Author: Chris Cook
Tara stepped in front of Willow, and behind her back held out her data disc. Willow took it.
"Wait for a clear shot," said Tara softly, her voice only just reaching Willow's ears above the noise of the Carrier's demise, "then throw it directly at Echelon. As soon as I get Rain out of the way."
"Tara-" began Willow nervously, as Rain stalked closer, flexing her bladed limbs.
"Don't worry," said Tara grimly, "she's not going to lay a hand on you."
She squared her shoulders and walked forward, heading directly for Rain. The two stopped in front of each other, each sizing the other up.
"Sacrificing yourself for the cause, little program?" taunted Rain. Tara met her stare unflinchingly.
"I'll give you this chance," said Tara, "stand aside. Otherwise one of us will be terminated. It won't be me."
Rain lashed out with both forearms at once, the blades folded inside her arms whipping out too quickly to see. Tara moved like lightning, striking the sides of both blades with her open palms, deflecting them. Even as they were missing her head by millimetres she launched a kick at Rain's chest, but the nightmare program flicked her abdominal claws up, crossing them over her chest and absorbing Tara's blow. Both programs eased back just a fraction, circling each other warily. Willow waited for an opening, but Rain kept herself between Willow and Echelon.
"I've beaten you before," said Rain.
"I know," replied Tara without feeling.
"No deactivation this time," spat Rain, "Echelon won't hold me back."
She leant forward, her body blurring with speed, and slashed four of her spider-legs at Tara's neck. Quick as a gymnast Tara bent backwards, the blades flashing over her body. Balancing on her hands she whipped both legs up, kicking Rain in the jaw. She completed the backflip and stood ready for Rain's next attack. Rain narrowed her eyes and stroked her jawline with her mandibles.
"You're stronger than before," she said.
"So are you," said Tara. "That's Sark's code inside you, isn't it?"
"He was always weak," grinned Rain. "What new code have you found, little program?"
"You couldn't begin to understand what I've found," said Tara quietly. She settled back, raised a hand, and gestured for Rain to attack. Rain almost took a step forward, then glanced sidelong at Willow, and held her ground between her and Echelon.
"Oh, no," she said lightly, "I won't fail so easily."
"Have it your way," said Tara.
She took two quick steps forward and launched herself at Rain. Rain dug her lower arachnid limbs into the ground and kicked up with both legs, springing into the air. Tara kicked at her body, but she twisted out of the way; in return Rain lashed both arms and her abdominal blades at Tara, but missed as Tara grabbed her forearms and swung herself over her head. Contorting to avoid Rain's crest of blades, Tara kicked her in the middle of her back, somersaulting to a landing as Rain fell to the ground. She was back on her feet in an instant, edging sideways as Willow moved to try to get a clear shot at Echelon beyond her.
Tara attacked again at once, driving Rain back with a flurry of blows. Rain blocked with inhuman speed, her blades and limbs flashing in front of her body, deflecting Tara's attacks as quickly as they came. For a moment Rain retreated, then she snarled and went on the offensive, striking at Tara every millisecond, her forward limbs aiming for her chest and stomach, her spider-legs curling around to attack her from the sides and above. Somehow Tara blocked every attack, glancing the blades off her forearms without being cut. Rain kicked at her legs and she turned her defensive jump into a kick, passing between Rain's attacking limbs to strike her in the chest, stalling her advance. Tara landed on the balls of her feet, like a dancer.
"Want to play rough, do you?" Tara said with a faint smile.
"You never were as good as me," snarled Rain.
"I don't enjoy inflicting pain," said Tara, her smile vanishing, "I wouldn't expect you to understand the difference."
Tara flipped forwards, kicking at Rain, both arms deflecting her blades as she flew. Rain dodged back a few inches, giving herself space to defend. Tara had barely landed when she launched herself again, sailing over Rain's spider-legs as all eight of them slashed low. Rain rolled beneath Tara and tried to catch her with her forearm blades, spearing them upwards, but Tara rolled sideways in mid-aid and slipped between the blades, landing on her hands. She reversed her direction, flipping forwards with a double kick, ending up on her feet with Rain twisting around to face her.
Rain lunged again, bladed limbs flying in all directions. Tara twisted impossibly, with Rain's blades passing above her, below her, millimetres from her face, her arms, her body, but never quite close enough. Tara turned her move into an attack, kicking then punching as she flipped over, flinging out whichever of her limbs was nearest Rain, who had to lean back to avoid the blows. Rain blurred forwards, trying to tackle, but Tara was already moving nearly as fast, and dodged out of the way. They ended up mere metres from Echelon itself.
"Come on," said Tara, "give me your best shot." For a second her eyes were on Willow, who understood, and drew her arm back, ready to throw the disc.
Rain yelled in anger and slashed down with both her forearms, blades extended like a pair of swords. Instead of dodging, Tara caught the twin blades between her palms, stopping them a fraction of an inch from her face. Rain stared in disbelief as Tara held her back.
