Author: Chris Cook
Sark and his menial staggered as the deck lurched underneath them. Willow dropped to the floor as the force holding her flickered and died, and launched herself at Sark before he had regained his balance. All three programs collapsed on a tangle of limbs, from which Willow emerged first as Sark used all his strength to heave his menial out of the way. He began to turn back towards Willow but she struck out first, a sword unfolding from her hand and slashing across his exposed side. Sark screamed and clutched his wound as if he had never been hurt before. Taking advantage of his unexpected vulnerability, Willow kicked his legs out from underneath him and brought the point of her sword up under his chin as he fell on his back. The menial took one look and ran.
"Give me one reason not to do this," hissed Willow. Sark gasped and shrank back in terror, both hands still holding his damaged side. Willow stared at the fear in his face, and realised that, even when she had first seen him, it had always been there. She found her first urge to terminate him fading, ever so slightly. But the anger at what he had done to her, to Tara, to the whole system, was still strong.
"I... I-" he stammered.
"Oh shut up," said Willow. Her free hand folded into the bulky shield and she smashed it into Sark's face. He collapsed with red electricity crackling over his head. Willow stood up and went to the room's single door, then paused and looked back, her eyes flitting between the immobile program lying there, and her sword. Even with him like this, defenceless, she couldn't deny she was tempted. For a moment she wished she were less human, able to simply do it because it needed to be done. Then she shook her head and left.
Tara manually steered the Sailer forward among the fleet of GDI interceptors, always staying on course for the Command Carrier itself. GDI's first assault on the massive vessel had thrown its recogniser fleet into disarray - spread out to defend all the Carriers and ground forces, they were exposing their flanks trying to redeploy in front of the single Command Carrier. The fastest GDI flyers were already among them, isolating them and blasting any simulation that got cut off from its fellows. Even with dozens of them falling to the ground as disintegrating wreckage, their sheer number left the sky crowded ahead of Tara and the main element of the GDI fleet.
"Signal groups five through dee," ordered Tara, "form up for assault."
The GDI program at her side relayed her orders, and nine groups of interceptors broke their formation to create a flying wedge, with the Sailer at its point. They fired as one, blasting a hole through the fleet of recognisers ahead of them, which they flew through at top speed. Tara winced as one of the remaining recognisers managed to manoeuvre above one of the interceptors, slamming its glowing ventral rams against the GDI simulation and shattering it. She glanced back to the Sailer's other side, noticing two more holes in their formation. 'Damn,' she thought bitterly, 'no other way. Damn Sark.'
"Break and attack!" she ordered. Her formation flew apart and launched itself at the Command Carrier, weaving around in dizzying manoeuvres that gave the Carrier's disc turrets little time to adjust their aim. Hundreds of lance-like missiles launched from the interceptors and detonated against the Carrier's projection shields. Some of its shield turrets exploded on the first impact, but most of them held. Tara kept the agile Sailer out of harm's way, waiting for her chance.
Willow flattened herself against the wall and peered around the doorway beside her. Beyond were dozens of red programs, menials, all seated at consoles which enveloped their arms. A semi-transparent projection of the Command Carrier floated above them, showing the geometry of its shields and points of impact.
'Finally,' Willow thought, as the deck shuddered again. Keeping out of the way of soldiers, she had so far found nothing but empty prisoner facilities. This looked promising. Taking another quick glance, she noted only a single soldier inside, standing guard with his back to her. She took a deep breath and walked through the door.
"Excuse me?" she said. The guard spun around, while the menials paid her no attention whatsoever.
"Identify yourself," he demanded, brandishing his disc-gun. Willow raised her hands, holding them out in front of her.
"I'm unarmed," she said. Her sword unfolded, piercing the guard's right shoulder as Willow dodged, just in case he fired by reflex. The guard only screamed in pain, silenced a moment later as Willow rammed her shield-arm into his face. She retracted her sword and caught the guard's disc-gun as he collapsed to the floor. The menials still remained oblivious, concentrating entirely on their consoles.
"Sorry boys," Willow said, feeling light-headed again, "work's over for today." She raised the disc-gun and let fly at the nearest of the consoles, tearing a hole straight through it before the disc snapped back into the gun. The program working the console collapsed backwards, wreathed in electrical discharges. Willow felt a chill for a second until she saw him remain solid, merely unconscious. With a grim smile she raised the disc-gun again and fired at one console after another, smashing them to pieces.
"Command Carrier shields have failed!" exclaimed the program on the Sailer's command deck. Tara concentrated for a moment on steering around a burst of disc-fire from the massive vessel, then turned.
"How?" she asked. The interceptors hadn't yet disabled even half the Carrier's shield turrets.
"Internal damage," the GDI program reported, "scans indicate sixty-three percent of shield turrets still functional, but the shield matrix has collapsed. Probability favours internal control failure." Tara didn't hesitate.
"Give me five interceptors, tight formation," she ordered, steering the Sailer towards the Carrier's docking bay. The GDI flyers formed up beside her, the lance turrets beneath their wings swivelling to blast at the swarming recognisers and the incoming streams of disc-fire from the Carrier itself. Seeing the threat, the recognisers broke off their attacks on the rest of the GDI fleet and hovered towards the Sailer and its escort. The GDI simulations took the opportunity to blast them from behind, shattering one after another. But from so many, still there were dozens that remained unscathed, hovering up to bring their rams to bear on the interceptors. Tara watched helpless as one was smashed from the sky before the others could retarget their lances to destroy the recogniser. She put on an extra burst of speed, pushing the Sailer's drives to their limit.
