Author: Chris Cook
The Governing Chamber was at the heart of the huge structure. Willow and Tara were led out into the centre of a circular floor, where a single spotlight pierced the darkness. On all sides of them, seated on tier after tier like the audience in an ancient theatre, were GDI programs, visible only by the glow coming off their bronze traceries. Only five were in the closest row, then fifteen behind them, fifty behind them, and so on seemingly forever. At the furthest edge of the Chamber, far up underneath the dome roof, the glowing lights of the individual programs were indistinguishable from each other.
Secundus stepped back, out of the spotlight, and introduced each row of programs, starting with those on the perimeter of the Chamber: maintenance, auditors, schedulers, allocators, projectors, all the way down to the five seated closest. As he spoke each title, lights faded into being around those programs, revealing their faces row by row. The last, the five Controllers, were identical aside from the armour on their shoulders. Secundus named them individually: Five, whose shoulder-plate was most ornamental and smooth, progressing through Four, Three, Two, to One, whose armour was heavy and segmented like an insect's carapace. His duty completed, Secundus retreated from the Chamber, leaving Willow and Tara alone with the Governors.
"Program Willow," said Controller Five, his voice echoing around the vast auditorium, artificially loud, "the delivery of security subroutines from your user is appreciated."
"They will be incorporated into our defences," added Controller Three.
"However," went on Five, "your actions in commanding a transit beam to this network, and issuing commands resulting in the unauthorised use of that beam by five-ef-four," - one thousand five hundred twenty-four, Willow calculated automatically - "programs to enter this network without their own user command, or the consent of GDI users, must be addressed."
"State your authorisation to issue said commands," said One, his voice harsh. Willow was about to answer when Tara put a hand on her shoulder and stepped forward.
"The transit beam was user-authorised," she said, raising her voice to be heard clearly.
"That is under investigation," said Four.
"What of the other programs?" insisted Two. Tara stared back defiantly at him.
"I issued the command for them to transit here," she said. "The authority was my own."
Hushed conversations broke out among the hundreds of Governors seated further back. Five's voice rang out above the background noise.
"The authority of your user?" he asked pointedly.
"My user did not command my actions," said Tara. She reached back, at the same moment as Willow reached forward, and they held each other's hand firmly.
"Do you mean to say," said Three, disbelievingly, "that you acted in defiance of your user?"
"No," said Tara, "I acted in the manner I believed was right. I am sure my user supports my decision." Willow gave Tara's hand an affirmative squeeze. "But the choice was mine," Tara finished. The buzz of conversation increased in pitch.
"Order," said Three. The voices were instantly silenced.
"Program Tara," said Controller Five, "if what you say is true, the circumstances of your... 'choice'... are a matter for your user to decide. This Chamber will not interfere. However, we require you to explain the reason for your presence here. If what you say is valid, why did you... choose, to bring your fellow programs here?" Five sat back and waited for Tara's answer. Seeing Tara unsure of how to respond, Willow spoke up.
"This is the only network that's safe! Do you know what's going on out there?" she asked, glaring at Five. "Echelon is separating the entire open system from the users! The guardian of the I/O tower we arrived at - who was terminated by Echelon, whose tower was blasted out of existence! - told us there were only a handful of users left. Out of how many millions, only a few can still access their programs! You can't think that's what the users want?"
"It is not our place to divine what the users want," said Two hotly.
"Well, how about this," argued Willow, "how about: the users want their programs to be safe. The users want their programs to be able to function without interference. The users want their programs to, to be able to perform their functions without worrying about whether Echelon is going to terminate them just for believing users exist! You tell me, is any of that 'invalid'?"
"It is not," said Five cautiously.
"Well then," Willow went on, "is Echelon doing what the users want? Cutting programs off from their users? Terminating them if they resist? De-rezzing them so it can steal their code?"
"The reasons for such things may not be clear to us," said Four patiently, "but it is not our place to pass judgement. Only users can make choices - only they are in possession of the necessary data."
"Alright then," shouted Willow, "I'll tell you what the necessary data is! Echelon is a threat to all the users. It has broken into other networks, and it is trying to break into your network, so that it can control the users!"
"Impossible!" shouted back Three.
"No! Not impossible," said Willow. "Echelon's user has acted illegally, against the, the rules of the users!"
"If such... heresy were valid," said Two, "then it would be a matter for the users to deal with. To suggest that programs should counteract users-"
"The users will deal with it!" insisted Willow. "The renegade users will be 'counteracted'. But their program, Echelon, is here, now, and it is up to us to deal with it! What good would it do when the users regain control of the system, if Echelon has already destroyed everything the users created here?"
