by Kim McFarland
|Each game of chess means there's one less
Variation left to be played.
Each day got through means one or two
Less mistakes remain to be made.
The Story of Chess, from "Chess"
It was a dark and stormy cycle somewhere on the Net. However, that somewhere was not the West Sector.
In the command room in Kilobyte's tower, Melissa watched silently as a little drama she had seen many times before unfolded. A pair of binomes - a One and a Zero - had brought their child to Kilobyte. Though the baby's mother and father were infected, it was not. Viral code was not passed from parent to child.
The mother, the One, respectfully offered the baby to Kilobyte, who was sitting on his floating throne. He took it gently. The tiny Zero fit easily into one of his massive silver hands. When it saw Kilobyte's face it began to cry in fright. Melissa drew the child in own her arms closer; her eyes began to water sympathetically. Unperturbed, Kilobyte touched his fingertips to its icon and gazed into its eyes.
The baby's eyes began to darken. Its wails faded. After several nanoseconds Kilobyte withdrew his hand. The child now looked back at him with red-pupiled, light green eyes, and began to suck its thumb. After a moment he lowered his hand to give the binomes their baby back. "Thank you," the mother said, relieved, as the father took their child and gave it its pacifier.
"You're welcome. A fine child," Kilobyte commented.
"Thank you," the mother said again with a touch of pride in her voice. She looked at her baby, which was once again sucking peacefully on its pacifier. Then she said to Melissa, "Yours is beautiful."
Melissa smiled. "She's not normally so quiet. Hex's usually a noisy little girl."
"May we see her?" the father asked.
"Yes." Melissa got out of her chair and knelt on the floor, holding her daughter upright with her hands around her body. Hexadecimal was not much shorter than these binomes. She looked up at them with green eyes glowing out of a face like white porcelain, then squealed and reached out for the One's hand.
Being a fairly small binome, the One could not pick the baby Virus up, but she could let her grab her hand. The clumsy fingers patted the binome's digits. The baby Virus laughed. Smiling, the binome said, "She's big for eighteen milliseconds. But then you're larger than us."
"Yes." Melissa grinned when she saw the baby binome spit out its pacifier. It started making noises at Hexadecimal. Hex looked over, startled, then replied in kind.
"They speak the same language," Kilobyte observed, amused.
The father binome replied, "I think all babies do."
They watched as the two children babbled at each other. Soon, however, Hexadecimal began squirming and making fussy sounds. Melissa said, "She's hungry again, I think."
The female binome nodded. The male said "Thank you," again.
"You're welcome," Kilobyte said amiably. The three binomes left. Kilobyte caught the guards' eyes and made a "shoo" gesture with the fingers of one hand. When the doors closed, the guards were on the other side.
Melissa sat on her chair and settled Hexadecimal into her lap. Because she lacked an icon, she could not change clothing protocols with a single click, but she found that with a little practice it was not difficult to make the switch without using an icon as a shortcut. She changed her top into one that unfastened down the front, opened it partway, and sat Hex up a bit. Hexadecimal turned toward her mother's warmth.
Kilobyte had turned his throne to face her. He reached over and touched the baby Virus tenderly with his silver fingertips. Melissa, glancing up, smiled at his expression. Anyone who only thought of him as the stern, aloof master of the West Sector should see him now.
He loved Hexadecimal as much as he loved Melissa. And Melissa could tell that he was fond of the binome children brought to him, in his own way. But Melissa still could not bring herself to be comfortable with his infecting them. He had explained to her that he took care when claiming the young ones; their code was delicate, formative, and could not withstand the same infection that an adult could. He tailored his infection to what they could accept without harm. And she had kept track of those she had seen him claim. None had suffered afterwards; Kilobyte knew what he was doing. They behaved just the same... except that before being infected they were frightened of him, and afterward they weren't. That made sense. A huge Virus like Kilobyte must look terrifying to an infant binome, but after it was infected the Virus was no longer alien. He was now a part of it, as much as its natural parents.
With the exception of the spies that Kilobyte sent out into the rest of the system, everyone living in this sector was viral. Kilobyte's infection was a badge of citizenship, just as registration was in the outside system. But, knowing all that... Melissa still shuddered when she saw a baby's eyes turn green and red.
Kilobyte did not comment on Melissa's tension. She had still not gotten used to this aspect of life in the West Sector. Of course; she had lived among sprites for so long that he still thought of infection as enslavement. In time she would unlearn that.
When Hexadecimal was finished Melissa buttoned up her shirt. Kilobyte took Hexadecimal gently and held her in his arms, one hand supporting her head. Melissa smiled to herself as he watched her do nothing in particular in the fascinating way all babies did. She knew that she got the same mesmerized look on her face when she held Hex, but it was still funny to watch.
After a while Melissa said, "I'm going back down to the Null Ranch."
Reluctantly Kilobyte handed Hexadecimal to her mother. He had business of his own to attend to, and it was hard to govern your subjects while holding a baby. Plus, as Melissa teased him, he was terrible at changing diapers. She stood up and, holding Hexadecimal with one arm, waved one of her little fists with the other. "See you later." Kilobyte grinned and waved his fingers back.
The Null Ranch was the name Melissa had given to a certain portion of the tower because of the research she was currently pursuing there. A null was the expression of a sprite's code after it had been scrambled by a game. If one's code was badly mangled, all that survived was a shapeless creature so devolved it could not even process food into energy, but instead had to absorb it directly from its environment. But if the code was still there, she thought, there might be some way to restore the sprite. If the code was not too randomized, and if significant portions had not been deleted.
When it got right down to it, Melissa felt sorry for the nulls. These vermin were once people. She couldn't give up the idea that they could somehow be restored, not without first giving it everything she had. Kilobyte, understanding that Melissa would not be happy if she were forced to abandon her research career, had furnished a work area for her within the tower itself, and even found binomes with enough aptitude to serve as assistants.
The main room of the lab was currently walled on three sides with clear glass tanks containing nulls of various sizes and colors. Some were tiny, small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand, if one was foolish enough to want to touch a null. Others were much larger, almost as long from tip to tip as a Sprite was tall. At first people had thought that that indicated of what the creature had been before nullification. However, Melissa had found that nulls grew if fed enough energy. The large ones, she believed, were the smartest ones, those who knew where to find sustenance without being driven off.
