Author: Chris Cook
Willow did her best to keep calm and not move at all. Slayer watched her warily, but didn't seem about to attack her just yet. The other program's name had jogged her memory - Buffy had asked for her help in creating an anti-intrusion routine, and Slayer was what they had come up with together. From what she remembered of the code she had helped design, Willow guessed that Slayer would be suspicious, hostile, but with any luck, not actually aggressive if she didn't perceive a challenge. Willow had never liked coding programs that acted based on incomplete information. But she remembered that Slayer was not, even by the standards of non-AI programs, a flexible thinker.
"Slayer," Willow said, "listen to me. I know this is unauthorised, but these are extreme circumstances. You understand that, right?"
"I am not programmed to modify my behaviour based on circumstances," retorted Slayer.
"Okay," said Willow quickly, "fine, but look, I'm not touching the memory, or whatever it is, I'm not breaking the rules. Okay? Just listen to me."
"You are not permitted to leave the I/O port," insisted Slayer.
"Okay, but your user wants you to guard the memory, right? I'm not touching the memory. See? Look, I'll go over here," Willow walked slowly a few steps away from the nearest memory block and cautiously sat down, crossing her legs on the cold ground.
"See?" she asked. "Now you can get in front of me, and I won't be able to even get to the memory without going through you. So you'll be fulfilling your function, right?"
Slayer quickly moved between Willow and the memory block. She had relaxed, if only a fraction, and it seemed to Willow that her hostile gaze was now mixed with just a little uncertainty.
"That's right," she said encouragingly, "I'm not a threat. You don't want to terminate me if I'm not a threat, right?"
"Correct," said Slayer warily.
"Okay, now just listen to me. I'm going to tell you what's going on out there, and then you can decide what to do. Alright?"
Slayer nodded warily.
"Okay," said Willow, hoping she knew what she was doing. "First of all, you know what your user does, right? She keeps the system free."
"She is a guardian," said Slayer, as if automatically.
"Right," agreed Willow, "she's a guardian. Well there's a program out there called Echelon. It's taking over the open system, isolating programs from their users, appropriating their functions. Your user wouldn't want that, right?"
"Correct," said Slayer again.
"Well, I'm trying to stop that program," said Willow. "So your user and I want the same thing. Don't you think she'd want to help me?"
"Irrelevant," declared Slayer, "it is not my function to anticipate the desires of my user. My function is to prevent unauthorised programs from accessing her memory."
"Okay, unauthorised programs," said Willow quickly, "but I'm not a program. I'm a user."
"Impossible," said Slayer.
"No," argued Willow, "not impossible! I was brought into the system by the program your user and I were trying to fight. So now I have to help your user from in here. You understand?"
"Impossible," repeated Slayer. "You are providing false data." Her expression hadn't changed at all - Willow got the impression that her argument wasn't getting through.
"I'm telling the truth," she insisted. "Look, okay, I know how I can make you believe me. I was there when Buffy, your user, created you. I know your code. No program could know that, right?"
"Code cannot be read from a functioning program," admitted Slayer.
"Right, and you're still functioning," went on Willow, "so if I'm just a program, I can't possibly know your code. Right?" Slayer was silent, which Willow took for the closest to agreement she was going to get.
"Okay," she said, "definition language, you understand?" She took a deep breath. "Define program identity Slayer version one point oh, end line. Define program core source file intrusion countermeasures template version seven point five, end line. Include module government database access specifications model three point five five, end line. Include module..." Willow stopped, seeing Slayer's expression change from hostility to confused suspicion.
"You see?" Willow said. "If I'm not a user, explain that."
"I cannot," said Slayer. Her expression hardened. "But I am not programmed to alter my behaviour under any circumstances. Your identity is irrelevant."
"Okay, but this is the thing," said Willow, trying to sound convincing, "your programming didn't anticipate this situation. Buffy... Buffy gave me new programming for you, so you'd be able to alter your behaviour. Understand? If you let me give it to you, I promise then I'll do whatever you say." Remaining seated, she reached out a hand to Slayer, who regarded it with suspicion.
"If I am required to be altered, why would my user not do so herself?" she asked warily.
