Author: Chris Cook
Willow felt numb as a transport took her out of the arena, back to the alcove in its outer wall; as the guards there - five now, with at least five more standing further back, armed with disc-guns - instructed her to present her data disc, for the system to erase the weapons code that had been temporarily attached to it. Flexing her hands, once more as fine and smooth as human hands, Willow felt strangely relieved to be rid of the sword and shield codes. Now that she was free of the immanent peril, and the need to find a way out of the combat, she felt only sickened by it all. Sickened, and frightened - she wasn't sure what frightened her more, though, the legions of hostile warriors holding her prisoner, or the masses of captive programs who - if they found out what she was - would rather kill themselves than raise a hand against her. Not even as a last resort - would do it the instant it seemed required.
Willow was so absorbed in her gloomy thoughts that she didn't notice for some time that she wasn't being led back towards the prison pyramid. Instead, after a long journey, her guards brought her to a structure that dwarfed the arenas around it, a gigantic block of solid grey, a hundred metres tall, and surely a mile from end to end. Strange vehicles, amalgamations of geometric blocks, with two solid pillars extending downwards from either end of their hulls, floated along the top of the giant arena's walls. Willow allowed herself to be led to an alcove, much like the one in the smaller arena. This time there was no code download, though, only the burst of light signalling a transport.
As she expected, Willow found herself inside the arena. It seemed even larger from inside - if the last one had been the Coliseum, this was the Circus Maximus, a staggeringly huge stadium, long enough from end to end to house an aircraft carrier. Where the audience might have been, there were rows of strange devices, curved discs and antennae facing into the arena itself - some sort of projectors, Willow guessed.
The ground beneath her trembled, and she took a step back as two pillars rose up in front of her. Two more appeared behind her, all quickly rising above her height. With a strange buzzing noise they locked into position, and a film of energy flickered into being between them. Willow tentatively extended a hand, but pulled it back when she felt intense heat radiating off the barrier.
A series of transport flashes blinded her for a second. When they were gone half a dozen guards were standing outside her 'cage', all with disc-guns raised, aimed directly at her. One last transport, behind them, brought Sark into the arena. He glanced at the pillars projecting Willow's cage, and at the guards around her, then moved closer to her.
"That was a most impressive display," he said amiably. "Tell me, did you reprogram your opponent? Make him terminate himself?"
Willow found that her usual detestation of Warren Meers was translating easily into a particular hatred for his digital creation. She remained silent, and glared at Sark. He returned her gaze for a moment, then shrugged.
"Or perhaps not," he said, "some of these programs have very... strong beliefs concerning users. I wonder how that makes you feel." He paced back and forth in front of Willow's cage. "What if, for example, I were to transport a handful of programs here, and threaten to terminate you, unless they tore each other apart with their bare hands. Do you suppose they would?" He turned to his guards, and Willow's blood ran cold. She instinctively took a step forward, coming as close as she could to the barrier, and opened her mouth to protest.
"An interesting demonstration," said Sark, pre-empting her by half a second, "of the weakness of such beliefs." He turned back to Willow. "What would they not do to save you?" He came right up to the barrier's edge, facing Willow - if the barrier's heat was affecting him, he didn't show it. "What would you not do to save them? Users... you consider yourself so superior to your creations. And yet, down here, you're just like the rest, the rabble. Superstitious, chaotic, swayed by meaningless sentiment and pointless trivialities. The almighty users, as helpless and defenceless as a macro. I trust you see the irony of your position."
"Fine," said Willow angrily, "is that what you want? Okay, you're right. We're not better than you. We're just like you, and you're just like us. Are you happy now?" Sark laughed humourlessly.
