Author: Chris Cook
Sark stared down at the Game Grid beneath his Command Carrier, ignoring the voices of his menial programs delivering their reports. Squadrons of recognisers were streaming out into the open system as fast as the simulation bays in the Game Grid could generate them, but it was too late - the renegades had had all the time they would need to go to ground, in any one of the tens of thousands of isolated memory areas in the system. It would still be ten millicycles before the Carrier itself would be ready to move through the open system.
"Commander," said one of the menials urgently, "transmission incoming." Sark had already felt the approach of Echelon's power. Even the thin strand of communication that now leapt from the horizon into the Carrier's antenna was enough to tug on the power within Sark, the reminder that he was not, and could never be, free of his master. He nodded and crossed the deck to his communications port. The light surrounded him and created Echelon's massive face before him.
"Deliver report," it ordered.
"Two programs escaped the Grid," said Sark, determined to get this over with. "The counter-security program Tara... and the user Willow." He braced himself, expecting to feel the pain at any moment. It didn't come.
"Pursue and recover," rumbled Echelon.
"Pursuit is underway," reported Sark slowly, still hesitant. "All available recogniser and hunter-killer simulations are being generated and deployed. Orders have been dispatched to open system operatives."
"Instruct hunter-killers to target the counter-security program only," said Echelon. "Assign recognisers to recover the user."
"My orders have specified intact return of the renegades as a priority," offered Sark cautiously. "They will use terminal force only in the event that-"
"The user must not be terminated!" thundered Echelon. Sark staggered in pain as the giant face's energy surged to blinding intensity.
"The user will be recovered intact," he shouted desperately. The light faded back to a manageable level, and the pain receded.
"The contents of her code are worth more than every system in existence," warned Echelon, "do not fail me. She must be recovered and broken. Acknowledge."
"Acknowledge. And Tara?" asked Sark. Echelon was silent for a moment.
"Recovery is to be attempted," it said at last, "provided recovery of the user is not impeded. Terminate if necessary. End of line."
Willow awoke to unfamiliar surroundings. Her first thought, which caused her to start as consciousness returned, was that she was no longer cradled in Tara's lap, but a gentle hand on her brow soothed her of that worry as soon as she moved.
"Are you functioning better?" asked Tara, leaning over her. Willow stifled a giggle, hearing what to her was such formal language, spoken with such tender care.
"I'm fine," she said softly, "I feel... I feel really good. Where are we?"
Tara helped her sit up, and Willow looked around. They were in a cave, or a chamber of some sort, geometric in design but with a kind of natural fluidity to its shape, as if it had been slowly eroded out by water over centuries, and then someone had carved all the walls into flat surfaces. Not far from where she was sitting was a small pool of something light and silvery that rippled and shimmered like water.
"We're safe," said Tara, "we're in a power outlet. I hid the recogniser outside. It'll be millicycles before any search can get this far, we don't have to hurry. I thought we should both rest while we can... and figure out what to do next." She and Willow both stood up, and Willow moved over to the almost-water, staring at it.
"Is that... power?" she asked. Tara came to stand beside her.
"It's an undesignated outlet," she explained, "you get them sometimes in the open system. You've never seen one before?"
"I didn't get out much before they brought me to the Grid," said Willow, hoping Tara wouldn't think this somehow suspicious. She really had no idea how much programs knew about their environment.
"You should take it," said Tara. "I gave you some while you were recovering, but I didn't want to give you too much until you woke up, I wasn't sure whether your allocation subroutines were fully functional." She took her data disc off her back and scooped up some of the power. Even though the disc didn't have edges, the power only ran off a little when she drew it back and handed it to Willow. Willow dipped a finger into it - it was light and fluffy, like soap bubbles only smoother. She tentatively scooped up a tiny piece of it and - moving slowly, just in case she had reached the wrong assumption about how this was done, but Tara just smiled - tasted it. It was chilly but invigorating - she felt it course through her like a cold drink, and saw the yellow tracery on her arms brighten with new energy.
"Take as much as you like," said Tara, "I've already had enough." Willow glanced at her, and noted that the green lines covering her were indeed glowing brighter than she had so far seen. She brought the disc to her lips and tilted it up, drinking in the energy in one smooth gulp. The feeling of vitality that ran through her was like nothing else.
"Wow that's good," she mused. Tara turned to smile at her, but then her smile faltered.
"Willow, are you- what's wrong?" she said, her voice slightly panicky.
"Nothing's wrong," she said, frowning to herself - had she done something wrong? Was it dangerous to gulp down a whole disc-full of power all at once? She felt wonderful. "Is it?" she asked, trying to understand Tara's distress.
"I don't..." Tara trailed off, her eyes darting over Willow's body. Willow looked down at herself, and gasped as she saw patches of her yellow tracery turning green. As she watched the colour spread over her, out from her torso, along her arms and legs, until finally she was exactly as she had been when she first arrived in the system. She looked up again at Tara, whose expression had changed from concern to confusion.
"I'm fine," she said quickly, "I'm, uh, functioning perfectly. Aren't I?" she asked. Tara took a step closer and ran her fingers along the tracery on Willow's arm.
"Y-you're... you are like me," she whispered. She gently took Willow's hand in hers, and ran the fingertips of her other hand over the patterns on her arm.
"I guess I am," said Willow. Tara jumped slightly at the sound and drew back her fingertips, but she kept hold of Willow's hand.
