Author: Chris Cook
"What are you looking for?" asked Willow, as Tara moved from alcove to alcove in the dimly-lit walls of the cathedral, checking each one. She had picked up her disc-gun from where she dropped it to attend to the dying program, and looked like she expected to have to use it.
"I knew some of the programs who built this nexus," she explained, continuing her search, "they had a simulation prepared in case they were attacked. If they didn't have time to get to it before Rain terminated them, it should still be here. I just hope they didn't change the password- here!" The back of an alcove slid silently aside, leaving a space just big enough for Tara and Willow to squeeze into. Willow looked up, trying to see where the top of the cramped chamber was, but the cylindrical walls stretched upward until they were completely lost in the gloom. Tara placed her palm against the wall, revealing a circuitry pattern.
"Transit two," she said to the wall, "command identity Tara, password Winterblue. Hold on," she added to Willow, "this might be disorienting." Willow gladly held Tara's waist, and Tara did likewise to Willow with her free hand. The pattern on the wall, rather than fading when Tara withdrew her hand, glowed brighter and spread, surrounding them. Suddenly they were hurtling upwards, the floor vanishing in an instant beneath them. Willow held on tight - she didn't feel as if she would fall, some force was propelling her and Tara together up the long tunnel, but the experience was worse than disorienting.
After a few more seconds Willow was finally getting used the notion that she wasn't about to fall off the rollercoaster, when a flash of light from beneath them startled her. Tara reacted as well, clutching Willow tightly, glancing down over her shoulder. Something was beneath them, and accelerating - the tunnel's walls, visible for a dozen metres or so beneath them as they rushed past, were cracking and warping, breaking up like concrete in an earthquake.
"Hell and erasure," swore Tara to herself.
"What's happening?" asked Willow, frightened.
"Sark's programs must have implanted a virus in the transit routine," said Tara - Willow could hear the tension in her voice, though she was doing her best to sound calm. "I thought if they found it they'd have deactivated it. It must have been Rain, this is the kind of twisted thing she'd do."
"What can we do?"
"Hope we complete the transit before the routine collapses around us," said Tara grimly.
"What happens if we don't?" asked Willow, doing her best not to panic. The disintegration of the tunnel was slowly catching up to them.
"We hope there's a user watching over us," Tara answered, shifting her grip on Willow to press their bodies together.
Willow's head came to be on Tara's shoulder, where she stared blankly at the circuitry patterns travelling with them, flowing over the slight imperfections in the walls as they passed. She tentatively let go of Tara's waist with one hand, and reached out the short distance to the wall. It was moving too fast to touch, but surely, so close, she could access the routine. She glanced down - the cracks in the tunnel were almost level with their feet.
'Come on,' she willed herself, 'this isn't difficult. It's only a few millimetres, and they're not even real space, it's all just power in a processor. You don't have to touch it to feel it, that's just your brain insisting that you behave like you're in the real world, but you're not!' Willow's vision blurred, but she could still see clearly enough to see strands of her tracery flowing from her wrist over her hand, and then, millimetre by millimetre, stretching out into space, reaching for the energy on the wall. A headache formed and grew behind her eyes until she felt like her head was about to burst, but still she pushed herself forward.
And then - in an instant - the tracery caught the energy, Willow's vision cleared and the pain vanished. She moved her hand a little, watching in vague astonishment as light flowed out of her fingertips and into the patterns on the wall, then she mentally shook herself and set to work. With a moment's concentration she could see the vague shape of the transit routine - not the details, but enough to have an understanding of how it was working. A long, elegant strand of energy, woven like a rope - one end secured, the other whipping around, unravelling as a malevolent-looking black virus-shape crawled along it, biting and tearing at it. Willow tried to get at the attacking routine, but it dodged her attempts to touch it, and she saw hints of claws and fangs snarling at her from within its smoky, clouded form. Then inspiration struck, and Willow smiled to herself.
