Author: Chris Cook
Willow and Tara's lightcycle shot out of the labyrinth of passageways between arenas and straightened, heading out across a wide plateau that dominated the centre of the Game Grid. Willow had noted the upward incline of the roads they had swerved along, and also that the arena buildings and prison complexes around them had been getting larger and more heavily-guarded.
"This idea of yours," she said to Tara, glancing to either side of the cycle, where distant red shapes were looming, "does it involve us going right into the middle of the Game Grid?"
"Yep," confirmed Tara.
"Just checking," said Willow, trying to match Tara's off-hand calm, and ignore the number of programs already pursuing them. She looked forward instead - ahead of them, at the centre of the plateau, was a tall conical tower, like a hive. Brilliantly-lit columns of data ran through its walls, crossing and merging with each other. Snaking around the tower was a narrow ramp, spiralling up to the top, connecting the many levels of the structure's interior.
A muted thud got Willow's attention. She glanced over her shoulder to see shards of debris flying in all directions, the jagged chunks of metal reverting to simple shapes in mid-air and cascading back to the ground like hailstones. The vehicles to the cycle's left were growing close enough for her to make out their details - tanks, like the ones Willow had seen when she was first captured. Their cannons were swivelling and elevating, trying to track the speeding lightcycle. As Willow watched the nearest fired again, sending a glowing arrowhead-shaped shell screaming overhead. Willow felt the reverberation of its impact.
"Tara, there's lots of them back there," she warned. Tara nodded to herself, her attention fixed on the tower looming up ahead of them.
"Just tanks?" she asked. Willow looked quickly over both shoulders, assessing the forces in pursuit of them. Beyond the cluster of tanks now swerving in behind them, she could make out several of the geometric flying vehicles she had seen at the main arena.
"Some of those recogniser things as well," she reported.
"Good," said Tara. She lifted herself up off the lightcycle's seat a little, leaning further forward, as if streamlining herself. Despite being enclosed, the cycle put on more speed, while Willow ignored the feeling of having almost the entire length of Tara's body pressed against her. 'She's probably got her mind on other things, Will,' she chided herself.
"Is that good?" she asked instead, glancing again at the squadron of recognisers floating above the tanks.
"I hope it's good," said Tara. She glanced over her shoulder just long enough to catch Willow's gaze and wink, then her eyes were back on the road. Willow felt herself blush, but given her current steel-grey skin tone, put it down to her imagination. She looked ahead again, and stopped thinking about Tara. A group of tanks was moving into position around the base of the tower, blocking their way, their turrets swivelling around to target the oncoming cycle. Scurrying around them were dozens of red soldiers, bracing themselves against the vehicles or kneeling in front of them, a firing line of disc-guns at the ready.
"Willow, I need you to provide some covering fire," said Tara. "I'm going to retract our canopy. Don't worry, the cycle won't let you fall. Just keep the gun on low power and fire at anything in front of us."
"Okay," said Willow. She knew how fearful her voice must have sounded. Being honest with herself, she'd almost rather have taken her chances back in the maze than face the arsenal arrayed against them. Two things stopped her from saying so: Tara had already shown more courage on her behalf than she had any right to expect, and more importantly, regardless of how much she already owed Tara, Willow didn't want to disappoint her. She tried to keep her breathing steady, and held the grip of her disc-gun tightly, suddenly glad that programs seemed unable to sweat. Just as she was closing her eyes, trying to focus and stop herself from shaking with fright, she felt Tara's hand on hers.
"I won't let you get hit," Tara said, half-turning to face Willow over her shoulder, gripping her hand tightly. What Willow saw in her face, when she opened her eyes, wasn't the resolve of a warrior to face incredible odds - simply a promise, and the sure knowledge that Tara would keep her promise. Willow nodded, still not entirely willing to trust her voice, and turned her eyes to the approaching soldiers.
"In three," said Tara, "two, one." The canopy slid back, the beams on either side of Willow retracted, and suddenly the lightcycle's entire shell was gone, leaving only the wheels and the sleek inner hull connecting them. Willow sat back, bracing the disc-gun against her shoulder. The wind buffeted at her, but she felt more stable than she would have expected, as if her legs were being held perfectly in place. She aimed her gun, checked one last time that it was definitely set to its lower power mode, then touched the tiny trigger sense that was flowing through her palm into her mind. At the same instant the entire line of soldiers and tanks exploded in a volley of firepower.
Willow watched with a detached sense of dread as upwards of a dozen tank shells and discs flew straight towards her. Her instincts told her to duck, but she fought them, and at the last second Tara swerved the bike sideways, veering across the soldiers' line of fire, the tank shells blasting craters in the ground behind them. Willow leant sideways, almost against the side of the bike, to counterbalance as Tara turned back towards the tanks. She'd lost track of her own disc, not knowing if she'd hit anything, but when it flew back and snapped into the gun she aimed and fired again at once.
