by Kim McFarland
|Everybody's playing the game,
But nobody's rules are the same.
Nobody's on nobody's side.
Nobody's Side from "Chess"
A set of nine binomes had been summoned to Kilobyte's command room. That was unusual; he normally issued his orders via VidWindow, speaking to the viral in command and letting him distribute the word as necessary. But things had been changing in the West Sector lately.
Melissa, standing beside Kilobyte, was nervous. She didn't know why. What was so difficult about speaking to a small group of people?
Kilobyte broke the tense silence by addressing the virals. "Gentlemen, I have some new orders for you. You are to convey these to all in your sections, so listen carefully." He looked at Melissa.
She hesitated, then began, "Um, you play the games in the West Sector, and win nearly all of them, but outside they lose most of them because they don't know how to win them. The next time - a game's due to come down any cycle now, and the next time one comes down outside the West Sector, I want us to play it."
The virals, baffled, looked to Kilobyte for confirmation. Placing one hand on Melissa's shoulder, he said, "When the next game comes down outside this sector, you are to go out and win it. Then return directly."
The binomes looked nervously at each other. Their leader, Commander And_E, voiced what they were all thinking: "Um... why?" It was not a challenge, but a request for clarification.
"To prove to them that we can win the games," Melissa said. "But don't fight the CPUs. This is going to be peaceful."
Kilobyte elucidated firmly, "That is very important. Under no circumstances are you to initiate hostilities with anyone outside. Your lives will depend on that. Do you understand?"
The virals nodded. Kilobyte glanced at Melissa, then said "Dismissed."
The virals retreated. When they were gone Melissa sagged back against him. "Will they do it?"
He rested his other hand on her shoulder. "Oh, they will. Perhaps they don't understand why they are being sent outside the sector, but they know better than to disobey my orders."
Melissa looked uncomfortable. She was used to coordinating research crews, discussing ideas, even having debates verging on screaming arguments with others on various issues - but that always involved exchanging ideas. She could disagree with people, argue with them, that was fine - but the docile obedience of Kilobyte's virals unnerved her. "They seemed frightened of me."
"They don't know what to make of you," he stated as if the matter were unimportant.
"I know." She was all too aware of how they must see her. An intruder. They were used to obeying Kilobyte's orders, not those of some unknown, powerless woman.
"No matter," he said. "They will obey, and we will see what happens when the game is over."
She sighed. She ought to be happy. She had had to convince Kilobyte to try this plan. It hadn't been easy. He cared little for the system outside the West Sector; his contempt for "weaklings" who ran from the User was obvious. But she was sure that if she demonstrated to the people in Mainframe and the Twin City that they could win the games, that the virals were already doing it regularly, that they might learn as well. And, she fervently hoped that they would realize that the virals didn't have to be their enemies.
She knew that she had not convinced Kilobyte that this plan would work. He, like the sector's viral inhabitants, preferred the status quo: We stay on our side of the energy wall, they stay on theirs, and neither will have anything to do with the other. Melissa had realized how deep this sentiment ran after she saw more of the West Sector. It truly was a separate entity from the Twin City, not a parasite. It drew its own power from the Energy Sea. Most of its citizens were not, as she had first supposed, dedicated to military defense; they carried out other activities to support their community's economy. What had surprised her most was the realization that there were even families living in the sector, the children infected by Kilobyte at an early age. That had struck her as grotesque, though it did not seem to bother anyone else.
It wasn't any wonder, then, that her presence confused people. The vast majority of the binomes here had lived here a long time - some their whole lives! - and knew of no other ruler than Kilobyte. He was predictable. They obeyed him, and he treated them fairly, by the standards of the West Sector. If there was one thing they could count on, it was stability. And then an interloper appears, hardly even a Virus, talking about kicking holes in their walls. Even Kilobyte clearly did not think that the plan would work; he had commented that the effort would be as useful as trying to teach nulls to sing. But when he had understood how serious she was he had let her try.
He was humoring her, she knew. Well, at least he was giving her a chance to convince him. She couldn't ask for much more than that. Time would tell who was right. Maybe the null would learn to sing.
Time... she had to go back soon. She had come here right after work, and it was late now. She had been coming to the West Sector increasingly often lately. So far she had not been seen, due in no small part to the hidden routes that Kilobyte had helped her plot. She had thought that his sector was airtight, but as it turned out there were numerous well-hidden, closely guarded back doors, no doubt also used by his spies. And with the border troops instructed to let her come and go as she pleased, she could pass with a minimum of risk.
One of his quicksilver hands touched her cheek gently, warmly.
She didn't have to go just yet.
Several microseconds later, Melissa went to one of the hidden exits. She no longer had a binome escort; lately Kilobyte had taken that duty on himself. It was no longer a matter of security, though, since she could roam the West Sector freely now. She grinned when she thought about that.
She emerged behind an energy processing plant on one of the lowest levels. At this time of the cycle she would not be seen. She activated her zip board and flew to her home, taking a circuitous route through the lower levels.
Melissa arrived at work earlier than usual the next day. She had awakened before her alarm went off, and rather than putter around at home she had just come in. She went to the lounge, hoping to see Peg. She was there - and Dr. Matrix was sitting opposite her. Melissa tried to backspace, but they'd seen her. Jay called, "Melissa!"
She sighed. She would rather have left the two green Sprites alone. As Melissa walked in Peg said, "You're here early."
"I woke up early, so I figured I'd get in a little time before the next game," Melissa said, leaning against the doorframe, her hands in her skirt pockets.
"Come on over," Jay said, beckoning to her.
"Really, I have to get to work."
