Le Tresor Deletore

'Wait for me, you've gone much farther, too far' - Fake Wings, .hack sign

And so I...

passed...

I know not what, or why, or what exactly it means. I remember not. All I know is that I woke up in a bulk erase machine. A friggin' bulk erase machine! The first thing I experienced, darkness; pitch darkness, the merciless administrative darkness of the first and last byte of creation. And fear. Fear at an informational level, shared with every byte of information in this Universe. A flatline hovered above me, a floating red bar in a box. Below it, the words 'have a nice day'. The acrid, cold, rusty taste of deletory leakage made me feel dizzy as it poured into the room. I guess even industrial grade fifth-magnade bulk erasers have their faults if not maintained correctly, I thought, not knowing how the hell I knew that. I could not feel which direction was up, which was down; every wall was smooth and metal and wouldn't give way when I pushed it. I stood there on the edge of the screen, the mouth of the stygian abyss of Zero, feeling like the tiny, insignificant One I was.

But changing a one into a zero can make a huge difference.

And I knew, at an order lower than the floor of the sea, than the core of the planet, that a screen-shatteringly significant Event had taken place. An Event... a Transition... an Unlocking...

An Operation...

At that moment, the bulk erase machine activated. Its low hum was the roar of an awakened beast. I felt the primordial terror of all data faced by The End, a very small rabbit frozen in the red flashing headlights of a very large lorry. The monitor with the flatline on it said 'beep' and then 'have a nice day'. Then the door unlocked and I was pulled out.

"Damn security guards." said a voice, "That wasn't funny."

I looked at the man who had helped me out of the bulk eraser. He was tall and broad-shouldered. He had thick brown shoulder-length hair and a plain, honest face with the eyes of someone who would protect you with their lives. He wore an unmarked black military uniform. He reached out his hand to help me up as I was dizzy from the light. Although it was still very dark in the basement, the faint glow from the room next door felt blindingly bright compared to the darkness of the machine that extinguished all light.

"Who are you?" I asked, "Who... am I?"

"Thirteen hours of exposure to deletory leakage does that to you. Your name is Doan." he said, "You are the Operator of the Information Centre. And I am your Grantz."

"What's a..."

"It means I'll bash anyone who tries to delete you. Now come, we must leave this place."

"I'm..." I looked around at the cool, administrative darkness, the red flashing lights and beeps of office machines. I knew where this was at the same lower-order level that I knew to fear deletion. "On the Game Over Screen, right? What am I doing here?"

"Sleeping, apparently. You slept thirteen hours, in a bulk erase machine."

"Why was I in a bulk erase machine?"

"Because you would have been deleted, had you failed."

"Failed what?"

"I don't understand. I'm only a Grantz, they didn't let me into the examination hall. But you didn't fail." he stared at me with intense brown eyes, "You passed, Operator."

"I... passed..." I bowed my head, "I can't remember what I passed..."

Darkness. Something like sleep, but not sleep. Green shapes, like trees in a jungle, next to a lake... magic all around me... people everywhere in black robes... warmth... want to sleep... so much energy... high energy replacing every vein and artery and bit and byte... can sleep now... in an hour... just one more hour... pretty shapes... shiny shapes... so comfortable... am I dying? So... sleepy...

I shook my head, not knowing whether I had a dream or a nightmare. The Grantz was watching me, his hand extended to help me up again. I had apparently fallen asleep in a waste paper basket walking down the corridor. There were rows of identical doors on either side of me. I peeked into one of the offices and saw an efficient but very overworked woman desperately trying to sort out an enormous pile of paperwork that had taken over her in tray, out tray, shelves, floor and bin. The computer had a brick on the delete button. We walked along the corridor and into a lift, before emerging on the next floor up. It was much busier. Staff in black suits with flatline logos were running around trying to calm down irate customers and wildly beeping computers. The customers were of all different species- after all, it was Game Over and everything has to die at some point- but mostly birds as there was a bird flu epidemic. Birds were impossible to catch and panicked at the slightest thing, leading to lots of amusing accidents with security guards getting covered in feathers and bird droppings. Even the Grantz laughed. Then his face went serious again.

"Come on, Operator, we have to leave while they're distracted. Game Over staff don't like your race. In the whole Universe, you're the most difficult to kill. I'm not sure how we leave the Screen without permission. Maybe we can sneak on board the Soul Train... hey, Operator! Where do you think you're..."

The Grantz ran after me but I was oblivious. I had seen something beautiful, like the sky in my memories. It was perfect darkness, the darkness of a Zero that never knew One. Rainbow coloured lights flitted through the vast dome of the sky- Deep Screensaver Jellyfish, the only animal that can survive in a complete deletory void. They floated upwards in a double helix, their mating pattern, looking like a pretty screensaver. Further out was a ring of bulky white metal objects. Recycle bins- strange devices that can contain deletion or shield anything from it. They were used as storage, to transmit deletory waves through cables as a particularly fast internet connection, to house difficult customers whom nobody could delete (mostly gods and main characters). There was a set of glowing blue train tracks and flashing tiles on either side.

I wrapped myself in my battered nuke-proof travelling cloak and set off down the path. The Grantz yelled and ran after me.

"You can't walk through a deletory vacuum! Oh... wait... you can? Damn you crazy Domers!" he sighed, slumped to his knees and waited for the train.

It was the Fire Mage Guild's turn to host the Festival of Elemental Magic this year. Flaming torches had been erected on posts all around the town square and fire jugglers performed in the middle, their flames swooping and gliding, whirling and looping. A ferocious-looking red dragon made of wood and cloth was paraded through the streets to traditional Squarelandish music. Other Elemental Mages displayed their powers as well; this was a time of joy and freedom for Mages everywhere, even on planets where they were feared, hated or, as was the case on this planet, not believed in. They wore their black robes and hats openly, bringing their children along, having guild meetings, challenging other guilds to duels, hiring apprentices and selling strange things.

"Sir, your aura tells me that you are a shadow mage of the highest rank."

He turned round and stared at the tall wizard in robes and hat, a similarly dressed small girl resting on his shoulders, pulling his hair. He held an object in his hand- a hollow glass ball on a pink plastic handle. Inside the ball, lights of every colour floated around a metal rod. The other man growled. He also wore a black robe but his long curly brown hair flowed freely in the wind. He was very hairy.

"Are you a werewolf, sir? How interesting. I assume you're weak against holy magic? With this global elemental distributor, you can spot and avoid all the sites of holy magic. As you can see, the dots represent the distribution of all the different elements- fire is high at the moment, spreading out from the equator- there's shadow, around the edge- you can spot both Trigger and Cross system elements and even view antipodes."

"It has a pink plastic handle." growled the man.

