Author: Chris Cook
Willow could tell Tara was in pain, but her pace at Willow's side never faltered. For her part, Willow was concentrating on controlling a sudden attack of nerves at what she had just done. She couldn't keep herself from looking back every few steps, expecting to see Rain there, chasing them down. Distracted, she almost ran into Tara when she paused at a junction.
"She won't come at us from behind," Tara whispered at Willow's puzzled look, "she'll try to circle around us and take us by surprise. We should get our bearings while we can..." She paused, and turned to Willow. "Are you hurt?" she asked, suddenly seeming less sure of herself.
"I'm fine," said Willow a little too quickly, "just need to catch my breath. I'm not really used to all this running." While Tara checked the connecting corridors and listened for any sign of Rain, Willow rested against the wall and took a few deep breaths. She didn't want Tara to see how scared she was - Tara didn't need the added complication.
"Okay," she said quietly when Tara next looked at her, "I'm ready, let's move."
"Wait," said Tara suddenly - she wasn't looking directly at Willow, but just to one side. Willow followed her gaze, and settled on her own hand, where she was leaning against the wall. Tiny fractal patterns were snaking along her fingers, merging with the wall at her fingertips.
"Are you doing that on purpose?" asked Tara in a hushed voice. Willow shook her head, and tried to bring back the image of the maze's mathematical structure, as she had seen it before. The patterns on her hand moved faster, streaming down from her wrist.
"I think... I can see it," Willow said. Something was wrong, though, the numbers weren't behaving as they should.
"What's wrong?" asked Tara. She had seen Willow's concern in her face, before she had even worked out how to vocalise what she was experiencing.
"The maze is being disrupted," Willow tried to explain, "it's not growing like it should... there's something changing it that I can't see."
"Rain," said Tara flatly, "probably smashing everything in reach. You hurt her badly back there, it's not something she's familiar with. That was good work, by the way, I'm sorry I didn't say so earlier... you're very brave." Willow grimaced at the irony - 'If only she knew most of me just wants this all to be a bad dream, and wake up.'
"No," she said, "I just reacted, I was too scared to think... Tara, I can see the disruption in the maze, where the numbers are being changed, I think - oh Goddess, it's close! Tara, she's-"
Willow screamed and pulled away as the wall a few metres from her erupted in an avalanche of debris. Shrapnel spewed across the corridor, and within the shower of geometric rubble Willow could see several glittering blades flashing back and forth, tearing the wall apart. Tara took her hand and pulled her back as Rain crashed into the corridor ahead of them. They ran back the way they had come, Willow fighting the urge to look back as she heard Rain's enraged screaming, and the metallic crunching of her footsteps behind them. She turned all her attention to moving as fast as she could, fixing her eyes on Tara's hand clutching hers tightly.
Turning a corner, Tara drew to a halt and spun around. Willow lifted her gaze to see why - in the few minutes since they had come through this passageway, it had turned into a dead end. Willow's resolve not to look back crumbled as she heard Rain's approach from around the corner, but even as she turned Tara was sliding past her, putting herself between Willow and the oncoming danger.
"Willow," Tara said levelly - she seemed unnaturally calm in the face of crisis, "can you move the wall? Like you did before?" Willow opened her mouth to say she'd try, but her voice wouldn't answer beyond "Uh-huh". The passageway was narrow - she stretched out her arms and flattened her palms on the walls on either side of her. She closed her eyes - it was all there, and coming to her faster than before. The numbers, the structure - she could visualise the fractal closely enough to see the maze itself, stretching out around herself and Tara, slowly adding more twists and turns as the mathematical sequence progressed. She had an odd sensation, as if she were seeing a picture of herself watching a picture of herself, spiralling down into microscopic infinity. 'More fractals,' her mind quipped.
She opened her eyes and looked behind her, watching the wall blocking the corridor split down the middle and absorb into the walls on either side of it. She turned back to Tara, only to see Rain come around the corner beyond her.
"Tara run!" she yelled. Tara nodded and moved back, but slowly, keeping a combat stance, her eyes still on Rain. Rain's eyes blazed with hatred, directed straight at Tara. Willow saw her begin to move, her fear honing her senses so she could make out the slight tensing of the muscles in Rain's powerful thighs. She was about to blur - Tara wasn't far enough away.
Once more Willow acted without thinking. Flexing her palms against the walls she concentrated on the fractal within the maze, grabbed hold of the numbers, and wrenched them violently out of place. Rain was a split second from moving when the ground lurched beneath her, and the walls on either side of her bulged towards her. She slammed a clawed foot out to halt her forward momentum, and her spider-legs crashed into the walls, tearing at them, pushing them away from her. Willow felt the numbers begin to break down - but she knew what they should be, even as Rain tore them up. Where the walls were being broken Willow visualised new, perfect sequences of equations and slammed them into place.