"Nulls," he stated. "You can help us."
She wouldn't be able to get out of it easily. Oh well. She went over to the table. Jay scooted the chair beside himself out. Pretending not to notice, Melissa took the seat next to Peg. "How's your project going?"
"It's going well," Jay said. "It looks like we're going to be able to get some help from outside."
Melissa's eyebrows went up. "What kind of help?"
"We've been in contact with people in the Supercomputer about the Virus sequencing project. They may send one of their people here if we can get one who's willing, and I think we will."
"What kind of 'their people'?"
"They've got experts on Viruses. They've had to deal with hundreds of them, not just the one we have."
"I guess they would know their stuff better than we would, then," Melissa said with an odd smile.
"I'm almost embarrassed to ask one of them to come to the Twin City, because of that viral sector. But then, if we didn't need help, we wouldn't be having to ask," Jay said.
"Nobody's perfect," Melissa replied. "It could be worse. We could be at war with them, not just on opposite sides of a blockade."
"I'd better get to work, there are some things I want to get a start on." She smiled at Peg, who had not said a word during the entire conversation. "Talk to you later."
"See you," Peg replied.
Melissa left the break room. She had to grin as she turned the corner. She was developing a tolerance for Doctor Hotshot. Not long ago his constant attention had irritated her. Now she could let him flirt as much as he wanted, she didn't care. Oh, if you only knew, Matrix! But when she was there he completely ignored Peg. Now that was rude, but like she would expect better from him?
Oh well. Soon she'd prove him and all his Virus-hating propaganda wrong. Until then, she could put up with him.
Later in the cycle Peg appeared in Melissa's doorway. "Hey."
Melissa looked up and smiled. "Hey!"
"Want to get out of here for lunch?"
"Do I ever." Melissa saved and closed her workfile, and minimized the other VidWindows she had been using.
"What're you doing now?" Peg asked as they walked down the corridors.
"Nothing much. Monitoring energy levels, seeing if I can predict which sectors games'll land on next."
"That would be good," Peg said. "If we knew where they were going to land, we could evacuate them ahead of time. I've heard that there's an energy buildup before a game comes in."
"I've heard that too. I've never seen if it's true or not, though. So I was setting up a program to monitor energy level fluctuations, to see if there's a spike before the game comes in, or if it's really as the game's coming in. It's something I've wanted to try for a while, but with all the games lately I've been too busy coordinating sector repairs."
"I know. It's not like this lately - it's always been like this here. We're just getting a little break right now. What was it like in the system you came from?"
Melissa shrugged. "Fewer games. It was a pretty quiet place, really. You'd probably call it boring."
They paused just inside the research center's front doors. Peg said, "Shop talk mode off." Not only for security reasons, but because it was their rule: if they were going to get away from work, they wouldn't bring it with them.
There were a number of restaurants near the Blaine Research Institute; it was in the middle of a well populated business sector. The two women ended up in their usual place, a small diner that served competent food reasonably quickly. It was nothing special, which is why it was not crowded.
Melissa led Peg to a booth by the glass window wall. Peg tapped an icon on the table and looked at the menu that popped up in a VidWindow. Melissa didn't bother; she knew what she wanted.
"Which system did you come from?" Peg asked when she closed the menu window. "You've never said anything about it."
"Not much to say about it, really. It was a small, quiet system."
"Why'd you leave, then?"
"I guess I just stopped liking it there."
Melissa was saved from having to elaborate her evasion into a lie by a female one binome with a beehive hairdo and an order pad. "What can I getcha?" she asked.
"Number 0000000110 combo for me," Melissa answered.
"Your usual." She looked over at Peg. "For you?"
"Um... A Nybble Plate. And a diet energy shake."
The waitress left. Peg snapped at Melissa in mock indignation, "Stop grinning at me, I just like the diet ones better, okay?"
"Okay, okay." But she did not stop smiling.
Peg was grinning too. "You know, you've seemed a lot happier these past few milliseconds. Before, it was, I don't know, like you had something on your mind."
"I guess I'm finally fitting in," Melissa replied.
"I'd think it was something more than that." Peg looked mischievous. "You seem a little too cheerful just for that."
"Oh, do I?"
"Yeah. Like maybe... anything you want to tell me about? I promise not to say anything to anyone."
Melissa shook her head, still smiling. "There's nothing to tell."
"If I didn't know better, I'd guess that there was something nice going on in your evenings..."
"Oh, really?" Melissa laughed.
Peg lowered her voice. "I mean, I never see you in the evenings... I'm thinking, maybe you're busy with someone?"
Melissa shook her head. "Peg, you have a one-track mind. Who would I be seeing? You know it's not you-know-who."
"I know." She leaned close, an earnest expression on her face. "I was thinking... maybe you're seeing someone, and you're keeping quiet about it?"
Melissa stopped smiling. "What are you talking about?"
"Maybe it's none of my business. But, suppose you were dating someone, and you didn't want to say anything because maybe he's a she... well, if it were something like that, you wouldn't have to keep it a secret from me. I just wanted to tell you that."
Melissa drew back, startled. Quickly Peg added, "I don't mean that I'm saying I think you are, but if you were, it'd be okay with me, that's all."
Melissa covered her mouth with her hand as she began laughing. Peg had had her worried for a moment there.
Relieved, Peg asked, "You're not mad, are you?"
"No," Melissa managed to gasp out. When she got herself under control again she said, "I'm not mad. If that's the worst thing anyone calls me in this system, I won't complain! But, no, I'm not dating a woman. I'm not dating any Sprite."
"What about binomes, then?"
That made them both laugh. "Or numerals," Melissa added.