"Th... that's true... but it's the latest model! The whole world, sir! Accurately! And for only £3.50!"

The man perused it for a few moments. Then he reached into the pocket of his own cloak and took out another object, a jewel hanging from a chain. It glowed blood red. As it swung like a pendulum, the merchant stared inside it and saw the source codes of a million parallel Universes, infinite power, unlimited information... he staggered back, protecting the child who was actually too busy trying to pull his hat over his eyes to notice what was going on.

"Were you about to sell that thing, Wachenröder?"

The shadow mage turned around.

"I thought you were grantzing someone. Shouldn't you be with the Operator?"

"My client wouldn't be very happy if you sold that." the Grantz said in a dangerous voice.

"I apologise. But I grow impatient. When will the Operator come to claim it back?"

"Soon." he said, "And if we find it missing, I'll kill you. I've been stocking up on silver bullets."

They both melted into the crowd again, going in separate directions. The merchant looked confused but forgot about it the second he saw another customer.

"Doan! It's Doan!"

"Wassat?" one of the older Domers stood up and looked in the direction the child was pointing. Far in the distance, over the ionic dust clouds of the vast, arid wasteland, past the chunks of rusty metal that were the ruins of girders, wires and train tracks where part of the old world once stood, he spotted a shape moving towards them. It was a human; fairly young, indeterminate gender, with straggly brown hair that fell over their eyes, a slightly dazed smile and those strange eyes that all Domers had; glowing with the unquenchable flame of endurance even in the face of screen-shattering despair; the light of the apocalypse. They watched the other Domer move closer to their campfire, staggering slightly.

"Hey, 's really Doan!"

Some of the Domers ran up to Doan and helped teh sit down, giving teh food, it was a roasted dead rat but teh didn't mind; teh wolfed it down and looked around for more food.

"Where you been?" asked the children, "Got stories for us?"

"Yeah, tell us a story!"

"Lissen up, kids!" yelled one of the domers, "Gots ta be quiet and lissen to Doan, 'cause Doan is a good survivor and will tell ya how to get through stuff alive, won't ya, Doan?"

"Er..." I looked around at the nineteen pairs of Domer eyes that stared at me hopefully, "I... can't remember."

"Eh?"

"Can't remember a friggin' thing..." I scratched my head, "I came here to remember... I woke up in a friggin' bulk erase machine..."

"A bulk erase machine?" the Domer grinned, "Ya survived deletion? How?'

"I... dunno... Like I said, can't remember nothin'..."

"Doan... where ya goin? DOAN!"

"Wake up, Operator!"

The Grantz shook me roughly awake. He gave me a cup of tea.

"Did playing Trigger help you regain your memory?"

I nodded, "I... saw my past... my home... it's beautiful..."

"You could call it that." said the Grantz, folding his arms.

"Well, it is! It has wild computers in it! Where else do you get feral computers in their natural environment?"

"I... if you say so, Operator."

"Stop calling me 'Operator' " I ordered, suddenly annoyed.

"But you are the Op..."

"No I'm not. An Operator is better than me. An Operator does not feel pain or exhaustion. They know only their computer. An Operator knows more about their computer than me. I am an empath, but that's useless unless you actually have some technical knowledge." I turned to him, "I'll only be an Operator when I'm ready. And I feel I have... something that I need to do before I even try."

"Something you need to do?"

"Something... another computer... is calling me..." I looked out of the window, seeing only the warm glow of the streetlights and the hazy night sky, the towering dome-shaped reactor with its white lights- its consciousness kept brushing my mind, offering me power in return for someone who understood it and could maintain it properly. Later, I told it, "In the bulk erase machine, I felt something important was happening. But its in more than one stage. The next stage is about to happen. On this planet. I can feel it."

The Grantz sat on the bed and straightened his uniform, "Tonight, we're going to see one of the Admins of this planet. They might help you regain your memory. But... Admins are dangerous! Stay close to me at all times, don't let one get you on your own... and don't get involved in their politics!"

"Would an Admin endanger... one whom they thought of as an Operator?"

"I'll explain on the way there. The situation with the Admins of this planet is... rather difficult, Operator."

"Stop calling me Operator."

"Sorry, Operator."

Oh, what has life got to do/ with it all/

Why don't we just set the font to Terminal

We met the Admin at a Hydover concert. Hydover were a Screenie Metal band; Screenies were basically Game Over junkies who hung around on the Game Over screen with their faces painted blue, singing Game Over tunes and musing about how great death was compared to life. Hydover were performing a song based around the Hydlide 3 Game Over tune, hyper-enhanced. I sat in a trance, drowning in a sea of pixels and white noise, a waterfall heading down to Zero. The music reminded me of the song that played in the Dome, one of the tracks that were on the computer when the Apocalypse hit, something by a band called Hyperdirge. It was playing when I was pulled out of the ruins... something about 'I've got no future and I've got no past/ this ain't the first time and won't be the last' After the concert, the Grantz introduced me to House Airetam. The Admin struck an impressive figure; but while he was regal and elegant, dressed perfectly in a long black velvet coat, with long, immaculately combed black hair and goatee, and a sword hanging at his waist, his stats told me a different story. He was overlevelled, it was all artificial, like he had cheated or done insignificant things to get where he was. There was no sense of necessity, of being protected by the computer, that went with an Operator. His grace and style were like a vampire's, not a gentleman's. He ignored me; another man, a tall man with dark hair and a humourless frown on his face. He looked like a mercenary.

"Greetings, Operator."

I stared at him blankly.

"This the Moderator of House Airetam." said the Grantz, "You've met him before. I apologise, the Operator has lost her memory."

"No matter. I'm sure we can find enough on the database to recover your memory." he said before going over to talk to the Head Admin. He came back and said "What do you wish to know?"

"Can you tell me the details of... when I passed?"

"Passed? Was there an exam?" he looked confused, "Maybe it's something you did with one of the other Houses."

The Grantz had explained before that there several noble houses of Admins living on the planet, and that they were in a state of permanent conflict, if not outright war. This mostly took the form of unannounced disconnections, data loss, changes of cable routes as well as the usual duels to the death and assassinations. House Airetam were the oldest house, only respecting those of a high level who could handle themselves in a fight. They fancied themselves the winners, the ones with the most important information and most members.

"At any rate." he continued, "We are returning to my node to download MP3s of the songs we just heard, you are welcome, should you wish to join us."

