West Sector Story #6:

The Patchwork Girl

by Kim McFarland

And they're messing with my heart
And they're messing with my heart
Won't stop messing with my - Ripping me apart!

Hyperactive, by Thomas Dolby

In a darkened room a young Virus woman, hardly more than a girl, was lying on a table. It was padded to make it a little less uncomfortable and her head rested on a pillow, but nothing could be done about the straps binding her wrists and ankles. Metal bars pressed against her palms. She could grip them if she wanted, but she could not push them away.

She was stiff, tense, unhappy but not frightened. She stared, bright sparks dancing within her glowing green eyes, as another Virus put a hand on a control panel switch. A smaller, blue colored Virus boy stood well back from the table, silently watching.

Kilobyte turned to look back at his daughter. Then he forced himself to press the switch downward. Her entire body stiffened. Her hands jerked against the restraints, trying to pull away from the metal bars. Her face tightened with pain, but she kept her eyes open. Her choked-back cry came out as a low groan.

Though it was barely audible, the sound pulled at Kilobyte's heart. He forced himself to watch as Hexadecimal's struggles weakened and her eyes faded. First the little sparks disappeared, then the green glow dimmed.

When her eyes were a dull dark green he flipped the lever up again. She slumped back, breathing deeply, moaning softly with each breath. As he unfastened her wrist restraints he asked, "How are you?"

"Weak," came the whispered reply. She closed her eyes.

He released her ankles, then came back to the side of the table. He touched her hand. The palms were still hot from the energy transfer. She bore the ordeal as well as she could. It had been repeated so frequently lately that she was now inured to it.

He slid his arms under her back and knees, and picked her up. Her head tilted back as it lifted from the pillow. She placed her hands in her lap and rested her cheek against his chest as he began to walk. He saw the faint glow of her eyes as she apathetically watched the walls of the West Sector tower corridors pass by. He barely noticed the footsteps of his son as the boy trailed along after them.

There was no tension in her body. She was so weak now that she could not summon up the energy or interest. The poor child, he thought. Just after her 1.6th upgrade her power had begin to come in - and it was too much for her. To keep the energy from overwhelming her, he had been draining her before it reached the critical point. At first he had only needed to do that once a millisecond or so. But as her power increased, it built up faster, to the point that he now had to drain her every cycle. Even when he brought her down to this low ebb, the relief did not last for long. As weak and helpless as she looked now, she would soon be up again, and before too long they would have to repeat the miserable process.

She hated it. He did not blame her. Having your energy drawn away was not only an unpleasant process, it was an indignity. That was part of the reason he always did it to her himself; he did not want anyone else to drain the power of his daughter. As well as he knew his own virals, he would not place her under their mercy, not for this. He trusted nobody's hand but his own.

It was always traumatic when a Virus's full powers came in during adolescence. It had not been too bad for Kilobyte. The training had been grueling, his father a strict instructor. But the power to infect people was more of a skill. The power of a Chaos Virus was simply that - power. Raw energy. Energy her young body could not contain safely.

Chaos Viruses were rare for a reason, he knew. All too many of them destroyed themselves along with their systems. And not many even made it that far - frequently their own power tore them apart before they matured, as Hexadecimal's was threatening to do. Kilobyte could keep her alive by draining her excess power before she destabilized. He had hoped that it would give her the time to gain strength. But that wasn't happening - her energy was building up to fearsome levels faster and faster now.

They had reached her room. As Megabyte watched from the doorway Kilobyte laid her gently on her bed and touched her white forehead with his silver fingers. She looked up at him, then closed her eyes.

He said nothing. There was nothing to say; they had been through this so many times that it had become a routine. She would sleep it off, and when she was feeling better the would come out again. The best he could do now for her was leave her alone.

As he closed the door behind himself, he thought about her small form on the bed. She was growing into a lovely young woman. She did not look that much like her mother; her viral characteristics were too pronounced. But he still thought of Melissa when he saw her. Melissa, though she had been a powerless, benign Virus, had possessed surprising inner strength. That spark was what lived on in her daughter. She would be a spirited woman when she grew up.

If she could control her powers, that was. If this pattern of buildup and draining continued she would be a cripple, always dependent on a siphoning device to keep herself alive, her defect forever shadowing her life. And despite his good intentions Kilobyte would be the one who had put her there.

He had made a horrible mistake with Melissa. He hadn't realized how desperate her situation was once, and by the time he had and had sought help it had been too late; only their son had been rescued. Kilobyte had learned from the fiasco of Megabyte's birth, and would not make the same mistake here, either by risking his family's life by waiting too long or by committing any warlike acts in his desperation. Though it ran counter to his programming, once again he would seek help outside when there was none to be had within the walls of the West Sector.

He went into his command room. Megabyte was still following him. Good. The more the boy saw, the more he'd learn. He knew to keep quiet and not interfere. And the guards kept a discreet eye on him, to prevent him from getting into mischief.

He sat in his throne and activated a control VidWindow to run a search for the PIDs of several spies. As expected, they were currently within the West Sector; it was now downcycle outside. He opened a VidWindow to each and ordered them to report in.

They arrived quickly, puzzled about why they were being summoned at this time of the cycle. He wouldn't call them in unless he had a reason.

Kilobyte looked over the three binomes. Unlike the vast majority of the West Sector's inhabitants, these ones were not infected. He kept them this way for the express purpose of using them to bring information from key places outside. He had others; these were the ones who had access to the Blaine center. He folded one hand over a fist and said, "I have a task for you."

Standing beside the throne, Megabyte looked back and forth at his father and the binomes he was commanding. "You have told me much about a binome in the research area who is an expert on Viruses. I want you to bring him to me." As he had anticipated, they looked surprised. "No harm is to come to him. This is to be done with all discretion - no witnesses, no trail. I do not want anyone mistreated. Do you understand?" All three nodded. "I suppose the most expedient method would be to filelock him. I expect to see him within a cycle, but do not under any circumstances risk being caught."

Kilobyte steepled his hands in front of himself and looked at the binomes. "Do you have any questions?"

They looked at each other. One answered, "No, sir."

"Very good. You may go," he said, with a wave of his hand.

The three binomes left silently. When they were out of the tower, Gali, a female Zero who was the senior of the three spies, spoke. "We'll go in as normal next cycle. I'll take care of getting him alone. Be alert, I'll call for you two when I need you."

The others agreed. She worked with Sevarius's viral research team when she wasn't needed in the regular medical section; it would be easier for her to get to him. Kato, a One, asked, "What do you think Kilobyte wants?"

"He wouldn't make a point not to harm Sevarius if he wanted him eliminated. I don't think he takes him seriously as a threat." Her tone of voice indicated that she held a different opinion. "He wants him for a specific purpose. What would he want an expert on Viruses for? Think about it."

The others nodded. They had also guessed something along those lines - which was why they had not asked him directly. If he was desperate enough to seek aid outside the sector, he would not enjoy explaining the matter to his subordinates. Best not to rub salt in the wound.

It was a calm, bright cycle. In the Blaine institute, everyone was following their usual routine. For Jay Matrix and a number of other Sprites and binomes, this began with breakfast in the cafeteria.

With him were two other green Sprites - his wife Peg, and a little girl just v0.9 old. Since he usually came to work early, and the school was nearby, they usually had breakfast here before Peg took Dot to school. Dot liked it here; interesting things happened at the Institute.

Jay and Peg both encouraged her when she displayed an interest in the Center. She didn't show a lot of aptitude in the areas they were researching, but then she was still very young. If she wanted to come in and look around, they'd bring her. She had drive, they could see that already; she'd find her own level.

She had finished her breakfast, and was looking around and swinging her thin legs as she waited for her parents. It was still a couple of microseconds before she had to go to school. She would have liked to get on Dad's work terminal - though he had only given her access to a few things, it was still neat - but she could tell that her parents were just going to sit and talk until then.

