Author: Chris Cook
Sark stood at the edge of the Command Carrier's master deck, staring down at the army arrayed half a mile beneath him. Against the might of such an army - Echelon's army, he silently reminded himself, frowning at the thought - the massive walls of the GDI network no longer seemed so impenetrable. He listened as his menials called out reports from the divisions, the arrowhead formations of tanks and icebreakers coming to a standstill before the walls, hunter-killers deploying their legs or hovering overhead, recognisers keeping watch over them. The sixty-four Battle Carriers reported their readiness to begin the assault. Sark spared GDI one last glance, then turned to cross the deck to his communications port. Echelon surrounded him with light.
"We are in position to invade the GDI network," he reported without waiting for Echelon to order him to do so. "GDI's deep range programs were terminated without contacting their masters. Only the network itself remains now."
"And Rain?" asked Echelon abruptly.
"Her recogniser is docking," said Sark, a trifle put out, "she reports her mission was a success. We have the user Willow contained. Complete code isolation protocols are in effect - she will not threaten us."
"See that she does not," warned Echelon.
"And GDI," asked Sark, acknowledging Echelon's warning with a nod, "the assault awaits only your command."
"Negative," boomed Echelon, "hold position. GDI will not take aggressive action. Take whatever steps are necessary to dismantle user Willow and obtain control of her core code. Acknowledge."
"Acknowledge," said Sark, "but not understood, waiting only gives GDI more time to prepare defences."
"GDI is of no more importance," rumbled Echelon, "only the user matters. Prepare for direct download." Sark had only a moment to brace himself before he felt his mind exposed to the white-hot power of Echelon's own. He fought the spasms of pain that shot through him as new data was driven directly into his memory like nails in wood. Finally it was over, and he knew what Echelon knew.
"I understand," he said after a moment.
"Comply," finished Echelon. "End of line."
Willow struggled against the restraints holding her, to no avail. Two soldiers walked on either side of her, holding long rods with glowing prisms on their ends. Between them they were projecting some kind of field that held Willow helpless, suspended in mid-air, unable to touch the ground. She could only twist around in her invisible prison, with everything that might help her out of reach. It had taken them only a few seconds to contain her - the instant she had gotten over her shock at Rain's sudden attack and their transport, she had tried to fight, reaching for the nightmare's code through the physical contact at her back, pressed against Rain's torso as she was held. The backlash of pain had made her scream out loud, and for a moment she hadn't been aware of anything except a vague falling sensation. Then, when her vision had cleared of the sudden wash of tears and her head had stopped feeling like it was about to split open, she had found herself floating, trapped, while around her the crew of the recogniser steered it out of the GDI network, towards Sark's Carrier.
Willow twisted around, staring from side to side for anything that might come into her reach, as the recogniser docked and she was taken through the passageways of the huge ship. But the soldiers knew their task well, and kept her positioned well away from anything she might touch. She tried to make contact with the devices the soldiers were using to hold her in place, but the distance between her hand and the nearest of them, combined with the stab of pain she felt from it at the attempt, made it impossible to form a proper connection. Other soldiers they passed stared wide-eyed and stood aside, but whether that was because of her unusual confinement, or Rain's presence a few metres behind her, Willow couldn't say.
The soldiers brought her to the master deck, where Sark was waiting. He glanced at her, took a long moment to inspect her captors and their devices, then turned to Rain.
"Good work," he said, "Echelon is satisfied."
"Is she to be broken?" asked Rain, ignoring Sark's grudging praise.
"She is," he confirmed.
"I want to do it," Rain said quickly.
"She's mine!" snarled Rain.
"Obey your orders, program!" bellowed Sark, standing face to face with her. She glared, then backed off a step.
"Your methods are flawed," Sark said mildly, "and you have already failed once, due to your tendency to indulge your... combative nature. She will be damaged and broken in a controlled environment, with no variables." Willow took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. 'Tara will come for me,' she prayed.