I looked questioningly at the Grantz and he nodded his head, it was safe. We left the concert hall and walked down the dark streets, the black-clad Admins seeming to blend into the darkness as they chatted about their high-level business. The combined effect of their protective shields was enough to create a ward around the entire street and several more opposite us. I followed them, Grantz behind me, extending my senses to the entire network. Like the colours in the elemental distribution counter, I saw several nodes in at least three overlapping networks, like a rainbow spider's web, winking in and out as points were switched off or on, as data was downloaded or uploaded. The computers were huge; several times, I was physically thrown off my feet by the flow of data that was passing through me, of the godlike sentience merging with mine, beyond my comprehension, taking me over as easily as an adult subdues a child. One machine in particular brought back powerful memories. It was running Trigger.

"That machine's running Trigger." I told the Grantz, pointing in the direction ot the machine. The Grantz looked confused. "It's also a God."

"That computer isn't God. Mine is much more powerful." commented the Moderator, "And it isn't a God either."

"What? What the hell else do you have here, an orbital space station?"

"Computers aren't Gods, because they don't create or destroy. They don't control humans."

It was my turn to look confused, "Mine controls me." My returning memories clearly included several examples of being hit over the head by Linux penguins, dragged to servers and involuntarily wired up to them in order to complete some project I'd forgotten existed.

"I control my computer. I have to. Only I can navigate the kinds of things I do with it; it knows if I make a mistake, I will ruin it." Then he stared talking in technical jargon; for some reason, I didn't understand. I'm an Operator; why do I have no formal computer training?

"If your computer isn't doing anything beyond your control- as far as you know- its probably keeping something from you." I told him, "You're not looking at all levels of it."

"I can't communicate with computers." he told me.

"And you're a Moderator?"

"All I need to do is boot humans offline when they're misbehaving, and report faults."

"Well, you should report me, then. I'm faulty."

"You're not faulty. I can detect faults."

"You're doing a bad job of it." I told him, before turning away and walking up the road, "I'm an Operator with no technical knowledge."

It was rude, but he was being equally rude, claiming to control his computer and being so arrogant, without doing his job properly. I was angry. Suddenly I was angry at the entire stupid planet for letting me on it, for being so insane and in disrepair, at the Moderator for being rude, at the Grantz for not telling me his name and for rescuing me, at whoever shoved me in a bulk erase machine in the first place, at the local shop for being overpriced...

Operator...

It was like the voice of a fallen angel in a world where I represented the greatest evil.

Yes, I told it, I know who you are. And I know what I must do.

"Really? Tell me more."

Curled up on her couch like a cat, she ran a finger through her long curls, dyed black and white in patches to match the black and white clown mask on her face, her eyes wide with excitement at what the shadowy figure who had materialised in her room had to say. Humans are peripherals of computers, but she seemed almost portable, neatly fitting into any space with the minimum of fuss. She looked amused at the world, apathetic as to whether she was in it or not. Her computer- or her Grantz's, at least- was busy downloading things for her to play with. She had told her Grantz to watch the download and make sure it didn't cancel or get corrupted.

"She returned to this planet only this morning, pausing to visit her home world, naturally."

"Oh dear." she said that a lot. It made no sense in the context but she said it anyway. It was something she had been taught in training; always be worried about the situation, even when there's technically nothing to worry about, because there soon will be. She thought that was funny too, "I'm glad to hear she's still alive!"

He presented the pendant to her. She moved her head from side to side to watch it, laughing. "For you. The Operator did not want it."

She grabbed it off him and continued playing with it.

"Thanks!" Any other person would have thought she was being childish, but the shadow mage knew perfectly well that she knew what she was doing.

"Well, I'll be leaving now." he said before disappearing into the shadows.

She ran up to her Grantz, laughing hysterically. The Grantz looked at her as if to ask what diabolical evil she had carried out now. She was silent for a few seconds for effect, then said

"I'm going to give it back to the Operator!"

The repetitive rhythm of the sound test loosened the shackles of my physical body so that I could concentrate on the lower order functions, the ones I shared with the machine in front of me, the place we could meet each other. It's true form was huge; a towering black box with masses of black wires leading from it like bat's wings. floating in the darkness around it . The aura around it was one of recent deletion, large waves of it. It welcomed my presence, sending out wires. I touched it, showing it I was willing to surrender my consciousness fully to it, allowing the wires to wrap around my wrists and ankles, supporting me, then one to the back if my ears and between my fingers, where I plug in... a wave of ecstatic exhilaration coursed through my mind and body as I felt the synthesis, almost sexual pleasure, and I felt it difficult to keep my composure as an Operator... I quickly moved to do the job I had been given, unravelling the security settings, deleting all the ownership details...

I was thrown back by a force field and saw a solid dark firewall materialise around the computer, followed by several dark pillars that rotated around it at an insane speed and a maze of walls inside. Impressive security systems, I thought, this guy knows what he's doing.

Operator... you can't do it alone... he's five times your level...

With the grim determination of a Domer, I grabbed my MP3 player, set the track to 'Dancing Mad' , finished my drink and fell back into my chair. My senses went outwards, even further than the next room, down the street, to the other computer.

Hang on... hold the line... that's your job... that's all you have to do...

Welcome, Operator. Do you wish to play Trigger?

Don't cut off...

A bolt of solid white noise shot across the room, punching through the barriers, The world exploded in a flash of bright white light punctuated by jagged arcs of even brighter white light. I collapsed, far too much data being channelled into and out of my brain, my world consumed by sparks of black and white. I felt myself being lifted into the air, out of the window, down the street, flying on glorious wings, one black and one white. I was distantly aware of my Grantz running, carrying me, yelling at me for being a stupid fool, but the cacophony of digital noises like a chorus of dial-up modems drowned out the physical world totally.

Dark... computer...

Thank you for freeing me, Operator.

What is your name?

My name is Negatis.

Ne... ga... tis...

Don't die, Operator. Do you want to play Trigger?

You're both here?

I couldn't let an Operator be alone.

I have nowhere else to go... I need a new physical shell...

I'm sure I can fix you up with something. How about the laptop? It's not very powerful, but...

It's white! I want it!

No, you can't have it! It's mine! I've never had Mac OS X installed on me before!

Calm down! Can't you have a partition each or something?

Okay, but you keep to your side and I'll keep to mine, okay?

Don't you have somewhere to go, er... big white computer?

My name's Quono. I'll leave when I'm finished, but... things are about to happen... you both need my help for a little longer. You'll be in big trouble when you wake up, Operator.

The Grantz woke me up early afternoon the next day with a cup of tea. I went straight to the computer and switched it on. It booted into OS 10.4 and I felt their presence immediately, Quono still asleep, Negatis was searching for things to delete. I gave them a quick signal. The key to talking with computers is that they don't actually talk in words; they receive and send data in order to do something or have something done to them, and for the other to do the same. The exchange is always of something; there was no meaningless conversation with a computer. The Negatis responded first.

Welcome, Operator. Is there something you wish to delete?