Suddenly an alarm sounded. The system voice calmly stated, "WARNING: INCOMING GAME. WARNING: INCOMING GAME."

Instantly the center was a flurry of activity. People looked out windows to see where the cube was coming down. Somewhere in the center, Dot knew, people were monitoring for the telltale energy spikes which would reveal the game's destination. She didn't see the point, since it only gave them a few nanos more warning than just going outside and looking up.

In another part of the center, a binome looked up in annoyance. Games were always falling around this system. He had been here nearly half a second, and he was still not used to it. At least he no longer got too worried when he heard the alarm - the system was large enough that the odds that he would actually be caught in a game were small.

After an interval, he looked back at his station. Spidery digits resumed tapping at the keyboard. If the game were coming down here, they would have sounded an evacuation warning. Other sections of the Blaine Institute would be springing into action - the sector repair and medical teams would be needed as soon as the cube lifted - but that had nothing to do with him.

A voice from the doorway called, "Herr Doktor Sevarius!"

"Ja?" He looked up.

A female zero was beckoning to him. "Please, come with me!" she said urgently.

"Was ist?" he asked as he followed her.

"It'll be easier to show you than tell you," she answered. She reached a door at the far end of the corridor - a currently unused lab - and beckoned him in.

A VidWindow appeared in front of Kato, who was watching the game come down in Mainframe. He glanced at it and said, "You need me?"

"Can you come here?"

He recognized the lab behind her by the equipment, which had not been used recently. "Be there in a nano."

"Thanks." The VidWindow disappeared.

He went to that room. When he arrived the other spy, Baku, was already there. Gali indicated a large crate. "We need to move this out of here. I've got a floater. Push the edge up, I'll slip it underneath."

She spoke casually, but they knew what was inside. Each One picked up a front corner and lifted. She shoved the flat platform underneath it. When she activated a control, it lifted slightly above the ground, like a large one-disc zip board.

"Good. Help me move this, it's bulky." She took the handle at the front.

The two Ones suppressed smiles. The box was no heavier than one of them. They got behind it, holding on as if to help stabilize it.

They took it out through a loading dock on a level just below the surface and put it in a truck. When it was inside, she said, "Thanks, I'll take it from here. You two go back."

"That was quick," Baku commented.

"I had an opportunity. Seize the nano, as they say," she replied in a low voice. "He never even saw me lock him."

"Good going."

"Yeah." She got into the driver's seat of the truck and waved to them before driving off. They waved back. They'd have to wait until the work cycle ended to find out anything more.

"Sir! We have the binome you wanted."

Kilobyte looked up, surprised. He had not expected them to bring him so quickly. Perhaps it had something to do with the game that had just come down. But that was the correct One; he could see him inside the filelock block in the VidWindow's background. Those digits were unmistakable. "Bring him to my command room," he said.

"Yessir," the guard answered.

Sevarius startled as he dropped several angstroms to the floor. The scenery shift bewildered him. A nano ago he was in the Blaine center, and now he found himself in a large, darkened chamber lit harshly from above. In front of him was...

"Mein Leben," he gasped as his eye widened.

He looked around. Behind himself he was surrounded at a distance by a semicircle of virals. They were all armed, and all had serious expressions on their faces. And before him was a Virus.

It was leaning back in a floating throne, regarding him coolly, its hands steepled in front of itself. It was solid metal, green armor plating on quicksilver flesh. Sevarius had seen Kilobyte in images many times before, but they did not convey what it was like to be in his presence.

The Virus put its hands on the armrests of his throne and leaned forward. "Greetings, Sevarius," he said in a basso profundo voice.

The binome stiffened as if he had been shocked. The Virus knew his name? What else did he know?

The Virus looked at the guards. "Only one of you need remain." he said, waving them away. "I don't believe our friend is foolish enough to think he can run from me." He looked back at Sevarius; the glowing red pupils pinned him like an insect to a board. Sevarius, unable to look away, heard the virals' footsteps fade into the distance.

Kilobyte leaned back in his throne. "Doctor Sevarius, welcome to the West Sector."

The Virus seemed to be waiting for Sevarius to reply. He could find nothing to say. After a few nanos Kilobyte spoke again. "I know of you and your research. You are, I am told, quite an expert on Viruses. I also know of the project you are working on." Green-and-red eyes locked on him again, but his tone remained light, conversational. "If you are as brilliant as my spies' reports indicate you to be, then you have nothing to fear. I have a task for you. And an opportunity." Again he paused, and again Sevarius did not speak. "You wish to understand all things viral, so you will know your enemy better than he knows himself." He chuckled. "You will have a rare opportunity for one in your profession indeed. You will learn about infection from the inside."

The Virus reached down. Sevarius tried to back away, but the guard blocked him, holding his shock rod horizontally like a barrier. Kilobyte seized the binome's arm with one hand, and laid the other on Sevarius's icon.

Sevarius cried out as he felt viral code invade his own. It insinuated itself, adding its commands and subroutines, overriding his own programming. Changing him, clouding his mind with panic. Taking him over. Corrupting him.

Sevarius was unaware when Kilobyte set him down again. Slowly the pain and confusion faded as the viral code settled in. And, Sevarius was surprised to find that he was still self-aware and able to think. His mind did not seem to have been damaged. But would he know if it had been? What had the Virus done to him?

"Come with me," Kilobyte said as he stood. Without thinking Sevarius obeyed.

The Virus led him through some small passageways, very out of keeping with the large, echoing command room. These were small by comparison, clearly not meant to impress anyone or be used by large numbers of people. In fact, this was bizarrely homey.

Hearing clicking steps behind himself, Sevarius turned his eyeblock. He startled when he saw another Virus behind himself. This one was blue, and much smaller. It looked back at him with the same red-on-green eyes as Kilobyte, and said nothing.

Kilobyte stopped by a door and opened it. After looking inside, he beckoned.

Sevarius followed the Virus into the spacious room. It was cluttered with books and oddments - someone lived here. On the walls were tacked some paintings, and an easel was set up in one corner. He did not have time to look at any of the pictures; Kilobyte was guiding him to a door on the other side.

The next room was dimly lit by a single lamp on a table. It was smaller, but no less cluttered. Kilobyte sat on a chair next to the bed in the center of the room. On the bed, above the covers, lay another Virus, a female, with her face turned toward the wall. Gazing at her, Kilobyte spoke. "My daughter."

Sevarius spoke into the following silence. "Is she... ah, ill?"

"Yes." Kilobyte looked at him. "You could say that she is. She is just now gaining her power. It is taking its toll on her..."

The Virus was speaking carefully, keeping his voice under tight control, Sevarius could tell. The female stirred, hearing Kilobyte speak, and opened her eyes. When she turned toward them he could see that she had a white, masklike face with faintly glowing green eyes.

Kilobyte laid a silver hand comfortingly on one of hers. "She is a Chaos Virus. I am certain you know how powerful mature Viruses of that type are. However, she is young, and not strong enough to contain her power. To prevent it from doing her harm, I must drain her every cycle." His hand clasped hers. "This cannot continue."

She looked over farther, to see who Kilobyte was speaking to. She gazed apathetically at the binome, then turned away again with a soft sigh.

After giving her hand a final squeeze, Kilobyte rose and guided Sevarius back out of the living quarters. The smaller blue Virus was standing by the doorway; for some reason he had not gone in, but had waited for them outside.

Kilobyte guided Sevarius to a laboratory. Sevarius could have laughed at the incongruous familiarity - it looked as if it had been copied and pasted from the Blaine Institute. There were a number of workstations and various kinds of equipment here, but dominant was a table in the center. It was covered by a blanket and pillow, but on the edges straps and bars were visible.

