By Kim McFarland
When the system's inhabitants had heard the deceptively calm warning, they had looked up to see if they were in the path of danger. Those under the descending cube had fled on foot or by zip board. Most people avoided being caught in the games - most, but not all. And, once caught in a game, a sprite's survival chances were not good. Even if the User lost, the sprites might not come back; they were all too often deleted in the course of the gameplay.
Everyone who had managed to escape ground zero - hundreds of binomes, some digits, and a handful of Sprites - now waited for the cube to lift, hoping that it would reveal an intact sector and not a crater full of nulls.
Inside the Blaine Research Center, a handful of people watched the scene on a VidWindow. A binome in a lab coat voiced a common thought: "I wish we could see into it."
"Don't we all," murmured a green man who was leaning, arms folded, against the opposite wall.
Another, a red colored woman with silver hair, glanced at the man. He wore an expression of intense concentration. He had one of the busiest minds she had ever known of - and also one of the most narrowly focused. If she knew him, he was working out some detail of his current research in his mind, not thinking about the game cube at all.
She turned back to the screen. The computer calmly announced, "GAME OVER. THE USER WINS."
She watched as the cube rose, leaving devastation behind. The viewpoint switched to an overhead shot.
"No nulls this time, at least," the woman sighed.
"For a change," the green man answered, unfolding his arms and stepping forward from the wall. "Why couldn't it have landed on the West Sector?"
She pressed her lips together. The West Sector was the one Viral section of the Twin City. Eleven out of sixteen cubes that landed on the Twin City or its principal, Mainframe, left behind damaged sectors. However, when a cube landed on the West Sector, that fraction shrank to one out of thirty-two. They could not see past the energy barrier surrounding that sector, but they could still hear the computer announce the result. She knew that that was not what Dr. Matrix had been thinking, however. For him, a game cube landing on a viral sector was a chance for the Virus to be deleted.
It had never happened thus far.
She walked briskly back to her office. Before she had reached it a VidWindow popped open in front of her face. "Melissa-" a female binome began.
Towing the VidWindow by one corner, she said, "Sector recovery plans?" The round binone nodded its middle section. Melissa sat down at her terminal. The binome said, "It's sector 39. We hadn't finished repairing it from the last game."
Speaking half to herself and half to the caller as she typed on her keyboard, she commented, "Ugh, that'll complicate things." She looked up and saw the binome's anxious look. She smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, it won't be that bad. I've just got to work out the details. You can get the work started..." She selected several files. "I've transferred the beginning to you. I'll send the rest before the cycle is done."
"Thanks, Melissa." The VidWindow closed.
Melissa leaned back in her chair and sighed. If only the game cubes wouldn't fall so frequently, she thought as she swept her hair back from her forehead with an unconscious gesture. They barely managed to keep up with the damage as it was, and when a game landed on a sector that hadn't been repaired it was just that much worse. In theory she was exploring ways to speed sector recovery - but she spent so much time sorting out damaged sectors that she had barely any time left over for research!
Long after the end of the work cycle she was still at her terminal. She had lost track of time, her world having shrunk to the size of the screen in front of herself. She did not look up when someone entered the doorway of her office.
Jay Matrix watched her as she tapped at her keypad. It clattered in a brisk, steady rhythm, signaling that she didn't need any interruptions right now. He could see a bit of the screen; she was collating a series of instructions into one program.
Soon the keyclicks slowed. She stared at the screen, then entered a few more characters. After another pause she hit a final key, sending the information on its way. She leaned back in her chair, eyes closed.
"Are you going to stay here all cycle?"
She startled at the sound of his voice. She looked over and saw him smiling at her, his arms folded as he leaned against the doorframe. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Not that long." He watched as she stood and moved her legs, working the stiffness out. She always wore business suits with skirts. Hardly anyone dressed like that here; most people wore jumpsuits or whatever else they were comfortable in. He could not imagine anyone preferring a formal outfit like that. And she liked long skirts, which was a shame, he thought. She had nice legs, what he had seen of them anyway.
She called up a VidWindow, which indicated the time. Surprised to see how late it was, she asked, "What're you still doing here? There weren't any people injured in the game this time."
"I've been caught up in my work, like you."
He had an odd smile on his face. She knew that look. He'd found some new way to attack the problem, or had a little breakthrough. She couldn't be as enthusiastic about it, herself. Not any more. She could only pretend to be. "Managed to disinfect anyone?"
