|"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree"
"It's seen the best of times, it's seen the worst of times," Mike the TV intoned gravely. The camera was shooting from a low angle, so behind him Hexadecimal's tower was starkly silhouetted against the brooding orange sky of Lost Angles. "Once barricaded from the rest of the system, now all that remains of the destroyed Twin City, Lost Angles has remained a sad reminder of those who have perished, and the fragility of our system."
Mike paused, and the camera rose to eye level and pointed straight ahead, so brightly lit buildings came into the shot. Only a sliver of orange sky was visible above them. Cheerfully Mike continued, "Now once again Lost Angles is a hub of activity! Free from the restrictions of Mainframe, Lost Angles has become a popular spot to get away from it all - and to some things you can't have elsewhere." Mike winked twice at the camera and made a nudging motion with one elbow. "I'll say no more!"
After pausing a moment to let that sink in, he said, "What brought about this change? Why have people suddenly come flocking to Lost Angles, the site of so many bad memories for Mainframe? The answer may lie here, within the Velvet Fist."
Mike walked over to one gaudy building standing among the ruins that littered the island. In contrast to their dull, faded colors and rough, broken outlines, this was new, bright, slick. Above the door was the neon image of a red, arm's-length woman's glove. Its hand was clenched into a fist. Mike and his small crew entered. As the camera nome looked around through his viewfinder, binomes turned away, shielding their faces from the camera. Mike pretended not to notice.
A voice called out, "Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome!" Mike turned quickly. Then, beckoning for the camera nome to follow, he went into the next room. It was a comfortable lounge with plush chairs and sofas, in which many female - and several male - binomes seemed to be waiting for someone. A Zero blew a kiss at the camera flirtatiously. Hexadecimal, who was wearing a flowing black gown that camouflaged her pregnancy - from the front, at least - beckoned him in. "What brings you here, Michael?" she asked with a teasing smile. "Is the camera part of it?"
Mike hopped up onto the other side of the sofa Hexadecimal occupied. "Hexadecimal, mistress of Lost Angles. Why the sudden surge of development here? What has transformed your island into this thriving paradise?"
Hexadecimal said casually, "Somebody asked me if they could build here. Nobody ever asked before. It's nice to have people here again! I was bored, living by myself. And since this is my home, they play by my rules, not Mainframe's."
"Which, some have said, are not restrictive," Mike prompted.
Hexadecimal grinned. "Exactly. So long as they don't bother me, why should I care how they have their fun?" She gestured around herself. "I like seeing people play. This is how it should be!"
Glancing around, Mike noticed that only the staff remained in camera range. They didn't seem embarrassed at all to be seen. That would speak for itself. "You can often be found here, in this..."
"This, ah, cabaret. What do you get out of it?"
"As I said, I like to see people play." She rested her hands on her swollen stomach unselfconsciously. "And sometimes I find companionship of my own. Binomes aren't the only people who visit The Velvet Fist." She smirked at the camera.
"Such as?" Mike asked.
She waved a finger at him. "Ah ah ah, I don't kiss and tell. That wouldn't be discreet," she scolded with a smile.
"I see. Well, thank you, Hexadecimal, for your time," Mike said, getting off the couch. She waved the fingers of one hand and did not rise.
Mike exited the building. Standing in front of it, with the red neon glove up above, he spoke to the camera. "What prompted this sudden interest in developing Lost Angles? Perhaps it was just an idea whose time had come. And yet some say that The Church of The User, recently established in Mainframe, started it off by building its headquarters here. More followed, bringing life to the once desolate wasteland. Did the Church in fact build all this?" Mike gestured around. The camera viewpoint obediently followed, taking in the gaudily lit clubs, eateries, and places of various types of amusement. It came to rest on a building sporting the icon-within-a-hand logo of The Church of The User. The camera closed in on the logo.
Two binomes watched the broadcast from a small, neat office. When it was over the One sitting behind the desk closed the VidWindow. He did not look at the other, a Zero who was sitting at the other side of the desk, his chair turned around backward. The Zero turned around to look at the one. "Well?"
The one tapped the tips of his hands together thoughtfully. "He has not found anything we need be concerned with."
"But he's drawing attention to us."
"And he'll keep digging until he does stumble upon something." They, not being natives of Mainframe, had not known of Mike the TV for very long. Casual inquiries to the Mainframe inhabitants had turned up plenty of information; the appliance was infamous in this system. "He lives for the attention he gets with his reports. He doesn't broadcast lies - but he is known to embellish the truth."
"Do you really think we ought to worry about him?"
The One tapped his hands together again. "Worry? I don't think so. He's not out to do us any harm. I don't know that he could without serious effort, and from what I've heard his taste doesn't run quite as low as tabloid journalism. He simply needs to be shown what he wants to see."
The Zero said, "You can't mean-"
"Open the books to him? Yes. But give him the right books," the one said with a calm smile. "The reason he's turned his attention on us is simply because he's bored. He has nothing else to report on, now that all traces of viral habitation is gone from G Prime -" he frowned- "and there is nothing new happening in this system. All Mainframe can do now is hide from Daemon, and he's not satisfied to call out 'twelve o'clock and all's well'. Any attempt on our part to shoo him away would undoubtedly fuel his interest. So - show him what he wants to see."
The Zero smiled. "I understand. Let him find something to satisfy himself, but keep him away from any dangerous areas."
"Exactly," said the One. "He seems to think we have some shady connections." And, both knew, he was right. The Church of the User was not officially connected with the other developments in Lost Angles - but if one knew how to trace funding, one could unearth some very interesting facts. "Perhaps we should let him find some."
"Something noncritical. Something startling at first, but in the end not important. He can even find a few dead ends before he locates anything. Let him enjoy the chase."
"Can we arrange for all that?" The Zero asked skeptically.
"Yes," the one said with firm assurance. "We will have to help it along. Mike clearly knows how to dig, but so far he clearly doesn't know where. A guide should remedy that."
"Are you thinking of a 'secret informant'?"
"No. A believer would be best. Someone who is fervently convinced, and will project that to others." The statement was unspoken: a dupe who will believe what they wanted him to.
After a few nanos' thought the Zero said, "I think I know of someone. Let me check the personality profiles."
The one waited while the Zero called up a VidWindow, accessed the records of members they had flagged as particularly worth watching, and selected one. Text scrolled on the screen. The Zero summarized, "This binome is known to most of Mainframe. He committed 'questionable' acts before and during the war against Megabyte. Since then he has been maintaining a low profile in every respect. He has confessed a number of times to these and other crimes. He desperately wants to atone for his previous actions." The Zero turned to the One. "He is clever, but not particularly intelligent. And he has shown a talent for being able to believe what he wants to. Whatever is to his advantage."
"He sounds like an amoral wretch," the One observed.
"Maybe. But the records show that he is an expert at manipulating others, and that he himself is easy to manipulate. I think that, given a chance to redeem himself, he would do everything in his power for us."
"What about family or friends? What other ties does he have?"
"None at all. He has no known family and tends to isolate himself in private life. The cult is his family."
The One thought about it. "He does sound like a good choice. Leave the file open. I want to go over it in more detail."
"Of course. I'll flesh out the details of what we want Mike to find in the meantime."
"Yes. Let him dig through to something juicy but ultimately insubstantial. That should satisfy him, and he ought to lose interest afterward."
The Zero nodded and left. The One in the desk below the Inner Church's symbol - an icon within a golden, three-fingered hand - read through the personality profile closely.