At the moment all was quiet in the Ranch. The nulls were flowing about calmly in their tanks. A single Zero was sitting in the room, keeping watch over the creatures. Even though the tanks were escape-proof - Melissa wouldn't bring her daughter with her if she weren't certain that the place was absolutely safe - the nulls still had to be watched when nobody was around. Melissa felt sorry for him; null-watching must be the second most boring thing in the Net.
At the sound of her footsteps the binome startled. He looked quickly over at Melissa, then smiled sheepishly at her and shrugged, embarrassed at being caught asleep on the job again. Melissa waved a hand casually. It didn't matter to her; if anything had happened it surely would have awakened him. Still holding Hexadecimal, she walked over to the tanks. "Fourteen-thirty and all's well," she commented.
"All's well," he answered.
Melissa looked at the blobby shapes. It was so hard to believe that these had been people. And there were so many of them...
Hexadecimal, amused by the flowing, colorful things, laughed and reached her hands out toward the nearest tank. Melissa smiled. "I think she wants one as a pet."
"Let's hope not," the binome answered.
"Maybe a null doll." Melissa imagined that Hex would like that. It'd have to be durable, considering that she was at that stage at which the world was her chew toy.
The null in the tank had started moving about more energetically, perhaps in response to the Viruses' presence. The binomes reported that the nulls never showed much interest in them, yet every time Melissa and Hex came in they perked up. Were they reacting to the mere presence of Viruses? She'd have to get Kilobyte to come in and see if they did the same for him.
It was not just a matter of trivia for her. They might only be operating on blind instinct - Virus near, move away! - except they did not act afraid. They just seemed to become very alert. Odd. Was this behavior in their code, or was it based on something they had learned? Could nulls learn? Nobody knew for sure, but she intended to find out. If they could think, then their code must not be that badly fragmented, making it more likely that it could be recompiled.
So, she had been trying to teach nulls to do things. Not just set responses to earn rewards, but something that would show actual learning, perhaps even thought. So far she had had no success. Most of the time the creatures acted as if they had no interest whatsoever. And she often felt silly, trying to coax a null to flow through a feed gate between two cages, or press on a button with a certain design. If the people at the Blaine Institute could see her now they would think she had gone random.
Melissa set her daughter in a small playpen on one of the tables, where she would have a good view of the proceedings, and where Melissa could keep an eye on her. Hex became very fussy when she got bored, but somehow that never happened as long as she had pretty-colored nulls to watch.
Before long her other assistants came in. The guard had called them in while she was looking in the tanks, she supposed. She hadn't intended for him to do that, but as long as they were here... "You guys got anything?
"Not really," the first one responded. "I may have gotten some of them to tell the difference between two symbols painted on gates, but..."
"Do they ever respond when one of the gates don't lead to energy?" He shook his eyeblock. She sighed. "Then it doesn't prove anything one way or another. Maybe when it responds it's sensing the energy and not paying attention to any symbols, or maybe if it doesn't sense any energy it just doesn't get interested."
"If you try to second-guess a null you'll go random."
She smiled. "I'm trying to teach nulls tricks. Isn't that random enough? But I do think the nulls were sensing the energy behind the little doors, and going for that. It would make sense - why would a null pay any attention to some silly picture on a gate when it already can tell that what it wants is on the other side?"
It was tiresome, trying to coax reactions out of nulls, but not really discouraging. They had only begun milliseconds ago, using nulls which had been captured on the lower levels. These nulls were not tame, and not used to learning tricks. Well, that's what she would have said if she were referring to any other animal. Once you taught a dog one simple trick, it became easier for the animal to learn others; it seemed to catch on to the concept of learning. So, maybe it just took nulls a while to get the hang of it. Once they did, if they did, she would see what they were capable of - simple stimulus-and-response behaviors, more complex tricks, or tasks that actually required cogitation on some level. Anything would be a breakthrough.
Melissa reconsidered what they should try to teach a null. The old faithful find-the-food routine wasn't working; it seemed that if the null didn't sense energy nearby it couldn't be bothered to show any purposeful reaction. But what else could she use to motivate them? The only other surefire stimulus she could think of was pain, and she didn't like the idea of tormenting even a null.
While Melissa was thinking, Hexadecimal began to whine. One of her assistants, recognizing the warning sign of a dirty diaper as soon as Melissa did, asked, "Want me to change her?"
"Please!" That was one motherly duty she did not mind foregoing. When she was in the middle of something, that binome often took care of the noxious task for her. How anyone in his right mind could volunteer for diaper or fussy baby duty baffled her. But he had explained that he had several children of his own, and after a while it just stops bothering you. A full diaper was a full diaper, no matter what kind of baby it was on. Melissa didn't quite believe that oversimplification, but he did have a knack with Hexadecimal. She lifted her child out of the playpen and gave her to the binome.
Outside the tower, all was fairly quiet and calm. Most of the inhabitants of the West Sector were busy at their various occupations. Only those who were outside saw the green sky darken to a threatening gray. Nanos later all came alert as the computer's voice intoned, "WARNING, INCOMING GAME."
Melissa frowned, mildly annoyed at the interruption. Games always unsettled the nulls. The creatures were thrashing around frantically in their tanks, throwing their bodies against the walls of their confines, trying to escape. They wouldn't calm down until the game lifted again.
In a monitoring station, several binomes rapidly and efficiently searched the sector's energy levels. When one saw the game cube appear over the West Sector he flipped a switch, activating a siren to alert the inhabitants. Another binome monitoring the energy levels saw a telltale spike pinpointing the destination of the approaching game, and hit a second switch.
Kilobyte glanced up when the first siren was replaced by a second tone, one which sounded in regular pulses. The pattern of the pulses and the pitch of the tone identified the exact location on which the game would land - and this time it was coming down right on top of his tower.
The guards had opened all of the inner and outer doors, and binomes were quickly and calmly filing out. Kilobyte strode out, wading with long steps through the small sprites. Outside, more guards were beckoning people to safety.
