By Kim McFarland
|"Do you want to live forever?"
(Attributed to Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Daly, USMC, Belleau Wood, June 1918.)
The Supercomputer was a network of interconnecting systems, each configured for its specific set of tasks. On the outskirts were the smaller, less complex systems that handled overloads and emergency dataflow. Closer in were residences and routine centers which carried out the majority of the work. The center was the domain of the most critical functions: processing, security, the management of the entire Net.
Bob looked around as the group flew slowly inward, toward the capacitowers that rose high above the level of the surrounding subsystems. He had expected to see devastation. That wasn't rational, he knew; Infector Viruses usually took very good care of their territories. Megabyte had let Mainframe go to ruin only after he had turned his ambition to the Supercomputer.
He looked for familiar sights, places that he had frequented when he was assigned here. The ones that he found - a dormitory that he had lived in during training, a recreation complex where he used to hang out with his friends and hone game playing skills - had changed very little, but still they looked wrong. Stark against the dark blue viral sky, and empty. The Supercomputer was usually a busy metropolis. Turbo had explained that Daemon had removed all of the uninfected Data Sprites from her domain. That meant any Sprite who was not a Guardian was gone, as she could only directly infect that one format. The rest of the Sprites had been sent away to other systems. Turbo had suggested that move to Daemon as a better alternative than disposing of them in ways which would drive down the morale of the binomes, who they needed to carry out the day to day system processes in the absence of the Sprites.
Turbo had saved the lives of thousands of Sprites by... it wasn't trickery, exactly. It was true that if Daemon had executed dataforms simply because they were inconvenient it would have frightened the binomes of the system. Terrified workers did not do their jobs well, and the system needed them to function. Yet his motives had been different from hers - and, in the end, he had gotten away with manipulating Daemon.
Turbo could get away with a lot, Bob thought. Look at how he had handled their group. They could only take his word about his actions with Daemon, yet he had gotten the entire group to let him disarm them and bring them in as prisoners. Bob would have expected Turbo to have a hard time convincing Matrix and Mouse to go along with a scheme like that - but Turbo hadn't exactly tried to convince them. He'd simply outlined the plan as if it was a given that they would follow it, and they had. Bob still wasn't sure how he had done that. And now Bob, Matrix, AndrAIa, Mouse, and Ray were weaponless and held prisoner by "peace bonds" which constrained their wrists behind their backs, and which would shock them, then put them in filelock, if they strayed too far from Copland. It was a standard method of transporting prisoners when a vehicle wasn't available. Runaways learned quickly that fleeing would do them no good.
A single Guardian, a cadet, was posted at the door of the main Guardian headquarters. Normally that would have been unacceptably lax security, but with the system completely under control, Daemon was using her Guardians elsewhere. Most of the full-fledged Guardians were off putting down rebellions, claiming those few systems that weren't already under Daemon's control, or just reminding the natives who the boss is. Daemon didn't waste resources by letting her virals sit around idle.
Turbo coasted down to the surface on his zip board. The rest of the group did too, resentful but not daring to defy him: prisoners who knew their only chance was to hope for mercy. As the guard stared at the varied lot, Turbo stepped off his zip board and minimized it. "Well?" he said to the guard, who had the codes to open the door.
"You have been AWOL for close to a millisecond," the cadet said, nervously suspicious.
"I don't have time for this," Turbo said, pinning the sentry with his eyes. "Unless you have orders for my arrest, open the doors!"
The guard held Turbo's gaze for only a nanosecond. Then he laid his hand on a touch pad. The doors swung open. Turbo waved his captives in. The guard said, "Turbo?"
The Prime Guardian looked back. "What?"
"Do you want an escort? To help with the prisoners?"
Turbo shook his head. "Remain at your post. I have them under control. I'm just going to put them into the brig until their disposition is determined."
The guard let them pass without another word.
Like the Supercomputer, the inside of the Guardian Headquarters looked subtly wrong to Bob. This time the reason was easier to place. It was too quiet. Normally people would have been bustling around, taking care of the myriad minutia of system and Net management. Now very few people walked the halls, and all was quiet. Had all the processes been automated? Bob could not imagine Daemon leaving the system unmanaged. Infector Viruses liked having sprites serve them.
Those few people they did see - all binomes - looked at the group following Turbo very oddly as they passed by. They stared at Turbo, who did not look back, or show any sign that he had noticed them at all. They also stared at Ray, who was coasting an angstrom above the floor on his Surf-Baud, since he could not carry it with his hands bound.
Bob recognized the route they were following: Turbo was leading them to the holding cells reserved for prisoners on trial. There was another, much larger prison for convicted criminals. Bob doubted it was in use now. Turbo had told him that Daemon had instructed the Guardians to use their initiative in disposing of offenders. Criminals served as object lessons for the survivors: nobody is beyond her reach, and there are no second chances. Ray knew that all too well.
Cautiously Bob looked around at the others in the group. All wore variations on the same basic expression: resentful, but unwilling to risk their lives in a futile escape attempt. Those who returned his glance - Ray and AndrAIa - did not show any change in emotion. Good.
When they reached the holding area, another Guardian was standing in front of the door. She was pale cream colored, with black eyes and short, glossy black hair. The glow of Daemon's stigmata barely showed on the light skin of her temples, but they could see it pulsing brightly around her icon. Turbo knew her well; she was named Tchia, and she was a high ranked Guardian. She was a very determined, professional Sprite, not one to cross either before or after infection. From the way she was standing, arms folded and looking challengingly at him, she had been waiting for them. The sentry at the door must have alerted her after they had passed.
She spoke first. "Turbo. We're glad to have you back. We weren't sure we would see you again."
Turbo answered evenly, "Were you."
"We wondered where you had gone," she continued.
"If you step aside, I'll put these Sprites in the cells," he told her.