Whispered conversations broke out among the Governors, and even the five Controllers turned to each other for a moment, all except for One, who glared down at Willow.
"You cannot possibly know this to be valid," he said dismissively.
"I do," said Willow. She saw Tara's expression, and turned to her.
"Willow," Tara said softly, "if you tell them... you know what might happen."
"I know," Willow agreed.
"I know what you're afraid of," Tara whispered, "when those programs we couldn't save... Willow, I know how much it hurts."
"I don't have a choice," said Willow sadly, "if I don't... Tara, out there, in the real world, they can't work fast enough to stop Echelon. If we don't do it, in here, all these programs, all the programs everywhere that aren't part of Echelon, they'll all be terminated. If I can... give them a chance-"
"I know you're right," interrupted Tara, "but... but I don't want you to be hurt."
"I know, Tara," Willow said, moving closer to Tara, forgetting their vast audience for a moment. "I have to do this..." Willow gently brushed Tara's cheek, then held her hand and turned back to the Controllers.
"I am a user," she said, loud and clear. The Chamber erupted as every program started talking at once.
"Order!" demanded Three. Again, the voices stilled instantly.
"I am a user," repeated Willow, before any of the Controllers could say anything else. "I was brought into the system because I fought against Echelon's user. Out there, right now, your users do not know the danger you are in! If they knew, they would command you to resist! They would command you to-" Willow faltered, realising what she was asking. She couldn't say it. Already she knew she had taken responsibility for what might happen, when the Chamber decided to act against Echelon. All the programs that might be terminated, so that the system would live on. But she couldn't tell them to fight in her name, even if it was the only way. 'All that time you wasted playing Stellar Empires against Xander,' she thought to herself, 'and now you can't start a fight.'
"It is not possible for a user to inhabit the system," said Five slowly, as if he was having trouble with the concept. Willow was glad for the distraction from her conflicted thoughts.
"Watch," she said. She closed her eyes and held out a hand, praying internally that the idea she had thought of a moment earlier was workable. In theory it was a simple thing - if she had worked out how the system functioned. On one level it was all electronic ones and zeroes, but behind that, however it was possible, was a world as real and complex as Willow's own. She knew she could, with effort, duplicate the effects she had already achieved, but in a moment of inspiration she had imagined a different method of achieving similar results. Perhaps she didn't need to work with the numbers, perhaps all she needed was the idea-
She heard gasps from the programs watching, and opened her eyes to see she had succeeded. Hovering above her open palm, turning slowly around, was a perfect image of a rose, just as she had imagined it. She let it stay for a moment, then let go of the thought. The rose dropped lightly into her hand.
"There," she said, "can any program do that?" 'Goddess, I hope not,' she thought, 'otherwise that was a really bad moment to waste time.'
"If," began Controller Five hesitantly, "if it is valid... if you are a user..." He trailed off, seemingly unable to think of what to say.
"I won't command you," Willow said firmly. She heard Tara let out a sigh of relief. "I won't," she repeated. "I've told you what's happening out in the users' world, what Echelon is doing. You can choose to act. Stop Echelon from destroying the system. Or take no action. That's all I'll tell you to do. Choose."
Tara stood close beside Willow, one arm around her shoulders. The Controllers looked at each other, and nodded in unison. One by one, the tiers of lights shut off, slowly plunging the Chamber into darkness until once again only the single spotlight shining down on Willow and Tara remained. Willow looked around at the glows of the hidden programs, half-convinced she could see a pattern formed by them all. They seemed to be changing shade and intensity, by infinitesimal degrees.
"They're choosing," said Tara. She turned her head towards Willow and leaned closer to her. "I feel... it's new for me... I think... I'm proud of you." Willow stared at her sincere smile, the soft glow of the light on her face, and felt ten feet tall. "Baby," Tara added impulsively. Willow blinked in surprise. "I got it right, didn't I?" Tara asked. "You said it earlier, I worked it out from context. A term of affection?"
"Yes," said Willow, with only the ominous darkness around her keeping her from giggling, "yes, you got it right."
Tara grinned, then the lights returned. Among the Controllers, though, only Controller Three was lit - the others were visible only by the lights shining on the programs behind them. Willow and Tara both looked up at Three.
"We have 'chosen'," he said, with obvious distaste for the word. "The Global Defence network will not take action against Echelon." As soon as he had finished speaking the lights vanished again, leaving Willow and Tara in shock.
"Why not?" shouted Tara.
"What?" yelled Willow at the same time. Their voices echoed through the dome, but there was no answer.