West Sector Story #8:

Nervous Breakdown

by Kim McFarland

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
- Kikuyu Proverb

It was a dark and seedy nightclub, down on a low level near the rim of the Twin City. Nearly all of the Twin City's youth knew about this place, though few actually ventured there more than once.

The small bar room held perhaps twenty-four Sprites and several binomes. To one side was a dance floor, currently in use by a dozen people. The music thrummed loudly enough to drown out conversation at any but the closest range.

The song came to an end. People left the dance floor - or, more accurately, the area marked off next to the speakers - and drifted back over to the bar. Most moved like cocky young sprites, just out from under the authority of their parents and eager to strut their stuff. One, a young woman, was different. She was about the same age as the average sprite here, but she moved with a fluid, predatory grace. Her skin gleamed metallic red in the multicolored crowd; her eyes shone bright green in the dim light. She wore a black, tight-fitting bustier which left her shoulders, arms, and legs bare. Her boots had painfully high heels, but she hardly seemed to put any weight on her feet as she walked. A cape of eight strips of red metallic material floated behind her, fanning out when she turned.

She sauntered over to the bar to join two yellow Sprites, a light colored man and a darker woman. They welcomed her, the man putting an arm around her shoulders. She did not need to speak to the barkeep; he was already mixing her a drink. A Sprite who had been hanging around near the entrance for some time watched her. Nobody seemed worried about her, or even to find her unusual.

One of the two Sprites with her said something and nodded toward the staircase at the back. He handed something to the barkeep in exchange for a key. The red woman took her drink, and all three went upstairs to the private rooms.

"Did you know that she's a Virus?" the Sprite at the door asked a burly man who was standing, arms folded, watching the room.

"Yeah. Her name is Hexadecimal."

The cape was disappearing around the bend. "You let Viruses into this club?"

The bouncer fixed him with a cold stare. "Yes. She's a powerful one, too."

The Sprite knew he was on dangerous ground now, but he could not let it go. "But aren't you afraid of what she'll do?"

Firmly the bouncer said, "No. She comes here all the time. She likes to drink, dance, and play just like the rest of us. And people like to see her. So she comes here to have her fun, and everybody's happy."

"But if she got mad-"

"We make sure she doesn't get mad. And that means keeping people who have a problem with her out."

He got the message. "I'll go get a drink."

Later, Hexadecimal and her companions came downstairs again, talking cheerfully amongst themselves. The two Sprites, who looked tired, returned to the bar. Hexadecimal went to the dance floor. The crowd parted to give her and her cape room. One Sprite took her hand and began to dance with her.

Microseconds later, she had had enough for the night. She kissed her companions - all of them - goodnight, then uploaded herself into her mask, which flew away.

The mask, and then the Virus, reappeared just behind a glowing green force wall, the color of which matched her eyes. The wall sealed this sector off from the rest of the system. For most people, that was - Hexadecimal could instant-elsewhere herself across the border with a mere thought.

She half-walked, half-floated down the quiet streets of the West Sector. At this time of the cycle most of the inhabitants were offline. The city's population had declined over the past sixteen or so milliseconds since Kilobyte and Megabyte had gone. Hexadecimal did not know what had happened to those binomes. Perhaps they had wandered off. She had never given it much thought.

One end of the main plaza was marred by a crater left by a lost game. Lately the virals had been slow to repair nullified sectors. But there were other places to live, Hexadecimal thought, so it didn't matter. Most of the games still lifted without causing harm, anyway. Those that didn't added to her collection of pets.

As she walked through the bleak landscape, flashes of color appeared in the landscape around her. Nulls, sensing the energy she possessed, were emerging from hiding like water out of a squeezed sponge. They followed her, but at a distance, simultaneously lured by her power and wary of the danger she represented.

A viral guard, one of the few left holding the sector together, watched as she lifted into the air and flew toward the tower. Kilobyte's former control center, now Hexadecimal's abode. Like most of the remaining virals, Kilobyte's death had left him with a feeling of purposelessness, an empty spot in his code. Some had ceased to function altogether. Others, desperate for direction, had given themselves up to Megabyte. The Virus had assimilated some of them into his ranks. Others had not survived his infection. Those who had remained in the West Sector did so in the memory of their former master. He would have wanted them to protect and serve his daughter - though she cared little about her subjects.

In midair she disappeared into her mask, then reappeared inside the tower. Like the sector outside, it was quiet and still. Lately the entire sector had become too quiet, too calm. That was why she had started seeking entertainment outside. But for now she was pleasantly tired, and ready for some downtime.

She lay down in a bed with a red canopy and sheets. Soon her expression faded to neutral, and the green glow of her eyes dimmed.

Hexadecimal was bored.

That was her state all too often lately. The West Sector was all hers, but so what? She had never been driven to dominate like Megabyte had. Her needs were simple; she only wanted to be entertained. Without her family, life had become so dull. Sometimes she followed her little brother's career, spying on him with her looking-glass as he built up his own little empire on the far side of Mainframe. He had had his setbacks, especially at the beginning, but by now he had claimed a small army of followers and a section of the Ghetty Prime sector. When she watched a battle she did not cheer for one side or the other; she was only sorry when the fight was over. But if Megabyte was defeated then that would be the end of that, so it was a good thing that the stupid boy was learning fast.

The first thing that Megabyte had learned was to stay out of Hexadecimal's way. She knew that he had had something to do with their father's disappearance. Both Viruses had left at the same time. Megabyte had begun carving out his own territory, but what had happened to Kilobyte? She had tried to squeeze the answer out of her brother, but he would not admit to knowing.

Even her hobby of mingling with the Sprites in the low-level nightclub had become a routine. Oh, it was fun, but she always knew what to expect. For a chaos Virus, boredom was deadly. She had to do something to alleviate it.

She wandered into the Null Ranch. She still called it that, though Kilobyte had closed off that section of the tower after Melissa had died. Hexadecimal had recently opened it up again.

She walked between the tables, the ones she remembered as being so tall when she was a child. She had only been v0.5 then, not able to see over the tops. Her mother had often worked with Hexadecimal seated in her lap, letting her daughter see what she was doing. Hexadecimal had understood none of it, but she had loved watching the nulls. The beautiful colors had flowed through the tanks along the far wall. Sometimes they had moved sinuously, lazily. Other times they had jumped around. She had always believed that they had wanted to play with her. She had certainly wanted to play with them.

But now the tanks were empty, the room silent. The tables and tank lids were covered by a layer of dust that she could draw in with her finger. It was eerie, this room in which she had played so often when she was younger. She understood why her father had closed it off - it was a painful reminder of her mother.

But Hexadecimal had reopened it anyway. After a few visits it had ceased to be spooky, and now was just rather sad. But it had working terminals. Hexadecimal had found her mother's old log files, and had spent long microseconds reading them. They told her more than Daddy ever had about her mother's work. Melissa had been so interested in the nulls. Hexadecimal could understand liking them, but thinking they were intelligent? They were just little energy-sucking creatures, weren't they? Melissa had never managed to resolve whether they could be recompiled into sprites. She had given up on that line of research long before the end of the journal files; she had written that without the resources of the Supercomputer there was no way a null could be recompiled, even supposing it was possible in the first place. She had seemed so unhappy about that.

But afterwards she had gone on to other projects. They involved backing up sectors so they could be restored more easily after being nullified by a game. It was a simple enough concept, but apparently tough to put into practice. Hex could gather that the reason it was very complex was because of the huge amount of data involved. Beyond that it became technical, and Hexadecimal understood little of it. But she read on. Even if it baffled her, it was still like talking with her family. Like a child listening to the adults.

Melissa had kept note files on other topics as well. These files were a kind of journal for her, it seemed. Hex had not been able to get into some; the encryption required a password that she couldn't guess. But others would open for her. They included information on all sorts of diverse subjects. One interesting file dealt with viral bugs. It took Hexadecimal several readings to comprehend what they were. When she had, she had laughed with amusement at the concept. They were like tiny Viruses, just algorithms set to carry out simple functions over and over. They had no minds, just infinite loops. The ones described in the file were all destructive in one way or another. The Glowworm Bug would draw all available energy to itself and emit it as a blinding light. It only stopped when the sector was drained of power. Medusa would spread outward from its initial position, transforming everything it touched into stone. The BSOD Bug was similar, except that it froze everything, turning it blue. And the Kudzu Bug, and others.

Hexadecimal laughed again when she read the descriptions. Oh, how she would like to see those in action! The notes contained no images of the bugs - though there were file attachments.

In contrast to the unnatural calm of the West Sector, the Blaine Institute had been much more active since Megabyte had appeared outside of the West Sector. Up until then, although everyone was aware of the threat that the Viruses posed to their system, they hadn't actually considered it immediate. Kilobyte had remained dormant after his attack over half a second ago. He had never carried out his threat on Jay, or harmed any other sprite. That they knew of, anyway. There had been rumors of another Virus, but until Megabyte had burst onto the scene they had not actually believed it. But now Megabyte had taken over part of Mainframe, and his influence was spreading. Every effort to beat him back only succeeded in killing off more of his slaves.

Where had this new, warlike Virus come from? They could only speculate that Kilobyte had produced a modified copy of himself. And compared to the new Virus, Kilobyte was a good neighbor. Because of Megabyte's new threat, anti-Virus research and development was now top priority at the Blaine Institute. They had to stop him before his infection could spread to all of Mainframe.

Jay had an additional reason to want to destroy the viral threat. He had two children, and he wanted them to have a safe system to compile up in. He could not bear the thought of his son or daughter being forced to serve a Virus. As far as he was concerned, it was Megabyte or them.

The project wouldn't have a chance if Jay were heading it alone, he knew. He realized now that he just didn't have the expertise. He had ideas, but when it came to the knowledge about Viruses he was sadly lacking. He was embarrassed now when he thought about how he had once believed himself an expert on Viruses just based on what little was available in the local system records. Sevarius, a binome who had downloaded to the system from the net, was now heading up the project. With his knowledge and Jay's drive, they were actually coming close to success. He hoped.