Eyes narrowed, she nodded slightly and stepped to the side. He set his hand on the touch pad by the entrance. The door dilated. He entered the holding area. His prisoners followed without prompting, and without looking at Tchia. She went in last and watched from just inside of the doorway, her hand resting on the handle of her holstered gun. Bob had no doubt that she could draw it and hit every one of them within nanoseconds if she had reason to.
Turbo touched his hand to another pad beside the nearest cell, then swung the barred door open. "You, you, and you," he said, indicating Bob, Matrix, and Ray. They went in without a word; Ray stepped off his Surf-Baud and walked in without it. Turbo closed the door and touched the pad, sealing the cell, then opened another cell, the one opposite the first. "You two," he said to Mouse and AndrAIa. They walked in. Mouse spared him a quick glare as she walked past.
He didn't react. He closed their cell and said to his keytool, "Copland, release restraints." The glowing bands around their wrists disappeared.
Turbo turned away from them and opened a door across the room by using another touch pad. Inside was another brightly lit room, this one with shelves around the walls and in the center. Weapons and other confiscated items were stored there. Turbo spoke to his keytool. "Copland, unzip archive." Copland's wheel lifted. A small shape rose out of it, then expanded and separated into a gun, a pair of thin swords, and a trident. Turbo placed the weapons on a shelf right inside the door, then leaned the Surf-Baud in front of them. When he came back out he saw that the prisoners had been watching. Good.
"Why did you leave without explanation?" Tchia demanded. "You know how Daemon hates disorder."
Turbo nodded at the cell. "She wanted Guardian 452. There he is."
She looked over. "There are two Guardians!" she said, surprised. "We were only tracking one signal."
"I know. 452 is the one with the Web scars. He deputized the other before going into the Web. If the story hadn't gotten out that I had gone renegade they wouldn't have trusted me." He looked harshly at her. "Only a fool would believe that anyone could escape once Daemon had claimed them," he said in a low, firm voice.
She swallowed and paused for several nanos, then regained her composure. "We have a report of a Chaos Virus seen at the same time as you returned."
Turbo said flippantly, "Hexadecimal. She was part of their group of holdouts, as much as a Chaos Virus can be part of anything. She's powerful, but she's a bumpkin. Never been outside of her home system; she has no idea how to handle herself here. Send out a few Guardians with filelockers and you'll be able to bring her in. In fact, send as many of them as you have out now. Daemon will want her power. If Hexadecimal runs free she will disrupt the system's functions."
When Tchia did not leave immediately Turbo asked her, "Do you have something more important to do?" and folded his arms.
She held his eyes briefly, then looked at Bob. "He's supposed to have a keytool. Where is it?"
"Lost in the Web," Turbo answered.
She stared, surprised, at Bob. A Guardian losing his keytool, his most important weapon? Unbelievable! Then she turned and left. Turbo followed her out without a second glance at the prisoners.
They all looked at Bob silently. He was concentrating, eyes closed. After several nanos he said, "The room isn't bugged. When the doors are shut, this place is soundproof. We can talk."
"You sure about that?" Mouse asked.
"Yeah," Bob replied. "They didn't have bugs or cameras in here before, and I know this place is soundproof."
"And escape proof," the hacker added.
"You've tried?" Matrix asked.
She gave him a look and said flatly, "Yeah."
Changing the subject, Bob asked AndrAIa, "How's Hexadecimal?"
"Fine, as far as I can tell." AndrAIa reached back and drew a mask out from underneath her hair.
Bob said, "Okay, good. Hex, stay in there. As long as you're uploaded into your mask, they won't know you're with us. Remember, you're our secret weapon." Green pulsed once in the eyes of the mask. Bob supposed that that was an acknowledgment.
"I'd better keep her hidden," AndrAIa said as she returned the mask to its place against the back of her neck, under her hair.
"I don't like this," Matrix said. "We're sitting ducks."
"Tell me about it," Mouse said. "I hope that Turbo isn't going to turn on us. Again."
Ray, apparently not noticing the bitterness in her voice, leaned back against the wall. "Nothin' we can do right now except wait."
"How can you act like nothing's wrong?!" Matrix glared at the surfer.
"If there's nothing I can do, I wait until there's something I can do," Ray answered calmly. "Turbo took our weapons and my Surf-Baud - but he put them right inside that door, so we could see just where they are. He could have kept them zipped. We'll get 'em back when we need 'em."
Nobody answered, but it was clear that Matrix and Mouse were not convinced. Well, Bob thought, who could blame them? They were disarmed, imprisoned in enemy territory, dependant on one subversive for their lives. Ray and AndrAIa were not wasting their energy and psyching themselves out before the battle, but Bob knew that they weren't entirely happy either. And Hex... please, let her be patient enough to stay hidden. The one thing they had going for them was the element of surprise; they couldn't afford to lose that.
Turbo walked briskly down the hallways of the Guardian Headquarters as if nothing unusual had happened. From the way people looked at him, they'd clearly believed he had defected or been deleted, and were shocked to see him back. The story must have spread in the cycles he had been gone.
When the stakes are high and you have nothing to lose, you have to bluff your hardest. When you're cornered and down to your last few health points and ammo units, that's when you draw your BFG. If he betrayed any sign of nervousness he would be as good as deleted. He and Copland had survived this long, through seconds worth of games and battles with Viruses. He was inured to danger.
Bob trusted him. The rest of the team didn't, of course. To them he was the one who had responded to a Webcreature invasion of Mainframe by trying to blow the system off the Net, and now he was claimed by Daemon. It was best that they followed Bob instead. Bob was smart, he had a survivor's instincts, and they had confidence in him. If anyone could pull them through alive, he would. On the other hand, no matter how skilled Turbo was, he was marked by Daemon. She had had him under her control once; the memories of that time were still vivid. She could do it again, if she realized that he had overcome her infection and turned her full attention on him.
