West Sector Story #7:

Tyger! Tyger!

by Kim McFarland

I took the road of least resistance,
I had my game to play.
I had the skill, and more - the hunger,
Easy to get away.
Pity the child with no such weapons,
No defense, no escape from the ties that bind,
Always a step behind.

Pity the Child, From "Chess"

He was cold and in pain.

Bright lights shone in his eyes, hurting them. He shivered, both from the cold now surrounding him and from the shock of his recent ordeal. The binomes wrapped him in a blanket, swaddling him tightly to warm and comfort him. He cried, not knowing what was happening, only that it hurt.

A binome patted him and spoke softly and soothingly, though she knew that he would not hear her voice over his own. He needed to be picked up and held, like any newborn. But she was too small; Viruses were much larger beings than binomes. And his mother would never be able to hold him.

The child's father walked back into the room. He looked numb, deadened, as if all emotion had been leached out of him in the last few microseconds. He walked past the bassinet to the bed where the child's mother lay. He knelt, clasped her hands between his own, and spoke softly to her. Then he lowered his head and shut his eyes, giving in to grief.

The binome could do no more than pat the newborn in a futile effort to soothe him. Eventually he cried himself to exhaustion.

A boy v0.5 old was playing by himself, engrossed with a set of blocks. He built little towers over and over, stacking them as high as he could before they inevitably toppled. When they did, he swept them into a pile and started over again. It was, to him, a challenge. A game. His current goal was to make it as tall as he was standing up. He had been trying for a while, though he was unaware of the passage of time. He had come close several times this cycle already.

His father was sitting in his floating throne, reading something on a VidWindow. A girl who had just turned v0.A scampered into the room. She ran past the boy, swerving to keep out of his reach - she had learned that even though he was only half her age he was strong enough to clobber her if she looked like she was going to kick his blocks again - and climbed up onto her father's lap. His arm went around her affectionately as she began chattering inconsequentially to him. He minimized the VidWindow and gave his attention to her, smiling at her wild enthusiasm and energy.

The boy watched. He felt a strange pulling within himself, like that of a drive left unfulfilled. But he didn't understand what it was or what to do about it. He looked back and forth, from the man to the girl, then back again.

His father glanced over when he noticed the boy staring at them with an odd, yearning expression. He looked back, waiting for the boy to do something.

The girl prattled on, paying no attention to her brother. Eventually the boy gave up and turned away, then halfheartedly went back to his blocks. Mentally Kilobyte shrugged - whatever was on the boy's mind, it couldn't have been that important, or he would have spoken up.

A trio of viral guards escorted a fourth viral into Kilobyte's command chamber. All of the guards had their shock rods drawn and ready. The fourth looked at the two Viruses with dread. In a terrified voice he said, "Please, have mercy!"

Kilobyte, the larger of the two - though the gap was rapidly narrowing, the boy having just turned v0.F - said calmly, "You were caught trying to escape again. In fact, you did a good enough job that you might actually have succeeded had you not been spotted at a hidden passage by a patrol." He narrowed his eyes. "I can't have that kind of insubordination in my sector!"

"I won't do it again!" the prisoner blurted out desperately.

"You said that once before," Kilobyte replied.

The green and silver Virus stepped forward. The binome cowered. He would have run if he had had any hope of evading the guards and their shock rods. A silver hand reached down and touched his icon. The viral cried out as code which had been a part of him for most of his runtime was withdrawn. He felt every viral subroutine, every viral command being removed, leaving emptiness behind.

When Kilobyte was finished he set the dazed binome on the ground. It looked lost, hopeless, as if its purpose in life had been taken away. And it had - the viral code had been a part of it for so long, it did not know how to function without it.

Kilobyte looked at the other Virus, who had been watching intently. "Try to infect him."

Megabyte eagerly seized the binome by one arm and pulled it off the ground. He covered the icon with the palm of his hand and closed his eyes, concentrating.

Megabyte was no stranger to infection; he had been claiming things since he was v0.8. However, as of yet he had only been allowed to infect inanimate things. Objects. Doing that was easy; they passively accepted his domination. There was no sense of accomplishment in that.

This was different! The binome, though desperate to be re-infected, fought against Megabyte's code. It was foreign, different from that of his father. Megabyte crashed through its code, deleting lines and replacing them with his own. It was a slow, laborious process, but Megabyte did not mind. Each bit of programming that he overwrote with his own brought pleasure to him, the thrill of dominating others, as his own programming commanded him to do.