They were still short on samples of viral code. They had samples from both Megabyte's and Kilobyte's virals. The infections differed not only between the two Viruses, but often from individual to individual as well. That told them a lot: one of them had been tailoring his infection to produce different classes of slave. That one had to be Kilobyte. Megabyte's virals were of a lower class, the infection invariably destroying the virals' higher mental functions. Which was good in that they were stupid enemies, but bad in that they would blindly follow Megabyte's orders, even at the expense of their lives - and the Virus had never shown any compunction to throwing away the lives of his slaves in battle. What he lacked in strategy, he made up for in brute force.

Though they lacked the code samples of outside Viruses that would enable them to achieve their goal - an algorithm that would break down all viral code - they had a pretty good start. The current algorithm would need a lot of testing and adjustment, but they believed that it could be adapted. However, they could not test it out in the net. Viruses were crafty creatures. If they learned about the "secret weapon" before it was ready, they might strike first, have their spies sabotage it, or who knew what else. So they were waiting for their opportunity. And, just their luck, for once Megabyte had let an entire millisecond pass without launching an attack.

At least they were not bored. The games fell on both Mainframe and the Twin City, and when they didn't nullify entire sectors they left behind injured people. Between repairing the destroyed sectors and tending to the wounded, both the Blaine Center and the Mainframe Principle Office were kept busy.

The work cycle was ending. There was no need for Jay to stay late; none of the cases in the infirmary were too serious for the regular staff to handle. He walked out of the Blaine Institute, waving to some of his coworkers as he did. Then he activated his zip board and skimmed toward his home.

A teenage girl was sitting on her couch, holding a young boy in her lap, watching a .MOV file. She looked up when the front door opened. "Hi, Dad."

"Daddy," the boy chirped.

"Hi, Dot." He smiled at his children. "How was school?"

"Slow." She shrugged; what was there to say? "How was work?"

"Nothing new. No breakthroughs or disasters."

"Sounds like we had the same day."

"Sounds like."

"I colored," Enzo informed his father.

"Did you?" Jay sat on the couch beside Dot, and picked his son up. The boy nodded, pleased with himself. "What did you color?"

"Pictures of games I drew."

Jay grinned as the boy launched into a detailed, rapid-fire narration of the game he had invented. Enzo was young enough not to understand what serious business games were. Most children were frightened of the mysterious purple cubes that thundered down from the sky. Not Enzo. The boy wasn't afraid of anything. He was a little dynamo. If they could store the excess energy of young children, Jay thought, they would never have to worry about power shortages again.

He was grateful that Dot was so fond of her little brother. Some teenage girls were not interested in their siblings. Dot was different. She was studious, did well in school, and was generally a good kid. She wasn't the most popular girl in school and didn't participate in many extracurricular activities. She hardly ever even dated. She was content to come home right after school, picking Enzo up from daycare on her way.

She looked like her mother, Jay thought. She had the same sweet, big-eyed expression. When she grew up she'd be beautiful. And Enzo would be handsome - after all, he looked like his father. That's what Peg had said jokingly, when Enzo was only microseconds old and hadn't look like much of anything yet.

The boy would never know his mother. Soon after he was born, a runtime error in her code had activated. She hadn't known of the flaw; the last time it had appeared in her family had been iterations ago. But after it had triggered... they had tried to save her, to correct the code, then to patch it after that effort failed. But it was to no avail; the damage was done. Her system had shut down within cycles of onset. Here one nano, gone the next. At least she hadn't suffered long.

They had mourned her. And then life had continued. Dot had voluntarily stepped into the role of mother for Enzo. She had a teenager's resiliency, and maturity beyond her years. He worried that she didn't have much time to be a kid - but, again, it seemed to suit her.

Enzo had been an unexpected, but welcome, addition to the family. Jay was thankful that his son had been born when he was. If he had been due for release only milliseconds later, he might not be with them now. And if he had been older he would have been hurt by his mother's death. As it was, he had been too young to feel grief. Like the game cubes, his mother was an unknown, mysterious entity.

Jay still considered himself lucky. Almost everybody had lost at least one family member in the games or to viral infection. At least he had his children. They, if nothing else, gave him a reason to keep on, a reminder of what he had to protect. After Peg had died he had still had to care for his infant son, and that had kept him from sinking into depression. He thought as he smiled at the chattering green boy, there was nothing like the demands of a child to guide you back to reality.

Uneventful cycles passed. No games dropped, so they managed to finish all sector repairs. Both the infected section of Ghetty Prime and the West Sector remained silent.

Inside the walls of the West Sector, Hexadecimal flew through the air to the main plaza. She landed on top of the Arc, a massive square structure that dominated the open area. Some binomes watched, puzzled, as she placed a round hand-sized object on top of the Arc, then floated up and watched expectantly.

After eight nanoseconds the binomes heard the crackling sound of an energy release. Several nanos later green tendrils appeared over the edges of the Arc. As they lengthened and snaked down the sides they sprouted flat green shapes, which grew to the size of the discs of a zip board. The binomes nearest the Arc backed away.

Hexadecimal grinned with pleasure. The vines reached outwards, covering everything with their tangle. It was as fast as the documentation said! As it spread outwards, more of the binomes backed away. Then they fled, either running down the streets or going into buildings and closing the doors to shut out the unknown plague. She laughed.

The vines soon covered the entire plaza. Individual tendrils, channeled between buildings, snaked down the surrounding roads. In the plaza the tangle was thicker, the vines grown large. She flew about, looking for activity at its leading edge. There was none. No guards tried to fight it, and the other binomes must have all gone into hiding. How disappointing.

Still, she had found out what she had wanted to know. The source code that she had found attached to the file had compiled correctly, and the bug worked perfectly. She flew back up to the Arc and said, "Goodnight."

On hearing the keyword that Hexadecimal had specified, the bug reversed its algorithms. From the middle outward a greyness began to spread. The now-brittle vines crumbled and dissolved, leaving first the Arc, then the plaza, and finally the surrounding streets clear.

She picked up the bug's casing and flew back to her tower. She did not notice that the top of the arc, where the bug had been the longest, now looked roughened and weathered.

The club was filled again with young Sprites. The evening's partying was well under way when Hexadecimal swept in, flashing a smile at the bouncer.

Floating slightly above the level of the crowd, she looked around. When she saw her companions of the night before she skimmed over to the dance floor. The crowd parted to let her by. "Sueki! Suezo!"

Sueki had already seen her. She raised a hand and waved, then said something that the loud music drowned out to Suezo. Both made their way off the dance floor.

On the side, Hex hugged them both. Suezo said, "You're here early."

"I have something to show you," she said with a mischievous smile.

"Do you now?" Hexadecimal's grin was contagious.

"But I have to show you in private," she whispered, or at least shouted less loudly above the music.

"Just a nano!" He started pushing through the crowd to get a key.

Sueki asked, "What is it?"

Again, the mischievous grin. "It's a surprise."

Surprises from Hex were a good thing, Sueki knew. Hexadecimal had a wild imagination, and was willing to try anything once. And then several more times. Being with her was tiring, but it was worth it.

Suezo was waving to them. The two women went up the stairs with him.

At the top of the stairs was a short hallway that ran in either direction. Eight doors led to small, one-room apartments, which were now used for hourly rental.

Their usual room was one of the larger ones, furnished with some worn but comfortable chairs and a sofa, a coffee table, and a wide bed. No mini-refrigerator, but then nobody stayed long enough to need one. Much more useful was the full bath.

Hexadecimal brought her hand out from behind her back with a flourish. In it was a small object, a flattened black container made out of hexagons rather than squares. She set it on the table and sat on the couch with a triumphant grin.

"What is it?" Suezo asked.

"Guess," Hex replied.

She watched as the two Sprites took turns picking up and examining the device. "I can feel energy," Sueki said. "Is it viral?"


She peered at it. The surface wasn't completely opaque; she thought she could see something inside. She had no idea what. She held it closer, trying to see through the cover. Then she handed it to Suezo, who raised his shades and scrutinized it with glowing brown eyes. As he did, Sueki glanced at Hexadecimal. The Virus was smiling in anticipation.

At length Suezo put it down on the table again. "Okay, I give up. What is it?"

"It's a toy," she said.

"How do you use it?"

Hexadecimal floated off the couch to watch from above. "Tap the panel on the top," she directed.

He did so. It clicked in, then extended and rotated, releasing the connecting panels. The box opened like a flower. Inside was what looked like a large green seed.

The seed sprouted several tendrils, which snaked toward the hands of the two Sprites. They watched with amusement as they curled around their fingers and up their arms. Their amusement turned to alarm when the bug, now able to access their energy, shot forth more vines, which began to wrap the two sprites up.

Hexadecimal giggled. Oh, this was as funny as she had imagined! It would throw a scare into this dull little sector!

She floated to the door, ignoring the cries of the struggling Sprites. The bug had not yet started spreading across the floor; it was still focused on them. She left, closing the door behind herself.

Half a microsecond later, Hexadecimal was still on the dance floor. She was alert, however, and cast occasional glances at the stairway. Soon she heard a creak, then a crash, as if a door were being forced open.

She saw what she had been waiting for: green tendrils creeping down the stairway. The bouncer, looking annoyed, stalked up the staircase and started shoving through the vines. His annoyance changed to fear when the vines wrapped around him, entangling him. He tried to pull away. Too quickly the bug drew him into its mass.

The dancing had stopped. Though the music had drowned out his yelling and cursing, others had followed Hexadecimal's glance and seen the bug. "What the phreak is that?" someone said.

"Why don't you go take a look?" Hex replied innocently.

"The heck!" The bouncer was no longer visible; the vines had completely grown over him. And they were coming down the stairs faster now. People began rushing out the door.