He'd done terrible things while under her control. He had violated his Guardian format, to mend and defend - and he had enjoyed it. He had served Daemon well. He had wanted to do everything he could to bring every system into Daemon's domain, to convert or destroy her enemies. He had been responsible, directly or indirectly, for too many deleted sprites and offlined systems to count. He could not go back to that, no matter what. There was only one way to make sure that he wouldn't, one he had considered and rejected it many times. He couldn't take the easy escape. That would be the final betrayal of his format.
It was useless to waste time regretting what he had done while under Daemon's control. He had done much more since he had overcome her infection. As her direct subordinate, he knew some of her weaknesses as well as her strengths. Her most significant flaw was her dependence on others for information. She appeared to be all-seeing and all-knowing because the Guardians kept her supplied with information. However, there was much too much data in the Net for her to deal with. She had many layers of operations, starting with field operatives in each system, then the coordinators in the Guardian Headquarters, and finally her main servant: Turbo. At each level, the majority of the information coming from below was dealt with or filtered out as irrelevant, not worth passing upward. Turbo had made sure that only the most important data reached Daemon, not the routine minutia that was handled on lower levels. While all of her underlings had been perfectly infected, the system had been airtight and efficient. But after his programming had, against all odds, fought off her infection, Turbo had selectively edited the data fed to her, and thus mitigated the damage done wherever he could. He had also changed Mainframe's location in the Supercomputer's records to protect the small system from invasion.
However, as time went on the number of omissions had begun to add up. Eventually people had noticed. They could not come right out and accuse Daemon's right-hand man, not yet. He would be surprised if they had yet suspected him to be a traitor, because nobody believed it possible to resist her infection. They did, however, come to doubt his competence. He had begun to feel the pressure of keeping up the charade. He could not have maintained it forever; sooner or later he would have slipped. Rather than wait until it came to a crisis, and thus lose the battle, he had gone to Mainframe himself. It was ironic that the Sprites there seemed to think he was their rescuer. He needed them as much as they needed him!
The prisoners he had brought back had bought him a little more time. Nobody would dare challenge him right after he had brought back such prizes for Daemon. If any accusations had made their way to her already - and, now that he thought about it, he was certain that they had - she would not believe them. He was confident of that. Daemon knew very well that no uninfected Guardian would turn a fellow in to her, therefore his capturing the rogues would prove his loyalty.
He did not have much time to work. Daemon would learn quickly of the new prisoners, and demand to see them.
There was no guard outside the armory door. These cycles, there never was. Daemon saw no need to restrict the availability of commands and weapons to her underlings, and personnel could be better used elsewhere.
Every time he went into the Armory, he was reminded of the flaw in that logic. No Guardian wanted to be caught with insufficient weaponry - and when they came in for supplies they took more than they needed, not thinking or caring that they might be depriving others of resources further down the line. Because the Sprites in Research & Development who produced these supplies had been sent to other systems, the place was nearly depleted. What remained was practically useless due to outdated functions, lack of power, or damage. Many of the racks stood empty. Daemon's programming didn't extend to inventory administration.
If Turbo had seen anything like this before Daemon, he would have been furious. He hated sloppiness and neglect. Whatever your function is, do it and do it right! However, officially speaking he had more important things to do than keep up with inventory, and unofficially speaking the fewer the weapons in the hands of Daemon's Guardians the better.
There was one single command left of the kind he had been looking for. Only one. Not enough. He was surprised that there were any at all, considering. He picked it up and held it close to his keytool. "Copland, energy scan."
Copland's wheel displayed a vertical line, green on top shading to red on the bottom. The color disappeared from the top down until only a thin slice of red was available. That explained why the command had been left here - it only had a few ergs of power left. Who needed one that would fail in the middle of its function? However... "Copland, zip storage." The keytool emitted a field that enclosed the command, then shrank it to a tiny shape. The wheel lifted up, and the box went inside the keytool.
Before Turbo got ten paces from the supply room door Tchia intercepted him. "Daemon wants to see you," she said curtly.
"Thank you," he said, and walked away from her. Yes, thank you for alerting Daemon the nanosecond you left me. Tchia clearly didn't mind his knowing that she had done that, otherwise she would have sent someone else to inform him, or at least tried not to look so smug. She envied his position, and wanted it for herself. He didn't like to think about how she would use it if she succeeded. She might be as good at it as he had been.
He shouldn't blame her, he thought. Before her infection she had been "coldly efficient" - the type of person that very few like, but who got difficult jobs done. After Daemon had imposed her own will on Tchia, the woman had become ruthless. Considering what he himself had turned into while under Daemon's control, Turbo could not fault Tchia.
He walked down the hall toward the Research and Development area. It was a large section, with plenty of space for various kinds of work. It had connections to the rest of the system, not to mention excellent security to protect it from hackers and ambitious Viruses. Daemon had shut down all abstract research and claimed the facility for her headquarters. Somewhere in the maze of corridors and large testing and training rooms was the Supervirus herself... but nobody known had ever seen her.
The door dilated. Turbo walked into what had once been a large meeting and demonstration room, able to hold hundreds of sprites without crowding. Now the audience seats were gone, and only the stage remained. The female figure standing on it silently watched the door. Her eyes did not follow Turbo as he walked toward her.
Turbo approached the edge of the stage and stood before her. As he waited for her to notice him, he looked at her appraisingly. Daemon's projections never looked exactly the same, but the ones that spoke to him were variations on the same theme. Tall, slender, and graceful, elven on a large scale. No armor, no clothing protocol, just smooth skin that did not bear enough detail to require covering. She had very little detail; the one thing that he noticed was a crest of thin, curved lines above her head like a crown. She seemed to shimmer slightly in the light, colors shifting like iridescence. As he waited he wondered if this form was anything like her true shape, or if it was simply a construct from imagination.