He shook his head no. "I'm beginning to wonder if that can be done. Maybe once a binome's infected, he or she's viral for life."
She frowned. "That's not good."
"No. But I've found an algorithm that attacks viral code. It seems to seek out and randomize it. I was trying to use it to reclaim viral binomes, but it would kill the binome before it finished disinfecting him."
"And the good news is...?"
"Think about it! It destroys viral code. Maybe it can stop the infection at the source."
"Yes. Get rid of Viruses, then you don't have any more virals!" He looked quite pleased with himself.
Carefully keeping her expression neutral, she said, "How would you use it?"
"I'm not sure. I've just started on it, and the problem now seems to be containment. If that weren't the problem, then we could inject it into the West Sector any old way - even shoot it in on an energy beam."
She paused, then said hesitantly, "You're talking about killing someone."
"I'm talking about deleting a Virus," he replied, surprised by her reaction.
She was on dangerous ground here, she knew. "Yes, but they're thinking, processing beings like us-"
He shook his head. "Viruses are predators and parasites. The one we've got has taken over one-sixteenth of Twin City, and infected how many thousands of binomes! The only way to stop a Virus is to delete it."
"It," she muttered under her breath.
"Look," he said in a lower voice, putting his hands on her upper arms, locking eyes with her. She tensed. "I know you don't like the idea of trying to kill anyone. That's one thing I like about you; you're gentle. But Viruses are killers. It's them or us."
She looked away. "What happened to your work on restoring nullified sprites? If we could do that, it would bring back thousands more than Kilobyte ever infected."
He dropped his hands to his sides. "I don't know. I don't think that nulls can be recompiled. From all I can tell, when a game nullifies a sprite it scrambles its code so badly it can never be restored."
"Too bad," was all she could say.
He ran his fingers through his short black hair. "Look, we've been at work too long this cycle. Let's get out of here."
"That's something we can agree on." She made herself smile.
As they walked through the corridor he smiled back at her. "I'll bet you're not in the mood to cook for yourself, not after today. Why don't I take you out?"
Her smile faded. He continued, "Your choice where."
"Sorry," she answered. "I'm really not up to it now. All I want to do is cycle through the 'fresher and log out."
He knew that he wasn't likely to persuade her to change her mind. Maybe it was an excuse, and maybe she really was that tired; he'd give her the benefit of the doubt this time. "Well, I'll see you next cycle then."
"See you," she agreed. She activated her zip board, clicked her icon to change her clothes into an ensemble with leggings and a looser skirt, and soared off.
Dr. Matrix watched her rise into the air. She was a very bright woman, he thought, if a bit young and idealistic. He couldn't really blame her for not wanting him to kill something, even a Virus. Being a relative newcomer to this system, she had probably never had any experiences with Viruses. She'd learn in time. But, for now, her naivete was cute.
When Melissa arrived at her home, a small but pleasant apartment in a large residential sector, she minimized her zip board and went in. Closing the door behind herself with a sigh, she put her hand to her forehead. She had worked hard that day, with no rest at all after the game had lifted. That didn't bother her so much; she liked her work. It was tough, but rebuilding nullified sectors gave her a sense of purpose. What gave her a headache was that insufferable Mister Doctor Jay Matrix.
Oh, he was all right, she supposed. A little full of himself, but lots of people in research were. You had to think you were pretty hot stuff if you were setting out to change the system. But did it have to be by slaughtering Viruses?
She had originally liked him. He was a friendly, charismatic guy, and made no secret about his attraction to her. He flirted with others, but Melissa was the one he actually pursued. But even from the beginning, as flattered by his attention as she had been, she had known that he was not her type.
Oh, boy, was he not her type. As kind and efficient as he could be when tending to people who had been injured in games, he was planning murder. And he couldn't even understand that that was what it was! After all, to him Viruses were all monsters that deserved to be deleted. They weren't people.
She realized that her fists were clenched. She was getting herself wound up, going over the day's events uselessly. She'd never get anywhere by getting mad. She had to think of some other way to deal with it. There had to be something she could do.
Mentally she shoved the thought aside and wandered into her kitchen. It was small, but then she only cooked for herself. She lived alone, and very rarely had guests. She was a solitary person. Not by nature; she would have liked to join in sometimes, and she was often invited out. But she couldn't risk it. Not after what had happened last time.
She sighed. She'd been around this loop in her mind hundreds of times before. She looked around the kitchen. No, she didn't feel like cooking today. She was too tired. Absently she made a sandwich and took it into the living room to eat in front of the TV.
