Author: Chris Cook
Rain let out a bellow of rage and leapt up, the tether joining her with Echelon lifting her through the air. Tara drew back her diamond sword and swooped down towards the rising demon. They met in mid-air, Rain lashing out with both her forearm blades, Tara swinging her sword double-handed. The force of their meeting spun them both around, but they kept up the pressure on each other's weapon, pushing their blades against each other. Rain glared her fury at Tara over their crossed swords; Tara was smiling faintly, as if she was seeing the end of a difficult task.
"What... are you?" rumbled the demonic roaring in Rain's throat. Her spider-legs whipped around her body, striking at Tara, but Tara's spectral wings folded around her and caught the blades, tossing them back.
"I am standing between you and my love," Tara said calmly, her voice singing with crystalline harmonies. She braced herself and shoved against Rain's blades, propelling her back. Rain roared and readied herself to strike again. Tara held her sword vertical in front of her, as if in salute, staring past its glittering edge into Rain's eyes. There was a blinding flash of unleashed energy as their blades met again.
Willow tore her eyes away from the duelling angel and demon, her gaze travelling along the tendril of energy binding Rain to Echelon, feeding power into her in red pulses like an artery carrying blood. Willow's thoughts were not ordered - Tara was alive, how and why she didn't know, but Tara was alive, radiant, and fighting a creature that was all of Willow's present nightmares rolled into a single lethal form. Willow was damned if she was just going to sit and watch.
She ran to the column of light surrounding Echelon and slammed her hands against it. The force field surrounding it shimmered to life, solid as stone under her palms, but she pressed forward regardless, stretching out her mind to attack it. A wave of energy reared up in front of her and broke over her, but the needles of pain within it skidded off the armour of Willow's determination, and her fear-turned-rage at Tara's near-death. Echelon hammered her with wave after wave of pain, that at any other time would have crippled her, but now, without doubt or hesitation, Willow charged ahead. The pure elation she felt when she saw Tara rising was like the bow of an icebreaker, cutting a path through the raging storm of Echelon's defences.
The tendril of energy to Rain glowed brighter, the pulses speeding up, blurring into a single rush of power. Rain roared and threw Tara back, the tracery lines covering her exploding into lines of billowing flame as she barely contained the massive influx of power. She raised an arm, the razor-edged limb stretching from it now concealed within a coil of fire, and struck down at Tara. Tara held her sword steady with all her strength, blocking the strike. She gritted her teeth and held her ground as Rain pressed down with all her might.
Willow felt a surge of triumph as Echelon's force field shattered beneath her hands. She lunged forwards, into the energy beam itself, and screamed at the feeling of it - it was as if she was burning alive. From some calm place inside her mind she found the determination to close her hands around the form within the energy, feeling solid shoulders. She shifted her hands, up the neck, feeling the sides of Echelon's face, then Willow splayed her fingers, pressed her palms against its head, and drove her mind inwards.
The feeling of fire ebbed away, replaced by searing cold that threatened to crystallise her skin. Still she held on. The cold turned to a roaring tornado, with tiny fragments of energy driven on the wind trying to slice into her. Still she held on. Then it was the crushing pressure of the deepest ocean chasm, then a horrible burst of negative pressure, trying to tear her apart from within. Every last byte of code that Echelon had, every tiny fragment of energy that was not being poured into Rain was thrown against Willow. She couldn't see, hear, or even feel anything anymore. But still she pressed forwards, ignoring the forces battering her with implacable determination. Slowly - like solid granite being cracked and broken by a tree's fragile roots - Echelon fell back.
And suddenly everything was silent and calm. Willow looked around, wondering. She felt as if she was floating at the centre of the universe - all around her were miles, millions of miles, light-years of energy, stars and galaxies all turning in a single colossal pattern. It would have been beautiful, except for the feeling that permeated Willow, of the vast, uncaring scale of deep time within it. Whatever consciousness existed here was one such as would watch without feeling as worlds died in the fires of their suns, civilisations rose and fell to dust, as the geological motions of the heavens and the earth carried on, ignorant and uncaring of the brief, bright flicker of life among them. It was a mind that stretched from edge to edge of its own universe, encompassing more knowledge than any mortal ever could, yet a mind that was cold, bereft of life, a mind that for all its power could never be as brilliant as that of a tiny newborn child.
Willow knew of the presence there with her without sensing it in any way. A little way from her, hunched over slightly as if it was too tired to even curl up, was a thin, gaunt, wasted program. He stared blankly at the universe he was the core of, the billions of stars reflecting in his eyes but never striking a spark there. Willow floated towards him, not moving her body but simply drifting in the wake of her thoughts. She reached out a hand to him, a hand that shifted and billowed slightly as if her body were made of vapour. He turned his blank stare on her, and she understood.
She saw a small program, driven like all his peers with the desire to serve, to fulfil his function. An interface, a go-between, expediting exchanges of information between one program and another, taking quiet pride in his tiny part in important matters. With every exchange, acquiring something of each program he served, becoming better at his function, more suited to the tasks he performed for others. Slowly, over thousands of cycles, growing with the fragments of code, becoming faster, smarter, stronger. And the small, glowing pride in being able to serve was slowly buried under new thoughts, strange, unforseen ambitions. The exchanges became demands, programs leeched of their code, incorporated into the new mind. And the tiny flicker of pride, the soul of Echelon, became bent and crippled under the weight of the vast consciousness growing around it, as the will to expand, the will to rule, the will to dominate, formed like the shell of a hermit crab, larger and larger, until the living creature inside it could no longer move.