Then she looked down at him. He knelt on one knee, but held her gaze, projecting both deference and confidence at the same time. The servant knows his place - and his value.
When she spoke, her voice was low and musical. "Turbo. You have returned."
"I never left, Daemon," he answered, gesturing at the lines glowing around his icon, the mark of her infection.
She smiled faintly. Then she said, "Explain your absence."
"It was necessary, Daemon. I know Bob - Guardian 452. He is too clever to let me approach him, knowing that I'm one of yours now. It was necessary to create a hoax that I had defected, and was seeking his help against you. He would not have believed that unless he had seen the evidence with his own eyes. As it was, it was not easy to convince him that I still retained my own will despite being infected, but when he saw that I was being hunted by other Guardians he believed me."
"You were being hunted." She frowned. "You could have been deleted by my own Virals."
My fellow Guardians. He suppressed that thought. "It was a risk worth taking, Daemon," he answered, looking up at her steadily. "452 could have posed a real threat, had he more time to prepare. Already he was assembling a team to strike against you."
"Yes..." The projection looked thoughtful. "That was mentioned. Four Sprites."
"I could have foregone the hoax and gotten close enough to him to delete him. He no longer has his keytool; he lost it in the Web-"
"The Web." Daemon's eyes glowed with interest.
Ah, her ambitions had turned in that direction already. "Yes. He learned much about it while he lived there. Once you claim him he will serve you well,"
She nodded and paused, as if considering. Then she asked, "And the others? One is an unknown Guardian."
Turbo shook his head. "They are no threat to you, Daemon. Not without Bob, at any rate. I brought them in because, left to themselves, they could become troublemakers. Better to make an example of them."
"What about the Virus?"
"She is a Chaos Virus from Mainframe, the same system Bob has been assigned to. She's tame enough to coexist with a system without destroying it, and powerful enough that they didn't dare try to remove her against her will. She followed us because she found us interesting."
"Where is she?" Daemon's eyes narrowed.
She was in a dangerous mood, Turbo knew, but outwardly he remained perfectly calm. "She's somewhere about the Supercomputer. She's very curious; she's probably just playing tourist. She's hiding her power because she knows that until she uses it we can't find her on our scanners. But don't worry - she's a bumpkin. She's never been out of the small system in which she was compiled; she doesn't know what she's up against here. I've got the spare Guardians looking for her. As soon as she turns up we'll bring her to you."
"Very good," Daemon said. "Now, bring the Sprites."
"I just locked them in. They haven't been prepared," Turbo said, his tone carefully even.
Daemon replied firmly, "I am ready for them. Bring them."
He stood. "Yes, Daemon," he replied, and left the room.
Crash it, Turbo thought as he walked, poker-faced, back to the holding cells. He thought he would have a little more time. He couldn't delay Daemon; she would not accept excuses. Crash it!
He was surprised that Tchia did not intercept him before he got to the holding cell. He would have thought she'd be watching his every step now. He had been wary of her ever since Daemon's infection. He was going to have to be even more careful around her now. But it would not be for long...
The prisoners stopped their conversation abruptly when they heard the door iris open. All looked tensely at The Prime Guardian when he entered the room. He raised his left arm so they could see Copland. "Has anyone else been here since I locked you in?" he asked as he closed the door behind himself.
Bob shook his head. "No."
Turbo looked at his keytool. "Copland, area scan." The keytool chirped to itself for several nanos, then bleeped and displayed its findings on its wheel. "Nobody's listening in," Turbo said as he came over to the cells.
"What's happening?" Matrix asked as Turbo pressed his palm to the pad beside his cell. The barred door lifted.
"Daemon wants to see you. Now." Turbo answered. "I can't put her off. With the Guardians searching for Hexadecimal in the system-" He raised his left arm. "Copland, show all active Guardian PIDs in this system." When it displayed the results Turbo nodded, relieved. "We won't have many of them to deal with."
"That's a relief," Bob said.
Turbo nodded agreement as he opened Mouse and AndrAIa's cell. He did not relish the idea of battling his former colleagues any more than Bob did. "However, we'll have whatever Daemon throws at us. That ought to be enough."
"More than enough." Bob said.
"So, what's the plan?" Mouse asked.
Turbo glanced at Bob and said "Unwritten Protocol #1."
"What's that?" Ray asked.
"Do your best with what you have," Bob translated.
"I don't have much time. Daemon expects us in short order," Turbo said in a low, urgent voice. "Bob's got you through a lot. Follow his lead. Don't follow mine. Daemon could take control of me." Matrix and Bob both started to protest. Turbo held up a hand to silence them. "She could. She doesn't know I'm not her slave now. If she realizes that, she'll either try to control me or kill me. I couldn't resist if she turned her full attention on me. And if that happens, I am the enemy. Treat me accordingly."
"You've resisted this far," Matrix said.
Turbo shook his head. "She had me before. You have no idea what being infected is like. Think about this - what if, instead of being loyal to the Net, to the Guardian collective, to everyone you know and hold dear - you wanted with all your heart for Daemon to take control of everything and everyone. You'd do whatever it takes to do it. You'd delete your closest friends, you'd devise plans to ferret out free systems for her, never mind what happened to them or their inhabitants. That nothing mattered but to help the Virus conquer. That you'd be proud to do it!"
They all stared at Turbo. Turbo met their eyes steadily. "That's exactly what it's like."
"She can do that to a Guardian?" Matrix asked.
Turbo nodded solemnly. "You've seen them yourself. My code could throw off her commands, thank the Programmer, but it couldn't free me from her completely. Her infection's tailored to lock into Guardian code too tightly for that." He closed his eyes. "Bob told me that the Cult of the User got into Mainframe. It's a good thing you got rid of them before they killed you or contacted Daemon's forces. That's what their real mission is - gather as many people as they can into the cult, then use them against the system's Guardians or to contact Daemon and summon attack forces. They must have gotten into Mainframe by game hopping, since Mouse had the system shielded from the Net."
