Author: Chris Cook
Willow followed Tara's lead in picking her way up the small mountain of rubble that was all that remained of the arena wall. By the time they reached the top and looked out into the Game Grid, she could see Tara moving stiffly, holding herself up straight, avoiding too much motion in her torso. Willow drew level with her, and looked down at the wounds she had taken fighting Rain.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "Does it hurt? Because if there's anything I can do-"
"I'm functioning fine," said Tara, her eyes scanning the nearby buildings. "Once we get out of here I know where we can find some power outlets. I'll last until then." Willow sensed she wasn't being entirely honest - her breathing was shallow, as if the cuts across her stomach hurt, and she was holding her left arm still, against her side. The wound on her shoulder was deeper than the others, and standing close to her Willow could see the tracery around it had grown slightly darker.
"Tara, you don't have to..." she began, and trailed off uncertain of what she was trying to say. "You're going to make it," she said. She had meant her voice to be firm, supportive, but it came out slightly pleading.
"I'm going to make it, Willow," said Tara, smiling at her, and Willow knew she wasn't lying. She put her hand on Tara's right shoulder, reassuringly. At least, it started out as a gesture of reassurance, comradeship - but Tara raised her right hand and lay it on top of Willow's, running her fingertips gently along the grooves between Willow's fingers. If Tara had been looking at her, Willow would have been certain that Tara was attracted to her - she didn't have that much of a social life, but she managed to get out now and then, and had been politely hit on by enough nice girls that she didn't mistake a touch like that for mere companionship. But Tara's eyes were already scanning the Grid again. Willow wasn't sure how to interpret that - it seemed almost as if Tara was concentrating on the task ahead, and had reacted unconsciously. What did it mean? All Willow was sure of was that she liked it.
"Down there," said Tara suddenly, and with a final squeeze of Willow's fingers she slipped away from her and started down the side of the rubble. Willow followed instantly, trying not to grin. 'That squeeze,' she thought to herself giddily 'was diagnostic. No-one does that if they're completely oblivious.' And on the heels of that: 'What are you, libido-girl? Prison-break now, think lusty thoughts later.' Willow glared sideways, as if her voice of reason was sitting on her shoulder where she could intimidate it into silence.
Looking ahead at Tara, Willow noticed that her shoulder, where she had touched her, was glowing slightly brighter. 'Did I do that?' she wondered. Tara didn't seem to have noticed, all her attention was on the nearest arena building. Willow followed her gaze - the collapse of the giant arena's wall had damaged this building too, knocking a chunk out of it. Near the ground the wall had been badly damaged, and was partly collapsed, partly fading in and out and letting off showers of sparks. Enough sections of the lower wall were existing enough of the time to hold up the whole structure, but if Tara hadn't been heading resolutely for it, Willow would have hesitated to get anywhere near it.
"Is that safe?" she called out. Tara held back a step, letting Willow catch up with her before she headed on.
"It'll hold for a while," she said, "and we won't have too much time before Sark gets his soldiers on the ground here. We need to be mobile before they arrive."
"There are vehicles in there?" asked Willow. She hadn't expected there to be, in an arena.
"See for yourself," said Tara, grinning sideways at Willow as they drew level with the breach in the wall. Willow looked through to see the ground inside covered with a grid of glowing lines. It seemed to stretch on for a mile or more, much further than the outside of the building could contain. 'Put it down to an ingenious programmer' she thought. Something was moving at the far side of the arena, leaving a glowing blue trail behind it. With abrupt speed it changed direction, streaked across the arena towards the breach, then jerked sideways and vanished again. Not before Willow had gotten a good look at it though - a sleek, futuristic bike, all curved surfaces and speed, outlined in glowing blue energy. 'Of course,' Willow thought, mentally slapping her forehead, 'racing games.' She wondered briefly what else might be contained in the Game Grid's arenas.
"Lightcycles," said Tara. "Wait here." She put a hand on Willow's arm to emphasise her instruction, then strode forward through the breach in the wall, onto the racing grid. She took a few steps forward, clearing the wall, then stopped and waved her good arm above her head. Two of the distant glittering shapes veered towards her, quickly revealed as a pair of red cycles. They stopped, with alarming suddenness, and the curved hulls of the cycles dissolved into patterns of energy around the forms of two red programs, hunched over in streamlined riding positions. They straightened as the energy patterns deconstructed themselves, remaining as nothing more than a glowing white rod, like a baton, that each program held in one hand. They approached Tara from either side, looking not at all friendly.
"Greetings," said Tara loudly, "I'm a renegade program. Would you like to capture me?"
"Tara, what are you-" began Willow, starting forwards. Before she had gone a step, Tara had twisted like a dancer and leapt into the air. Her outstretched foot connected solidly with the jaw of the program on her left, then she rolled in mid-air like an acrobat, her other leg flashing out as - briefly upside-down - she faced the program on her right. Tara landed gracefully as both programs toppled over, sparks crackling across their faces.
"-doing?" finished Willow. Tara leant over one of the soldiers - both lay motionless, but showed no signs of disintegrating, and their traceries remained lit, though glowing erratically. Tara took the lightcycle rods from both soldiers, holding one in her hand, placing the other on her back alongside her data disc, and returned to Willow's side, with an unmistakeable spring in her step.
"Um, wow?" said Willow as she fell in at Tara's side, and they got out from underneath the unstable arena wall. "That was... I mean, I saw you fighting Rain, and that was pretty amazing, but still... wow! Are they... they're still functioning?" Willow added, looking back at the defeated programs through the breach.
