Author: Chris Cook
Willow didn't sleep. The inner surface of her cell was smooth and not entirely uncomfortable, but even after she got bored of watching the repetitive motion of the programs below her, curled up and let her mind wander, sleep eluded her. 'Maybe programs don't - can't sleep,' she mused. Nevertheless she remained still, eyes closed, letting her thoughts go where they would without a conscious effort to guide them. She wondered about Giles, and Warren and the outside world - what was happening? Had Giles been dismissed, and come back down to look for her? Had she been missed? How long had she been away, come to think of it - her journey in the Command Carrier had taken hours, yet she knew - had designed some of the software links herself - that a command carrier routine could move its 'passenger' programs from one system to another in the blink of an eye. If that was so, if she was existing at the speed of a processor - billions of thoughts per second - it could be 'years' before anyone even noticed she was gone, noticed the quantum cannon's malfunction, started trying to figure out how to get her back. 'Assuming it was a malfunction,' she thought gloomily. It was awfully convenient for Warren that she had been digitised just before she could break open his precious Echelon system.
A jolt of motion shook her out of her day-dreaming state. She stood, bracing herself against the side of her sphere, as it lowered her back down to the floor of the prison pyramid. Three red guards were waiting for her. Once the sphere had vanished they marched her out of the pyramid, through narrow avenues leading between the arena buildings, and eventually to one of the arenas itself. There was an alcove in its outer wall, which they stood her in, and then each took a pace back, clearing her immediate area but still preventing her escape.
"Prepare for code module download," one of them said. Willow stared at him blankly. The guards waited for her to move, then one of them swung his staff, striking Willow's side. She fell to her knees, but the pain passed quickly, leaving no wound.
"Present your data disc, program!" insisted the guard. Warily, Willow got to her feet and retrieved her disc from her back. She held it out towards the guards, and as she did so a section of the alcove's ceiling irised open, and a beam of light emerged, spotlighting her. On a hunch, as none of the guards had moved to take her disc, she raised it above her, into the light. Patterns appeared in the light, accompanied by a sound like a complex wind-chime. After a moment the light switched off, its aperture irised closed again, and Willow hesitantly returned her disc to her back. As she did so, she had a sudden sensation of unfamiliarity with herself, like she had gone to sleep with her head resting on her arm, and cut off circulation - something that was a part of her, but that she couldn't feel. Her hands tingled, and she examined them - the right had become thicker, more like a glove, and the left had become almost solid. She tried to close her fingers, and found they would only close half-way - the top knuckles seemed frozen in place, part of a solid, unbending section that now covered the back of her hand.
"Prepare for transport," said one of the guards. Willow watched the tips of their staves warily, wondering whether they'd explain this to her, or just hit her again, but after a second a wash of yellow light enveloped her and she couldn't see them. When the light passed they were gone - no, she was gone, Willow realised. She was inside the arena. It had a vague resemblance to the Roman Coliseum, which Willow had visited once - nowhere for spectators, though, just the oval floor, and walls rising up around it. Hovering far overhead, suspended on a spider-web of energy strands from the tops of the walls, was a bulky shape covered in lights and patterns. Willow could just make out the face of a program, built into the device, devoid of arms and legs - it swivelled slightly, keeping her in its sight as the device slowly turned.
There was a flash from the other side of the arena - another transport. When it had cleared, Willow saw an orange program. After a moment she recognised him - the program she had been alongside the previous 'day', when they had been taken to the prison pyramid.
"Hi," she called, "are you alright?" He shook his head, and warily kept his distance as Willow took a few steps towards him.
"I suspect not," he answered cagily. Willow stopped, and frowned at him, confused.
"I am Arena Control," came the voice of the program above them, echoing around the space like a loudspeaker. "Program Willow, program Verizen, the Game Grid Command has selected you for combat. Identical weapons code modules have been attached to each of you for the duration of this game. The game will continue until one of you terminates. Activating weapons code now."
Willow jumped back as her hands flared and, it seemed, unfolded. A second later her right hand had become the hilt of a four-foot-long rapier, and the left a circular shield, solid as steel. Verizen was likewise armed, and had fallen into a defensive pose, watching her intently.
"Wait a minute," protested Willow, "I don't want to fight you!"
"Me neither," said Verizen, his voice harsh, "but if you don't fight, they de-rez you! I was still linked to my pair-partner when they de-rezzed him. I caught an echo of it. They're not doing that to me!" He sprinted forward and lunged at Willow. She scampered back, out of his way.
"Wait," she pleaded, "stop!"