"They were sent by Daemon?" Bob said softly.
Turbo's voice was strained. "I designed the cult myself to search and retrieve the last holdouts. To bring them under Daemon's control. I had hoped they would flush you out. If I'd had Mainframe's address, I would have led the attack force myself. But I had altered it in the Supercomputer's records and stored it in Copland before she got to me, so I couldn't use it if I went viral." His voice held steady, but pain was in his eyes. "If Daemon takes me over, Copland won't obey me." He looked down at the gold keytool. "Either he'll leave me or refuse my commands. Daemon can't infect keytools, and the ones that wouldn't follow her left their owners. Some Guardians still have them, but not many." He looked up at the group again. "I'd rather be deleted than serve Daemon again. If you see me without Copland, or see him refuse to obey my commands, then I am the enemy and to be treated as such. That's an order," he said firmly, looking at Bob.
Bob nodded silently. Turbo was about speak when he heard the door dilate. He turned. Of course, it was Tchia. Brusquely Turbo said, "Daemon wants to see the prisoners."
"I expected as much," she replied.
She kept the smugness out of her voice, but it came through loud and clear in her body language. "Has the Chaos Virus been captured yet?" he asked.
"Not yet. They are still searching for her. She is hiding, probably close to the power source to camouflage her energy."
"Daemon wants her," Turbo said firmly.
"I know." She folded her arms and did not leave them.
Turbo turned away from her, toward the prisoners, and scowled in frustration. He couldn't say anything more with her there, and she was determined to stick with them! He said to Bob, "Face the wall, arms behind your back." Bob obeyed without question, holding his hands close together. "Copland, peace bind." A glowing field enclosed Bob's wrists, fastening them together. He repeated the process on Matrix, AndrAIa, and Mouse. When he came to Ray, he said, "We'll deal with you later." He pointed at the cell. Surprised, the surfer went back in.
"Why not him?" Tchia asked.
"The rest have tried to strike against Daemon. They might pose an actual threat. The surfer is only their guide. Daemon wouldn't be interested in him. I'm not going to waste her time."
"Are you so sure of that?"
He pinned her with a harsh glare. "Yes. Do you have anything to occupy your time, Guardian?"
She paused, then said, "I merely intended to escort you. Your prisoners might get unruly."
"Very well," Turbo said, letting his irritation show. He said to Ray, "Hands behind your back." Turbo put a hand on the Surfer's shoulder, preventing him from turning away from Turbo. Instead, Turbo walked around him and muttered a command to Copland. He finished by closing the barred door and holding his hand up to the pad outside Ray's cell. Then he said, "Come on," and walked out. Bob, Matrix, AndrAIa, and Mouse followed. Tchia came behind them, her hand on her weapon.
Ray watched as they left. The female Guardian had given him a very cold look. There was a power struggle going on there, one which in other circumstances Ray would be interested in watching from the sidelines.
He took his hands out from behind his back. Turbo had not peace bonded him; he had instead given him something. He held it up and turned it over in his hands. A command. It didn't have much power; it wouldn't work very long.
He considered it for a bit. Then experimentally he pressed on the bars of the cell door. It moved slightly at his touch.
The group walked in silence to Daemon's audience chamber. Bob, Matrix, Mouse, and AndrAIa were all trying to guess what would come next. Turbo was thinking much the same thing.
What they were not expecting was to see an ethereal, almost Spritelike dataform. Turbo had told them about Daemon's projections, but surely the shape that would be interrogating prisoners would be more... well, intimidating!
The projection did not notice them immediately. As it stared blindly at the door, Turbo said to his prisoners, "Line up, side by side." They did, and stood as if awaiting roll call. Turbo said to Tchia, "Leave us."
She looked ready to argue - then decided that squabbling in front of Daemon would be unwise, and turned and left. He watched her go, then said, "Copland, unbind all."
"These are the last rebels."
Nobody had noticed when the projection had come to life. Now she was smiling down at them. Her expression was not smug or triumphant, merely pleased. Turbo answered, "Yes, Daemon."
"Tell me about them. I want to know how they evaded me for so long." She looked at Bob and Matrix, then froze for a nanosecond. When she spoke again she was looking at Bob. "Guardian 452, Bob."
Turbo thanked the programmer. She could extract the information from Bob simply by infecting him, but it appeared that she was in the mood to be amused. He said, "What do you want to know?"
She asked Bob, "How long did you think you could evade me? Forever?"
Bob did not glance at Turbo for direction. He did not know how much this projection perceived, and he could not risk giving anything away. He hoped that the others would remember that as well. "I didn't know."
"But still you tried." She gestured at him, and he floated into the air until he was at her eye level. He did not fight; he simply held her gaze firmly. "You have spirit. Turbo was right, you'll make a fine viral." Then she drew him closer and peered at his face. "You've been damaged in the Web!" she said sharply.
"Yes," Bob answered simply.
"How did that happen?" she demanded.
"Tell her," Turbo said to Bob when he did not answer right off. "You've got nothing to gain by holding back any longer."
Bob heard a soft, familiar hum in the distance. To cover it up he said, "Uh..." while trying to figure out what to tell Daemon.
The walls slid by smoothly. He skimmed just below the ceiling, making as little sound as possible. Perhaps he had been heard as he had passed through the quiet, nearly empty passages, but nobody had found the sound worth investigating.
He followed the voices through the halls. No doors closed to block his way. It was easy to track the Sprites down in this quiet place. It would have been easy to be detected too, but he was careful.
They were all there, minus the female Guardian. Hexadecimal was still hidden. A Virus was holding Bob in the air, interrogating him... but Turbo had said that that was not the real Daemon. They had to get to the Supervirus herself. Where was she?
