Author: Chris Cook
Rain glared furiously out of the Command Carrier's master deck at the battle raging around them. Her eyes flickered from ship to ship outside, and her throat let out a low growl as she watched the GDI interceptors dodging streams of disc-fire, and the lumbering recognisers. The menials stationed around the deck delivered their reports as unobtrusively as they could possibly manage, and Rain ignored them.
She turned as Sark appeared from the outer passageway, flanked by two heavily-armoured soldiers. She moved back to stand beside the communications port as Sark crossed the deck and took her place.
"Status?" he demanded.
"Nine hundred forty-seven GDI simulations still active," said Rain quietly, "damage to all decks and functions. Defensive systems operating on isolated control. Reconstruction reports point five millicycles until projection shields are operating again."
"You are relieved of command," said Sark calmly, "report to the docking bay."
"This is not my doing!" shouted Rain, moving forward.
"This is not a negotiation," replied Sark blandly.
"And your prisoner," hissed Rain, "have you not broken her yet? Or is it unrelated that internal security programs have been activated on five decks?"
"Are you questioning my capacity for command, program?" growled Sark, whirling to face Rain. She glared hatefully at him, then backed off.
"No," she said.
"Get to the docking bay," Sark ordered, "return to-"
"Priority data," said one of the menials loudly, "unauthorised simulation launch from docking bay."
"What?" yelled Rain and Sark at once.
"Transit beam projector has been activated," reported another menial.
"Override!" ordered Sark.
"Impossible to override," said the menial quickly, "there is a self-replicating fractal code blocking command paths."
"Simulation has integrated with transit beam," said the first menial.
"Target that simulation and fire!" shouted Sark. He and Rain both turned to watch as, a mile away at the prow of the Carrier, Rain's own manta-ray simulation came into view, riding the energy beam stretching from the Carrier's open maw. For a moment it drifted slowly forwards, then it shot out of sight in an instant, seconds before the streams of disc-fire from the Carrier's turrets reached it.
"Enemy simulations are falling back," reported a menial, "GDI shield wall is energising to full capacity."
"Destination of that beam," said Sark after a moment's pause. Rain snarled behind him, watching the interceptors outside rise above the recogniser fleet and turn back for the safety of their fortress.
"Echelon," said the menial.
"I want that beam shut down now!" Sark demanded.
"It's too late," warned Rain, "they're already on their way."
"Transmission incoming," said the menial operating the communications station.
"Echelon," muttered Sark to himself. He spared a last glance at the departing GDI fleet, then crossed the deck and took up his position at the communications port. In a moment, Echelon surrounded him.
"There is an unauthorised transit in progress," it rumbled, "deliver report."
"There has been a complication," said Sark hesitantly, "GDI launched an attack on this vessel. During the attack the user's confinement failed. It is probable she is on board the stolen simulation in transit. Reports from internal security indicate the program Tara may be with her." Sark braced himself for the energy drain he expected would be his punishment. Strangely, he wasn't quite as apprehensive as he had been in previous instances, when his reports had reflected unfavourably on him. The feeling of his power ebbing away somehow wasn't quite as distressing as the sharp, white-hot sensation of Willow's sword cutting into his side. No program had ever physically harmed him before.
After a long pause, the concentration of light around Sark vanished. He blinked, surprised not to be punished, or even given further orders.
"Program Sark," thundered Echelon's voice, echoing around the master deck. Rain and the menials looked up in shock.
"You are relieved of all authority," Echelon boomed, "you have no rank. Command is allocated to Rain. Recapture the user Willow, Rain. That is your only priority. End of line."
Sark stared around in disbelief. Relieved of authority - it wasn't possible. He was commander, that was his function, only he could perform it. He spun around as Rain approached him.
"I am commander," he barked angrily. She kept slowly walking towards him.
"Stop! I command you!" he shouted, panicked. Rain backed him up against the lectern of the communications port, smiling faintly.
"I am commander," she purred. "Acknowledge." Sark shook his head in disbelief. Rain leaned forward, forcing him to lean back to keep away from her stirring, razor-sharp mandibles.
"Acknowledge," she said slowly, as her spider-legs reached out around her body, their blades poised above Sark. He glanced at them, then back at Rain's implacable face.