No additional complications in the sector recovery project greeted Melissa when she arrived at work the next cycle. Thank the User for small blessings, she thought ironically. Now she was glad she had worked late the previous cycle. She still felt tired, but at least she didn't have that mess to come back to.
She strolled around the Blaine center before beginning her work. Nothing remarkable was happening at the moment. People were going about their business - which, considering some of the kinds of research went on here, could be pretty interesting to watch. As she passed the break room, a green-skinned woman who was eating breakfast looked up and caught her eye through the glass wall. She smiled and beckoned Melissa over. Melissa entered and sat opposite her.
"What're you here so early for?" Peg, the green woman, asked.
"This is the time I usually get here. You know that."
"After how late you worked last cycle? You could've stayed out today, nobody would've complained."
"Unless another game came in. Then I'd have to get my bitmap here in a hurry." Melissa shrugged. "Besides, what would I do? Stay home and watch TV? Say, how do you know how late I worked? Wait, don't tell me-"
"Jay Matrix," Peg said simultaneously with Melissa's "Doctor Matrix." Melissa sighed, looking at the table.
"What's the matter?" Peg asked. "He's got his eye on you, you know."
"I know, I know."
"A lot of girls wouldn't mind taking him off your hands..."
And you're one of them, Melissa thought. "I wish they'd try," she murmured. As Peg drew in a breath to speak Melissa held up a hand. "It's nothing against him, he's just not my type."
"What is your type?"
Melissa shook her head, looking away. "Never mind..."
Peg paused, then smiled. She had to force it at first, but it quickly relaxed. "Sorry, I don't mean to get on your case first thing in the morning."
"It's all right." Melissa had expected it, really. She knew Peg was interested in him herself. The two green Sprites worked in the same research area, often on the same projects. Peg was practically under his nose, but he never seemed to notice her. Melissa hoped that he would eventually give up on her and give Peg a chance. But, no, he never got discouraged. Melissa suspected that it was the challenge that was keeping him interested. Sprites!
"Actually, I wanted to pump you for information," Melissa confessed.
"Pump away," came the cheerful response.
"The anti-virus research - I'm interested in it. How's that going?"
Peg paused, then said reluctantly, "I don't know everything... and I'm not sure what I can talk about. Security."
Melissa had been expecting that response, but it had been worth a shot anyway. "That's okay."
"Besides, Jay's on a roll. You know how it is when he starts getting ideas. He gets going so fast nobody can keep up with him. I know where he was last cycle. Who knows where he is now. Sorry," she said apologetically.
"Really, Peg, it's all right. I was just curious. I guess I'll find out when everyone else does."
"Probably not long after I do."
Switching gears, Peg said, "Say, do you want to go out to a show after work? There's one playing at the Sinister Cinema that I want to see, and I don't like going alone that much."
Melissa grinned. "'Manome: The Digits of Fate'?"
"That's the one!"
Melissa laughed. "You have the worst taste in movies, you know that?"
"I have taste in the worst movies, " Peg corrected. "Well?"
"I don't know..."
"Come on. You always go straight home after work, you never go out."
She was right. Melissa knew that she ought to be more social, but her first impulse was always to politely decline any invitation. The offer was tempting, though. Peg was fun to be around. "Let me get back to you on that, OK? I don't know if I'm going to be working late again tonight."
"Okay." Peg seemed satisfied with that answer.
Melissa got up. "See you."
Peg smiled as the red woman left. She really did like Melissa. Though she was beautiful, she wasn't that popular, mostly because she kept to herself. Peg thought that she was just shy. And it wasn't her fault that Jay seemed fixated on her. She never encouraged him. But, still... why'd it have to be her?
Melissa found Dr. Matrix at his terminal, pattering away as busily as she had last night. He was wearing his thin-rimmed reading glasses, and he looked as if he could have used a shave - had he been here since last cycle? No, he must have come in early. She turned to leave, but he had seen her red skin out of the corner of his eye and looked up. "Melissa!"
"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you."
"You're not interrupting. I needed a break anyway." He took off his glasses, set them beside the keypad, and rubbed his eyes.
"I was thinking about our conversation last night. I'm sorry I cut you off-"
"You didn't," he assured her with a smile.
"I know it helps you to sound your ideas out on someone else. If you still want to, I've got some free time now."
"Actually, I've got most of it figured out. Well, for the moment, anyway." He touched a few keys on his terminal, saving his work files. "I really think I'm onto something this time."