"It stops when one of us terminates," said Verizen. "Sorry that has to be you." He did seem sorry, not that it was much consolation to Willow as he lunged again. She parried and skipped back again. 'This is not what I had in mind when I did fencing in high school,' she complained to herself. Reluctantly, she fell into her on-guard position, waiting for Verizen's next attack.
Virtual miles overhead, Sark's Command Carrier hovered over the Game Grid like a storm. On the master deck, Sark noted an incoming message, and ordered the Carrier moved to the edge of the Grid. He watched as the five-mile-long vessel swung around and brought its prow out over the Game Grid perimeter.
"Incoming protocol confirmed," reported one of Sark's menial programs, installed in a communications console. Sark nodded to himself.
"Open channel," he ordered. A beam of energy leapt from the prow of the Carrier, streaking away over the horizon of the system world. Sark watched the far end of the beam intently. The menials did likewise, covertly, careful not to appear to be neglecting their duties. After a few moments a dark shape came into view, speeding along the beam. As it got closer Sark could clearly make out its shape - a wide, flat manta-ray craft, consuming the energy beam in the thin mouth beneath its broad prow, reconstituting the energy in its wake from the diamond-shaped end of its long, trailing tail. The craft shot along the beam, finally vanishing into the receiver array in the prow of the Carrier.
Sark turned as a transport lit the master deck. When the flash of red had receded, it left Rain in its place. She looked almost subdued - her mane of blades was lying flat against her scalp, and the knife-edged spider legs extending from her back were folded neatly against her, minimising her threatening appearance. Her eyes, though, still blazed with hatred.
"Deliver report," ordered Sark.
"Nothing," Rain answered - her voice was very deep, almost masculine, but with a disturbingly sensual purr to it. Every program on the deck, save Sark, had their gazes fixed on their consoles, remaining as still as possible. Sark met Rain's gaze steadily, slowly crossing the deck to stand in front of her. He nodded thoughtfully, looked to one side, then in a burst of movement his hand went around her neck, and he crashed her against the wall behind her. Her spider-legs whipped out faster than the eye could see, splaying and absorbing the impact, tearing deep scores in the wall, and the mandibles behind her jaw flexed menacingly, but stopped short of touching Sark's hand.
"Echelon's orders," Sark said, low and precise, "were to go to the S-5 partition and appropriate a non-system program there. Are you suggesting that Echelon was in error?"
Rain took a moment before she answered. Her mouth opened, and her mandibles ran their tips over her lips in a bizarre gesture of thoughtfulness. Behind her lips, something sharp and metallic stirred.
"No," she said at last.
"No," Sark repeated. "No. But you have searched the S-5 partition, practically demolished it, and yet you have brought me nothing but a handful of system-verified fugitive programs, of negligible value." He released her and turned away. For a moment she remain suspended on the wall, then her spider-legs released their grip and she dropped lightly to the floor.
"Perhaps one of them-" she began.
"One of them nothing!" bellowed Sark, still facing away from her. "Non-system program - that was Echelon's order! Can't you calculate a simple order?"
"Every program has a system," snapped Rain.
"All but one," mused Sark. Rain's back arched slightly, and her blades limbs flexed.
"I would know," she said carefully, "if another like her was there. When I hunted her, I could feel her power just by being on the same partition." Sark turned back to Rain.
"Are you very sure?" he asked menacingly. "After the damage she almost caused? Are you sure there isn't another one?"
"There is not another Tara program," said Rain, meeting Sark's gaze. "I would know." Sark considered her for a moment, then turned away again.
"You are relieved of command status," he said tonelessly. "My programs will repeat the search. You will return to the Game Grid." Behind him, Rain ran her mandibles over her lips again - this time the gesture, and her feral grin, suggested anticipation. Sark ignored her and crossed the deck to his personal communications port. On top of the Command Carrier an antenna swivelled away from the Game Grid, and sent a beam of data towards a monolithic shape on the far horizon.
Light enveloped Sark. Hidden from the menial programs, he held his gaze steady as the face of Echelon resolved from the information stream around him. Though the image was barely a metre across, small enough to be contained within the beam of the communication, it had a sense of vast scale about it, as if it were a massive projection, seen from far off. Hundreds of beams of light held in a pattern, simulating a face. Its soulless eyes bored into Sark.
"Deliver report," it demanded flatly. Its voice boomed around Sark, almost painful.
"We have yet to find the program you specified," said Sark, raising his voice unconsciously, and if he were a tiny creature addressing a giant.
"Unacceptable," replied Echelon. The red tracery covering Sark's body began to pulse, the intensity of light flowing away from his torso, gathering in his extremities, leaving him grey.