Rain screamed like a banshee as the walls solidified around her spider-legs, trapping her. She arched her back and struck out sideways with her arm-blades, as her legs and abdominal talons writhed in mid-air. Twisting from side to side, the mechanical muscles in her spider-legs hauled at their tips, trying to pull them free of the solid blocks they were embedded in. Cracks began to form in the walls, small showers of debris breaking free and scattering across the tilted ground.
"Oh no you don't," said Willow, feeling suddenly light-headed. She gave the fractal another firm twist, and the walls slammed together around Rain, crushing her. For a split second she exulted in success - no rational part of her raised any moral objection to terminating Rain - but she saw at once she had bought them time at best. The algorithm had partially broken down as it had closed around Rain - so far as the fractal maze was concerned, she was an immovable object, at least when trying to exert enough force to badly damage her.
"We need to get out of here," she concluded to herself, aloud.
"Holy BIOS," breathed Tara, staring at the closed wall where Rain had been, in which a handful of cracks were beginning to show. Willow allowed herself a self-congratulatory grin, then concentrated on the maze again. This time, instead of altering the algorithm's numbers here and there, she reached into the heart of the fractal and reduced its functional pattern to mathematical ruins.
"Tara, stay close!" she warned. She let her hands fall away from the walls, having completed the alteration. The maze was already shaking as if it was in the middle of a severe earthquake. Tara stumbled slightly as the floor lurched, and Willow caught her before she could fall - somehow she was keeping her balance in the growing chaos. 'Maybe because it's my chaos,' she thought, grinning.
"What's going on?" asked Tara, raising her voice above the sound of metal breaking and screaming.
"I made a way out," answered Willow loudly, "I hope! This way!" She led Tara away from Rain's temporary prison, doing her best to ignore the sounds of complicated destruction that indicated at least part of the maze had already collapsed under the strain. The corridors ahead of them were twisting and unravelling even as they ran, but Willow held her course - she knew roughly what shapes were going to form as the maze's math disintegrated. As for escape - it was worth a shot. They rounded a corner and found the walls ending, crumbling away on either side to reveal the giant arena.
"This way!" yelled Willow, dragging Tara off to the right, along one side of the maze's exterior. If she had calculated everything properly, behind them was where it was going to happen, any second now-
The maze wall beside them groaned and bent inwards alarmingly. Tara reacted faster than Willow, quickly reversing their roles so she was now pulling Willow, away from the tortured fractal simulation. After a few steps there was a terrific roar from the maze, and a whole side of it near where they had exited bulged outwards, walls cracking, breaking open, new segments growing out of the gaps, stretching outward. Both Willow and Tara stopped and watched as the wild, chaotic structure reached the massive arena wall and crashed against it. The ground shook from the impact, and several of the arena's projection arrays buckled and toppled down from their mountings, crashing to the ground or smashing against the runaway simulation. Some sections of the maze began to flicker in and out of being, but the damage was already done - the arena wall was cracked, starting to collapse, and the death-throes of the maze only added to the destruction.
Three hundred metres of wall slowly toppled outwards, crashing against the ground and the neighbouring arena building. Two of the strangely-shaped geometric vehicles patrolling the arena wall were destroyed, one toppling with the wall itself as whatever force kept it hovering failed to compensate for the sudden loss of the surface close beneath it, the other swerving erratically to maintain altitude, only to be struck by a jagged piece of shrapnel spinning out of the crash that cut it in two.
"Two recognisers down!" yelled Tara. "Willow, you did it!" She flung her arms around Willow and hugged her fiercely. After a second of shock, Willow returned the hug enthusiastically. Tara held her for a moment, then pulled back, grinning the widest, most radiant grin Willow had ever seen in her life. Willow was slightly stunned, and couldn't do anything but grin back - for all that programs didn't have anything besides contours to hide, and Willow had slowly become accustomed to their tracery-covered bodies and stopped wishing she had something to wear, it still felt like she had just been hugged by a naked woman.
"Come on," said Tara excitedly, snapping Willow out her private reverie, "with those two recognisers smashed Sark won't know what's going on down here for millicycles! If we can get to an isolated node, or hide out in a simulation storage circuit, we might have a chance to sneak onto an outbound carrier vehicle." Tara took Willow's hand and led her quickly towards the rubble surrounding the breach in the arena. After a momentary gaze lingering over Tara's physique, Willow suddenly looked over her shoulder at the remains of the maze. It was still growing randomly, but slower than initially, as if the destruction of the arena wall had taken its toll on the simulation, sapped too much of its energy. Still, it looked impassable for the moment. Willow shivered - Rain was still in there, somewhere. She quickened her pace in Tara's wake.