After the infection was complete Megabyte doublechecked it, going over the subroutines and commands he had inserted, hoping to find more changes to make. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the binome. It had turned dark blue with red-on-green eyes, and seemed to have lapsed into catatonia.

Kilobyte watched, hiding his amusement. Megabyte looked dazed. No Virus ever forgot what his first infection felt like; let him savor it for a few nanos. Then he examined the prisoner critically. The infection was a sloppy job, much too heavyhanded. Typical of a first attempt. Megabyte had probably destroyed critical areas of its code in his enthusiasm. It would continue processing, but its higher functions were likely ruined. It would be useless except as a mindless servant. But perhaps a restore could repair some of the damage. If not, it would be kinder to have it destroyed.

Kilobyte said to his son, "Now release him."

Megabyte snapped out of his euphoria. "What?"

"Release him," Kilobyte repeated. "Remove your infection."


Kilobyte looked surprised and amused. "No?"

Angrily Megabyte insisted "You have the whole sector!" with a sweep of his arms. "I don't have even one viral. I want to keep this one!"

"You will have virals when you can infect and handle them properly. You have much to learn," Kilobyte said firmly. He glanced at the prisoner. The guards had backed away at the first sign of disagreement between the two Viruses; they did not want to be in the splatter zone if they came to blows. The prisoner was too damaged even to think about fleeing, or anything else. "Release him. Remove your code."

Megabyte glared at Kilobyte for several nanos, clenching his hands. His claws extended slightly. Then he yanked the binome up, covered its icon, and began tearing his code away.

Kilobyte said nothing. He could withdraw his own infection without harming a viral, but the boy, being unpracticed, was clumsy at best. And angry. The binome would probably be unsalvageable after this.

When Megabyte was done he dropped the binome to the ground. Kilobyte said to the guards, "Take him to the med area and see if they can restore him to some semblance of functionality. I believe I've made my point about escape attempts."

The guards complied wordlessly. They had to carry the prisoner out; it was too damaged even to walk. After they left Kilobyte said mildly, "Next time be more careful. Virals are of no use if you destroy their personality chips."

Megabyte's jaw clenched.

It was a dark and stormy cycle. A game cube had come down just within the West Sector, and this time the User had won, taking with it a good number of guards. They rarely lost games, so when they did it was shocking.

An arrow-shaped vehicle sped over the square crater, surveying the damage. It turned in a tighter curve than an ABC could as it circled above. Then it landed in the middle of the ruined area. Nulls fled, squealing.

Viral binomes watched as Megabyte dismounted. The flycycle was built to his specifications. It was all red, blue, and silver metal, with a wingspan as wide as an ABC was long. It could move fast, as fast as an ABC, and was more maneuverable. But it didn't close him up in a box. It didn't have much in the way of armor, but then he didn't need that in the West Sector. Who would dare harm him? At v1.2, he was himself armored, and almost as tall as his father.

Megabyte stood in the devastated area. Nothing was left of the buildings that had been here. There had been some binome shops and homes; nothing too important. It amazed Megabyte that anything could cause so much destruction. What kind of power must be in a game, for it to do so much damage! The thought was both thrilling and intimidating.

A red spark caught his eyes. He looked over. As he expected, it was Hexadecimal. Coming from the direction of the border, where he knew a hidden exit was. A guarded exit, which only the spies ought to know about.

He got back onto his cycle and lifted out of the crater. Hexadecimal was flying toward the tower. Megabyte matched courses with her. "Where have you been?" he asked her.

"Isn't it past your bedtime?" she responded haughtily.

"I know you don't spend all your time sitting in the guard houses. You've been outside again," he accused. "The guards are keeping your secret for now, but they won't do it forever!"

"What're you going to do? Tell on me?" She grinned smugly at him. "It's your word against mine. Who do you think Daddy will believe?"

Megabyte made a suggestion concerning a null.

Hexadecimal stared at him, surprised, then laughed and clapped her hands. "I'll try that! Thank you for the idea! Do you want to watch?"

Her mocking laughter echoed after him as he swerved away. He knew she was right - Kilobyte wouldn't care if she had been slipping out of the sector. It's not like she was one of the virals. No, she was a Chaos Virus, subject to no law but her own whims, he thought sourly. She never had to toe the line. She was never drilled in using and controlling her powers like he was. Why should she be? She had no function except to be a pain in the ASCII.

