Author: Chris Cook
"This is the Game Grid."
Willow and her fellow prisoners had been marched out of their cells and into a smaller transport, and now stood in single file, with guards behind them, on the edge of a cliff. Below them, stretching as far as they could see, was a gigantic complex of domes, arenas and towers. Willow could just make out the flickers of colour as programs moved about in the Grid. Directly ahead of them was Sark, addressing them from the master deck jutting out to one side of the Carrier, which hovered ominously alongside them. Sark's voice, artificially loud, washed across the row of captive programs
"You have been brought here," he went on, "because you have defied Echelon's commands, and refused to give up your foolish and misguided belief in the users. You will now serve Echelon on the Game Grid as opponents for the faithful. Those of you who fight well may look forward to a quick termination in battle. Those of you who choose not to fight, or who fight poorly, will be subject to de-resolution." A ripple of fear passed through the programs standing with Willow. Sark turned away from the prisoners, and the Carrier began to rise away from the cliff. The guards herded Willow and the others onto a platform which detached itself from the cliff-face and descended towards the Grid. As the maze of structures grew closer, Willow could make out the red-lit forms of guards patrolling the walls, and an occasional flash of yellow or blue from the open arenas. The platform passed into shadow between the buildings, finally coming to rest against a balcony. Programs were detached from the group and marched away along the thin walkways leading through the Grid.
"What's de-resolution?" Willow asked, as she and another program were escorted away across a tapering bridge, overlooking a series of transparent domes. Inside, yellow programs were duelling with red.
"You've never heard of it?" asked the other prisoner. "I thought it'd been pretty common on the Cycorp network." Willow shook her head. "It's just about the worst thing that can happen to you," the program explained, "they strip you down to your component codes, and they get absorbed into Echelon. You're still functioning while they do it. Once they've torn every last object out of you, then they let you terminate." The program looked down at the arenas and frowned.
"I used to be part of a program pair," he said, "analysis and verification. They de-rezzed my partner, they made me watch." His expression darkened, and the blue tracery on him flushed with power for a moment.
"My advice to you," he said, "is to terminate here. Better to do it cleanly." Willow nodded, hoping she looked sympathetic. She let her gaze wander over the arenas beneath them, trying not to listen to the tonal footsteps of the guards marching behind them. Her mind was caught up in a private war between fear - she had no illusions what 'terminate' meant - and disbelief that any of this was even happening. Yesterday her biggest worry was being fired, and even then it wouldn't have been difficult to get a job with some other firm. She was absurdly grateful for the part of herself that kept insisting it was just a dream, and she would wake up soon - if she truly accepted what was happening to her, she might just collapse on the spot.
A colour caught her eye. In the arena just ahead of them was a constantly-shifting maze of walls and archways, all centred on a single program, pivoting and sliding to simulate movement while she remained in the exact centre of the arena. Willow, looking down into the maze, could see half a dozen red programs, armed with cruel-looking spears and flails, stalking their prey, seemingly untroubled by the lurching motions of the simulated world they moved through. What had caught Willow's eye was the program in the centre, their prey - the tracery covering her was green. Willow hadn't seen any green programs at all, aside from herself before she became yellow. As she watched, one of the hunters crept up behind the green program and leapt at her, spear aimed at the centre of her back. As if she had seen him all along, she lunged sideways, running half-way up a wall, flipping in mid-air and delivering a kick that knocked her attacker off his feet. She sprung off the opposing wall, without landing, grabbed his shoulders as she passed overhead, and swung herself down and him into the air. Letting go she continued her swing, kicking out both legs as she landed on her palms, sending him flying out of the maze. He landed, with a crackle of red electricity, just as she rolled from a handstand to a defensive crouch, waiting for her next assailant.
"Who's that?" asked Willow. Her companion program had been watching the remarkable display as well.
"That's Tara," he said. "Sark's armies annihilated half the Cycorp partitions just to get to her. They say Echelon tried to de-rez her, and couldn't. I'm not sure if I believe that. But there's something about her that Echelon wants, some code it hasn't seen before. My guess is they're keeping her here to break her, hoping if they can defeat her they'll be able to get at the code inside her. Looks like it'll be a long process," he quipped. While he had been speaking, Tara had defeated two more of the red hunters in a blur of acrobatic lethality.
Willow watched the distant figure, her mind spinning. Tara - her Tara, the program she had created to break open Echelon. But it - she - hadn't been able to do it, because Willow hadn't been able to get to her once Rain shut her out. Could she now? It seemed unlikely - she didn't know how this world worked. And yet she did know, she knew every byte of it, from the outside. Was there some way for her to program the system, even though she herself was now a program? Could she give Tara the skill she needed to fulfil her purpose? Willow had too many questions, and no answers. All she knew for sure was that, unless she fancied 'terminating' in some video game, she had to somehow get to Tara.