"That pretty well covers it." Peg said.
Melissa, still grinning, said, "Believe it or not, Peg, a woman can be interested in men and still not be attracted to Jay Matrix. He's just not my type. That's all there is to it."
Melissa was still grinning. Peg said, "What?"
"I wonder what he would do if he thought I was seeing a woman. It might get me off the hook."
"You wouldn't! ... Would you?"
Melissa shook her head. "Nah, I wouldn't. But it's fun to think about."
WARNING: INCOMING GAME.
Both women turned to look out the window. The sky had darkened, and a purple cube was descending near the edge of the city. "It's going to come down on the Southeast Sector, close to the rim," Peg said.
That was a residential area. Not only would reconstructing it be a miserable task; who knows how many people wouldn't be able to get out of their homes in time. But - Melissa glanced toward the west. Eight viral Armored Binome Carriers were streaking through the air above the city.
Peg started to exclaim something when she saw the ships, but Melissa held up a hand. The ships flew under the game and landed just as the cube touched down.
"Better get back," Melissa said to Peg.
"Yeah," was the best a stunned Peg could manage.
When Peg and Melissa ran into their secion of the Blaine center, they found almost the entire center watching a large VidWindow. Dr. Matrix saw them and pushed through the crowd. When he reached them he said, "Did you see what happened? The virals-"
"Yeah, we saw from the diner," Melissa cut him off. "I wish we could see into that cube!"
"Why would they attack a game?" Peg said. "They always stay in their own sector!"
"They must play the games that land in the West Sector," Melissa answered. "We know that the User loses nearly every time a game lands there. Let's wait and see what happens. We can't do anything else until the game leaves anyway."
Dr. Matrix didn't argue the point. He was already making his way back through the crowd.
"I wish we could see into the game," Peg murmured.
"Me too," Melissa answered, not taking her eyes off the VidWindow.
As they watched, the usual rescue vehicles flew close to the cube, ready to gather up any survivors needing medical attention. That was routine. But then a squadron of thirty-two CPU vehicles - nearly half the Twin City's force! - ringed the cube as well. Melissa's hands clenched.
After what seemed to everybody like an interminably long wait, the computer's calm voice announced, "GAME OVER." The cube rose back into the sky. The sector below was unharmed.
Melissa fought back an urge to cheer. The victorious ABCs rose from the ground - and were surrounded by CPUs.
In the ABCs, each pilot watched a VidWindow showing the positions of their and the enemy's ships. This was the bad part. They had known this was going to happen. The outsiders had the time to scramble their forces while the game was going. And Kilobyte had ordered them not to start a battle. How were they supposed to do THAT?
An insert popped up in the viewscreens of all eight ABCs. Commander And_E said, "I see them. Do not split up. Tight formation, pierce their wall. I'll take point."
The first ship sped forward, the others falling in behind it.
Nearly everyone in the Twin City watched as the virals, in a tight cluster, flew toward the rest, trying to punch a hole in the blockade. The CPU vehicles in their path fired.
Commander And_E watched the ships' formation on his screen. The CPUs intended to keep them trapped. He drew in a breath to speak to his eight ABC pilots - and his ship rocked, hit by a CPU blast. One of the pilots yelped, "They're not going to let us go!"
And_E made a snap decision. Kilobyte had ordered them not to start a battle. He emphatically hadn't told them not to defend themselves! He barked, "Turret gunners, ships one through three! Clear a path!"
The front viral ships, as one, opened fire on the CPU ships blocking their way. Their targets were knocked back by the force of the firepower. The ABCs darted forward, out of the trap, toward the West Sector.
Melissa, watching the VidWindow, wanted to scream. The CPUs were chasing the virals. They could not hope to catch them, but they were still firing, trying to shoot them down!
The ABCs, still fleeing, lined up to present as small a target for the enemy as possible. But this left the hindmost vehicle vulnerable. She could see the green flaring of its turret as it fired at the pursuing ships. Its armored skin sparked as the CPUs continued shooting.
Ahead of And_E's ship the green force wall of the West Sector expanded. An opening just large enough for the ships dilated to let them through. The pilot of the hindmost ship called to the gunner, "Almost there!" The gunner did not reply; his attention was occupied with a view of the CPUs behind them.
The floor below their seats slammed upward. "What was that?!" the pilot called.
"They hit the exhaust port! Shot right up it!"
And a shot up the exhaust port would go right into the ship. It was the worst vulnerability of the ABC fleet. He didn't reply; he would need all his concentration to keep the ship in the air long enough for it to limp home.
"Got one!' someone cheered as the hindmost ABC began losing altitude, smoke pouring out of the back. As the others flew through the opening in the West Sector, which irised closed as soon as the seventh was through, the last one hit the ground in a controlled crash. It skidded to a stop just outside of the wall.
The CPUs landed in a circle surrounding it, their weapons locked onto their target. One spoke through a loudspeaker. "Surrender or be deleted."
Two viral binomes, a one and a zero, emerged from the wrecked ABC. They had no visible weapons. One of the CPUs imprisoned them in filelock blocks. As they were loaded into a CPU vehicle, other binomes began searching the inside of the ABC.
"What are they DOING?" Melissa said in a voice not heard above the other voices in the room. People were cheering themselves for having driven the virals back to their sector and capturing some of them. They were behaving as if Kilobyte's troops had attacked them!
Melissa wanted to scream at them, to find something heavy to throw and break the VidWindow. Anything to get their attention! But she couldn't. Defeated, she fled to her office and locked the door behind herself.