"Because..." Willow faltered, then regained her momentum. "Because things have gotten really bad out there. Echelon, the program we're trying to stop, is making it difficult for users to communicate with their programs. This is the only way she could get this code to you. Please, trust me, I'm..." she chose her words carefully, "I'm doing what Buffy would want me to do."
Slowly, wary for any sign of attack, Slayer reached out and took Willow's hand. Willow smiled sadly.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Lay down lazy-head."
Slayer instantly relaxed, her expression becoming completely neutral, her body easing into a restful stance. Her grip on Willow's hand became loose.
"Period of inactivity?" she said in a featureless voice.
"Um, until I leave this space," Willow guessed. She didn't want to leave Buffy's computer open to anyone who tried to get in after she had gone.
"Acknowledge," said Slayer, and closed her eyes. Willow released her hand and stood up, staring at her. She seemed perfectly alright - still breathing, still standing, her arm returning to her side as Willow let her go. She had protested Buffy's decision to leave a 'back door' for herself into her own computer, on the basis that if she could do it, someone else could too. But Buffy had insisted, confiding in Willow that she didn't entirely trust some of her superiors, and if worst came to worst she wanted a way to keep her options open. Willow couldn't decide, now, which of them had been right - both, after a fashion. She examined Slayer's now-passive face.
"Sorry," she said again, "but I have to do this, and we just didn't program you to adapt to something like this happening. I'll... I'll make sure Buffy knows you listened to me, at least. It's what she would have wanted." There was no indication that Slayer heard anything she was saying. Feeling slightly guilty, Willow turned from the inactive program and approached the monolithic memory block.
She felt a strange sluggishness as she touched the patterns of information inside the memory, as if she was moving through water, but it was nowhere near as difficult as the barrier had been - it just took a little effort to shift her gaze from one file to the next. After a few false starts, which she backed out of before she saw any detailed information - after all, Buffy had government clearance, and Willow didn't want to go trawling through everything her files contained - she began to see references to GDI in the file names, and the hazy sensations of meaning she got when she edged closer to each file. Willow set her mind on the idea of the authorisation codes to get into the GDI network, and the traces within Buffy's files acted like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading her to the information she needed.
Willow's search eventually led her to the file she needed. She mentally grabbed hold of it, and it opened up for her, spilling information into her mind. She rejoiced as she saw the series of codes she needed, then her elation turned to curiosity as she realised there was a lot more data than just passwords. She had no idea what most of it was, though she got vague impressions from it - strength, solidity. There was one part of it that didn't fit, that Willow realised after a moment wasn't part of it at all, but another stream of data attached to it. Curiosity got the better of her, and she tugged at the end of it. She jumped as she heard Buffy's voice, and spun around to look at Slayer, who was still immobile.
"Willow, I know I should kick your ass for hacking into my laptop," Buffy's disembodied voice was saying. Willow realised she had taken her hands off the memory, but the files - and Buffy's voice - was inside her now.
"But," Buffy went on, "you wouldn't be here reading this if there weren't a damn good reason - which you can tell me about over coffee, and you're buying, hacker-girl. I assume the whole Cycorp situation is looking grim and for some reason you can't just ring my mobile. This package has everything I've put together to counter an incursion into GDI's network from Cycorp - I don't know if it'll work, but it might help hold the fort until those Global Defence airheads get their butts into gear. There's passwords here that'll get you limited access to GDI, enough that you can get these countermeasures to them. It'll be up to their people to lock down the whole system tight, but there's nothing I can give you to help there. I know, this isn't exactly authorised- okay, I'll be honest, if I did this under normal circumstances I'd get kind of fired, but I'm guessing circumstances aren't normal. So you get these subroutines to GDI, get proof of what Cycorp's doing to Riley or whoever's working late at my office, and we can take Cycorp down officially and I won't have to move into your spare bedroom until I get another job. Now stop reading and go do it. Shoo! And call me, I promise I won't bite your head off for waking me up."