Hex watched the developing panic delightedly. Most of the Sprites fled. Some of them took out blades - shame on them, what were they doing with those weapons here? - and began attacking Kudzu. The bug reacted by shooting out vines and ensnaring its attackers. They struggled entertainingly before being covered.

Hexadecimal was the last to leave the club. She floated above the vine-covered floor, leaving the door open behind herself.


The binome waited in front of the floating throne until his master deigned to look down and notice him. At length the reply came. "Yes?"

"We have a report of viral activity in the Twin City, outside of the West Sector."

"Oh, really?" He leaned forward.

The binome activated a VidWindow showing a diagram of the Twin City. The various sectors were outlined in yellow. The West Sector was an impenetrable green blot; they had never been able to detect any energy fluctuations within it, although he was sure they existed. The force wall blocked their sensors. And near the side of the green patch, a hot red point glowed.

Seeing his master's interest, the binome expanded that section of the map. The red dot became an irregular, jagged-edged smear.

"Do we have visuals?"

"No, sir. I'd have to deploy ABCs."

"No need for that yet," he said with a dismissive wave. "No need for her to know I'm watching her. Yet."

"It's not Hexadecimal-"

"How do you know that?"

The binome flinched at the edge in his master's voice. "Her energy is sharper. It has different characteristics. This is viral, but it's not hers."

"Interesting." A long pause. "Keep watch on it, and let me know if its status changes, or if you get more information. You may go." He minimized the VidWindow.

"Yes, sir!" The binome hastily retreated.

Megabyte maximized the VidWindow again after the viral left. So, his sister was up to something again. She never could restrain herself for long. Since he had left the West Sector, Hexadecimal had left him alone. That had surprised him; he had been prepared for all-out war. But she had instead kept to herself, content to play with the most disreputable Sprites the system had to offer, like a child with dolls. She had no ambition, no ability to see beyond the present.

For once that had worked to his advantage. He had fought with his sister while they had both lived in the West Sector, but now that they were separated she seemed to have forgotten that he existed. Out of sight, out of mind. Such an appropriate turn of phrase to describe Hexadecimal, he thought, and chuckled in his throat. If she had attacked him when he had first escaped, when he had been most vulnerable, she would very likely have succeeded in defeating him. But he had been left in peace to carve out his territory, and the inhabitants of this system had put up only the most cursory resistance. Unprepared for a new Virus in their midst, they had been easily enslaved, and those he infected brought in more to join his army and defend his territory. Certainly many were deleted in skirmishes, but there were always more where they came from. And some of Kilobyte's old virals, needing the firm ruling hand that Hexadecimal could not provide, had defected to join his ranks. He had infected some of them, but because they had not been released from his father's infection, the second infection was too much for their systems to handle. Those who had not closed file immediately were useless, their circuits burnt out. But his father's virals were already docile and infected, thus they could not defect to the outside, so he decided to leave the survivors as is. If any of them became troublesome Megabyte made examples of them.

He could spare an ABC or two for surveillance. He wanted to see what was happening. However, that would give away his interest, and most likely lead to another tiresome skirmish. Although binomes were expendable, ABCs were not.

The staff of the Blaine Center were also monitoring the viral outbreak. They had sensed the power fluctuations, and instead of finding a concentration of nulls, they saw... what? Something green spreading through one of the lower levels. And the female Virus was watching it from a distance. They had not been able to get any code samples; anyone who touched it was lucky to get away alive.

"It's right by the West Sector. It's got to be one of her powers," Jay Matrix mused.

Sevarius shook his eyeblock. "Nein. She is a Chaos Virus. Their powers come from their fantastic energy levels. This is not the power of any Virus."

"Well, then, what is it?"

"It's a bug," the binome answered promptly. "A simple program that behaves somewhat like a Virus, taking over whatever it touches. They can be quite destructive."

"Well, then, where did it come from?"

"I don't know..." He looked at the monitor. "She cannot have programmed it, I've heard of this one before. But I believe that she has something to do with it. It did appear right by the West Sector."

"You know what it is? Then what is it?" Jay demanded.

"Kudzu." Sevarius zoomed in on a mound of greenery. "The vines are how it spreads, and it uses these-" he indicated the flat green protrusions - "to soak up energy. It is a terribly difficult bug to exterminate. The danger is that if it is not cleared away, it will absorb the energy of whatever it has trapped, then break down its code."

"Great! So how do you get rid of it?"

Sevarius interlaced his digits. "Either destroy the infection, or use the shutdown code. The person who set it loose will know the code to stop it - that is part of the activation process."

"Great. Do you want to ask the Virus what it is, or shall I?" Jay asked sarcastically.

A VidWindow sprang open. Jay and Sevarius looked over to see a worried golden face. "We see it, Phong," Jay said.

"What is happening? I have picked up an energy drain by the viral sector," Phong said.

"Yeah. Sevarius?"

The binome explained the situation to Phong while Jay thought about their options. He did not even consider talking to the Virus. She would not just call the bug off if they asked! This was her first real attack on the system. She wouldn't go halfway and then stop. No Chaos Virus would.

Jay did not know if they could exterminate her. If they tried, they might run out of power before they got rid of the bug. Plus, if he were confident that it would work on a Virus he would have already turned it on Megabyte, who had been up until now the more immediate threat. The Twin City, being secondary to Mainframe, had much less power. But a viral bug had nowhere near as much energy as a Virus itself...

They had been holding their cards close, declining to test the weapon outside of the lab so they would not give its existence away before they perfected the algorithm that would completely destroy viral code while leaving all other code unharmed. They had gotten darn close, though. And now was not the time for them to be cautious!

Jay spoke up. "Phong, it's time to field test the viral breakdown algorithm."

The golden sprite looked down and pulled at his beard with a three fingered hand, clearly unhappy with the idea of taking such a risk. Jay continued, "We can't afford to dither. We've waited too long already. This thing's going to spread to the whole system unless we stop it! If you have any better ideas, tell me now."

Phong shook his head. "I have none," he admitted. "We are not equipped to deal with such threats."

"In that case, wish me luck."

"Doctor Matrix. How will you broadcast this algorithm?"

"I'll use a ray. Wide field, so the beam itself won't harm anything, and so it'll get a good spread. I'll test it first, then Sevarius and I will fine tune it before letting it loose."

"I will work out some contingencies," Phong stated.

"Good idea. It'll work, but it might be messy."

The VidWindow closed. Sevarius looked as uneasy as Phong did. Jay nudged him. "Come on, everything has to have a first try. When we get it perfected, think about how many systems will be freed from Viruses!"

"Ja, ja," said the binome halfheartedly.

Sevarius was only a man of action within the lab. Jay told him, "I know just what we can use as a carrier. Help me rig it up. Then monitor me when I go out to test it. I'll need someone to observe."

"Ja, ja..."

Hexadecimal had been watching how the bug spread. At first it had moved horizontally on the subsurface level, following the ground plane. But now it had the strength to climb to the upper levels, seeking the energy available there. She helped it along. She was full of energy herself, but it was under tight control. If she let some of her power through, the bug would grow toward her. She could lead it around as easily as she guided nulls.

It was amusing when nulls sensed the bug. They would come near, as if to get a closer look - then flee when a vine reached out. Most of them got away in time. A few didn't, and were instantly covered and pulled in. None of them made it out again. The nulls had met their match in energy sucking!

The sprites were less entertaining. Most of them fled long before the bug could reach them. What fun was that? So she was bringing the bug to them, to the upper levels.

Megabyte shook his head as he watched. Once again Hexadecimal was getting the sprites stirred up, expending her energy to no purpose. She was powerful but stupid. One of these cycles she'd make a fatal mistake, and the sprites would destroy her.

Megabyte was not opposed to taking risks. Every effort to expand his territory, every battle he had his slaves fight, was a risk. But he took calculated risks, not frivolous ones.

It was nearly time to take another.

Jay was flying on a zip board just below the surface of the city, carrying what looked like a very bulky lamp. He didn't want to be noticed, so he had put together a relatively small testing device, one which he could handle without any assistance. And he was keeping well away from the action. One of the binomes in the Blaine Institute was keeping watch on the female Virus, to make sure that Jay did not stray too close and attract her attention.

He easily found the leading edge of the bug, a tangle of vines. When he approached too closely it shot out tendrils toward him. Quickly he backed away. He would remain on the zip board, he decided; if this thing was as volatile as it looked he might need to make a speedy getaway. If only it were a little more stable...

The device he had brought was simple enough in concept. One could broadcast basic code algorithms in several ways. They could be conveyed electronically, through VidWindows for example. They could be activated through a physical medium, as this Kuzdu bug was. They could also be broadcast on a beam, although that method was a lot harder to control, and less accurate.

He hoisted it onto his shoulder. The power pack in back counterbalanced the projector in front, allowing him to pivot and aim it with relative ease.

A sudden loud squealing close under his feet startled him, almost making him drop the weapon. A cluster of nulls had burst out from under a pile of debris, fleeing from the bug. Several tendrils had caught one of the creatures. More vines followed it. They covered the screeching null within nanoseconds.

Jay recovered his composure and aimed at the green pseudopod that had captured the null. The device hummed softly as he played it over the greenery. It had little effect that he could see. He narrowed and intensified the beam, running it back and forth over the nearest section.

Before his eyes, the vines began to wither, then dissolve as the bug's code unraveled. Encouraged, Jay increased the power. The bug melted under the beam, revealing the ground underneath and the slimy remains of the null.

He floated forward, carving a path for himself. Then he turned it off and backed away. The bug did not continue to pull away - of course it wouldn't, it was only a mindless algorithm, not a real dataform - but began to grow over the area that Jay had cleared. So, they would have to kill the entire infection. But they could do it! It was just a matter of scale.

He shut the projector off and flew back to the center of the Twin City.