Having missed their first concentrated volley the soldiers began firing at will. Willow concentrated on the flight of her disc, very grateful for the security of the cycle's grip on her as Tara jinked from side to side, leaned so far down that the sides of the cycle's wheels threw up showers of sparks from the ground, and leant her weight from side to side, always causing the incoming shots to miss by a fraction. After Willow had let her disc fly for the fourth time - having deactivated two soldiers, and sent others scattering for cover each time she fired - they were getting dangerously close, and the tanks closed ranks, nudging their hulls together to create an impenetrable barrier around the tower.
"One more shot!" yelled Tara above the rushing wind and the explosions of tank shells and discs ricocheting off the ground. Willow aimed at the centre of a group of soldiers right in front of them and fired, then ducked as Tara's hand snaked around her waist, pulling her down.
"Hold on tight," Tara said, adjusting her grip on Willow. Willow nodded and put her free hand around Tara's waist, though she overcompensated in her desire to avoid troubling Tara's wounds, and her hand ended up on Tara's hip instead. Tara closed her eyes for a second, them glanced ahead. They were barely metres from the nearest tank, and still moving fast.
All at once Tara swerved the cycle around and leaned it far over, while her legs unwrapped themselves from the cycle's hull as if she were about to jump off. The cycle slammed down on its side, now skidding wheels-first towards the tank, leaving a cascade of sparks in its wake. Tara flung her right leg around the upper side of the cycle, wedging her foot inside the curve of the wheel, and wrapped her other leg around Willow's hips. Before Willow knew what was happening Tara had swung her over the side of the cycle. Tara held her there, inches from the ground, one arm and leg holding her so tight Willow could feel her breathe, her other arm and leg looped around the cycle's handlebar and rear wheel housing, like a trapeze artist dangling from her beam. She held Willow tight as the fallen cycle skidded between the tracks of the tank, just narrow enough to pass beneath its hull.
Willow felt as if time had slowed down. Her head buzzed from the adrenaline rush, the sudden terror when Tara had swung her off the side of the cycle, and the intense feeling of Tara's tight, unbreakable grip on her. Their faces were a millimetre apart. Tara's eyes were wide, staring straight into Willow's; her mouth was open, breathing heavily. For a long split second, lit only by the showers of sparks beneath Willow and above Tara, as the cycle's wheels rasped against the ground and the underside of the tank, Willow had all the time in the world to imagine Tara leaning just that tiny fraction closer.
Then they were out from underneath the tank, and time was flashing past in a blur again. Tara instantly threw her weight upwards, pulling the cycle back to its wheels, and Willow back to her position behind her on the seat. Tara's arm remained around Willow as she swerved the bike back towards the tower, now standing defenceless before them. She steered one-handed as they crossed the threshold, speeding up the ramp, curving around the tower. Willow took a deep breath as the ground dropped away sharply to her left, and the horizon spun as they ascended the side of the tower in circles that grew tighter with each turn. She caught glimpses of the recognisers, hovering patiently towards them, and of the tanks below - she grinned as she noticed that those pursuing her and Tara had collided with those attempting to keep them from the tower's base.
"Willow, give me the gun," said Tara urgently. Willow handed her the disc-gun, glad to be rid of it. Tara pulled her own gun from where she had stowed it in the cycle's hull, and held both in one hand. She leaned back, sitting up as straight as she could while keeping her other hand on the handlebars.
"I need you to hold on really tight," instructed Tara, "legs around my waist, now." Willow did as she was told, pulling herself tightly against Tara's back. "Arms," said Tara, and Willow slid her hands beneath Tara's arms and gripped her just below her chest. "Good," said Tara, "now enjoy the ride."
"Tara, what are we-" Willow started to ask, as she noticed the topmost level of the tower nearing, and with it the end of the ramp. Tara leaned forward, with Willow clinging to her back, and gave the cycle one last burst of speed as the ramp ran out beneath them. Willow looked down in shock at the ground far beneath them, then up to see the looming shape of a recogniser in the air ahead. Tara was already straightening, kicking the cycle away beneath her, raising a disc-gun in each hand, firing an instant later. The recogniser's hull was only metres away - the discs smashed off it, back into the guns, and out again as Tara kept firing, like a champion game of table-tennis, too quick for the eye to follow. Just as it seemed to Willow that she and Tara were destined to rebound off the vehicle's hull its side cracked, flickered, then vanished completely. Tara caught both arms and one leg on the edge of the recogniser's interior, slammed painfully into the hull, then hauled herself and Willow inside as if the impact had been nothing.
