Author: Chris Cook
Darien busied himself at the controls of his tower. The communication chamber, the centre of the whole structure, put Willow in mind of the heart of a wizard's tower. The chamber was round, fifty metres from side to side, and stretched up the entire length of the I/O tower, right up to the massive power array at the top. The outer wall was covered in energy streams, exact duplicates of those decorating the tower's exterior. Darien shuffled from place to place, touching strands here and there, dragging them from one intersection to another with the tips of his fingers. He had warned both Willow and Tara not to touch the walls at all.
"Is this Buffy a great warrior?" asked Tara in a whisper as they both watched Darien go about his business.
"Something like that," replied Willow. "Her job is to take action against users who try to create programs like Echelon."
"A system guardian," Tara said, "she keeps the system free?"
"I guess you could say that. Um," hesitated Willow. "Do you know what actually happens here? I mean, what I'll have to do?"
"I know what I've been told," said Tara, "I never had to communicate directly with y- with my user," she quickly corrected herself, glancing at Darien a few metres away, "but I've met other programs who have. Your awareness becomes part of the beam, you don't actually leave here but part of you is at both ends of the beam at once. The other end is close to the users. I don't think you have to do anything, the connection between you and the beam means that it does what you want without you having to command it. I think it mostly depends on the user, though."
"She's probably asleep," said Willow, who had been taking a stab at calculating how much time had passed in the real world. "But I've got an idea. If this tower can let me communicate with her, it must connect me to her personal system, right? The, the part of the whole system that's closest to her?"
"Yes," said Tara hesitantly, "I think so, but if she's 'asleep'... I've heard it can take thousands of millicycles for a user to respond to an unscheduled query."
"Time moves much faster in here," said Willow in a whisper. Tara nodded in understanding. "But I don't need to communicate with Buffy herself," Willow went on, "once I'm connected to her computer, her part of the system, I should be able to get inside her files and find the authorisation to get us into GDI. It's part of her job, the codes must be in there somewhere."
"Willow, that's dangerous," Tara said, holding both of Willow's hands in hers. "Those are powerful authorisations, there's bound to be security routines guarding them, and they'll be hidden in the deepest memories of her 'computer'. And I- I've seen how it affects you when you exceed the limitations of a program. You were so weak after what you did to that Hunter-killer... Willow, I'm worried," she said, her eyes pleading. She glanced over her shoulder, ensuring Darien was far from being able to hear her.
"I know you're a user," she whispered, "but when Echelon brought you into the system, it put you in the form of a program. When you do these things that programs aren't capable of... I'm not sure how far you can push yourself, how much th-the program aspect of you can take. What you're thinking of doing is... I'm scared, Willow, I don't want to lose you. If you do this, if it's too much for you... it could make your program form collapse. You could terminate, Willow... and there's no way to get to this quantum cannon device, to send you back, until Echelon is gone." Tara's imploring gaze was too much for Willow. She hugged Tara tightly.
"I'll be alright," she said, lightly kissing the side of her neck, up along her jaw, whispering in her ear. "I know I can do this. I won't let them hurt you, not again, we're going to get to GDI and bring down Echelon. I promise. And then," she added, pulling back far enough to look into Tara's eyes, "I'm staying with you."
"Staying... but-" Tara protested. "Willow, this isn't your world, you belong outside with the other users," she finished, lowering her voice to a whisper again.
"My world doesn't have you in it," said Willow, smiling, "and I belong with you."
"But, how will the other users manage without you?" Tara asked. Willow laughed to herself.
"I'm nothing special, I'm just a programmer-" she said, until she was silenced by Tara leaning down quickly to capture her lips in a kiss that was so perfect it left her breathless.
"Willow," Tara said in a hushed, husky voice as she leaned back a fraction, "if all the users were like you, both our worlds would be so much better."
"The tower is prepared!" called Darien from the far side of the chamber.
At the centre of the communications chamber was a raised dais, three steps high, where Darien instructed Willow to stand. She looked across the chamber at Tara, who smiled hopefully to her, before returning her attention to the old tower guardian.
"The lines of power are drawn," he intoned, in the manner of a high priest speaking a ritual, "the pathways between this place and that above are ready. Program Willow, you have come here to seek communication with user Summers One. The blessings of this place are upon you as you look into the eyes of those above. May they look kindly upon you."
Darien rapped the base of his staff against the hard chamber floor, the crack echoing like a gunshot. The thousands of energy strands he had carefully arranged on the walls began to flow upwards, the chamber falling into shadow as all the power gathered itself at the top of the tower. Willow looked up to see the ceiling, high above her, open like a flower, revealing the curved plates of the power array. They slid against each other, shifting to create an opening between them at the very centre, and Willow stood transfixed as the pure light of the tower's beam lanced down and enveloped her.
"May you find enlightenment," she heard Darien say, an echo on the wind from a far distant place, almost drowned out by the singing of the energy around her. She felt weightless, dizzy, disoriented - the beam was lifting her, or some part of her. Her gaze drifted around like a leaf blown on the breeze. The chamber, Darien, Tara, all were hidden from her by the blinding light. She saw herself, staring up, still as a statue, then there was a rush of movement and everything else was lost to her.
She flew through the beam, unable to tell how far she had gone or for how long she had travelled. She was aware of nothing until the light and its symphony abruptly vanished, leaving her alone in a dark, silent place.