"You were talking about destroying viral code," she said carefully. "Are you sure that wouldn't delete infected binomes?"
He paused. She imagined what he was thinking: this is a secret matter, but she has pretty high clearance, and she has sense enough not to blather. He began, "No, it wouldn't. I'll have to do a lot of fine tuning, but I think I can tailor something that will recognize the difference between viral infection and the Virus itself. Infection code is simpler, and I'm hoping we can isolate and sequence it."
Then why aren't you working on doing that so you can rescue infected binomes? she thought, but nodded attentively to encourage him to continue.
"The idea behind it's the same as I told you last cycle. Use the algorithm that will randomize viral code. What I need now is some code to work with."
"Good luck getting Kilobyte in here for a sample."
"Not just him. There are thousands of Viruses out there." He spoke quickly, excited now. "Different kinds - infectors, destroyers, chaotics, replicators, mimics, and the rest. They have one thing in common: they're all Viruses. If I can sequence the code they all have in common, the code which makes them Viruses, we can exterminate them once and for all!"
She nodded again, her face blank. She could not even pretend enthusiasm now. Better to let him think that she was squeamish but still open to persuasion, and let him try to convince her. "How are you going to get the code to sequence?"
"From elsewhere in the Net. There has to be some data in other systems I can use. Perhaps even captive Viruses. I'm working on a message to send out about it."
"I see..." She forced herself on. "How would you use this?"
"I'm still not sure. It all depends on whether the antiviral code could be contained and how volatile it is. If it's only destructive to viral code, it could be broadcast on a beam or with some sort of carrier program, like a bug. Otherwise... well, I'd just have to come up with something else."
"Oh... are you sure that this can be done? I mean, it sounds like such a simple concept - why hasn't it been done before?"
"The idea is simple. But it's not that easy to do. Maybe others have had the same basic idea, but didn't know how to put it into practice." He smiled. "So I'll take a crack at it. Maybe it's a long shot, but think of the payoff!"
"I will." She nodded, her face blank. "Um, I'd better get back to my work."
"Okay. See you later." He put his glasses back on.
She walked down the hall to her area. Her face was set in stone. It was worse than she had imagined. He was no longer planning on eliminating one Virus, he was aiming for the extinction of the entire race! User delete him!
What scared her was that she believed that he could actually succeed.
The cycle went by uneventfully. If another game had dropped, or the recovery effort had needed her attention, then at least it would have kept her busy. But for once she had a calm cycle for her work, and could not concentrate for a single nano.
She couldn't stand by and let it happen. Maybe there was perpetual war between Viruses and sprites, but even war had rules. She would never be able to talk Dr. Matrix out of this; she knew by now that the son of a bitmap was too gung-ho to let one tender-hearted female sway his convictions. She couldn't sabotage the effort; any researcher worth his code would have his workfiles encrypted and backed up - and if any tampering was traced back to her, then the result would be worse than what had driven her from her previous home to Mainframe.
Only one option came to mind. At first she dismissed it as farfetched, ridiculous. But more realistic plans died in her mind, and she couldn't take the risk of leaving this system for another; she had been fantastically lucky to find one kind Sprite in a high place this time.
By the end of the very unproductive work cycle she had decided. She had failed all too often when taking small risks. Doctor-Jay-Hotshot-Matrix wasn't the only one who could bet on a long shot. If she failed, she told herself, she wouldn't be losing more than a few seconds more of her already-limited runtime anyway.
She snuck out a side door when she left for the day. She had not gotten back with Peg as she had promised. When she turned down her invitation, Peg would have asked what she was doing for the evening, and Melissa didn't want to think up an alibi or hurt her friend's feelings. Better just to pretend to have forgotten and apologize after the fact.
Wearing a light outfit with a loose skirt that she could move easily in, she rose on her zip board. She skimmed just above the ground, heading into the industrial sector as if cutting across it on the way to her home. Or on an errand. She'd make up an excuse to use in case anyone noticed her and asked about it.
She flew below the top level, down into the darker levels where heavy work was done. Soon she came to the green, featureless energy wall which cut the West Sector off from the rest of the Twin City. It extended up and over the sector, and down to the bottom level.
She tracked along it, looking for binomes. She found none; only more of the blank wall, isolating this sector from the outside, like a foreign body. Why would it need guards? It seemed pretty impenetrable, she thought. But there had to be someone. Please. She knew she had no chance of breaking through on her own.