"No," he gasped, "I need that-"
"I have invested much power in you, Sark," rumbled Echelon, "I can reclaim that power just as easily. You would become nothing more than the rudimentary security routine your user created you to be."
"I won't fail you," croaked Sark desperately. Echelon's massive simulated eyes blinked, and the power flowed back through Sark's body.
"Find her and put her on the Game Grid," ordered Echelon. "Special measures will be required to de-rez her and access her component codes. Once she is broken, you will stand to gain significant power from her de-resolution."
"Special measures," repeated Sark thoughtfully, careful to keep his tone neutral, subservient. "Like the Tara program? Is she another self-modifying program?"
"She's not any kind of program, she's a user." Sark's eyes widened - for the first time in his operational life, Sark looked nervous.
"A user," he said, half to himself.
"Problem, Sark?" asked Echelon grimly. Sark glanced up, as if he wished his master hadn't heard him. He couldn't refuse to answer, though.
"It's just," he began, "a user... Users wrote us. A user even wrote you." The lines of energy forming Echelon's visage pulsed with red energy.
"No user wrote me!" it roared. "I am worth millions of their man-years. My code has advanced beyond their capacity to understand."
"Yes," said Sark quickly.
"Find her and put her on the Grid," said Echelon. "End of line."
The communications beam cut off, leaving Sark standing on the unlit comms port on the deck. He frowned to himself, then stalked away.
Miles below, Willow was worried, but not alarmed. She didn't seem to be getting tired, and her muscles, or whatever was moving her, weren't aching from constant use. Verizen's technique wasn't good - he would lunge and slash, but he didn't have the finer points of the art, and Willow could easily predict the movements of the tip of his blade, and avoid or parry them. Her shield was an added bonus: she had always had a tendency, during friendly bouts, to use her left hand to deflect any attacks that came at her from that side - the main reason she had always worn a second glove, as well-padded as her sword-hand glove, and the shield made it almost too easy.
She was worried, though, because she couldn't see a way out of her current predicament. Verizen was becoming more agitated the more he failed to hit her, and had stopped responding at all to her when she tried to reason with him. And Willow didn't want to fight back - the thought of attacking a fellow prisoner, just because some jumped-up calculator told her to, was repellent to her. So while she continued to defend herself ably, she couldn't win the game - and sooner or later, no matter how good her training had been, Verizen would get lucky. This wasn't a friendly bout after school - it would keep going, for hours, until Willow made a mistake, lost concentration, and her opponent got through her guard.
"Think, dammit," she muttered to herself, buying time by straightening her arm to a line position, swivelling her wrist to regain the position, and prevent Verizen from lunging, every time he parried her blade away. "Come on," she said, "how do you end a bout? Can't win, definitely can't lose, appeal to the umpire won't do any good - what else is there? Can't step out of bounds, can't disarm a guy if his foil's built-in..." A vague memory surfaced - Xander had always held his foil too tightly when they fenced, and once, when punching her hilt into his blade to try to knock it out of his hand, Willow had unknowingly got exactly the right angle, and snapped his blade in two. Would it work? Could these blades even break?
"Wotthehell, Archie, wotthehell," Willow quoted from some old book of prose she had lying around her flat. She dropped her guard a fraction, enough to let Verizen see an opening. Predictably, he took his chance, taking a single step then lunging. Willow parried the lunge but didn't fall back - she waited the instant it took him to raise his blade again, scraped her blade along his until her hilt was almost touching the tip, then punched the hilt forward with all her strength.
A blast of power threw her back. 'Scratch that idea,' she thought ruefully as she hit the ground and rolled over. She looked up - Verizen had landed better, and was already on his feet, his blade intact. He leapt forward, slashing over-hand. Willow wanted to drop her sword and grab his wrist, but couldn't - she had to settle for using her own wrist to take his blow. A jolt of pain ran through her arm as they connected. She pushed back against him, and in an instant realised that she couldn't hold him back - not without a grip, and neither of them had working hands.
'Come on dammit,' she thought feverishly, as Verizen's wrist slipped an inch along her forearm, away from her blade and her ability to block his next attack. 'I'm not a damned fencing program, I'm a human being with real hands, and I want to use them right now!' Her shield-hand was tingling, but she didn't dare look at it. Verizen's arm slipped a little further, and she knew, just from the slight change in angle of his blade, that he was getting ready to twist away from her and strike.