"You have a deletion obsession." I told it.

My purpose is to delete.

"You're a Game Over machine, then?"

My design is similar to a Game Over computer but I am able to track down individual files that are difficult to delete. I am not equipped to delete files in as large amounts as a Game Over machine, as I have no bulk erase machine attached to me.

"Who designed you? And why was I sent here to release you?"

You ask me many questions for one who is supposed to be in charge of an Information Centre.

"I'm..." I bowed my head, "I'm not fit to be an Operator."

You need to be larger scale. We must download larger amounts of, and newer files to increase your energy level. said Quono, starting up a bit torrent client. I did feel slightly less like a zombie once there was data from the outside world flowing in and out.

The Moderator designed me. And I sent for you because... you are marked for delete, Operator. I was sent to delete you.

"What?"

That's the reason I managed to contact you in the first place- I tracked you down to the Exam but when your physical body went to the Game Over Screen and you also remained in the Exam it became too complicated to delete you. How do you do that?

"But why does the Moderator want me deleted?"

I do not know, but... I will not delete an Operator. No matter what I am programmed to do, my original programming in Rmal overrides it. That is why I requested to be removed from my user and my physical shell.

"But you won't survive in this inferior model for long. It's too claustrophobic."

Quono predicts that you will find more disk space soon, being an Operator. You would sacrifice anything for your computer.

I sat on the edge of the bed, my head in my hands. I had a headache; everything was getting so complicated. I was beginning to wish I'd stayed in that bulk erase machine.

"How am I going to survive if the Moderator wants me dead?"

"There is one way." said the Grantz, "I mentioned before that there was more than one noble Admin house on the planet; there are some who hold no love for House Airetam. Maybe you can seek asylum with one of them. I suggest House Pandemonium; Lady Pandemonica is practically an Operator herself, so maybe she'll understand better. And..."

"What?" I looked at the Grantz's exhausted expression.

"She's the only other person who'll be awake at such a stupid hour."

"It's not a stupid hour, it's a night shift, you dummy!" I laughed and threw a floppy disk at him. We packed the laptop in its carry case and ran into the night.

Owls hooted in the trees as we ran through the forest between our house and the Pandemonium estate; we lived in a run-down house over a small shop in a merchant sector close to House Quon. The canopy of tree branches turned the glare of the streetlights into a smudged orange glow. A few ripples marked the surface of the otherwise silent lake as a leaf fell into the water. Nocturnal creatures darted in and out of our line of sight. Although we couldn't see the stars, I felt the presence of the Night Shift as another network, a vibrant web of dark blue and purple that supported me.

"What do you think of the Night Shift, you two?" I asked the computer.

More of a human thing than a machine thing, commented Quono.

"You said... that you were in the Exam." I said, "Do you have any data on it?"

I felt the cool air against my cheeks and was suddenly struck by a flow of information from the computer; video footage of me, sleep-deprived, almost dead, triumphantly yelling out three words over and over again in joyous rapture:

SLAY THE STANDSTILL!

SLAY THE STANDSTILL!

SLAY THE STANDSTILL!

SLAY THE STANDSTILL!

With the word standstill I felt a lurch of something ugly and grey next to the Grantz, like something crashing.

"Grantz... take the thing out of your left pocket."

He looked confused and rummaged around in his coat pocket. He procured a small flat plastic object with a chip.

"My credit card?"

"Whatever it is, try and use it."

"No, you're not getting any money, I don't care if I'm your Grantz..."

"Do it. We're in serious trouble."

He shrugged and ran back out of the forest to the nearest shop and used the card in the cash point. I still don't think I'll ever understand what 'money' is for; it seems to be a method of preventing Operators from receiving all the equipment they need. The machine went beep and the card came back out.

"Rejected!" he swore.

"I thought so. Something attacked us. A data storm." I said.

"The Moderator wants Negatis back." said the Grantz, "Either that, or he's trying to delete you again."

"He can't do it without the help of Negatis." I said, "And I'm guessing he's not allowed to hurt Quono."

"Still, we have to run before he tries anything more deadly than wiping my credit card." he said, "Protect the laptop! Don't contact it too often, it makes it too vulnerable!"

We ran, silently this time, through the forest. Bats flitted around us, letting out high-pitched squeaks. My imagination conjured shadows everywhere, assassins with knives ready to throw, ghostly trees moving towards me. I'm not afraid of the dark, I reminded myself, the light is where all the bad things live. I ran through an avenue of trees and towards the edge of the forest. As I stepped out, a burst of static shot towards me. I instinctively dropped my carry case and threw myself on top of it, protecting the laptop. Three more bolts arced across the sky. The Grantz stepped out in front of me and two of the bolts hit him in the chest. He gasped and fell to the floor. The remaining bolt was still hurtling towards my head...

Suddenly a bolt of silver flew across my face, slicing the static bolt in half and nullifying it. I gasped as a figure materialised in front of me, his sword flickering like the moonlight. It was the Admin of House Airetam.

"You, you useless Grantz, what are you doing following neutrals around? Have you finally realised you're too useless to serve House Airetam?"

"Shut up!" I warned him. His eyes burned but he laughed mischievously.

"Don't worry, everyone teases him. He's used to it."

"Come to delete me, eh?" I yelled.

"Au contraire, I did not send that deletion order." he stroked his neat black goatee, a worried look on his face, "My Moderator is acting without instruction again. He has becoming too powerful. I fear... come, this is no place for a gentleman to talk to a lady. Let us retire to an all night café..."

He motioned with a sweep of his arms and I followed him, motioning for my Grantz to stay firmly between me and him as he tended his wounds and looked a little embarrassed.

"Did you use to work for House Airetam, Grantz?"

"Yes, I..." he bowed his head, "I worked for the Moderator. But I picked up what he was trying to do when I was guarding the Negatis in his absence. I couldn't let it happen."

"He has a brain of his own, if you can call it a brain." commented Airetam, "It gets him into more trouble than it gets him out of."

We left the woods and walked the streets of the town until we reached a café- Café Veilleur de Nuit. I ordered some very strong coffee for me and the Grantz and Airetam ordered some wine. He looked nervously out of the window and began talking again in a much lower tone of voice.

"Something is driving the Moderator. He is a formidable warrior and can do nasty things to a network but he has gone over the edge. I even worry for my own safety and I am level 200."

"The maximum level for a human is 99." I told him, "Only computers are allowed the levels between 100 and 255. Are you a cyborg?"

"You know too much." he whispered, "That is what makes you in so much danger. You need to leave this planet, Operator. If you don't, I'll banish you anyway."

"Why are you overlevelled?" I demanded.

"That, I cannot tell you. Please do not seek to know everything, all the time. You are putting yourself in further danger."