"They're deactivated," said Tara, still grinning a little from Willow's gushing admiration, "Sark will re-initialise them when he finds them. I was created to terminate Echelon. I don't terminate other programs." Willow noticed a faraway look in her eyes as she said this - this wasn't just a casual choice, she realised, this was something Tara believed in. 'Did I program her to think that?' she wondered. She didn't remember coding any specific instructions into Tara's program with regards to anything but Echelon. Maybe she'd interpreted that as do-not-terminate orders for other programs. 'Then again,' Willow thought, studying Tara's face as she glanced about, planning their next move, 'maybe she decided it herself.' Willow felt a mix of pride in her programming, at creating a working artificial intelligence, and a new respect for Tara as a- well, as a person, she admitted to herself. 'What must it take,' she mused as Tara led her into one of the narrow walkways between arena buildings, 'for a purpose-built warrior to decide not to kill?'
Her musing was interrupted by a shadow that fell over both of them, and the entire passageway. Willow looked up to see the Game Grid's usual sky blocked by a moving wall of metal.
"Command Carrier," said Tara urgently, "I didn't calculate Sark would mobilise this quickly. Hell and erasure! So much for sneaking around, we need speed now." She turned to Willow and took her arm, drawing her close.
"Hold on tight," she instructed, turning her back. Willow pressed against her and reached her arms underneath Tara's to hold her tightly - not wanting to touch the wounds on Tara's stomach, nor wanting to put her hands somewhere thoroughly inappropriate, she settled on wrapping her arms just underneath Tara's chest, safely above where she had been hurt. 'Do programs know about groping?' she wondered, amazing herself with her own capacity for persistently libidinous thoughts in a crisis.
Tara meanwhile raised one of the lightcycle rods in front of her and gripped it with both hands, like a bike's handlebars. As soon as she did so she leaned forward into a riding position, Willow moving with her - it seemed like her body moved automatically. There was a flash of light around her, and then she was surrounded by the shell of a lightcycle, a green beam on either side of her. Beneath her Tara was straddling the bike's saddle, looking forward through the semi-transparent forward hull. Suddenly they were moving - there was no steady acceleration, just a jump from stationary to high speed that caught Willow thoroughly off-guard. She stifled a yelp and held on tight as Tara steered the cycle at breakneck speed through the narrow alleyways between the arenas. Looking up, Willow saw the ominous form of Sark's Carrier hovering overhead, keeping pace.
"Game time," said Tara to herself. Willow looked ahead to see a widened section of road, clustered with red programs. Some of them raised disc-guns and fired at the approaching cycle. Willow yelped and ducked, but after a pair of heavy thuds, and no ensuing termination, she raised her head again to see the discs rebounding off the cycle's hull. Tara veered sideways just as the nearest soldier made an ill-timed attempt to leap out of their way - the cycle hit him dead-on, and he crashed over the top of it. The front wheel seemed to stick in place for a split-second, while the rear of the cycle spun around it, slamming two more soldiers against the walls. The traction of the wheels reversed - the front of the bike pivoting around the back - so that they were facing forwards again, and Tara instantly shot the cycle forward at top speed. The remaining soldiers were still firing, some missing, but some ricocheting their discs off the cycle's hull. Willow noted with some alarm that the energy in the beams on either side of her was pulsing more erratically.
"Tara, the cycle," she warned.
"I know," said Tara casually. She jinked quickly from side to side, smashing two more soldiers to the ground, then dug the front wheel into the ground, spinning the bike around backwards, lifting the back wheel into the air. Willow looked back over her shoulder to see the wheel crack solidly across the face of the last soldier standing, then Tara slammed the cycle back to the ground. Another flash of light and it was gone, Willow and Tara both standing straight - again, as if their bodies moved automatically. Tara inspected the rod, which had faded to a weak, flickering glow, and tossed it idly over her shoulder.
"Have you ever used one of these?" she asked, picking up one of the fallen disc-guns and tossing it to Willow.
"Um," hesitated Willow, "no. Not really. I've never fired one."
"Stick to the deactivate setting," said Tara, picking up a disc-gun of her own. "Put your hand around the grip and touch the control codes. The high energy setting terminates, the low one deactivates. You aim and contact the trigger, and the disc does the rest." Willow had already felt the trigger control in the weapon. She concentrated, and recognised the function Tara was describing. There was a less intense trigger alongside the active one - with a thought, it became the one Willow was feeling through her palm. She found herself relieved - holding the disc-gun did not have pleasant associations. Tara finished checking the fallen soldiers for anything useful, then returned to Willow, drawing the remaining lightcycle rod from her back.
"I've got an idea," she explained, turning to let Willow hold onto her again. Once they had jerked forward and the cycle had formed around them, Tara continued: "That Command Carrier probably isn't fully mobile yet, if we can appropriate a smaller program capable of leaving the Grid, we should be able to outrun it enough to find a place to hide. Once we're outside and in cover, well," she chuckled, "last time, they never even came close to finding me until Rain showed up."
"Do you think she'll be out yet?" asked Willow, trying not to pay too much attention to the twisting corridors flashing by outside.
"It'll take a while for them to shut down that maze simulation," said Tara thoughtfully, "I calculate we'll have long enough to get a head start. It's worth a shot."
"Better than staying here," said Willow.
"Affirmative to that," replied Tara, and just from the tone of her voice Willow could imagine her smile.