As soon as there was floor beneath her Willow grabbed hold of it and, lacking a proper hand-hold, used her weight to help pull Tara away from the edge. Tara moved slowly, dazed from the impact, and it was Willow who looked up first to see a stunned red program staring back at them from behind some sort of control pedestal. He let go of the handles of his control and advanced on Tara. Willow rose to her knees and made a wild slash at him with the sword that was suddenly in her hand. He dodged, but took his eyes off Tara, and didn't see when she rolled over and whipped both her legs up behind him, sending him flying out of the open side of his vehicle. Willow scrambled to the edge just in time to see him land, intact but wreathed in electrical discharges.
"That's going to hurt when he's re-initialised," said Tara, standing with some difficulty. Willow was instantly at her side, ducking under her arm to support her.
"You need to rest," she insisted. Tara shook her head.
"I need to fly this thing," she said. With Willow helping her she stood in front of the controls and took hold of them. Willow braced herself as the recogniser swung sharply around, ascending as it turned. Through the hole in the vehicle's hull she saw the rest of the recogniser squadron vanish beneath them, then the sprawl of the Game Grid began to slide faster and faster beneath them as they gathered speed. She felt Tara take a deep breath and relax when the recogniser cleared the Grid's outer wall, and all that was ahead of them was the vast open system. Tara took her hands off the controls.
"I've set its course," she explained as Willow helped her across the floor, gently letting her down to lean against a wall. "We're headed out into the deep memory areas. They won't be able to trace our pathway easily. And I know where we can find some power outlets. I could use a boost," she finished, grinning ruefully up at Willow's concerned face.
"Can I try to..." asked Willow, not really sure how to do what she wanted to do anyway, let alone how to explain it. Tara looked at her, confused, but showed no sign of concern when Willow laid her palms carefully on her stomach, as close to the slashes Rain had inflicted as she dared. She closed her eyes, doing her best to concentrate on nothing more than the feeling of Tara breathing beneath her hands. She felt a tingling, and grinned in silent exultation and relief as she felt something flow across her hands and out of her fingertips. It was like holding her hands underneath running warm water - it made her feel content, relaxed. She opened her eyes to see tiny extensions of the tracery on her arms flowing down over the backs of her hands, onto her fingers, and then onto Tara, across her stomach.
"How are you doing that?" whispered Tara. Willow left one hand on her stomach and very carefully placed her other hand on Tara's shoulder, ready to pull back the instant she saw some sign that Tara's wound there was hurting. This time she kept her eyes open, and watched as her tracery extended itself and flowed into Tara. The green light flowing from her fingertips matched Tara's energy perfectly, brightening her own tracery, and flowing from there into the cuts on her body. Willow watched, putting all her focus and concentration into the feeling of the energy flowing from her, as the wound in Tara's shoulder filled with glowing green, completing her damaged skin. When it was full the green flowed back into her tracery, and beneath it she was healed. Willow glanced down at her stomach, to see all trace of the injuries there gone.
"By the users," Tara murmured, gazing at Willow as if she were an angel, "how can you do that?" Willow met her gaze, her wide grin turning shy when she saw the look in Tara's eyes. She felt thoroughly light-headed. 'Oh, what am I, a school-girl?' she teased herself. Then she let out a gasp as Tara's face seemed to fall away from her. Tara caught her as she fell backwards.
"I'm okay," said Willow quietly, not quite managing to support herself, "really, just a little dizzy." Tara held her gently, turning her slightly to a more comfortable position, resting half in her lap. She suddenly felt like she'd been awake for days.
"You're drained," Tara said, "it's not serious, it'll only last a couple of millicycles. I've seen it before in high-performance programs. Just never like that... Willow, how did you do that?"
"Oh, you know," said Willow, "just helping out however I can."
She looked up at Tara, who was leaning her head down, holding her almost protectively. Willow caught a hint of something more than gratitude in Tara's intense gaze, and leaned her head back slightly when she saw Tara leaning fractionally further down, bringing her face so close she could feel Tara's warm breath against her cheek. Willow was sure Tara was about to kiss her - there was no mistaking that look, not when Tara's lips parted a fraction and her eyes almost glowed, with nothing left to conceal when she wanted. But at the last possible moment, so close that Willow thought she actually felt their lips touch, Tara turned her face away, and pulled Willow into a hug instead.
Willow tried not to look disappointed when Tara finally leant back - 'Well, you misread that completely,' she had thought to herself with bitter humour - but when she looked at Tara again, she could have sworn that she had been right. Something clouded Tara's eyes - doubt, apprehension, she wasn't sure. She shivered involuntarily, as a surge of relief passed through her. 'She was going to kiss me! Why didn't she? What stopped her?' Willow had no answers - truth be told, she wasn't even sure she had the right questions. But as Tara lay her down in her lap and started gently stroking the side of her face, her fingertips light as snowflakes on Willow's skin, she made a silent promise to herself to find out. Thus reassured, she let herself drift off into a comfortable sleep.