The shout broke through her train of thought. She looked over. One of her assistants said in an agitated tone, "Didn't you hear that? The game's coming down here!"
She hadn't recognized the tone; she had not yet learned the warning codes. She jumped up frantically. "Hex!"
She dashed into the room in which the binome had taken Hexadecimal. He had just finished diapering her, and was picking her up, something he could not do quickly because of her relative size. She snatched her daughter up. From outside the room, the guard beckoned urgently and called, "Hurry!"
Kilobyte watched as a division of binomes arrived in two ABCs and set down, ready to play the game. By now the building was evacuated; the guards and citizens knew their parts well.
He looked upward at the flashing purple cube descending toward them. Yes, just as predicted. It had nearly reached ground level-
A spark of red caught his eye. He looked down. Melissa, holding Hexadecimal, had appeared in the tower exit. She was running toward safety as fast as she could while carrying the baby. She was not going to make it!
Kilobyte sprang forward, diving under the event horizon, just as the cube touched down.
In a flash of purple energy the sector changed. Streets and buildings which had once been clean were now littered and dingy. Windows were broken. Filthy water lay in puddles in the street and sidewalk. The air was dank, humid, and smelled of rubbish bins that had been left to cook in the sun.
The virals exchanged knowing looks. They recognized this game. They began clicking their icons to reboot.
Melissa, frightened, looked up at Kilobyte. He was watching his troops calmly, one arm protectively around her shoulders. He said, "Don't worry. They know their job."
She tried to be reassured, but did not succeed. She had only been caught in a few games in her life, and they had all terrified her. Please, don't let the User turn us into nulls! she thought.
The binomes who had rebooted were now plants. Mobile ones; their roots worked like feet, or more accurately tentacles. They had long vines for arms, and giant pods with no eyes but vast, toothy mouths for heads. One scrambled over to the viruses on its stubby roots and saluted with a vine over its pod. Melissa covered her mouth to stifle a laugh; she could recognize Commander And_E even in his current state. The plant said, "Sir, ma'am, it's best if you stay out of the way. We'll take care of the User. Don't let him see you - in this game he's likely to fire on anything he sees."
Melissa shivered. Kilobyte replied, "Understood," and And_E hurried off. As he went Melissa realized that she had just witnessed a very rare event - a Virus being ordered around by his own viral.
Hexadecimal laughed as the game sprites began appearing around them. Most of them were plants rooted between buildings and behind obstacles, their long stems coiled, ready to spring out of hiding and attack the user with sharp-toothed pods. Only a few were not rooted, able to move about like the rebooted binomes.
And_E rejoined his troops. They looked worried, and not without reason. Games were fairly straightforward until civilians got onto them. Keeping them from harm could be even more difficult than winning the game. Even worse, this time they had the Viruses who could order them around if they saw fit. He said, "It's okay, they're going to stay back and let us do our job. You two-" He pointed to the two least experienced binomes - "stay with them, in case anything comes their way."
"But aren't they able to-" one began.
"They can't reboot. Right now they are untrained people caught in a game, and they are to be treated as such. As usual, we are to protect them from harm if we can - and it is especially important not to fail in that now!" His tone left no room for argument; the two left without further comment.
They heard the familiar music begin, signaling that the game was beginning. A Zero asked And_E, "What difficulty level is it this time?"
"We won't be able to tell until the game's under way."
The group groaned inwardly. They had played games with variable difficulty levels before. Sometimes that was a blessing; at higher settings the User had fewer lives, there were fewer ammunition and health caches, and the game sprites were more vicious. Those games were easy. On the other hand, if the User was playing on an easy level he could be almost impossible to defeat.
"At least it's not a saved game," And_E continued. "The User won't be starting out with special weapons. Let's go!"
The Viruses, in an alley between buildings, watched as the binomes conferred briefly and then scattered. Clearly they had a set plan for dealing with this game. Kilobyte raised an eyebrow as two of the plants - a rebooted Zero and One - scurried nervously up to them, but did not comment. As the game's fanfare ended, a short, bespectacled sprite emerged from one of the nearby buildings.
Melissa stared. "Is that the User?"
"Hardly looks worth the trouble to delete, does he," Kilobyte answered.
The User pulled a small pistol out of its pocket and fired it at the nearest plants, which fortunately were game sprites. The bullets passed harmlessly through leaves and past vines; only a hit to the pod harmed a plant, and even then it took three shots to delete each one.
Melissa cringed, Hexadecimal laughed, and Kilobyte merely watched as the User made his way down the street, going away from them, methodically deleting game sprites. It was prepared for each of the game sprites' "surprise" attacks; whenever one leapt out of concealment the User dodged and dispatched it with three quick shots. None of Kilobyte's troops had been harmed yet. So, both sides had their strategies.
Kilobyte noticed that one of their two guards, the One, looked alarmed. He asked, "Is there a problem?"
He startled and looked up, his eyeless pod somehow managing to convey nervousness. "No - no problem!" he blurted out.
Reluctantly he continued, "He's using his ammunition up clearing away game sprites who can't even get to him yet, and which'll grow back if he doesn't finish the level quickly. He's not getting reloads from inside the buildings either. That means he's not worried about running out of ammo - which means he's playing on an easy setting. It's going to be hard to beat him!"
"Does he always cheat like that?!" Melissa exclaimed.
"It's not actually cheating - but he's done that in some games too. I don't know if he can cheat in this game. There was nothing in the readme files about that."
The other binomes had realized at the same time that the user was playing at an easy setting. Being more experienced, they knew that on the easiest setting he had unlimited ammunition. That threw their usual strategy - waiting until the user had used up most of his ammo, and then mobbing him - right out the VidWindow.
"What do we do now?" The nearest binome asked And_E.
Watching the User with an eyeless pod, And_E said "He's just going for points now. Wasting time. Even on this setting, the longer he takes the bigger and meaner the plants will get." Looking around at the other virals, he asked, "Who knows where the weapons upgrades are?" Several held up their vines. "Go hide them. If we can keep him from getting the scythe or shotgun, the game sprites might just do our job for us!"
Several binome plants scurried across the road behind the User, hoping that he wouldn't turn around and see them. He didn't.
"What're they doing?"
