Author: Chris Cook
"They followed us," whispered Willow, as Tara stared up at the endless procession of tanks cresting the distant hills, their recognisers floating ominously above them.
"No," said Tara, half-turning but keeping her eyes on the approaching vehicles, "there's no Command Carrier, they couldn't have got here so fast without one. They must have been coming here all along... for all these programs..."
"To capture them?" asked Willow.
"Or worse," said Tara. "Stay calm!" she shouted to the programs clustered around the tower, who were milling around in confusion, shouting their dismay and fear to each other with no sense of how to respond. Willow heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see Darien emerging from the tower's doors, moving as fast as he could support himself on his staff.
"Get out of here," he said, as Tara turned to see him, "get your Sailer on the beam and go! Don't let them take you!"
"Darien, I..." Tara trailed off, staring around at the panicking programs. Those furthest away were beginning to move towards the tower, crowding onto the landing zones, getting as close as possible to the building. Some were running towards the parked simulations, some already piloting them, struggling to manoeuvre them without colliding with each others or the programs clustered around them. Tara turned quickly to Darien.
"Does this tower have any beam-capable simulations?" she asked. "Maintenance scouts, convoy carriers, anything?"
"There are, uh, some old transit hulks, they haven't been used since the interlink upgrade fifty megacycles ago, I don't know if they'll even-"
"Activate them," said Tara, "grant them clearance to use the GDI beam. Listen to me!" she shouted to the crowd. Heads turned to her as she raised her voice. "Clear the landing zones! We're generating a beam, I want all the transit-capable simulations filled and on that beam! Any simulation that isn't transit-capable is to be moved and abandoned! We're generating new simulations, there'll be enough room for everyone!"
"The users did send you!" exclaimed one of the nearby programs.
"The users-" began Tara, and Willow saw her shoulders slump. She snaked her arms around Tara's waist from behind and hugged her gently. Tara seemed to gain strength.
"The users want you free of Echelon!" she shouted. "Get to your simulations, now! No panicking, no rushing! Fill simulations to capacity, but don't overload them! As soon as each zone is clear, new simulations will be generated!" She and Willow watched as the crowd of programs surged around the parked simulations. Despite the press there seemed to be a sense of order to them now, a coherency that had replaced their desperation.
Tara walked calmly to the edge of the nearest landing zone, adjacent to the one their Sailer was parked in. Under her gaze, programs were forming into groups, some clearing the smaller simulations from the zones and deactivating them, others herding their fellows onto the larger ones. A flash of light from the tower made everyone look up for a second, and Willow turned to see the spire closest to their Sailer glowing with energy. Then the power coalesced to one of the radar-like dishes mounted on the spire, and it released a beam that shot to the horizon in an instant. Barely a second later the first simulation, a strange, bulky insectoid vessel, lifted off from its landing zone, full of programs. It hovered across in front of the tower and merged with the beam, riding it out of sight in seconds.
Willow and Tara both looked back at the approaching tanks, as dull booming noises echoed across the distance between them. Their shells screamed through the air, but exploded against force-fields that flickered into being just long enough to intercept them. Willow turned back to the tower, seeing the dishes on its other spires pulsing with energy each time a tank-shot was intercepted.
"Smart old program," said Tara with a grim smile.
"How long can he keep doing that?" asked Willow.
"I don't know," admitted Tara, "long enough. I hope." She turned back to the crowd, watching as more simulations drifted off their landing zones and moved towards the beam. One of the zones was completely empty, and as Willow watched it a shape appeared there, first as a wire-frame image, then solidifying into a wide, boxy vehicle that made her think of a midget oil tanker. Its bow was open, revealing the majority of its inner volume to be one big cargo hold, large enough for hundreds of programs to fit inside.
"Move," Tara shouted, "fill it up! You!" she called out, pointing to a nearby program, "you're a spatial navigation program, acknowledge?"
"Acknowledge," the program said.
"You pilot that simulation," Tara ordered. "Go."
"Acknowledge, Tara," the program said, with a quick bow before he turned and sprinted towards the tanker. Tara let out a sigh and turned to watch the next landing zone being cleared.
"I shouldn't be doing this," she said quietly enough that no-one but Willow could possibly hear her.
"You're doing what seems best," said Willow, "that's how users do it."
"They're going to think I'm... I'm some kind of emissary of the users," Tara said, dropping her gaze to stare at the ground, "they won't care whether I know what I'm doing or not."
"We'll do it," promised Willow, hugging Tara tightly, "we'll bring the users back to them." Tara tilted her head to look at Willow. Her eyes conveyed more gratitude than she could ever have voiced.
They both looked up as the first tanker hovered overhead, swinging around slowly to align itself with the beam. The flow of smaller simulations merging with the beam stopped, letting the huge craft through. A cheer went up from the remaining programs as the tanker suddenly rocketed forward, riding the beam away from the tower.
"Keep moving!" called Tara, smiling despite herself at the sudden wave of hope spreading through the crowd. Her smile vanished as she looked up, and saw a squadron of recognisers floating towards the perimeter of the tower's protective field, which was still intercepting tank shells every few seconds.
"Damn," she whispered, and slipped out of Willow's arms, heading towards the parked Sailer.
"Where are we going?" asked Willow, following her.
"We've got to stop those recognisers!" Tara called back to her, vaulting over the side of the Sailer's hull and activating the control console. Willow climbed on board and looked back to see the recognisers taking up station around a third of the tower's perimeter. Parts of them began to glow, and the tower's spires began emitting a shrill howl.