That evening Melissa just wanted to go home and hide. But she knew she couldn't, not this cycle. She had managed to avoid facing her co-workers by staying late, her door locked, and then leaving by a side exit. At least before she had left she had managed to pull herself together enough to find out what had happened to the captive virals.
When Melissa entered the West Sector tower, Kilobyte was waiting. He started to speak to her, then saw her downcast expression. He put an arm around her shoulders. She leaned close, not looking at him. He asked, "Did it work?"
"That's not funny," she responded.
He didn't reply. She looked up and met his eyes. "It was a complete bust. Nobody believes that the virals weren't invading. You were right, it's like teaching nulls to sing. And they got two binomes."
"Only one ABC."
"With two people in it."
"Only two. That is acceptable, considering."
She pulled away. "Acceptable? Nobody was supposed to be lost at all! This isn't war. It's supposed to be the opposite! That was the point of the whole thing!"
"Dr. Matrix has submitted a request that they be transferred from prison to the Institute. Which doesn't have facilities for holding people, so they'll have to be kept in filelock. Until let out to get samples of their code, or whatever." Her voice was thin and tight. "Because of me, he might end up using them as lab animals, all in the name of fighting the viral evil. I know how he thinks. They're the enemy, and if he can use them to find a way to kill us, he will!"
"And they do pose a security risk. They know about you." He looked thoughtful. "I will have the situation remedied as soon as they get into the Institute."
"I have my ways."
His spies, he meant. She was not supposed to be aware of them. But there were a few binomes who always seemed to be around, yet never actually spoke to her. She'd suspected them for some time now, and her suspicion had been confirmed when she had seen one in the West Sector, but she hadn't said anything about them. As Kilobyte humored her supposedly hopeless idealism, she humored his protectiveness. But... "What are you going to do?"
"They will disappear soon after they arrive at the Institute."
"You think you can get them out of there?" she asked, suspicious.
His hesitation was answer enough. She shook her head. "No. They aren't going to become 'acceptable losses'! Leave this one to me. I got them into this, I'll get them out."
"Yes. Me. I may be benign, but I'm not useless. Give me a cycle or two."
"Very well," he said reluctantly.
She had to smile at his resigned expression. She had learned to read him pretty well, and knew what he was thinking: she'll have to learn for herself. That was fine; she'd surprise him this time. But she had to get moving right away if she was going to succeed. "Thanks. I'd better get started now."
Drawing his hand down her back, he nodded. "If you need backup..."
"I know who to call," she answered. Still smiling, she reached a hand up and touched his metal cheek. "Later."
By the time she got home she had sketched out a plan in her mind. She had to find out where they were, first of all. She was no hacker; she knew that she could not get around Principle Office security, and that was where the viral prisoners were being held. If she could manipulate the situation a little, it would improve her odds.
She took a microsecond to relax, then called up a VidWindow. It showed the interior of the Principle Office, and a short, golden Sprite looking at a horizontal, table-like window. "Phong?"
The Sprite looked up, surprised. "Ah, Melissa."
"Do you have a nano?"
"Certainly. What is it, my child?"
Her smile came more easily now. Phong had a way of putting her at ease. "You heard about the game in Twin City today."
"Yes. Very intriguing. I cannot help wondering why the viral forces entered that particular game..."
She would have liked to tell him, but it would mess up her plan if she started spouting the same line to him. "I don't know. The two virals that were captured, are they being held over there?"
"Yes. We have them in lockdown now."
"Were they hurt?"
"I do not believe so. They were in no need of attention..." His voice trailed off as he tapped at the table-like VidWindow. Several files opened, showing rotating schematics of infected binomes. "Yes. They are unharmed."
"Good. Phong, is there any chance they could be transferred over here? They could aid Dr. Matrix's work. He needs code samples from infected binomes. I think he put in a request already, but you know how long those things can take once they get buried on someone's desktop."
"I see... The Research Center does not have a detention facility."
"That's not a problem. We can keep them in filelock for the time being. We'd only need them for a cycle or two, then we'd bring them back. Or, who knows, if we can disinfect them we'll just let 'em go."
His smile mirrored hers. "Child, you have endless optimism. Never lose that."
"It's gotten me this far. So, Phong, can we borrow 'em for a few cycles?"
He nodded assent. "Yes. I will arrange a transfer for the beginning of the next work cycle."
"Thanks. I owe you a match."
"I will hold you to that."
"Bye." She minimized the VidWindow. She ought to keep that promise soon, she thought; it'd been a while since she had visited the old sprite. And she did enjoy the occasional game of Pong with him. It was the only game she was any good at. After all this blew over, she promised herself, she would.
For now, she had her work cut out for herself. She sat down, opened up a VidWindow, activated a programming application, and set to work.
The next morning a tired Melissa was hanging around the front of the Blaine Research Center. She did not have to wait long. True to Phong's word, the two virals were brought in by a quartet of armed CPU binomes. Melissa had to smile. As if unarmed, filelocked binomes were a danger to anybody! One of the CPUs asked, "Where will you keep them, ma'am?"
"In a med room for now. I'll show you."
She led the binomes, who brought the filelock blocks to the room she indicated. The lead CPU said, "Don't you have something a little more secure? If they got loose-"
"Yes, I know. They can't get into anything if they're locked, and when they aren't we'll have them under guard. I've dealt with virals before." Melissa produced a filelocker from her pocket.
That startled the CPUs. Few civilians had the weapons. Melissa knew he must be wondering where she got it. Let them think that it was from the Institute's inventory. She said, "Thank you for your concern, but I'm sure Phong would not have sent them here if he were not confident of our security."