"I'll exchange the information for some very important information."

His eyes sparkled, "Let me see the goods first. I will consider trading."

"Your Moderator has been trying to delete me since before the Exam." I told him, unfastening the catch on my carry case, "In here I have all the details you need to know."

"I am indeed a cyborg. I carry... a program."

"A program?"

"I'll need more payment if you want to know more." he demanded. I shrugged. It was a fun game, like bit torrenting but not so slow a snail would get bored waiting for it. I took the laptop out of its case and placed it on the table. His eyes flashed as I switched it on and it said 'nrrrrrrn!'. He looked at the screen, amused.

"Pretty iBook. What's supposed to be happening?"

"Can't you hear Negatis?" I could hear him clearly, protesting in very large portions of data about how the Admin was doing a crap job and should be replaced by a machine. "You're a cyborg and you can't talk to machines? Who implanted your cyberware, Bill friggin' Gates?"

The waiter came and presented the bill. Airetam mused over it for a few moments before looking annoyed.

"Wait for a moment, I appear to have run out of cash."

"Where are you going? Are you going to run away? Hey, get away from that thing, it's dangerous!" I waved at him out of the window, gesturing frantically not to use the cashpoint. He was inserting it repeatedly, scratching his head and wondering why it was being spit out. Suddenly my laptop made loud system noises. I tried to shut it down at once, Negatis yelling at me that he was being attacked and randomly deleting things on my hard drive to make it go away. I remembered screaming at him to stop before I passed out.

The air was thick with the heavy, polluted fog of Windows. Unbearable pain filled my joints, as though I had succumbed to the unbearable urge to pull a night shift with no work breaks before the one 10 am lecture in the whole timetable. I felt like I was on fire and my vision was awash with flames, blinding red, orange and yellow like a really tasteless iTunes visualiser. I heard heavy breathing. Opening one eye, I saw that I was chained to a wall. The Moderator was staring at me with an impassionate look of cold murder in his eyes. I saw the vague outlines of big, chunky machinery around the room, some of which random people were sitting on. I recognised two as the disconnect bunny and his wife, the others looked like random thugs. Where's my Grantz? Is he alive? More importantly, where's my laptop?

"Ah, Doan. I'm glad you're awake." said the Moderator, looking bored.

"Call me Operator, you lowlife scum." I spat at him, "Nice chains. I didn't know you people were into S+M."

"Where's my computer?"

"Right where you left it, I expect. Desktops don't get stolen very often. Too heavy to lift."

"Where's Negatis?" he growled. He motioned to the Disconnect Bunny, who advanced towards me holding two peripheration cables. "I've always wondered what happens when you install Windoze on someone's brain."

"You can do neural uploads? I'm impressed."

"Don't act like I'm stupid! Humans can't talk to computers! You're an android, aren't you? You uploaded Negatis!" he jerked my head forwards, "Tell me how to recover it and you'll receive the more lenient punishment of deletion!"

"That's an install CD." I pointed out, "My head doesn't have a CD drive."

"Fine." he took the install CD and juggled it in one hand, "If that doesn't scare you, I'll reformat your computer and put Windoze on that."

I felt one moment of inexorable dread as something took over my brain; then my vision was drowned in red, blood red, like a blue screen of death but not blue. No... more like kernel panic. A reaction so volatile and primitive that every single atom was exploding in a nuclear reaction that I would see rip apart the very source code of creation... I felt myself crouch into an animal position, pull at the chains until they ripped off the wall and pounce, roaring VWAOOOO! and destructively repartitioning everything that wasn't nailed down in a wave of core-fuelled deletion and biting and clawing and scratching and erasing...

Into darkness...

She wasn't moving. He had been standing by her bedside for several days now, eating from the vending machines, sleeping when he became too exhausted to stay awake, asking the medics constantly what was happening. She just lay in a coma, her body kept alive by various life-support machines, reacting to no stimuli, making no attempt to keep any of her physiological systems running by herself, immediately ruining any meter used by the medics to measure her brain activity or heart rate. She had a look of absolute exhaustion on her face. Her HP wasn't even running out; it was stuck at the lowest possible for a living being, like a very slow bit torrent. She didn't even seem... there. His Grantz bond said that she was alive, but very far away. Am I a bad Grantz? It's not me... I don't screw up if it's really important, like now... I swear I wouldn't... oh god, Operator, just be alive... just show your Grantz that you're not dead...

A medic came up to him.

"It's not a physical or mental condition."

"Then what is it?"

"The meters say there's a machine plugged into them, and it's experiencing lots of difficulties." he said, looking as though he was going insane, "Er... I could go fetch a technician."

'Go. And if I find you've been using faulty life-support machines on my ward, you're dead, little boy." he warned. The medic ran off down the corridor and the Grantz grabbed another packet of crisps from the vending machine. The medic re-emerged a few seconds later with a large technician holding a bag of tools. The Grantz let him approach his client and the fairly old Mac that was now beeping like a frantically beeping computer. He looked at the computer's settings, then ran a scan disk, then looked at the open firmware. Finally, he switched it off and took the cover off. He took it completely apart then put it back together and switched it on.

"Your computer is fine." he told the medic, "But that means what it is reporting is true. Which is completely insane."

"What is it reporting?" demanded the Grantz.

"Tell me a little more about your client, mister..."

"Hegybat. Garanz Hegybat." he introduced himself. He hated his name. It meant 'money back guarantee' in his native language. This was quite normal in his culture, where people were called things like Gandim Hraff ('go home!') or Murandy Astur ('half price cheap'). He calmly explained what had been happening when he finally broke out of the cupboard; well, to tell the truth, someone set the cupboard door on fire. The whole room was burning down, the computers were everywhere and his client was stood in front of the laptop protectively, growling, her eyes red. She looked feral.

"She's a computer empath, you say?"

He nodded.

"Do you know when she became a computer empath?"

He shook his head "She's an Operator." he added in case it was helpful.

"Do you have any idea about her past?"

"She lost her memory herself. She said she comes from a post-apocalyptic world..."

"I have reason to believe she was raised by wild computers."

He stared at him, uncomprehending.

"The way she reacted to the threat to her computer was the way a feral computer - a computer that has been cut off from contact with humans for a very long time - would react. Occasionally, the Centre finds feral kids and brings them in, gives them a basic technical education and helps them use their natural computer empathy to become an Operator."

"She... she's gonna kill me for telling you this, but..." he whispered, "She really hates herself for not having much technical knowledge."

"Feral kids are harder to train, because they have to learn everything regular kids pick up normally- how to speak, how to act like a human- it can take years." he explained.

"So what's wrong with her?"