Phong was monitoring both the infection in the Twin City and the section of Ghetty Prime that Megabyte had claimed. He did not know if Megabyte had anything to do with the Kudzu Bug, but the Virus was an opportunist. If he saw a chance to expand his territory while their resources were tied up fighting a different threat, he'd pounce.

The call he had been waiting for came. A VidWindow sprang open revealing an enthusiastic green face. "Phong, we can fight it! The anti-virus that we've been working on, it'll kill the bug! We can just shoot it at the thing on a beam!"


"We have to act fast. The more it spreads, the harder it'll be to kill. Sevarius says it leaches power from whatever it covers, and the bigger it gets, the more power it has. After seeing it close up, I believe it."

Phong held up a hand. "Did you not say that your weapon can damage normal code as well?"

"Yes. We haven't got that completely worked out. However, how does that stack up against the damage the bug's doing now? Or against the damage caused by a couple of lost games? We can repair things as soon as we clear it away. But we need more power. LOTS of it."

"Yes." Phong called up another VidWindow and looked up some statistics on the system's energy supply. "Mainframe can supply energy for this emergency."

"Good. Since the bug's draining us, we'll need energy to keep ourselves online. I'll need to store a lot up so I can hit the bug hard."

Phong paused. "I am not sure I can manage that-"

"Wait, hear me out. If I gather energy from the Twin City, that'll slow the bug's spread by starving it. Energy from Mainframe can be used to keep the Twin City online. That way it'd be a steady flow, and it wouldn't deplete you."

Or leave us vulnerable should Megabyte take advantage of the opportunity, Phong thought. It was a risk he would have to take. "Very well. I will have a cable set up. Below the system platters."

"So it won't be too visible. Good thinking," Jay said.

Inside the West Sector, a few viral soldiers watched Hexadecimal's rampage helplessly.

Deep in their code, they knew that this was wrong. They knew that though the people outside the walls of the West Sector were no friends to Viruses and virals, attacking them like this was wrong. Kilobyte had created the force wall to prevent either side from clashing with the other. He would never have permitted this. Though he was long gone, the code that still lived within them protested.

They could do nothing to stop Hexadecimal. Unlike her father, she was irrational, acting on whatever whim moved her. They could not restrain her even if their programming would have allowed it.

Kilobyte's infection had instilled loyalty. It had not taken away their free will or intelligence; Kilobyte had not wanted blind obedience. They could see that their master's children were doing wrong, and be sorry.

And_E felt like a tool whose power source was running low. He had kept his sense of purpose after the death of his master by maintaining order in the West Sector. Most of the virals knew their roles, and with a little direction some had kept functioning normally without Kilobyte. If Hexadecimal had been a good master - or even a competent one - they might have been able to transfer their loyalty to her. Life could have continued smoothly for a long time. But now few of the virals had any sense of purpose left, and without that a viral did not survive long. Despite all of And_E's efforts his own spouse had been unable to keep processing for long after Kilobyte had died, and he had ended file like so many others. Some had even been desperate enough to defect to Megabyte, knowing what a cruel master he was.

Finally one of them spoke. "Someone's got to stop her."

And_E said quietly, "I know." He started to leave.

"Wait. Are you going to try?"

He looked back. "Yes," he replied.

"You can't talk to her. Nobody can!"

"I have to try."

As he walked out, he told himself that he knew what they were thinking, and they were probably right. The only thing they knew of more powerful than her was the User, and unless a game came down on her now the User wouldn't do them any good. Not that And_E wanted that to happen. He had known Hexadecimal since her initialization, and despite everything was fond of her. Perhaps that was part of the infection code, perhaps not. And_E didn't make that distinction. He had been viral so long that it was not important.

He activated his single-disc zip board and flew to the green wall. A gap opened to let him through. On the other side was the outside city, so much larger than the West Sector. Larger, and unprotected. Vulnerable.

A green carpet was spreading on the surface. Close to the center it was smooth, covered with flat round surfaces. The edges were tangles of questing tendrils. Above it, Hexadecimal floated in the air. As And_E approached he saw her amused grin. She was enjoying the show. She didn't notice him until he was almost in front of her.

"Hexadecimal," he said, "Please, don't do this."

"I've already done it," she replied sweetly.

"Things are bad enough as it is, with Megabyte loose in the system. The outsiders are already scared of Viruses. This - they're going to take that as an act of war!"

She scoffed, "Oh, you worry too much. I'm just having a little fun."

"Fun or not, they're going to fight back!"

"Let them come," she purred with a manic grin. "I haven't had a good fight since Megabyte left!"


"Go away." She gestured at him, sending him flying backward. He just barely managed to keep on his zip board. If he fell into that green mess... he didn't want to think about that.

Resigned, he flew back to the green wall, which opened just long enough to let him through. Hexadecimal did not bother to watch him go. She was watching the zip boards rising from the sectors closest to Kudzu's leading edges.

Jay, Sevarius, and their staffers worked feverishly on building more of the antiviral devices. The first few they made were portable, like the one Jay had tested. The bug was expanding into a residential area, and certainly some people would need help evacuating. The portable beams would buy them a little time, and possibly could rescue some of those who were trapped inside their homes, until they got enough power stored up for the large cannon.

The evacuation was well under way. As soon as it became clear that the bug was a threat, people had been warned to get out of its path. Some had crossed the Gilded Gate Bridge to Mainframe. Most had simply gone further away on the Twin City, because the bridge was uncomfortably close to the West Sector.

Just to be sure... Jay opened up a VidWindow. It showed the interior of his home, and his daughter. She looked up. "Hi, Dad."

"Hi, Dot. Did you get the evacuation notice?"

"Yes. I checked, and the bug's not that near here, so I'm getting a few things together. Packing a lunch and some toys to keep Enzo happy."

"Good girl. Don't wait until it's right outside the door, get out early."

"Don't worry, Dad, I won't. Is this as bad as they say it is?"

"I don't know what they've been saying, I've been too busy. We can fight it off, but it's not going to be easy. So don't take any chances."

"I won't, I won't."

"Okay, I probably won't be able to talk to you again until this is over, so take care, sweetie. I love you."

"Love you too, Dad."

Megabyte was still monitoring the developments. The spread of the bug had ceased to hold his interest. He was now observing the reactions of the Sprites to this threat.

No mistake, it was a threat. Though they did not have visuals, they could monitor the energy levels and output of the area. And the bug was draining energy, perhaps storing it up. Anyone or anything caught in that would not last long. A cruel, nasty device - but an effective one. It could be a very effective tool in the right hands. But those hands were not Hexadecimal's. What he could do with it...

However, power fluctuations were now visible in other areas. There was no telltale drain in Mainframe, so Kudzu had not been unleashed here. No, they were doing something else with their energy. Some sort of effort to aid the contaminated city, no doubt.

He started to dismiss the thought - then stopped. The bug's power drain would be the biggest threat to the city itself, he realized. Without power, their defenses would be useless. And any assistance from Mainframe would weaken that system as well. There were opportunities here!

He tapped a button on the arm controls of his throne. Several virals, who had been monitoring the events in the West Sector, snapped to attention. Megabyte said, "I am expecting Mainframe to come to the rescue of the Twin City. It will very likely be in the form of energy. If you spot any activity of that nature, report to me immediately! And have the troops prepare for action." Without waiting for acknowledgment he closed the VidWindow and went back to watching.

The portable antiviral beams were finished and given to a number of ABC troopers. The binomes could not carry the weapons themselves, but they could mount them on their vehicles. That would also let them carry extra power packs.

Armed with these and their instructions to slow the bug's spread and aid the evacuation wherever possible, a handful of CPUs flew away from the Blaine Institute.

Jay watched them go. Hopefully they'd buy the time they needed to get the big cannon working. The techs were now assembling it, and Jay and Sevarius were monitoring the Kudzu's spread while they waited.

Hexadecimal was becoming bored. Not many people were fleeing from the bug any more. They must all have gotten out already. What fun was that?

The more energy the bug got, the more power it had, and the faster it could spread. The more it spread, the more interesting things would be. She pointed her hands downward and directed a flow of energy into the seething green mass. Not enough to burn, just enough to nourish it.

"Mein Gott! Dr. Matrix! Look at this!"

"What?" He glanced up.

The scene in the VidWindow shifted to an image of the female Virus linked by a red thread of energy to the bug. At first it looked like she was attacking it - but then they saw that the bug's growth was accelerating.

"There's the proof that it's her bug!" Jay said. "She's trying to offline us."

"There was any doubt?!" Sevarius asked.

"Not really." Jay turned to another VidWindow. "Phong, how's the power line coming?"

"The CPUs are conveying it now." His VidWindow showed the space between the cities. Below the level of the system platters, a set of CPU carriers were drawing a thick cable across from Mainframe's core to the center of the Twin City.

"Thanks, Phong," Jay said. The power from Mainframe would certainly enable them to clear out the viral infestation. And maybe they could then use it to destroy the force wall that had shielded the West Sector from them for seconds. The beam would probably kill the virals, since they had the Virus's code enmeshed in their own. That was just an added bonus; their real goal was to kill the Virus himself, as without their commander virals were helpless. Once they eliminated Kilobyte, his slaves would be easy to contain.

More immediately, however, they would have to get rid of this female Virus. She was powerful. According to Sevarius, it would be hard to kill her. But with this much energy, Jay was confident that they could do it.

He switched to a view of the underside of the Twin City's platter. The CPUs were attaching the cable to the center. They would have to route it up the levels, which would cost them time, but they needed to keep the cable out of the reach of the bug. Plus, if it were in easy view, it would be a tempting target for an ambitious Virus. She already had a lot of power; User help them if she accessed Mainframe's core energy as well!

Hexadecimal's energy had had the desired effect. The bug was spreading faster than ever. It had already covered, she estimated, one sixth of the Twin City. It could not expand past the West Sector's wall, so it piled up against it. It would be a while before it completely surrounded it.

