Author: Chris Cook
Tara pointed out the I/O tower on the horizon, but then returned her attention to the Solar Sailer's controls, so it was Willow, gazing ahead in fascination, who first saw the tiny glowing lights clustered around the tower's base.
"There's other programs there," she said, half to herself.
"There are always a few," Tara said without looking up, "they're waiting for new instructions from their users." She tapped a few final commands into the console, and the Sailer's headlong rush slowed to a gentle approach, its sails folding back to thin dragonfly wings, the energy beam it had been riding flickering and vanishing.
"More than a few," observed Willow, looking over the side of the Sailer's hull as Tara steered it lower and closer. Tara glanced up at Willow's comment, then leant over the side to see for herself, keeping one hand on the controls.
"Oh erasure," she whispered, her eyes wide. Beneath the Sailer, staring up as it drifted overhead, were hundreds of programs, sheltered beneath overhangs and ledges in the uneven open system terrain and huddled in groups on the featureless expanse of flat ground around the I/O tower itself. Their traceries - orange, yellow, blue, violet, silver and gold - looked like the lights of a city at night, a living city that was slowly staggering to its feet and surging towards the tower in the wake of Willow and Tara's Sailer.
"What is it?" asked Willow, abandoning her position on the Sailer's neck to stand at Tara's side. She could see Tara's unease, though so far as Willow could tell she wasn't expecting any sort of attack. Gazing down, Willow shared her feeling - they were close enough that she could clearly see the faces of the programs directly underneath them, staring up as they stumbled forward. They looked shell-shocked - ordinary people whose spirits had been broken by a cruel world.
"I had no idea it had gotten so bad," said Tara quietly, "Holy Source, there must be programs from a hundred networks here... more, hundreds..." she trailed off as she looked up, to the terrain beyond the tower, where even now untold tiny glows were beginning to move towards them. "Thousands," she whispered.
"Tara, what's going on?" asked Willow, unsettled by the intent, hollow stares from below.
"It must have been while I was on the Game Grid," Tara said, keeping her voice low - the Sailer was barely metres off the ground now, with programs clustering as close as they could come to its destined landing zone. "Echelon must have taken all their networks... they must have escaped before Sark's armies arrived, and they came here... look over there," she said, nodding towards the other landing zones, marked out on the flat ground around the tower. Willow looked, and saw each one clustered with strange shapes, some recognisable as vehicles, similar to the tanks and recognisers she had seen, others bizarre amalgamations of forms, completely unfamiliar. They were jammed onto the landing zones any way they could fit, ground vehicles nudging up against each others' wheels, nestling beneath the wings and guidance fins of all manner of flyers.
"Stolen simulations," said Tara, "they must have packed as many programs as they could into them, and come here... they didn't know where else to go."
"Why are they looking at us like that?" asked Willow in a whisper. The Sailer was seconds from touching down, and the crowd of programs had massed at the edges of the landing zone, silent, expectant.
"This is a complex simulation," guessed Tara, "they probably haven't seen one like it before. I don't know," she finished, glancing around warily. Novelty value didn't explain the stares they were getting from the crowd, and Willow and Tara both knew it.
"Come on," said Tara resolutely, swinging her legs over the side of the Sailer as it touched ground and powered down. She offered a hand to Willow as she followed, and they walked together towards the I/O tower. The crowd parted ahead of them, programs shifting nervously back to make room, forming a corridor to the tower's entrance. Willow tried to look calm as they left the landing zone, and the masses of programs were on either side of them. Glancing briefly over her shoulder, she saw them crowding in behind as well. She felt no hostility from them, and Tara's hand was holding hers steadily, but the experience was unnerving.
Willow managed not to react visibly when she heard whispers behind her. Tara glanced at her, and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. Slowly the whispering spread, along the crowds on either side of them, close enough for Willow to make out fragments of it, as those programs closest to her murmured over their shoulders to those further back.
"...escaped from the Game Grid..." "...Tara..." "...Sark couldn't de-rez her..." "...she can defeat Sark..." "...can't be terminated..." "...come to free us..." "...other one, just like her..." "...users are protecting us..." "...sent them to free the system..." "...users haven't abandoned us..." "...created to stop Echelon..." "...to lead us..."
The desperation in their voices was starting to really frighten Willow. Trying not to be obvious, she glanced around at the clustered programs. None of them had traceries glowing as brightly as hers and Tara's. Here and there a program was almost dark, supported by those around them, lifting their heads weakly to stare at Tara and her. Many of them had patches of darkness on them, damaged limbs, wounds gouged from their torsoes, traceries broken and lifeless around their injuries. Willow edged closer to Tara as the crowd slowly moved in, some of the nearest ones shifting their arms as if they were about to reach out, to try to touch them.
Willow almost jumped as Tara's fingers slipped out of hers, and a hand gripped her shoulder firmly, but she realised in an instant it was Tara, manoeuvring Willow in front of her, subtly protecting her. She reached up to her shoulder to cover Tara's hand with her own, and felt Tara's other hand slide smoothly around her waist. The slight echo of her link to Tara, which hadn't fully dissipated since their merging on the Sailer, intensified just a fraction with the closer contact, and it calmed Willow a little.