What bothered him the most was that he was not allowed to go outside the West Sector's border. He was an Infector. That was his format. He had proven over and over that he could do it, but never had he been allowed to keep a single binome! Yet there was more outside of the green force wall that enclosed the West Sector. Hexadecimal had told him that the system was many times bigger, with no other Viruses, and that there was a second whole one attached! And yet Kilobyte was satisfied with this one small chunk of territory, and wouldn't let Megabyte have any at all. Kilobyte had no ambition, and couldn't stand competition from someone who did.

Megabyte brought the vehicle down outside the tower and went in. It was well into downcycle, but he didn't care. He liked it when there were few people around. The sector wasn't so smothering then.

Only a few guards were present. During the downcycle they mainly hung around in case they had to relay any information, which was rare. They were not alert. But they did snap to attention when they heard his footsteps clanking on the floor. And there were only one or two of them here and there. They stood aside to let him pass, and he ignored them.

A thought hit him. He looked back at a viral he had just passed. Then he glanced up and down the hall. He saw and heard nobody else. He reached back and pinned the binome to the wall, his hand over its mouth to keep it from crying out. Its eye widened in terror as Megabyte laid his other hand on its icon. Closing his eyes, he began to concentrate.

At the end of the hall, another guard stared. He had heard the metallic footsteps, and come to see which Virus was still online, Megabyte or Kilobyte. Now he darted back out of view and opened up a VidWindow. He tensed when the window was blank for several nanos; Kilobyte was offline now. He wouldn't appreciate having his sleep cycle interrupted, but he had given orders.

When the Virus appeared onscreen, alert and annoyed, the Guard said quickly and in a hushed voice. "Sir! I'm sorry to disturb you, but Megabyte is infecting one of the staff!"

"Where is he?" Kilobyte growled.

Megabyte's breathing quickened. He had more time to work now. He concentrated on overwriting only viral code. He had learned that he could not claim one of his father's virals by overwriting the binome's code; if he didn't scramble the binome's programming beyond salvageability the conflict between the two sets of commands would incapacitate it. But he thought that he could instead attack the other viral code, deleting it and replacing it with his own. It should work!

He was so absorbed that he did not hear Kilobyte walk quietly up behind him. The larger Virus drew back a fist, then swung it around at arm's length at the side of Megabyte's head. Megabyte, stunned by the impact, rocked to the side, but did not fall over. The binome, released from Megabyte's grasp, fell to the floor.

Megabyte's head rang. Dazed, he turned around. Kilobyte was glaring harshly down at him. The normally green part of his eyes had gone black. He raised his hand again. Megabyte held an arm up to block the blow. Both held that pose for nanoseconds. Then Kilobyte growled down, "How does it feel to be attacked by someone you can't beat? How does it feel to be helpless, boy?!"

Megabyte's face hardened into a scowl. He crouched as his knuckle claws slid out of their sheaths. He snarled, glaring hard, his clawed hands held close to his body.

Kilobyte stared at him. The black of his eyes faded back to its normal green. Then he folded his arms and said, "Pull your claws back in before you hurt yourself."

Megabyte continued glaring at him, ready to strike if Kilobyte came any closer. Kilobyte watched him calmly, unimpressed. After a few long nanoseconds Megabyte sheathed his claws again and slowly stood out of his crouch. He startled when Kilobyte unfolded his arms. Kilobyte did not attack, however; he only pointed to the binome Megabyte had tried to infect. "Undo that."

Defeated, Megabyte picked the binome up and put his hand over its icon. He did not close his eyes to concentrate. He kept an eye on Kilobyte. His father refolded his arms and watched without speaking.

When he had done as well as he could he set the binome down on its feet. It stayed upright. Kilobyte glanced back. "Guards!"

A pair of virals appeared at the end of the hall. Kilobyte indicated the binome between himself and Megabyte. "Take him to the med center and have them clean his code before I reinfect him."

Megabyte's eyes widened. The guards had appeared the nano his father called. They had been waiting. They had witnessed the confrontation! He turned and stalked down the hall, suddenly furious. Megabyte had been forced to back down without a single blow, he hadn't even had the satisfaction of a decent fight, and they had seen it! As he left the hall he rammed a metal fist into the door. It rang like a gong.

Kilobyte's head snapped up. He looked at the metal door, which now bore a fistprint. Then he said to the guards who were guiding the injured binome away, "And have that repaired."

The guards nodded and left with the injured viral. Kilobyte was not sure that the binome could be salvaged. Megabyte had gotten better at infecting, but he still hadn't gotten it through his thick head that he could not claim a binome that was already viral. No matter how often Kilobyte reinforced that particular lesson, Megabyte never seemed to learn. Every few milliseconds he tried it again.