Kilobyte turned and spoke again. "Hexadecimal is gaining power that she cannot control. It builds up until it threatens her very code. I must drain her before it can do her harm." He gestured at the table with an angry sweep of his arm. "I do this every cycle. The last time was just microseconds ago. The situation has become steadily worse. Her power has increased, but her tolerance has not." His hand clenched, the tops of his knuckle claws extending slightly from their sheaths. Then he forced himself to be calm again. "This cannot continue. I will not have her live out her runtime as a cripple, forever enfeebled by a device such as this. Left unchecked, her power would continue to increase to the point that it would be necessary to keep her drained constantly."

Sevarius tried to remember everything he knew about Chaos Viruses. They were not common. They frequently killed themselves while destroying their systems. They had little regard for life, even their own. And they were masked; that was how you could recognize them on sight.

Kilobyte interrupted the binome's thoughts. "Your task, Sevarius, will be to use your expertise to enable her to control her power. Find the error in her code, the weakness, whatever, and correct it so that she may have a normal life."

"Mein herr!" Sevarius exclaimed. "I have never-"

"Yes, I know. I copied some of your read-only memory when I infected you. I know that you have experimented with altering code before." Kilobyte looked upward as he sifted through memories not his own. "And you have gained some acclaim for your efforts. In fact, that is why your hands were upgraded - you could not do fine work without digits. Isn't that so?"

"Jawohl, Herr Tausendbyte," Sevarius said miserably.

"I also know that you are perfectly capable of speaking English. Do so."

"Ja- yes, sir."

"Better." Kilobyte leaned against the table. "I believe that you are capable of the task I have given you. I would not allow you access to my daughter if I did not. When she is stabilized and healthy, I will withdraw my infection and return you to the outside."

"You would?"

"Yes," Kilobyte answered calmly. "However, understand that your well-being is linked with hers. When she is recovered, you will be freed. If she does not..." he let his statement trail off meaningfully.

"I understand," Sevarius murmured, cowering before the red and green gaze.

"Very good." Kilobyte nodded. "I will be with you whenever you must work with her. Both for your protection and hers - she can be difficult to handle."

"Yes... she is a Chaos Virus."

"It's much worse than that," Kilobyte informed him.


"Yes," Kilobyte deadpanned. "In addition to being a Chaos Virus, she is a teenager. Truly a dangerous combination."

Sevarius paused. He could not read Kilobyte's expression, but from his tone of voice he guessed that that was intended to be a joke. He wasn't brave enough to risk laughing at it, however.

"All of the records are here," Kilobyte told him. "They include the cycles on which I have drained her, her starting and ending levels, and other particulars. Until she comes back online, I believe that would be the best place to start."

"Jawo-" Kilobyte glared at him. "Yes, sir."

After the Virus left Sevarius called up the log file. The data was not extensive, but it did cover a long enough time span for him to get a feel for the increasing severity of the situation. At first it had been gradual, milliseconds passing between drains. But now they were a regular part of the cycle's routine, and each time he was draining more. How could he do this to the poor child? Surely this must be killing her!

Since when was a young Chaos Virus a "poor child?" She could destroy the entire system if she became powerful enough!

If she didn't get her power, however, Sevarius would not live to see that day.

Infected binomes were supposed to be mindless slaves. Yet he had been allowed to keep his intelligence and skills. Kilobyte had infected him very lightly indeed. And very selectively, he realized. He could contemplate the idea of escape, or of letting Hexadecimal's problem run its course, but he knew that he would not be able to carry it through. He could feel the command blocking him: THOU SHALT NOT HARM ME OR THAT WHICH IS MINE. He was vaguely repelled by the realization of the foreign command controlling him.

He thought of Kilobyte sitting by his daughter's bed, his massive hand covering her smaller, red one. Though he could not read his master's face, he realized that there was genuine affection between the two Viruses. His daughter... he had not thought of Viruses as having families. Yes, they replicated and formed alliances, but...

Where was the mother? Was she a queen Virus that hid in her territory, so those outside never saw her? No, if that was the case the Twin City and Mainframe would be up to their eyeblocks in Viruses. He had only seen two children so far.

If the outsiders knew that there were Virus children in here, they would launch an attack to exterminate them. Yet Kilobyte would let him go free if he succeeded? Something in him hesitated to mentally accuse Kilobyte of being a liar.

That was part of the infection too. Loyalty. Even though Sevarius still could think of old chains of logic, he could not believe them on an emotional level. He could not hate his master, or his master's family. Even thinking ill of them brought on a queasy, uncomfortable feeling. It was as bad as thinking about the commands that Kilobyte had inserted with his infection. What else had the Virus programmed in without Sevarius's knowlenge?

He had to stop thinking like this. He began scanning the data again while considering what he knew about Chaos Viruses.

Kilobyte had returned to his command room. There was nothing more he could do now besides sift through the binome's memory.

He had only copied a small part of it. He had no desire to learn every detail of Sevarius's life; he would be swamped with details if he tried. Instead, he had only taken the surface personality. He could examine that at leisure, to get a better understanding of the binome he had entrusted his daughter's health to.

Sevarius hated Viruses. Kilobyte knew that already from his spies' reports. Kilobyte was not angered by this; he was accustomed to the prejudices of outsiders. He expected it. He was surprised, however, to find that the binome was also an utter coward. He feared anything he could not control or deal with at a distance. Kilobyte would not have to put much effort into intimidating this one.

Despite that flaw, the good Doktor was an accomplished expert in all things viral - or so he believed. He was clearly confident in his abilities and knowledge. He had already experimented with viral code, in fact. And not always in simulations. Kilobyte scowled. The creature was utterly without morals! However, Kilobyte's infection would ensure that he did not do anything foolish to Hexadecimal.

Later that cycle, a nervous Sevarius was running scans on the young Chaos Virus. He could see right off that she was back to her normal power level; her eyes were glowing a bright, steady green. Which often flicked to red as she glared at him.

Thank the User that Kilobyte was here. Now Sevarius understood Kilobyte's remark about her being a teenager. On top of her Chaos Virus personality and power she had an adolescent's capriciousness. He did not doubt that she could have made short work of him if Kilobyte had not been watching.

As if that was not enough, his task was complicated by the distraction of her face. He had not realized it before, when she had been drained, but she did not have the masks normal Chaos Viruses did. Usually they changed expressions by activating different masks. Hoever, she had a face almost like a normal Sprite! What kind of Virus was she?!

Kilobyte sat by Hexadecimal, who was lying on a medstation bed. Sevarius was taking a full scan of her code now, and the process necessarily took a long time. She quickly became restless. At a word from her father, however, she grudgingly stayed still.

When the monitor flashed a "SCAN COMPLETE" message she sat up. "Can I go?"

"Nein - please, wait." Sevarius glanced at Kilobyte, who didn't seem to have noticed his slip. "I have only scanned your code. I need to read your energy levels."

With an exasperated sigh she flopped back.

He initiated the scan. As he waited, he saw her long golden claws slide out and retract, over and over. He hadn't noticed those before. She even had an intimidating way of fidgeting.

Because this scan was gathering much less information, it finished more quickly. Sevarius said to Kilobyte, "That is enough for now."

"Can I go now?" Hexadecimal asked.

"Yes," Sevarius replied.

She glanced at Kilobyte, who nodded. She jumped off the table and made a beeline for the door. Sevarius sighed with relief. Then he saw Kilobyte looking at him.

"Now you see what I meant," the Virus said mildly.

"What you meant by what?" Sevarius asked carefully.

"She is a teenager."

"Oh, ja. Yes." He attempted to laugh, and failed. "Ah..."