When the broadcast finished, Hexadecimal closed the VidWindow, leaned back in her spidery throne, and laughed. Michael amused her endlessly. His broadcasts showed life in such a wonderfully skewed way, she never missed one.
"What's so funny?" a female Zero standing beside the throne asked.
Hexadecimal gestured toward the space where the VidWindow had been. "Him."
The Zero could have questioned Hexadecimal further. Her mistress, when in a good mood, was very talkative. But it really wasn't important.
Hexadecimal continued, "I like the dress I was wearing. It looks good on me. But it's a little... simple." In her mind's eye she began drawing designs in gold on the black chestpiece. Yes, she'd edit it. But not now. She had been at The Velvet fist for most of the cycle, and though today that had not involved any strenuous activity (much to her dismay) she still felt tired. It was because of her condition, she knew, and accepted it. After all, she was usually full of energy. Being tired so often was a new experience. So was the sensation of something moving within her. It felt like a little creature, struggling to get out, draining her energy in its efforts. Nullzilla in reverse. The comparison made her grin.
Having willing company was another new experience. Several of the binomes who had taken up residence in Lost Angles - she supposed they were all User worshippers - had asked to serve her. They did not want to be paid, they just wanted to work for her. She had accepted. After all, Daddy had had plenty of servants. Why shouldn't she? She had no idea what to tell them to do, but they took care of that part themselves too, so she left them to it. But this one, a female Zero named Clarice, had appointed herself Hexadecimal's attendant. Often she just kept Hexadecimal company, but she had a knack for anticipating the Virus's needs. She had gained Hexadecimal's confidence quickly.
Clarice saw Hexadecimal's grin fade into a more neutral expression. Hexadecimal did not stay amused for long. She said, "What did you do at the Fist today?"
"Not much," Hexadecimal sighed. "I played hostess and talked with the girls. No Sprites came by. Binomes are fine, but I can't interface with them."
Clarice nodded, unperturbed by Hexadecimal's bluntness. She understood the other woman's loneliness. The Virus didn't have the options that anyone else in the system did. Her time in the Fist was probably what kept her stable and for the most part content. "How are you feeling?"
"All right," Hex said carelessly. "I'm bored. I want to play a game."
Gently Clarice said, "You know you shouldn't go into games now."
Hexadecimal glared down at the zero with a sulky expression. "I know, I know. 'Games are no place for a woman in beta.' I've played games, and I win them, in beta or not!"
"There's always the energy park."
"I've been there and done that. Those games are always the same, and they're so safe." Hexadecimal sighed. "I'd rather play Pong with Phong. Mainframe is dull."
"Where else is there?"
Hexadecimal ticked off on her fingers, "The Supercomputer, and the Web."
"I've never seen them," Clarice said.
"The Web isn't nice," Hexadecimal began, her previous boredom forgotten. "It's full of ugly creatures and ugly people who talk in whistles. But there are other systems in it. We saw one that was all nulls!" She laughed. "I could have been queen there!"
"Where were the people?"
"There were none. The entire system was nullified. We met some other Guardians. That was fun."
"I thought Daemon had claimed all the other Guardians."
"She did. These were hers. They were rude to us. So we fed them to the nulls." Her grin widened into a vicious smirk.
"Oh... what about the Supercomputer? I've only heard about it."
"I've never been there either," Hexadecimal said. "We were going there, but we got sidetracked and had to come back. Megabyte - my brother - always wanted to go there and take it over, but that was just him. If he saw anything big he wanted to take it over." She waved a hand as if dismissing a child's bad habits. "Bob comes from there. He knows what it's like. Or," Hexadecimal said on a sudden inspiration, "I could show you."
Startled, Clarice asked, "How?"
"In my looking glass." Hexadecimal activated the mirror. "I can use it to see things. Let's see..." she searched her memory for the address, then gestured at the mirror. It flared into a burst of angry static.
"WARNING: INCOMING GAME. WARNING: INCOMING GAME."
Bob glanced up. A game cube was coming down onto Kits Sector. He leaned forward on his zip board as he sped toward it. He saw several others heading for it too. Green was Matrix. The other was an orange glow in the corner of his eye. That would be Mouse.
He stopped underneath the descending cube just before it touched down. The other Sprites made it too, along with several binomes. In a flash of purple energy, the scenery was transformed from a residential community to a grassy playing field. This could be one of any number of games, Bob thought as he tapped his icon and said "Reboot!"
A green flash of energy transformed him into a child, not much older than Enzo, wearing a red robe. Matrix and Mouse paused and stared. Then Mouse stepped forward, tousled Bob's already-mussed hair, and said with a grin, "Hello, short stuff!"
Bob ducked out from under her hand and said, "Go on, reboot and see what you get."
Grinning, she clicked her icon and said "Reboot!" A nanosecond later she was the same apparent age as Bob, and also wearing a red robe.
Both turned to look at Matrix. The Green Sprite did not look at all enthusiastic. He muttered, "I wish I'd sat this one out. Reboot."
Bob managed to keep a somewhat straight face. More surprisingly, Mouse did not tease Matrix, who could have passed for the twin of his backup. Matrix looked down at himself, rolled his eye, and said "Come on, let's get this over with."
"I haven't played this one before." Bob closed his eyes and concentrated. "It's Quandry. It's a sports game, but with some weird twists." He paused, looking reluctant to go on. "Okay, we have two teams, red versus green. Each team has three goals that the other team tries to get a ball through. Each team has a goalie and three players trying to score points by hitting the ball through the enemy's goals. You're both regular players."
"Sounds like a cross between baseball and croquet," Mouse remarked.
"Each team also has a pair of players with bats to hit two other balls away from their players. There are two 'beanballs' which'll try to hit us and knock us off." Bob looked around. Several binomes had also rebooted. He counted them off. "We have a full team."
"What're you, then?"
Bob answered, "I'm the Snatcher. I have to try to catch one more ball - a tiny silver one - to get the most points and end the game."
Mouse looked around. The others were picking up poles, one per player, with a brushlike extension at the end. Mouse went over to the rack on their end of the field. When she looked at the User's team, she saw that they were putting sticks between their legs.
"Did I mention that we're flying while we do this?" Bob said.
"On these?" Mouse said, looking at the thin contraption incredulously.
"I've seen stupider games than this," Matrix said. Mouse's discomfort seemed to have lightened his spirits somewhat. He and Bob straddled their sticks and jumped, then floated in the air looking down at her.
Mouse was spammed if she was going to back down now. Anything they could do, she could do! She copied them, and was surprised to find that she didn't fall over sideways. It seemed to work just like a zip board, only less dignified.
A game sprite blew a whistle, starting the game. A red ball was thrown onto the field. A nanosecond later two black balls flew under their own power into the resulting fray. Bob forgot to mention that the balls moved by themselves, Mouse thought. Let's hope that that's the last of the 'little details.'
Matrix seized the red ball with one hand and, holding on with the other to his vehicle, sped toward the other end of the field. One of the game sprites smacked a black ball at him. He swerved to avoid getting knocked to the ground. While his attention was distracted another of the User's sprites grabbed the ball away from him and headed in the other direction.
Mouse, now feeling up to speed enough to join in, chased after him as he flew toward the middle goal. The stick moved faster as she willed it, but its upper speed limit was slower than those of the User's team. Spammit! The User drew an arm back and threw the ball into the goal as he flew over it. The red goalie cringed rather than trying to block the ball.