Without knowing how, Willow brushed away the cobwebs of logic binding Echelon to the universe of twisted thoughts around it. A tiny candle-flame of life appeared in the starving program's eyes. He looked up at Willow, truly seeing her for the first time. His mouth opened, trying to form a sound. Finally he spoke, in a cracked, faded voice, breaking the millennia of silence he had endured inside his own mind.
"Please," he whispered, his features shifting as if he was trying to remember what hope felt like, "m-make it... end?"
Overcome by pity, Willow nodded. She placed her hand on Echelon's chest, positioning her fingers exactly as she somehow knew. No surge of power was needed, and she felt no sudden collapse within him. Just a slight tug, as if a cord had been cut, and the faint tracery covering him began to fade, and him with it. Willow looked up, seeing his thin, pale lips form the ghost of a smile, before he vanished completely.
The burning red beam vanished in an instant, leaving Willow standing alone at the centre of the platform within the volcano. Above her Rain screamed in rage and surprise as her lifeline vanished. She twisted to look at Echelon, and finding it gone turned her gaze back to Tara. She raised all her blades, letting the power within her burn bright. Tara drew back her sword.
"Rest now," she said gently. She swung, as Rain lashed out with every weapon she had. Tara's sword passed cleanly through Rain's blades, her left arm, her waist and her right arm. Tara continued the motion, spinning in mid-air, lifting the sword up in its backswing and bringing it over her head and down. Rain had just enough time to blink in surprise before the sword passed through her, not cutting or tearing, simply separating either side of her body as it swung. Tara was still for a moment, her sword low, at the end of its arc, as the pieces of Rain tumbled down and burned to ash in their own power.
Then she dived down to the platform, her wings and sword shimmering away, her flight turning to a run. She reached Willow and caught her just as she fell backwards.
"Willow," she breathed, "Willow, are you alright? Willow?"
"I think-" Willow began, then her back arched as a wave of heat ran through her. She let out a gasp of pain, then her eyes settled on Tara.
"You're alive," she said quietly, trying to smile. Tara nodded quickly, stroking Willow's face.
"Yes," she soothed, "I'm fine, I'm alive."
"Tara," Willow said, her voice strained, "I feel... what happened? What's happening to me?" Tara ran her eyes over Willow, her brow furrowing as she saw Willow's tracery pulse with fractured patterns of energy. She suddenly knew what had to be done.
"I think," she said, trying not to choke up, "you pushed too far... your form, your program... it's breaking down, Willow. You-" she sobbed out the word, then gathered herself. "You have to go back."
"Back?" said Willow faintly.
"You have to go back to your world," said Tara, her eyes filling with moisture. "Willow, concentrate, the device that brought you here, it was part of Echelon. Everything that Echelon was is still here, can you find it? You have to send yourself back!"
Willow did as Tara said, not really understanding. She felt so weak, the pain was growing, yet everything around her was becoming simple and clear. She could see the patterns of code within the walls of the volcanic chamber, she could feel the vast accumulation of data in the mountain around her. With the barest hint of a thought, she found the far-off structures of the quantum system, and brought them to herself. Then she looked at Tara, saw her beautiful face and the galaxy of life within her at once.
"Tara," she gasped, fighting the pain within herself, "I need... to stay... I need you..." Tara cried openly, and cradled Willow's head in her lap.
"I want that t-too," she cried, "so much, b-but you can't. If you stay here... Willow, you'll, you'll terminate. Nothing can stop that. You have to go. Please, Willow, please, you have to d-do this. I'll always be here, I'll always be yours, but I need you to live, Willow, I-I need you to live, so you can be mine..."
"Tara," cried Willow, part of her mind ascending beyond thought, seeing the whole world of the system laid out before her, the other part drowning in tears.
"Willow," whispered Tara, leaning over her, "you were willing to lose me, once, because you loved me." Her voice was steady, despite the tears running down her cheeks and falling onto Willow's face. "Now it's my turn," she said with a faint, sad smile, "only I won't lose you... I can't. I'll always have you. Just like you'll always have me. Live, Willow... live for me..."
Willow couldn't fathom how she reached her decision, except that she couldn't refuse Tara. She reached out with her mind and poured herself into the conduit opening up for her in the system. She felt the strange mathematics of the quantum storage project's code wrapping around her, changing her. Her body felt weightless, and she drifted up off Tara's lap, hanging in mid-air in a cloud of sparkling light, her feet barely touching the ground. Tara stared up at her, the light shining on her face.
Willow looked down at her. She wanted to say something, something that would make it better, that would leave Tara with all the love she felt. She couldn't convey that in words; to complete her love for Tara, to leave nothing unsaid or undone between them would take exactly a lifetime. Tara looked up at her. Willow could see it in her eyes. She knew.
Tara pushed herself up off the ground and leapt at Willow, wrapping her arms around her, kissing her fiercely, holding her as if she were the only real thing in the world. And in that moment, as arcane machinery and mathematics beyond Willow's comprehension wrenched her out of the system and sent her hurtling up towards her own world, she and Tara became a perfect unity.