In the distance she saw light. She was approaching the city's edge. This sector was on the border of the Twin City, and had ports to the Energy Seas. To reach one of those she would have to go out into the open. Which she didn't want to do, but at least she wouldn't spook the guards by looking like she was trying to sneak in.
Flying along the energy shield, close enough to the edge to avoid being easily spotted from a distance, she looked for a dock in use. There were none, but she did see movement in one area. That was it. She flew over to a pair of zero binomes standing on a platform outside the shield.
As she approached she could see that, as she had expected, they were viral. Their eyes were green with red pupils, they were green and blue colored. Both pointed filelock devices at her as she approached. One shouted, "No unauthorized personnel can stay in this area. Leave or be deleted!"
She floated before them on her zip board. "I'm unarmed. Take me to your leader."
The binomes looked at each other. They obviously didn't get the joke. It was a dumb thing to say anyway, Melissa thought. She tried again. "I have come to speak to Kilobyte. Take me to him."
This confused the virals even more. They were prepared to warn away curious sprites and repel attackers, not to argue with people who actually wanted to enter the West Sector. After a few nanoseconds' indecisiveness, during which Melissa waited tensely on her zip board, one fired its weapon at her. A green filelock field surrounded her, immobilizing her. They caught the block with tractor rays before it could fall into the Energy Sea, opened a gap in the shield, and towed Melissa inside.
Inside the border, one of the binomes stayed and watched over the filelock block. The other called up a VidWindow to the section's command office. "Captain!"
A one binome answered. "Yes, Private?"
"We have, uh, a prisoner."
"A prisoner?" the one repeated in disbelief. "How did you acquire a prisoner?"
"She flew up to us at the border. We warned her to go away, and she said she wanted to see Kilobyte, and that she was unarmed. We filelocked her." The zero knew how ridiculous it sounded. "Um, I think we need to do a weapons scan on her, at least...?"
"Where is she now?" The captain got out of his chair.
"She's right inside the border, still locked."
"If this is a prank..." the captain warned, but grabbed a portable weapons scanner.
By the time the Captain arrived on a zip board the captive had attracted a small crowd of curious guards. They surrounded the prisoner, so he could only see the top of the green block. The captain waved his filelocker at them. "Don't you all have something to do? Get out of the way!" When they backed away and he could see the block, he stopped and stared. "A sprite!"
"Yessir." The binome who had captured her threw a quick salute. "She asked to be taken to Kilobyte. I didn't think we-"
"Yes, I heard." He pointed the weapons detector at the green block. The others backed farther away from it so their weapons wouldn't interfere with the readings. After some nanoseconds, he grudgingly said, "She's not armed."
"What do we do with her, sir?"
The one looked at her. They could just dump her into the energy sea, file and forget. But she was a Sprite. She'd certainly be missed if she just disappeared. And she hadn't attacked them. She might actually have a legitimate errand here, though they could not imagine what it could be.
Kilobyte did not like to be bothered with the minutia of border security... but he disliked mistakes much more.
Melissa had no memory of the time she was frozen; when in filelock all of one's processes were suspended. When the filelock was released her zip board hit the floor, and she fell forward, landing on her hands and knees.
As she scrambled to her feet she picked up and minimized her zip board; she might need it for a quick getaway. She looked around. The scenery had shifted abruptly, from the wide open landscape of the barrier and energy sea to this cavernous chamber. She could not see any walls. A single light source hung suspended in the air, shining down on her, the glare preventing her from seeing anything in the surrounding darkness. She heard no voices, no motion, only the soft thrum of distant activity.
At least I'm still processing, she thought. She looked around herself, but still saw no one. She took several steps to get out of the light, but it followed her.
At the sound of a clank behind herself she whirled around. Staring into the darkness, she said, "Hello?"
The clanking continued, the paired sound like the heel-and-toe impact of footsteps. Then a figure emerged suddenly into the light. Despite her resolve to stay calm, she took in a sharp breath and stepped back.
The Virus strode forward and folded its arms, looking down at her with red-pupiled green eyes, the same as those of the virals who had captured her. He loomed over her, his sharp, three-pronged crest starkly silhouetted against the overhead light. She shaded her eyes so she could see him. His body was covered by metallic green plates, like machinery coverings or an exoskeletal shell. The areas not covered by plates were blue on his body and quicksilver on his limbs and neck. On the knuckles of his exposed hand she saw three sheaths, which she knew could extend into vicious claws.