"Lord Kilobyte... Even if I do repair her code... do you know what happens to most Chaos Viruses?" Sevarius asked nervously.

"You mean, they end up deleting themselves?" Kilobyte replied, tapping metal fingers on the medstation bed.

"Yes, sir. I have never seen one her age. Little is known about them-"

Kilobyte pointed at the workstation. "I do not believe that, with a complete copy of her code and a workstation to run simulations on, you can claim insufficient data."

"No, sir, that isn't what I meant!" Sevarius exclaimed quickly. "I simply meant that so many of them meet an, ah, unfortunate fate... and so do their systems..."

The red and green eyes held him in place for several nanoseconds. Then Kilobyte leaned back. "Ah. You mean, what is to prevent her from destroying the entire system, herself, and incidentally all other inhabitants?" He did not wait for Sevarius to answer. "Yes, it is rare that a Chaos Virus learns to coexist with his or her environment. It is as rare as self-limiting infectors, I believe."

"But, it is not the same. Infectors wish to control- no offense!"

"None taken."

"It makes sense that an Infector would learn to master himself. But a Chaos Virus's code drives it in the opposite direction!"

"You certainly do know a lot about the characteristics of Viruses, don't you," Kilobyte remarked. "However, you have missed one trait we all have in common." He leaned closer and spoke harshly. "We are dataforms like yourselves. We have free will, and the ability to learn, the same as you. We are not mere automatons, enslaved by our code!"

The binomes was cowering back. "Yes, sir!" he stammered.

Kilobyte leaned back and sighed inwardly. It took so little to frighten this one. Hold back, he reminded himself, or he might frighten "Herr Doktor" into making mistakes. "It will be close to the end of the cycle before Hexadecimal's power builds up to a dangerous level. I assume you will need data from that point."

"Yes, sir," Sevarius answered. "The more information I have, the better I can understand what is happening to her."

"You shall have what you need," Kilobyte replied. "Don't worry about her reluctance; I will take care of her myself."

"Thank you, sir."

"And, Sevarius - I have a name. Use it."

"Yes, Herr Kilobyte."

He sighed inwardly again. "I will let you know when she is ready," he said as he got up.

Sevaruis watches with relief as the Virus left. Then, when he was alone, he went to the terminal and began examining the code they had copied.

When Kilobyte returned with Hexadecimal, Sevarius was still absorbed in studying the code. Lines streamed across the monitor, meaningless to the Virus. He asked, "Have you found anything?"

Sevarius jumped. "Oh, Herr Kilobyte, I didn't hear you come in! I was just looking this over. It's fascinating."

Kilobyte wondered at the honest enthusiasm in the binome's voice. "I'm glad that it holds your attention," he answered. "It's time to treat Hexadecimal."

"Ach. Then let's scan her first." The binome went over to the workstation and opened the diagnostic program while Hexadecimal got on the table.

"Hurry up," Hexadecimal said, a sharp edge in her voice.

"This won't take long at all, I already have your code. I only need to map your energy levels," he replied.

"Good," was the curt reply.

The binome started the scan. As it progressed he frowned. Kilobyte, seeing his expression, asked "Is there a problem?"

"These readings do not make any sense," Sevarius said. "I need to recalibrate. Just a nanosecond." He paused the scan and began adjusting the instrument sensitivity level. He turned it down several times, with no visible result. He glanced over at Hexadecimal, who was staring back at him with red eyes. In their depths white sparkles flashed.

Unstable energy, Sevarius recognized. He had to look for fluctuations in her power level. He entered a few commands, then adjusted the level downward more rapidly.

Near the end of the spectrum he saw it - a crackle of power, like the energy of a tear. "Mein Leben!" he breathed.

"What have you found?" Kilobyte asked in an even tone, holding Hexadecimal's hand in his own.

"Her power level - I did not expect it to be this high!" Sevarius answered.

"Where have you been?! That's the whole problem!" Hexadecimal snapped.

Sevarius saw the energy level bounce upward with her outburst. "Ja, ja," he said nervously. "Hold on..." He adjusted the range of the scan. "All right, scanning now."

Kilobyte released Hexadecimal's hand; he did not want to interfere with the scan results. She waited impatiently as the medstation gathered its data. He looked up at the readouts above the bed. They had not been calibrated to show her power level, so all he saw was red indicators.

"Done," Sevarius said.

Hexadecimal got off the bed and went of her own accord to the table in the center of the room, the one with the wrist and ankle straps. Sevarius watched as Kilobyte once again fastened them. She grasped the rods that pressed against her palms, and looked at Kilobyte expectantly.

His hand on the switch, Kilobyte asked Sevarius, "Do you have any questions?"

"No... I've examined the device. I know what it does," he answered uneasily.

"Very good." Kilobyte looked down at Hexadecimal, and lowered the switch.

Sevarius, his eye wide, looked back and forth between the Viruses. Hexadecimal was in pain, crying out as her power was stolen from her. Kilobyte remained rigid, watching her closely, keeping his expression under tight control. When her struggles weakened Kilobyte raised the lever again.

She slumped back, panting audibly. Kilobyte unfastened the restraints. This time she did not jump off the table; she lay there, her only movement the rise and fall of her chest.

Sevarius was staring at the young Virus. "Ah... can we get the last set of readings now?"

"Yes." Kilobyte gathered her tenderly into his arms and carried her to the medstation. Sevarius went to his terminal and recalibrated it, once again surprised by the change in her energy level. The previous reading had been wild and erratic; this one was smooth, flat, like that of a very sick sprite.

"Do you need to examine her further?" Kilobyte asked.

"No. Not yet - first I must use the scans, so I will know what to look for."

"Very well. I'll leave you to it." Kilobyte picked Hexadecimal up gently and carried her out.

Sevarius stared at the workstation, thinking about the disturbing scenes he had witnessed. That any person could do that to his own child... but he wasn't torturing her; Sevarius could see that Kilobyte had gotten no pleasure from the deed. He had hated it. And the poor girl - she must have been in pain from all the excess energy coursing through her body. No normal being could have survived that! No wonder she had been angry and irritable.

The sound of a footstep made him look over. There in the doorway was the Virus boy, watching him. "Ach, I didn't notice you there."

"What are you doing?" the young Virus asked from the doorway.

"I'm trying to find out what's wrong with Hexadecimal."

The boy frowned, as if about to say something, but did not speak. Sevarius asked, "What's your name?"

"I'm Megabyte."

Sevarius held back a laugh. A large name for a young boy! He would have to grow into it. Megabyte continued, "Kilobyte's my father."

"I can see the resemblance. But you and your father look nothing like Hexadecimal. I suppose she takes after her mother, ja?"

Megabyte shrugged. "I dunno."

Sevarius decided not to pursue that subject now. "How old are you, Kleinbyte?"

Megabyte looked at him strangely. "What does that mean?"

"Ah - that would be your name in my language," Sevarius said quickly.

"Oh. I'm 1.0." The boy looked at the monitor. Sevarius tried not to tense up as he approached. Megabyte was young, but he still towered over a binome such as himself. And Sevarius had no doubt that he could do him some serious damage with or without his claws. Mech Viruses were strong.

"What are you going to do?" Megabyte wanted to know.

"I'm going to try to find out why she isn't able to contain her power, and repair it."


"I'm not sure yet. That's what I've been scanning her for - so I can find the problem and repair it."

The boy looked at the screen again. Lines of code were displayed in small print. He said, "You can find out from that?"

"Yes. That's your sister's code."

Megabyte stared at it again. "It's nonsense, just like her," he decided.

"It's impossible to read if you don't know the language."

"Oh." Megabyte looked at it for a nano longer, then said, "Look what I can do."

Sevarius saw the young Virus grip a workstation with both hands. Blue spread outward from where he touched it, until the entire instrument had changed. Sevarius forced himself not to cringe. Megabyte stepped back, a look of smug satisfaction on his face. "I can infect bigger things too."