Some vehicles smaller and more streamlined than ABCs were flying toward her. Interested, she watched. Each had some sort of device mounted on the front. Weapons? She laughed. What could they throw at her that was worse than her brother's efforts?

The vehicles stopped just before Kudzu's edge, as if afraid to fly over it. They were in two clusters. Their weapons fired green beams down. Where the beams touched Kudzu, it withered and dissolved.

Hexadecimal's eyes turned red. They were attacking her pet! How dare they?! Then she looked up and smiled evilly. She would take care of them.

The CPUs saw her heading for them. Their leader said on the open channel, "Hold steady."

She stopped right in front of one group, which was currently destroying a pseudopod that was reaching uncomfortably close to the city's center. The leader nervously said into another channel, "Dr. Matrix, are you watching this?"

"Yes. She looks curious. Don't fire on her - at this range, you don't want her to blast back."

"Believe me, I don't!" the CPU said wholeheartedly.

The Virus came close to one of the beam weapons, and peered at it. As she did, the other cluster of CPUs aimed their beams at her.

Hexadecimal had no idea what she was looking at. She had never seen anything like this. Where it shone its light, the kudzu seemed to melt away. And when she got too close, she began to itch.

Curiously she waved a hand into the beam. Pain rushed through her as the antiviral algorithm tore into her. She shrieked, enraged. Then she gathered her energy and threw a burst at the offending CPU.

"Fire!" The leader of the CPUs, who was in the next vehicle, cried. The beams began bathing her from several different directions. Green light glowed off her metallic body. She screamed and threw her hands up over her face. A nanosecond later, she wasn't there.

"What just happened?!" Jay exclaimed. "It couldn't have been that easy!"

Sevarius said, "Did you see the speck of white? She uploaded into her mask and fled. They frightened her off, at least."

"Yeah. If she comes back, she'll come back angry," Jay said.

"She will. Chaos Viruses don't give up easily," Sevarius told him.

"How long do you think we have?"

Sevarius thought. "She was not badly harmed. When she waved her hand through the beam, it only burned her surface a little, and the beams were more widely focused. And with her level of energy..."

"Not long?"

"Not long," the binome agreed.

"I'm going to go help the techs," Jay told him as he left. He couldn't sit and wait quietly. They'd have to have that beam cannon built now.

Dr. Matrix climbed up to the tower atop the Blaine Institute. Normally only a housing for the antenna, it had a medium sized platform below the spine that pointed up to the sky. The cannon sat on the platform, techs working on all sides.

"Well?" Jay demanded.

"Dr. Matrix," one said, "It's nearly done. We've gotten the hardware built, and it's been charging up for a microsecond now. We weren't sure how to install your antiviral programming-"

"I'll do that," he said curtly. "The situation's changed. We need it immediately."

The rest of the tech team paused and looked at him. Then they returned to their tasks, more industrious than before.

Hexadecimal reappeared inside the safety of the West Sector. She was furious. They had attacked her! How dare they?! She hurt all over, as if the light itself had attacked her!

Her energy hadn't stopped the cruel beam. She could block any kind of missile they cared to throw at her; Megabyte had done his worst long ago, and hadn't scratched her. But how could she fight off light?!

To Jay's relief, the software installed without a hitch. The weapon was simple, basically a light cannon upgraded to piggyback an algorithm on its beam. Didn't take complicated electronics to operate one of those, just enough to add the algorithm to the light. More complex aiming controls would have been nice. So would the time they would have needed to build them.

The cannon was nearly charged up, and the techs were tightening bolts or whatever they did in lieu of finishing touches. Jay VidWindowed down to Sevarius, "I'm almost ready to start shooting from up here. What's the situation down there?"

"The bug is still growing, Herr Matrix. The Virus has not come back yet."

"I wish she'd just stay away long enough for us to clear this out..." Jay muttered.

Sevarius was incredulous. "A Chaos Virus? They do not have the sense to give up. She will be back!"

Jay checked the weapon's power level. "I don't know. If she sees how well this thing works, it might make her hang back."

Sevarius did not look convinced. Jay was unsurprised; the binome was at home in a safe, controlled lab. He was not programmed to function in crisis situations. Jay said, "I'm not waiting for her. Just watch the region of the West Sector, and tell me if anything changes."


Jay minimized the VidWindow. Then he looked out over the Twin City again. So much was covered by the bug, it looked like whole sectors were drowning in green mulch. Which they were, Jay thought. He stood behind the cannon, which though very large was mounted on a pivot, and finely balanced enough to allow one person to handle it. He swung it around, and in the sights found a tongue of green reaching toward the center of the city. His hand tightened on the trigger.

A needle of green light stabbed downward. It was the same color as the bug, Jay noticed. All the better to attack it. He altered the focus to spread the beam. They didn't need surgical precision now; they needed a wider effect range.

Where the beam touched, the bug dissolved. The wider the beam, the slower the effect, Jay saw. He moved it slowly from the tip of the extrusion to the main body, leaving behind grey, dissolving matter. He was not close enough to see that how scarred the ground underneath was.

Hexadecimal stared at her looking glass. She saw the green beam eat into Kudzu like acid, melting it away. They were killing it with the same light that they had attacked her with!

If she went back out, they would burn her with it again. And they were using a bigger light now, she saw. The previous ones had only made her hurt; the big one might be able to injure her.

She smiled and uploaded into her mask.

"From up here it looks like it's working. What can you see down there?"

"The same, Herr Matrix. The bug cannot stand up to your beam."

"All right. Keep watch, I'm going to beat it back now."

Focused as they were on the bug, neither saw the white spark streak by overhead.

Beyond the center of the system, above the uncontaminated half, Hexadecimal's mask appeared. A nano later she downloaded from it.

Hanging in the air above the Twin City, she watched as the green light played along Kudzu's edge, withering as it touched. She could not fight them directly. However...

She looked down and concentrated. The ground began to glimmer with little sparkles of color.

The uninfected sectors of the Twin City were crowded with evacuees. Now, suddenly, nulls were rising to the surface from the lower levels. They seemed to emerge from the ground itself! Those out in the open fled from the vermin, some seeking shelter in buildings, others just running away. Some found objects they could use as weapons, and beat at the colored blobs, which squealed indignantly. Those nearest swarmed their attackers.

Hexadecimal giggled as she watched the chaos from above.

The VidWindow sprang open again. "Dr. Matrix!" Sevarius exclaimed.

He did not look up. "What?"

"The Virus! She's come out again!"

"What? Already?!" He scanned the area above the bug for a telltale fleck of red against the green. "I don't see her."

"Turn around! She's in the other half of the city!"

Jay hesitated a nano. He didn't want to leave the beam cannon. But it was starting to get depleted; it needed to charge up anyway. He turned. Then he stared, wide eyed. "User!" he breathed.

The upper surface of the Twin City was alive with nulls! The creatures were everywhere, crawling up the sides of buildings, chasing people about - and some were swarming toward the Blaine Center. The cannon wouldn't do anything to nulls, Jay knew. Though the Virus seemed to be commanding them, they were not viral themselves.

Another VidWindow popped open. "Dr. Matrix! What is happening?!"

"We got nulls, Phong," Matrix told him. "She got past us to the clean part of the city, and is attacking with nulls. Phong, I can't fight this. Not on this scale. I recommend evacuation," he finished grimly.

Phong nodded, a quick dip of his head. "I will sound an alert. Mainframe's CPUs will aid."

"Thanks. I'm going to get back to blasting the bug." He closed the window.

The warning klaxon penetrated the West Sector's protective wall. The citizens, unaware of the events outside, looked around curiously, wondering why a game announcement did not follow.

Only And_E and the other guards knew what was happening. They had watched with increasing horror as their mistress was attacked, then retaliated by summoning the nulls. Now the entire Twin City was in a panic, its citizens in immediate danger. And the energy level was sinking as the bug depleted it.

Six large VidWindows appeared around the Twin City's center. Phong was announcing the immediate evacuation of the entire Twin City. Citizens would be taken over to Mainframe by the CPU vehicles. Those close enough should cross the Gilded Gate Bridge.

The CPU vehicles, like zip boards, were powered by system energy. Phong must know that as the bug drained the Twin City, their vehicles would cease to work as well, And _E thought. The West Sector was not in the same danger, as it drew its own power from the Energy Sea and was protected by the barrier wall.

The giant VidWindows closed again, revealing the tower and the thin green beam playing like a searchlight along the edge of the bug. And_E turned to the others. "Scramble all the ABCs," he said.

"What? We're not going to evacuate this sector, are we? We can hold out."

"No." And_E said, "They don't have enough CPUs to evacuate the whole Twin City. We're going to join them."

"Join them? Why?!" another said, aghast. "If Hexadecimal found out-"

"Hexadecimal has attacked the system for no reason!" And_E replied harshly, cutting him off. Gesturing at the VidWindow, he said, "All of us came from out there, or our parents did. Do you really think they deserve that? To be smothered by a viral bug or drained by nulls? Whether or not they're our traditional enemies, Kilobyte never wanted everyone out there deleted!" He looked at each one in turn, then said in a low voice, "Round up all the troops and get every ABC into the air. Now."

Without pausing, he left to go to the ABC hangar. He heard the footsteps of the others following him.

The panic of the Twin City citizenry was alleviated by the sight of a fleet of CPU vehicles flying over from Mainframe. Unlike zip boards, these vehicles could fly the short distance over the Energy Sea between the cities. They grounded on open areas, and binomes jumped out to wave the citizens in. The carriers filled up quickly, and each took off with a lurch before the nulls could swarm them.

Hexadecimal was aware of the evacuation. She watched the vehicles land, take on passengers, and lift again. But she did not act against it. Nobody knew how long she would remain passive. They were just determined to rescue as many as they could in what time they had.

