Author: Chris Cook
'Oh, by the way, I created you. Stupid. Tara, I am your user. Yeah, sound like Darth Vader, that'll help. Hey Tara? Yes Willow? I've got something to say... Nuts,' thought Willow, following Tara through a series of underground passages. Tara had guided their stolen recogniser into a dark, shadowy labyrinth of caverns and tunnels, which she said contained hidden access ports to any number of partitions on the open system. Willow was quite content to let Tara lead the way, knowing nothing of the system, and having quite enough to think about on her own.
She had been thinking, while lying in Tara's arms, about the extraordinary experience they had shared. At first she had been blissfully content, but her analytical side - damn it - had weighed in, and now Willow was very much worried. Though her exact recollections of what had happened were understandably muddled, she was certain that she and Tara had partially merged, and while that sounded wonderfully romantic, Willow wasn't entirely certain that she shouldn't be more afraid than pleased. She had become part of Tara, yet remained herself as well - whatever defences Tara had against intrusion, that had rendered Echelon unable to simply de-rez her to begin with, they had stood aside and let Willow in.
She had thought back - though the experience was incomparable in many ways - to when she had merged with the code guiding the fractal maze in the Game Grid. All she had had to do then was imagine a change, wish an effect, and it had been so. The maze had been a part of her, and she had been able to alter it as easily, once she got her mind around it, as she could move her own body. And with the same access to Tara's code, what might happen if she was careless? After all, a fractal was a simple piece of mathematics, and look at the chaos she had wrought from it, just by changing a few numbers. What damage might she unwittingly do, if she and Tara merged again, with her thoughts overwhelmed by love and passion? Had she been lucky not to harm her already? Had she - and Willow shivered when she first thought it - perhaps already changed Tara in some subtle way, without meaning to? She watched Tara very closely, her face, the patterns on her body, but she could see no change, and eventually decided that her worst fears were as yet unfounded. Nevertheless, she was not what Tara thought she was - Tara didn't know the danger Willow might pose to her. And the thought of hurting Tara was simply unacceptable to Willow. Whatever disbelief she still carried about her existence inside the system - and the voice insisting it was all a dream was still there, quiet and largely ignored - it did not apply to Tara. Tara was real.
The question in Willow's mind became not whether to tell Tara the truth, but how. Willow truly had no real understanding of how programs regarded users, much less their own users - they were some strange blend of gods and leaders, creators and commanders. And Willow knew Tara was different to other programs - Tara had said so herself. Who knew how she thought of her Willow? An all-knowing creator, praised for giving the gift of life? A careless sire who had sent her alone against a vast enemy, and then abandoned her? A god to be obeyed in all things, even if she did not want obedience? Willow prayed, to who she didn't know, that Tara would somehow be able to understand, that Tara would listen as she explained who she was, what had happened, how she had come to be here. She clung to that optimistic thought, perhaps unreasonably, as a defence against the more dismal possibilities that would otherwise have had her keep lying to Tara indefinitely. Every time Willow had found herself contemplating Tara's anger, or rejection, or zealous devotion, over the next hour while Tara piloted the recogniser and then led the way on foot, she had defended her intention to reveal the truth with a bodyguard of childish but effective scenarios in which Tara accepted her as she was, could guide Willow in merging with her without harming her, and everything turned out for the best.
Still, the exact wording was giving Willow trouble. As she always did when she knew she had to avoid babbling at all costs, she was rehearsing the conversation in her mind, trying to think of the best way to say what she had to say, and cover all the possible responses Tara might make. She knew it was foolish to think she could predict how Tara would react - that was precisely the problem - but she knew she would feel a little more confident if she had an idea of what to say, and didn't have to improvise too much. Improvising, with so much at stake, would unquestionably lead to babbling, and she would make no sense, and her chance to have Tara understand would be gone.
So it was that Willow, concentrating on the fragments of possible conversations in her head, followed Tara as they made their way deep into the uncharted depths of the open system. They had no plan to combat Echelon - Willow had no idea where to begin, and Tara had been on the Game Grid too long, she said, to know how the situation was on the outside. Willow agreed that gathering information should be their first priority - as if she would disagree with Tara on strategy. Tara knew a place, a nexus, where renegade programs could access information without being traced, and it was here that she was leading Willow.
The tunnel ended abruptly with a flat, featureless wall. Tara brushed her hand against it, seemed satisfied, and turned to Willow.
"Have you ever used one of these?" she asked. Willow frowned in confusion and shook her head. "It's a screening port," she explained, "we can pass through it, but only because we know what it is. If you weren't sure, it would just be a wall. Sark's tracker programs have trouble dealing with them, which is why renegades use them. Hold my hand." Willow did so. "You should pass through with me. If you don't, I'll count to A and come back through for you. Ready?"
Willow nodded, and Tara lay her palm flat on the wall. Patterns of circuitry faded slightly into view, and her palm seemed to flow into them, like sand vanishing through the neck of an hourglass. Willow blinked in astonishment, and turned to see Tara's entire body dissolving and flowing into the port. Her own vision blurred, she had a momentary sensation of movement, and then she was facing Tara again, hands held, just as they had been. Now, though, they were standing in a deep shadow, and instead of the tunnel behind them, there was the ante-chamber of a great cathedral-like structure, full of strange, fluid statues and slowly morphing patterns set into the walls like stained-glass windows. Aside from the various glows given off by the decorations, the whole place was layered with shadows, the natural lighting that Willow had begun to take for granted in the system world almost entirely absent.
