Author: Chris Cook
"Movement," hissed Emdee, suddenly at their side. He motioned towards the junction up ahead, and indicated the left passageway from it.
"Decoy and attack," suggested Tara. Emdee nodded. Tara turned to Willow.
"Stay here," she said. Willow almost argued, wanted to stay with Tara, but she realised Tara knew what she was doing in this situation, far better than she herself did. Emdee blurred just short of the junction, and Tara sprinted to catch up. Despite herself, Willow edged a little closer herself. She could hear, faintly, the metallic ringing of footsteps.
Tara braced herself, then jumped nimbly into the open, turning in mid-leap to face the sound's source. Her expression told Willow she had seen their enemy, but her stance never faltered. She shifted lithely into a combat pose, one arm outstretched, ready to defend, the other held behind her, to counterbalance. Willow could just make out her hand behind her back - she had raised three fingers, and Emdee was watching them. The footsteps quickened. Two fingers. One.
Tara shot into the air, flipping twice her own height, as Rain charged into view, talons outstretched. At the same instant, Emdee blurred into action - before Rain had seen him he was on top of her, between the limbs on her back, arms wrapped around her neck, fingers digging fiercely into the vulnerable, soft skin beneath her jaw, as if to choke her. 'Can you choke a program?' Willow thought to herself. Evidently something of the sort was possible, as Rain crashed to the ground in a tangle of limbs and mechanised blades. Tara landed softly behind her and readied herself to strike.
But as soon as his target had hit the ground, Emdee screamed. Willow instinctively ran closer, ignoring the fact that she couldn't be of any assistance anyway. Rain's mandibles had sliced into Emdee's arms, and were sawing through them. Tara launched a lightning-fast kick at the back of Rain's head, but her spider-legs flashed around her like a shield, catching Tara in the stomach and throwing her towards Willow. She rolled as she landed, coming to rest in a perfect defensive posture, stilling the sudden terror Willow had felt at seeing her hit.
Emdee was beyond help. As soon as he let go, to try to at least escape, Rain's hands closed around his elbows, holding him in place as her mandible blades completed their task. Amid a shower of sparks she severed his hands completely, letting him fall to the ground behind her. Her spider-legs slammed into the walls around her, keeping her aloft as she lifted her legs out from underneath her and crossed them. She lowered herself down near Emdee, staring back at Tara and Willow. Making sure they were watching, Willow realised.
Her abdominal claws shot out, punching through Emdee's stomach, lifting him off the ground. Rain ignored his struggles and cupped his face in her palms, grinning at him in a parody of tenderness. Willow started as Tara's hand closed around her arm.
"Let's go," Tara said, her voice thick. Willow couldn't move - she was paralysed between a suicidal impulse to try to save Emdee, and the desire to just run screaming and hide in the deepest, darkest hole she could find. Rain lifted Emdee's face to hers and pressed their lips together - for her expression alone, it didn't deserve to be called a kiss. Emdee's struggles suddenly intensified, his limbs flailing around, out of control, blue sparks dripping from his tattered wrists.
Willow watched in utter horror as his skin began to crack, the very matter of his body breaking down before her eyes. A few shards fell, tiny prisms and cubes, then more, like firewood burned to ash, falling apart at the slightest touch. Still he struggled, shaking himself to pieces. At last the bulk of his body simply collapsed around the mechanical limbs holding him up, and what was left of him crashed to the ground, the last fragments shattering completely, the broken remains of his tracery snapping like fragile glass, leaking his energy over the debris of his body.
Rain stayed motionless for a moment, clearly enjoying her audience's fear. Her mouth remained open, stretched like a python's, around the thick end of the metre-long tendril she had extended, that had torn Emdee apart from the inside. It was forked at the tip, just like a serpent's tongue. At the same instant it snapped back into her mouth, vanishing without a trace behind her lips, and her spider-legs let go of their grip on the walls. She landed, her feet wide for balance, and stretched luxuriously.
"Willow, we need to go now," whispered Tara urgently. Her cheeks were wet - tears. Willow started to stagger back, letting Tara lead her, her eyes still fixed in horror on the other program
"She... she..." Willow stammered.