"Acknowledge," he said at last, defeated. Rain smiled lazily.
"Include rank," she said airily.
"Acknowledge, commander," said Sark, dropping his gaze.
"Very good," Rain purred. She turned back to her menials.
"Generate a transit course to follow that simulation," she ordered, "maximum velocity. Divert all power to transit drives."
"Recogniser fleet is redeploying to clear a path," reported one of the menials, hesitating to raise his voice, "estimate point oh three millicycles-"
"I know," said Rain, "engage transit."
"But-" began the menial. Without warning Rain lashed out one of her spider-legs, piercing the menial through the throat. She remained still for a moment, a slow smile passing across her face as she watched the power dissipate from his, then she whipped her outstretched limb back, and the menial collapsed and shattered on the deck behind him. Rain turned to the next menial in line.
"Engage transit," she said softly. She turned to watch as the massive vessel surged forward through the recognisers clustered defensively around it. Half a dozen of them failed to veer out of the way fast enough, and exploded on the Carrier's prow as it accelerated through them. Rain watched the wreckage tumble without feeling, then turned back to Sark.
"Come here," she said. Sark took a deep breath and stood in front of her.
"Do you expect me to terminate you?" she asked. Sark did his best to suppress an angry growl. "The majority of your run-time has been devoted to command," Rain said, "your code and amassed knowledge are useful resources in this situation. It would be inefficient to waste them. I have a command for you. You will obey."
"I will obey," muttered Sark.
"I want you," said Rain carefully, "to give me your code."
She struck before Sark could react. Her spider-legs shot out from behind her, stabbing at him, two through each arm, two through each leg. Sark howled in agony as she lifted him off the deck. She waited for his cries to trail off, then leaned up, bringing his face close to hers.
"That was necessary," she said, "to ensure you did not attempt to resist." She reached up to him, lifting his chin with a finger to make him look at her.
"This," she said, "is for making me call you 'commander'."
Her abdominal talons reached out to either side of his body and lunged inwards, piercing his sides. Rain paused for a moment, listening to Sark's screams, then dug the blades in deeper, until their tips punched out on either side of his torso, beside the point where the opposite limb was pushing inwards. Again she waited for his howling to subside. She cupped his face with both hands, leaning in close to him. He was crying.
"And this," she whispered, "is because I enjoy it."
She pressed her lips to his, and her throat convulsed as the tendril within it shot out. Sark writhed in her grasp, screaming through her kiss. The pain was beyond anything he had ever experienced - the physical damage, sending spears of agony through him every time he thrashed around, unable to stop himself from struggling; the wrenching sensation from within him as Rain's de-rezzing tongue tore through his insides; and worst of all, the terrible feeling of having his mind pulled apart piece by piece, all the energy and thought seeping away, leaving only a cold, colourless framework capable of nothing beyond the ability to feel the pain. Sark barely noticed the creeping sick feeling as his body began to disintegrate.
Rain staggered as what remained of Sark collapsed in a shower of debris - she had never before consumed a program so powerful. Her body spasmed and she fell to the deck, her arachnid limbs bracing her automatically, keeping her from collapsing completely as her arms and legs jolted and flailed wildly. Her tongue whipped back into her throat, allowing her to let out a tortured scream. The tracery covering her body writhed and grew, simple lines splitting into new, more complex patterns as she absorbed the code she had ingested. Her face split across her forehead and down the sides, disgorging a replica of the coronet Sark's form had included, that quickly solidified into a new, more aggressive shape as it incorporated the leading edge of Rain's crest of blades.
Slowly, Rain lowered her hands and feet and put her weight on them. Her spider-legs pulled free of the holes they had gouged in the deck, and she slowly stood up, arching her back and flexing all her limbs expansively. She let out a long-held breath and turned to stare out of the master deck, ahead at the horizon where, somewhere out of sight, her own simulation was carrying Willow and Tara towards Echelon. Beneath her clawed feet she slowly ground the last remnants of Sark's tracery to dust.
'Only one program in the entire system will feel better than that,' she thought.
"Tara, Tara," she murmured to herself, "your turn next."