Tara looked around warily. Willow could sense the sudden tension in her, and her breath caught as she realised Tara had assumed a combat stance, ready to defend herself. After a silent moment she gave Willow's hand a reassuring squeeze and led her quietly along the length of the cathedral.
"What's wrong?" whispered Willow into her ear. She leaned over to whisper in return to Willow, never taking her eyes off their surroundings.
"Abandoned," she explained, "perhaps they found a better nexus. We might still be able to use this one- oh no!" They had reached the centre of the building, dominated by a tall pedestal covered in faintly-glowing patterns, and as they rounded the structure Willow saw what had shocked Tara. A program lay sprawled on the ground behind it - no, half a program. His legs were missing, and his lower torso looked almost melted, ending in a trail of geometric debris that snaked away into the shadows. He had dragged himself here, Willow realised - what was left of himself. Tara quickly knelt by him, never letting go of Willow's hand. She lay a hand on his chest and closed her eyes for a moment.
"He's functioning," she whispered after a moment, "barely. I think he's... oh my user, Willow, he's been partially de-rezzed! And they left him functional..." The fallen program stirred, and opened one eye - the other seemed lifeless.
"Not... Sark?" he wheezed.
"No," said Tara, her voice as gentle as she could make it - Willow could still hear the faint trace of horror. The program's single eye focused on Tara, and he frowned.
"You're the one," he said, "you're Tara... heard about you. Heard they... took you..."
"We escaped," Tara said. "What happened here? Sark did this?" The program shook his head weakly. Willow tried to hide her horror as a part of his cheek cracked, and spilled a few tiny prisms to the ground.
"Rain," he said, taking a ragged breath. "Thought we were... safe. Too fast... terminated us all... except me... did something to me, I can't... no!" He jerked as if he'd been shocked, sending more patterns of cracks spreading across his face. He tried to raise his arm to Tara, but the moment it left the floor his hand started to dissolve. He screamed and dropped his arm, which broke when it hit the floor, shattering up to his elbow.
"Don't move!" said Tara urgently. "We'll help you, we'll..." she trailed off, glancing around desperately. Willow realised she had no idea what to do. Seeing the pain in Tara's eyes, she suddenly ached to tell her the truth, to be able to hold her and hide nothing from her, and somehow protect her from everything that hurt. She remained silent, though - this was not the time.
"Tara," gasped the dying program, "please... Rain... left me functioning... left herself in me... she knows! Get to GDI... she's coming for you... please... terminate me..." Tara drew back in shock.
"I-I-I... I c-c... no, I..."
"Please..." he whispered, "I'm sorry... to ask you... but it hurts so much... user forgive me... please take the pain away..."
Tara let out a gasp that turned into a sob, and nodded. Willow knelt behind her, one hand on her shoulder, the other around her waist. Tara half-turned, looking down at Willow's hand, and Willow saw her face streaked with tears. She took a deep, shuddering breath, put her hand over Willow's, holding tight, and turned back to the dying program. Her other hand went back to his chest, but this time she spread her fingers, each fingertip moving to a specific point on the fading tracery patterns. She hesitated.
"Make us... free..." said the program, little more than a whisper. Tara's squared her shoulders and nodded.
"I will," she said. Her arm tensed, her fingers pressed hard against the tracery, and the light there vanished. The blackness spread across what remained of the program's body, and he closed his functioning eye and smiled slightly. Then it was over, and he disintegrated. Tara was still for a moment, her hand still held where his chest had been, then in a single, fluid motion she stood, drawing Willow up with her, turned in her half-embrace, and hugged her with all her strength, her body shaking as she cried. Willow held her tight, stroking her back and the back of her neck, murmuring quietly into her ear, all the motions that came to her by instinct when she had no idea what to do. Tara calmed quickly, her breathing levelling out. She drew back slightly from Willow and slowly raised her downcast eyes. Seeing the glistening tears on her face, Willow tried her best to look comforting, but she was unprepared for Tara's eyes. What she saw there was infinite, and almost indescribable - sadness, hope, love, a quiet sort of strength, compassion so deep it hurt. It was the perfect opposite of Rain's burning gaze - equal but diametrically opposed. Willow saw it only for a second, then Tara pulled her into the most intense kiss of her life, fierce, possessive, knowing there would be no resistance, and thus taking everything Willow gave her without hesitation. She could taste Tara's tears on her lips.
When Tara finally drew back, released Willow from her embrace and took her hand, Willow still just stood there for a moment, eyes closed, lips parted, not even breathing.
"Come on," said Tara firmly, but gently, "we have to go." Willow blinked, let out the breath she hadn't realised she was holding, and looked at Tara. She was smiling, sadly but not in despair, all compassion and tenderness. As she led Willow further into the depths of the dark cathedral, Willow tried to reconcile the two sides of her, the almost angelic love and the wild, untamed passion, that she had seen within seconds of each other, and found she couldn't quite wrap her mind around it. 'I am not letting this one get away,' Willow promised herself, 'I don't care if I never go home, if I have to give up being a user and spend the rest of my life as a program, delivering email or something, I am not letting her go!'