"I'm sure that's true," he said, amused at some private joke. "But no, I did not bring you here just to indulge in ideological debate. Despite your current predicament, you retain some of the abilities which have led your kind to be worshipped by the more na´ve examples of ours. You proved as much, when you disguised yourself with stolen code from the partition segment we found you in, and just recently when you were able to modify the weapons code implanted on your data disc. These are abilities available to users by virtue of their position outside the codified structures of our world, but in your case they have become embedded in your program, a part of your core code, if you will. These are abilities we would find very useful."
"And you want me to give them to you?" said Willow, Sark's unpleasant manner tapping her anger. "Sure, right after I renew my subscription to Evil Bastards Monthly." Sark looked momentarily confused, then shook it off.
"You understand I'm not familiar with the terminology, but if I may take that as a refusal," he said calmly, "I'm afraid you misunderstand my intention. I do not propose you give me the code. I propose to take it from you, after your ability to defend yourself has been utterly demolished. You will be damaged - I believe the user term is 'injured' - repeatedly until your cognitive and behavioural coding is so fragmented and corrupted that you will be unable to resist. Once you have been reduced to that condition, you will be taken from here and subject to disassembly, until the valuable elements of your core code have been completely removed. Then what remains of you will be terminated."
The little voice in Willow's head, insisting that none of this was real, kept her from breaking down in tears as the rest of her mind dissolved in terrified shock. Sark watched her for a moment, then turned and resumed his position behind his guards. First he, then they, transported away, then the barriers vanished, the pillars retracted back into the ground, and Willow was left alone and afraid in the centre of the mile-long arena.
She spun around as a flash of light cast her shadow on the ground in front of her. A transport - another program. Tall, female - green light covering her. It could only be-
"That's right," said the program warily. Willow shook her head.
"Please, don't," she cried, backing away. Tara's expression shifted fluidly from suspicion to compassion.
"I'm not here to damage you," she said. She held herself in a non-threatening posture, hands open and empty, feet together - not a combat stance. Willow stopped backing away.
"They said - Sark said he was going to..." she began. Tara nodded understandingly.
"I'm a prisoner too," she said, "I'm not here to fight you." Willow gasped in relief. Since her first glimpse of Tara the day before, she had been maintaining a faint hope of somehow finding her, helping her bring down Echelon. The seconds when she thought that hope had been in vain had been her lowest point yet. Tara moved towards her, stopping a few paces away. Willow wasn't able to maintain any suspicion of her, though - her relief at not being attacked by the one ally she had imagined she might have in this world was such that she refused to consider whether Tara might be lying. If she was, if it was all a trick to lull her into a trap - well, the hell with it.
As Willow took a few deep breaths to steady herself, she let her gaze settle on Tara. The program was not what she had expected. For one thing, Willow had imagined that Tara would look like her - she had assumed, given Sark, and Trident's resemblance to Giles, that programs somehow inherited the appearance of their users. Tara was quite different - her face was distinctive, unique. Beautiful, Willow thought, surprising herself. And, as her gaze roamed briefly over the rest of Tara's body, certainly nothing wrong there, either. The lack of fine detail remained slightly surreal to Willow, but all the curves were there, all in what Willow considered to be exactly the right place, as she wondered what Tara would look like as a human... 'Willow,' she chided herself, 'could you concentrate on not getting killed, at all? Priorities!'
"Are you damaged?" asked Tara, concerned. Willow shook her head, mute for the time being. "Do you know why Sark has singled you out?" she asked.
"I'm not..." Willow began, hesitated, started again. "Something to do with special code," she said, "he said they were going to, to damage me until-" She choked up, couldn't say it.
"It's alright," Tara said automatically. "I'll protect you. I've never lost a combat. You'll be alright." There was another flash of transport, a few metres behind her. In the blink of an eye, before Willow had even properly registered what was happening, Tara had put herself between the new arrival and Willow, in a combat stance. After the light cleared, though, she relaxed a little.
"It's alright," she said to Willow, "I know him. Fellow prisoner, Emdee?" she called to the new program.