Buffy's voice faded, and Willow smiled at her best friend's unfailingly cutesy manner in the face of a crisis. She reached behind her back and ran the tips of her fingers over the data disc embedded there, shivering as she felt the defensive data stored inside the disc. Stepping gingerly around Slayer, Willow returned to the cylinder she had emerged from and tentatively put her hand out to touch it. Her fingers passed through it without effort, and with two steps she was back within the dark, silent I/O port, glad that she hadn't had to struggle through the barrier again - evidently it only worked one way.
"Okay," she said to no-one, "I'm ready to go-"
"-back," Willow finished, as the communications chamber of the I/O tower suddenly blinked into being. She was too stunned to move for a second, as Darien seemed to relax, and Tara hurried over to her, clearing the steps up to the dais in a single jump and hugging her.
"You're okay," she murmured into Willow's neck, still saying the unfamiliar word with an odd rhythm. Willow hugged her back.
"I'm fine," she said reassuringly, "it was a bit difficult but I got through it. I'm okay."
Tara remained with her arms wrapped around Willow for a moment, until Darien cleared his throat theatrically. Tara and Willow separated, except for each keeping an arm around each other's waist. With her other hand Willow retrieved her data disc and showed it to Tara.
"Buffy guessed something like this would happen," she said, "she left all sorts of defences and things for GDI for me, along with the access codes."
"Darien," said Tara, "can you create a high-speed transit beam to the GDI network with these codes?" She handed the disc to Darien, who ran his fingertips over the concentric rings of light on its surface.
"I think so," he said, looking from Tara to Willow, "my word, you have powerful users watching over you. Maybe we'll come out of this functioning after all." He smiled to himself, and handed the disc back to Willow.
"Go back to your simulation," he told her and Tara, "I'll have your codes converted into a beam by the time you're ready to leave."
"Thank you Darien," said Tara sincerely.
"Oh, don't thank me," Darien said, turning to shuffle across the chamber, "I'm just an old tower guardian, it's my function. Just make sure you get that data of yours to GDI, so they can get rid of Echelon, and we can all get back to fulfilling our functions in peace." Willow waved goodbye to the likeable old program as Tara took her hand and led her out of the chamber.
"Are you sure you're alright?" asked Tara as they hurried along the long entrance corridor.
"I'm fine," said Willow again, "I just had to get through a barrier, and it didn't feel as difficult as that Hunter-killers was. And there was a security program, but I was there when Buffy created her, so I knew a code," she suddenly realised what she was saying, and dropped her gaze to the floor. "I had to deactivate her," she admitted. Tara gave her a reassuring squeeze around the waist.
"It's alright," she said gently, "I understand."
"She'll be active again now," Willow said quickly, "I made sure she'd come back as soon as I left-"
"Willow," interrupted Tara, stopping and turning to face her, "it's alright. Really. I don't like deactivating programs either, but most of us just aren't flexible. Sometimes there isn't a choice. I understand." Willow allowed herself to feel better as Tara led her to the huge double doors of the tower.
The nearest of the huddled programs outside turned as the doors opened, getting to their feet and approaching Willow and Tara with an odd mix of fear and hope.
"Tara," one of them called out, "we saw the tower function, what do the users want us to do?"
"Did they give you commands for us?" asked another.
"Are we supposed to follow you?"
"Are there more of your kind?"
"What are our functions?"
"Wait," said Tara loudly, halting the rising tide of questions before it got out of hand. She stood slightly in front of Willow.
"We're just fulfilling our function," she said, "nothing more. I can't tell you what to do-"
"But you're Tara!" pleaded one of the programs. "The users sent you to guide us!"
"I'm not here to command you-" began Tara.
"But you are the voice of the users! You defeated Sark!"
"I didn't defeat him, I just escaped from the Game Grid-"
"Where you could not be de-rezzed!" insisted another program. "Please, protect us! Lead us! We have no-one else to turn to!"
"They didn't try to de-rez me, I-"
"Tara?" said Willow quietly. Tara picked up the urgency in her voice and looked over her shoulder. Willow was staring past her, up at the jagged hills of the open system surrounding the I/O tower. Tara followed her gaze, and tensed as she saw red shapes moving there.
"Oh no," she whispered. The refugee programs began to turn, and there were screams of panic from the crowd as they saw the distant tanks and recognisers approaching.