As he stared at her, the stark shadows concealing his expression, she gathered her nerve and stood up straight, her arms by her sides. "You are Kilobyte."
"Yes." A deep bass voice, low enough for her to feel as a vibration in the air.
"Is the light necessary? I cannot see."
He glanced up. The light source's focus widened, illuminating the chamber evenly. Then he stared back down at her.
She glanced about, surprised to find that there were no virals present. She didn't know why that alarmed her any more than the current situation did.
Guessing her thoughts, Kilobyte stated, "I sent them away. I did not think I would need them to protect me from one small Sprite."
She looked up, and thought she saw a hint of amusement on his face. At least he's not angry, she thought. But was that good? Who knew what he could be thinking? She could not back down now, and she could not show fear even though she was terrified. One thing she knew was that you don't show vulnerability to an enemy Virus. Negotiate from a position of strength, not weakness. Gathering her nerve, she said, "I have some information from the outside I want to tell you."
"Do you," he said. "Why would I care about the doings outside?"
"You may be in grave danger-"
His chuckle sounded like distant thunder. "Oh, really. Do go on."
"Yes. There is a project underway to process an algorithm which will destroy viral code. If they complete it, they could assassinate you."
"Really. Supposing it could be brought past my border security, which has been quite effective to date."
"It may not need to be brought past the border. There has been talk of different vectors. And it would only take one breach - such as one unarmed Sprite."
"Yes," he said after a pause. "But you do not have anything of the sort on you. You would have attempted to use it by now if you did."
"No. I don't have anything," she said, suddenly realizing how close she had just come to deletion for her rash statement. "I'm not here to try to threaten you. I wanted to tell you because - because what they have planned is murder. Nobody deserves to be torn apart line by line!"
He turned away from her toward a large chair, almost a throne. She had not noticed it, or much else in the area. Now she saw that they were in a wide, domed chamber with hexagonal patterns on the walls. She had expected something more industrial looking, more rectilinear.
Kilobyte sat down and asked her, "What do you suggest I do about it?"
That startled her. She hadn't been prepared for that question. She tried to think fast, but he spoke before she could answer. "Perhaps I should leave this system while I am still able, or surrender and hope for clemency?" He paused to let her answer. When none came, he steepled his fingers in front of himself and said smoothly, "Tell me, why should a Sprite wish to warn her mortal enemy and the enemy of the system about such an endeavor? What would she have to gain from it?" His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. In a harsh voice he asked, "Why should I believe you?"
"Some people don't believe in murder, and believe in mercy instead." Oh boy. That sounded good in her own mind, but BASIC when she said it aloud. "I don't think anyone should be murdered, and I don't want this system to come to war if they try it and fail."
Kilobyte tapped his pointer fingers together, looking at her over the tips. "You would preserve your system's stability by giving information to me? Surely you can do better than that."
"You think I'm lying to you."
He nodded, gazing at her calmly, but made no other move.
"All right then. If this won't convince you of my motives - then I've done all I could." She reached up and clicked her icon.
As her clothing protocol shut down, his eyes widened. She had managed to disturb his composure, if only by startling him. Her face hot with embarrassment, she held her hands, palms forward, out from her sides. "Now do you see why I came here?"
Wearing a shocked expression, Kilobyte nodded. He was staring at her, just at waistline level - where her legs did not connect to her body. They were separate, like the blocks of a binome.
She walked two paces forward, turned, then faced him again. "You see why I don't want them to start murdering Viruses?" she asked, a bitter edge creeping into her voice.
"You're registered," he managed to say.
She had made her point. She clicked her icon, restoring her clothing protocol. "Yes. I fled the last system I lived in when they found out I'm a Virus. I came here as a refugee. They offered to register me before they found out what I am, but I had to be scanned first. Then they took pity on me because I'm benign, and have kept my secret. Not they - only one person, the one who scanned and registered me, knows what I really am. Now two. I've been able to stay hidden so far by wearing skirts. If they found out what I am, even though I've never done anything wrong, I'd have to run again - or be used for experiments! My life would be forfeit just because I was initialized as a Virus!"
He leaned forward, grasping the armrests. "What do you expect me to do?" he asked, his voice once again under control.
"I don't know," she said. "That's up to you. Maybe nothing. I wanted you to have some warning, to give you a chance." She folded her arms.
He stood up and strode forward. She flinched as he gripped her upper arm in one massive quicksilver hand. He could easily crush her arm if he wanted to, but he only held her firmly. "I meant, what do you expect in return? You did not come here out of the goodness of your heart."
