immortality will do that to you. And Narida," a large grin split his face in two, "I'm so glad I finally get a chance to meet you."
Narida grinned and went running, throwing herself into Lorne's arms. "I missed you," she whispered into his ear.
"Ain't it funny how that works, pixie-girl?" he whispered back. Then, the smile slipped from his face and his gaze connected with Buffy and Angel's again.
"You're awfully up with the grim," Buffy noted sadly.
"Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, kids," Lorne said, "but I'm afraid none of us will be around much longer. It's the end of the world, kiddos, and for real this time."
"There's nothing we can do?" Buffy asked, a lot less desperate than she'd thought. She felt it. It was the end. And yet . . . not. Whatever that meant.
"Hold onto hope," Lorne noted, slinging an arm around Narida's shoulders. They stood several feet away from Buffy and Angel. "Even people who don't exist anymore still need hope."
It began then, on the horizon. A field of nothingness, brightness, sweeping through everything in its path. The ruins of Los Angeles began to fade, to twinkle out of existence, and Angel's hold on her hand tightened. Buffy whipped back around and met her own gaze, like looking into a mirror, though she barely remembered what it was like to see her own image reflected back at her.
This girl looked almost nothing like her; Buffy's hair was darker now after decades of living out of the sunlight. It had only been all her time outdoors that gave her hair the brightness it had once had.
But that wasn't the thing Buffy noticed most. She noticed how the other girl couldn't take her eyes off of Angel; couldn't stop the tears from running down her cheeks, and Buffy knew, in that moment, that this girl didn't have an Angel, that he had been taken from her, and Buffy's arm went around his waist, held him close.
She didn't want to look, but couldn't stop herself. The whiteness was coming closer, and Narida had a sad, but resigned look on her face as she rested her head against Lorne's chest. Buffy watched them disappear, just fade away, then turned back to Angel. He was staring at the other Buffy, his palm pressed against the forcefield keeping them from the obelisk. The other Buffy's hand pressed against the other side, and Buffy could relate to the desperation and anger at the universe's cruelty that she felt coming off her other self.
Then, Angel's gaze returned to Buffy and the whole world fell away, just as it always did when he looked at her in just that way, and smiled.
"I wouldn't change a thing," he said solemnly, his hand falling away from the force field. The other Buffy began to pound against the barrier, desperate to reach them. Moments later the giant structure and the two strange people guarding it blinked away, just as the whiteness was about to swallow them whole.
Neither Buffy nor Angel noticed.
"I'd change this," Buffy whispered, pressing her lips to his, holding him close, feeling his arm close around her. Their eyes were closed and they felt only each other.
And then, they felt nothing at all.
--Part 13 - An Angel in the Middle
NOTE: The alternate parallel briefly mentioned in this chapter is Darkworld, from one of my stories that I'll put up here at FFnet sooner or later. If you haven't read it though, no sweat. All you need to know will be said in this chapter.
Magitech Lunar Complex
Tranquility, Lunar Colony
February 5, 2101 AD
When the three arrays returned the people manning them did not say much to each other. All of them wore grim faces, their hearts heavy with sorrow and horror. From the brief words exchanged Spike realized that he and Jennifer might just have had the least terrible of the three trips. They had not seen the world die around them after all.
In a way, though, that made it that much worse. The world they had seen had been a dark place. They had seen the city of Los Angeles in flames, roamed by nothing but vampires and what few human beings had yet managed to survive. For the first time in two centuries Spike had seen vampires like they had once been. Soulless demons, nothing but carnage and terror on their minds. It had chilled him to the bone.
More than anything else, though, it had been the familiar faces among the undead that came to attack them almost the moment they appeared that threw him. His undead family. Penn, his brother in blood, who had died more than a century ago at Angel's hands. Angel himself, though seeing the empty look in his demon eyes had convinced Spike that this was Angelus, the sadistic demon whose only connection with Angel was the fact that they had the same face.
And Drusilla. The woman he had loved more than life itself, who he had last more than a century ago. She had been there, alive and well. Only he knew that it had not been her. Just her face, that beautiful face, with nothing but a demon behind it.
The next thing he remembered was Jennifer telling him that they were back home.