Kilobyte did not really blame his son. Adolescent Infectors were hopelessly aggressive and senseless. Kilobyte himself had certainly been that way when he was a child, and so had his brother. It was a wonder that they had not deleted each other, or teamed up to destroy their father and take over his territory. But their father had been too smart for them, and had anticipated their assassination attempts. He had separated them and held them in check until they had passed through that phase and into adulthood. Then they had parted ways amicably enough - for Infectors, natural competitors - and sought their own territories, armed both with their infection powers and the strategic skills their father had taught them. He had to do the same for Megabyte, and remember that it wasn't the boy's fault that he wanted to claim his own territory before he was ready.

However, sometimes Megabyte did amaze Kilobyte. He continued to try to infect virals though he knew that that would only destroy them. Punishment didn't seem to make an impression on him. His head was hard, metaphorically as well as physically. He did not even have sense enough to leave Clash alone, though the warbot could do serious damage to him. Did Kilobyte have to post a "DO NOT TAUNT" sign on its chamber? Kilobyte was tempted to remove the limiters on the bot that kept it in check, so it could give Megabyte a surprise he wouldn't forget.

One day Megabyte would be on his own - but not before he was ready. It would be a while before he settled down and got sense enough not to provoke the system into trying to exterminate him. Until then, Kilobyte would keep him on a short leash. At least Hexadecimal wasn't an Infector, Kilobyte thought; he didn't have to worry about her as well.

Megabyte stalked into his chambers and locked the door behind himself. He flung himself down on his bed and lowered his head into his hands. Once again his father had beaten him. He always did. He was the larger and stronger Virus. Yet he never did any worse than dent Megabyte. He was gentle with him, while reminding him that he could be much harsher.

Megabyte was trapped and angry. He could never live up to Kilobyte's expectations. He could never get good enough at infection to suit him. Yet he wasn't allowed to practice! Whatever he did, either it wasn't done well enough or Kilobyte didn't care. Not like Hexadecimal - she could do whatever she pleased and that was just fine because she was a Chaos Virus. She could be as senseless and scatterbrained and irresponsible as she liked, but it was all right, that was her format. She had learned no skills from Kilobyte because she had nothing to learn. She had energy, raw power, and when you had that you didn't need skill. Or intelligence.

There was one thing Megabyte could retreat to - his guitar. He could please himself, play however he liked, and not have to live up to anyone's standards but his own. He had started out learning from a viral, but lately he had taken to teaching himself. He pretty much had to; now the virals were too afraid of him to be of much use. But that was all right. He had gotten pretty good, he thought. If he heard something, he could figure out how to play it. He could make his guitar sing, and he could make it scream, as he pleased.

He got off his bed and went into the other room. He took the instrument and ran his fingers over its strings. He did not need a pick, but then he had to be careful not to break the strings with his claws. He had done that often enough to get good at restringing it. He would rather do that himself then let anyone else know how often he still broke strings.

Idly he played some notes. His anger had faded for the nano. After a few aimless chords he began playing a song he had found in a file directory some time ago. Its wildly changing moods and tempos had frustrated and fascinated him for milliseconds on end, until he had finally mastered it well enough to play it from beginning to end without faltering. That was something Kilobyte would never be able to do! But then he would never want to - and he wouldn't care that Megabyte had.

As he played the slow beginning, an easy part, he thought that he could beat Kilobyte if he somehow got the upper hand. Kilobyte was still bigger, but Megabyte wasn't convinced that he was stronger or faster. If it was one on one, no virals. If Kilobyte didn't have the territorial advantage. If Megabyte could beat him just once then his power would be broken; Megabyte was sure of it.

His mind returned to the song. He moved his lips to the lyrics without making a sound; lately his voice - which was lowering to a very pleasing bass, not much higher than that of his father - had developed an annoying squeak which surfaced at the most inopportune moments. He heard the lyrics in his head as he played.

"Mama, just killed a man,
Put a gun against his head,
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead,
Mama, life had just begun,
But now I've gone and thrown it all away..."

Early the next cycle, Kilobyte was making the rounds of the guard stations around the border. He did that every few milliseconds or so to keep them alert. It helped morale for them to see the Virus they served every so often, and reminded them of their purpose. So And_E said, and Kilobyte trusted his chief military binome's judgement. Besides, it got him out of the tower.