She was glad, though, when they reached the entrance to the I/O tower. The scale of the structure distracted Willow for a brief moment from her anxiety, and she stared up at it. Aside from the great double-door entrance, the tower's walls were covered with thousands of energy streams, crossing and intertwining with each other, some thin as spider-web, barely visible, some thick and powerful, so strong that Willow could literally see the pulses of energy moving through them. From the tower's base, rising up around its central bulk, were dozens of tapering spires, linked to the tower as they stretched up and away from it by thin, elegantly-curved buttresses. Each spire was adorned with hundreds of discs, facing outwards, ranging from tiny, thin dishes barely larger than dinner plates, to huge faceted radar-like antennae three or four metres wide. One such dish had held the end of the energy beam their Sailer had travelled on - Willow tried to guess how many networks converged above her, and her mind boggled at the thought. Dominating it all, though, was the great mass of the tower itself, rising like the steeple of a giant church, tier after tier stretching up. At the top, so high it seemed to be touching the patterns in the sky, an elegant power array, like a huge steel orchid flower, projected a solid beam of white energy straight up, beyond the limits of vision.
The great doors opened ahead of Willow, and Tara gently urged her onward. Willow finally relaxed as the doors closed behind them, sealing out the whispers and desperate stares of the programs outside. Willow turned to Tara, and found her visibly relieved to be inside, where they were, for the moment, alone.
"I know now why you were afraid to tell me who you were," said Tara ruefully, catching Willow's anxious look. They both looked to the far end of the passageway as footsteps announced the approach of another program. He was old, bent beneath the weight of a wide, solid mantle resting on his shoulders, like the top of a heavy cloak set in stone. His tracery was bright, and pure white just like the tower's central beam, and as he approached the two visitors he relied on a long white staff, topped with a miniature version of the orchid-like array, to support him. He glared imperiously at Willow and Tara as he came to a halt before them, drawing himself up to his full height. Then he leaned forward, squinting at Tara, and his expression softened.
"Tara?" he said, incredulous. "Is that really you?"
"It is, Darien," Tara said, grinning slightly.
"I heard you were captured," the old program said, "put on the Grid."
"I escaped," explained Tara, "this is Willow. She helped me." Darien turned to Willow and peered at her.
"My, my," he said, as if talking to himself, "another one like you. I always said you can't have too many good versions of a good program, I'm glad to see the users agree with me."
"Something like that," said Tara softly, glancing at Willow.
"Well it's good to see both of you active and functioning well. There's damned little left that Echelon hasn't managed to tear down or corrupt. Now, what brings you to this sorry corner of the system?" Tara took Willow's hand and led her as Darien turned away from the entrance and walked slowly back the way he had come.
"We have to get to the GDI network," she explained, keeping pace at Darien's side as he shuffled along the passageway, "Echelon has a new program on its side, I can't get in with her guarding it. GDI is our only hope to find a way into Echelon's primary database. Darien, I know this is non-standard... do you know any users who could authorise our transit to GDI?"
"Hrm, that's not a simple request," Darien muttered, "especially not now. You saw all the programs outside? Every millicycle I get requests from them to contact their users, so they can communicate and receive new commands. They're just simple programs, you know, accounting routines, network relay controllers, that sort of thing, they weren't designed to be out here alone. I tell them to be patient, that the users hear them, but..." He turned to Tara, studied her for a moment, then glanced at Willow.
"She's like you?" he asked sharply. Tara nodded.
"Just like me."
"Well," said Darien slowly, "alright... if you trust her... but this mustn't go beyond these walls, acknowledge?"
"Acknowledge," said Tara. Darien took a deep breath.
"This happened while you were on the Grid," Darien said quietly, "first it was just rumours, but after a while... Echelon took them out, Tara. It shut the users out of their own networks. All the Coms, the Nets, the Edus, they're all gone. Oh, there are a few left, a handful of Gov and Mil users still communicating with networks that Echelon hasn't appropriated yet, but all the programs out there..." he waved a hand vaguely towards the closed doors, and sighed. "Their users are gone."
Tara let out a breath she had been holding all the time Darien had been talking. She looked away from his old, sad face, staring off blankly. Willow moved closer to her and gently put her free hand around Tara's waist, hugging her from the side. She almost stumbled, but seemed to draw strength from Willow's hold. Putting her arm around Willow, holding her close, she looked down. Willow, resting her head on Tara's shoulder, tried to silently convey her trust, her hope, to counter the despair in Tara's eyes. Tara blinked once, twice, then her expression hardened and she looked back at Darien.
"What's left?" she asked, her voice strong but brittle.
"This tower, a few others," said Darien, "some installations deep in the isolated memory areas, last time we heard from them. GDI is still secure, not that it's any good to us, we can't locate it without the right users, and none of the programs here know who to turn to. Some of them have even asked me to issue commands! As if I've got any business telling them what to do, I'm just a tower guardian... but they don't know what else to do. You two should stay inside, I think. Those outside were talking about you already, Tara, before you arrived. I wouldn't be surprised if they decide they want you to be their user now that they've seen you, and know that you escaped the Grid. Better if you stay in here for now."
"Thank you," said Tara. Willow felt her breath a sigh of relief.
"It scares me, you know," the old program observed, stopping a few metres from the end of the passageway, "how quickly we've come to this. I remember when Echelon was nothing more than a facilitator. The open system was free, data moving everywhere... it was good to be a program then. And now, look at us... so desperate for commands that we'll give up our faith in the users. I wish I could help you, Tara, I really do... but there's so little left, so few users that Echelon hasn't already locked out. I don't know who can help you."
Willow suddenly turned to look over her shoulder at Darien, clutching Tara tightly with sudden excitement.
"I do," she said, thinking frantically, dredging the user ID from her memory. "I need to communicate with user Summers-One."