"Ah... that's nice..."

They both heard the heavy footsteps at the same time. Megabyte tensed and backed away from the station. When Kilobyte came in he looked at Megabyte in mild surprise. Then he saw the infected workstation, and frowned at Megabyte. "Put that back! You know better than that."

Megabyte hesitated sulkily for a few nanos, then laid his hands on it again. The station faded to its original color.

Kilobyte asked Sevarius, "Has he been distracting you?"

"No, no, he wasn't bothering me," Sevarius answered. "He was just curious. I wasn't using that workstation."

"Still, he knows he shouldn't infect anything that's not his," Kilobyte said while looking at his son. "Let him get on with his work."

Megabyte lowered his head wordlessly and left. When he was behind Kilobyte he looked back once - Sevarius caught a glimpse of a scowl directed at his father - then disappeared down the corridor.

Kilobyte, already having dismissed the matter from his mind, said, "The process is quite painful for her. She spends most of her time now either weakened by power drain or suffering from overload."

"Yes... ah, sir, was her face always like that?"

Kilobyte looked at him oddly. "Like what?"

"Nearly every Chaos Virus I've seen has masks. Static masks, that switch when they change expressions. She has a face!"

"She was born that way," Kilobyte answered.

"Does her mother have a mask?" Sevarius asked next.

Kilobyte narrowed his eyes. "No," he said in a low, tight voice. "She was not a Chaos Virus."

First Megabyte, then Kilobyte. And Kilobyte had used the past tense. Sevarius guessed that their mother was a subject to avoid. "Ah," he said.

"You must know that there is much more variety among Viruses than there is among binomes, or even Sprites," Kilobyte said. "Her mother was red, but that is where the functional resemblance ends."

"I see..."

The binome had nothing else to say. Kilobyte asked, "Do you have everything you need?"

"For now, yes."

"Then I will leave you to it. If you need anything, VidWindow one of the guards."

"Ja. Yes," he corrected himself.

Kilobyte started to leave, then looked back. "Have you been working since I brought you here?"

"Yes, sir!"

Kilobyte closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. He could see signs of fatigue. But the binome had said nothing. If Kilobyte left him alone, the fool would continue until he dropped. He said, "Guard."

The Zero who had been standing just outside the doorway stepped into view. "Yes, sir."

Kilobyte gestured toward Sevarius. "Find quarters for him."

"Yes, sir."

Kilobyte turned back to Sevarius. "It is in nobody's best interests for you to let yourself get so tired you make mistakes. I will see you again at the beginning of the next cycle."

"Ah, yes, sir."

Kilobyte walked back to his command room. Couldn't the silly creature understand that Kilobyte had brought him here to do a job, not to bully him? For someone with such high intelligence, he could be terribly stupid.

Kilobyte might have guessed that Megabyte would hang about Sevarius. The boy was curious about everything. It was a trait Kilobyte encouraged. More likely than not his son would take over the West Sector eventually, and he needed to learn the part, so Kilobyte let him tag along and watch. Usually he kept quiet, but sometimes he did get out of hand, especially if Kilobyte didn't keep an eye on him.

He realized that he had overreacted when Sevarius had asked about Hexadecimal's mother. He could not have known what had happened to her, let alone that even after all these milliseconds the wound was still fresh. And Kilobyte still had to remind himself to throttle back. A little quiet intimidation kept people in line; too much and they became too nervous to function properly. However, it was virtually impossible not to intimidate the coward!

Within a microsecond Sevarius was alone in a small room. It was sparse but not Spartan, and the bed was comfortable enough. He had not realized that he was tired, but now the fatigue was hitting hard.

However, Sevarius could not let go of the problem just yet. He kept turning it over in his mind. Before he had left he had started a station building a sim model of Hexadecimal. Once he had that he would be able to run tests on it, to see if he could find the weak point.

Many things were unknown about Viruses, for example their early lives. They were good at hiding and defending their families, so few of their young were ever captured. It was as if they sprang to life fully grown. Well, a few actually did - some Viruses were formed by fusion and fission. But these children were compiling just like any other dataform. And, like other Virus parents, Kilobyte had hidden them carefully to keep them from harm. Of course he had infected Sevarius; he would never have trusted the lives of his children to someone whose goal in life was to make Viruses extinct.

Sevarius did not give this paradox more than a passing thought.

He searched his mind for facts about chaotics. They were masked; that was one of their telltale characteristics. But their masks were static, not facelike. Why did Hexadecimal have a regular face? Were all Chaos Viruses compiled that way, or was she a fluke? Or a hybrid?

Viruses had their powers for reasons. Nearly everything you could see on a Virus was a survival trait. Strength, ability to infect, built-in armor, their drives to dominate and make war - they all had as their purpose the propagation of the viral strain, and usually (but not always) the survival of the individual. True, the Chaotics were often an exception to that rule, as they nearly always ended up killing themselves somehow, but those who survived were the smartest, most powerful of all. Each generation was more fearsome than the last.

So, how did a mask help a Chaotic survive? What purpose did it serve besides simply looking bizarre? He was thinking about this question as he dozed off.

By the time Kilobyte brought Hexadecimal in early in the next cycle, Sevarius had hooked a monitor to the equipment he used to drain her. "Progress?" Kilobyte asked. Hexadecimal merely glared at the new equipment.

"Perhaps," the binome answered. "I believe I know what to look for. Ah - I would like to ask you some questions."

"Very well. Can it wait until after this?"

"Ja." The binome nodded and went to the monitoring station.

As before, Hexadecimal got on the table and let Kilobyte strap her down. Sevarius raised a hand. "Wait a moment - I need to calibrate and scan her." Kilobyte nodded. Sevarius fiddled with the controls, adjusting the scale so it would register both extremes, then activated a set of instructions he had input to focus the scan on one particular section of her code. The readouts showed frantic bursts of energy. "Ready," he said when he was finished.

Kilobyte lowered the switch. Sevarius heard Hexadecimal gasp sharply. He kept his eye on the power level monitor. It started out jagged, erratic. But as the line sank it smoothed out, until it was nearly flat at the bottom of the screen. He heard the click as the switch was raised again. Looking up, he saw Hexadecimal was once again weak, the glow of her eyes all but extinguished.

Kilobyte released the restraints. As he did he asked Sevarius, "Do you need to scan her again?"

"Yes, but I can do them from here."

Kilobyte stepped back from the table. Sevarius started the scanner. As with the first scan he had run that day, it gave similar results to the one taken the previous cycle. "Finished," he told Kilobyte.

Kilobyte picked Hexadecimal up and took her away again. Sevarius noticed that Megabyte was watching from the doorway. Had he been there the whole time? Sevarius waved.

The young Virus hesitated, then walked into the room with a defiant air. "Why do you have fingers?" he asked without preamble.

"These are an upgrade," Sevarius answered, flexing his hands. "I need digits for fine work."

"They look weird," Megabyte observed.

Sevarius chuckled. "Most people have that reaction."

"What are you going to do to her?" Megabyte asked, changing the subject.

Sevarius sighed. "I'm not sure," he admitted. "That's what I'm trying to figure out now."

They both heard Kilobyte's footsteps. Megabyte backed away and tried to look indifferent. When Kilobyte came back in he stated, "I believe you had some questions to ask me."

"Ja," Sevarius agreed.

Kilobyte looked over at his son. "We need to speak alone," he said mildly. Megabyte trotted out. Kilobyte closed the door.

Sevarius said, "He wasn't distracting me."

"There are matters which shouldn't be discussed in front of someone so young, any more than they should be talked about in front of a weak, frightened young woman," Kilobyte replied.