Bob, circling above the gameplay, saw it too. He could not give it much thought, however. He had to concentrate on finding the silver ball. Like the beanballs, it flew by itself. It was also fast. And worth a lot of points. If he could grab it early then they'd be sure to win the game. The problem was, the silly thing would only make an appearance when it felt like it.
Who invented this game?!
Over the next microsecond of gameplay Matrix and Mouse, using a strategy of relaying the ball between themselves that seemed to confound the User's team, managed to score a number of times. Unfortunately, since the User was better at goalkeeping than their teammate, the score remained nearly even. It didn't help that the beanballs seemed to continually bedevil Matrix and Mouse - again, because their teammates were no good at swatting the balls away. In fact, they seemed better at hitting the balls towards them than at the opposing team's players!
A glint of silver caught Bob's attention. It was below him, following one of the beanballs. Bob dove after it. It hovered in place until Bob reached his hand out, then it darted away. Both of the Snatchers - Bob and the User's player - swooped after it.
The User's green-cloaked player inched ahead. He had the faster stick. Bob gritted his teeth. He couldn't knock the other off its stick, that would be a foul. He tried to goad his stick to fly faster.
Mouse and Matrix were passing the ball between themselves and trying to watch the two Snatchers overhead. Whoever got the ball would win the game. Matrix muttered, "Come on, Bob!"
One of the two beanballs was also joining in the chase, and with it one sprite from each team. The binome in the red robe was ahead. He swung his bat back.
The silver ball swerved to the left, towards Bob's side. He arced after it. The user turned on a wider circle; those fast sticks must not be as maneuverable. Ah ha! Bob, closing in on it, reached out his hand. Then something smacked into his head, knocking him forward and off of his stick.
"Bob!" Matrix shouted when he saw him fall. He rushed over to try to catch him. However, when he let go of his stick with both hands he lost his balance. Both hit the ground with a painful thud.
A whistle blew, signaling a pause in the game. Mouse landed and rushed over. "Are you guys okay?"
"I'm all right," Matrix said, sitting up. "Bob?"
Bob sat up. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a soft wheeze. "You okay?" Matrix said.
A trickle of red fluid was leaking down Bob's forehead. He seemed to be trying to cough. His blue skin was fading toward grey. He looked up at them with wide eyes and put his hands to his throat.
"Did it hit you in the neck?" Matrix asked. He was sure he'd seen the beanball strike the back of Bob's head!
Suddenly Mouse knelt behind Bob and embraced him with one hand balled into a fist below his ribs and the other locked around it. She drew her hands inward and upward sharply once, then again. Bob coughed hard, his hands covering his face. When she let him go he wavered, still coughing. She put an arm around his rib cage to support him. "You okay?"
Bob nodded. He brought his coughing fit under control and, with a weak smile, showed them what had been choking him. It was a silver ball.
The cube rose. Bob said to Mouse, "Thanks."
"No problem, honey. That's a nasty cut on your head," Mouse responded.
"Hm? I didn't notice." Bob touched his forehead. His fingers came away wet. "It doesn't hurt much. Probably just a scratch."
"It wouldn't'a happened of we'd had a decent team. Who were those guys?!" Matrix growled.
They all looked around. None of the binomes who had played the game were within sight; they must already have cleared out. "I didn't recognize any of them," Bob said.
"Me neither," Mouse said.
"If I find them I'm going to make sure they never get into another game again!" Matrix's hand was hovering near Gun. "We'd have been better off with a team of game sprites than with those idiots!"
"Let's go back to the PO," Bob said in a tired voice. Matrix had a point - but he didn't feel up to dealing with it right this second.
The Command Room was in an uproar. As soon as Dot saw them she began, "While you were in the game, there was an alarm. Someone was trying to get into Mainframe!"
"What?!" Mouse exclaimed. "They shouldn't even be able to find us!"
"Well, someone or something was trying to get through your shields and what happened to you?"
The last part was directed at Bob. He said, "Just a little gaming accident."
"Look in a mirror, Bob. That doesn't look good. Let's go to the med area." To the rest of the staff she said, "If anything else happens, VidWindow me immediately."
While a med binome was treating Bob, Matrix and Mouse described the game to Dot. Both were clearly angry with the binomes who had entered the game. Bob did not join in, but Dot could see from his expression that he felt the same.
"It sounds like they were trying to throw the game," Dot said in disbelief. "But that doesn't make any sense."
"To you," Mouse responded. "Now, what kinda person wouldn't be afraid of losin' a game, besides someone who can go into game sprite mode? Only Matrix, AndrAIa, and I can do that."
Bob said, "We don't have any proof that they're members of the Church of the User. But that's the way I'd bet."
"Who else?" Matrix said. "They worship the User! They think it's an honor to be 'taken' by him in a game. What do they care if they take some of us, not to mention a chunk of the system, with 'em?"
Dot said firmly, "They have the right to believe whatever they want to. They're not breaking any laws. In Mainframe."
As she paused, they all exchanged looks. They had all seen Mike's broadcast, and had not been pleased by Hexadecimal's flaunting the fact that Lost Angles was her territory, not part of Mainframe. Dot continued, "Still, that does not give them the right to endanger anyone else!"
"Whaddaya gonna do?" Mouse asked. "Keep everyone but us out of the games? You can hold one person back, but there's no way you can blockade a cube completely. They come down too fast."
Bob and Dot were still chewing over that question after the end of the work cycle. By that time, everyone had heard some version of the game, much to the Sprites' dismay. Mike the TV had even foregone his investigation of Lost Angles in favor of a re-enactment by The Mainframe Strolling Players.
After the blue-colored One binome pretended to cough up a silver ball that it had palmed, Bob put a hand to his forehead - lightly, because of the jagged gash he had acquired when he had fallen.
"Whoa," said Enzo quietly. "Wipe out."
"Yep," Bob said, wishing he could forget the whole thing.
Dot took the opportunity to remind her brother, "Games are dangerous."
"Especially when you have bad players on your team," Bob said sourly.
"Will that one heal up silver too, like the web scars?" Enzo asked, looking at Bob's forehead. "Then it'd look like a lightning bolt. That's be so cool!"
Bob had to grin.
The One in the Church's headquarters had watched the dramatization too. This event had come at just the right time. It had diverted Mike's attention away for the moment, allowing them a little more time. And Mike had drawn no connection between the 'incompetent' players and the Church. He could have if he had been determined to show them in the worst light, but he hadn't. Excellent.
He minimized a data VidWindow as another opened. "Someone to see you. He says you sent for him?"
"Show him in."
Nanos later, a nervous looking One binome entered the office. He was taller than most, but much of that was his hair, black with a white streak. "You wanted to see me?" he asked, a quaver in his voice.
Nervous, the other thought. Carries a guilty conscience, fears prosecution even when none is forthcoming. Just like in the files. "Relax, Cyrus," he said with a warm smile, and gestured at the chair on the other side of his desk. "I have a task I would like you to consider."
"You do?" Cyrus, asked, surprised.
"Yes. You were one of the first to join the Church of the User, soon after we established ourselves, and you've been faithful to us ever since. I believe I can trust you."
Eagerly Cyrus said, "Yes, you can."
The other nodded agreement. "But, no less importantly, you have a talent for persuasion. You've used it to great effect before."
Cyrus looked down, embarrassed and dismayed at being reminded of his previous work for Megabyte.
The other went on smoothly, "But that's in the past. What I have in mind is a simple task. Mike the TV has been showing an interest in us. He might easily misunderstand and misrepresent us if he is not given the facts. I would like you to do that."
Cyrus blinked. "I... don't understand."