"We're going to be alright," she whispered to Tara, without really meaning to, but flushed with relief at knowing what to do. She turned her mind to the memory of the fractal maze, and watched as the patterns extending from her fingers twisted slightly as tiny, blossoming fractals flowed along them. In her mind's eye she saw the new code flowing into the transit routine, coating it like a layer of gloss, leaving it to function normally inside its new protective sheath. But when the virus encountered it, tried to rip into the fractal, every puncture it made bloomed with new curls of code, every attempt it made to damage the fractal merely gave it more space to expand into. She had a momentary glimpse of the virus toppling down, wreathed in fern-like fractal strands, twisting and biting as it fell. Then a tightness in her chest began to make it difficult to breathe, and she let go of her hold on the transit routine. She just had time to see her tracery snap back into her wrist like a rubber band, before her suddenly heavy eyelids closed, and she slumped in Tara's hold.
"Willow," she heard Tara say, as if from a distance, "Willow? Are you functioning properly?" Her lethargy passed, and after a moment she had the strength to return Tara's embrace and lift her head to look at her.
"I'm fine," she murmured, still feeling somehow fragile, as if raising her voice would make her lose her balance.
"Hold on," said Tara, lowering her voice as if sensing Willow's loss of equilibrium, "we're almost through."
A few seconds later their headlong rush ceased, and Willow blinked in the sudden brightness of a large, clear space. She looked around, as Tara supported her and helped her move. They were in a wide, tall chamber that put Willow in mind of an aircraft hangar. Fittingly, there was a vehicle of some sort resting in it, but Willow had never seen anything like it. It most resembled a giant steel dragonfly, with a smooth, tapering body thirty metres from end to end, and a set of thin, translucent wings sprouting from just behind its forward tip.
"A Solar Sailer," explained Tara, "stolen from the Game Grid. It's the fastest transit simulation there is." Willow's strength was returning, and she found she didn't need to rely on Tara to hold her up anymore as they reached the back end of the Sailer. Tara nevertheless kept hold of Willow's hand as she swung her leg over the side and pulled herself into the control bay, recessed into the hull of the vehicle like a yacht's deck.
"Stay there," said Tara, "I'll go and initialise the simulation, it won't take a nanocycle." She gave Willow's hand a comforting squeeze and then turned and ran across the hangar, towards a series of glass-fronted chambers set into the far wall. Willow watched her go, slightly apprehensive to be parted from her, even a little way. The soft, bright light of the hangar was reassuring though, after the threatening gloom of the nexus cathedral.
Willow allowed herself to relax, and tentatively lay a hand on the smooth inner surface of the Sailer's side. She let out a sigh of relief as she felt the simulation's code - very complex code - flowing beneath her fingertips, without any pain or disorientation. 'Must just have been the distance,' she concluded. Careful not to interact with it, she studied the Sailer's workings, impressed at the artistic fluidity of its form and function. 'Stolen from a game,' she mused, 'that'd be right. You don't get this kind of craftsmanship out of multinational corporations. Not cost-efficient.' The Sailer began to hum with power, softly at first, gradually building. Willow glanced over at Tara, inside one of the control chambers, and could just make out her smile as she looked up.
Willow jumped in alarm as her view was blocked by a shimmering column of light. A transport beam - but much bigger than any she had so far seen. She looked around, scared, seeing more beams forming all over the hangar. When they cleared, they left half a dozen hulking, threatening forms in their place. Each one was four metres tall, supported by thick, powerful legs, hunched over as if it were going to walk on all fours, though the front limbs swayed off the ground, scanning left and right. Each was outlined with red energy, and Willow saw soldier programs built into their armoured hulls, their backs disappearing beneath the machines' carapaces, their arms merging with the forward limbs. As one they turned towards Tara's control chamber, raising their fore-limbs like weapons. Willow wished, for the first time, that she hadn't left her disc-gun on the recogniser.
"Hey, over here!" she yelled, jumping out of the Sailer and running around behind it, hoping whatever weapons the attackers had wouldn't damage it if she had to take cover behind it. Her heart leapt into her throat as three of the six machines opened fire on the control chamber, their limbs disgorging a hail of discs, and she heard a crash as they broke through the transparent wall separating them from Tara. But in the next instant half the discs were ricocheting back at them, one taking a chunk out an attacker's leg, another losing a fore-limb as its own disc sliced through it in a shower of sparks. Between the tree-trunk legs, Willow saw a flash of green light moving fast, and the three programs that had attacked were turning to track their target. She relaxed for a second, then her breath caught as she realised the other three monsters were turning towards her.
