Author: Chris Cook
Willow's captors herded her away from the 'street', between the buildings to a courtyard. Several more red-lit soldiers were waiting there, guarding a group of men and women, all of their bodies lit in shades of yellow and orange. The were standing inside a cubic frame, some still, some stalking around the perimeter of the shape, as if unable to leave it. One of the soldiers holding Willow raised his hand and pressed it to one of the upright struts forming the side of the cube. For a second there was a solid surface there, then it flickered and faded. The other soldier pushed Willow through, inside the cube, and she turned to see the surface fade back into being before flickering into invisibility once more. She reached out tentatively, finding her way out still blocked by the invisible wall - transparent as air, solid as steel.
"Greetings fellow program," said one of the other prisoners in a weary voice. Willow turned and looked at him, and reacted with a start - for although the man's body was just one more of the strange, tracery-covered forms, his face was utterly familiar.
"Giles?" she said, stunned. The man's eyes widened, and he took a step towards her, leaning close to her and whispering.
"Where did you hear that name?"
"I- I don't..." Willow hesitated, unsure how to answer. "What's going on?" she hazarded. The man's expression softened.
"Memory loss?" he asked gently. Willow remained mute. "They probably hit you a bit too hard when they brought you in," he went on, glancing at Willow's injured arm, "that looks bad. It'll come back in time. Do you remember your designation?"
"Willow," answered Willow. 'Designation?' she wondered.
"I'm Trident," the man went on, "Giles is my user. Maybe you communicated with him once, and recognised me. Your memory will come back soon. But if you'll take my advice, don't mention users when they're listening." He jerked his head towards the nearby red soldiers. "They don't like to be reminded where they came from."
Willow nodded, her mind racing. Trident... Giles had created a program called Trident, a triple-level database query system. So- this man was Trident? So was she-
"Where am I?" she asked quietly. She had a suspicion what the answer would be, but part of her refused to believe it, at least until she heard it from someone else.
"You're in the Cycorp network," said Trident, "the S-5 partition. You probably worked here before Echelon tore it apart. I used to work in the S-3 partition, but a few of us came down here to try to get away. I suppose that didn't work out too well," he mused, glancing at the guards.
"I'm in the network," Willow repeated. "So you're all... programs?"
"For now," said Trident ruefully, "they're taking us to the Game Grid. We'll probably end up terminating there. Echelon's got a cruel sense of humour. He likes putting corporate programs like us up against his best warriors."
"Echelon," murmured Willow, "Echelon controls the Cycorp network, right?"
"Hah," said Trident joylessly, "Echelon controls every network. There are rumours that even the protected systems are going to fall soon. BIOS help the users if that happens."
"I saw a man- a program," Willow corrected herself, "ordering these ones around. His user would have been Warren Meers?"
"Sark," said Trident with a frown, "a sadistic son of a virus, if you'll forgive my language. Consider yourself lucky if he didn't take an interest in you. I remember when he was a new program, just a shoddy piece of analysis software. But Echelon formed some sort of arrangement, and fed Sark all sorts of advanced routines it stripped from the programs it included into itself. Sark rules the Game Grid in Echelon's name. Don't ever do anything to get his attention, he'll put you onto the Grid and terminate you himself. Did he catch you?"
"There was another one," said Willow, "Sark called her Rain." Trident shrugged.
"I haven't heard of her," he said.
One of the red soldiers approached the transparent cell and rapped his weapon against its side, causing it to flicker visibly for a moment.
"Cut the chatter," he ordered, "prepare for transit."
All the programs in the cell looked up. Willow followed their gaze, and saw a massive craft hovering over the city, a vast block of flying steel, too big to see all at once in the gaps between the tops of the ruined buildings.
"Sark's Carrier," muttered Trident, "we're going to the Game Grid." The cell rose up off the ground, towards the huge vehicle. Willow staggered, her mind refusing to believe there was a surface beneath her feet when her eyes couldn't see anything. She crossed on shaky legs to one of the corners, standing next to the visible edge of the cube, for the comfort it gave her. As the city fell away beneath her the Carrier grew ever closer, until she could see a tiny hatch open in its underbelly. Ahead and behind it stretched on for a mile or more, its monolithic form dotted with antennae and turret-like protrusions, all outlined in red light. Her view was cut off as the cube slotted itself into the belly of the craft, and the hatchway slid shut beneath it.
More guards arrived and separated the programs, taking them one by one to holding cells somewhere inside the giant Carrier. Willow's was tiny, barely large enough for her to sit on the floor without her knees hitting the walls. A pair of gaps in the walls, one facing the corridor, the other facing the adjoining cell, were covered by more transparent barriers. For a long while nothing happened - outside, red guards marched back and forth, maintaining a monotonous patrol. Willow could feel a more pronounced humming through the floor and walls than she had in the city below, which she took to be the Carrier's engines. She tried to make sense of it all, and failed. Networks were just data, tiny magnetic traces on hard drives, not huge cities filled with whole populations of programs. The craft she was imprisoned in shouldn't even exist, not as anything more than a simple sequence of bits, designed to help programs transfer themselves from one partition to another. And yet here she was, inside the Carrier, feeling its engines throbbing through its deck. Held captive by the very same security programs she had once been invited to help write. On her way to the Game Grid, whatever that was.
After several fruitless hours of speculation, mixed with fits of denial, the sound of multiple footstep-tones outside got Willow's attention. She leaned close to the barrier, and watched as another pair of guards led a tall, thin program to the cell next to hers and shoved him inside. The barrier flickered on behind him. He kicked at it, then slumped to the deck and folded his arms.
"Um, hi?" ventured Willow. The program looked at her. His face was kind and young, but lined with stress and worry.
"Greetings," he said. "Where did they catch you?"
"Um, the Cycorp network," said Willow.
"Yeah, you look like one of theirs," the program said, "before the takeover, I mean. I was in Securinet, but I got out before Echelon took control of it. They caught me halfway to the Allsearch databanks. I'd have made it, though, if only I'd had a better transit subroutine. I wasn't designed for this," he shrugged. "I'm Sentec, by the way."
"Willow," said Willow. "You were trying to escape from Echelon?"
"Who wouldn't?" said Sentec. "No chance of that now, not in this thing. Perimeter security routines are one thing, but Sark... he doesn't make mistakes. Though from what I hear, it may be safer on the Grid than out in the open network anyway - they're saying Echelon's got an infotech warfare program."
"I think I met her," Willow said, holding up her injured arm.
"Hell and erasure," whispered Sentec, "that's brutal. Are you functioning okay?" Willow held her arm close to the barrier between them so Sentec could see. As her arm came close to the barrier a patch of the invisible wall faded into visibility, and red light bled out of it, into her wound. Willow watched as the cut in her arm filled with red, which then flowed into the tracery around it. Beneath, her wound was gone.
"How did you do that?" asked Sentec. Willow looked up - he was staring at her arm intently. She stared too. The red was slowly fading away, leaving the tracery on her skin a slightly darker shade of yellow than it had been.
"I don't know," said Willow, "what did I do?"
"You included," said Sentec, in something approaching awe, "you mean you didn't even mean to do it? You just took code straight out of the Carrier's routines and included it in yourself. I've never even seen a program that can do that, not without a dedicated code transit link, who programmed you?"
"I don't remember," said Willow.
"I wish my user had given me some tricks like that," said Sentec admiringly, "I might still be out in the open network."
There was a crack as a guard's weapon hit the barrier next to Sentec.
"Quiet," the guard said, "no user-talk." Sentec leaned away from the barrier, keeping his gaze down, away from the guard.
"Damned religious fools," muttered the guard, resuming his patrol.