His path led him back through the plaza at the other end of the sector. He liked the open, airy space, where people walked about doing nothing in particular. It was a pleasant change from the closed, businesslike atmosphere of his headquarters.

He noticed the empty space around the Arc in the plaza's center. Odd, that the virals seemed to be avoiding that area. But when he looked up he saw why: the blue and silver figure leaning against one of the faces.

The figure was looking back at Kilobyte. It raised its hands to its chest, then lowered them, extending its claws.

Kilobyte's eyes widened. The boy was challenging him out in the open? Kilobyte wouldn't have expected that for another sixteen or thirty-two milliseconds. But Megabyte had clearly been waiting for him. Well! He had to admit that he was impressed that his son had gotten up the nerve, at least. Especially after his defeat last night. The boy was probably still miffed about that. He stepped forward, extending his own claws. Binomes backed away hastily.

When he was in speaking range Kilobyte said calmly, "So, you think you're ready to challenge me?"

Megabyte answered by growling and crouching, ready to spring. The green of his eyes had gone black. Kilobyte continued, "Fair enough. What are you fighting for?"

Surprised by the direct question, Megabyte said, "I want to leave! I want out of this sector!"

Megabyte's voice had cracked on the last word. Kilobyte did not comment on that. Instead, he dropped into a crouch too, lowering his center of gravity. "One rule. Don't do anything you don't want used against you," he said.

Megabyte did not acknowledge. He rushed at his father, leading with his claws. Kilobyte slapped the blunt backside of the blades aside with his forearm, seized his wrist, and twisted. Megabyte stumbled, then yanked his arm back. He swung around with his other fist, landing a blow on Kilobyte's chest. The older Virus twisted so the fist slid to the side, metal sparking against metal. He retaliated with a ringing, open-palmed slap to the side of Megabyte's head that knocked him to the side.

The virals in the plaza were unable to tear themselves away from the spectacle of the two battling Viruses. They all knew about Megabyte, but this was the first time they had seen him actually fight someone his own size. Some realized that Kilobyte was fighting a defensive battle, missing obvious openings and letting Megabyte recover between blows.

Megabyte gave up using his claws; they were little good in a close battle - and he knew that if he insisted on using them, he might find his father's claws in his face. He punched with metal fists, harder and sharper that Kilobyte's quicksilver hands. Kilobyte blocked those punches aimed at his vulnerable spots - his neck and abdomen - and let Megabyte land a few satisfying blows on his armored chest. The boy was clearly enjoying himself.

Unseen by the Viruses or any of the fascinated binomes, Hexadecimal flew over the plaza. She had been attracted by the noise and come to see what was going on. She landed on the top of the Arc and, smiling gleefully, watched the battle below.

The binomes did not know who to root for. None wanted to see their master defeated, especially by Megabyte. But if Megabyte won, he would leave the sector. Nobody liked the younger Infector; tales of what he had done to other virals had been circulating for many milliseconds. They were deferential to Kilobyte, but frightened of his son.

Kilobyte judged that this had gone on long enough. He had given Megabyte a good battle and let him get a few hits. That ought to keep him happy for a while. He drew back one fist, and when Megabyte glanced over and prepared to dodge it, struck him under the chin with the other. Megabyte's head snapped back and he fell over hard.

Kilobyte knelt by his son. The boy was out cold, as Kilobyte had intended, but undamaged save for minor dents. Looking down, Kilobyte noticed that he had acquired a few scratches and dents himself. The boy had put up a good fight.

Hexadecimal, who had started laughing when Megabyte fell, stopped when she saw Kilobyte pick the other Virus up. He slung him over a shoulder and started back toward the tower.

When Megabyte awakened, he opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling of his room, feeling nothing but pain. His head hurt. His body hurt.

...Oh. He remembered what happened. The fight. He couldn't remember how it had ended. That must mean he lost. He ran a hand over his chest. It was dented. And his jaw hurt.

He sat up and looked down at himself. His armor was scratched. He had dents on his chest and forearms. But, he realized with relief as he tested his joints, nothing had been broken or even badly damaged. He had held his own! Even if he hadn't won, he had still done some damage!

He stood gingerly. He felt dizzy, but that passed quickly. He didn't want to linger in his room; that would make it look as if he had been hurt worse than he was.

As soon as he stepped out the door a female voice called gaily "Megabyte!'

He cringed, then turned. Of all the people he didn't want to see now, Hexadecimal was at the top of the list. She flew toward him, her arms out in an attitude of exaggerated distress. "Megabyte! Little brother! You're hurt!"