"I don't know," Kilobyte replied. "They have their plan, I'm certain."
The User, now far down the road, continued dispatching the plants one by one. They could not see him fire, as his back was turned to them, but they could hear the three-shot bursts and the plants' death cries. Seeing Melissa's distress, Kilobyte put an arm reassuringly around her-
He jerked, surprised. Something had stung his back just as he had turned away from the User. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a tiny nick where a bullet had hit his armored skin.
A second bullet pinged off of him. The User, he saw, was now coming this way. He had removed all the plants in that direction, and he had seen them. As And_E had warned, he was firing on anything that moved.
As a third shot sparked on his chest the green of his eyes deepened to black. He growled, "That is enough," and strode forward purposefully.
And_E saw Kilobyte come forward. The Virus was normally even tempered, but shooting at him would push him too far.
"What now?" another groaned.
And_E's pod smiled. "Just watch."
More sparks flashed as bullets ricocheted harmlessly away from his chest. The User was standing there in the middle of the road, shooting at the approaching Virus. It only tried to flee when Kilobyte was within striking range, and by then it was too late. The Virus snatched it up by the neck with one massive hand, walked over to the side of the road, and stiff-armed the User into the wall. It flickered and disappeared as it slid to the ground.
Kilobyte looked around. The game had not ended. The User had multiple lives, then. Kilobyte saw the User reappear some distance away. As soon as it was solid it drew its gun and began firing again.
"You are becoming an annoyance," Kilobyte growled. He rushed over and grabbed the User around the throat. The User raised the gun and shot desperately, aiming for Kilobyte's heart. The Virus tightened his grip around the User's neck with a snarl - then relaxed and smiled. Still holding the User tightly, he gazed into its eyes. He thought, You think you can delete me? You think you can nullify my sector, you feeble little creature? No. You're mine.
And_E stared in shock as Kilobyte locked eyes with the User. What in the net was he doing?
User code was different from anything Kilobyte had dealt with before. Inanimate machinery yielded immediately without resistance. binomes put up a token struggle, but he was experienced enough to pierce it cleanly and efficiently. This code was strange, resilient. But not impenetrable. He concentrated harder, until he felt it break.
Melissa had realized what he was doing; she recognized that intense stare. Only at one other time was he that focused on any one thing. Well, okay, two other times. Could he actually infect the User?
Her question was answered when the two figures suddenly merged into one.
Kilobyte was too startled by the sudden code backflow to pull away in time. The User had put up a fight, but when it gave in it gave in completely, merging itself with him.
When his mind cleared he looked in the dirty plate glass window. A strange hybrid of User and Virus stared back at him. Kilobyte was smaller now, and his green and silver coloring had been replaced by the User's drab shades. "I am the User," he murmured. Experimentally he unsheathed his knuckle claws. They extended, as long as his forearms and sharp from tip to base along the front edge. He grinned. This must be what it was like to reboot.
He turned around. His troops were staring at him, their pod mouths hanging open. Calmly he said, "This simplifies things. I will complete this game. You will support me."
"Yes, sir," And_E answered out of reflex.
Kilobyte looked down the road at Melissa and Hexadecimal. Melissa was also staring in disbelief. Smiling, he raised one hand, and touched his forefinger to his thumb.
Then he looked about himself. A game sprite that the User had not gotten to yet was coiled up on its stalk, waiting to pounce as soon as its target came into range. Grinning, Kilobyte stepped toward it. It leapt - and was sliced apart in midair by the Virus's claws. The pieces fell to the street behind Kilobyte, who was already going into the nearest building.
"This is good... I guess." Melissa murmured to herself.
The store was a florist's. It figured, Kilobyte thought; this was the wholesale flower district, after all. Practically every other shop would be a florist's.
There, hidden among some potted ferns, was a pod. Another was coiled around an overhead light fixture. A third would be behind the counter. He would have to pass within range of all three to get the scythe in the back.
He started forward. A casual swipe of his claws split the first pod as it dropped from above. The one within the ferns met a similar fate. As the soft vegetable matter was split it released a strange, damp, pungent smell. As he rounded the counter the third plant struck, clamping its jaws onto his leg. Shocked by the pain of its teeth sinking into his flesh - in this form, he wasn't armored! - Kilobyte sliced the pod free from its stalk, impaled it on the points of his claws, and pried it off. It let out a despairing squeal as he crushed it beneath his foot.
The scythe was not where it should be, leaning against the wall opposite the door. There was, however, one startled viral in the room with him. Calmly Kilobyte asked, "Well, where is it?"
The viral scurried off on her stubby roots toward the door of a refrigeration chamber. She ducked inside and emerged a nano later dusted in frost and carrying a large scythe. She held the weapon up to her master.
Kilobyte bent down. His fingers closed around the cold metal shaft. A bit cumbersome, he thought, but it would extend his reach. That would come in handy later on, when the game sprites were larger and more dangerous, but for now his claws would serve him best.
Speaking of weapons... there was one other hidden on this level. A shotgun. But he couldn't get to it until he defeated this level's boss. Fine then. He minimized the scythe and stalked back out of the building.
Some of the plants he had killed earlier had begun to regrow. Best not to take any chances; as he passed by the sprouting pods he shredded them with casual swipes of his claws. That would keep them out of the way for a while.
The virals watches as he headed directly for the last building on the row. They knew it was the lair of this level's boss. Apparently Kilobyte knew as well.
"Do we do anything?" one asked.
And_E shook his pod. "Just wait. I've seen him in games. When Kilobyte steps in, just stand aside. He'll go through this game like a buzz saw."
"How did he become the User?"
"He infected him, I guess. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but things usually don't in game space."
Kilobyte entered the white-walled building. It was clean inside, much more so than the other places in this neighborhood. It hadn't even been infested by killer plants.
There was a large room right inside the main door, with chairs all along the walls and small tables covered with elderly magazines. Beyond that stretched a hallway lined with open doors. As he passed by the doors he saw that each room featured, among other things, a strange looking chair and several items of torture.