The CPU still didn't seen satisfied, but there was nothing he could say to that. Melissa smiled pleasantly. "We'll all use extra caution around them. And if anything happens, you'll be the first to know."
The binome nodded his eyeblock. "Then... good luck, ma'am. I hope you can find something out from them. Oh - Phong also sent this. He wanted me to deliver it specifically to you." He held out a small data disc. She took it, and the binome made a gesture somewhere between a wave and a salute, then turned toward the door.
"Thanks," she said as they left.
When they were gone she closed the door. Then she looked back at the two virals. Both were in sitting positions. When they had been filelocked the first time they had been standing with their arms out in surrender. So, they'd been unlocked at least once between then and now. Interesting. Maybe the data disc held some information about it.
She slipped it into the room's terminal and scanned it. It contained one file only. Opening it, she read the headers. And went cold. It was an interrogation transcript.
She started skimming the file, reading as quickly as she could without turning the words into meaningless blurs. If they had talked, they could have revealed her identity!
The door opened, startling her. With a quick tap she blanked the screen and ejected the data disc, then slipped it into her pocket. She turned around. Dr. Matrix was there, staring at the locked binomes. "They said that the virals were here, but I didn't believe them. Did you-?"
"How'd you manage it? I would have thought it'd take cycles just for the clearance to go through!"
She put on a smile. "I explained the situation to Phong, and he sent them over."
He shook his head, grinning. "It figures. Melissa, you're incredible. And here I thought you didn't like my research."
"It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind," she said with a smile. "Dr. Matrix-"
"Please, call me Jay."
"I've handled virals before. I should be present when they are out of filelock."
He looked at her, surprised. "When have you ever been around virals?"
"I did a lot of things before I came to this system. I know how to keep them under control. Plus-" She held up the filelocker she had held concealed in her pocket.
"Okay. Okay, no problem. I'll be glad to have you working with me," he said, though his eyes were on the weapon.
She put it away and said, "They're unarmed. By themselves they're no danger, and they don't have communicators. If we block their VidWindow access, there's not a thing they can do. Not that I think they'd try, separated from their section. They know that they're helpless now."
"You know a lot about virals."
She looked up from the green blocks. "I've dealt with them before. I know how they think."
"Then can you tell me why they went into that game in the first place?"
In a cold voice she answered, "To win it."
"Yes, but why?"
Resignedly she said, "I don't know. Maybe they were bored because no games had fallen in their sector. Look. Dr. - uh, Jay, I need to get some files together. Do you know what you need from them?"
"Yes. First I'll want a basic med scan to compare with normal binomes. Good thing we got one of each kind, one and zero."
"Yes, good thing. I'll meet you here after lunch, and we'll start. Okay?"
"Okay. What are you doing for lunch?"
"Getting files together."
In her office, Melissa finished scanning the interrogation transcript. She could tell right away that, unprepared for questioning, they had only put up a token resistance before spilling their guts. Feeling sick, she began to read it closely.
Their numbers, their organization... they'd answered everything they were asked, though the responses showed that they hadn't always understood what the questioner wanted. When asked what they went into the game for, they had answered "To win it." Despite her nervousness, she had to laugh. That must have exasperated the questioners.
The very next question was about their command structure. Who had given them the orders to go into the game? They had answered that Kilobyte had. Melissa paused, surprised. Of course he had given the actual order, but... she read on. The virals had explained that they had not understood why they were to play a game outside their sector, only that they were to win the game and come back peacefully. Nowhere was Melissa's role mentioned.
Huh! She read on. They were asked about other things. The strength of the ABC forces, Kilobyte's plans, et cetera. The answers, though mainly truthful, still gave precious little information. They had said little which was not already suspected, and nothing which would be of much use. They'd spilled their guts selectively. And they had never mentioned her, or even implied that there was a second Virus in the West Sector, though they'd had plenty of opportunities and been offered amnesty.
She finished reading the transcript and closed the file. She'd decide later if the others should read it; for now she'd just let it slip her mind because she was too busy with more immediate matters. She put the filelocker in her pocket and walked to the med room.
Dr. Matrix was already there, of course. He'd probably worked through lunch as well. Figured. She asked, "Are you ready?"
"Yes. I want to scan them for now. Detailed code samples can wait until I get a better idea what I'm looking for. Let's scan them one at a time."
"No - unlock both at the same time."
"Trust me on this." She held the filelocker up. "I'll handle them. Remember, I know what I'm doing."
Reluctantly he nodded agreement. He locked the door and activated the alarm lock. Then he nodded at her.
The two Virals found themselves in a spare, antiseptic room with two other people, humanoids. One was a green male Sprite. The other one-
She held up the filelocker she had used to release them. She said, "Stay calm. No harm will come to you."
They looked back and forth, bewildered, from the green man to Melissa. "Where are we?" one blurted out.
"You're in the Blaine Research Center in the Twin City," Melissa answered. "We are going to scan you. Remain calm, and please get on the tables without speaking."
Jay watched as the binomes meekly obeyed Melissa's directions. She spoke gently to them, and they obeyed promptly. Were these the same virals who had shot down two CPU ships last cycle? They didn't act like crack military troops in the hands of the enemy.
As Melissa started the scan on the first binome, she said quietly, "Don't worry, I'll see that no harm comes to you."
She glanced at Dr Matrix, who against all odds was managing not to interfere. She had expected his male ego to lead him to butt in. Miracles do happen, she thought. The two binomes were playing their parts; their staring would be seen as wariness, considering that they were at her mercy. Were they wondering if she was once again going to lead them into disaster? Well, she thought fiercely, she wouldn't screw up again.