"Is this Echelon's command?" sneered Rain.
"It is my command," said Sark, staring her down, "and you will comply! Acknowledge!"
"Acknowledge," said Rain after a dangerous pause. Sark leaned closer to her.
"Include rank," he said quietly.
"Acknowledge, commander," she hissed. Sark nodded and turned his back on her.
"You will remain here until this user's breaking is completed," he said, without turning back. "Then you will return to Echelon to resume perimeter interdiction. Your personal transit simulation will be generated and prepared for launch as soon as your recogniser has deconstructed. Echelon calculates a seventy-eight percent chance that the program Tara will attempt to reach Echelon and penetrate its primary database despite the immanent danger posed to the GDI network."
"Then I will go now," muttered Rain, turning to leave.
"You'll go when you are told!" shouted Sark, spinning around to pin her in place with a glare. "It is possible your... crude talents will be of assistance in breaking this user. Echelon will not be satisfied if there is a delay. Acknowledge."
"Acknowledge, commander," Rain responded grudgingly.
"Remain outside the deconstruction chamber until ordered otherwise," Sark said. "Acknowledge."
"Acknowledge, commander," she repeated.
"Excellent," Sark said. "And now, you," he went on, turning to Willow, "I calculate that you and I have unfinished business. I have memory of promising that you would be damaged beyond the capacity to construct thought, then dismantled and your code incorporated into Echelon. I keep my promises. I'll see you soon."
He waved to the soldiers, who manoeuvred Willow off the master deck, while she hung weightless in her confinement field and tried not to show her fear. The soldiers moved her through several short corridors, then into a dark chamber, still close to the master deck, while Rain waited outside. They placed Willow in the centre of the room, which lit up with red patterns on its walls. Projections at the centre of each wall glowed brightly, and Willow felt herself lift a few inches higher off the ground. The soldiers deactivated their devices and left, the door sliding closed behind them. Willow looked around, but again found nothing within reach, and a brief attempt at connecting with the room's code resulted in a much greater shock of pain than that she had received when she tried the same thing with the hand-held devices. Willow relaxed, folding her arms over her chest, and tried to concentrate on forming some sort of shield, to resist whatever Sark was going to do to her.
She got her first taste of it a few seconds later, when the light patterns on the room's walls pulsed, and a painful itching sensation ran over her skin. She shivered and tried to block it out, with some success, but it faded on its own a few seconds later, as the room's lights returned to normal. After a pause the room glowed brighter again, and again Willow resisted the pain. She noticed it was stronger this time, more like a stinging feeling. When it faded again she took a deep breath and braced herself for a long fight.
Outside Rain waited impatiently, watching as the analysis readouts on the deconstruction chamber's outer wall showed the slow rising and falling of the energy levels within. She turned bitterly away from it as she heard Sark approach.
"I see they've started," he said.
"It won't break her," Rain said darkly, "she'll resist until she terminates from internal dissonance."
"This is not intended to break her," Sark said casually, watching the energy readings, "merely to put her in a suitable frame of thought. I'm well aware that you consider yourself to be the ultimate instrument of damage that can be inflicted on a program, but you are quite in error. She will be broken, in the end. For now, though, this will suffice. You are dismissed."
Rain snarled and turned away.
"Rain," said Sark quietly, stopping her from leaving. She turned back, staring at him ominously. "One other matter. If you ever question a command I give you again, you will be replaced by a duplicate program, and you personally will be subject to immediate de-resolution. And when all the stolen code inside you has finally been ripped out, I will ensure that what remains of you will be provided with just enough power to sustain your consciousness indefinitely. Acknowledge."
"Acknowledge... commander," Rain said, dropping her defiant gaze to the floor.
"Dismissed," Sark finished. Rain turned and left, glaring furiously at anything but Sark. He watched her go, then tapped a control on the chamber's wall. The energy readouts showed all activity inside ceasing. Sark waited as the door slid open, and went inside.