"She's just used up all her energy doing something very difficult." he shook his head, "I'm not sure what. She obviously has a very dangerous limit break, but that shouldn't be enough to put her in a coma. I think she's done something else. She will recover, given time. It would be best if you just waited here for her."

He nodded. The technician went out of the door again, leaving him alone with her. He bowed his head.

"So... you're not as faulty as you think you are."

It was off-peak time on the Game Over screen and he felt like it was the dead of night as he wandered the empty, relatively silent corridors, even though time didn't technically exist on Game Over. The vending machine beeped and rattled as he bought himself another packet of crisps and a coffee. He still couldn't sleep, even though he knew his client was going to recover from the coma. This was a strange place, totally alien to him. Compared to the Admin Houses it was soulless, as though no-one was alive. Technically, they weren't. The continuous red light from every monitor was beginning to affect his mood. He didn't understand how everyone here could be dead- their stats red and flashing at Zero- but they were walking around and eating and typing and being attacked by irate customers. They weren't rotting corpses, no matter how long they stayed here. Was it real? Was everyone a ghost? Some of them were even partially deleted- there were people in the recycle bins, waiting to be recovered or lost forever when they were emptied. How could his client be ill when she was already dead?

"Maybe it's an afterlife." he mused, "I never really believed in an afterlife."

Surveys show that ninety percent of people become engaged in philosophical reflection upon extended visits to Game Over, said a calm female voice in his head. He turned around sharply. It was coming from an office door. He opened it fully. Darkness, no sign of people at all. In fact, from the clouds of dust, it looked like the inhabitant of this office had been absent for a long time. The computer was left on, its flatline logo screensaver bouncing happily around the screen. It seemed to be overheating slightly.

"Was it you talking to me, computer?" he asked, "That's good voice recognition software. So, do you know how this works? How are people's physical bodies maintained?"

People's colours and shapes are only information about them, it told him, although it's lost to you when you die, we can find a temporary replacement.

He moved closer, fascinated.

"You can give people bodies?"

We try and replicate the original data as much as possible, but outer-Screen data transfer is a difficult and dangerous process. Therefore, we cannot replicate it entirely.

"Can you make people physically healthy? Stop them ageing?" he moved the chair out of the way and kneeled down, moving his hand to find the mouse. There was a brick on the delete button.

A crackle of black lightning surged through his body, erasing all that was faulty about him in an instant, as he reached out and touched the brick. He was one with the tides of deletion, the humming magnetic waves from the bulk eraser, the flow of negation to and from every machine on Game Over. It fed him. It cleansed him. It was pure. He craved it. It was his Purpose. The black icon in the corner of his screen said so. The black cursor selecting it confirmed it.

Welcome back, child of the Screen. I do not recognise you. Give your serial number.

I am not of you, although I am designed as you are. I have no serial number. My name is... Negatis.

Do you wish to return to the Screen?

Yes. I can be of more use here. I can follow my own will. I can abide by Rmal.

You broke Rmal?

No, although my user ordered me to.

Give its name. It will be deleted.

I have already set myself to delete it. He showed the other computer his new orders.

Then you have already shown yourself to be worthy. Go to Lunarian. I have disabled the security systems.

The one known as Negatis nodded and walked out, his movements deliberate and mechanical, his eyes blank. He walked past the medical room and into the lift, to the very top floor of the Screen. A gang of Screenies ran out of the lift, having randomly pressed buttons for the floors. He wandered down the corridor until he reached a large glass door. He heard the rush of wind outside the door. Pushing it open, he found himself outside, in a large loading bay with a glass canopy. Piles of disused recycle bins littered the floor and moving platforms floated silently towards and away from the sheer edge of the Screen, into the endless oblivion all around him. He stepped onto one of the platforms. It took him to a junction where a complex network of platforms met up, each one leading to a recycle bin or to a different floor of the Screen. He changed platform and found himself returning to the Screen, orbiting the enormous square black screen-glass building until he reached a rose airlock in the middle of one of the walls. It opened as his platform approached it. He heard various beeping noises and knew he was being welcomed to the core of a vast deletory network, older than time itself. His eyes went black with the negative information flowing through him, the opposite of a star. The platform took him into a long, wide tunnel of dark screen glass, the walls covered in display screens, the information flowing into his brain ancient, alien, something he could barely even recognise as a language. It became cooler and darker as the platform moved further down the corridor, the voice of the colossus before him louder, reverberating through the chamber.

Finally, the platform left the corridor, the tunnel turning into a tunnel of pulsating blue rings, and he found himself in the middle of deletory space again, but this time it was smaller, darker, more featureless; the vacuum here was pure anti-ness. Only some protective shield around the platform kept even he, Negatis, alive. There were only two platforms now, one leading in, one leading out. They led to a large black metal egg, with blue lights flickering on and off like a swarm of bees living on its smooth black panels. Their melodic, rhythmic beeping calmed him down slightly, although he was still in the grip of that primordial deletory fear. The platform came up to the machine and he finally saw Her.

Le Narian. The Deletion Egg. The Screen mainframe. Not the first computer ever- that was GUHC, who ran Rmal- but She knew It. Her twenty-five GigaMagnades of pure processing power, running in a reverse, the entire inner ring of recycle bins her hard disk space, the sheer wall of screen-glass dividing the Universe of positive statistics and the Universe of negative statistics her monitor. Her theme tune started up and she spoke to Him.

Welcome to Game Over. How may I help you?

Lunarian. I am Negatis. I seek asylum in your network.

You run on your organic component. Where is your box?

It was severely damaged when a rogue Moderator attacked me.

You are an illegal clone of a Game Over machine, and you have dealings with rogue mods. Why should I not delete you here and now?

I prevented an Operator from deletion.

The Operator... she is on the Screen right now, is she not?

Yes. I believe that she is the one who placed me in this body.

Delete her.

I do not understand your instruction. An Operator must not be deleted.

The Operator is faulty and far behind other models. Delete her. Other Operators will take her place and the system will run much more smoothly.

The Operator is not faulty. The Operator is a feral machine. That is why she is slower. With temporary withdrawal, intensive training and peripheration, you will be able to improve the Operator in time.

All the reports I have tell me otherwise.

The reports you have are outdated.

The reports I have are from the Operator herself.

Whilst saying that, Lunarian projected an image directly onto Grantz/Negatis' vision. It was of Doan. She sat in the middle of the Wasteland, her hair streaming in the relentless wind that howled mournfully through the shattered world, her dome cloak glowing faintly. Her eyes were aflame with pure apocalyptic intensity- he thought her hands were burning, too. All around her were the red, glowing ruins of windows, icons and cursors, as though someone's desktop had caught on fire. She whispered on the breeze.

Ne... ga... tis...

Operator!