Willow and her fellow prisoner were taken to a red-lined pyramid, where other prisoners were being brought, alone and in pairs. They were taken inside, through a huge archway, to find the interior hollow, full of captive programs, all under constant guard. Willow and her companion were herded into separate lines of prisoners, slowly shuffling forwards as they were processed. Willow watched as the programs ahead of her were studied by frail-looking red programs, then guided away. The inner walls of the great pyramid were covered with semi-translucent spheres, each containing a captive. Now and then one would detach and float down to the guards, or a newly-processed program would be contained in a new sphere and floated into place.
Waiting for her turn, Willow's gaze moved to the other groups of prisoners. Not all of them were being processed - some seemed to have been on the Game Grid already, and were merely being returned to their cells until their next game. Some were wounded, their arms and legs scored with cuts in which their lights glowed faintly. Those that moved slowly or stumbled were hastened by a crackling discharge from the staves carried by the guards. Those seemed to be their only armament - Willow saw none of the rifle-like weapons the soldiers had been carrying when she had been captured.
"State your designation," said a bored voice. Willow jumped slightly, not realising that her automatic shuffling forward had brought her to the head of the line. She looked up to see a long-faced program gazing blandly at her. His torso rose from a console-style surface covered in lights and symbols - he seemed physically set into it, supported or possibly restrained by a series of tethers around his body. His expression and demeanour was almost a caricature of a dehumanised bureaucrat. On either side of him the frail programs Willow had already seen were waiting.
"State your designation," the official repeated, the intonation and volume of his voice exactly the same as the first time he had said it.
"Designation recorded," the official said tonelessly. "State your source network and former function."
"I... what?" said Willow. The official nodded to one of his subordinates, who moved forward. Moving with surprising speed, he raised Willow's arm and pressed his palm against it. There was a sharp pain, like an injection, and Willow jerked her arm away. The subordinates ignored her protest, and returned to the official's console. Willow noticed the hand of the one who had touched her wasn't quite the same as those of the other programs - it had a bulky strap, like a bracelet, around its wrist, and the fingers seemed set in place, unable to close. The palm had a slight tinge of yellow on it. Willow rubbed her arm. The subordinate pressed his open palm onto the official's console.
"Source network Cycorp," droned the official, "former function storage and allocation facility. Data recorded." He glanced down at his console, then back at Willow.
"Do you now or have you ever held a belief in the so-called users, or other entities endowed with the ability to create and modify programs at will?" he asked, in the mindless way of someone reading from a script.
"What?" said Willow. Her arm still hurt, and the official was reminding her of all too many faceless bureaucrats who had given her headaches in the course of her career. Her lingering sense of unreal detachment from the world around her allowed her irritation to bubble to the surface.
"What do you mean, 'belief'?" she went on. "Of course there are users, who do you think built the processor wasting its time generating you? The Easter Bunny?" The official nodded and made a note on his console. The other subordinate, who hadn't yet moved, now turned to the console. Seeing him side-on, Willow noticed his back was expanded, bulky, as if he had a built-in backpack. He reached over his shoulder into it and drew out a thin discus, which he laid flat on the console. The official tapped a control, and the discus began to light up with yellow concentric rings of light.
"This is your data disc," said the official, without looking up, "it contains a record of your existence on the Game Grid, and will store information relating to your performance in the games. If you lose this disc you will be subject to immediate termination. You are required to present this disc to any loyal program who demands it of you. Processing complete." The subordinate handed the disc to Willow, and a pair of guards pushed her away from the official. She was manoeuvred into place at the centre of a pattern of circles on the floor, and a sphere formed around her, just large enough to stand in without bumping her head. She staggered as it started to rise, and sat down to avoid losing her balance as it floated her into place among the dozens of other captive programs lining the walls of the pyramid.
Willow looked around glumly. The sphere cut off all sound from outside, rendering her unable to communicate with the other programs, even though the nearest was barely a metre away. He was watching her, not intently, but apparently just because she was new, and there was nothing else to look at. Willow raised a hand in a half-wave, which he returned. He lifted his own data disc and gestured to Willow's, which she was holding in her lap. She held it up with a questioning expression. He lifted his disc and reached over his shoulder, laying it flat against his back. When he took his hand away it stayed there, somehow fixed in place. Willow frowned, confused. He raised his eyebrows encouragingly, and gestured again to her disc. She laid it against her back, and felt a tingling sensation. It stuck - she poked it experimentally, and found she could feel her finger's touch as if she were touching her back. Willow played with the unusual sensation for a moment, then pushed her fingertips a little harder at the edge of the disc. It came away, painlessly, in her hand. Willow looked back at the other program, but he had returned his gaze to the wide expanse of floor twenty metres below them, still teeming with activity. Willow studied her disc for a while, then, resigning herself to her current imprisonment, replaced it on her back and watched the programs below.
As she leaned back against the curved surface of her sphere, a slight sighing noise broke the otherwise complete silence. Willow listened, trying to home in on its source - it was coming from just beside her. She looked, and saw a tiny amount of watery silver light flowing out of the sphere, into the tiny puncture mark on her arm. In a matter of seconds the flow stopped, and her wound was healed, marked only by a slight tinge of silver spreading through her yellow tracery.
'Curiouser and curiouser,' she thought sarcastically.