Buffy and Angel retreated to the privacy of their room, Angel having told the others what little they were ready to share about the world they had seen die. Spike took off by himself, not wanting anyone around him at the moment. Anne, the other Buffy, was incapable of saying anything, so Tinya filled them in. She then left together with the alternate Slayer in the hope that she might be able to console her in some way. Jennifer could barely imagine the horror of seeing the man you loved die not once but twice right before your eyes.
Willow 12 immediately started analyzing the data they had received, Jennifer her only remaining companion.
"I hope this was worth it," Jennifer told the hologram that looked like her mother.
"I hope so, too. I am sorry I had to put you through this."
"No need to apologize to me. I neither saw a world die around me nor any dead loved ones. I have to tell you, though, seeing Angel like that ... it really threw me."
Angel had been like a father to Jennifer, especially during the many times when she and Willow had been on the outs due to some argument or another. When thinking of Angel she always saw his kind, dark eyes, all that compassion and wisdom hidden behind that deceptively youthful face. To see that very same face twisted into a gleeful demon grin, not even a hint of the Angel she knew in his amber eyes ...
"From what little data I have analyzed so far, " Willow 12 interrupted her thoughts, "it seems that the world you visited never saw a Restoration of Souls. These were all the original vampires, bloodthirsty demons without souls."
"I guessed as much, but still ... well, I guess it's not that important right now."
Willow 12 just nodded, easily able to see past the stony exterior the woman who might as well be her daughter was trying to put up. Jennifer was afraid.
"Why did that world live, Willow?" She suddenly asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean ... from what little Angel told us the world they visited seemed to be a good place. Tinya said something about Los Angeles lying in ruins but the very fact that Buffy and Angel were there and apparently still fighting the good fight speaks volumes to me. Why did those worlds have to die ..."
"... while that demon world you visited was allowed to live?"
Jennifer wrapped her arms around herself, shivering with the memories.
"We did not see that much of it," she said, her voice almost a whisper, "but I felt it. I'm not the strongest witch around, but I've always had a strong sensitivity for my surroundings. Mom called it being in touch with the Earth goddess. What I felt on that world ... it was darkness, Willow. As if all the good and light had been wiped away."
"The good guys don't always win," Willow 12 said sadly. "With an infinite number of parallel worlds to choose from there are bound to be some like this."
"And they survive?" Jennifer asked bitterly. "They continue to exist while worlds like the one Anne came from die? Where is the fairness in that?"
"Fairness never enters into the equation, you should know that."
"Yes," Jennifer said bitterly. "I guess fairness doesn't compute, does it?"
The hologram moved closer to her, Willow 12 wishing for the first time that she were able to actually touch people.
"Neither does pain," she said softly, "but I still feel it."
For a moment it was almost as if Jennifer was seeing her mother again. Despite the legendary fights the two Rosenberg women had had over the years no one who knew them to any degree had ever doubted that mother and daughter loved each other dearly. When Willow had died Jennifer had been heartbroken, though she had managed to channel her grief into her work. Under her leadership Magitech had flourished, following the route of almost nonstop success that her mother and Tara had laid out.
She had never stopped missing her mother, though. It was the main reason why she was so mistrusting of this quantum computer that was named after her. No one had the right to run around wearing her mother's face. Still, it was not as if Willow 12 had had any choice in the matter, had she? She had been created that way and Jennifer had to admit that, if she were to sanction the creation of an artificial intelligence that needed a real person's mind as a blueprint, who would be a better candidate than her mother?
"Sorry," Jennifer finally said. "I guess that was uncalled for."
"It's understandable. I am sorry for causing you pain by turning up like this, looking like this. I just want you to know that everything Willow was is still a part of me. Including her love for you, Jenny. She would be so proud seeing the woman you have become."
Jennifer just nodded, not trusting herself to say anything right now. She was not about to pour her heart out to a computer, no matter how advanced. Still, some part of her could not help but be happy upon hearing Willow 12's words.
Suddenly Willow 12 seemed distracted.
"Now that is strange," she said after a moment.
"I have just completed a preliminary analysis of the disturbance patterns that preceded the white-out effect. I will need more time to zero in on the source of it, but there is something I did not expect."
Not wanting to repeat herself Jennifer just gave the computer a curious look.
"It seems," Willow 12 went on, "that the disturbance always originates in very close proximity to a certain individual. It's almost as if they were targeted directly at him."
TO BE CONTINUED