The scans proceeded quietly. The virals said nothing, she watched them quietly, and Jay stayed alert in case they tried anything. Finally both stations finished. Melissa asked, "Anything else, Doctor?"
"No, nothing now," he answered.
She turned back to the binomes - which put her back to Dr. Matrix. She said, "I'm going to filelock you again." For a moment her she looked at them with an apology in her eyes. Then the weapon pulsed twice, once again imprisoning them.
Jay said, "I don't believe it. You really do know how to handle virals. What were you before you came to the Twin City?"
"A researcher," she answered.
Smiling, he shook his head. "Why aren't you working in the Virus project? If I'd known-"
"No," she cut him off. Looking him in the eyes, she said, "I won't help kill Viruses, or anything else. Call it a weakness if you have to, but I don't want to fight anyone. I'd much rather help rebuild the city after the games we lose."
"That work's important too," he said to appease her. "But, will you keep helping us with them?" He indicates the virals.
"Yes." But only because you fools would probably bully them into fighting back, and then bludgeon them when they did, she thought.
"I'll feed this data into the computer. Comparing the code of a one and a zero with the same infection ought to be a step toward isolating the viral code itself. I'll start it up and set it going. After that there's not a lot I can do. Would you like to have dinner somewhere?"
She started to automatically decline his invitation - then stopped. After a pause, she said, "All right."
That surprised him, she could see. He'd been asking her for milliseconds, and every time she had declined him. She said "After work?"
"Okay then." She smiled at him, then turned to go to her office. Her smile changed to a smirk. It had been worth the shocked look on his face.
In the next room, a female one binome in a white lab coat was working at a terminal. Melissa stood in the doorway and said, "Excuse me. Would you help me with something?"
"Sure." The binome tapped the keyboard a few more times, then cleared the treminal and hopped off the chair to follow Melissa to her office.
Once there, Melissa closed the door and said directly, "I know who you work for."
"The same person you work for, Miss Melissa. I work for the Blaine Institute."
"No, that's not what I mean."
The silence drew out as the binome searched for an adequate answer. Melissa finally said in a low voice, "I spotted you in the West Sector milliseconds ago. You and at least one other here - a zero, one of the security staff - are Kilobyte's spies. I've seen you two keeping an eye on me. Don't worry, I'm not going to complain to Kilobyte and get you two in trouble; you're just doing your job."
The binome sagged against the wall, sighing with relief. "Thank you. If he knew you'd caught on, he wouldn't be pleased."
"Well, don't worry about that." Melissa took a data disc out of her desk, one containing her night's work. "What I need you to do is input this four microseconds after I leave the building. Just start it running, and when it's finished destroy the disk. There's a magnetic data shredder; use that."
"What is it?" the binome asked, looking at the disc in her hand.
"It's something that will help me get those virals back to the West Sector before anything worse can happen to them. A little security bug. It's important that you input it after I leave."
"I'll do it," the binome answered. "Is there anything else I can do to help?"
Melissa smiled. "No. Be gone this evening, that's all. I don't want the same person who input it around when I come back, that's why I'm not doing it myself. I don't want to leave any more of a trail than I can avoid."
The binome nodded and put the disc in a pocket. Melissa said, "That's all. And thanks."
"You're welcome," the binome said as she left, then added, "Good luck!"
Well, Melissa thought, that takes care of the easier part of the plan. The next part would be tougher.
To his credit, Jay picked a restaurant that wasn't too intimidating. Melissa had expected something overly fancy or formal, but he actually seemed to have a clue that she didn't go for that. He must have talked to Peg.
Oof. Peg. It was going to be tough to explain this to her. Melissa had thought of inviting her along as a chaperone, to dispel any illusions that this was an actual date. However, she knew what would happen if she did. Jay would ignore her and flirt continuously with Melissa. It would be mean to put Peg through that. Which meant that she had Jay all to herself. Oh joy.
"You've never told me where you came from," he commented.
"There's not a lot to say. I came from a small, boring system, and after a while I wanted to leave. So I did."
"Which system was it?"
"You wouldn't have heard of it. It was very small, and not near here."
"Why did you come here? This isn't exactly a bustling metropolis either."
"If I'd wanted that I'd've moved to the Supercomputer. How about you? Were you initialized here?"
"Yep. I've been here all my life. Never been outside, as a matter of fact," he said ruefully. "I keep meaning to someday, but I never can get away from my work. It always seems like there's something else to do first."
"That's how I feel at the end of the day, most days. They way we keep losing games, I'm always catching up."
"Yep. I mean, that's as good as anyone can do in your position. I don't know how you manage it. It'd drive most Sprites random in short order."
"I'm not most Sprites," she said with an odd smile.
"I can see that," he answered with a smile of his own.
Uh-oh. Time to change the subject. "If you did go to the Supercomputer, what would you do?"
"I'm not sure. Probably go to the Guardian Academy."
"You'd become a Guardian?" she asked, surprised.
"No! I'd like to get in on their research, that's all. Their Guardians are dedicated to erasing Viruses. They must have more on file than I could ever find out by myself!"
She suppressed a shudder. "Guardians do more than fight Viruses. They also regulate access, block hackers and codemasters, and hundreds of other duties to keep the peace," she told him.
"Yes, I know, but..." Catching the look on her face, he said apologetically, "I'm sorry, I take you out and then talk your ear off about work. I'll shut up about that before you get sick of me."
Melissa had no trouble smiling at that remark.
"Anyway, wherever you came from and however you got here, I'm glad you did." He patted her hand and smiled at her.
Thoughtfully she said, "So am I."