"Don't be embarrassed. I can see why you're confused - you don't know much of what goes on here. As with any organization, most happens beneath the surface. Not in secret, but simply out of view. But if Mike is so interested, there is no reason he shouldn't be allowed to investigate us, with our help as a show of good faith. We don't have anything to hide." He smiled.
Cyrus did too. "I understand. I'll do it."
"Good. My assistant will brief you, so that you'll know what kind of information Mike is looking for. And you'll be able to call on him in case you run up against something you don't know how to handle."
"Okay. And-" Cyrus put his hands on the desk, "thank you. I won't let you down."
"I know you won't." Another warm smile.
Cyrus left him, to be given the script by his assistant. He was a good pick for this job. Just like his assistant had said, he still felt guilty, and was pathetically eager to atone for his past. And not only would he say what they told him to say, he would believe it, and project it.
Hexadecimal's eyes went dark blue when she saw a repeat of the reenactment of that day's game. Bob was hurt! That never happened! He was supposed to win the games without a scratch!
Clarice, seeing her distress, said "He's all right, Hexadecimal. They said he just had a cut on his head, that's all."
"I want to make sure!" Hexadecimal said, standing up from her throne.
Clarice raised her hands and said in a soothing voice, "If anything were seriously wrong, it'd be all in the news. 'Guardian sidelined by Game Cube.' He just needs to rest and get over it. I know I would, if I'd been through all that."
Hexadecimal stared at her as if processing this information. Then, accepting it, she sat down again. "I'll see him tomorrow, then," she said decisively.
By which time she probably will have forgotten, Clarice thought. She asked, "Where did you come from?"
"Right here." Hexadecimal answered, not at all perturbed by the change of subject.
"I'm sorry, I meant where did your family come from?"
Hex nibbled thoughtfully at a clawtip. "I don't know. Daddy never said. I don't even know if he was compiled here or if he came from somewhere else."
"A lot of Viruses come from the Supercomputer," Clarice mentioned. "They tried to control them, but they couldn't."
Hexadecimal smiled, showing a hint of sharp teeth. "Of course!"
"Haven't you ever thought of visiting there?" Clarice persisted. "It's be safe for you now, no Guardians to bother you."
Hexadecimal looked at her looking glass, her head tilted. "Yes..." she murmured thoughtfully, and waved at the mirror. Once again the reflection was replaced by static. Hexadecimal frowned. "That's strange, it's still doing that."
For the second time an alarm whooped in the Principle Office. Phong, who was already at the map table in the command room, extended his neck so he could see the table from a higher viewpoint. He glanced over the entire map quickly, then scanned it more slowly.
Bob and Dot burst into the room together, followed by Enzo. "Where is it?" Dot asked, rushing over to the table.
"I do not see it," Phong said, clearly worried.
Bob took the opposite side of the table, which by now was ringed with staff binomes trying to spot the source of the alarm. The location of the attempted break-in should show on this map, no matter what level of Mainframe it was on. However, though the alarm was still clamoring there was no visible sign of disturbance on the map.
Mouse entered and leaned over the map table, searching it with her eyes. Bob said, "We don't see where it is."
"Nulls!" Mouse growled. She strode purposefully to a workstation. The keyboard's clicks came in a steady rattle.
While the others continued looking at the map, hoping to find something camouflaged within the more detailed schematics, Bob closed his eyes. Since he had merged with Glitch he had gained many of the keytool's abilities. The first that he had come to appreciate was the ability to do scans just by concentrating. He had to clear his mind and summon the data, which could be difficult in a crisis situation or a frenetic game, but it was becoming easier as he practiced.
He was getting some kind of disturbance. He couldn't focus in on it. It was like a noise coming from nowhere - or everywhere. He concentrated his awareness on the various sectors in turn he found that it seemed most distant at the rim of G prime, and nearest on the opposite side. He opened his eyes and said "I think it's in Kits Sector or Floating Point."
"No, it ain't," Mouse said. She looked at them, her annoyance plain in her face. "After last time I whipped up a subroutine that would watch out for break-ins like this, and it ain't got nothin'. It's been monitoring alla Mainframe." She stepped away from the terminal screen, showing a wireframe diagram of the city, color coded to represent energy levels. Nothing but the normal background noise was visible.
"Why don't we just go look?" Enzo suggested excitedly. He was already reaching for his minimized zip board.
"No, Enzo," Bob said. Dot looked at him in surprise; that was supposed to be her line. "If anything comes through, I don't want you flying around there."
"Awwww," Enzo said with a pout.
Then the alarm cut off as suddenly as it had started. The relative silence that followed was like a noise in itself. Bob, Dot, Mouse, and Phong looked at each other, expecting it to start again. Bob closed his eyes briefly, then said "It's gone. I was sensing something, I couldn't tell what, but now it's stopped."
"We must find out what it was," Phong said. His voice was steady, but his rodlike fingers gripped the edge of the map table tightly.
"Someone tried to break through my shield." Mouse showed them a display of the Core energy output. "See here, that's when the alarm started, and that's when the shield started drawing more energy to keep together. Here's a nano ago when it stopped. It took a lotta energy."
Dot, looking at Phong, said "If they kept it up, they could break through or drain our energy."
"Or both," Mouse answered as if she had been the one addressed. "If they get through, we'd better be ready."
"Right," Dot said levelly. "We haven't saved Megabyte's arsenal, and built some new things of our own, for nothing. I want CPUs on standby alert, ready to man them at the next alarm. Hack and Slash too." Looking around at the Sprites and staff, she said, "What happened should remain inside this room. If Mike finds out about it, he could cause a panic. That's the last thing we need now."
Clarice looked at the icon within the golden hand above the desk. She thought she knew what it meant. The hand had three fingers and a thumb. That was the most common pattern for Viruses. A Virus holding an icon, a symbol of control, of allegiance.
It had special meaning for her. Hexadecimal was an unheard-of case: a non-benign Virus registered as a legal citizen of her system. The Church of the User had been lucky here. They could serve and watch her openly. Of course, there were always facades to be kept.
"She's all right," Clarice said. "She has transfinite energy limits. I believe she could have kept it up all cycle, but it bored and frustrated her not to be able to get through. She had no idea why she couldn't."
The One at the desk said, "The barrier protecting Mainframe works both ways, keeping people both out and in. She doesn't know that?"
Clarice considered, then said, "I don't think she has figured that out. She doesn't spend a lot of time thinking."
"Chaos Viruses aren't known for their intelligence or their logic."
"Yes. Should I try again?"
The One tapped his hands together as he considered. "Yes, of course. We need a portal to the Supercomputer. But it won't do to make the system's inhabitants nervous with continual false alarms."
Clarice waited for further instructions.
"If we can complete the circuit once, just once, we will send a person through with Mainframe's net address. After that, it won't matter if the people here are nervous."
"What should I do, then?"
"Can you motivate her to try harder?"
Clarice said, "I think so. She likes a challenge. She doesn't like not to be able to do something she wants to. Let me think about it."
"Do what you think will work. Just remember - don't have her try if her energy level is low. She wouldn't be harmed, but her child might. And she'll have more chance of success at full energy."
Clarice nodded. "Okay." She walked out of the office. The one watched her go.
She was a good agent, able to work her way into people's confidences. And she was intelligent - he had seen her considering the icon and hand logo above the desk. Yet she did not make a habit of asking difficult questions. Cyrus had also glanced at it, but he probably hadn't given it any real thought. He should have - it should have had a special significance to him, considering his past. Maybe one day he would learn.