Willow waited, alone with the sound of her rapid breathing. When nothing happened she eventually took a tentative step forwards, and rebounded off a barrier she hadn't seen. She staggered for a second to keep her balance, then calmed herself and raised a hand to feel for the barrier. Only the green glow of her tracery showed her that she could see anything at all. She felt the barrier, which gave her a tiny shock, but now that she knew to expect it the sensation didn't trouble her too much. Running both hands along it, she discovered she was encased in a cylinder, surrounded.
"This is where we find out how good I am," she said to herself, startling herself at the sound of her voice in the perfect silence. She put both hands together on the barrier in front of her and concentrated, trying to find the pattern within it. It took her a long time to find anything at all - it was distant and dark, and she almost missed it when the faint impression of structure flickered before her mind's eye for a fraction of a second. Just as it was fading she grabbed hold of it. She was prepared for a struggle, so she was already braced against the stab of pain that came from the barrier as she made contact with its code. It came once, twice, a third time, then the pain fell away and left Willow in peace. She sighed and concentrated on breaking free.
She tried looking for loopholes in the code, back-door subroutines that might let her in if she could wrestle them into accepting her, but there were none - or if there were, they were well-hidden. She realised she was starting to get frustrated, as one code segment after another turned out to be solid, and took a moment to calm herself, gather her wits. For a moment she mentally sat back and just looked at the barrier's code, and in that moment inspiration struck. Maybe she didn't have to open a doorway - maybe she just had to make the barrier permeable to her own code. Half-remembered moments from high school chemistry filtered into her mind - materials could block some substances and admit others. It all depended on their structure. The barrier's structure was laid out before her - unchangeable, but clearly visible.
Ignoring the uncooperative barrier, she concentrated on herself. She couldn't quite see her own code, but she could imagine it, and her imagination seemed to be a little more solid than usual. There had to be a connection. She studied the barrier again, carefully, trying to picture herself becoming something similar. If she could match herself to it, it wouldn't block her - she would be able to pass right through it, because she wouldn't be a foreign object to it at all. In her mind she saw the barrier begin to weaken - for a moment she wondered if it were failing for some reason of its own, then she realised she was doing it. As she changed herself, as the barrier became no barrier, so it became invisible to her - if it wasn't a barrier, it was nothing.
An uneasy feeling formed in her stomach, but she had expected something like it, and was frankly glad that it wasn't the splitting headache she had felt before. But as she continued to concentrate, as the barrier continued to fade away, the ugly, queasy feeling grew, and she began to worry. 'Lucky I haven't had anything to eat lately,' she joked to herself, trying not to panic. She felt her hand begin to slip through the barrier, physically pass through it.
The sick feeling in her stomach was beginning to become a serious problem, so Willow decided it was time to put herself to the test. She pushed forwards, feeling resistance from the barrier but still moving. She felt the plane of it, where it was intersecting with her body, tingle and crackle with tiny shocks - painful, but they distracted her from her decidedly unwell stomach, so welcome in a way. She grimaced as she felt the shocks on her face, first at the tip of her nose, then her lips, then down the sides of her face as she moved slowly through the barrier.
She had a brief panic attack as it occurred to her that she might lose concentration, and become stuck as the barrier became solid around her. Would it kill her? Or worse perhaps, leave her stuck half-way through, unable to go forward or back, locked in place for all eternity. For half a second she imagined she felt the edges of the barrier press against her skin. Fear sent a rush of adrenaline through her, and she forged ahead, pushing past the last of the resistance. Suddenly it was gone and she fell forward, tripping as her foot tugged at her, last to clear the barrier.
The sickness slowly abated, leaving her sprawled on the ground, taking deep breaths to calm herself. As the strength returned to her limbs she pushed herself to her hands and knees, and sat back on her heels, looking around. Around her were a series of obsidian blocks, towering above her, like a modern art interpretation of Stonehenge. She looked behind her, seeing the cylindrical barrier shining like glass from the outside. Cautiously she got to her feet and approached the nearest block. There were tiny patterns on it, so thin they were almost invisible, carved in silver. 'Memory?' Willow wondered.
She walked around a little, peering beyond the blocks, glancing up at the sky, examining the ground beneath her. Aside from the circle of blocks, though, there seemed to be nothing to this part of the system - the sky was black, and beyond the blocks was only shadow. Willow shrugged and turned back to the block she had first examined, reaching out to touch it.
"Return to the I/O port!" rang out an angry voice from behind her. Willow jerked her hand back and spun around - she could have sworn she was alone.
"Who's there?" she called.
"You are not authorised to access this space!" insisted the voice. Willow was about to answer when she realised she knew the voice, though she couldn't remember ever hearing it raised in anger like this.
"Buffy?" she asked.
Willow caught a glimpse of movement from behind the blocks on the other side of the circle from her. A program stepped out from the shadows, confronting Willow. She was bright blue, lean and tense. She wasn't armed, but she didn't have to be - her posture and the whole way she moved made it quite clear that she was a weapon. Her face was Buffy's, but her eyes were glaring and full of hostility, quite unlike the bubbly government programmer Willow knew.
"My user will not communicate with you," she said, stalking slowly closer to Willow. "Return to the I/O port now."
"Wh-who are you?" said Willow nervously.
"I am this partition's guardian," said the other program, "my designation is Slayer."