He looked around. His senses reached past the spectrum visible to most Sprites. He could "see" energy - or, perhaps more accurately, hear it, because he did not need a direct line of sight to know it was there. The Virus holding Bob displayed little energy at all. There was a much stronger concentration somewhere beyond this room. Flying as high and silently as possible, he skimmed through a doorway on one side of the stage.
Beyond, the hallway was dimly lit. Some of the LEDs that were supposed to illuminate the passage had failed. The ether smelled stagnant, and trackless dust coated the floor. Nobody had been in here in milliseconds. The level of power had risen sharply, as if the Core were nearby. Which was not the case; they were too far from the system's center.
As he followed it, the energy became more intense. It lit up the dust in the passages and rooms he traveled through, making the motes glow faintly as they stirred in his wake. The energy bled over into his other senses as well - he felt a tingle on his skin; he heard a faint crackling buzz.
He became warier as the sensations intensified. His impulse was to slow down, but the hidden file command Turbo had slipped him might give out any time. He had no idea how long it would last or when it would fail. He had to move quickly.
He stopped abruptly before the entrance to the next room. It was a large, open chamber, a place where thousands of Sprites could assemble. Or they might have stored large vehicles here; it was the right size for a hangar. All signs of its previous function - machinery, seats, anything that might have identified its purpose - were gone.
He noticed this only on his mind's periphery. He stared in fascination at the huge shape occupying the center of the chamber, radiating energy and power from within its mass. Faint sounds came from it - hisses, whispers, rustlings, perhaps voices. Though it actually occupied only a sixteenth of the floor space, it gave the impression of filling the entire room, wall to wall, floor to ceiling.
He flew backward out of the room and down the passage. When he reached an area open enough to turn around in he did so, and zipped the rest of the way, leaving sparkling trails of churned dust dancing behind himself.
Daemon had listened attentively to Bob's account of how Mainframe had been invaded by Web creatures and he had been thrown into the web. Bob did not try to leave anything out; since she had sent the Web creatures herself, and if Turbo was correct and she had assimilated Megabyte's knowledge, he could not be telling her anything new. He told the story at length, in great detail. She did not mind. She could take all the time she wanted, now that they were in her hands.
It got stickier when she asked how he had survived in the Web. He told her that he had been taken prisoner by a groups of Webriders before degradation had set in too deeply. Was it his imagination, or had she shown relief when he said that? She brought him close and touched the scars on his face and throat with her fingertips. Her touch was light as a child's, but her eyes were narrowed, her gaze intensely focused.
The others had the jaggies, Turbo could tell. They controlled themselves very well, but he knew they were waiting for a signal. He had heard the soft hum go past them, and knew that the surfer had at least partially figured out what he was to do - but how much had he understood? And where had he gone?!
Now he heard the sound of the Surf-Baud again. He did not look over as it circled around them. Daemon's projection did not seem to have noticed it. Turbo had not expected it to; the projections' attention was always very tightly focused.
Bob did not notice it either; Daemon's questioning had claimed all of his attention. She asked, "How did you heal Hexadecimal?"
"Her mask had been shattered in an explosion. To fix that, I had to pull her masks together, repair the code that separated them."
Daemon froze in place, her expression blank. She remained that way for nanoseconds. Was the projection lagged? That was what it looked like to Bob. Then she said, "Why did you do that?"
"She was in pain. It was driving her crazy. I couldn't leave her like that," Bob answered.
She frowned. "You repaired her code?"
She studied him silently, as if unsatisfied with his answer. At that moment Bob remembered that Hexadecimal was with them, listening to the conversation. She hadn't come out when they mentioned her, thank the Programmer.
Turbo tilted his head slightly, as if thinking. A voice spoke softly behind him. He listened, then nodded, the motion barely perceptible.
Out of his peripheral vision he saw Matrix, who was next to him, twitch as if startled, then put his hands behind himself. He made it look like he was fidgeting nervously. Good.
"You will bring her to me," the projection stated.
"I... don't know if I can. She's unpredictable." Bob said.
"She is inordinately fond of you. There are some constants to her behavior."
That sounded like something that Megabyte would say! Bob did not know how else to reply, so he said, "I'll try."
"Yes, you will." She reached for his icon. Before she touched it she was knocked back. A moment later they saw what had hit her - Ray Tracer's Surf-Baud, minus the Surfer himself. Bob dropped to the ground and looked around, startled. Ray said, "G'day" to him as he tossed a used-up command away and handed Mouse her katanas. Matrix already had Gun. AndrAIa maximized her trident. Mouse leapt onto the stage and sliced at the fallen projection with both swords.
The projection did not attempt to fight back. It stared blankly at Mouse as if unaware of its injuries. Energy leaked from the wounds. The body around them began dissolving, as if its very code was unraveling. In several nanoseconds the projection was gone.
"I found Daemon," Ray said. "She's back there. Are we going to try to fight that?" he asked Turbo.
"You saw her?" Turbo asked, incredulous.
"Wish I hadn't."
"Lead the way." As Ray jumped onto his Surf-Baud Turbo said to Mouse, AndrAIa, Matrix, and Bob, "This's it, people."
"Hex, come on out!" Bob said.
AndrAIa's long hair fluttered as the white mask flew out from under it. The Virus downloaded, her claws extended, yellow-eyed in anticipation of the battle. Crouching on his Surf-Baud, Ray flew through the door beside the stage.
The others followed, running after the Web surfer as he zipped through the halls. They could sense the energy permeating the ether, see the glowing dust that had not been disturbed in milliseconds, and smell the stagnant air. Ray shouted back over his shoulder, "You might find her a little disturbing,"
Bob answered, "You've got a habit of understating things."
Ray nodded, a quick jerk of the head, as the Surf-Baud dipped to go through an open doorway. "Hang on, we've got company," he called to the others.