The momentary relief on the part of the citizens was negated by the appearance of a squadron of ABCs. They emerged from a temporary gap in the West Sector's wall, flying in tight formation. They arrowed over the bug, which had spread to over half of the Twin City, split up, and grounded in whatever spaces they could find.

And_E heard over the open channel, "They're running away from us! What now?"

"Filelock them if you have to. Don't waste time, but don't harm them," he answered.

The virals jumped out of their vehicles. Some tried to speak, but people ran in fear of the binomes with red-and-green eyes. Those virals who had not done so from the beginning began filelocking the nearest binomes and throwing them into the vehicles. One by one they lifted and flew toward Mainframe, passing CPUs coming the other way.

Jay had to pause again to let the ray recover its charge. He was fighting a holding battle now, he knew. If he could keep the bug from taking over all of the Twin City before it could be evacuated... before what was left could be evacuated. Who knew how many people had already been absorbed by the bug? How many were in hiding, and how many could be carried over before the city was covered? And... he knew that the CPUs were not large vehicles. A single patrol car could carry three binome passengers, if they squashed in, or one Data Sprite. Looking over, one hand still on the cannon, he saw that the few medical rescue vehicles were also in use. Those could hold a pair of Sprites each - or six binomes. Which meant that binomes would be higher on the priority list than Sprites. It was simple math.

He saw larger vehicles flying between the Twin City and Mainframe. At least a dozen of them. They were viral ABCs! Hurriedly he opened a VidWindow. "Phong! We're under attack! From the virals this time!"

"No, I don't believe so," the harried sprite replied. "We thought so too at first, but look." His image on the window was replaced by a ground view of an ABC landing near Mainframe's rim. The hatch in the back lowered, forming a ramp. A pair of virals quickly unloaded a dozen green filelock blocks containing binomes. When they were all out they quickly canceled the locks, releasing the binomes. Then the virals retreated back into their vehicle, which lifted into the air and headed back to the Twin City.

"They're helping the evacuation," Phong explained when the window showed him again. "I do not know why, but right now is not the time to ask questions!"

Jay looked at the chaos below. The nulls were thickest under the Virus, as if they were seeking her out. The green carpeting the city had spread perceptibly while he had been watching the window. "Right," Jay agreed.

He looked back at the cannon. The energy was just topping off. He went back, looked through the sights to find the most dangerous encroachment, and opened fire.

In the chaos, nobody was watching Ghetty Prime. A set of ABCs flew at low altitude over Mainframe's edge and under the rim.

Hexadecimal cackled as she watched the glorious chaos below. She had never had this much fun! People were running around like panicked nulls. Nulls were flickering about, searching for whatever energy they could ingest, sometimes gathering to swarm their target. People rushed out whenever a vehicle landed, desperate to be taken to safety. That some of the vehicles were from the West Sector did not bother her. They were just as entertaining as the others. More so, because they sometimes had to catch those they would rescue.

The green light stabbed down, running back and forth along Kudzu's edge, trying to stop its spread. It seemed to be succeeding if you only counted the upper level. It had spread much further on the lower levels, where the ray could not penetrate. But they could not just admit defeat. Nor would she want them to!

From her vantage point high above the city she saw another fleet of ABCs flying below Mainframe's rim. One, larger than the others and colored all red and green, was flying behind the others. So, her brother had finally decided to come out of hiding? The vehicles were headed towards a thin black line that she had not noticed before, one which connected the two systems.

Megabyte watched the vehicles darting back and forth overhead. They were so obsessed with ferrying over every single dataform they could, disposable though they were, that not one bothered to look down. He had plenty of time.

His ABCs positioned themselves around the power cable. A second fleet of ABCs had emerged from G prime, and were carefully towing another cable.

And_E, whose ABC had just grounded in Mainframe and released another set of refugees, spoke into the open channel. "All vehicles, report. Are you still meeting resistance?"

The first voice to speak said, "Vehicle 4711. No. Some of them run away when I get near, but others get in by themselves. I haven't filelocked anyone in the past two trips."

And_E listened as the others stated their vehicle numbers, and quickly reported the same thing. At least something was going right. When they were done he said, "Good. Continue as you have been. If some run away, don't worry, as long as you get a full load on each trip. Keep going as long as you have power. Out." He gripped the controls, and the ABC rose into the air.

Time became a blur for Jay Matrix. He now knew that he was only stalling for evacuation time. He could clear one area out, but in the meantime the bug would have overgrown twice as much space elsewhere. He had realized that, much as he hated to admit it, they needed the ABCs' support. Each CPU vehicle had limited power, and they could not recharge while they were over the Twin City, not now. With the bug draining its energy, the city had barely any to spare. Who knew how long it would be able to stay online? Each sprite that the ABCs rescued was one more who wouldn't have survived otherwise.

Miraculously, most of the sprites were carried over. Most of the ones which could be rescued, even those in the Blaine Institute. Only he and Sevarius, the minimum needed to run the cannon, remained. Jay knew that many more had been lost, trapped in buildings or lower levels by the bug. Certainly the combined ABCs and CPUs could not have gotten the entire population of the Twin City out. And the living quarters of most of the system's Data Sprites was close to the site of the original outbreak. How many had failed to recognize the danger and get out in time?

As the gun charged up he looked out over the ruined city. What the Kudzu bug had not contaminated, the nulls had scorched, or the vehicles' repeated hasty landings and takeoffs had damaged. The place looked like a battlefield. And, flying above it, was a gleaming red figure.

He narrowed his eyes. She was the cause of all this. "The next one's for you, Virus!" he snarled. Though the cannon was not fully charged, he swung it over, putting his eye to the sights.

From behind him came the sound of a VidWindow opening. "Yeah?" he said, not looking away.

"Dad?" said a frightened voice.

Dr. Matrix turned. Dot, looking as if she was using all of her self-control to keep calm, was in the window. Behind her - the inside of a building. "Dot! Where are you?! Where's Enzo?"

"He's right here, with me." She tilted the window down so Jay could see his son, who was looking very small and scared. "We're here in the Blaine building."

"You're here?! Why didn't you go to Mainframe when everyone else was evacuating?!" he exclaimed.

"I didn't think that the bug would actually win. I thought that if anywhere was safe, it'd be here..." She was on the verge of tears.

She had faith in me, Jay thought. And look what happened. "Don't cry, Dot. Sweetie, I'll get you out of here." He looked out. No more vehicles were making the crossing. They were all drained; the CPUs had given out long before the ABCs had. The cannon was fully charged. He opened a second VidWindow. "Sevarius, you're getting out of here. Dot and Enzo are in the building too. I'm going to burn a path for you three through the bug to the Gilded Gate Bridge." He looked at Dot. She was listening attentively, scared but no longer about to cry. "All of you, go to the front entrance. In a hundred nanoseconds I'll start cutting a path with the beam. You're going to have to run as fast as you can for the bridge. Got that?"

All three nodded. Sevarius left his post to hustle downstairs. Jay smiled at his children. "Don't worry, kids. It'll be all right. You can make it. When this is all over I'll see you on the other side."

"Okay." She seemed about to say something else. Then she grabbed Enzo's hand and hurried away.

Enzo and Dot were already at the front door by the time Sevarius came downstairs. Dot wondered if he could run fast enough. Her legs were long enough, and Enzo had the endless energy of children his age, but the binome... well, hopefully he would be able to keep up.

They went outside. The bug had not yet reached the Blaine Center; it was a good sixty-four bits distant. Dot, estimating the time, said, "Get ready..."

A shaft of green light stabbed down into the edge of the infestation. The beam narrowed slightly, then began moving outward, leaving behind the crumbling remains of the bug. "Come on!" Dot yelled, and grabbed Enzo's hand.

Looking down, Jay saw them start down the path he was carving. Good. He had enough power to get them to the bridge safely, he was sure. As long as they moved fast enough, the bug wouldn't be able to regrow in the path until well after they had passed by.

The refugees in Mainframe watched the curious sight. It seemed as if Dr. Matrix was no longer trying to stop the spread of the bug. What was he doing?

The same question was on the minds of the virals. They, too, had grounded in Mainframe when their vehicles had run out of power. They were surprised that they had not been apprehended yet. And_E had instructed them not to fight back if they were.

By now they understood why And_E had ordered them to help with the evacuation. They hadn't truly appreciated what was happening. It hadn't been real, what went on on the other side of the wall. But now that they were among people who would otherwise have been deleted by the bug... He had told them that hopefully the people in Mainframe would let them return to their home after the favor they had done them. It seemed possible - but from the way And_E had spoken, he clearly didn't have much hope.

And_E stood outside his ABC. This would probably be the last time the vehicle flew. It was quite serviceable, but it would in all likelihood he impounded. Well, if that happened, he thought, so be it. He wouldn't contest it. He was too tired to fight any more. It certainly couldn't fly now - like all the ABCs and CPUs, it was down to its last erg of energy. Just enough to lift off, and then fall into the Energy Sea...

Through his despair he noticed the strange behavior of the anti-viral beam. It was moving purposefully. But why?

He watched for a few nanoseconds as it tracked outward from the center. A suspicion grew in his mind. Then he shouted into the open channel, "Quick, all ABCs! Transfer your energy to me!"

The ABCs surrounding the power cables were finally in position, their equipment ready. Megabyte watched from a vehicle above the level of the rest, so he could see the entire event. One ABC would slice through the power conduit. A set of ABCs would hold the severed line steady while others would splice it to a cable leading back to Megabyte's sector. And then he would have direct access to the power of Mainframe's core!

"I'm waiting," he said to the nameless Zero in the VidWindow. Obediently the binome pressed a button on its control panel. A countdown from 1010 began in the corner of his screen. All of his other ABCs would see it as well.