"Maybe I did," she asserted, not trying to pull out of his grasp. "Everything I've told you is the truth. Now you've been warned, and you can decide what you're going to do about it." She looked at his hand. "All I want is for you to let me go safely."
He released her arm. "Why do you want to go back out there?" he asked with a dismissive gesture that indicated the world outside the West Sector. "You said it yourself. They hate us."
His harsh tone unnerved her. Seeing her draw back, he said, "Don't worry, you aren't in any danger - now."
"You want me to stay here?" she asked incredulously. His reply was a steady gaze. "I couldn't. My home is outside-"
"Where you have to hide your true nature."
"Who would hate you if they knew the truth."
"No!" She clenched her fists and stared down at the floor.
After several nanos she heard his voice, soft and low. "You can't enjoy living a lie."
"I couldn't live in a place like this... in a place where binomes are slaves."
No reply. She looked up, and was surprised to see an amused expression on his face. "They work for them or they work for me."
"It's hardly the same."
"Come with me," he said, and turned. He walked away, his footsteps clanking on the floor. He didn't look back; he was accustomed to being obeyed. And she found herself following him.
He led her through several passages, then through a doorway. She found herself outside on a street of the West Sector.
Kilobyte stood there, his arms folded, surveying his domain calmly. She looked around. Under the green sky various binomes were going about their business. All of them were viral. They stared when they saw the two Viruses, then moved along. One thing she was surprised not to see was fear.
"Apart from the color of their eyes, is this really so different from the outside?" he asked when she looked back at him.
"There must be thousands of them, all viral," she breathed.
"Approximately two thousand forty-eight," he replied.
Most of the binomes, she realized, were not staring at Kilobyte, but at her. Of course they'd be curious about what a free sprite - or something near to it anyway - was doing here. Curious? She hadn't thought virals had enough free will to be curious.
"The West Sector is self-sufficient," Kilobyte told her. "I need nothing from the outside. One does not maintain that with a reign of terror, much as people would have you believe otherwise."
"But you've enslaved all these people."
"Yes, I have claimed all of these binomes. What of it? That is the function of a Virus," he said evenly. "They live out their lives here much the same as the ones outside. I maintain order and discipline. And if I were a cruel master, don't you think they would be terrified to see me standing among themselves?"
He locked eyes with her. "I have claimed this territory within the Twin City, and created my own sector. Yes, I am its dictator. That is my format. But I am not a tyrant."
"You don't have to infect anybody, though."
"I cannot hide my nature beneath loose clothing," he replied.
The remark stung. She had no suitable reply. And, she reminded herself, she had already put herself in enough danger already; no need to add to it by quarreling with a Virus in his own lair!
He continued, "I could very well make war with this system. If I captured the Principle Office, I would have the PID codes of every inhabitant, and could infect them en masse. Conceivably my current force could do that this very cycle, as I would have the element of surprise on my side. As well as a few other advantages that you need not know about. But," He gazed at the border in the distance. "I will not. I have my sector, and it is large enough to be efficient and self-contained. I would not want the headache of managing an entire system."
I showed him my cards, now he's showing me his, she realized. "I'd like to see more of the sector."
He looked down at her. "No," he said with what might have been regret. "I cannot trust you implicitly, any more than you can trust me. If you learned something I did not want you to know, I would have to erase this cycle from your memory. It's a very unpleasant process."
"What could I find out that could be more dangerous to you than my secret is to me?"
He considered, then replied, "Another time."
Another time? she thought.
She glanced around. The place looked so tidy, so planned... she realized what was bothering her. It looked too well kept. No sign of game damage was visible at all. She asked, "What do you do when games come down?"
"Play them, of course." He leaned back against the building, arms folded.
"Oh, I don't enter them myself. My troops are trained for that purpose."
"You send them into the games?" she asked, aghast.
He replied calmly, "Yes. Many enjoy the break from their regular duties. After all, border patrol is a monotonous job."
"But they could be deleted or nullified!"
"They rarely are. They know how to win the games. Perhaps outside it is acceptable to cower at the User's whim and let him destroy your city sector by sector, but I will not bow to any User." He pinned her with a penetrating gaze. "It takes only a squadron of well-seasoned binomes to win a game. How many of their people are deleted or nullified each second because they could not run fast enough? And how much time and resources are wasted on rebuilding lost sectors?"
"We can restore sectors. We can't restore people," she said weakly.
"A pity. Perhaps if they stopped cowering they might discover a way."