A Spritelike, bluish-green female Chaos Virus met them. She was holding her hands in front of herself when Bob came through. She opened them, and a ball of iridescent plasma shot toward him. Bob waved a hand and created a bubble of golden light in front of himself. The plasma ball exploded against it. Its energy washed through the room, the sphere protecting the Sprites from the worst of it. The Virus put her hands together to generate another plasma ball. AndrAIa extended her nails, but before she could attack Matrix drew his gun and shot.
This one did not dissolve like the projection had. She flew backward and hit the wall with a shriek, then fell forward. The wall was stained with her energy. The others stared. Turbo said, "That wasn't a projection. We'll see a lot more Viruses. Come on. Ray!" The surfer nodded and zipped out the exit on the others side of the room. The others followed. Hexadecimal, who had been at the end, glanced at the Virus for only a moment before moving on.
As they went through the halls they met two other Viruses, both of whom succumbed to blasts from Bob's hands and Turbo's keytool. Both Viruses wore exactly the same expression - not anger, not the glee that so many of their kind felt in battle, but cold calculation. Both had been ready to fight the moment they saw the Sprites. As if they knew exactly what was coming. Obviously Daemon had sent them.
"Let me get one!" Hexadecimal called from the back. She was frustrated that she couldn't blast any of their enemies without risking hitting her own group, and the ceiling in the hallway was too low for her to fly over the others. Finally she uploaded into her mask and shot ahead of them, into the doorway before them that was just glowing with power. Daemon!
The others saw her mask stop in the doorway. She downloaded from it and stood still for nanoseconds. Then she looked back at them, her eyes and mouth wide like an amazed child's.
The rest reached the entrance to the large room, one that Bob and Turbo knew as a training room. It was big and open, large enough to practice zip board combat in. In the center was a mass. At first it appeared greyish, but the grey was made up of shifting colors, colors that moved about like a swarm of nulls seen at slow speed. Its outline was irregular, and shifted slowly. The edges were jagged, irregular, spiky. At first Bob was amused. That blob was Daemon? The thing reminded him of Nullzilla, but it wasn't even that well formed! But then he noticed one of the protrusions. It was jointed, not flexible, and it had smaller extensions on the end. An arm. And, now that he saw that, he realized that the entire surface was made of recognizable parts - here a torso, there a hand, next to it a metallic face. The image snapped into scale for Bob. This thing was like Nullzilla - but the monster wasn't made of nulls, it was made of Viruses!
They almost didn't notice the slender cobalt blue Virus running toward them. He had come from the mass itself. His face was silver, almost reminiscent of Hexadecimal's mask. His eyes glowed yellow. He stopped and posed, knees bent, leaning forward, as if preparing to charge. His eyes flared blue. He shrieked as deep blue beams stabbed toward the invaders. The group scattered, dodging the beams. When they hit the wall beyond, the wall turned blue, frozen.
Bob glanced back at the wall, then at Turbo. Turbo answered the unspoken question. "Infector. Freezes things with the Blue Scream of Death. It's fatal!"
The Virus had fallen back, his eyes black. He couldn't strike a second time. He must have to gather energy between attacks, Bob thought as he retaliated with a beam of energy. The Virus was thrown back. He hit the ground, skidded, then got back up again. His eyes lightened to yellow as he gathered his energy. The Sprites were ready this time. The group scattered, then Mouse and AndrAIa ran toward the Virus from different angles. AndrAIa's claws raked the arm the Virus held up protectively. He tried to fight back, first against AndrAIa, then Mouse, but his movement soon became sluggish. His eyes faded back to black. Mouse paused, made a decision, and brought her swords down, first one and then the other, in two deliberate strokes. The Virus dropped. Sourly Mouse muttered to AndrAIa, "No point takin' chances, is there."
While they had been fighting that Virus, others had appeared. They were definitely coming from the main mass; Bob saw one pull itself free. Two Viruses were there, and a third one was emerging. The first two guarded the third as it separated itself from the mass. Then the three came forward together. Two were big, powerful-looking mech Viruses. They could have been duplicates - except, Bob realized, they were Web scarred in different patterns. The third was a lean, matte black animal shimmering with energy. The twin Viruses advanced steadily, and the third darted about, leaving trails of sparks crackling behind itself. Ray shot at them from above with the blaster he had claimed while liberating their weapons and his Surf-Baud. The dark creature looked up, then leapt. Its claws caught on the edge of the Surf-Baud, tipping it to the side. "Whoa!" Ray yelped as he tumbled to the ground.
The two mechs blocked the Surfer from his friends. The dark creature dropped to the ground and landed lightly on all fours, completing the triangle. Ray held his gun up, turning rapidly, trying not to turn his back on any of the Viruses. Matrix raised Gun and shouted, "Gun, command line: multiple target acquisition!" Red targeting icons flew out of Gun's sight and attached themselves to the three Viruses. He held Gun out, but could not get a shot that wouldn't include Ray.
Hexadecimal, floating just above the ground, asked politely, "Bob, may I?"
Bob started and looked behind himself. Hexadecimal had been so quiet he had forgotten she was there. She pointed at the Viruses surrounding Ray. "May I please?" she asked again.
"Yes! This is where we need you, Hex!" Bob exclaimed.
"Thank you," she chirped. Then she darted into the air. From above the triangle, she gestured. The two mechs floated up, startled and struggling. Ray glanced up, saw what had happened, then turned to the third and squeezed the trigger of his blaster.
AndrAIa looked back at the mass. More Viruses were emerging. First there had been one, then another, then three - and they were coming faster now! "Mouse!"
"We can get 'em before they're completely formed!" AndrAIa gestured at the main mass. Mouse followed her. The game sprite stabbed with her trident at an emerging Virus. Only its upper body and one arm had separated from the main mass. Energy flowed from its wounds - then it was pulled back in.