"Um, you know," she called out to them, ready to duck behind the Sailer at the first sign of fire, "you should all just leave now. Believe me, I can really mess you up! Don't make me re-write your code or something!" She flung out a hand theatrically, like a wizard in a children's cartoon, and tried to look defiant. If absolutely necessary she was prepared to risk the pain of trying to alter their code - though, judging by how far away they were, and how menacing they looked, she would probably collapse before she had managed to merge, let alone figure out a way to damage them - but for the moment she just hoped to buy Tara some time.
But the three massive programs paused, weapons raised but silent. Willow saw the soldiers within them look confused for a moment. Then - as if snapped back to action by the collapse of one of their fellow programs, sparks cascading from a dozen jagged holes in its legs, the three turned as one back towards Tara.
"Hey!" shouted Willow, feeling indignant for a moment before her sense of perspective kicked in. She tried to see how Tara was doing, but couldn't make out much through the deluge of debris and power being smashed out of the hangar's far wall by discs missing their targets. She was relieved, though, to still be able to hear the strange chord-like sound of discs being deflected, and every couple of seconds to see one come flying out of the maelstrom of destruction, taking a chunk out of the attackers.
Wasting no more time, Willow left her cover behind the Sailer and strode towards the nearer trio of programs. She couldn't quite believe what she was planning to do, and the coiled tension in her legs made her feel like she was walking on a trampoline, but she remained set on her course of action.
"Hello?" she called, barely five metres from the backs of the huge programs. "Attack me? Anyone? Good," she finished to herself, concluding that, for whatever reason, they were ignoring her as a target. 'Oh I hope I'm right,' she thought to herself as she jogged swiftly up to the legs of the nearest, and put her hand against it.
She almost jerked her hand back at the pain - like an electric shock, magnified a hundred times. But she pressed her palm flat, gritting her teeth against the pain. She saw tiny strands of red energy slowly worming out of the smooth steel and onto her hand, but her anger at this gave her the boost she needed to fight off the intrusion. Slowly, ignoring the edges of her vision tunnelling, Willow pushed her tracery across her hand and into the surface beneath her fingers.
It was equally massive in her mind's eye, a huge cloud of darkness, with shapes moving inside it, hulking and powerful, like pistons and gears in an old steam engine. At the centre of it all she could just make out the glimmer of a real program - like Tara, but not, lacking the beauty of something more than calculation and logic. Willow ignored that, not wanting to find out if she really could reach inside a living program and alter it, not wanting to know what might happen if she did. Instead she turned her attention to the massive mechanical forms wrapped around it - huge and powerful, but still simple. She studied it as quickly as she could, hoping that she wasn't wasting time. Her senses of what was happening in the physical reality around her were increasingly dim, just vague shapes and muffled sounds as she concentrated all her willpower on breaking through the pain battering at her mind.
Slowly, adding to Willow's impatience, details began to emerge. First the thing's legs snapped into focus, mere assemblies of power and motion, simple machines. Then the fore-limbs, pumping like pistons, generating and hurling discs as fast as they could - Willow recognised the feel of the disc-gun, modified to fit a different environment, but still basically the same. She imagined herself wrapping her hands around the guns and squeezing them, and saw with some relief that the mechanism stopped working, as parts bent out of shape, no longer making proper contact with the rest of it. Keeping a part of herself concentrating on holding the guns silent, she explored further. The machine's armoured carapace resolved next, and Willow realised that a part of that code was responsible for the pain assailing her - she found it easier to resist, understanding where it was coming from. With the lessening of the pain the whole machine came sharply into view, and Willow saw what she had been hoping for: sets of instructions, constantly being accessed by the program within the machine and compared to the sensory input flowing through him as his eyes fed data into his consciousness. Target profiles.
With a triumphant, determined grin, Willow wiped the profiles clean, and in their place constructed an image of the attacking machines themselves, as best she could from what she could see of the one she was merged with. The soldier program shuddered in confusion as his connection to the profiles fell away for a moment, but then he connected with the new profile and his concentration snapped back to the task at hand. Willow released her grip on the machine's guns and pulled herself out of the merging, falling backwards as her legs suddenly refused to support her any longer.