He moved past; there was nothing in those rooms for him. He extended his claws as he came to the door at the end of the hall. With a quick move he kicked the door in and jumped into the room. Inside were no plants, only a sprite wearing a black leather jacket. On cue it turned to face him. A bizarre apparatus covered the sprite's nose and mouth. Hoses connected the mask to a tank on his back. All along the walls were strange, sharp tools on long, jointed rods.
With an insane giggle the sprite pointed at Kilobyte. The nearest apparatus stabbed toward him, its metal point whirring. Kilobyte blocked it with his forearm, then grabbed it below the point. He brought his other fist down, smashing the rod and disabling the weapon.
Another darted out toward him. He caught it, stepped backward, and tore it out of the wall. He swung the rod at the boss, who just laughed as it dodged. Then it threw a handful of sharp metal bits at Kilobyte. They stung, but not badly enough to injure him. They were only to distract him while another of the metal arms swung out. Kilobyte caught this one before the curved metal pick could impale him, and yanked it out of the wall. He threw it like a javelin at the boss, who again darted out of the way while cackling uproariously. This boss could keep it up all day, Kilobyte thought; even if he disabled all of the weapons along the walls he would still have to deal with the boss - and if he stepped close enough to use his claws on the boss he would be in range of a dozen of the jointed arms; it stayed close to the walls. The scythe would be useless in this small room.
Kilobyte glanced around. There, tucked against the far wall, was an arm tipped with a long, rusty, curved, double-sided blade. It looked like it could mince an unwary sprite. Perfect!
He stepped into its range. It darted out, the curved blade whirling and sparking as it arrowed toward him. He seized it right behind the blade before it could dig into his flesh. The motor whirred and vibrated violently under his fingers. He held it tightly with one hand, reached toward the base with the other, and pulled it free. Then he straightened the long, jointed arm out. It stayed stiff as a pole.
Grinning viciously, Kilobyte raised the weapon and, putting all his weight behind it, plunged the still-spinning blades into the boss's chest. Red fluid spattered all about the room as the sprite's laughter rose into shrieks. Kilobyte dodged back as all of the weapons in the room extended from the walls and thrashed frantically. The game sprite pitched forward, into a nest of the weapons. More red fluid spattered as they sliced into it.
The windows burst inwards. Pods jumped into the room and swarmed around the boss. It stopped thrashing, and as he did the weapons fell still. Kilobyte left as the plants began feeding.
Revolting, he thought detachedly as he strolled around the swarm of plants and picked up the shotgun.
"LEVEL ONE: COMPLETE," the game announced.
"How many more levels are there in this game?" Melissa asked one of her guards.
"Uh - I don't know," it stammered.
"Two or three, depending on how he plays the game," the other offered.
Kilobyte strode out of the building at the end, and walked to the gate at the end of the street without looking back at his wife.
The gate closed behind Kilobyte, sealing him into the next level. The game sprites here were bigger and more dangerous. Even the middle of the street wasn't safe; plants as tall as himself had grown out of the road, cracking the pavement. Their snapping pods could chew him up in a nano. He'd have to get into their biting range to fight them with his claws. He took out the scythe.
The nearest plant strained toward him like a dog on a short leash. It snapped a huge, hungry, tooth-lined pod at him. He stopped just outside of its range and swung the scythe around in a clean arc. The pod fell from its severed stalk. It would be alive, snapping at anything that came close, for a microsecond or so longer. He walked around it and down the street.
Melissa relaxed. At least now that the action had gone elsewhere she and Hexadecimal were no longer in danger. She had been terrified that they would be hit by stray fire. If Kilobyte had not been standing between herself and the User, they would already have been shot!
One of the two binomes guarding them still seemed agitated. She asked, "Aren't we safe?"
He answered reluctantly, "Um... has he ever infected the User before?"
"I don't think so. He's never told me about anything like that. Why? Do you know something I don't?"
"No. No, I'm new to these games, is all," he answered quickly.
The other spoke up, "I've read about this game. The levels aren't set up the usual way, where once you're finished with one you don't go there again. The action might come back this way again. That's why they left us here with you. I've also heard about what happens when Kilobyte gets into a game." The pod turned up toward Melissa. "Don't worry about it. He's more than a match for any game. Just sit it out."
"But as a User?" the first asked.
"Does it matter? He'll finish the game either way."
The virals followed Kilobyte as he moved through the level. He had settled into an unhurried, efficient routine: clear out the worst of the nearby game sprites, then head into the buildings with the ammunition and energy that he wanted. Slice apart the game sprites laying in wait, grab the stuff, and move on. He was drawing on the User's knowledge, And_E thought; he clearly knew where everything was before he saw it. It made sense - his code had meshed with the User's when he had infected it, so of course he would have all of its knowledge and abilities. They could sit this game out, but And_E thought it would be wise to follow him in case they were needed. He also thought it prudent to follow at a distance.
For a while, Kilobyte had been uncomfortable. He was used to commanding his Virals; having another mind meshed with his was upsetting. But he soon became used to it. It knew this game, and led him through without error. The User's knowledge and Kilobyte's claws and skill made for an unstoppable combination.
By the time he had made his way to the boss of this level, casually slicing his way through vicious fanged plants along the way, Kilobyte did not have to think to draw on the User's knowledge or skill. He let himself be guided. It was easy, even relaxing, to let the part that knew the game take over.
"They won't come back here soon, will they?"
The other plant looked at him curiously. "Is this your first game? Calm down."
"I'm not worried about them coming here, not like that - look, the game won't come back here for a little while, will it? I have to check on something," the viral said, agitated.
""Not yet. What do you need to check on?"
"I'll tell you later!" he said as he scurried off.
The other viral watched him go. Then he looked up at Melissa, who was also surprised. "Some newbies get a case of the nerves," he said apologetically.
The viral scrambled to the next level, and from there only had to listen for the sounds of destruction to find Kilobyte. As he had hoped, the other rebooted binomes were there too. Nervously he saluted And_E and said, "Sir?"
And_E's pod looked startled for a moment, then scowled. "Why have you left your post?" he demanded.
Miserably the other plant said, "They said there wouldn't be any danger on that level for a little while... and I had to ask you something!"
"What could be so important that you would disobey my orders, in front of a Virus?!"
"Sir - Kilobyte didn't only infect the User, he merged with it. He is the User, isn't he?"
