Author: Chris Cook
Willow looked up as she felt the Sailer slow beneath her. Ahead of them were the tankers and the dozens of smaller simulations, riding the beam in convoy. Beyond them was a massive wall, tall and featureless as a dam, rising half a mile from the ground of the open system. Tara looked up too.
"We made it," she said, smiling at last. Willow had missed her smile. They stood side by side, watching as their Sailer slowly drifted towards the top of the wall, where the beam cleared it by a handful of metres. Already the lead simulations had vanished beyond it. As the Sailer neared the boundary Willow saw the tips of dozens of towers rise into view, outlined in energy that looked like molten bronze.
As they passed beyond the wall, the Global Defence Initiative network was revealed. Mile after mile of domes, towers, great halls lined with columns, arched monorails stretching like aqueducts across the city, huge tiered buildings like temples surrounded by dozens of tiny hovering vehicles. The energy covering them all was the same bronze, which coalesced into rivers between them, spanned by elegant bridges. When Willow turned her gaze from the nearest buildings and looked out across the whole city laid out before her, she saw that it formed a gigantic pattern, the rows of buildings and avenues all leading to the centre, where a great dome dominated the skyline. Literally thousands of transit spires ringed the dome, and surrounding them were dozens of I/O towers projecting bronze energy beams into the heavens.
"H-have you ever seen this before?" Willow whispered to Tara.
"Never," said Tara quietly, holding Willow with an arm around her waist. "I've met GDI programs, out in the system, but to be here... the heart of the network..." She fell silent, and they both watched as their convoy began to detach from their beam, floating slowly towards one of dozens of huge hangars, big enough to swallow even the tankers. Tara reached for the Sailer's controls, but held back as they activated themselves. The Sailer followed the other simulations, as the transit beam over head shut down.
Willow looked to either side as they dipped down close to the surrounding buildings. Hundreds of programs, all with shining bronze traceries, were moving through the streets of the city. She peered between the columns supporting the roof of a gigantic hall on her left, seeing row after row of simulations. Sleek vehicles with rows of cannon-barrels mounted under their thin guidance fins, long multi-legged transports like huge steel caterpillars, towering bipedal walkers resting idle - a great army waiting to move.
"Do you think all this will be able to stop Echelon?" asked Willow.
"It's the only force on the system that could," said Tara.
The Sailer slid gracefully into the hangar, folding its sails and settling to the floor among the other parked simulations. Dozens of bronze programs were standing by the vehicles, directing the crowds of weary programs streaming out of them. A pair of them approached the Sailer and began to help the programs clustered on its forward hull down. Another program, adorned with an elaborate armour plate covering his right shoulder, waited for Willow and Tara at the rear of the Sailer as they disembarked.
"I am Regulator Secundus," he said.
"I'm Willow," said Willow, "this is Tara."
"Yes, we know," said Secundus, turning to face Tara directly. "It is by your command that these programs have come here?" Tara glanced sideways at Willow, then faced Secundus and squared her shoulders.
"It is," she confirmed.
"And what user directed you to take this action?" Secundus asked.
"User Willow," said Willow, before Tara could answer.
"That is not a recognised GDI user," said Secundus blandly, "you should not have brought them here."
"Echelon attacked them," explained Tara, "we had no choice."
"I did not make any statement regarding their prior circumstances," said Secundus calmly, "I merely observed that they should not have been sent here without authorisation from GDI users, which they have not received. If they required shelter, they should have gone elsewhere."
"They would have been terminated!" exclaimed Tara. "Echelon destroyed the I/O tower we came from."
"Are you certain?" asked Secundus, seeming just a little surprised.
"We saw it," offered Willow.
"Well, be that as it may," said Secundus after a pause, "we were not notified of any standing instructions to receive random programs."
"What's going to happen to them?" asked Tara sharply. Secundus was getting on Willow's nerves as well. He glanced across the hangar at the refugees being guided away by GDI programs, and gave a short, exasperated sigh.
"We'll keep them here until their users can be contacted," he said with poor grace. "Those that require power will be given limited access to GDI's surplus. It should not prove too much of a drain on our resources. If you'll follow me." He turned and strode away, leaving Willow and Tara to catch up with him.
"You know Echelon is trying to break into your network," said Willow as they drew level with Secundus.
"We are aware of that," he said.
"I've got defensive codes," Willow went on, "a- a user gave them to me, to bring here. They'll help you keep Echelon out."
