Author: Chris Cook
After a long time walking in the dark, Willow began to see the barest hint of light.
"Tara," she whispered.
"I see it," Tara said, "we're close." A dull red glow was building, just enough for Willow to make out the shapes of enormous towers on either side of them. The further they went the brighter the blood red light became, enough for Willow to be able to see the towers clearly - stretching up as far as she could see, and beyond them, like an artificial sky, the interior of the mountain itself. It was difficult for Willow to see, but it looked to her as if the towers were part of it, merging at their tops. Dark shapes were moving on the edge of vision, and now and then Willow caught sight of whole segments of towers swinging ponderously around, realigning themselves. Far overhead a bridge swung around, making a deep rumble as it moved past, disconnecting from one structure and attaching to another.
"Willow, careful," warned Tara. There was a hazy barrier ahead, bending what little light there was, making everything beyond it indistinct. Tara tentatively raised a hand and touched the barrier. It rippled from her touch, like water. She frowned, glanced at Willow, then pushed her hand through, finding no resistance.
"What is it?" asked Willow.
"I don't know," admitted Tara. "Whatever it is, we have to go through it. Ready?"
"Ready," said Willow. They gripped each other's hands tighter and both stepped through the barrier at once.
Willow blinked in the sudden, pure light. All around her she could see the towers of Echelon's interior, clearly now. The motion among them had stilled, and the faint traces of power that had flowed over them were gone. Willow took a few steps towards the nearest one, and reached out to touch it. It was dry, and brittle - where her fingertips brushed the surface, tiny trails of dust leaked out. She turned to Tara.
"I don't know," said Tara, looking around in confusion, "I don't feel any power here. It's as if it's been terminated. Look up there," she added, pointing up and ahead. Willow looked, and saw, beyond the tops of the crumbling buildings, the vast volcano crater, dead and silent. Through the crater hole she could see the clear, bright sky, lit with thousands of strands of energy, rushing back and forth.
"The system's free," whispered Tara in awe. "We did it."
"How?" protested Willow. "We didn't do anything. Did we?"
"I don't know," repeated Tara, frowning. "Perhaps that barrier was the edge of the core. Maybe just by bringing the fragmentation code through it, we somehow broke Echelon's link with its slave programs."
"But what terminated it?" asked Willow. "If we didn't-"
"Careful!" warned Tara, as a noise echoed through the silent citadel. She was on guard in an instant, ready to protect Willow, but no attack came. After a moment there was another sound, quieter this time, a faint scraping noise. Tara cautiously went to investigate, with Willow following her.
There were two programs sprawled on the ground, at the base of one of the towers. Willow shivered as she recognised Rain, lying face-down with her arachnid combat limbs bent and twisted. She had been reaching forward, and both her forearm-blades were fully extended, piercing the chest of the other program and protruding from its back. Her last victim was a giant, eight feet tall if he had been standing, with massive shoulders, thick arms and legs, and a sturdy, square face staring blankly to one side. His right arm ended in a thick sword, which had pierced Rain beneath her jaw and sliced straight through her head, coming out among her crest of blades. Both programs were completely lifeless.
"Who is it?" asked Willow automatically.
"Look," said Tara, pointing at the giant program's chest, half-visible as he lay on his side with Rain's blades through him. "Look at the pattern."
Willow looked, concentrated, and in an instant recognised it. The program's tracery was an exact replica of the pattern of power flows she had seen before, the pattern drawn over miles on the surface of the mountain itself.
"This is Echelon?" she said disbelievingly.
"Was," said Tara.
"Why did Rain kill him?" said Willow. "I mean, I know she was a monster, but I thought Sark had some sort of command- where's Sark? If Rain's here, he must be around."
"Over here," said Tara. She was standing a few metres from Echelon and Rain, staring down at a third lifeless program. Willow joined her and looked into Sark's dead eyes.
"Well, I can't say I'm very sorry," she said after a moment.
"He was more of a monster than Rain," Tara said quietly. Willow jumped as a light appeared behind her, casting her and Tara's shadows sharply over Sark's remains. Both of them whirled around to see a single point of white light floating in the air a few metres away. The point became a line, and the line split and curved to become an oval, large enough for a person to step through. The space inside it shimmered and changed.
"Oh goddess," breathed Willow. Through the portal she could see the workstation she had been using, the chair she had been sitting at, her sports bag hastily shoved under the desk. Everything was just as it had been when she had been shot by the quantum storage experiment's laser, and brought inside the system. She took a step forward instinctively.
"Is that-" Tara whispered.
"Home," said Willow.
"I can see it," said Tara, "I can see your world. Willow, I shouldn't be able to, it's not possible."
"If that's really the user world," said Tara, staring through the portal, "it's built differently to the system, out of a different type of reality, it's... I don't know how to explain it. Its code is incompatible with ours. If I can see it..."
"Do you think-" began Willow. Tara moved towards the portal.
"Careful," said Willow, staying at her side.
"It's safe," said Tara quietly, to herself. She reached out slowly and put just the tip of her finger through the film of energy across the mouth of the portal. Beyond, it remained solid and real. She pulled her hand back and inspected it, finding no damage.
"Willow," she said excitedly, "I think I can come with you!"
"You don't have to," said Willow quickly, trying not to give in to her own rising excitement, "I'll stay here with you-"
"That's your home," insisted Tara, "you belong there. And I belong with you, wherever you are. There's nothing for me to stay here for. Willow..." Willow took Tara's hand.