Clarice exited the headquarters. From its front door, over the surrounding buildings, Hexadecimal's Lair thrust into the orange sky. It was no coincidence that the Church building faced away from Mainframe, toward the Virus. One of their not-so-hidden goals was to watch over and protect Hexadecimal. Clarice was sure that there were other church secrets she didn't know, but she was fairly certain that she was close to the core.
She noticed Mike the TV and Cyrus in the open plaza surrounding the massive Arch. She hid her distaste. Mike could be an irritant, but she had known many people who were much worse. After all, he was only acting according to his programming. However, Cyrus... she did not like him. He was a weak person, capable of doing whatever he saw as right or wrong, so long as it served his interest of the moment. Whoever said 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer' must have known him.
Mike had his camera crew filming shots of the area to intercut with his report. Cyrus had suggested some of the more interesting sights. He did have some good ideas - especially a view of the Arc seen from almost below, with its bas-relief carvings of Hexadecimal towering overhead.
Mike had been taken aback when Cyrus had been introduced to him as the one who would help him in his report. However, the binome seemed relaxed and enthusiastic about helping. Mike soon forgot his misgivings in the pursuit of a good story.
He started by speaking with Cyrus on camera. "Cyrus, you were once vilified by all of Mainframe for your part in Megabyte's attempt to steal thousands of PIDs, and later for his smear campaign against Enzo, now Matrix. What has changed since then?"
Cyrus was wincing. Flustered, he said, "Uh, I've changed since then. I know what I did, and I wouldn't do it again. Believe me! Now I have a purpose in life."
"From the Church of the User?"
"Well, partly," Cyrus answered, gaining his footing again. "Yes."
"Tell me, where did this organization - some people call it a cult - come from? It was unknown in Mainframe until milliseconds ago."
Cyrus answered confidently, now that he was on script. "It didn't really come from anywhere. It started as a philosophy. Looking at the way the system and our lives and functions work. We all interlink. Everyone has his function. The User programmed us all with our formats, and our purpose in life is to carry out our programming to the best of our abilities."
Mike asked the predictable question. "Even Viruses?"
"Even Viruses," Cyrus affirmed. "The User programmed them, just like he programmed the Games. It's our function to play the games, but where is it in our code that we have to be at war with any Virus, if he or she's peaceful with us?"
"The Guardians might have something to say about that."
"A Guardian had her registered," Cyrus countered smoothly.
"And now, where once chaos and desolation reigned, the land now thrives," Mike segued, planning to use some of the city scenes they had filmed here. "Some have said that the Cult of the User-"
"Church. Cult is a misleading term," Cyrus interjected.
"-That the Church of the User is behind the development of Lost Angles. Is that true?"
Cyrus put has hands behind his back and shrugged. "We were the first ones to build here. We simply asked Hexadecimal for permission, and she said yes. Once we were here, others got the idea. They all asked first too, I'm sure. I hope they did," He added with a laugh.
Mike laughed dutifully as well. Then he said, "Some have commented on the number of cult - ah, Church members playing games."
"Yes. Playing games is one of our functions. If we weren't meant to play them, we wouldn't have been formatted to reboot," Cyrus answered.
"Some have called that interference."
Again, hands behind his back, Cyrus shrugged. "Binomes have always entered games. Nobody was compiled trained; we all had to learn sometime. In the Church we learn not to be afraid of the User - if a sprite is nullified, we believe that the User took him for a reason. It's nothing to fear." He spoke with such calm assurance, one would think that he believed it. And, at that moment, he did.
"Not even being turned into nulls?" Mike pointed out.
"People assume that that's what happens. However, there's no proof," Cyrus answered, still speaking glibly and confidently. "We believe that those are remnants of lost game code, not the people who were inside the game."
Mike sidestepped further discussion of that issue by saying, "You might have a hard time convincing others of that. However, witnesses at a recent game have implied that certain binomes, very likely cult- church members, openly interfered with the game, and even attempted to sabotage it!"
Cyrus opened his mouth to speak. Then, behind them, someone shouted. They turned and saw a pair of Zero binomes. One yelled at the other, "You take that back!"
"I won't. Truth hurts, doesn't it!"
"I'll let you know when you get near the truth, you-"
One swung a fist and knocked the other to the side. They scuffled clumsily for several nanos while the crowd that had formed during the argument stepped back. Then another pair of binomes, Ones wearing the Church logo around their icons, stepped out of the crowd. Each took hold of one of the Zeroes and held it back. One said, "Come on, nothing's worth fighting about."
"Words are only words," the other One added.
Mike waited for one of the Zeroes to take a swing at the Ones. Instead, after a few nanos of glowering, they relaxed. The Zero who had shouted first said grudgingly, "Yeah. Sorry. I shouldn't'a said that."
"It's okay," the other replied a bit stiffly.
They walked off in separate directions, not looking at each other. When the spectators started to disperse Cyrus said, "You were asking earlier about the development of the Church. It's really fairly simple and boring. It started out as a philosophy - to be honest, I don't know who developed it. He doesn't want to call attention to himself. Anyway, It spread through word of mouth. Anyone who joins does so because they want to believe. We don't evangelize. Well, unless you ask us to." Hands behind his back, he chuckled.
"And yet it's spread to the point that almost an eighth of the population of Mainframe has joined."
"It depends on how you count. Many people aren't officially members, but they come in often enough to be listed as regular guests. The list of dedicated members is smaller, but we count anyone who considers themselves a part of it, then an eighth is about right."
"And that all developed from one person with an idea, in only milliseconds. How?"
Cyrus looked into the camera. "It works," he said emphatically.
Mike knew a good point to end the interview on. He signaled his crew to shut off the video and sound equipment, then Cyrus led him off to another area. None of them saw the two binomes who had fought earlier were following, in case they were needed again.
When Clarice, carrying a large bag, came into Hexadecimal's throne room, the Virus was leaning back in her chair, doodling on a paint window with one hand, the other arm propped on the armrest, her chin in her hand. She looked bored. The drawing was nothing more than arcs of various color without reason or pattern. Clarice called, "Hello!"
Hexadecimal raised her head from her hand and looked over. "Oh, hello. I didn't see you."
"I see. What're you painting?"
"Nothing," Hexadecimal said. "Oh, you've brought that thing."
Clarice put it down. It contained a portable scanner. It was designed to be used by Sprites, but she could manage it. "Afraid so."
Hexadecimal sighed and tossed her head like a sullen child. However, she got off the throne and sat on the steps of her dais, leaning back with her arms behind herself so Clarice could scan her. She knew it wasn't necessary, she was just fine, but the binome wanted to make sure every four cycles. It was routine by now.
Clarice held the sensor, a device not unlike a small flashlight, out at Hex while looking at the monitor. She moved it over Hexadecimal's body, close to but not touching her. Hexadecimal did not know what it was telling her; she assumed that it was something to do with her health.
Clarice read Hexadecimal's energy levels. That was all this sensor was able to do, evaluate energy levels and characteristics. If Hexadecimal's power level rose or dipped suddenly, or if it became erratic, she would know. Right now, however, she was back at her normal level. Apparently the two previous attempts to create a portal had not cost the Virus much of her power, and she had almost gained it all back.
"Well?" Hexadecimal asked, folding her arms over her stomach after the binome finished waving the thing at her.
"Fine as always," Clarice replied as she put the monitor back in its bag.
"I told you so." Hexadecimal got to her feet - floating herself, since her balance was not very good now - and sat back in her throne. She resumed painting.