Surprisingly, the rest of the evening went by fairly smoothly. She had expected Jay to put the pressure on her while he had the opportunity. However, he seemed content just to talk with her, and even throttled back on the charm when it made her uncomfortable. He talked a lot about himself, of course, and flirted relentlessly, but she could put up with that.
At the end of the evening, when he was driving her home, she wondered what he saw in her. A pretty face, yes, she knew that she had that. But he knew next to nothing about her, and yet he was still after her. Why?
He set the aircar down and got out. Before he could open the door for her she got out and closed it behind herself. "Thanks, Jay."
"Thank you. I enjoyed tonight. Maybe we can do it again soon?"
"Maybe," she responded.
Smiling charmingly, he took her hand and raised it to his lips.
The dim light hid the stiffness of her smile. She said, "See you tomorrow."
"See you," he answered.
Without further ado she turned to her door and went inside. As she did she heard his car lift off again. He really didn't know her, she thought. He had a crush on what he supposed her to be. If he found out that she was a Virus, what would he do? Revile her? Turn her in? Maybe even take pity on her, and forgive her for being what she was compiled to be? He sure wouldn't be kissing her hand.
Nulls. There was no point in thinking like this. He'd behaved himself, and the "date" had passed uneventfully. Hopefully that would hold him for a while. She had more important things to think about now.
She clicked her icon, changing into a dark blue dress. Jay would be gone by now; she confirmed this with a look out her window. All right then. Gingerly she picked up the small case waiting on her dining room table and attached it to her belt, on the opposite side of her zip board, and placed her filelocker and a few items in her pocket. Then she went out again.
She forced herself to stroll casually to the Blaine Research Center. There was no hope of her getting there unseen, not with it being on the Twin City's top level, so did her best to look unmemorable.
When she got there, nearly all the lights were off. During the night part of the cycle hardly anyone staffed the research center. A VidWindow displaying a keypad appeared when she touched the door. Holding her breath, she typed in LHOOQ.
The door slid back. She released her breath; the program she had cobbled up had worked! She had designed it to add a new password to the security programs, one with highest clearance and not traceable to any staffer. It wasn't much, but it would give her the time she needed.
There was the matter of surveillance cameras. They were placed all over, in every room and monitoring each stretch of hallway. She had thought of that ahead of time as well. She took the case off of her belt and opened it. She put the metal glove inside over one hand. Then she took out a tiny magnet. It was small enough that it would not harm anything more than an angstrom away, and powerful enough to scramble anything it touched. She was safe as long as she only held it in the lead-lined glove, and put it back in its shielded case when she wasn't using it.
She walked to the camera pointing at the entrance, reached up, and held the magnet against its casing. Ten nanoseconds, and its programming and any images it had stored would be randomized.
She went down the hallway toward the room in which the virals were being held, blanking cameras along the way to hide her tracks. When she turned the corner to get to the med room, she saw a zero binome standing guard outside the door. As she hurriedly slapped the magnet and glove inside the case, the binome looked over. Then he beckoned to her.
She breathed out, almost laughing at herself. Another of Kilobyte's spies. She had been so nervous she hadn't recognized him at first. The one who had entered the program must have told him about the breakout plan. She put the glove back on, then disabled the camera at the other end of the hall.
The binome stayed outside the door, keeping a lookout for interference, when Melissa went into the room. The virals were just as they had left them. She disabled the room's cameras, then put the glove and magnet safely back in their case. Then she took out the filelocker and unlocked the two virals.
Before either could speak she laid a finger over her lips. Then she said in a low voice, "We're getting out of here. Do what I say."
The zero nodded. She took two discs out of her pocket and handed them to the binomes. They were fake icons, colored black and white, not viral green. "Put those over yours."
As they obeyed, the zero said, "What about our eyes?" He indicated his red-and-green eyes, a dead giveaway of his viral state.
"This'll be a little tricky," Melissa said, and took a few more items out of her pockets.
Two curved, rectangular, pieces and one hemisphere, both white and with holes in the middle. "These go over your eyes. I don't think they'll be comfortable or easy to see out of, but they should fool people from a distance. Sometimes in amateur plays they want to make people look viral, so they use false eyes and icons. These are the same, just with the colors reversed," she said as the binomes stuck them on. She realized that she was babbling nervously, and shut up.
The one said, "Like this?"
"Yes." She studied them. The eye coverings gave them a strange, blank expression, but hopefully nobody would be looking closely at them. "Can you see?"
"Yes... sort of. Only straight ahead."
"That's good enough. I'll lead you. It's important that you not look nervous - we have to avoid being noticed."
The binome guarding the door, who had heard the discussion, stared at the disguised virals. Melissa caught his expression, and smiled sheepishly. She wished she had been able to think up a plan that didn't look quite so silly. If this failed, she'd really look like a fool.
The guard asked, "Which way are you going?"
"Out," she answered. "You stay here - if I get caught, there's nothing you could do about it. You've done enough. Thanks."
The spy saluted her. She felt uncomfortable.
"Okay, guys," she murmured to the two virals. "Here we go." She started walking down the hall, not too quickly. She wished she had been able to get some optic lenses like they used in vid productions instead of those cheap eye covers; those could fool a person close up and not give the wearer tunnel vision. However, she hadn't had the time to get them, and she didn't know if they even made them to look like normal eyes anyway.
She led them to a side exit, which opened into an area between two buildings which at this time ought to be deserted. After disabling one last camera she looked out and confirmed that. The one spoke up hesitantly. "I don't think I can fly a zip board like this."
"I can see why," she replied. "Just follow me. We'll walk."