"Yes. Well... I have found some anomalies in her code-"


"I believe," Sevarius amended quickly. "I don't have code from any others of her format to compare it with. I must ask..." He hesitated nervously.

"Out with it," Kilobyte said quietly.

"Some of her code seems to be... unequal to her power. As if it was never meant to cope with energy at such high levels. Almost Spritelike."

Kilobyte's eyes darkened. Spritelike? Sevarius could not understand what he was saying; the binome did not have enough nerve to insult her deliberately. But Kilobyte believed he knew the answer to his unspoken question. "Or benign?"

"Ja. Yes," Sevarius said, relieved.

Kilobyte folded his hands together, leaned back, and spoke in a carefully controlled voice. "Her mother was a benign Virus. She resembled a Sprite in most respects. Her parents, as well, were benign. Mine were Infector and Destroyer formats. Hexadecimal's Chaos format must have come from further back. More likely on my side than her mother's."

Sevarius nodded agreement quickly. Despite the wild variations between Virus types, most of them could interbreed. Sometimes code inactive for generations would appear in a child, resulting in surprises within supposedly stable pedigrees.

"How does this affect the matter at hand?" Kilobyte inquired.

"Ach. Well, I must understand her format as well as possible before I attempt to repair it."

"And how would you repair it?"

Sevarius hesitated - then decided it would be dangerous to attempt to withhold information from his master. "I suspect that her code can be strengthened to enable her to contain and control her power. The subroutines for control are not strong enough to handle her power for more than a short time. They must be altered so they will be able to handle the load."

Kilobyte silently considered this. Logically, it made sense - as far as he understood, which was not very far at all. "How would you do this?"

Sevarius interlaced his digits. "I am still working on that. I am trying to isolate the segments of her code that control her power." He nodded toward the station that now displayed a wireframe sim model of Hexadecimal.

"Very well. Is there anything else you wish to ask me?" The binome shook his eyeblock. "Then I will leave you to it. If you require any further information or assistance, have a guard contact me."

"Jawohl," the binome said absently as he went back to the workstation.

Kilobyte left Sevarius alone again. Sevarius hardly noticed; his mind was already on the task at hand. He called up the results of the scans and plotted the energy levels against the code he had scanned.

He saw what he had expected. It had not taken much to deduce where the energy control subroutines were. Anyone could have figured it out if they knew much about Chaos Viruses. It was obvious!

The body of a Chaos Virus was a shell for its power. The code that contained its personality and powers, the control code, was concentrated in its mask. And it was her mask, her face, where the subroutines that were unable to manage her power also resided. Now that he knew where to begin, he was excited.

He called up the sim that he had generated from Hexadecimal's code. As a test he raised its energy level, then drained it. It behaved exactly as he had expected. He sorted through the code, tagging one specific subroutine and setting up a monitoring program. Then he speeded up the time rate and raised her energy level, simulating the way her power accumulated between drainings. Knowing her starting and ending levels, and the time span between them, he could figure out the rate. As the level rose the subroutine he had tagged became more and more active, until it began to overload. Then the line indicating her energy level suddenly became jagged and erratic.

He kept raising her energy past the level he had scanned before. What would happen if she were never drained? When the energy graph became frantically jagged he slowed the time rate. He watched carefully as the dancing line rose higher - he had to adjust the scale to keep it from going off the top of the screen - and the control subroutine struggled harder and harder.

Then, suddenly, the subroutine failed. The raw energy, no longer under control, tore into the code of her body, shredding it from within. Within nanoseconds the sim dissolved.

"Mein Gott," Sevarius murmured. The display only showed Hexadecimal's deletion. It did not display the secondary effect: the burst of power hitting the sector like a bomb.

Microseconds later, Sevarius was mentally cursing at the sim. He had expected to be able to strengthen the weak subroutine. That would be such a simple, elegant solution! But, no, that would not work. The rest of her code was not strong enough to endure it. It would be like building on quicksand.

Her mask, her face, simply wasn't capable of containing her power. How did other Chaos Viruses survive? There had to be a way to save her - and, not insignificantly, himself. What was the difference between Hexadecimal and other, successful Chaos Viruses, besides the multiple masks?

Cycles passed. Every time Kilobyte went into the laboratory, to drain Hexadecimal or just to check up on Sevarius, the binome was working intently on something. He was completely absorbed in his task, to the point that Kilobyte had had to tell the guard to stop him if he went on too long without resting. He was that engrossed in his work. Kilobyte found it disquieting that anyone could become obsessive enough to need to be reminded to eat or sleep. But Sevarius actually seemed to be enjoying the task at hand. That was more than he had expected from the binome who had hated him so violently just cycles before.

Kilobyte knew that he had set a very difficult task for him. He could not expect results in a cycle, and he was loath to hurry him along. This was his daughter's health; they could not just use an undo command if he made a mistake. He had finally had to forbid Megabyte from bothering him; the boy was too interested in what Sevarius was doing, and kept distracting him with questions.

Kilobyte had finished infecting a pair of new binomes and taking care of other minor system duties. When he deactivated his BRB code a VidWindow appeared in front of him. "Herr Kilobyte!"

"Yes?" the Virus said, surprised. The binome never initiated contact.

"I want to show you something. I believe I have the answer!"

"Come here, then."

"Jawohl!" The VidWindow disappeared.

Kilobyte had not been able to get Sevarius to speak English. But, he decided, it was not an important matter. If he could understand what he was saying, that would do. No use in wasting memory on unimportant details.

A guard waved Sevarius in. The binome looked quite pleased with himself. Kilobyte said, "You have a solution?"

"Ja. I have found out why she is not able to handle her power. It is her mask!"

"Her mask?" Kilobyte leaned forward.

"Yes. Chaos Viruses have masks instead of faces. They do not move, but they shift between them-"

Kilobyte interrupted, "I am familiar with the concept. I have seen Chaos Viruses before."

"Ah, good. Anyway, that is where their code is focused - their masks. The mask is the Virus!"

"I see. How does this apply to my daughter?"

"She does not have the normal masks. And the masks are what contains the power. That is what is holding her back. Fix her mask, and her power will stabilize!"

Kilobyte stared at the binome, his expression under tight control. "How do you propose to do this?"

Sevarius called up a VidWindow. It showed a simulation of Hexadecimal. The red figure disappeared, leaving her face, which expanded to fill the screen. "It will take surgical alteration to her code. It must be patched. I found a subroutine controlling her mask which had been disabled, possibly due to code conflicts with her benign code..." He glanced up at Kilobyte. "Anyway, when the subroutine is repaired and her code is patched she will develop as a normal Chaos Virus should."

"Are you sure of this?" Kilobyte asked.

"Ja - yes," Sevarius affirmed. "I have run it on the sim many times."

"Are there other alternatives?"

Sevarius blinked, surprised at the question. He paused a few nanos before answering, "I don't know of any, except keeping Hexadecimal from overloading. Her code will never be able to handle her power because of the continual draining. That would keep her alive, but that is all."

"I am aware of that." Kilobyte folded one hand around the other fist and looked at the ground.

Sevarius pointed out, "When she is in control of her power, her ability to command it will increase. She will become a very powerful Virus."

Kilobyte looked back at the binome and permitted himself a smile. He thought that Kilobyte would be swayed by that, did he? His concern was his daughter's health, not that she become the most powerful dataform in the Net. He said, "So, in effect you propose to split her face into masks?"

"Not exactly," Sevarius said quickly. "I would correct her code, restoring her face to what is normal for a Chaos Virus-"

"A mask."

"-and her own processes would define more masks as they are needed. The masks would be stored in her code, and activated when they are needed, one at a time."

"As is normal for her kind," Kilobyte mused. He raised a hand absently to his face as he thought. Then he beckoned to Sevarius. "Come here."