When it reached 0000 the first ABC dove downward, the magnetic blade mounted on its front shearing through the cable. Immediately white-hot energy exploded from the break. The half of the cable attached to the Twin City dropped, useless, into the Energy Sea. The half still attached to Mainframe thrashed as energy fountained, uncontrolled, from its end. It tore free of the ABCs that had been intended to hold it steady. Where the blast of energy washed across the ABCs, they were thrown back to smash into the rim of the Twin City, or to drop flaming into the Energy Sea.

They were about halfway there, and the cannon's power was holding out. It took more and more the farther they went, though, and he had to keep adjusting the focus of the beam. But if he concentrated, they could make it. They would, he told himself.

He heard a crackling roar from the direction of Mainframe. In his peripheral vision he saw a flare of white light come from the energy sea between the Twin City and Mainframe, reflected off Mainframe's rim. And the power level suddenly dipped.

"No!" Jay shouted. "Not now!"

"Keep your eyes on the bridge!" Dot panted. She had had to slow down for Enzo and Sevarius. They were more than halfway there, running for their lives in the wake of the green beam.

Then the beam dimmed. A nano later it returned to its original strength, but it started moving faster. Dot had no idea what was happening, but it looked bad. Very bad. "Come on!" she urged Sevarius as she grabbed Enzo up, and sprinted faster.

The beam was dimming again when she saw something flying toward them, curving in to match course. An ABC. When the beam was far in front of them it slowed and flew just above the surface. The hatch in the back opened. "Get in!" a red-and-green eyed binome shouted, urgently beckoning.

Dot had been taught all her life to hate virals. However, this cycle she had seen them rescue countless others from certain deletion. She did not understand why they had done it, but that didn't matter now! The vehicle stopped in front of them, still hovering. Dot handed her brother up. The binome caught Enzo's hand and pulled him in. As Sevarius caught up and, panting in exhaustion, climbed the ramp, Dot jumped up into the carrier. The hatch slammed shut and the vehicle rose sharply. "Hold on!" the viral called.

"Retreat!" Megabyte bellowed. The surviving ABCs darted away in all directions, dropping the cable leading to G Prime. Megabyte stumbled, caught off balance, as his own ABC rose straight up, away from the disaster.

So close! His claws slid out and gouged furrows in the wall of the ABC. He had been so close to all of that energy! And it had slipped away!

He forced himself to be calm. So, he had not managed to steal the energy he wanted. But now that he could see down into Mainframe, he realized that all was not lost. "All ABCs," he ordered, "capture as many binomes as you can carry back. This trip will not be a complete waste."

Jay watched with relief as the ABC rose, taking with it his children and colleague. He knew that somehow the power line had broken; that was the flare he had seen. With what little energy he had stored he would not have been able to finish carving the path to the bridge. Thank the User for that one last ABC.

He looked down at the city. It was almost completely covered by a seething green carpet, above which a glittering red spark hovered. The only exceptions were the trail he had cut, which was already closing, and the infected sector. The green mass was piled up against the walls as if trying to force its way in. The Virus's territory alone was protected from the bug the Virus had unleashed.

And they had thought she was not dangerous? They should have exterminated all the brutes long ago! He looked at the cannon's energy meter. It had only a breath of power left. Not enough to make a dent in this mass.

He swung the cannon around to point at the red spark, and fired.

Hexadecimal felt sudden, blinding pain envelop her as the world turned green. She screamed, and again uploaded herself into her mask and disappeared.

She reappeared in the safety of her own sector. This time it had hurt worse! She looked at herself. Her skin was roughened. It burned!

But the pain would fade, she knew. It had before. And then she would deal with whoever was at the other end of the green light!

Jay felt a tremor under his feet. The gun was useless now, out of power. He ran down the tower steps, back into the Blaine building.

Inside, it was dark. Only the battery powered emergency lights, evenly spaced along the ceilings, cast their dim glow in the corridors.

Jay knew what that meant. Powerdown. But not a controlled shutdown; without Mainframe's power boost, the bug was draining the last erg of energy from the city. There was nothing he could do about it.

He opened a VidWindow. It was dim, its staticky picture barely visible in the darkness. "Phong! What happened?"

The sprite answered, "The power line was cut. Megabyte's forces did it. We cannot reconnect it in time. I... am sorry."

"Son of a .BAT!" Jay spat. "Well - what about Dot and Enzo?" An ABC picked them up-"

"Yes. They are currently in the vehicle, flying back toward Mainframe. I have their PID status." He put it up in an insert on the screen.

Jay sighed. "Thanks, Phong. I'd hate it if they got caught in... what's going to happen. Listen, I have enough power to squirt data over to you. Are you ready to receive?"

"Yes. Standing by, transmit when you are ready."

Jay disappeared from the VidWindow. Phong lowered his head. Jay hadn't asked to be rescued. They both knew that they wouldn't be able to power up a vehicle. The Twin City wouldn't be online long enough. All Phong could do was reassure him that his children were well.

Data started flowing in, sent at high speed. When the first file was completed and the second started, Phong opened it. It was the technical specs on the antivirus algorithm. Of course, he wanted that part of his work to survive. Maybe they could make it work.

Megabyte's ABCs rose over Mainframe's rim. They paused for only the few nanoseconds it took to pick out their targets, then swooped down. People scattered as the vehicles came down above them. The unlucky ones were frozen in green filelock blocks and thrown into the backs of the ABCs.

Megabyte watched from above. Sometimes it was too easy! The inhabitants of Mainframe and the Twin City had completely depleted their vehicles of energy, and had no weapons accessible. Oh, they would bring whatever they had from the Principle Office armory, but by then he would have his prisoners and be safely back in his own sector.

A vehicle flying in from the Twin City caught his attention.

Again the ground shook. Jay stared at the terminal screen, willing it to transmit faster. He had selected a long line of files, arranged them in order of priority, and compressed them to reduce transmission time. First came the antiviral research. Then medical records which had not yet been archived in the Principle Office backups. After that, other projects. Not all of it would go across, he knew. He had routed all the energy he could get to this one terminal for transmission, and even so it was barely working.

He couldn't leave this spot. If the transmission failed, he would have to restart it immediately, otherwise valuable nanoseconds would be lost. He opened another VidWindow, one showing the outside. The green that now completely covered the city had darkened and faded to grey. The bug was dying from lack of energy, Jay realized. When the host starves, the parasite follows.

The border of the city was ragged. He zoomed in, then drew in his breath. Pieces were beginning to crumble off the edge. Though he had resigned himself, his throat tightened as he watched the Twin City begin to collapse.

Inside the West Sector, people felt the tremors too. This sector, of all the Twin City, was still completely online because it had its own power source. But the wall was darker now; something was sapping its energy from outside. And there were no guards inside the sector to tell people what was going on. They had all left in the ABCs microseconds ago. The remaining people believed that they had fled, abandoning them, and began to panic.

In her tower, Hexadecimal startled as she felt the ground shake. What was happening now?! Though she was still in pain, she uploaded into her mask and reappeared outside.

The city was covered by Kudzu. And the bug was dying everywhere except around the West Sector. She heard a low sound, like a distant crackling. It was coming from all directions. She noticed something out of the corner of her eye. Looking at the rim of the city, she saw it move inward. A sharp crack made her spin about. The bridge connecting the cities fell away from the Twin City, swinging down to bang against Mainframe's rim.

They had destroyed the bridge to stop the spread of the bug. It was seeking the energy of the other system, and they had blown the bridge to prevent that. That left only one other energy source. She pivoted again. Kudzu was huddled against the West Sector's force wall as if for warmth. The wall was dimming as its power was draining away. As she watched, a section of the wall burned through, revealing a sliver of the inside.

Hexadecimal disappeared.

And_E concentrated on piloting the ABC. It was simple to make the hop between cities, unless your power was almost gone. Though they had drained all of the ABCs to fuel this one, it was nearly empty. He held it tightly to its optimum speed, hoping it would make it to Mainframe's surface as opposed to smashing against the rim. Behind him, his crewmate was talking to the outsiders they had picked up, keeping them calm. They weren't making noise, so it must be working.

The rim passed under the ship, which was coming in at a low angle. He hit a button, setting off the vehicle's siren to warn people out of the way. "Hold onto something!" he shouted to his passengers without turning back. The two Sprites wouldn't fit into the seats made for binomes. Hopefully they wouldn't be too damaged.

At the last nano he pulled both control levers back. The ABC's nose tilted up. The vehicle skidded some distance, gouging a furrow before coming to a stop and rocking forward.

He looked back. His crewmate and the other binome had strapped down. The green Sprites had heeded his warning; they looked scared but unhurt. He realized that they both resembled the Sprite who had let Melissa die over half a second ago. Green skin, dark hair, purple eyes - they must be his children. How ironic, And_E thought. But he could not hate them. Though they looked back at him with the horror that all outsiders reserved for virals, they too were victims of this disaster. And the scientist - And_E knew him as well. It was hard not to recognize those hands. No other binome had digits. Next to Dr. Matrix, this one was the worst enemy of the system's virals. He would have had them killed if he could, Virus and virals alike. But, long ago, he had saved Hexadecimal's process. That canceled out any grudge in And_E's heart.

The outsiders shied back as the viral walked to the back of the ABC and opened the hatch. It swung down, making a ramp. He looked out. ABCs were flying overhead, and they weren't from the West Sector. And_E turned his eyeblock back. "You'd better stay in here. Megabyte's raiding," he told them.

Hexadecimal reappeared in the control center of the tower. Normally there were guards left over from her father's reign down here. They were all gone now.

It was fortunate she had been bored enough in the past milliseconds to go through her mother's notes. She had written about this room too. Hexadecimal had only absorbed a fraction of the information. But one of the parts she did remember was how the power flowed - after all, power was what she understood! It was that part there, by the column.

She had no idea where the keys to the panels were. No matter. She hooked her claws into the thin metal panel and tore it off. Inside, thick cables ran down from the Energy Sea to the field generators that kept the wall online. Normally the energy that they absorbed passively was more than enough to power the sector. She clawed through the insulation and seized a cable in each hand. A shock of energy ran through her. She forced it away and poured her own, much more concentrated, power into the system.