"She de-rezzed him, yes," said Tara grimly. "We have to get out of here now, before she-"
Rain started to move, raising a single clawed foot off the ground, then she blurred just like Emdee had. Willow screamed as the horror program suddenly appeared right in front of her, and instinctively raised her arm as Rain lashed out at her, the limb buried in her forearm stretching out to cross the distance between them. She felt an impact, but not the burning pain she remembered from before, and fell back as Tara's guiding grip turned into a desperate pull, hauling her away from Rain. Half-way through her fall Willow staggered, her arm almost pulled out of its socket, and she slid to the ground as her legs collapsed under her.
"Willow!" Tara screamed as she fell, drowned out by a bellow of surprise and rage from Rain. Willow's hand had folded into a shield again, through which Rain's blade had sliced and stuck, leaving them locked together. Rain was staring in disbelief at the shield, tugging her arm to release the blade, but otherwise seeming like she hadn't fully processed the situation. Seeing her distracted, Tara attacked.
Willow fell back as the blade wrenched out of her shield, pulled away as Tara slammed into Rain, driving her back. Her arms and legs flashed too fast to see, striking Rain again and again, knocking her bladed limbs away, kicking her legs out from under her, parrying her spider-legs when they slashed forward randomly. Willow rolled onto her side and got to her knees, as for a moment it looked like Tara had the upper hand. Then Rain recovered from her shock, and focused her attention on Tara. She used both her abdominal limbs to block Tara's kick to her waist, then lashed out with both forearms and two pairs of spider-legs at once, connecting with enough of the bladed limbs to toss Tara over Willow's head.
Willow didn't look back. She had heard Tara's scream, saw the stains of green light on Rain's blades, and her mind - driven beyond the need for rational thought to justify its decisions - told her to make Rain pay for that. She went from her half-kneeling crouch into a perfect lunge, arm outstretched, the sword unfolding from her hand as she drove in towards the top of Rain's abdomen, where she knew - from knowing to avoid it in friendly bouts - a strike would hurt the most, just underneath the protection of the ribs. It didn't matter to her than Rain most likely didn't have ribs, or that she was lunging into range of no less than twelve separate limbs, each razor-edged. All that mattered was the look of shock and pain on Rain's hated face, as Willow lunged her sword up into the cavity in her abdomen, driving upwards into her chest. There was some resistance, but little, against all of Willow's weight thrown into the lunge.
The two of them stayed that way, locked together in perfect stillness, for several seconds - Willow staring into Rain's eyes, her hand buried in her stomach, the hilt of her blade slammed against the top of her abdominal cavity, the tip rising up out of her back behind her neck. Then Rain broke the stare, looking down at her own body as if it were something unfamiliar to her, and the loss of contact allowed Willow to gather her thoughts for a brief instant and analyse the situation rationally. Her conclusion was that Rain was still standing, so she swung her other arm out from where her lunge had left it, flattened against her side and leg, brought to mind the memory of having a sword in that hand too, and drove it through her neck.
That seemed to get Rain's attention. She screamed, a mechanical sound that reverberated along Willow's left arm from where the hilt of her blade was pressed against Rain's throat, and flung Willow away, and herself back. Willow ended up on her stomach, looking back at Tara's fallen form - she was moving. She had three cuts on her, a deep one on one shoulder, two shallower ones across her stomach, but she was supporting herself on one arm, lifting her torso up off the ground, staring back at Willow and Rain in shock and disbelief. Willow heard the crash behind her as Rain fell, but all her thoughts had turned to Tara. Her twin swords folded into her hands as she pushed herself to her feet, quickly closing the distance between them, taking the offered arm and helping Tara to her feet.
"We have to go," said Tara, her voice strained but strong, "quickly!" Only then did Willow look back at Rain. The nightmare program was back on her feet, her spider-legs thrashing in rage, tearing chunks out of the walls on either side of her. Willow and Tara ran, dodging around the corner at the next junction, and kept running until the sound of crunching, tearing steel had been left far behind them.