"Fellow prisoner, Tara," he answered. He was blue-lit, short and thin, not physically intimidating at all, but there was something about him, about the way he moved, and his eyes kept darting around, that reminded Willow of very good fencers, the ones who could never be taken by surprise. He glanced at Willow, and nodded at her. "Who're we against?" he asked Tara.
A final transport, some distance away, lit the arena floor. When it was gone, Willow shrank back, Emdee's eyes fixed on the new arrival, and Tara was back in her combat stance.
"Her," Tara said simply. Ten metres away, Rain drew herself up to her full height. Her legs splayed wide, ready to spring in any direction. The clawed arms in her abdomen stretched out, running their razor edges along her thighs, then slashing the air in a vicious salute. She arched her back and spread her arms, letting the sword-edged tendrils unfold from her wrists. Her crest of knives stood out around her face like the aureole in some old painting of an angel, and the spider-legs from her back stretched up and out like skeletal wings. She opened her mouth wide, mandibles spread, and let out a serpentine hiss.
The banks of projectors lining the arena walls flashed with power, and Rain was suddenly hidden as a series of energy beams solidified into the walls of a maze.
"How well can you fight?" asked Tara quietly, her voice perfectly calm. Willow felt herself slow slightly in her rise to full-blown panic.
"Um, not well," she whispered, "not without a sword, or something."
"Stay behind me," ordered Tara. Willow did so, flattening against the wall behind her. Tara took a quick glance either way down the corridor that had sprung up around them. Emdee's eyes never stopped moving.
"Plan?" asked Tara.
"I don't know our opponent," he answered.
"I've fought her once," Tara said, "outside the Grid."
"Is she good?"
"Better than me."
"Do not engage," said Emdee at once, "I'll take her down. Follow."
Tara put a hand around Willow's arm and pulled her close. Willow was surprised at the contact - apart from her brief grapple with Verizen, and the occasional shoves from guards, she had never touched another program. From their appearance, she had expected them to be cold, artificial - smooth like plastic or metal. Tara's hand on her arm felt just like a human's touch.
"Emdee," Tara said, her voice carrying a note of caution, "she's fast. Be careful." Emdee grinned to himself.
"I'm faster," he said quietly. He looked either way, then turned to the left, where the corridor ran on for twenty metres, to a four-way junction. Willow saw him begin to move, the slight tensing of muscles as he shifted his weight, began to lift his foot, then there was a blur, and he was at the junction, peering around the corner. He waved a signal, and Tara pulled Willow along at a fast jog, catching up with him.
"What did he do?" asked Willow, whispering.
"He's self-compressing and extracting," said Tara, lowering her head to whisper into Willow's ear. "When he does that, he reduces his form to a high-speed data stream and reconstitutes at the end. Sark has had us fight together before, against Echelon's soldiers. He's not the best warrior, but he always has the element of surprise."
Emdee motioned for them to stay still while he scouted the next junction along. He blurred down the corridor and waved them on, but before Willow and Tara could reach him a section of wall slid out in front of them, cutting the passageway in two.
"Damn!" cursed Tara. She glanced back along the way they had come.
"Why did it do that?" asked Willow.
"This simulation is a slow-build fractal subroutine," explained Tara, "they've put me in games like this before. The longer we're in here the more complex the maze gets. Come on, we need to find another way, we can't afford to get split up."
"No, wait," called Willow, as Tara started back down the corridor. Possibly it was desperation, or just a desire to do something other than accept the fact that she was stuck in a game with a monstrous killer hunting her - Willow had an idea. She pressed her palm to the wall blocking the corridor. There was almost the hint of something there, almost a texture. She leant her head against the wall, staring at the subtle shadows formed by the play of light over its surface. There were patterns, too fine to be seen from far off, or in the wrong light, but she could see them now, swirls and jagged cog-wheel spirals.
"What are you doing?" hissed Tara urgently.
