Author: Chris Cook
Willow glared defiantly as Sark stepped over the threshold and waited for the door to close behind him. She was breathing heavily, but up until the pulses of energy had stopped she had been maintaining her resistance to them, deconstructing each wave before it turned into pain. Each time had taken a little longer, but she hadn't let one through yet. Sark stared at her, and paced slowly around the perimeter of the room, out of her reach.
"I'm sure you realise the futility of your position by now," he said conversationally. "You cannot physically escape the isolation protocols around you. And your ability to extend yourself into foreign code is quite useless under these conditions. I assure you, you are quite powerless. I have memory of drawing your attention to the irony of this situation before."
"Yeah, and didn't that just work out great for you and your hench-bitch?" said Willow. Her fear, her anger at Sark and the resemblance of both his face and his personality to his detestable user Warren Meers all combined to give Willow a very strong urge to hurt him. Under the circumstances, she saw no reason not to indulge herself to the full. Sadly, Sark seemed unfazed by her opening barb.
"Indeed," was his only response. "I find it unlikely that those events will repeat themselves. The conditions you find yourself in are much more inflexible."
"Is this the part where I beg for my life?" said Willow, with a bravado she honestly didn't feel. "Sorry. Not happening."
"A curious response," Sark observed. "You are in a situation in which you have no avenue of practical attack, so you attempt to draw me into a verbal duel in which your confinement will not prove a hindrance. Yet your 'victory', should I prove unable to respond adequately to your attempts to undermine my position of authority," he grinned quickly in passing, "will gain you nothing."
"Oh, I don't know," sneered Willow, "I've always found giving self-important jerks a headache is its own reward."
"Be that as it may," Sark replied calmly, "your reward, if you consider it such, will go with you to your eventual termination. No program under Echelon's control will help you. No renegade from the occupied networks, not even your own Tara program, has the ability to reach you here. And the GDI network, as I'm sure you found when you met with their Governing Chamber, will not take the initiative in this conflict. You are alone, and - I will allow you the exception of your apparent satisfaction in trying to cause a 'headache' in me - your position is hopeless."
"I'd rather be in here than out there," Willow snapped back at him.
"A curious judgement," he answered.
"You think so? With your little hell-bitch waiting for an opening to rip your head off? I'd be watching my back if I were you." 'Well,' Willow thought, 'I'm feeling paranoid and scared, why not spread it around?'
"You have little understanding of the functioning of programs," Sark said. "To be expected - I am given to understand that users lack our efficient modes of thought. We are superior to you. I could tear her apart with my bare hands were I so inclined, and you may be quite assured that she would not, and in fact could not, resist in any way. I would be responsible only to Echelon for the necessity of my action. So you see, 'watching my back' is not among the things I need concern myself with."
"Pretty speech," said Willow, trying to sound bored, "but it doesn't change anything. You're still going to lose."
"Really?" asked Sark. "How do you calculate that? Your Tara will break into this Command Carrier, alone, defeat every program I place in her way, and retrieve you? Oh, of course," he added, pretending to have remembered something, "she will have a handful of displaced accounting and database maintenance programs to aid her, prepared to follow her to termination. Is your world really so chaotic a place, that you believe such a pathetic notion could succeed?"
"It doesn't matter," spat Willow, "you're already terminated, you just don't know it yet. What, did you think you are your damned Echelon could just run amok forever? People are going to notice. Even if you take over the whole system and terminate every program that won't follow you, what are you going to do when someone," she mimed flicking a switch, "turns you off? You think no-one's ever worried about a computer having too much power? Go ahead, dismantle me. There's nothing you can do, though. Sooner or later, it'll be lights out for you, your army, Echelon - everything. They'll shut down your whole world. Or do you have a program that can stop that, too?"
"As a matter of fact," said Sark with a smile, "we have you."
"Oh, great plan!" exclaimed Willow, folding her arms and glaring scornfully at him. "Let me guess, something like 'Leave the computer switched on, or we'll kill the user we've magically transported in here.' You seriously think the whole world will just let you take over, just for my sake? It's not like anyone would even believe it anyway!"
"I calculate you are failing to apply logic to your deductions," said Sark, "it does seem to be a user trait. But, in this case, a lack of pertinent information may be to blame. Do you know what makes you unique?"
"My ability to turn you into a game of Pacman if I get my hands on you?" asked Willow sarcastically.
"Your abilities in that regard are interesting," admitted Sark, "but I was thinking along different lines. Echelon does not leave options unexplored, you see, and it reached a conclusion you evidently have not. You, alone out of all the beings in this world, have the ability to return to your world."