Fearfully the binome obeyed. Kilobyte leaned forward and placed his hand over Sevarius's icon. Sevarius flinched. But this time it didn't hurt, Kilobyte was not altering his code. He was merely searching through his read-only memory. DO NOT RESIST came the command, and he obeyed automatically.

Kilobyte normally did not resort to rifling his virals' minds. In most cases it was an unforgivable intrusion. However, Kilobyte would not trust his daughter's code even to the most earnest-seeming viral without confirmation that the viral was, in fact, all it seemed.

And Kilobyte found that Sevarius had been speaking the truth, as well as he knew it. He believed that this was the only way to rescue Hexadecimal, and that he had no desire to harm her. He was confident in his ability to repair her defect. And he had run many successful tests indeed on the sim.

When Kilobyte had gathered as much information as he could, he withdrew his hand. "I understand," he told him. "When will you be able to do this?"

"I could do it now. The patch is ready," Sevarius announced, relieved. "I finished it before testing it - actually, I finished several versions and kept only the best. I will need someone to drain her energy and keep her down while I work, and afterwards her power can only be allowed to increase slowly, to give her system time to adjust and her masks to replicate. But it will work, Kommandant!"

"Very well. Will you be ready at the beginning of the next cycle?" Sevarius nodded. "Then I will prepare her. You are dismissed."

Sevarius left, looking quite pleased with himself. Kilobyte startled when Megabyte spoke; he had forgotten that his son was there. "Why did you infect him again?"

Kilobyte looked over. "I didn't. I was searching his memory. I wanted to be sure he was capable of what he claimed."

"Virals can't lie to you," Megabyte pointed out.

"They can deceive themselves, or tell partial truths. But they cannot hide their memories from me."

"How do you do that?"

"You'll learn later," Kilobyte answered. "When you can infect people."

Megabyte grumbled, "It's always later."

He started to leave. Kilobyte said, "Megabyte."

The boy looked back. "What?"

"Do not bother Sevarius. He has an important task to prepare for. And don't bother Hexadecimal either."

Megabyte locked eyes with him. Kilobyte stared down calmly. After several seconds Megabyte looked away, then turned and left. Kilobyte waited until the door was closed again, then opened a VidWindow to the chief of the tower guards. "Sevarius is not to be disturbed. If my son comes over there, have the guard on duty alert me."

"Yes, sir."

When Hexadecimal was led by Kilobyte into the lab, she was silent and tense. Her eyes glowed a nervous yellow. Her arms were folded tight, as if to protect herself. She stared at the equipment that she had not seen before, devices for altering and patching code. Kilobyte felt her back stiffen against his arm. The table was bare, no blanket or pillow to cushion it.

Sevarius said in an exaggeratedly light tone as he patted the table, "Come, come. This will only take a few micros. Don't worry, mädchen."

She halted and looked up at her father pleadingly. He said gently, "I will be watching the entire time."

Unwillingly she got onto the table. Daddy had explained to her what would happen - Herr Doktor would fix her mask code to allow her to live a normal life. She was scared of the operation. He was going to take her offline and cut into her code! The thought made her want to flee.

Instead, she let her father strap her down to the table. The hard surface pressed against her back. She tilted her head up to watch as he secured each of the restraints. She did not look at Sevarius or the female Zero binome who would be assisting him. When he finished he touched her forehead with a gentle silver hand. "Don't be afraid," he whispered as he looked into her wide eyes.

Kilobyte glanced at Sevarius and nodded. The binome eased a switch down, draining Hexadecimal's energy slowly. She whimpered when she felt it. Kilobyte could not touch her without being drained as well, but he could stand by and speak softly to try to comfort her. She was not reassured, but at least she did not panic.

When she sagged back limply against the table, the One placed a small device on her forehead just above her mask. Kilobyte left the room, glancing back for a nano before he closed the door behind himself.

The Zero attached a wire to the device, linking it to a bank of energy and function monitors. Then she said, "I'll take control."

"Ja," Sevarius said absently as he positioned a device over her chest. It was a flat, platelike surface on a jointed arm, balanced so he could move it easily. He waited while Gali carefully lowered Hexadecimal's energy levels, taking her offline but keeping enough energy in her to keep her file open.

Soon she said without looking away from the monitors, "Ready."

He moved the plate over her face. Then he said, "Bypass!"

She pressed a button and held it in, pausing Hexadecimal's functions. Sevarius worked quickly, deftly outlining her mask and then cutting and pasting it onto the top of the plate. Energy glowed in the hollow her mask had covered. He replaced it with a featureless white oval, a temporary graft based on her code which would control her functions while they edited her mask. "Done!"

She lifted her hand from the button cautiously, ready to press it down again if the readings jumped. They did not; after rising slightly, they stayed steady. "She's functioning."

He focused his attention on the mask. Separated from her body, dormant for the nano, it had reverted to a blank, expressionless face. It looked like a toy.

He did not see when Kilobyte moved into frame in the VidWindow against the wall. He watched from his command room. The sound was partially deactivated; he could hear them, but they would not be able to hear anything from his side. Kilobyte did not want to take the slightest risk of distracting them at a crucial nano. Especially since Megabyte wanted to watch as well. The boy would inevitably ask questions.

He forced himself to stay still as the binome attached leads to Hexadecimal's mask and began working on her code from a terminal. The only sounds from the room were the soft blips from Gali's monitors and the metallic clicking of Sevarius's digits.

Megabyte stared raptly. He knew that you could take binomes a part, after a fashion. After all, even infecting them was editing them, wasn't it? And a Virus could take code as well as give it. But this was the first he had ever heard of a Virus being altered. It was horrifying - but, at the same time, fascinating.

Sevarius's world narrowed down to Hexadecimal's mask. The equipment was merely an interface between himself and her code. He had spent cycles and cycles studying it, and was now as familiar with it as he was with his own digits. He went through it, deactivating certain commands and altering others. Though it took microseconds he did not notice the passage of time. He worked methodically, disabling more and more code, leaving a virtual hole in its function.

Finally he reached the end of the code, and ran a parse check. After a tense sixteen nanoseconds it bleeped its confirmation that the code contained no errors. He breathed a sigh of relief and went on to the next procedure. He copied and pasted the patch he had crafted earlier into the hole he had created. He worked closely, his eye hardly blinking as he matched the subroutines and function calls, weaving the new code into the mask until it was indistinguishable from the original.

Megabyte had grown bored. There was not much to see now. One binome was glued to a bunch of readouts, and the other was fiddling around so closely that he couldn't see what he was doing. Neither had spoken a word in microseconds. He wished something would happen. Glancing up at Kilobyte, he saw that his father was rigid, statuelike, his hands clenched tight. When he noticed the expression on Kilobyte's face he decided not to say anything.

Sevarius drew back and flexed his digits, which had been threatening to stiffen from tension. He activated the parser a second time. It startled him by flashing an error message. He muttered "Verdammt!" and quickly opened up a debugging window. It showed the offending section, a mismatch caused by a redundancy between her original code and the patch's. With a dry, nervous laugh he removed one of the duplicates and ran the parser again. As it ran he glanced over at Gali. She did not show any sign of having noticed his embarrassment; she was focused tightly on monitoring Hexadecimal.

The parser bleeped reassuringly this time. He let out a breath, then said, "Ready to replace her mask."

Megabyte startled when he heard Sevarius speak. His attention had been wandering. Now he watched as the binomes moved quickly. The Zero counted down and then pressed the pause button. Then the One quickly removed the eerie, blank oval that had replaced his sister's face. He did not see Kilobyte's claws slide slightly out of their sheaths as his fists tightened; he was watching them maneuver her mask back into place. They put it on quickly, covering the hollow, and then the One drew a tool around it, fastening it back on.