"Come on," said Tara to herself as the Sailer lifted itself off the ground, its wings spreading with frustrating slowness. "No!" she yelled, as the spires' screaming reached a dangerous pitch. Willow could see faint traces of energy flowing out of the perimeter field, into the recognisers. Tara swung the Sailer around to face them, slapping her hand on the control panel as the craft began to pick up speed. Another of the tankers, full of programs, passed beneath them, on its way to the beam.
Before the Sailer was half-way to the recognisers, the spires' howling gave way to the sound of tortured metal. One by one the spires began to twist and break up, pieces of them toppling down to smash on the landing zones below. Only the spire projecting the transit beam was unaffected.
"Stay clear of the tower!" Tara shouted down automatically to the programs on the ground, before she stared up at the advancing tanks in horror. As the recognisers hovered back out of the way the tanks slid to a halt, forming a firing line. For a moment they were still, adjusting their turrets, then they opened fire as one. Willow and Tara watched, helpless, as their shells flew up into the air, reached the top of their flight, and began to dip down towards the landing zones.
The first wave of blasts tore a jagged gash through the ground. Tara turned her head away, tears flowing down her face. Willow watched in horror as programs were sent flying through the air, some landing in showers of sparks and electrical discharges, others, those whose energies had been turned black in an instant by the blasts, breaking apart in mid-air or shattering as they landed. A group of parked simulations, thankfully empty, flew apart in a storm of debris.
Tara looked back, watching the remaining programs rushing towards the last tanker, where a handful of them were standing by the doors, helping them on board. The tanker was already active, hovering close to the ground as programs streamed up its ramps into the hold. Tara brought the Sailer down, folding the wings back again, and Willow ran out onto the craft's neck, helping some of the nearer programs climb aboard. Only a handful came - the blast had been on the Sailer's side of the crowd, and most of the survivors were heading for the tanker rather than crossing the broken ground. Willow and another program took an arm each of a third, whose legs hung limp beneath him, and hauled him on board. She looked across the broken landing zone - all the other programs nearby were not moving.
Again the tanks fired, and Tara had to veer the Sailer away to avoid the impacts as they shattered another stretch of ground. A piece of debris struck one of the Sailer's wings, causing the craft to shudder alarmingly. Willow looked up at Tara, and received a reassuring glance as the Sailer continued to rise. She finished helping their passengers scramble to safe positions on the Sailer's forward hull, then made her way gingerly along the neck, crouching low and keeping both hands on the deck to steady herself until she reached the control deck, and Tara's side.
A third salvo of shots rang out, and both Tara and Willow stopped breathing for a moment as the ground around the last tanker exploded. The tanker stayed aloft, though, shuddering from an impact on its rear hull, but not mortally wounded. The tanks fired again, but hit only empty ground as the tanker lifted itself slowly up, towards the beam. Again they fired, their shells screaming through the air around the two hovering craft. They missed, but one smashed into the side of the tower itself, sending a huge chunk of metal toppling down.
"No!" cried Willow - Tara couldn't make a sound. The debris crashed into the side of the tanker, making it lurch over and lose altitude. It struggled for a moment, then ploughed into the ground, tearing its own hull open against the hard surface.
"Darien, no!" yelled Tara. Willow looked to the tower, then at Tara as she struggled with the Sailer's controls.
"What?" she cried.
"He's overriding the flight controls," said Tara, entering commands furiously as the Sailer unfurled its sails and gained height, "he's sending us into the beam. Darien!" she called towards the tower, "we can help them! Darien!" She abandoned the control console and stared over the side of the Sailer, looking down helplessly at the stranded programs staggering out of the wrecked tanker. Willow looked too, fighting back tears at the sight of them.
First a few, then all of them stared up at the Sailer drifting overhead. Then one of them, his tracery barely glowing, his left arm missing from the elbow, raised his good hand in a kind of salute.
"Tara!" he called. Then he leant down, bending with obvious discomfort, to pick up a piece of the shattered tower which had reverted back to a simple rectangular beam. Others behind him did likewise, picking up debris, fragments of the tower and the crippled tanker, raising them like clubs. With a ragged battle-cry they broke into a run, charging across the landing zone towards the approaching tanks, which lowered their cannon barrels to cover them. As the Sailer lifted towards its beam, as Tara reached out hopelessly to the distant figures, they vanished amid the blasts.
Willow turned to watch the tower, as the Sailer's prow caught the beam and its tail formed behind it, completing the link. Another salvo of tank fire carved a gaping wound in the I/O tower, covering the ground below with debris. The communications beam rising from its apex flickered and died, and the top of the tower slowly began to topple, overbalancing on its shattered supports. Willow's heart leapt into her throat as she realised the huge mass of metal was going to fall on the spire projecting their beam, but then the Sailer shot away, and for a second the tower was just a dark shape on the horizon, and then not even that.
Willow tried to gather herself, and turned to Tara. She was still staring back at the featureless horizon, one hand still held out, her arm slowly dropping back to her side. She turned her tear-stained face to Willow and tried to speak, but nothing came out. Willow reached out to her and held her as she cried, both of them sinking to the deck, leaning against each other for support, sharing each other's tears.
"I tried," gasped Tara between sobs, "I... I tried..."
"I know, baby," said Willow soothingly. She felt tears running from her eyes, but somehow she kept her breathing steady enough to comfort Tara. "I know. You saved so many, though..."
"But the others," sobbed Tara, "so many terminated..."
"It's not your fault, baby," whispered Willow into her ear, "it's not your fault. Sark, a-and Echelon, they did this. You did the best you could. I... I'm proud of you, Tara."
Slowly Tara's crying steadied, and her breathing came slow and regular against Willow's neck. They stayed like that, comforting each other, as the Sailer sped towards GDI.