"We are grateful for your user's assistance," said Secundus without feeling, "I will see that you are provided with an upload port. Follow me please."
Willow and Tara exchanged unimpressed glances as Secundus led them out of the hangar and across a wide avenue to the base of one of the columns supporting the long rails snaking through the city. He motioned for Willow and Tara to stand back as he touched the column's side, and a wire-frame formed in front of him, quickly solidifying into a sleek transport with four seats. Secundus motioned to them to take the rear seats, while he sat in front of them, manipulating the controls with his back to them. The vehicle lifted off the ground and hovered up next to the bridge, settling on top of it like a monorail car. As soon as it was in position it accelerated, speeding silently through the city, heading towards the great dome at its centre.
"Secundus," said Tara, "I need to communicate with the programs in command here."
"The Governing Chamber has scheduled an audience for you," he said without turning, "you will proceed there after your companion's data upload has been completed."
Tara sat back and glanced at Willow, looking nervous. Willow caught her eye, turned to Secundus, and poked her tongue out at him petulantly. Tara giggled despite herself, and her hand sought out Willow's beside her and held it warmly.
Their car flew along its rail, with only the slightest sensation of motion to those inside, for all that its path twisted between the buildings. Finally they emerged from the metropolis, and saw the great dome standing alone, at the centre of a wide, open plaza beneath hundreds of separate rail bridges. Willow peered over the side of their car, watching bronze programs milling about on the ground below, alone or in groups, some consulting with each other, some obviously hurrying on their way somewhere else, some even marching in formation. Something about the scene struck Willow as odd, and she leaned forward to speak to Secundus.
"Are there any programs here apart from GDI?" she asked. The uniformity of the crowd's glowing traceries seemed a little strange to her, after the varied energies of all the programs she had seen outside in the open system.
"Aside from yourself and your 'followers', no," Secundus answered. "This is a sealed network. We do not admit unauthorised programs."
"But with everything that's going on," said Willow, "I mean, with Echelon out there, taking over the networks... don't programs try to get here? For safety, I mean."
"Perhaps they do," said Secundus airily, as if discussing the weather, "but we are not an open network unless our users decide otherwise. Remain in your seat, please."
Willow sat back, glaring at the back of the program's head, as the car slowed in its approach to the dome. It passed a few metres beneath the bottom edge of the dome itself, where their rail and the others merged into a gigantic terminal. As they slid to a halt at a platform, Willow saw hundreds of similar cars arriving and leaving, all carrying GDI programs. Secundus disembarked and waited for Willow and Tara to follow him.
"Your user's defensive codes will be uploaded in a tertiary analysis suite," he said, leading them through the bustling terminal, "I'm sure you understand the need to verify the code before it can be submitted to the Defence Committee for implementation. I will confirm your audience with the Governing Chamber. Please follow me and be careful not to stray out of your authorised area at any time."
He led them out of the terminal and through the interior of the gigantic building, along wide corridors full of programs, on hovering platforms that functioned as elevators, and through numerous checkpoints. In every area were soldiers, their bodies augmented with plated armour like that on Secundus's shoulder, less ornate but more functional. The same shoulder, though, seemed to Willow to signify their rank - she saw some, leading squads, with additional markings there. On their other shoulders, all the soldiers had small devices like miniature cameras, that turned their single-lensed gazes to face whatever the program itself was looking at. The foot soldiers carried gleaming bronze spears, the 'officers' short, wide-bladed swords, and all of them had sharp-edged hollow discs at their waists, like sidearms.
Secundus brought them eventually to a small chamber containing a pair of programs seated at consoles, and a beam of energy at the centre of the room, stretching from floor to ceiling.
"Upload from unconfirmed source," said Secundus to one of the programs, "subject to full analysis and return results to Defence Committee data managers."
"Acknowledge," the program said. She tapped a control and the energy beam grew brighter, more solid. Secundus stood back and motioned Willow forward. She took the disc from her back and put it in the beam, just like she remembered doing in the Game Grid. The beam filled with vague patterns, and for a moment the chamber echoed with the sound of dozens of soft chimes in harmony.
"Upload complete," said the program as the sound and patterns faded away. Willow retrieved her disc and returned it to her back. Secundus had returned to the doorway and used a panel there, tapping controls and listening to a faint voice. He returned to Willow and Tara.
"The Governing Chamber is ready to hear you," he said.