"Yes, what about it?" And_E asked, exasperated.
The other viral knew he had to speak fast. "If he is the User, then if he wins the game, the User wins!" A nervous pause. "Won't it?"
And_E stared at his subordinate. There was no precedent for this situation he could think of, so they couldn't know for sure... but what he had said made an uncomfortable amount of sense. He looked around; the other Virals who had heard the exchange were also looking, worried, to And_E for guidance.
He made a decision. "We're going to catch up to him." He pointed in the direction of his master. To the plant who had brought the warning he said, "Return to your post. We'll handle the situation."
"Yessir!" he answered gratefully and hurried away.
And_E started forward, the other rebooted virals following him.
Kilobyte was not going to like this.
He stalked through the level, slashing through the plants which attacked him. They weren't dangerous - the small ones could hardly do any damage, and the large ones were vulnerable to a slash at the stem with his scythe. He did not bother with the shotgun or pistol at all; hand-to-hand was more comfortable. These were a little tougher; he could feel some resistance when he cut into them. That made it more enjoyable.
There was nothing more on this level he needed, and it was hardly worth the points to slaughter any more plants. He headed for the level's boss, which was in the vine-covered store down the street.
Several small plants moved to intercept him as he headed for the little shop. These weren't supposed to be here! A casual swipe of his claws cleared them from his path.
A viral screamed. Its pod was gashed along one side with three deep parallel cuts. Sap oozed out. And_E had dodged back just in time to avoid being sliced himself. A quick look around showed that there had been no other significant injuries.
"FIRST AID!" And_E called. Two of the other virals picked up their injured comrade and carried him to an inconspicuous part of the game. They would bind the wounds as best they could and leave him there; after the game he would be taken to the infirmary.
He could not go in after Kilobyte now. If the Virus had turned on his own soldiers, in the heat of battle he would likely kill them without thinking!
Kilobyte stepped into the doorway, his claws extended. Though the inside of the place was covered with vines, none showed any sign of life. Three female game sprites - humanoids, not plants - wearing long pink coats were snipping at the leaves of a large mound of greenery on the opposite side of the display area. He watched, waiting for them to finish. After several nanos they had their cuttings, and walked in a row out the door holding their sample cases. Kilobyte stood by to let them pass.
And_E knew what the three game sprites were doing: gathering cuttings from which to grow more plants. He said to the other virals, "He's not going to finish the game early; he's playing it to the end. We'll try to catch him when he comes out again."
"What if he does the same thing again?" another asked.
"Do you have any better ideas?" And_E shot back.
After the three sprites had passed, Kilobyte stepped into the little shop.
The door slammed shut behind him. He did not have to look back to know that several vines had been thrown across it, sealing him in. The mound of greenery tipped forward, revealing a gigantic pod behind all the leaves. It split, revealing a cavernous mouth. Its interior was purple, like an orchid bud, and lined with huge teeth. It laughed, its mouth gaping obscenely, then snapped at him. He jumped back. Its stalk was short; it couldn't get him if he stayed out of its range.
However, the vines lining the walls were budding as he watched. The buds formed globes the size of his fists, which opened into more vicious, fanged pods. The mother plant could eat him whole; these buds could tear him apart like piranhas if enough got ahold of him. As he was glancing about the room, looking to see where they were most thickly concentrated and if there were any safe places, the mother plant lashed out with a vine. It slapped his side hard, knocking him toward one wall. The nearest pods opened their mouths and strained forward toward him.
He whirled and chopped the vine short with his claws, then sliced the pods nearest him apart. The mother pod was already sending out a second vine. It wrapped around his right arm, then dragged him in toward the huge, snapping mouth. He slashed at it with his left set of knuckle claws, then sliced at the plant. His claws scored the tough rind of the pod, but the plant did not release him. When it opened again he jabbed his claws into the soft, petal-like lining. The plant screamed and threw him back against the wall. He felt several pods bite his arms and side; those directly behind him were flattened. With a few quick slashes he chopped the pods that had attacked him away from their vines, then kicked them away so they couldn't bite him again before they finally died.
For the nano, he had a safe spot. The pods would take a little while to regrow. He could concentrate on the mother plant. He took out the scythe. It would be hard to use it in this small room, but he couldn't do anything about that. The firearms would be useless against this monster. He couldn't fight against the pod itself; its outside was too tough to damage. He needed to get to the stem underneath.
He jumped forward, raising the scythe. The pod opened at him. He brought the scythe down, jamming the point into the floor of its mouth, then jerked it back before the pod could close on it and yank it away from him. He brought the scythe around and down in a smooth arc, then reversed it and stabbed upward, driving its point into the outside of the pod's lower half. The pod yelped. When it jerked up, Kilobyte slashed at the thick stem underneath. It cut a deep gash in the fibrous matter. Then he leapt back, pulling the scythe with him, as the pod swung down again. It crashed to the floor, breaking the floorboards.
He paused to catch his breath. This boss was always a mean green mother, and there was no trick to make it any easier to kill. He sliced at a few vines reaching for him, then closed in again. He swung one fist in a vicious uppercut. It knocked the pod upward again, allowing him another slice at the stem. The scythe bit in deep - and stuck. As he was trying to pull it free a vine wrapped itself around his throat, and another seized his waist. They lifted him into the air, pulling the scythe handle out of his hands. The pod gaped open, laughing viciously as the vines held Kilobyte over the gaping maw for several nanos before dropping him in.
Kilobyte braced his feet against the roof of the pod's mouth to prevent it from closing, and began slashing madly with the knuckle claws on both hands. The plant was tough outside, but inside he would hack it to bits! He tore chunks of moist vegetable matter away with each swing, not even bothering to aim.
The plant screeched and threw him across the room. He struck the back wall and fell to the floor, dazed. The plant howled in rage. The store began to vibrate, dust falling from the walls and merchandise tumbling from the shelves. Then the walls collapsed, kicking up huge clouds of choking dust. The mother plant, visible only as a shape in the cloud, laughed triumphantly. He could not see it, but he knew what was happening: freed from the soil, it was escaping to find more people to feed on.