The wall brightened. The burn-throughs stopped spreading - but they did not close.

Megabyte glanced over at the Twin City. It was collapsing from the outside inward, its fragments disappearing into the Energy Sea. The process was accelerating now.

He looked back at the one ABC that had just landed. Who could be important enough to warrant such a heroic rescue? Whoever it was had not come out, though the hatch was open. "Bring us down lower," he said to the pilot, who immediately complied.

When he could see into the vehicle, his eyes widened. He saw someone he wanted! He pointed and ordered, "Ground us by that ABC!"

Hexadecimal's eyes were squeezed shut, her face a mask of strain. She was not used to draining her own power at this rate. She had to keep the wall alive, otherwise her home would be destroyed! She could not see what effect her efforts had; all she knew was that if she let the energy dip below a certain level its flow began fluctuating, as if the wall were failing.

Jay looked back at the VidWindow. The city's edges were moving closer with every nanosecond. The data flow had become erratic as the power supply weakened; he now had to transmit every file twice to make sure it was not corrupted. He had less than a microsecond. At least Phong had reported that Dot and Enzo had made it across safely.

Dot, Enzo, Sevarius, and And_E silently watched the dying city from Mainframe's edge. Like the other refugees, they could not tear their eyes away from the sight of the system crashing before their eyes, every sector going bad. Dot was trying not to cry, to be strong for Enzo, but tears were streaming down her face. Her father was still in there!

And_E was watching the green wall. It flickered, fading momentarily and then shining back at full strength. The collapse had left part of it bare, Kudzu and outside sectors pulling away as they fell into the sea. The West Sector was still online! But would it survive without a system? And the wall had suffered more burn-throughs.

Suddenly their view was blocked by an ABC landing directly in front of them. Its hatch opened. Instead of a set of virals, the Virus himself stepped out. The vehicle thrummed with his footsteps as he walked up the ramp and pinned the inhabitants with his red-pupiled eyes.

Enzo screamed. The Virus looked at him and frowned in annoyance. Dot drew her brother close, holding him protectively. Then the Virus looked at Sevarius, who was cowering back. He reached forward and laid his hand on the binome's icon.

The binome gasped despairingly as he felt the viral code intrude into his systems. He tried to fight it off, but it was no use; no resistance he could put up would slow the torrent of code. It felt evil within himself, felt monstrous... felt right, he realized as the code settled into place and his mind clouded over.

"Into my ABC, Herr Doktor," Megabyte commanded, with a quick gesture. The binome obeyed without question. Then Megabyte pinned the vehicle's commander. He knew this one. It used to lead his father's army. He had not thought it would have survived so long without its master. He could not let it run about loose.

Megabyte seized And_E in one massive metal hand, picked him up, and carried him out of the vehicle. He had not given the two Sprites a second glance. They were not relevant to him - he could not infect them, Sprites were erratic servants at best, and in the end posed him no threat. He had more important things to do than bother himself with useless, sniveling children.

The terminal's light disappeared. Into the static of the VidWindow Jay said, "That's as much as I can send, Phong."

The image of the golden sprite, barely visible, answered, "I have stored it all, Doctor."

"Please. Call me Jay." He forced a smile. "Not much point in being formal now." He looked at the screen inset which showed the status of his children's PID codes. Phong had left it there to reassure him, Jay knew. And it worked. It reminded him of the people who had been rescued.

"I'm going to sign off now," Jay said. "Thanks, Phong."

"Jay, I am sorry-"

He interrupted, "No, we all did our best. Thanks. Tell Dot and Enzo I love them." He closed the window before Phong could speak again. Maybe that was rude, but he didn't want any long farewells. He didn't want to spend his remaining nanos making up last words.

He walked out to the doors of the building. Through them he could see the horizon. It was almost here. And moving inward fast.

Then he felt the ground drop from under his feet, and saw Mainframe rush upwards. A nano later the world dissolved in a blaze of energy.

Hexadecimal did not notice when the ground stopped shaking. Her only thought was the energy flow. She forced herself to give up more of her power. She could not let the force wall fail! Her home must not be destroyed! She had to win!

Phong watched sorrowfully as the remains of the Twin City disappeared below the surface of the Energy Sea. So much loss. So many lives, the homes of so many sprites.

He forced himself from the VidWindow which only showed the flickering wall around the West Sector. The refugees would need homes. He would initiate an effort immediately to find shelter for them until permanent arrangements could be made. The survivors' PID codes would need to be backed up, and the deleted sprites' codes would have to be moved to the inactive archive. Life must continue.

He looked at the inset in his screen. It still displayed the PID status of Doctor Matrix's children. They had just lost their father; they had practically watched him die when the Twin City fell. Phong was already acquainted with them. A very intelligent girl, and an energetic, promising boy. He would, he decided, see to it himself they received the care and attention they needed. They deserved that much.

The refugees saw the green field around the West Sector flicker a final time, then fade completely, revealing for the first time the sector that had been hidden as long as anyone alive could remember. It was jagged-edged and scorched, having suffered many burn-throughs. The sector seemed grey and lifeless. Looking closer, they would have seen a few viral binomes staring in despair at Mainframe, now that they were defenseless.

The fleet of ABCs landed and disgorged their prisoners quickly and efficiently. Most of the prisoners had been filelocked; now they were released and herded by virals armed with shock rods. The virals that came from the West Sector were taken aside for separate treatment. The rest of the trembling prisoners were assembled in rows, thirty-two across.

Megabyte strode in when they were all assembled. He was pleased; their palpable terror was gratifying. They were in his power, and knew it. At his mercy. None dared to flee; they had learned quickly that his army did not hesitate to use their shock rods.

He stopped in front of one and bent down. It tried to cower away. A jab from a shock rod reminded it of its orders: to remain in place. Megabyte smiled as he lowered his hand to its icon. The binome flinched when he touched it.

It tried to resist. They always did. How foolish - they could not hope to fight off his infection. Within nanos its code caved in, accepting his programming over its own. His commands replaced their native subroutines. Foremost among the commands he implanted in them was the simplest one: OBEY ME!

He infected the first row, one by one, savoring the pleasure he gained from adding more slaves to his army. Now they would fight for him, die for him, if he so commanded. That was the measure of power!

When he had finished with the first thirty-two he looked at the rest of the assembled victims. There were at least two hundred and fifty-six here, and who knew how many more after that. He would infect them at his leisure. For now, he wanted to deal with one specific matter.

He left without speaking. The guards knew the routine, and began herding the uninfected binomes away. The newly infected virals would be broken in by the soldiers in charge of training.

Megabyte surprised the virals who were orienting the West Sector refugees. The Virus hardly ever took part in this any more, not after he had learned that infecting a binome who had already been claimed by another Virus would destroy it. Even if it lived, its chips would be burned out by the conflicting infections. He normally let the other immigrants deal with their kind; it saved him the bother of putting them in their place.

Megabyte had made his decision. And_E, his father's former servant, would not make a good slave after all. The more Megabyte had thought about it, the more convinced he had become that the binome was simply too independent. It had become used to functioning on its own since its master's death, and even when Kilobyte had been alive it had been known to bend orders if it judged it knew better. It was spoiled. Megabyte had slaves to serve him, not to question his orders.

The virals got out of Megabyte's way as he walked toward And_E. He was surprised that, as he approached, it did not try to flee or show any fear. It stood there passively, watching him, as if he did not matter at all. The thought infuriated Megabyte, though he hid it.

And_E thought to himself that he had seen the worst already. He had done his best, but been helpless to do anything more than mitigate the disaster. For every life that had been saved, who knows how many had been lost - and it was because of Hexadecimal's childish prank and this monster's greed. Kilobyte's heirs, indeed.

He has heard tales of the fate of Kilobyte's former refugees. Many lived here, serving Megabyte though not infected by him. Their loyalty was ensured not by infection but by fear; Megabyte had made examples of those who disobeyed him. However, he understood Megabyte's character. And_E knew that he had no say in his own fate. So, when the Virus approached, he felt only the calm of resignation.

Megabyte towered over him, arms folded. "Well, And_E. What do you think I ought to do with you?"

"You will do whatever you want," came the quiet reply.

The binomes that formed a ring about Megabyte and And_E looked back at the Virus. Megabyte's eyes narrowed. The binome looked steadily back up at him, calm and unafraid, as if Megabyte were unimportant. As if Megabyte did not matter. The insolence! No fear, no submission, just this... insolence! Abruptly he unfolded his arms, snatched the binome up, and placed his hand over its icon.

The others watched in horror as the commander they had respected cried out and convulsed. It went on for long nanoseconds. Then And_E became quiet. Megabyte threw him to the ground with a sneer. "Useless," he commented as he walked away triumphantly. "No loss."

When Megabyte was gone, some of the virals knelt by And_E. He was still processing, but only barely. His eye - now dilated - stared ahead blankly. He did not react when they said his name or waved their hands in front of his eye.

They knew what this meant. They had seen it happen before. He wouldn't live out the cycle. His code was too badly mauled. He was already dead as far as his mind was concerned. Megabyte had destroyed him. But... it was better this way. At least he would not have to endure Megabyte's slavery.

A lone figure emerged from the ground level doorway of the former west sector tower. Holding onto a column for support, the red woman surveyed her domain.

The wall was gone. Half the sector was gone too. More than half. What was left was burned ruins. She would never be able to bring the wall back. Her home was destroyed.

She looked out at Mainframe. There, in front of it, dangled the bridge, its end trailing into the corrosive Energy Sea. And, at the far end Mainframe, was another viral tower. It rose, dark red, out of its deep blue surroundings.

As she stared, she began to giggle convulsively. Weak from power loss, she slumped against the column as she laughed. The pained, hysterical sound echoed through the lost West Sector.

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. Commander And_E, Jay Matrix, 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.