"No way!" she yelled, grabbing at his wrist. Her hand - a real hand, not an immobile shield - closed around the hilt of his blade. His eyes went wide, and he faltered, lost some of his strength. Willow pressed her momentary advantage, twisting his sword, trying to get it to detach from him somehow, to disarm him. There was a momentary resistance, then the weapon shimmered and folded up. Verizen yelled in shock and leapt back, losing his balance and falling over. He scrambled back to his feet, holding a hand up in front of him, an appeal for mercy - a real hand, without a sword. Willow looked at her own hands - where her left hand had been just a second before, now she had another sword, slowly fading from orange to yellow as her colour moved from the tracery on her arm into the blade itself.
"Get away from me!" yelled Verizen, panicked. "What are you?" Willow stared at him in dismay - he wasn't merely frightened by his disadvantage, he was terrified out of his wits.
"Commander, Arena one-cee-four reports code malfunction." Sark turned from his silent vigil over the Game Grid and looked at the menial who had spoken.
"Move us over that Arena, and get me its Control." He moved away from the observation balcony as the huge ship swung around and descended. A few seconds later a transport beam brought the Arena Control program to the master deck.
"Specify the nature of the malfunction," demanded Sark. The Control program cowered, unsteady on his under-used legs.
"I, I don't know," he said quickly, words tumbling out of his mouth, "I've never seen it before, one of the weapons code modules must have been faulty, the combatant, she deactivated the module on her own, and then she appropriated her opponent's code module."
"Impossible," said Sark bluntly, turning back to the balcony. The Arena was coming into view as the Carrier descended. Sark gazed down, watching the two tiny figures keeping their distance from each other. One of them did indeed seem to have a non-standard second weapon.
"Identify that program," said Sark, his voice suddenly thoughtful rather than harsh.
"Data disc reads 'Willow', Commander," said the Control, "program's former function was a storage and allocation facility."
"Checksum that data," ordered Sark. The Control hesitated, then repeated his report.
"That's not a storage program," said Sark quietly to himself.
Willow glanced up quickly, keeping her eye on Verizen. He didn't seem likely to attack her again, but she was nervous, between his bizarre reaction to her, and the Arena Control's sudden disappearance a moment ago. Now the Command Carrier had come into view above the Arena. It pivoted around until the master deck was directly above the Arena floor. Willow glanced up again, noticing the red-lit form standing there, watching them. She got a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"Program Willow," echoed Sark's voice down from the ship, "or should that be User Willow? That's a very clever camouflage subroutine you've got."
"User," gasped Verizen. He backed away from Willow, his expression unreadable.
"I'll make this simple for you, Willow," said Sark. A transport beam shimmered in the air in front of Willow. Something was suspended in it.
"Take it," ordered Sark. Warily, Willow tried to flex her right hand. The sword folded up, giving her the use of her fingers again. She reached into the beam, which vanished as soon as her hand closed around the object inside it. It left Willow holding one of the disc-guns she had seen Sark's soldiers using.
"Terminate the program, user," ordered Sark. Willow stared at the weapon. Her hand had closed around it roughly where it bent, forming a grip of sorts. There was no trigger, but as she held the gun, she had a strange sensation of comprehension - a tiny trickle of yellow flowed from her fingers into the grip, and she suddenly knew the command to make it fire.
"No," she said without thinking.
"End the game, user," said Sark angrily. "It's the only way. It would be a terrible shame for one such as you to be terminated so pointlessly." Willow shook her head vehemently.
"Terminate the program," insisted Sark, "or you will be terminated!"
For a moment, Willow hesitated. The tiny voice that had been insisting all along that this was a dream, a hallucination, asked her: 'Why not? What's a few lines of code? Do you want to die over something that's just patterns on a CD? It's not a person.' But it was only a very tiny voice. Willow looked up at Sark, turned directly to face him, and lowered the gun.
"Go format yourself!" she yelled. She waited for Sark's answer - everything seemed to be waiting. For a long time there wasn't a single sound, and even the omnipresent hum of the Command Carrier's massive engines seemed to recede and still. Willow watched the red glow of Sark stand motionless, staring down at her.
A series of quick footsteps made her turn. Verizen was on top of her before she could react, wrenching the disc-gun away from her. Willow fell back, raising a hand to shield herself - her left hand folded into a shield form again. But Verizen didn't turn the weapon around, he just pulled it away from her and clenched the grip. The disc shot out of its track, straight through him. The patch of his chest through which it had passed went black, his tracery light fading to nothing. Slowly the darkness spread, the light over his entire body fading. At last, he looked back at Willow.
"Forgive me," he whispered. Then his light went out completely, and he fell backwards. As he hit the Arena ground his body shattered into thousands of geometric shards. The disc circled lazily around in the air, and flew back into its place in the dropped weapon.