"Let's do it," she said. Both closed their eyes and stepped through the portal. Willow was surprised to feel nothing at all unusual as she returned to her own world - she had expected some sensation from the portal, a tingling feeling on her skin or something. All she felt was the familiar feeling of her clothes on her body. It was a little strange after so long as a program, with no clothing and no reason to wear any.
"Oh, my," said Tara softly, "you are perfect." Willow glanced at her hands - their normal skin colour - and then looked up at Tara, who was gazing at her as if she were an angel descended to earth. Then Willow frowned in confusion.
"You're... still a program..." she said hesitantly. Tara glanced at her own hands, then touched her body, running her fingers over the tracery covering her grey skin. Willow took a quick glance down at herself, even peeked inside her shirt, but she was fully human. Tara slowly reached out and touched Willow's shoulder. Willow felt it as if she were a real, physical being.
"I can't be real," said Tara, "but I am... what am I?"
"I don't know," trailed off Willow. A nasty suspicion was forming. "Tara, if we were inside Echelon, inside the mountain, could it affect us? Make us see things?"
"No-one knows," said Tara, "I don't think anyone's ever been inside it and come out. Why?"
"I don't think this is real," said Willow darkly.
"It isn't?" said Tara, looking around in confusion. "Does it look wrong? I can't tell."
"It's too easy," Willow said, "Echelon, Sark and Rain all terminated without us even having to do a thing, the portal coming out of nowhere, you being able to come into my world... it's too good to be true."
"But if it's not true-" said Tara.
"We're still inside Echelon," finished Willow, "we still have a job to do, come on!" Willow started towards the portal, but it snapped shut.
"Damn!" she exclaimed, "how do we get back?" Tara took both her hands and stood to face her.
"If you're right," she said, "we never left. We just have to concentrate. If Echelon is getting into our minds somehow, we have to fight it, keep it out."
"How?" asked Willow.
"Concentrate on what you know is true." Tara gathered Willow in her arms and touched their foreheads together. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you," answered Willow. The connection between them began to grow, and Willow felt it struggling slightly, as if it was fighting something. She stared into Tara's eyes, and felt a shadow lift off her thoughts. Everything except Tara's face blurred and twisted, as if she was trying to see both sides of an optical illusion at once. Suddenly the light was gone, and Willow blinked in the darkness. Only the reassuring feel of Tara holding her kept her from panicking. After a moment her eyes adjusted enough to see the dull red glow of Echelon's power.
"We did it," she murmured.
"We did," agreed Tara. "There can't be far to go now."
Tara took Willow's hand and led her onwards, at a faster pace. They ran between the looming towers, which were growing closer on either side of them, the motions among the structures growing faster and more dynamic as they neared Echelon's core. Finally the red glow ahead grew to something approaching daylight, from between two towers so close there was only room for one person to slide between them. Tara went first, keeping hold of Willow's hand as she followed.
They emerged on a thin walkway running around the edge of a massive circular pit. Hundreds of metres beneath them a sea of pure power churned like magma, waves crashing together, sending bursts of energy arching through the air. Ahead of them, joined to the outer walkway by three narrow bridges, was the heart of Echelon, a solid half-sphere, its flat end facing upwards. From its centre a beam of pure red energy reached up, merging with other strands of power as it climbed through the miles-high chamber, finally emerging as the column of ash and fire that Willow and Tara had seen from outside the mountain.
"This is it," said Tara, taking her disc from her back and holding it tightly. She took Willow's hand and led her onto the nearest bridge, heading for the core. When they were half-way across the bridge a tortured scream echoed down the chamber from above. Willow and Tara both stared up, seeing a dim shape descending through the column of power far above them. The energy was tearing at it, shredding it to pieces even as it neared them. Fragments of it were breaking off, tumbling down into the magma sea beneath, becoming a constant storm of debris.
"What is it?" screamed Willow above the noise of tearing metal and explosions.
"Command Carrier!" yelled Tara. Willow stared up in shock, seeing the vague outline of the massive vessel's prow descending towards them. It was being torn to pieces, huge strips of its hull breaking away as the energy column lashed at it, but still it came, filling the whole width of the massive chamber.
"What the hell is it doing?" Willow yelled.
"Trying to terminate us! Come on," Tara pulled Willow forward, towards Echelon's core, "we're safe there!" Willow staggered along, noticing that, though the bridges and walkways were being struck with debris, the core was intact - the same energy that was tearing the Carrier apart was keeping its debris from striking Echelon's heart. Willow ran as fast as she could with Tara, trying to ignore the crashing of huge pieces of the Carrier on either side of her, thundering down towards the sea of power beneath them where they disintegrated without a trace. As Willow watched, the entirety of the Carrier's docking bay broke away and crashed through one of the other bridges.
She gasped with relief as she and Tara made it to the core. Looking down at the ground she stood on, Willow saw it was made of hundreds of geometric blocks, melded together to create the surface on which Echelon, the program itself, was housed. Its shape was barely visible from within the column of red light streaming up around it. Willow started forwards, but Tara quickly held her back, staring up. Willow followed her gaze, and saw, from the disintegrating wreckage of the Command Carrier, Rain diving towards them.
She landed on all four limbs and all eight of her spider-legs, somehow absorbing the massive force of her fall without crushing herself. The volcano chamber echoed with a colossal detonation as the remains of the Carrier, stripped of its outer hull and prow but still some four miles of solid simulation, tore apart. Rain stood up and slowly approached Willow and Tara, as the wreckage of the Carrier thundered down all around them, sparing only the core as it crashed into the magma sea and began to sink.