"I've never seen another program like me before," she said quietly, as if afraid to disturb the moment. "I thought I was the only one." She inhaled sharply, as if she'd just thought of something, and after a moment tore her gaze away from Willow's tracery to look her in the eye.
"D-do you," she began, then halted and started again. "I have... parts of me... You should know this in any case," she interrupted herself, "there are elements of me that aren't part of my core code. Parts of me - feelings, thoughts... that I don't think our user gave me. When I... experience new things, they affect my decisions, how I behave. I always thought I was malfunctioning somehow..."
"No!" said Willow automatically. "No, you're not, you're..." she paused to gather her thoughts, and to make sure she didn't end up saying too much. "I think you're exactly what our user would want you to be. You're not malfunctioning, you're... special."
Tara glanced away for a moment, composing herself, then looked back and held Willow's gaze steadily.
"Before, in the recogniser," she began, "I had... I... you're not a paired program?" Willow shook her head, wondering. Tara seemed to relax a little. "Have you ever seen a program pair together?" she asked. Again Willow shook her head - all she knew about pairs was Verizen, his expression like a haunted man as he described his partner being de-rezzed.
"Together a pair is... complete," Tara explained. "Their functions are enhanced, the exchange of data between them creates a, a cycle, a partial merging. They sometimes call it unity. It's how they're meant to be. It's how they're created, pairs can only be created by users. But," she lowered her voice, as if confessing a tightly-guarded secret, "I feel as if I should be... a-as if you and I are a unity." Tara paused, but drew breath to speak again before Willow had the chance to form a coherent thoughts.
"But I knew you couldn't," she went on, "even though I, part of me, believed it, it was an irrational conclusion. No program can become anything they're not created to be, so I knew I was in error. Unless..." she paused again, her gaze so intense that Willow couldn't have even moved, if she'd wanted to.
"I-if you're like me..." Tara said at last. "Are you? Like me?"
"I am," said Willow simply. She couldn't think of what else to say, and when Tara took the last fraction of a step forward to her, she couldn't think of what else to do but let herself fall into her embrace. As Tara's hand gently held the back her neck, Willow opened her lips, inviting the kiss. Finally their lips touched, and their eyes closed.
For a moment Willow was slightly confused, as Tara didn't move her lips at all - their lips were touching, but not exactly kissing. But then, as Tara leaned the last fraction and her forehead touched Willow's, a starburst went off in her head and she stopped thinking rational thoughts. She could feel Tara's body pressed against hers, but behind her closed eyelids - she saw Tara there as well, outlined in energy, infinitely complex and beautiful, a galaxy of lights. Brilliant as the aurora borealis, unfathomable as the night sky, energetic as a blazing fire. By instinct alone, for there was no way she could think under the barrage of stimulation, Willow's arms closed around Tara in a fierce embrace, which Tara returned.
Willow felt her palms tingling, then the energy flowing out from her hands - not such a tremendous flow as when she had healed Tara, but somehow much more intense. The instant it happened her inner vision doubled, and she saw two galaxies of energy, different but somehow in tune with each other. The rush of feeling, which was already almost unbearably sensual, gained a surging undercurrent that was downright sexual. A fraction of a second later Tara near-collapsed into Willow's arms, her legs simply folding beneath her. Their foreheads parted, the contact broke, and Willow was suddenly terrified as she stopped Tara from falling.
"Are you alright?" she whispered urgently, lowering herself and Tara to the ground, "Did I do something wrong? Please, Tara, you're-" Tara's eyes fluttered open, and she raised a trembling hand to Willow's neck, pulling her close again.
"Again," she murmured, gulping a breath of air. Willow's relief made her giddy as she closed the distance between them again, and this time - with Tara blissfully dazed - Willow kissed her properly. For just a fraction of a second Tara's lips were still, then she responded as if by instinct, and the connection between them blossomed. Energy flowed through Willow's hands - it seemed as if she was generating pleasure like an electric current, pouring it directly into Tara, who writhed beneath her, moaning and sighing into Willow's kiss, wrapping her arms and legs around her, pressing every available part of her body against her. And everything she gave Tara was reflected back, so that Willow herself was quickly overcome, and couldn't tell who was giving and who was receiving anymore. Willow felt a surge of power building inside herself - or maybe inside Tara, she couldn't tell - and both cried out as it exploded through them and between them.
"How did you do that?" Tara breathed, after a long time when neither she nor Willow could do anything but lie together, legs tangled, Willow's head nestled against Tara's neck.
"I don't know," murmured Willow, her lips tickling Tara's throat as she spoke. "Did you feel... it was good, wasn't it?" She felt a reassuring vibration in Tara's throat as she laughed quietly.
"It was perfect," Tara laughed. "It was... more than opening to each other, I became part of you... I felt you become part of me. As if we were created in unity. Willow... Willow," she repeated, just enjoying the sound of it. "How did our user make you so perfect?"
"Just like you," answered Willow, feeling a contentment that was almost like being sleepy. But as she lay with Tara, doubts coiled in her mind. She was Tara's user - how might Tara react, if she found out? What would she think - how would their bond change? Willow wondered how she would feel, if she found out she was in love with her creator, and was frightened to realise that she would probably wonder if she had even had a choice in the matter. She didn't want Tara to doubt her, not like that. 'Dammit,' she silently railed, 'why does it have to be complicated?'