She led them down several alleys between buildings. Luck was with them; they did not pass anyone close enough to notice the disguises. Soon they went down to a lower level in the industrial sector. Nobody would be here now. Activating a pair of zip boards, she said "You can take the eyepieces off now." The binomes did, with obvious relief. Melissa stepped on one zip board, the two binomes each took one disc of the other, and they headed off toward the West Sector.
Although they took a circuitous path, as she usually did to avoid being noticed traveling any one way too often, it took them little time to reach the green force wall surrounding the West Sector. Melissa glided down to one of the hidden entrances, then stepped off her zip board and minimized it. "I expected it to be harder than that," she commented. "That just seemed too easy, even with the spies helping."
The two binomes hopped off the other board. She minimized that one as well. They did not go for the entrance; only she and the spies knew where it was. It was well hidden in plain sight, so you could be right in front of it and not recognize it. "Come on," she said. Then she looked back and paused. The two binomes looked nervous. She asked, "What's the matter?"
The zero spoke hesitantly. "Miss Melissa-"
"Just call me Melissa, please."
"Melissa - we failed our mission. We might not be welcome."
She stared at them for a moment. They thought that they would be coming back to punishment? Yet they'd still followed her orders... because she was a Virus. Of course. She crouched to put herself close to the binomes' eye level. "You didn't fail, you followed your instructions. Maybe the instructions were wrong," she said seriously. As they started to protest she continued, "I don't blame you for the mission bombing out. If the CPUs hadn't tried to trap you all, you'd have been safe. I thought that if we won a game for them, they'd realize that we don't have to be their enemies. So much for that," she said bitterly. "Kilobyte doesn't blame you either, so don't worry about him."
The one looked back, towards the heart of the Twin City. They both still seemed unsure. If she ordered them to go back, they would, she realized. But she didn't want to order anyone around! She said, "When they interrogated you in Mainframe they offered you amnesty. With a good word from the Blaine Institute, that offer might still be open." She sighed. "We can't disinfect you. I can't say you'd be safe; people hate Viruses and virals out there. I can't guarantee much of anything, but if you want to stay outside the West Sector, you can. You don't have to go back if you don't want to. I'll ask the person who registered me to give you a chance."
The two virals looked out at the city again. Melissa thought that she was giving them a rotten choice - either an uncertain life in which the best they could hope for was survival, or returning to the prisonlike West Sector. But at least it was a choice.
The zero looked back at her. "The West Sector's our home," he said in a low voice.
"You want to go back?" The one nodded its eyeblock. "Well, then..." She stood again, and pulled on one of the hinges of a seemingly firmly locked door. It swung out backwards, revealing a passage through the energy wall.
On the other side of the passage, a viral soldier stared as the two supposed casualties walked back into the sector, followed by the Virus woman. One asked, "Should we report in?"
"I don't know. Do what you think you ought to," she told them.
The two binomes conferred. She left them to it. She was through giving orders. She walked to the tower in the center of the sector.
Kilobyte met her at the entrance. Placing a hand on the small of her back, he escorted her in without speaking.
His silence unnerved her. Usually she could read him. Now his face seemed blank. What was he thinking?
Just before they reached the command room, he said in a low voice, "The two who had been captured have returned."
Fast communications, she thought. "I brought them back," she said, a touch defensively.
He looked down at her. His expression softened. "I'm impressed."
"As I said, I may be benign, but I'm not useless." She looked down.
She looked up. "The virals chose to come back. They were interrogated and offered amnesty, but they didn't blow my cover or reveal anything they could use. I don't want them to be punished for anything."
He waved dismissively with one hand. "They won't be," he said as if the matter was of no importance to him.
She continued, "Whatever happened was my fault. You were right. It's useless, they'll always see us as enemies. I couldn't convince anybody that it wasn't an attack of some sort."
He pulled her closer. She resisted at first, then gave in. She looked up at him. There was no hint of satisfaction at having been proved correct. "It was a good try," he told her.
"It was a gamble. With other people's lives. And I lost. Not only didn't it work, it polarized the sides more. It just reminded them out there that we're the enemy. And I'm sure it'll be the same here, after they attacked us for saving them from a stupid game!"
"You risked yourself for two binomes."
"So? I got them into that mess in the first place."
"They will remember that you got them out again."
So it comes down to PR, she thought. He was trying to comfort her by saying that the virals would respect her all the more when word got around. Well... so what? She'd rather skip that and have succeeded in the original plan. But, no, the people outside just wouldn't let that happen. "Viruses and Sprites don't mix," she murmured. "Even if you were to take the wall down, we never could. We'd always have to be enemies, just because."
His hand stroked up and down her back. She went on, "We don't have any rights at all. Even if we don't do anything hostile, Viruses must be enemies. The best I could ever do is hide."
"Don't," Kilobyte answered. "Stay here."
She looked up at him. After a long moment, during which she looked like she wanted to speak but could not shape her thoughts into words, she rested her cheek against his metal chest. "If the system were restarted, we wouldn't be restored. Viruses can't even marry," she said. "What Command.com would record it?"
"That is their custom," Kilobyte answered firmly. "Why should we follow it? Viruses don't keep the laws and traditions of their enemies, they make their own." He placed a finger under her chin and gently raised it. Looking into her eyes, he said, "It's dangerous for you, going back and forth between this sector and the outside. Stay with me."
She just looked into his eyes. She wanted to stay. But she didn't want to leave her life outside. She wasn't ready to, not just yet. But she could, she realized. Some cycle...
Not breaking her gaze, he took one of her hands in his. Her thin, small fingers interlaced with his silver digits. She put her other arm around his waist, again rested her cheek against his chest, and, as his arm pressed her to himself, closed her eyes.
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. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.