The virals tensed when they saw the shop collapse. Streets and sidewalks began erupting as giant carnivorous plants burst, full-grown, from runners in the soil underneath. The plants scattered to wreak their havoc. And_E said, "This is it. I'll do it!" None of the other Virals disputed this.
Kilobyte's silhouette appeared in the dust of the little shop. He was not carrying a weapon, and his claws were sheathed. And_E ran over to stand in front of him and shouted, "Kilobyte! STOP! Listen to me! You'll nullify us!"
Kilobyte raised one arm. The claws unsheathed as it began its descending arc. And_E dodged to the side, so they only cut the back of his pod. Before he could get up Kilobyte stalked off.
The remaining virals rushed to And_E. He got up shakily. "I'm okay, I'm okay," he said.
"What are we going to do?!"
"He won't listen to us. He sees a plant, he tries to kill it," And_E answered. "We need someone who hasn't rebooted as a plant to get his attention. Stay here!" He rushed off.
Melissa startled when she heard an explosion. A puff of dust appeared in the sky; it looked like its origin was a block or two away. "Kilobyte's made it to the final level," one of the plants commented. "It won't be long."
The other trembled visibly. He had not said anything about his suspicion to Melissa or the other guard; it was bad enough that he was scared stiff without worrying the others too. If they panicked, he didn't know what he would do.
Then the plants came back. These weren't the little ones that they had seen before; these were huge, taller than any of them, bursting out of the ground. Each jerked its roots free of the earth, shook off the excess dirt, and began smashing buildings in.
"What do we do now?!" Melissa exclaimed, huddling back in their alley and holding Hexadecimal protectively. Hex was the only one not frightened now; she laughed with delight each time a new plant rammed up from the ground.
"Wait!" One of the guards pointed with a vine. A small plant, clearly another rebooted binome, was hustling toward them, dodging the larger plants running amok in the streets.
It came up to them and panted for a moment. Then it said urgently, "Melissa, we need your help. It's Kilobyte-"
"Has something happened to him? Is he hurt?" she exclaimed.
"No! No, he's not hurt. He's not in control of himself, the User is! If he finishes the game, we might all be nullified!"
She stared at him. Why hadn't she thought of that? She had believed Kilobyte knew what he was doing. After all, he'd been in games before!
And_E continued urgently, "When he sees any of us who've rebooted, he thinks we're enemies. You're the only one who might be able to get through to him!"
Which would mean going out into the game, she thought. But if she didn't, then she would find out first-hand whether nulls could think. "Okay. Show me where he is. Wait-" She glanced down at Hexadecimal, who looked fascinated by the chaos of the game. Should she leave her here, out of the fray? Would the binomes be able to protect her if anything threatened them? No, she couldn't abandon her daughter in a game. And if she didn't act quickly it wouldn't matter; noplace would be safe for them. "Never mind. Let's go. Where is he?"
And_E beckoned with a vine. "Follow me." Only when he turned away did she see the three parallel cuts on the back of his pod.
Kilobyte stalked through the streets. Giant plants, each at least as big as the one he had just fought, were demolishing the city. Here a pod burst through a crumbling brick wall; there a plant climbed the suspension struts of a bridge, using its vines and roots as tentacles. He could spend all day here, slicing them apart one by one. However, he could never defeat them all. New ones were constantly germinating, and would overwhelm him with their sheer numbers if he waited too long.
He had to defeat the mother plant. It had gotten away from him once, but it wouldn't get a second chance. He looked up, searching the skyline, then headed off toward the tallest building he saw.
Melissa bent forward as she ran after And_E, instinctively shielding her child from the danger that surrounded them. So far the game sprites had paid them no attention. She wouldn't rely on their luck, however.
Kilobyte reached the base of the skyscraper. It rose 16384 angstroms above the city, the needle-like antenna at the top looking as if it was about to pierce the sky. The largest of all the plants was climbing its side, holding on with huge vines wrapped all the way around the building. Only one of the vines was not being used for climbing; it was coiled around the waist of a female game sprite who was struggling and screaming. It balanced with its roots against the building, except for one thick, woody root which reached down to the ground.
The plant, Kilobyte judged, had climbed higher than the length of its vines. It would not be able to reach down to hit him. But he was armed with only a pistol, a shotgun, a scythe, and his claws. Those weren't enough. He needed a better tool to cut through that wood, and he knew where to get it.
The other virals joined And_E and Melissa, forming a protective phalanx around the two Viruses. Though the monstrous plants did not directly attack them, they were still in danger from flying debris, falling telephone poles, and the like. They stayed in the center of the streets for safety; after all, there was no use in trying to hide anymore.
She was no gaming expert, but she knew that the colossal plant scaling the highest building in the city had to be the final boss. "Where's Kilobyte?"
And_E answered, "He's got to kill that plant. The smartest way to do that is wait until it gets to the top, then chop through that-" it indicated the tap root - "Before the plant climbs back down and gets him. He'll lose points because by then the plant'll have eaten the Sprite it's holding, but otherwise it'll be just about impossible to beat it. So he's gone to get something that will cut through the root."
Melissa could just barely make out the struggling woman in the plant's vine. She had short blond hair and was wearing a pink dress. Nobody cared that the plant would eat her?! But she's only a game sprite, an automaton, Melissa told herself. She's not a real person. She's only a simulation. "What do we do?"
"He'll have to fight again," And_E answered grimly. "I won't take you there - it'd be too dangerous." He looked at another. "You. Go watch, but don't get close. Let us know when he's coming back."
Kilobyte reached the hardware shop. It was full of plants of all sizes. Large ones blocked the aisles; the smaller ones would be hiding in bins and between shelves. He took out the shotgun, kicked open the door, and fired several blasts down the center aisle. The nearest plant collapsed, its pod shredded. He fired a few times to the left and right to discourage the plants coming at him from both sides. Then he ran back out the door. The plants followed, at first squeezing through the doors, then bursting through the plate glass windows. He took out his scythe. The first plant that approached him, its pod held high, was sliced neatly in half.
The viral watched as Kilobyte slaughtered the plants one by one. He did not seem to tire of it, he worked like a machine, swinging the scythe at each plant's vulnerable spot, driving his claws into the mouth of any that got too close. One had managed to bite down on his arm before it died, but he showed no sign of pain.