When he finished he signaled Gali. She lifted her finger from the button. The readings jumped upward slightly, but it was only a blip - they remained steady after the initial jump. Sevarius had seen it, though, and outlined her mask a second time just to be sure. Then he went back to his station and opened up a monitoring program, the one which would track the flow of her energy. He said to Gali, "Bring her online. Slowly."

"Doing it." She eased the controls upward slowly, watching for any erratic jumps in her energy level. Sevarius watched for the same thing on his monitor, which plotted it against her code map. They rose smoothly.

"I could bring her online now," Gali said after a while. She looked at Kilobyte's VidWindow.

Kilobyte tapped a control, activating the sound. "Sevarius?"

Sevarius wiped a hand over his eye. "Fraulein Hexadecimal is stable," he announced with pride. "The code has taken, and we can restore her as soon as you wish."

"I will come there." The VidWindow closed.

Nanoseconds later Kilobyte entered the room. The binomes had already released her restraints. Looking down at her, he clasped her hand between his. He said, "Bring her back online," without looking away from the blank expression on her mask. It was no longer her face; it was a template, one which she would use to create her own masks. He could hardly bear to look at it.

Megabyte hung back in the doorway while the binomes fiddled with their controls and his father gazed at Hexadecimal. Kilobyte stroked her hand, though she could not feel it yet.

After long nanoseconds Hexadecimal stirred and moaned softly. Her face didn't move.

Kilobyte leaned forward. "Hexadecimal. It's over," he whispered to her.

"What?" She looked blearily at him, her face still expressionless. Her mouth did not move when she spoke.

"The operation. It's over." He stroked her forehead, above her mask, as if avoiding the white surface. Then he made himself touch it. It felt hard, artificial, not like her skin.

She gradually came to herself. The glow brightened in her eyes. Then she raised her free hand to her face. "It's over? Did it work?"

"Yes," Kilobyte said.

She stroked her cheek. It felt foreign, not like part of herself. But she could feel her own touch.

She pushed her arms back, trying to sit up. Kilobyte put an arm around her back to aid her. "I want to see it," she said.

Sevarius had anticipated the request. He held a mirror up for her. She took it from her hand and brought it close, staring at her mask.

After several nanos it slipped from her hand and clattered onto the table beside her. "My face..." She raised both hands and covered her face, pressing against the surface, looking as if she were hiding. When she lowered them again her expression had changed. Her mouth was downturned and a teardrop decorated one cheek. Blue-eyed, she whispered "What have you done to me?"

Kilobyte drew her closer, trying to comfort her by holding her. His heart ached for her. But at least she was alive, and would be healthy.

Over the next several cycles Sevarius kept a close watch on Hexadecimal. Her power level rose as it had before, but this time it did not threaten to overwhelm her. He scanned her several times each cycle with Kilobyte watching, and every time the results were as Sevarius had predicted. To reassure his master Sevarius built a new sim from Hexadecimal's current, patched code, and showed Kilobyte that her power would not overload her as it increased.

She became used to her masks. In fact, as more of them defined themselves to match her emotions she spent microseconds looking at herself, swapping the masks, even naming them. Kilobyte was relieved; he had feared that she would be inconsolable over the change in her face. He still found it disquieting, but he would become used to it, he told himself.

With her power stabilized, it could rise far past the level which had previously threatened her life. She was learning how to use her power, and enjoying herself greatly. That consoled her more than playing with her masks, Kilobyte thought. He had to teach her how to control and use her power, a task he was not looking forward to. She had become noticeably more temperamental. And her personality seemed exaggerated, as if the masks were amplifying her emotions. When he questioned Sevarius about that, the binome had explained quickly that that was exactly what was happening, but that was normal for Chaos Viruses. Kilobyte didn't like it - but he knew that there were some things he could not change, and that Sevarius did have his limitations.

Kilobyte opened a VidWindow. "Sevarius."

The binome, who had been playing a card game on a monitor, quickly minimized the window and spun around. "Ja, Herr Kilobyte?"

"Come here, would you."

"Ja." He hopped off his chair. The VidWindow closed.

Nanoseconds later Sevarius came into Kilobyte's command room. Kilobyte was seated in his floating throne. Hexadecimal, her face neutral, was leaning against one side. Megabyte was standing by the other. And guards were stationed around the chamber.

Kilobyte beckoned for Sevarius to approach. The binome, suddenly nervous, obeyed. Kilobyte spoke. "You have succeeded at the task I set for you. I'm satisfied that Hexadecimal is now stabilized and fully functional."

"Danke, Herr Kilobyte," Sevarius said. He had showed his master sims and the results of Hexadecimal's scans, and Kilobyte had confirmed that Sevarius was not concealing anything by reading his memory. If all that had failed to convince him, there was nothing else Sevarius could have done.

"Therefore, I will keep my promise to you. Come here."

"You're going to release me?" Sevarius said, surprised. He had all but forgotten that Kilobyte had promised his freedom if he succeeded. How could he have forgotten? But then, he had not thought about the outside for cycles.

"Yes." Kilobyte leaned forward and touched Sevarius's icon. Sevarius felt the viral code withdrawing, leaving behind a void. In the nanosecods it took he was overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness and loss, as if his purpose in life had been taken away.

Then he felt a second shock as Kilobyte took control of his memory without warning. Scenes from the recent cycles were called up and erased, one after the other. He was too bewildered by the images and sequences that were appearing and then being deleted like dreams to protest. The process was too rapid.

When Kilobyte removed his hand, one of the guards filelocked Sevarius. Kilobyte said,"Call in my spies. They will return him to his place outside." The guards saluted and carried the green block out.

When they were gone Megabyte spoke up. "You're letting him go?!"

Kilobyte looked down, and smiled at the outraged expression on his son's face. "Yes."

"Why? He's ours!"

"Oh, shut up," Hexadecimal said.

Kilobyte glanced back at her and held up a hand. "Let him ask," he said mildly. To Megabyte he said, "I promised that I would return him if he completed his task, which he did. I have no further use for him. Besides, his disappearance would be noticed."

"But he was already gone for cycles," Megabyte countered.

"Yes. And now he will return, but without his memories from his time here. He will have no idea of where he was or what he was doing. He will appear to have suffered from a simple memory error - which, in fact, you could say he has. They may have their suspicions, but they will have no proof," Kilobyte lectured mildly.

"So what if they did?" Megabyte demanded. "We could beat them. And we have the wall!"

This was an old argument. Kilobyte suppressed a twinge of annoyance; he could not make Megabyte understand that that was no reason to antagonize their traditional enemies. Of course he wouldn't understand - he was a young Infector. Kilobyte remembered that when he had been a child he hadn't had any sense either. Kilobyte was not going to explain his other reason for releasing Sevarius, which was simply that he did not like the binome. The hatred of Viruses did not bother Kilobyte; he had lived with that all his runtime. What had appalled Kilobyte was how willingly he had switched sides. Kilobyte knew that he had not taken control of Sevarius's personality, and had expected him to resist. However, after his initial protests Sevarius had given in completely, leaving all thought of his previous life and beliefs behind. That was convenient for Kilobyte, but he had no respect for a mind that weak. Let the outsiders have him.

Kilobyte was saved from having to answer yet again by the arrival of one of his spies, the Zero. She said, "How quickly do you want him put back?"

He replied, "Within a cycle or two. As the first suitable opportunity presents itself."

She nodded and beckoned to the guards. They lifted the green cube and followed her. Megabyte watched them with narrowed eyes, fixing the binome in his memory.

Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain

ReBoot and associated characters are 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. Original characters, and the overall story are copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). "Hyperactive" is copyright © Lost Toy People, Inc. (ASCAP). The various unnamed binomes and Sprites can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.