Clarice watched. After a but Hexadecimal stopped and glanced over. "Are you still here?" she asked, surprised.
Cautiously, almost shyly, Clarice said, "Hexadecimal... can you keep a secret?"
"A secret? Yes." Hexadecimal said, her eyes lighting up with interest. "Go on."
Clarice looked away for a nano, then began to speak. "Not all the binomes here were compiled in Mainframe. Some came in by the games, in game sprite mode."
Hexadecimal's eyes widened in surprise. "Like Matrix and AndrAIa?"
"Yes, like that. Mouse isn't the first person to hack icons that way, believe me. They also did that in the Supercomputer. Some sprites had their icons modified so if they lost a game they wouldn't be nullified. Like Matrix and AndrAIa. They've been away from their home for a long time."
Hexadecimal tilted her head. "How sad."
"They're homesick. It's hard, losing your home and your family to a disaster like that," Clarice continued.
Hexadecimal's eyes shaded to dark blue. She knew about losing home and family to disasters. Her father had been deleted by a game, and her home - the West Sector - had been reduced to ruin by a system crash. "Can't they get home through the games?"
Clarice looked down sadly. "Not now. Games put you down in random systems, and since Daemon controls most of the Net now it's too dangerous. If they hit the wrong system and were found out..."
"Poor things," Hexadecimal said, sounding genuinely sympathetic this time. She closed the painting window, activated her looking glass, and began concentrating.
The first two times the alarm had gone off had been surprises. This time they were expecting it. As soon as they heard the tone Mouse, who was already in the Command Room with Dot, attacked the nearest terminal's keyboard. While the hacker was wrestling it for information Dot called Bob, Matrix, AndrAIa, and Ray. Of the four, Bob had already sensed it. All but Ray came to the Principle Office; the surfer began a cruise around Mainframe, to see what his web-sharpened senses could pick up. Hack and Slash, sent by Dot, flew behind him as an armed escort in case he found what he was looking for, or vice versa. CPU binomes scrambled to their vehicles or weapons.
Mouse was cursing with feeling under her breath. Dot translated that as "no results so far." Nothing showed on the map table. Bob had his eyes closed, drawing data from the system. If he was getting anything, she'd see it in his face. All she, Matrix, and AndrAIa could do was watch and be ready.
Mouse looked up. "I don't know where the spammed thing is. All I can tell is this time it's stronger than ever, and it's suckin' up energy from the Core big-time to keep the shields online. Someone wants in bad."
A VidWindow opened in front of Dot. "I'm gettin' something," Ray Tracer said, looking down at the sector below himself.
"What? What is it?" Dot practically shouted.
"I'm lookin' for-" The alarm in the Principle Office ceased wailing. At the same time Ray paused. He glanced around himself. "It's gone." He looked at the window. "Sorry, luv."
"It's stopped again," Dot said, hiding her frustration. "Thanks."
"Anytime," the surfer said.
The VidWindow closed. "He was above Kits," Bob said. "I saw Floating Point's islands off to the side."
"That's where you said it was worse," Mouse said to Bob.
Mouse turned to Dot. "That time the shield took a real wallop. At this rate they'll get through the next time. We gotta be ready."
"Yes," Dot said, sounding nervous. Then she repeated "Yes," in a more resolute voice for the rest of the command room staff. "Everyone, listen up. The next time this happens, we go to system alert. We can't risk getting people caught blind in an invasion."
When Mike broadcasted his report later that cycle, the heads of the Church of the User were watching from their office. It went off just as they hoped; Cyrus was an excellent shill. He was persuasive, but not too slick. He looked like a reformed criminal honestly trying to make good. That would draw people's sympathy. After all, if there was hope for people like him in the Church of the User, what could it do for them?
When it was over the One said, "That was an excellent touch, putting those two in to cause a distraction if things got difficult. Even Cyrus didn't suspect."
The Zero said, "Thanks. We can't repeat it - that'd be suspicious. At least, we can't use the same distraction. I'll see what I can arrange for future contingencies."
"Good. Mike focused on our connection with Lost Angles. He seemed to be looking for a way to prove that we're behind the development of a 'lawless' town."
"I thought Cyrus handled that well. He didn't point out that even though Lost Angles may not have had the same formal laws that Mainframe did, people were still civilized, or that the people who broke up the fight were Church members - he didn't need to. It would have looked faked if he had."
"Yes." The one tapped his fingers, thinking. "If Mike is determined to dig, let him. It'll keep him happy and harmlessly occupied, if we put him in the right sandbox. The Velvet Fist."
"The Velvet Fist?" the Zero asked, surprised.
"The Velvet Fist," the One affirmed. "The cult has no connection at all with it; it does well enough on its own. Members may patronize it or even work there, but that's their own lives, not part of our organization. He can find all sorts of seamy - but ultimately harmless - activities, and report all he dares, but he won't be able to connect it to us. And if he angers anyone, it'll be either the Broadcast Sensor, or the Fist's patron, Hexadecimal. That itself ought to hold him back."
The Zero grinned. "He'll search and search, but he won't be able to use what he finds, at least against us."
"Exactly." The One grinned back. Then he said, "I've got some other things to brief Cyrus on. He's an eager learner. We could have used him in other systems."
Hexadecimal had watched the report too. "That was boring," she complained to Clarice.
Clarice shrugged. "The Church really isn't that exciting."
Hex leaned on one side of her throne. "What is it?"
Oh boy, Clarice thought, how to explain this using short words? "It's... well, a way of thinking. Instead of seeing games, the User, and Viruses as enemies, we know that they're all part of the system as it was planned. We sometimes have to oppose each other, but that's how it's supposed to be. The User wants us to fight back in the games - that's what games are for - but if he wins, there's no shame in losing. The User takes us to something better."
Hex stared at her for several nanos. Then she asked, "Are you sure?"
Clarice suppressed her first answer. "We can't know for sure. Nobody can know why the User does whatever he does. But we do know our programming. If we follow that, we're doing what he wants."
Hexadecimal narrowed her eyes. "So, if I were to destroy this system, that would be what the User wants?"
Carefully the binome answered, "You don't have to. Many Chaos Viruses are compelled to destroy their systems - but you aren't. Your programming goes beyond that. That's a blessing both for you and for the rest of the system. We can be allies, not enemies."
Hexadecimal smiled, flattered. "And I'm good in games too."
"So I've heard. You're a powerful dataform. Mainframe is lucky you're its ally."
Hex preened. Clarice said, "Oh! I nearly forgot. There's someone who would like to meet you. She's been waiting a little while. Could I bring her in?"
"Certainly," Hexadecimal said with a wave of her hand.
Clarice went to an exit on one side that was accessible via a bridge over the chasm surrounding the platform of the throne room. She returned nanos later with a young female One, not quite an adult. She looked bashful. She gripped Clarice's hand tightly. Hexadecimal beckoned for her to approach and said cheerfully, "Hello! What's your name?"
"My name's Starling," the One answered in a soft voice.
"Hello, Starling. Don't be afraid. I love binomes - but I could never eat a whole one!" She leaned back and laughed.
Starling laughed too, not worried by the joke. When she finished laughing Hexadecimal asked, "How old are you?"
Hexadecimal looked surprised. Clarice said, "That would be 1.1 to Hexadecimal. Viruses count in base sixteen."
"I'm 2.2, I think," Hexadecimal said.
The one looked Hexadecimal up and down. Softly she said, "I never thought I'd actually see a Virus up close. A friendly Virus, I mean."