"Get to the interceptors," she told the program at her side. He nodded and raised an arm towards the nearest GDI craft, firing a grappling hook from his gauntlet that pulled him off the deck of the Sailer and into its transport bay. Tara operated the communications panel herself.
"All craft," she said, "break off. Redirect fire to defensive patterns."
"Negative," came the reply from the interceptors, "probability indicates destruction of Sailer if-"
"Do it!" she ordered. The four remaining interceptors around her veered away, climbing to attack the incoming recognisers from above, away from their rams. Tara spared a last glance back at the GDI fleet, hundreds of them embroiled in a seething mass of battle with Sark's recognisers and hunter-killers, then turned her attention forwards. Ignoring the approaching drone of the pursuing recognisers, she pushed the Sailer's drives past their safety points. The deck shook in protest, and the drives let out a harsh screech as the Sailer shot forward towards the gaping maw of the Command Carrier. With its escort gone the Sailer came under fire from the Carrier's disc turrets, smashing holes through the fragile sails and rebounding off the forward hull. The sails began to buckle and fracture, but Tara held her course, gripping the console tightly to keep her balance.
The Sailer crashed into the Command Carrier's docking bay, clipping its sails above and below on the edges of the hull. Tara didn't bother trying to land, holding on tight instead as her ship's lower sails tore off against the deck. Behind her the recognisers veered off - one of them too slow, crashing against the Carrier's hull, showering the docking bay with wreckage. The Sailer screeched along the bay's length, just a tapering hull now that all its sails had shattered, sliding beneath the rows of docked transport simulations suspended from the bay's ceiling. Tara judged her moment perfectly, leaping off the wrecked Sailer onto a maintenance platform as she passed. She jumped up again, grabbing hold of the railing on the bay's surrounding walkway and flipping herself up just as the Sailer crashed into the rear wall, exploding in a hail of white-hot debris.
Tara found herself standing between two red guards, both staring in shock at the tangled wreck below. She quickly punched one in the face and flipped over, kicking the one behind her into unconsciousness. Picking up both disc-guns she made her way into the Carrier's labyrinthine interior.
Willow fired a disc behind her without looking and skidded around a corner. The sounds of shouting and the disc striking something told her she hadn't outrun her pursuit yet. She held the gun out just long enough for the disc to fly back into it, then sprinted down the corridor, hoping to reach the next intersection before the guards behind her got a clear shot. Her initial rampage among the Carrier's vital systems had drawn more attention that she would have liked.
She grabbed the corner of the next doorway and swung herself through, coming face to face with a guard program. He was as surprised as Willow, and both simultaneously gaped, regathered their wits, aimed their disc-guns and dodged each other's shots. Willow fell heavily to her side, trying to keep her gun raised so her disc would have an easy path to return. She caught a glimpse of her opponent turning his dodge into a roll and coming back to his feet. 'Great,' she griped, 'why did I have to run into one of the competent ones?'
She scrambled across the deck, trying to get out of the way, but the guard's disc had already shot back into place, and he was aiming for a second, final shot. Willow felt the jolt through the handle of her gun as its disc returned, and knew she wouldn't be able to swing it around and fire quickly enough. 'Nuts. Hope he's got it set on stun.'
A flash of green lashed out at the guard, smashing his gun up towards the ceiling as he fired. Tara turned the kick into a backward somersault, her trailing leg kicking the guard in the head so that he collapsed backwards as she landed. She hurried to Willow's side, helping her up without even trying to hide her grin.
"Nice rescue," said Willow, still mentally catching up with events.
"Nice taking down the Carrier's shields," said Tara, pulling Willow to her feet and catching her in a hug.
"I knew you'd come," Willow said dreamily, "I knew you'd find me."
"I'll always find you," whispered Tara, gently kissing her. They broke off the kiss at the sound of approaching footsteps from outside the door.
"Later," said Willow.
"Later," agreed Tara, "come on!"
"What's the plan?" said Willow as they ran away from the guards on their heels. "For that matter, what's going on?"
"There's a fleet of GDI interceptors outside holding off the recognisers," explained Tara quickly, leading the way through the Carrier's passages, "we've got about point oh eight of a millicycle to get to the docking bay, steal a simulation and get back inside GDI with the rest of the interceptors before the other Carriers get close enough to open fire. Then we get the fastest simulation GDI has and head straight for Echelon before they can take down the shield wall here. I've got a few new codes on my disc to deal with Rain and Echelon. It's our best shot."
"Tara," exclaimed Willow, "Rain's here!"
"Still?" asked Tara, looking back at Willow.
"I heard Sark order her to stay here until they'd finished with me."
"You're thinking of a plan, aren't you?" said Tara with a grin. "You've got that excited look."
"Yup," said Willow triumphantly. "Sark said there was a simulation being generated in the docking bay to take Rain back to Echelon once they'd broken me, if we can steal that simulation-"
"-we can get there before Rain does!" finished Tara. "The docking bay's not far, come on!"
Both Willow and Tara ran as fast as they could, buoyed by each other's presence, and a feeling of genuine hope that had been absent for a long time.