She had no answer for that. After trying to gather her thoughts, she changed the subject somewhat. "What do you do if a game comes down on you?"
"I get out of the way, of course. I'm not formatted to reboot, and my binomes know their jobs. However, I have been caught in them before."
"How can you survive a game if you can't reboot?"
He smiled. With a soft metallic scraping his knuckle claws extended. They were as long as his forearms, and wickedly sharp along the entire front edge. "It is not my survival that is in question. As I have said, I will not bow to any User."
She thought back to the few times she had been trapped in games. She had rebooted to acquire whatever survival skills and equipment the game would give her, and then hid in terror of the User and the game sprites. The memories humiliated her. She looked back up at him, reluctantly meeting his steady gaze. "Well... I should go before I'm missed."
"Very well." He opened a VidWindow. The same guards who had filelocked her looked back at him. Ignoring their fearful expressions, he said, "Send several troops here to escort..." He glanced at her. "this woman to the border."
"Yes, sir!" The binome, relieved, saluted.
The VidWindow closed. Kilobyte said to her, "You have not told me your name."
"Melissa," he said, as if fixing the name in his memory. He did not ask for her last name, she noticed - Viruses did not use family names.
Three virals armed with filelockers zipboarded over. Kilobyte directed, "Escort her safely to the border and release her. She is not to be harmed in any way."
"Yessir," one of the three binomes answered.
"She is to have safe passage, with escort, in the future. All other security measures remain unchanged," he continued. "Inform the duty officer and have him instruct all border troops."
"Yessir!" the binome repeated.
Kilobyte looked at Melissa. "Until later," he said cordially.
She was surprised. He was just going to let her go? Or was this a ruse? She would have to be alert. She activated her zip board and stepped on. One of the binomes looked at her and waved his filelocker toward the energy barrier. He took point, the other two behind her, enclosing her in a triangle, their weapons sheathed.
As they flew away, Melissa looked back. Kilobyte was still leaning back against the tower, arms folded, watching her.
They had escorted her to the border, created a passage for her, and let her go. Just like that. Exactly as Kilobyte had ordered. No complications, no doublecross, no threats. Then what had she needed three guards to escort her for? Probably to keep her from going off course and seeing something she shouldn't.
What could be in there that he wanted to keep secret? He had told her plenty. And, though she examined the conversation in her head over and over, she could not find any point on which she believed that he had lied to her. Either he was a consummate actor, or he was exactly as he appeared - firmly in control of a small, well organized empire, confident of his power, unashamed of what he was.
Unashamed. Confident. He had no fear of her, or of the games, or even of the User. And here Melissa was, hiding behind a skirt, too afraid even to go on a date for fear that someone might again discover that she was a Virus and chase her out of the system. What kind of life was that? She was a benign Virus, no threat at all to anyone, yet they would hate her here if they knew the truth. How stupid it had been for her to reveal herself to Kilobyte... but she did not believe that he would use the knowledge against her. Virus loyalty? She hadn't known any other Viruses besides her parents. Did Viruses have loyalty?
That sounded like something Dr. Matrix would say, she thought with a start. Even she had picked up some of the prejudices ingrained into all sprites. Why shouldn't Viruses be loyal to their own, or feel any other emotion that regular sprites did?
She suddenly realized that Kilobyte had let slip one important bit of information. His troops also played the games. That meant that when a game was in the West Sector his defenses were at their weakest. An attack at that time would be most likely to succeed. If he realized that she knew that, what would he do?
Well, he wouldn't find out. And neither would anyone else.
She had only planned to even up the field by warning Kilobyte. Now, she realized, she was not going to be able to leave it at that. Not because Kilobyte knew what she was; if he intended anything nasty he would surely have kept her in his grasp, or at least threatened to blackmail her. Instead he had let her go free... and given instructions to his troops to let her pass safely in his sector. What? She had taken a foolish chance by entering the West Sector, and had survived against all odds. Why in the net would she repeat it?
Nulls. She didn't know what she was going to do now. She was too confused. She needed to think things over. She had to make some long-postponed decisions.
"What's it going to be then, eh?" she murmured to herself.
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
ReBoot is copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. The Twin City and Kilobyte are also copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. and were mentioned on its website. Mainframe's properties are used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. Melissa, Peg, Jay, and the overall story are copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed binomes can look out for themselves. "Manome: The Digits of Fate" was thought up by the ever-goofy Lar DeSouza (Fresco@sentex.net). Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.