"What in the Web?" Mouse exclaimed when she saw that. But AndrAIa had the right idea - the more they got before they could fight, the better! AndrAIa went one way, and Mouse circled the other, to look for more.
Mouse found another Virus, one which was only connected to the main mass at the back. It - he was solid white, his skin shiny but not metallic. And he was was showing a lot of skin: all of it, to be precise. He raised his hands protectively as he tried to pull free. Feeling like a murderer, she swung her katana. Then a heavy blow slammed between her shoulderblades, knocking her to the ground. Bright light shone above her, and she heard a scream. She rolled away and saw Turbo lowering his keytool. And, beside her, the Virus that had gotten her while she had been distracted by the Michelangelo Virus.
More Viruses were budding from the front. Mouse and AndrAIa could barely keep up with them. And now they were coming in twos and threes from around the back too. Ray flew up above Daemon, lying flat on his Surf-Baud, his back nearly brushing the ceiling; he wanted to stay as far away from the monster as he could, in case she could also reach upward.
Bob was shooting energy beams at various targets. At first every scream had torn at him; every Virus that fell was a living, processing dataform that he had killed. But there was no other way! He had known that it might come down to something like this, and worse had come to worse.
It was easy in games, where the sprites were automatons. They were not real, they simply went through programmed motions, and when the game restarted they would be reinitialized as if nothing had happened. It was easy to deal with that. One could slip into a kind of trance - look all around, kill whatever might kill you, let your training and quick clockspeed do most of the work. He tried to force that state of mind now; it might be the only way to survive. And it would ease the pain a little.
Turbo, who was blasting with Copland at the Viruses that threatened the others whenever he had a clear shot, did not glance up when he heard Ray shout "They're coming out faster! How long can she keep this up?"
"I don't know!" Turbo shouted back. He suspected that she could keep it up as spammed long as she liked. She had summoned thousands of Viruses to herself, and now she was disgorging them to fight for her. They were too well coordinated to be functioning under their own initiative; Daemon was using them as puppets. Were they alive at all? Did they feel it when they died, or did Daemon feel it? One thing he was sure of: considering the vast number of Viruses she had taken in, absorbing their powers and programming and integrating it into her own, his group would soon be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Sooner or later somebody would slip.
"Bob!" Turbo shouted. "This isn't working! We have to get Daemon, not the Viruses!"
"How?!" Bob answered. He blasted at a Virus that was coming out of Daemon; Mouse and AndrAIa were off at either side, too far away to get it in time. When the blast hit the Virus, it was sucked, shrieking, back into the mass. A ripple of energy spread outward from where Bob's beam had touched, causing the surface to convulse. Bob began to think that this was less like a game than a nightmare. Even Tremor and Condemnation were never this ugly!
"I can't exactly hack her programming right now, sugah," Mouse growled. There was no end to these things for her to chop! She had stopped seeing them as Viruses and now thought of them as monsters, plain and simple. Monsters budding off the queen monster.
Turbo shouted rapid-fire, "Mouse, AndrAIa, keep at it! Ray, Hexadecimal, you cover us from above. Matrix, you and I'll keep any of them from getting to Bob. Bob, you go at her full-power! Hit her as hard as you can!"
Bob gathered up his power for a big burst. Because he had merged with Glitch, his keytool, he had the most energy of anyone in the group, with the exception of Hexadecimal. And unlike Hexadecimal, he knew that a well-aimed stab was often more effective than a wildly swung bludgeon. He focused on the mass - which was now pulsating and writhing more rapidly along its entire surface - as the battle raged around him. Then he tightened his hands, and shot forth a reddish-gold needle of power into Daemon.
Daemon flared with his energy and convulsed. Every Virus - both those that was emerging and the ones functioning on their own - screamed simultaneously in pain. A hole opened up around his beam. Bob kept it up for nanoseconds that seemed much longer than they were. When he stopped, exhausted, the tunnel into the Supervirus closed again.
"They all stopped!" Hexadecimal exclaimed. "What did you do?!"
"When you got her, she lost control of the others!" Matrix said.
"Can you do that again?" Turbo asked.
"Yeah. Gimme a few nanos to work up some more energy," he replied breathlessly.
So, she did have weaknesses, Bob thought. They could hurt her! He just had to find the right target to hit - he hoped - before his energy ran out. He grinned. He'd take that gamble!
Bob, intent on gathering his energy for the next shot, barely noticed the battle around himself. Matrix, Turbo, and Hexadecimal were picking off the Viruses from left, right, and above. Ray realized that the Viruses were no longer attacking Mouse or AndrAIa; they ran right past the women. They were all homing in on Bob. Daemon knew what he was trying to do, all right.
Bob didn't want to waste any energy, not now. He'd need every erg. He stepped close, holding his hands out to focus his power.
"BOB!" Hexadecimal screamed at the same time Matrix shouted "Look out!" Startled, Bob looked up. Something new had emerged far to one side of him. Daemon had extended a pseudopod fringed by jointed, cilia-like protrusions with hands at their ends. It swung at Bob with shocking speed. When it wrapped around him the arms bent inward. Dozens of hands seized him.
Matrix and Turbo both began shooting at the base of the tentacle, trying to free Bob. Hexadecimal joined in a fraction of a nanosecond later. The pseudopod slapped flat into Daemon's side and was absorbed back in, taking Bob with it. Her mass pulsed and rippled brightly with energy.
"BOB!" Hexadecimal screamed again, and plunged after him into the mass of the Supervirus.
To Part 2...
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
All ReBoot characters, and the entire ReBoot universe, are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. and used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. Jess, the first Virus they encountered, is copyright © Jess. B'Sod (Blue Scream Of Death, geddit?) and David, the Michaelangelo Virus, are copyright © Katzedecimal. Thanks to these Viruses' agents for letting me "borrow" them! Tchia and the overall story are copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed binomes and Viruses can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.