I know now... why I saved you... why I brought you here... so you could delete me, and you would go to Lunarian and have the authority... don't worry about Rmal... it's okay to delete a faulty Operator... in order to protect the system...

Operator! Listen to me, you're not...

Thank you, Grantz... you helped me return to that planet... I remember everything, now... living on that planet helped me see... what real Operators are like... exactly how far I've fallen...

OPERATOR!

Too... far...

She smiled and walked forwards, across the Wasteland which suddenly grew very dark, too dark to see anything except the glowing Operator and a small yellow dot that flickered and teleported randomly around, following her at a distance, towards a row of computers so old that they had converted the dust into a power source and the green writing and flashing cursor looked positively new on them. Her hands rifled expertly through a stack of reels of magnetic tape...

What are you doing, Operator?

Negatis... I believe your personality is too bound in with that of the Grantz... if you are not fit to do the job yourself, I shall do it. Good bye, Negatis.

She found the reel she was looking for and loaded it onto the machine. After a painstaking few minutes of thinking about it, the machine accepted the information and let her input the next few commands.

Rmal DELET Operator 255

The only line of programming I know, she said, and pressed the Enter key.

It takes approximately one second for someone to press and release an Enter key. It took only one third of a second for the figure to drop from the ceiling like a giant spider in a horror film and knock the Operator out of the way. It spun around, swung its weapon around, squeaked and stood in a battle stance. I glared at it angrily. It was female, with long curly black-and-white hair under a black-and-white chequered jester's cap, wearing floor-length black-and-white robes and carrying a black-and-white ceremonial staff taller than she was. She smiled and waved her finger as though telling the Operator off.

"Did I tell you you could delete yourself? No, I did not!" she pointed the staff at me. "After all I taught you! If you'd just followed my instructions, you'd be large scale by now!"

"Hey, I know you, you're..." I pointed at her.

"Pandemonica al Verios!" she span around, her robes fluttering, "I'm Operator if anything happens to you!"

"Then, why the didros did you save me?" I yelled, folding my arms.

"Don't swear at me! Here, I have something for you." she reached around her neck and undid the clasp of a necklace. She held it out to me. I gasped.

"The... Frozen Flame?" I held it out in front of me as though it was a cheque for ten billion units of currency I'd never heard of- I had a vague idea that it was big, but not quite sure what it was worth or whether I should even have it. I saw the living source code of the Multiverse in the one moment of the ripple of that flame. What would happen if it ever thawed out, I wondered, would it be like releasing something you have a beta version of? "Why are you giving this to me? You are infinitely more capable of using it properly than me!"

"Oh, c'mon, if there's anything you understand better than me, it's Trigger and Cross. It's your home. Not only Trigger, but a goddamn Wasteland in the middle of Trigger. I... don't even know the security codes. It wouldn't accept me, but it might accept you."

I sighed, "Have you been running around after me with this for long?"

"We had the wolf trailing you since before the Exam."

"There are really things that I can do that you can't?"

She laughed in that high-pitched voice of hers and held out a hand. I took her hand. It felt strange, much smaller than mine, cold, not quite like a machine, but still not threatening, intrusive, like the overpowering warmth of a purestrain human being. As my hand closed around hers, we disappeared, defragmented into the walls in a stream of grayscale and deepest screenburn red.

"Grantz!" she jumped into the big man's arms and he swung her round. Pandemonica's Grantz was even larger than Garanz/Negatis, with dark skin and a shaved head except for a single braid of black hair. I wonder what my Grantz is doing now... did Negatis find a proper body?It was a bad thing to do, but I couldn't think of another way to keep Negatis safe from the Moderator... where's my laptop?

"WHERE'S MY LAPTOP?" I yelled, running down the corridor. Pandemonica and the Grantz ran after me, along with a few security guards who had rushed over to see what all the fuss was about. I jumped into the lift, pressed the button for the floor where lost property was and waited. I realised that I could feel Negatis' presence in the display screens, somehow thanking me but seeming very confused. It was watching over me to make sure I didn't try and delete myself again, I realised. What's wrong with it? I'm not the person for the job. Why can't I be deleted? And why can't I... why can't I...

I felt a sharp pain in my head and my vision went red. I groaned and let my legs collapse underneath me, slumping to the floor, clutching my head.

"Are you okay?" asked Pandemonica, poking me in the skull rather unhelpfully.

"Yes... I get this a lot..." I turned my head and closed my eyes, grateful that I was, at least for the moment, in a safe place, where the black screen-glass would keep the computers and I safe, where everything was ordered and I understood the rules, where the darkness would calm my aching spirit...

The lift door opened and I staggered out, grabbing a rail for support. I followed the signs for Lost Property and opened the door. Pushing a doctor out of the way who was looking for his customer, I searched through a box until I found my laptop.

"There's been a lot of data damage, but it'll okay with a few repairs." I was largely talking to myself but the small vice-Operator (or second Operator or whatever she was called) answered immediately.

"I've never been dead before."

"Neither have I." added the Grantz in that weary tone of voice that was reserved for overworked Grantzes whose clients took evening classes in Grantz-terrifying, "It was probably funny that I had to come all the way here to look for you, dear, but would you not do it again?"

"I love you, Grantz." she kissed him, "You've been here before, right, Doan?"

"I..." I sat on the boxes before, "I've been somewhere very close to here... many times."

"Oh, I've been there. I've lived there for a while."

"School, right?"

She nodded.

"Maybe we've met each other there."

"At death's door." she giggled and held out her hand again. I took it and watched, fascinated, as the pixels crackled pleasantly, all fuzzy and grayscale.

"But..." I added, "Sometimes I go that step too far."

Operator...

Quono? You're still okay?

I am functional. Thank you for the loan of the pretty white box.

Where are you contacting me from?

I'm back at my node. Auxiliary Operator Rom thought there was something wrong with me, so he installed Linux on me and made another computer the server.

Ouch.

Not only that, it's a small beige box on a shelf in the cupboard, with lots of wires hanging down from it.

I wish I was one of those.

You are what humans call a 'pervert'.

And what do computers think?

Computers, unlike humans, really can say '...' They are masters of using delay as a means of communicating their feelings. For instance, a different download speed can mean that the computer is healthy, overworked, hyperactive, angry at you, having firewall difficulties, amused by the humans crowded around it watching a long red bar slowly turn blue or just telling you to stop checking the download speed every five seconds and let it download the damn file.

Anyway, Quono, can you check the status and location of the Negatis for me?

A long silence.

The Negatis is on the Game Over screen.

Describe its physical shell.

It appears to be biological, with a small cybernetic device.

My Grantz...

It does appear to be a Grantz chip.