She struggled to her hands and knees as the hulking creature towering over her stomped around, facing its nearest neighbour, and opened fire. A spectacular explosion ripped open the back half of the thing's carapace, tossing the piloting program clear of the machine. He landed metres away, collapsing wreathed in electricity, as Willow's new ally fired again, blasting its target to scrap. The others turned but seemed unable to locate the new danger, as the rogue program targeted another of them and blasted its left leg off. Willow finally saw Tara, disc-gun in one hand, data disc in the other, duck underneath one of the intact machines and run towards her.
Tara scooped Willow up in her arms and carried her to the Sailer, lowering her into the vehicle before leaping over the side herself and activating the softly-glowing controls. Willow heard another explosion, but was still having trouble making her limbs do exactly what she wanted. She felt the beginning of another headache as well as she watched Tara dexterously manipulate the controls, and felt power shudder through the deck beneath her.
Willow's pain and weakness ebbed away enough for her to stand at Tara's side as the Solar Sailer rose off the hangar floor. A handful of discs ricocheted off the smooth hull, halfway along the thin neck connecting the control deck with the wings at the front, but they seemed to do no damage. Glancing over the side, Willow saw only two of the monster programs still standing, one aiming for another shot at the Sailer, the other her rogue, stomping towards its fellow. At the same moment it fired, tearing through the carapace of its target, Willow's attention was diverted by a brilliant flash of light from the front of the Sailer. A stream of energy had burst from its prow, passing straight through the hangar's front wall, which now was smoothly opening, splitting along an X-shaped groove into four sections which melted into the edges of the wall. Beyond, Willow saw the vast expanse of the open system, with their energy stream stretching across the horizon.
"Hold on," warned Tara, "we're about to transit." Willow put one hand around Tara and the other on the control console, steadying herself as best she could without losing the spectacular view. Tara tapped a control, and the light from the stream flowed out along the Sailer's wings, which spread and stretched, from thin, tapering dragonfly wings to huge sails fifty metres across, flickering into full solidity as the energy flowed through them. It finally reached the tips of the sails and shot back from there, past Willow and Tara on the control deck, meeting far behind them. Willow turned to see a new part of the simulation appear, first as lines of energy, then fading into being as solid matter, collecting the four beams from the sail-tips and releasing them behind them, continuing the original energy stream. Thus merged with the stream, the Sailer shot forward, leaving the hangar behind them in seconds, the geography of the system a blur beneath them.
Willow felt Tara relax, and they both sat at the rear of the control deck, leaning against the hull behind them, Tara helping Willow, though her strength was returning.
"Where are we going?" asked Willow.
"GDI, eventually," said Tara thoughtfully, "but first we're going to an I/O tower. When I was last captured, it was still a long way out of Sark's control. We should be safe there."
"What were those things?"
"Hunter-killers," answered Tara. "Sark uses them to hunt down renegade programs and terminate them. What did you do to that one?"
"Oh, I..." Willow hesitated. "I guess I confused it. Made it think the others were targets. They didn't attack me, so I could get up close to them."
"Sark must have decided not to try to recapture me," said Tara, seeming remarkably unconcerned. "But he's not willing to risk terminating you. That gives you an advantage," she finished, offering Willow a grin. Willow grinned back, then her expression clouded as she realised the opportunity she had. 'No turning back now. Do it and deal with the consequences.'
"Tara," she began, fighting off the urge to shut up, "I know why. I... I have to tell you something, about me. I don't know what you'll think, but I'd like you to- just listen to what I have to say. Will you?"
"Of course," said Tara. She was staring at Willow intently, as if she sensed the seriousness of the moment. Willow met her gaze, and had a sudden urge to reach out to her - the intensity in her eyes was magnetic. She made herself remain still.
"Tara, I'm," she began, stopped, and started again. "When I said Willow was my user, I was... well, I was afraid of what you might think. I lied. I'm so sorry..." She stopped herself. She needed to explain, quickly and properly, not get caught up trying to apologise all at once. "I am Willow," she said quietly, and she couldn't bring herself to meet Tara's gaze anymore. She looked down at her hands instead, bunched tightly together. "I'm a user. Your user. I'm Willow." She wanted, desperately, to look at Tara, to see if by some miracle there wasn't anger or betrayal in her face. But she couldn't, so she sat still, wringing her hands together.
"I know," she heard Tara say.