"Go away," he growled.

She circled him like a hummingbird. "Oh dear! What did he do to you? Didn't you even try to fight back?" she cried, her hands pressed to her cheeks.

He swung at her. She darted up, out of his range. "Go away!"

She smirked. "Poor little boy. You thought you could beat up your daddy?" She tilted her head back and cackled derisively.

If he had a metal pipe, Megabyte thought, he could swat her out of the air. And he wouldn't sheathe his claws after he got his hands on her, either. He turned and walked away.

"Daddy said go and get those dents fixed," she called after him.

Megabyte stoically endured the indignity of getting the dents pounded out of his armor. It hurt, all that tapping on his injuries! Not that he would admit it. He clenched his fists to keep himself from clawing at the virals treating him. From their unnerved expressions, they understood the strain he was under, and did their work quickly and efficiently.

Afterwards he went back to his rooms. He couldn't continue living here, he knew that. He couldn't live in another Virus's territory. Not another Infector, and certainly not his idiot sister. And, he admitted to himself, it was pointless even to think about trying to convert any part of this sector. He couldn't even convert a single viral! Therefore, he had to get out. He had no idea what he could find outside the system - neither Kilobyte nor Hexadecimal would tell him much on the subject - but he knew that it was bigger than the West Sector, and he liked the sound of that.

Kilobyte would be expecting Megabyte to fight him. And the old Virus was the more experienced fighter. He knew Megabyte's weak point, one which Megabyte did not know how to guard without giving up the rest of the fight. What were Kilobyte's weaknesses? Megabyte hadn't seen any blind spots. Kilobyte was slightly less armored - his fists were quicksilver instead of hard metal, same with his neck and abdomen - but Megabyte knew that if he tried to gore him with his claws, he would find his father's claws in his own unprotected abdomen. If he tried to delete his father, his father would delete him.

But only if he could get his hands on him.

Over the next few cycles Kilobyte noticed a difference in Megabyte's behavior. The boy was quieter, more withdrawn than usual. However, when he kept to himself it was usually because he was angry. This time he seemed content enough. When Kilobyte found him, he was usually reading something on a VidWindow - something he apparently didn't want to be caught with, as he minimized them whenever anyone approached. That amused Kilobyte. Let him keep his harmless secrets. However, much of the time Megabyte was nowhere to be found - which usually meant that he was keeping to himself in his chamber. Probably he was busy with his guitar. Kilobyte did not understand Megabyte's fascination with the instrument, but if it kept the boy occupied and out of trouble - and if he didn't have to listen to its noise - then it was fine by him.

Kilobyte had half expected Megabyte to lick his wounds and sulk for a while after his defeat. The boy had a way of taking everything personally. However, it looked as if he had been pleased enough with himself at having been able to get a few blows of his own. Kilobyte had put off getting the dents repaired to make sure his son saw them. But Megabyte had surprised him by not gloating, or even looking smug. The defeat hadn't discouraged him noticeably, which was fortunate - Kilobyte wanted to keep him under control, not kill his spirit. However, Megabyte didn't seem to have been encouraged, either.

Kilobyte wondered if he would ever understand that boy.

Late in the downcycle, Megabyte circled the West Sector in his flycycle. Nobody paid much attention; lately that had become routine. They were used to seeing its silhouette against the green wall and hearing the distant growl of its engine as the young Virus prowled.

After making one complete circuit, Megabyte brought it back down into the hangar that it shared with a fleet of ABCs.

The two guards on duty, a One and a Zero, heard the engine of the flycycle increase in volume, then cut off. Megabyte was back from his usual "patrol." They didn't pay it any attention any more; it was just part of the routine. They had their hands full keeping each other awake so they could respond to orders or emergencies. The coffee and playing cards helped.

A microsecond later an alarm pealed through the station. Cards landed on the floor as the guards darted away from the table and over to the monitors.

"What is it?!" the one asked, baffled.

"You're looking at the same data I am!" the other answered. The alarm was just that - an alarm. No information on the monitor. That wasn't supposed to happen!

They heard one of the ABCs lift off, responding to the alarm. It flew toward the green wall. One of the binomes slapped a button, suppressing a small segment of the green field. The ABC darted through.

The One watched the hangar while the Zero tried frantically to draw information from the monitoring system about the alarm. Nobody came to the hangar in response to what should have been an automatic summons. No information explained the alarm. Finally she flipped a few switches. The alarm cut off.