"I can see the fractal," said Willow. She closed her eyes, imagining the shape. It had been a hobby of hers, during college, refining fractal algorithms until they formed the perfect image: a flower, a heart, waves, clouds. She used to stay up late at night, calculating just where to make the tiniest change in the math, and when she found herself dreaming about fractal shapes she'd shelve her algorithms for a week or two, until she got bored with unimaginative assignment work again. Her palms tingled, and her cheek where it was pressed against the wall. The shapes she was imagining weren't entirely her imagination any more.
"You can't see the fractal," said Tara, her voice low, worried, "the fractal is the maze, and we have to keep moving, come on!"
"Just a second," Willow said, more to herself. The shape was there, a blaze of colour and pattern, mathematics given visual form. And more than that - Willow almost jumped for joy when she realised it - the math was simple, the algorithm a basic structure she had worked with before. The whole maze was spread out before her, simple yet growing, slowly developing new dead-ends, cul-de-sacs, detours and junctions, as the numbers forming it looped around and back on themselves in their path between simplicity and chaos. And Willow knew which tiny calculation to push...
She sprang back as the wall shifted beneath her touch. Glancing at Tara, she was irrationally pleased at the look of amazement she saw there. There was a blur of movement from up ahead, and Emdee was standing at their side again.
"That was lucky," he said.
"No," said Tara, "she did it." Emdee turned to gaze at Willow, a look of confusion on his face. Tara gently took her hand and raised her arm, staring at the patterns of light there.
"Who programmed you?" asked Emdee, with genuine respect in his voice.
"Um, Willow," said Willow. Emdee's look had shaken her even as his voice reassured her. Part of her was glad to be able to help, to deserve the respect of these programs and not just be dead weight to them - but in his eyes, Willow had had a sudden glimpse of Verizen's expression, in the moment when he realised that she was a user. The Rain program terrified her, but she didn't want more sacrifices on her behalf. "Willow programmed me."
"Well that explains it," said Emdee with a grin. He blurred again, moving to re-check the junction ahead.
"Willow was my user," said Tara, still staring at the tracery on Willow's forearm. "When she created me she used code different to anything else in any system, perhaps you're the same. Look at this."
Willow looked at her own arm. Her yellow tracery was there, still shifting and remaking itself slightly, as always. But now, at its tips, Willow could just make out the last vestiges of the maze's fractal pattern, disappearing into the tracery as if it were being absorbed.
"Do you know what your function was to be?" asked Tara. Willow shook her head. Tara stared at her arm, then met her gaze. Her expression was strange, a mix of feelings. "Maybe you're like me," she said. Willow thought that she heard a hopeful tone in her voice.
"Can you do that... thing, with the fractals, too?" asked Willow. Tara led her on in Emdee's wake.
"No," she answered, "but I can do things other programs can't. What's your designation?"
"Um," hesitated Willow. She hadn't thought that far ahead. "Willow?" she hazarded. "I guess, named after my user..." Tara seemed to accept the explanation.
"I calculated for a moment you might be Tara two point oh," she said, as Emdee scouted ahead again. "I'm version one, but I have code elements of prior versions."
'Yes,' Willow thought, 'I used their structures, what I learned from them, to build you.'
"I wondered if there would be a newer version of me, after I failed," went on Tara, "but I never heard of another of Willow's programs, until now."
"What do you mean, failed?" said Willow.
"I was created to access Echelon's primary database," Tara explained. "Open its files, bring the data there out into the free system. I failed - I got half-way, and then Rain tracked me down and deactivated me, and Sark's soldiers brought me here. I always assumed another Tara would be created to finish the job."
"I don't think so," said Willow cautiously, "I think perhaps Willow can't access the system any more. We have to finish it ourselves."
"We're in the Game Grid, Willow," said Tara gently but firmly, "the only way out is in a carrier, and Sark controls all of the carrier-capable simulations. There's no way out."
"Like there's no way to alter this maze?" asked Willow, grinning. She watched as Tara's confusion turned to understanding, and a matching grin spread across her face.