Hexadecimal gestured and the binome floated upward, to Hexadecimal's eye level. "Well, what do you think?" she asked, smiling.
Sounding embarrassed, the binome said "You're... beautiful."
Hexadecimal laughed, her eyes light blue, and she set the girl down. "Thank you, dear!"
"I didn't think there were any beautiful Viruses..." she stopped, her voice catching.
Clarice put a comforting hand on Starling's back. Hexadecimal's brows furrowed. "She's one of the binomes I told you about earlier. Daemon took over the Supercomputer, where she used to live. It's not a good thing to talk about."
Hexadecimal did not recognize the hint. She asked, "What happened?"
The girl looked up, a hurt expression on her face. "Daemon took over the Guardians. They used to be the good guys. They protected us and kept the system stable. Then they changed. We had to hide from them. They blocked all outgoing packets. Some people escaped in the games. I didn't want to, but my Daddy told me to. He stayed there - he couldn't afford to have both of our icons reformatted." She wrung her hands together miserably.
Hexadecimal leaned forward, her eyes dark blue. "Don't cry."
"I won't," the girl said, though all evidence indicated otherwise. She whispered, "I shouldn't've gone. We were good at hiding. We hid where Daemon wouldn't find us because we didn't matter. He's still there, I bet."
Hexadecimal's eyes lightened to green. "How would you like to go there and bring your Daddy back?"
In the office of the Church of the User, a light went on on the desk. Nanos later a VidWindow sprang open. The Zero said, "The alarm's gone off again!"
"I saw." One of the Command Room staff was a trusted Church member, and had patched the alarm circuit with a tap leading to their headquarters. "Sit tight and don't do anything until we see something more."
Cyrus and Mike were again in Lost Angles. Cyrus, as instructed, had dropped some hints about The Velvet Fist. Mike had pounced.
The camera swung over when, in the distance, they heard Phong's voice. "Attention, citizens of Mainframe. This is a systemwide alert." Everyone turned. Above the Principle Office, visible at even this distance, Phong spoke to the six sectors of Mainframe through giant VidWindows. "All citizens, seek shelter immediately. All CPUs, report for duty. This is not a drill!"
As people streamed into buildings, clearing the streets, Mike shouted "Gotta go!" He was already running back toward Mainframe.
Cyrus did not take offence at Mike's abrupt exit. You couldn't have thin skin and get along with that appliance. He walked back to the Church headquarters to report.
Hexadecimal concentrated hard. Sometimes she saw flashes of order through the staticky chaos in the screen. Without being aware of it, she snarled at the looking glass. It had resisted her twice before! She would get through!
Clarice watched tensely. She had seen the flashes too, and recognized the Supercomputer. It was true, the Virus could create portals and did know the Supercomputer's address! "Come on, you can do it!" she said urgently. The girl looked back and forth between the looking glass and Hexadecimal's face.
After what seemed like microseconds of effort, Hexadecimal slumped back in her throne with an angry gasp. The static cleared to reveal the reflection of the Virus and binomes. Hexadecimal scowled red-eyed in frustration, her clawed hands clenching the arms of her chair.
"You almost did it!" Clarice exclaimed, momentarily forgetting herself.
"I will do it! I can!" Hexadecimal snarled at her reflection. She raised a hand.
"Wait!" Clarice put a hand on Hexadecimal's wrist. Hex snapped a harsh glare on the binome. Clarice stepped back and said, "Hexadecimal - we know you can. You have the power, and we even saw it in the glass for a nanosecond. You'll make it next time, I know you will. But first rest so you'll have enough energy. The last thing we want is for you to hurt yourself or your baby."
Hex's claws slid along the arms of her chair with a faint squeak. "I can do it!" she repeated to herself.
The girl stepped forward and touched Hexadecimal's hand. "Thank you for trying," she said in a soft voice.
Hexadecimal's eyes faded back to green as she looked at the girl. She said in a calmer tone, "Next time, I will."
The girl smiled. Clarice said, "Just to be sure you didn't deplete yourself, Hexadecimal, let me scan you again."
Hexadecimal sighed. She sat down on the step so the Zero could wave the thing at her and look at the box. When the ritual was over Clarice said, "You've used up a good amount of energy, but a little rest and you'll be back to normal. You always recover so quickly." To starling she said, "Come on, let's let her rest now." The two binomes left quickly.
Hexadecimal stared after them curiously. Usually Clarice hung around with her all cycle. Perhaps she had to do something with the girl? What was the rush? She uploaded into her mask.
The two binomes exited the Lair and flew on two discs of the same zip board through the empty ruins surrounding the tower to the other half of the island, where all the other people were. Hexadecimal followed them at a height, unnoticed. She remembered that the case in which Clarice carried the scanner would be half empty; the scanner was small. Neither of the binomes noticed when Hexadecimal teleported herself into the case in mask form.
She saw nothing but the dark inside the case. Clarice said goodbye to the girl. Then she started walking briskly, purposefully. There were pauses and voices, then she walked into a room and set the bag down. Another voice, a male binome, spoke.
"The entire system went on alert that time, Clarice," the One said, tapping his hands together. "That wasn't good at all. Now everyone knows that something's up." His assistant stood quietly by.
"I know. But, I saw proof that Hexadecimal can connect us with the Supercomputer. She almost broke through! I saw flashes of it before she gave up," Clarice insisted excitedly.
"Will she try again?" the One asked. "And will she try hard enough?"
"She will," Clarice confirmed. "I brought a girl in to motivate her."
"Yes. I gave her a story. She and her father had been persecuted by a Virus who had taken over the Supercomputer, and then she was separated from her family by another disaster, a game. She was the last survivor. Think about Hexadecimal's past and you'll see why it gained her sympathy. However, unlike Hexadecimal, the girl might still be able to get her father back. After she told her that, Hexadecimal offered to make her a portal home. She was upset that she didn't succeed that time, and said she'd get through the next time. If anyone can create a portal, it'll be Hexadecimal."
"I've found out from other contacts that her efforts have been upsetting the Mainframe Principle Office. Not only because of the attempted invasion, which they have been anticipating for some time, but because the shield blocking the portal draws so much energy from the Core every time someone tried to get through. It appears that the energy it needs is in direct proportion to the strength of the portal breaking through."
"That last time cost Hexadecimal a good amount of energy..." Clarice said doubtfully.
"Then let her rest," the One said. "Keep her from trying again for a while. We'll arrange for a drain in the Core, a break in an energy line, something that'll coincide with her next effort. It'll take some cycles, and we don't need them stirred up again until then."
"Okay, I'll do that," Clarice answered. "I really don't want to strain Hexadecimal. She was trying so hard to help Starling..."
The One smiled. "Don't worry. She's in no danger. We've always protected her. Do you have her case history in the scanner?" If you do, I'd like to have a look at it, to see if the portals are costing her too much."
"Sure. I'll leave it here, and pick it up again when I go back."
"Thank you." The one said.
Clarice left the office. The Zero waited a few nanos, then resumed the conversation that Clarice's report had interrupted. "This is a big gamble." There was clear tension in his voice.
"I know that. But we cannot sit here as complacently as they have. Either we have to neutralize the Guardians or hand them over to Daemon," replied the One.
"We'd better make that portal, then, because those Sprites are too good in games. We haven't managed to get a single one nullified yet!"
"I know. She wants them compiled, not deleted. But deleted is better that alive and fighting back."
Hexadecimal's eyes glowed red in the darkness. She had heard enough. She teleported away, to her Lair. Then she downloaded from her mask, sat in her throne, and stared at her looking glass.