"That's it?" taunted Tara. Rain struck out with her spider-legs, but Tara jumped, using the leverage she had on Rain's arms. As Rain's lower limbs tried to cut Tara's legs from under her, Tara leapt up, balancing on them for a split second. In the space of a heartbeat she had run up Rain's eight arachnid blades, sailed over her head, still holding her arms, and used all her weight and momentum to flip over, lifting Rain off the ground and throwing her towards the edge of the platform, towards the abyss beyond. Willow threw the disc.
"No!" Rain bellowed. She twisted in the air, thrashing her spider-legs at full stretch. Two of them caught the platform, gouging into it. The disc flew straight and level, aimed right at the centre of the dim shadow at the core of Echelon's beam of blood-red power. At the last second it rebounded off a force field, visible for an instant as a glassy column surrounding Echelon. The disc flew out across the magma sea and began curving back for Willow to catch.
Rain struggled for a moment, her legs and body hanging over the edge of the platform, then she hauled herself forward with her outstretched blades and flipped to her feet. She took half a step towards Willow and blurred, but in the instant she appeared a metre from Willow, Tara was there as well, cannoning into Rain from the side. Willow caught the disc and threw it again in a single motion, as Rain and Tara went down in a tangle of thrashing limbs.
Again the disc rebounded off the force field. Willow's gaze was wrenched away from it as she saw Tara fly backwards, thrown away by Rain. She landed on her feet, but with shallow cuts on her arms and legs where she had struggled with Rain's blades. No sooner had her eyes settled on Willow than she began to run directly towards her.
Willow spun around to see Rain lunging at her, blades drawn back to strike. She threw up her hands to protect herself, both unfolding into shields by instinct. At the last moment she realised Rain would miss her - her lunge took her past Willow, shoving her out of the way. Without realising she was doing it Willow formed a sword in her hand nearest Rain and slashed hard at her back, drawing a deep line of red between the thick joints at the base of the arachnid limbs sprouting there.
Then she saw what Rain was lunging for - Tara's disc, humming through the air, straight towards where Willow had been and where Rain now was. Rain leapt, stretching out; Tara leapt as well, like a diver, arms outstretched. Her hand closed around the edge of the disc just as Rain's forearm blades scissored into it from above and below. There was a blast of energy, throwing both programs back. Rain landed and rolled back to her feet. Tara staggered, holding the shattered remains of her data disc.
It was only then that the pain from Willow's attack seemed to register with Rain. She drew herself upright and twisted around to look at Willow, her face set in a cruel smile. In the instant Rain was distracted Tara collided with her, holding her around her waist, throwing her towards the edge of the platform. As Rain fell her spider-legs closed around Tara, holding her even as Tara let go, both of them sailing over the edge, over the sea of magma energy that was finally consuming the last of the Carrier's wreckage.
"Tara!" screamed Willow, lunging forwards without thinking. She fell at the edge of the platform, watching in slow motion as Tara and Rain fell away from each other. Tara was twisting around, reaching for a hand-hold that wasn't there. Willow screamed inarticulately, barely noticing as a tendril of red energy whipped out from behind her, reaching down towards the two falling programs. Tara's eyes locked on Willow for a moment, and her expression changed. Willow saw all her desperation, her fear, all vanish, leaving something beautiful in its wake, an expression that was fashioned from perfect peace.
Then her sight was blocked as Rain flew up towards her, a writhing mass of blades in the grip of a web of blood. Willow threw herself back, tears streaming down her face, as Rain came over the edge of the platform. The tendril of energy, emanating from Echelon itself, held her aloft, caressed her, covered her in strands of its own power. Rain's own tracery merged with it, flushing with newfound strength, creeping up over her face like a glowing tattoo. Her eyes, now shining red from edge to edge, settled on Willow.
"Go to hell!" Willow screamed, caught between the will to throw herself into the fire, and the need to somehow make Rain pay for what she had done. A slow smile spread across Rain's face as her clawed feet made contact with the platform's surface. She took two steps forward, staring at Willow, who couldn't move for the sobs wracking her body. Then she opened her mouth, and the deafening wave of sound that came from her throat was like the roar of a blast furnace. She spread her many limbs wide, readying all her blades to strike. Red energy ran across all of them, making them look as if they were already coated in blood.
Light flooded the vast chamber from behind Rain, pure, dazzling light, reducing her to a silhouette to Willow's eyes. She turned, and beyond her Willow saw Tara, rising up above them, the lines of power on her body so bright that only the edges still had a hint of green, and the centre of her tracery lines had become pure white. In one hand she held a sword, with a blade that glittered like solid diamond, and behind her billowing sheets of white light spread out like wings. And when she spoke, it was with the unconquerable voice of an avenging angel, filling the vast volcano:
"Get away from her you bitch!"