The other stuck his head back into the room. "What was it? A false alarm?"

"Contact the ABC, ask what happened," she said. She went out into the hangar. All of the ABCs except the one that had lifted nanos after the alarm had started were still here, ready for action. Their pilots would have been summoned in case of a real emergency.

She went straight to a metal cabinet beside the hangar entrance. The door of the box, she could see now, was bent. When she swung it open, she saw the bit of metal shoved between two contacts. That was what had triggered the alarm. She rolled her eyes. Some fool had played a practical joke. Probably a disgruntled pilot or mechanic who wanted to give them headaches without alarming the entire sector and thus earning Kilobyte's wrath.

Megabyte had just been in the hangar, he had probably seen the culprit. She would have to ask him next cycle-

The cabinet door had been pried open. The edge of the thin metal bore dents where three parallel blades had wrenched it open.

A VidWindow opened in the darkness, startling Kilobyte awake. "Kilobyte, sir! We have a situation."

He glared at And_E's image. "We had better have a situation," he growled as his systems came online.

"We believe that Megabyte has taken an ABC and gone outside the sector!"

Kilobyte snapped completely alert. "WHAT?!"

"Apparently he faked an alarm and used the confusion to get out," And_E answered.

Kilobyte snarled. And he had thought that the boy had settled down recently! No, he had been saving his idiocy up for this. "Which station?" he snapped.

"The rim, spinward corner. I've sent an ABC to the tower. It'll pick you up."

Kilobyte left without acknowledgment. The VidWindow closed.

Megabyte laughed as the ABC flew over the Energy Sea. That had been too easy! With all the guard procedures and logs online, he had easily figured out how to get past them. Just rig a false alarm and be out before they had time to think! He couldn't have gotten clearance if he had asked for it, but he could fool those virals so easily!

He turned the ABC back toward the system. It flew in a smooth arc. The vehicles were built for intuitive operation, and his flycycle controls used the same principles. It was easy to fly this thing! The only obstacle had been the seat made for a binome pilot, and he had simply torn that out and thrown it into the back.

When the ABC And_E had sent touched down in the guard station, Kilobyte stormed out. "How did it happen?" he demanded of the two binomes on duty. "I understood you were to be watching!" The guards cowered.

And_E came out behind him and asked the guards, "Did you contact the ABC?"

"We tried," the female Zero said. "But its comm system is disabled. It didn't answer. We've been tracking it. It hasn't done anything so far."

"Get me a pilot. I'm going after him," Kilobyte said harshly. Then he added, "And a sharpshooter."

As Megabyte's ABC flew over the Twin City, he stared down. This system was big! The green shield surrounding the West Sector only sealed off a tiny part of it. There was so much more to be taken! He looked ahead, and saw that across a small bridge was a second system, completely untouched. He had to claim it!

A VidWindow appeared. Kilobyte ordered, "Turn back now!"

His father was in an ABC too. Megabyte smiled. "Or what?"

"Or I will shoot you down."

"Rule number one. Don't use anything on me that you don't want used against yourself!" Megabyte replied, and closed the VidWindow. He activated his BRB code to prevent any other VidWindows from appearing.

Kilobyte stood behind the ABC's operators. One piloted the vehicle, the other manned the weapons. The gunner looked up at Kilobyte. The Virus said to the pilot, "Get close behind him," and to the gunner, "Can you shoot to disable the ship without destroying it?"

"Yes. Up the exhaust port. I have to be close up."

"Do that."

Megabyte glanced at the back monitor. Only one ABC was chasing him. It was rapidly approaching. He thought that his own ship was going at top speed, but then he only knew the basic controls. There were many switches and things he didn't know the use of.

The ABC jerked. Its hull rang like the inside of a bell. Megabyte looked down at the monitor again. The turret of the ABC pursuing him was flaring. They were shooting at him! Then he realized a flaw in his plan - he could not both fly the ABC and operate its guns because they were in separate stations. His fingers clenched in frustration, denting the steering controls.

The sharpshooter aimed carefully, knowing that if he missed and shot through the ABC and hit Megabyte his own processes would stop abruptly and nastily. The vehicle would have a rough landing, but it was common knowledge that the two mech Viruses were very durable. A second shot passed just under the vehicle. A third hit the underside, just forward of the exhaust.