She was still sitting there when Clarice returned. She was carrying the same scanner case. Hexadecimal did not seem to notice she was there. Clarice asked jokingly, "Have you been sitting here all this time?"
Hexadecimal's head turned to look at her. Her face was disturbingly expressionless. No other part of her body moved.
Clarice put the bag down. "You're not upset about the portal, are you? It's all right, I'm sure it'll work next time."
Hexadecimal continued watching her. Clarice said, "Starling was so happy. She really hopes she'll be able to see her family soon. She couldn't stop talking about it. You've got a real fan there."
Green-eyed, expressionless silence.
"Are you feeling all right? You used up so much energy. Maybe you should sleep for a while to get it back."
Hexadecimal spoke. "You wouldn't want me to run low on energy, would you?"
Clarice paused. Hexadecimal's tone of voice was flat, blank, like her expression. She was about to excuse herself when she heard the system voice announce, "WARNING: INCOMING GAME."
Hexadecimal glanced sharply at the looking glass. It showed the purple, stormy looking sky above the system. Clarice looked too, and consequently she did not see Hexadecimal's hand lash out toward her. The Virus seized her by one arm and picked her up. "Let's play a game," Hexadecimal hissed at her, then flew through her portal.
As soon as the warning started, Bob, Matrix, and AndrAIa flew from the Principle Office on their zip boards. They had been waiting so long for the next alarm, the tension had become almost unbearable. This game would be a welcome relief!
They saw Hexadecimal appear over the inhabited sector of Lost Angles. She dropped something, then started gathering her energy. The glow expanded out from her until it surrounded one of the buildings below. She gestured with both fists, and it solidified into an energy barrier not unlike the firewall that had once enclosed G Prime. Then she directed a ray of energy straight up.
"What's she doing?" AndrAIa exclaimed.
"With Hexadecimal, who knows?" Matrix replied.
Bob said, "She's trying to call the game down on Lost Angles!"
Hexadecimal poured her energy into the ether. She knew that games normally came down randomly, but that sometimes they would strike energy spikes. She knew that very well. The game that had nearly deleted her by coming down on the Hardware had been drawn by the energy it contained. And that had been her energy.
She looked upward, and giggled when she saw a hole open up above her, her energy lancing up into the center. A game cube appeared within.
She looked down. The people on her island were scurrying around like nulls. The ones outside of the barrier were fleeing the game cube; the ones within were just running frantically around the perimeter, looking for an escape. She giggled again. Then her eyes flared red. Furiously she screamed down at them "It's not nice to fool Mother Chaos!" Her voice echoed off the ruins and frightened the binomes. Some looked up at her. She could see the fear on their faces before she uploaded into her mask and disappeared.
The Sprites had almost reached the energy barrier. They could fly over it before the game hit. But Hexadecimal appeared in front of them. With a friendly smile she held out her hands in front of herself in a "halt" gesture. Energy blasted from her palms, forcing them back.
"Hex, cut it out!" Bob exclaimed, fighting back with his own energy, gold against red. "We're trying to get to the game!"
"But I don't want you to," she answered calmly. She saw Matrix and AndrAIa trying to go around her, and blocked them with another blast.
They all heard the game touch down. Hexadecimal stopped shooting energy, and with a casual finger snap dissolved the barrier around around the headquarters of the Church of the User.
Bob flew up to her. "What are you doing, Hex?!" he demanded.
She smiled. "They like the User so much. Well, he can have them."
Binomes ran about under a black sky filled with descending flares, trying to avoid the rays slowly sinking toward the ground. Those who rebooted knew to run into the largest buildings - bunkers - where they would be protected.
Inside two of the three bunkers, binomes loaded small missiles into firing tubes frantically while the gunners - only one per bunker - sighted and fired, cutting the incoming lasers off. The third bunker was the User's.
Cyrus had darted inside the bunker. Remembering the second rule of gaming - Help or Get Out of the Way - he stayed back. He had little practice with games, and any binome who was ready to jump into a role must know what he was doing.
He looked out the bunker window. Bright spherical explosions lit the sky. It would have been beautiful in other circumstances.
The deadly rays stopped shooting down. For brief pause, all was still. Then they began again, faster now. The binomes loading the missiles found that their supplies had been replenished.
In another bunker, two binomes, a Zero and a One, were also looking out. Hardly anyone played games this primitive. They also saw that the User was deleting the incoming rays faster and more efficiently than their side. They exchanged glances, then clicked their icons, which changed shape from circles to triangles. Then they walked out into the street. They had not rebooted, so the game would not recognize them as targets. They were much safer out there than in the bunkers.
An explosion tore a chunk out of the roof of the bunker. Binomes screamed as a deadly ray stabbed down through it. The gunner grimly fired faster. The loaders frantically tried to keep up.
Cyrus backed away to the other side of the bunker with a crowd of other binomes, trying to get away from the ray. They heard a double explosion from outside. Cyrus knew that it had come from their other bunker. He pushed his way to a door and looked through.
The other bunker was no longer firing.
He looked up through the hole in the roof. The incoming rays were splitting into blooms, like deadly flowers. The gunner fired directly into its heart to stop the cluster. Several rays emerged from the explosion's sphere, now too low to stop.
The gunner's station exploded. The other rays touched down, shredding the bunker and scattering the binomes like shrapnel.
Cyrus looked up and shivered, his eye wide and dilated. He heard the calm system voice announce, "GAME OVER. THE USER WINS." As the cube rose, its energy sheeted through him. The last things he felt before the game completely scrambled his code were pain and terror.
The Sprites stared at the hole left in Lost Angles by the game. The cube had destroyed half of the island, leaving barely enough to keep the bridge from falling into the Energy Sea. The binomes that had managed to get out from under the game cube came to the edge of the hole and stared into it in disbelief.
Bob looked at Hexadecimal. The Virus was smiling, as if amused by a particularly subtle joke. He said, "Why'd you do it, Hex?!"
She answered, "I didn't like those User people any more. They were naughty." Then, seeing the colored shapes within the wreckage, she chirped, "Oooh, I've got my pets back!"
As she flew down toward the nullified sector, the recovery and med vehicles that had been waiting for the end of the game turned away and flew back toward the Principle Office. There was nothing they could do.
Hexadecimal grounded among the nulls. Stunned from the game; they didn't flee from her. She smiled and, once again, glowed with energy. It was gentle this time, not dangerous.
The nearest nulls began to slither toward her, drawn by her power. Yes, come here, she thought. As they recovered, more responded to her.
Looking at the shapes approaching her, she crooned, "Ah, my pretties. You love me, don't you?"
They surrounded her, coming close but not touching. Even mindless creatures understood somewhere in their code that you come close to the fire, but don't touch it.
A dark fleck among the colors caught her eye. She floated toward it, over the carpet of nulls, then reached down and seized it. The null, black with a white stripe running from nose to tail, squealed desperately and writhed in her hand.
"My pretty," she murmured, pleased, as she flew back to her Lair.
|"Bye-bye, mein leiber Herr,
Farewell, mein leiber Herr,
It was a fine affair but now it's over."
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
Bob, Dot, AndrAIa, Matrix, Frisket, Hexadecimal, Enzo, Cyrus, 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. "Xanadu" is by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Velvet Fist is copyright © Phil Foglio. "Mein Herr," copyright © 1966 by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is from the musical "Cabaret." Starling, Clarice, The Cult of The User, and the overall story copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed binomes can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.