Author: Chris Cook
Willow and Tara followed Secundus in silence out of the Governing Chamber, through the packed corridors of the dome, and back to the terminal beneath it. It was only once they were seated in one of the rail cars, speeding through the GDI city, that Willow let out a defeated sigh. Tara put her arm around Willow's shoulders and gently pulled her across the seat to lean against her.
"We'll work something out," Tara said quietly, "it'll be alright."
"I just thought-" began Willow, breaking off and sighing again. "I don't know. I thought getting here would solve everything. I know some of the people who designed this network, they're... they're the best there is. This was our best hope to stop it all, to stop Echelon from killing all the programs out there. I mean, what good is it if we - if the users shut down Echelon, if it's already too late? I don't know what to do now."
"I know," said Tara gently. "I don't either. But I'm going to keep trying. All I need is to get past Rain, if I can defeat her, or bypass her somehow, keep her busy long enough to break open Echelon's memories... if GDI won't stop Echelon's armies, I can still stop Echelon itself."
"We," said Willow, running an arm around Tara's waist and holding her tight. "I'm coming with you." Tara smiled and leant down to kiss Willow's forehead.
"There's a lot of programs here," mused Tara after a moment's silence, "it's possible we'll find one who can help us."
Willow glanced out at the city as the car slowed and lifted off its rail. They were close to the massive wall surrounding the network, and the buildings here were less ornate, more practical. The car hovered down to the ground alongside a small domed building with a communications array in its roof, making it look something like an observatory. After the uniformity of the GDI programs, Willow was a little surprised to see a crowd of all kinds of programs waiting their turn to enter the structure - those they had saved from the I/O tower. Secundus watched the crowd until Willow and Tara had disembarked and the car had deconstructed, then turned to them.
"This is a relay station," he explained, "it will allow you limited access to our I/O facilities, in order for you to contact your users and request further instructions." Willow realised he didn't know what she had said in the Governing Chamber, and was surprised to find herself grateful for that.
"Have they all made contact?" Tara asked, looking at the programs waiting patiently outside the relay. While Secundus had been talking an orange program had come out of the main door, looking dejected, and walked slowly away. Willow glanced around, noticing several non-GDI programs with similar expressions, standing alone or in small groups, keeping out of the way of the bronze programs moving through the streets with purpose.
"I understand their users are proving difficult to locate," answered Secundus, sounding more concerned than he had so far been. "If you would like to attempt to contact yours, under the circumstances your communication could be expedited-"
"No," said Tara, "I don't need commands." Secundus turned to Willow, who shook her head.
"In that case, you are free to move through this sector of the network," he said, "or request outbound transit if you wish. Power outlets and undesignated transient facilities are nearby." He nodded curtly and turned to leave, becoming just another of the endless flow of bronze programs moving back and forth through the city.
"Now what?" asked Willow.
"Now we find a program index," said Tara. She took Willow's hand and led her across the street, dodging through the pedestrian programs. As they moved towards the nearest intersection, Willow glanced back at the queue of programs outside the relay. Some were staring blankly ahead, others looking around, at the GDI programs or at their fellow refugees who had already tried, and failed, to contact their users. A handful had seen them while Secundus had been talking, and were glancing at each other, as if they weren't sure whether to react or not. They looked like they had around the I/O tower before the attack - lost, and willing to grasp at anything that promised a way back to the safe, secure world they knew. Willow almost met the stare of one program, but turned away.
"I think I saw an index library from the transport car," Tara said, "we won't be able to access priority or classified data, but it should give us an idea of where to start looking for someone who can help."
"What exactly are we looking for?" asked Willow.
"Rain's too powerful to have been developed as a first version," Tara explained. "Even if Echelon's users created the Rain program by themselves, they would have had to use existing templates, components of earlier programs."
"Probably stole them," mused Willow.
"Well, this network has the most complete library of defensive strategies in the whole system," went on Tara, "someone here must know something about Rain, or at least some of the code that she was created with. She must have a weakness."
"Must?" asked Willow. Tara hasn't sounded so certain of that.
"Let's hope she does," said Tara, holding Willow's hand tight. "If the only thing that can defeat her is a stronger program... I'm not sure there is one."
"I am," said Willow. Tara stopped and grinned at her. "Not that I want you to test that theory!" Willow cautioned.
"Oh, I won't," said Tara earnestly. "But thank you."
They stayed still for a moment, gazing at each other fondly, then both looked up as a long, wailing siren droned through the city. Suddenly the GDI programs around them broke into a rush, dodging between one another to reach their destinations. Willow stood closer to Tara, to keep out of their way.
"What's going on?" called Tara as one passed nearby.
"Incursion alert," he said, slowing for a moment, "Echelon's trying to circumvent the shield wall again."
"How serious?" said Tara as he started to turn away.