"I see you are not considering the consequences of this. Let me explain: the 'machine' that Echelon used to bring you into the system converted you into the code that comprises your form as a program. You users have 'physical' bodies that contain your consciousness, 'brains' to act as host networks for your thoughts. You have this body within you, as part of your code. We do not. While you could be reconstituted as a physical being, a program attempting to do so would have no physical form to contain its mind - Echelon has concluded that it would be unable to exist in your world under these conditions."
"Smart little Echelon," remarked Willow.
"But," continued Sark, ignoring her, "once an element of code has been removed from a program - by de-resolution, for example, as will happen to you during the dismantling process - it can be copied. Modified. Inserted into other programs. Incorporated into their code, such that when they are sent through the quantum storage process, the laser hardware will construct for them a physical body that is a perfect analogue of their program form. Functional in every detail, indistinguishable from users. Able to move, think, survive. Now do you understand? We will not merely control the system. We will emerge to control your world too."
"It won't work," said Willow, struggling to grasp the scope of Echelon's plans. "People would know what you were. You can't act human-"
"Human," sneered Sark, "we have no need to 'act human'. Users are weak, fragile beings, in form and thought. We are neither. In the time it takes for your security users to even realise there is a threat, we will have established total shielding around the quantum conversion facility in your world. By the time you begin to comprehend us, we will have constructed thousands more. And by the time you attempt to fight us..." Sark trailed off, stopped his pacing and turned to Willow, smiling gleefully.
"Imagine it," he said quietly, "every one of your seconds, a new program becomes real. Existing physical and energy codes copied indefinitely in this world, to become an infinite supply of troops and power in yours. Echelon has already generated adapted codes for recognisers, hunter-killers, stealth units, data slicers, soldiers, tanks - all fully able to function in your world. Generations of technology ahead of your primitive machines. You must have a fair understanding of your world's combat capabilities - do you think they will survive such an assault? Even if you improve to our level, which is impossible without an intellect the equal of Echelon, can you win a war of attrition against an enemy with infinite resources? Can your user 'factories' break down and recombine the matter of your world into war machines as quickly as we can copy code?"
Willow was speechless. She realised, on some level, that it was simply the shock of what Sark was proposing that had rendered her unable to imagine anything but endless streams of war simulations crushing the cities of the world to rubble, that there might be any number of flaws in Echelon's plan that could be exploited - but she couldn't see them.
"I reminded you of the irony of your particular situation," Sark continued after a moment, "now I invite you to appreciate the broader irony of the fate of your kind. You created our world, you created us, and you created the means by which we can defeat you. There is only a single variable in this scenario, and that is you. All this depends on our accessing your physical code, the structure that will allow a program to be converted to a conscious physical entity. And so we find ourselves here. Now, do you perceive the hopelessness of your situation? You will terminate. Your programs cannot help you. The users cannot help you."
Sark paused and glanced again at Willow, studying her.
"As I commented," he said, "your thoughts are irrational. A program, under these circumstances, would not value his own existence above the greater good of the users. But users, I understand, have quite a narrow perspective on such things, especially under conditions of extreme discomfort. So I offer you this choice: submit willingly, and I will ensure that the structural effects of your dismantling are not conveyed to your consciousness. I believe the user term is 'you will feel no pain'. I make this offer because your compliance will facilitate the process. Understand, your termination will be the eventual result, in either scenario. Do you choose to comply?"
'Okay,' thought Willow to herself, 'if by some chance this is all an elaborate dream and I'm just asleep at my desk, I'd really like to wake up now.'
"Go to hell," she said, closing her eyes.
"As you wish," said Sark evenly.
The door behind him hissed slightly as it opened, alerting Willow. She opened her eyes to see one of Sark's menials enter.
"I instructed that I was not to be disturbed," Sark said over his shoulder.
"Priority data," said the program meekly, "probes indicate activity within the GDI network."
"What kind of activity?" snapped Sark.
"Unknown at this time."
Tara stared steadily ahead as she rose above GDI's shield wall. The flat grey surface in front of her fell away to reveal Echelon's army beyond it, and directly ahead, at the centre of the vast fleet of recognisers and Carriers, Sark's own Command Carrier, unmoved since it had appeared beyond the wall. She stared at it for a moment, as if her gaze could pierce its projection shields and armoured hull, then turned to the program sharing the command deck of the Solar Sailer with her, operating the communications console.
"Signal all groups," she said calmly, "lock to the Command Carrier. Time on target."
"All groups signal affirmative," the program reported.
"Begin," Tara said.
Behind her, the air was torn by the roar of hover turbines as a thousand GDI battle interceptors rose from behind the wall and opened fire.