Megabyte's ABC began swerving from side to side. Kilobyte smiled grimly. Of course the boy couldn't shoot back; the implied threat had been an empty one. He was now darting around randomly to evade their shots. He could not dodge them forever, not with his poor skill at flying. And when Kilobyte got his hands on him, he would give him more than a few dents and scratches!

Megabyte snarled. The floor slapped upward again and again, ringing from the shots. Why were they shooting at the bottom?! He jerked the altitude control down, lowering his ship below theirs.

The sky darkened. Calmly the system voice announced, "WARNING: INCOMING GAME. WARNING: INCOMING GAME." He looked around. In the distance, a game cube began descending toward the near rim of the other system. He swerved and headed for it.

"That idiot!" Kilobyte snarled. "After him!" Did the boy think he could play chicken with them? They could fly faster; he was more likely to get caught than they were. The best he could hope for was to buy himself a few nanoseconds.

The cube expanded to fill the forward view with flashing purple. Megabyte angled the ABC steeply down. He glanced back. They were still following him. Then he was under the cube, the ceiling lowering swiftly. He would make it, though. He headed for the safety of the other side. They weren't shooting at him now.

The ABC came out from under the cube. Megabyte pulled hard on the brake, halting it just on the other side, and braced himself. With a loud smash his ABC was knocked forward. It hit the ground skidding, and rolled.

Megabyte was only slightly rattled. When the ABC came to a rest - on its side - Megabyte forced the rear hatch doors open and looked around. The other ABC was nowhere to be seen.

He grinned in vicious triumph. It had worked! Kilobyte's ABC had been following so closely that it had been unable to stop before ramming. Megabyte had been knocked forward, away from the cube - and Kilobyte had been knocked back into the game.

Megabyte had seen his father in games before. The old Virus would win the game and come after him again. However, he would be tired from fighting for his life, and Megabyte would still be fresh! And this time Kilobyte had no territorial advantage either!

In the meantime he had the system's natives to deal with. The ABC would never fly again, but the turret was facing away from the game cube... He went into the wrecked ABC and over to the gunner's station. He had to crouch down to reach the controls. They didn't aim well - the controls were sticky, and it was hard to operate them when they were turned sideways - but a few random blasts scared the outsiders back.

Megabyte waited for the cube to rise again. How long was it going to take?! He kept watch through the ABC's monitors, firing the guns when outsiders or their vehicles approached closer than he wanted them. They responded wonderfully, cringing back every time he squeezed off a shot.

He needed to take over the other system. All that territory, completely unclaimed! If he infected part of the Twin City, Kilobyte would certainly fight him. He'd have to. And Hexadecimal would too, just out of spite. But if he were in a different system, he wouldn't be too close to them. They'd leave him alone, and vice versa. Until he built up enough power!

He jumped up when he heard the system voice speak. Before it finished saying "GAME OVER," he was already out the back of the ABC, knuckle claws unsheathed, ready to scream and leap.


The game cube rose into the sky, leaving behind a sharp-edged gash. Megabyte stared in disbelief at the wreckage-surrounded emptiness before himself. Nothing was left of the buildings which had been inside the game. They were sliced off sharply by the edges of the cube, their insides in plain view. One of the tall buildings on the far edge, half of its supports destroyed by the cube, began to collapse.

Flecks of movement below himself caught Megabyte's eyes. Down in the crater, among the wreckage, were several small blobs of different colors-

Megabyte, still wide-eyed, leapt down. The vibration from his hard landing seemed to startle the newly created nulls; they began squirming more purposefully, trying to escape. He darted after one and seized it before it could get away.

It was the largest one, and green and silver. The only one with those colors. It writhed in his hand, squealing desperately. He stared at it in shock.

His father had lost the game? How? He was deletion itself in a game! No User could shoot through his armor, no game sprite could survive his claws or the strength of his fists.

But he had never crash landed in a wrecked ABC in a game before, Megabyte thought with increasing horror. If he could not play the game at all, he could not win it!

Megabyte looked around quickly. The outsiders would come soon. Still clutching the struggling null, he scrambled out of the pit again. He glanced at the now-useless ABC for only a split nano. He had no place to retreat to. If Hexadecimal learned what happened - no, she must not see this null! He could not go back to the West Sector!

He extended the knuckle claws on his free hand and started running at top speed, away from the wreckage, away from the Twin City, to hide as far away from his former home as he could.

Pity the child, but not forever,
Not if he stays that way.
He can get all he ever wanted
If he's prepared to pay.

Pity the Child, from "Chess"

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. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is by Queen. Mainframe's and Queen'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). The various unnamed binomes can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.