"Unknown," he said, turning back and speaking quickly, "you're the programs from outside? You should get to a shelter grid." Advice given, he turned and dashed off. Tara called out to him but he was lost in the crowd in no time.
"What do we do?" asked a voice to their side. Willow and Tara both turned to see some of the refugees trying to make their way through the press.
"The nearest shelter grid," Tara said, "go. Willow-"
"I'm alright," Willow said quickly. Tara gave her hand a quick squeeze, then took a step forward and raised her voice to get the attention of the confused programs slowly trying to reach her.
"Get to the shelter grid!" she shouted. "Allow GDI to defend itself, don't get in their way!" Willow smiled inwardly at her confidence. No matter how worried she was about how the other programs would see her, Tara never hesitated to use her unwanted authority if it could help them. She glanced around at the other programs, caught a glimpse of one moving towards her, turned, and screamed.
The program was barely a metre from her, moving quickly, much faster than the other refugees. What remained of its blue tracery was quickly dimming and splintering, and its skin was seconds from completely disintegrating, cracking and peeling like it had been in a blast furnace. Its eyes were locked on Willow, and it was reaching out to her. She didn't know whether to run in terror or try to help, and her shock left her rooted to the spot, able only to call out.
"Willow!" she heard Tara cry from behind her. The crowd, refugees and bronze-lit GDI programs alike, shrank back with cries of dismay as the disintegrating program exploded in a shower of debris. Its skin, tracery, the whole form of its body was literally torn apart from within, as something inside it unfurled with lightning speed, lunging for Willow. She didn't even have time to draw breath to scream as Rain caught her, folded her arachnid limbs around her body, and hissed a single word: "Transport."
Tara had turned just in time to see Rain erupt from within her disguise, and lunged forward in a desperate attempt to save Willow. But too late - she passed through the shimmering column of transport light and landed heavily on the ground beyond. As she rolled to her feet automatically, she heard the dull pulsing of a vehicle's engine, and followed the shocked crowd's stares up to see a recogniser banking in the air above them, turning back towards the edge of the city.
"Willow!" she cried again, breaking into a run as the recogniser began to gain speed. It began to pull ahead of her, but then had to swerve around a tower while Tara ran through the archways beneath it. She took a running leap onto the top of a slender wall separating two avenues, and ran along it as she heard the recogniser's engine behind her, coming around the tower. After a glance over her shoulder to make sure it was staying on the same heading as before, she vaulted from the top of the wall onto a buttress supporting an adjacent building, catching it with outstretched hands and flipping herself through the air. At full stretch she just managed to catch the edge of the rail beyond, and dragged herself onto it as the recogniser hovered overhead, just out of reach.
Tara ran a few steps along the rail before she felt a vibration beneath her feet. She turned just in time to see a fast-moving rail car speeding towards her, and leapt out of the way to avoid being run down. Desperately she grabbed at the car as it passed beneath her, catching its trailing edge one-handed and holding on as if her life depended on it. She pulled with all her strength and swung her legs underneath her, managing to get a foothold on the rear of the car to keep herself from falling and being dragged along the rail behind it. The car's passengers, a pair of astonished-looking GDI programs, stared at her in awe as she stood and leapt between them onto the front of the vehicle's hull.
She balanced on the speeding vehicle, staring up at the recogniser hovering ahead of them. The car was outpacing it, but the city's shield wall loomed up ahead, and the rail veered away to one side, while the recogniser was hovering higher to clear the wall. Tara made a quick assessment of the terrain ahead, then reached back to the controls of the car.
"Hold on," she told the two stunned programs behind her. Then she slammer her palm down on the controls, bracing herself against the sudden burst of speed the car put on. They passed beneath the recogniser, too high to reach, heading for the bend in the rail, and Tara let go and leapt just as the car began to turn. She somersaulted once in the air, and landed running on the roof of a hall built into the side of the wall itself. She raced to the nearest stairway carved out of the wall's inner surface, taking the steps three at a time. Arriving at a landing, she dashed to the next set of stairs, with GDI guards flattening themselves against the wall to get out of her way. She reached the top of the wall, a thin walkway with a parapet on the outer edge, just as the recogniser passed overhead. She almost leapt, but forced herself to stop as she calculated that she couldn't make it - the recogniser was half a metre too far away, and she would fall. She skidded to a halt, staring out from the top of the wall, and that sight knocked the wind out of her more than her collision with the parapet.
The recogniser that had taken Willow was hovering away from the GDI network, on a course to join a fleet of hundreds of recognisers. Beyond them were dozens of Carriers, each a mile long, deploying streams of flight-modified hunter-killers from their simulation bays. Beneath them, slowly advancing on GDI, were untold thousands of tanks, and towering over them were massive icebreaker programs, striding forward among the tank squadrons like dinosaurs, the logic rams mounted on their hulls already crackling with energy. And at the centre of the vast army was Sark's Command Carrier, aimed at the heart of the Global Defence network like a lance.