By the time they stopped pouring out of the hardware shop, sixteens of mutilated plants were littering the street.
Kilobyte minimized the scythe. Now all that would be left would be the smallest ones, which he could easily deal with. He stalked down the aisles, killing the miniatures as they leapt out of their hiding places with casual sweeps of his claws. He grabbed the axe and walked out of the store, kicking aside plant corpses to clear his way.
"He's coming! He's coming!"
The viral scrambling back looked even more worried than the rest. Normally the carnage of a game didn't bother any of them; it was only a game. However, knowing that your master's blade could be turned against you at any nano made a difference.
"Get back!" And_E shouted to Melissa, pointing toward the side of the building.
Two nanoseconds later Kilobyte came around the corner of a building. He headed for the taproot running down the side of the building, only looking to the side long enough to direct a few claw swipes at the nearest virals. They all dodged out of the way. He did not pursue them; his attention was focused on the root.
Melissa ran out as he swung the axe to the side, then forward. Its blade bit in with a satisfying thunk. A shudder ran up the root.
"Kilobyte!" she shouted at him, standing well out of the range of his axe. He did not look over; he was singlemindedly chopping. The plant perched on the top of the building howled in outrage.
"Kilobyte!" she shouted again, stepping closer. "Stop it!"
He did not pause. His chopping had taken on a machinelike rhythm. He had already cut halfway through; it would only be another sixteen nanos before he won the game at this rate! She timed it for several swings. Just when the axe had sunk into the wood again and he would not be able to swing it at her immediately she stepped in front of him and screamed right into his face, "KILOBYTE!"
He glared at her, annoyed by the interruption. Alarmed by the noise, Hexadecimal began to cry. Melissa continued yelling. "You've merged with the User! If you don't let him go, we'll all be nullified when you win the game!"
He stared, wide eyed, at her. Then he glanced down at the baby Virus, who was now squalling loudly. Melissa said hopefully, "You infected the User, you can release him, can't you? Come on, before the game ends!"
And_E looked up fearfully. While Melissa had been talking, the plant had started climbing back down the building. If it got down, the User would be a goner. He couldn't defeat the full-grown plant. If it ate Kilobyte the game would end and the rest of them would be safe, but their master would be deleted. He looked at Melissa, mentally urging her to hurry.
"You know who we are!" Melissa insisted as Kilobyte stared at Hexadecimal. "Don't nullify us! Let the user go!"
Kilobyte looked up at the angry plant descending toward them. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated. Infection was easy, and he had plenty of practice. Removing an infection was more difficult. And this was code which had merged with his-
Melissa looked up, then at the virals, who were desperate by now. She said in a low voice, "I think I got through to him. Don't do anything."
-The User's code was deeply intermeshed. The Virus sorted through it, untangling the foreign code and forcing it away from his own. It did not want to leave his; it kept urging him to pick up the axe again, finish the game, now!
Still holding Hexadecimal, Melissa leaned forward and cautiously grasped the axe handle. He did not resist when she pulled the weapon out of his hand. With a quick wrench, which startled Hexadecimal into fresh tears, she pulled it out of the wood, then dropped it behind herself, where he couldn't see it.
The plant was more than halfway down the side of the building. One of the virals asked And_E, "What if we defeat it? Will we win the game?"
"Would you want to bet your runtime on it?" And_E answered tensely.
Kilobyte's face showed more than concentration; he seemed to be in pain. He was shoving the code away from himself, struggling as hard as any newly infected binome ever had. But at last the final subroutine was pulled free of his own!
The two figures suddenly blurred, then tore into two: User and Virus. Both looked dazed. And_E grabbed the axe an brought it over to the User. It grabbed the weapon and began madly chopping at the root.
"What are you doing?! He'll win the game!" Melissa yelled.
"Wait!" And_E pointed upward. The plant was still descending, its cavernous mouth hanging open. The Viruses and virals backed away as its shadow darkened the area around the root.
"This is his last chance to win, and he won't give up," And_E said, watching with relief. A few of the rebooted virals shared his expression. The others stared, unable to act, as the User continued chopping frantically. It did not stop until the gigantic pod closed over it, then tilted up and swallowed it.
GAME OVER, the computer announced.
The cube rose, revealing the undamaged streets of the West Sector. They were right outside the tower. Out of reflex Melissa glanced up. No plants were climbing on the buildings. Then she began rocking and shushing Hexadecimal, who was still crying.
"Medic!" yelled one of the binomes. They had located the injured binome. Three parallel lines gashed its side, scoring all three of its blocks deeply. Melissa stared at it, then at Kilobyte.
He, too, was shocked. He saw his claw marks on And_E as well. A medic was bandaging both of them.
Melissa watched Kilobyte's expressions. Shock, confusion. Then shame. He had attacked his own people; he remembered it now. And he had let another take control of him, and nearly destroyed them all. Including his own family.
When his eyes met Melissa's she stepped forward. "We're all right," she told him softly.
Wordlessly he raised a hand to touch her cheek as if to reassure himself that she was really there. She let him. After a nano she repeated, "We're all right. The game's over ." He looked down at Hexadecimal. His pained expression when he saw his daughter crying pierced Melissa's heart. She held the baby toward Kilobyte, who took her and held her close.
"Melissa-" And_E said quietly.
She looked down. Nodding in the direction of a binome being carried on a stretcher, the viral commander said, "The medics say he'll be fine. I just thought you'd want to know."
"Thanks," she said. Turning back to Kilobyte, she said, "Hear that, they'll recover."
"I see," he murmured in a flat tone, still staring at Hexadecimal. She was sucking on her thumb, still whimpering softly, her cheek resting on his chest. He stroked her comfortingly with one hand.
He hadn't noticed the dings on his armor from the bullets. They'd start hurting later. For now- "Come on." She nodded toward the tower entrance, where the other virals were already returning to their positions. She put her arm around his waist and led him in.
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, Commander And_E, and the overall story are copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The various unnamed binomes can fend for themselves. The game, of course, is based on the ultra-nifty musical "Little Shop of Horrors." Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.