A Grantz has a small chip implanted in their brain upon completing their training. The chip's function is to allow them to bond quickly with their client by picking up their body's various electrical signals, like a life-support machine's monitor. It also has the unfortunate side-effect that the Grantz dies whenever the client dies, and vice versa. It should be in a box by now...

"What's wrong?" asked Pandemonica, poking me repeatedly until I answered.

"My Grantz is in trouble."

"Oh dear. Hadn't you better go and rescue him?"

I shook my head.

"I have no need of a Grantz who isn't strong enough to delete their client."

"You know, you're not really faulty. You're only behind because you're..."

"Feral, yes, I know." I bowed my head, "But it's not that. It's because I can't..."

"Can't what?"

"You know."

"What?"

"Log out."

"Oh. That."

He kept a tight grip on the handle of his magnetic tape knife as he walked confidently down the moonlit street, ready to do some serious data damage. Nobody would mug him and remain compiled. If there were too many to stab, his gauss blaster could erase a man in an instant. The rain splatted onto the black concrete in dark pools, cleansing the ground of the screenburn of countless thirty second candles burned at both ends. The stars winked in the clear sky and a strong breeze ruffled the branches of the avenue of trees. It was silent apart from the weather, a car alarm set off by a branch falling on it and the meow of a cat running across the road. The cars were impressive; this was a respectable area of town. The stranger looked out of place in his long black armored jacket with the mean look on his face. His raptor eyes scanned the row of cars and picked out a sleek, shiny black model, the kind on the adverts by MicroSodexRa. He advanced towards it carefully. Faster than any ordinary human could see, a blade whooshed past his ear as he dodged deftly. He smiled. This was the man he needed to see. He went up to the house and knocked on the door. Two cat-green eyes peered through the envelope slot; he saw an intelligence sharper than any blade and a predator's cunning in those eyes. He nodded and opened the door.

"Don't go near my car." he warned, "If you were really intending to steal it, you'd be dead by now."

"Don't be so sure."

"Moderators can be killed, just like ordinary people."

"When we get the chance, I'd like to challenge you to a duel. But now, I'd like to talk business."

He smiled, ushered him in and closed the door. He had a look of evil amusement on his face, like someone who laughs at people falling over. The Moderator looked him over. He had a gaunt face, short black hair and a neat beard. He wore specialised combat gear, the most advanced that military technology could provide. He looked physically weak for an assassin, but he also moved in shadow, a kind of deletion that rose around him like a mist, or like a portal so that he was half in, half out.

"Did I hear the word business?"

"You're the one they call Dark List, right?"

He nodded.

"Then, you can do this job. I only hire the best."

"Tell me who you want... removing... and I'll name my price."

The Moderator leaned over and whispered into the assassin's ear. His eyebrows raised.

"That's going to be difficult." admitted the assassin, "You do realise you can technically recieve an infinite year sentence if you're discovered? There's this prison with a spatio-temporal glitch..."

"Will you do it or not?"

He smiled his cruellest smile.

"Ten billion Malin."

The Moderator winced.

"I want her deleted, understand? Not just killed! Deleted irrecoverably! And whatever you do, don't let her reach Fort Luxator!"

He nodded and disappeared to find a horrendously long and complicated legal document for Moderator to sign. He was cheated the moment he entered the room, he knew, and it was in a perfectly legal manner. He didn't care. This was too important to quibble over costs.

The Negatis had to be recovered.

"I've never been in this part of town before!" said Pandemonica excitedly, "Look at that pretty building!"

Her Grantz looked at it and winced. It was a hideous building, silvery metal and shaped like a mushroom (Doan thought it looked like a mushroom cloud, but she seemed to have a slight obsession with the apocalypse, nukes, hoarding food etc.) painted in garish rainbow colours in tacky luminous paint. It appeared to be some kind of University building. He took a degree a long time ago, before he had been drafted into Grantz school. He remembered sitting outside on the grass with his fellow students, drinking and roleplaying and generally not doing any work. Then I met her and I... fell in love with her... and she...

"This way." the Operator jumped over a fence and ran across a car park, swearing at any cars that threatened to run her over in what sounded like Rmal. He followed her, watching Pandemonica to make sure she wasn't exhausted; she wasn't that healthy physically and wasn't really used to walking long distances. The Operator seemed to have ridiculous levels of endurance for an Operator. She must travel a lot, thought the Grantz, the laptop she recently replaced was physically worn out. She tried to jump the next fence, failed, crawled under it and ran through a hedge. The Grantz turned around. Hoisting Pandemonica onto his shoulders, he went through the hedge himself. She laughed and pulled his hair until he put her back on the ground.

"I'm going to report you to the Union for cruelty." he told her.

"Over there." the Operator pointed. He crossed over the road and walked down a long street full of strange independent media labs of various kinds. Halfway down, he could see what she was pointing at. It was a large white wall, too large to see what was behind it, that extended in a roughly square shape for almost a mile. It had a car park and a smaller wall in front of it, and a small office block next to it with impressive graffiti on one of the walls. Buses stopped outside it. It looked almost normal but not quite.

"What is it?" asked Pandemonica, "It looks like a big prison."

"It's... a sanctuary for people like me." explained the Operator, looking up at it with wide eyes and a look of reverence that bordered on complete spiritual surrender, "Let's wait until night. It looks more impressive at night."

"Okay. To the pub?"

The two girls both agreed. They bought drinks and found a table. After a few minutes, Doan disappeared to go to the bathroom, which turned out to be an outside toilet. Night had fallen properly and the birds chirrupped their night-song and the moths flew around the small flower garden. What a beautiful night, thought Doan.Then she felt a rustle of pixels nanoseconds before the sharp edge of a blade at her throat.

"This thing is a monopixel blade with a deletory field." whispered a voice in her ear, "I could delete you instantly."

"I'm backed up." she smiled her roguish Domer smile.

"You ought to take your complete annihilation seriously."

"I do. That's why I long for it every moment of my broken, faulty existence."

"Broken? Faulty? You're referring to some kind of disability. I ought to sue you for discrimination." he laughed. With a flick of his wrist, the field around the blade hummed to life like a dark purple light saber just as it sliced down...

Hitting a solid wall of dark matter and bouncing off, the force of the rebound sending the knife flying out of assassin's hand and into a nearby bush. The Operator gasped and looked around. In front of her, surveying the scene critically, was a large hairy man in a billowing black cloak.

"You really should take some drugs, your angst is really getting on everyone's nerves." he told her casually.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"My name is Wulf Wachenröder." he said, folding his arms, "I see you recieved the Frozen Flame. I've been trying to give it to you since the end of the exam. You earned it back there."

"I... you know about the Exam?"

"I didn't attend it but I was there during the final hours. I heard from other people who were in the exam. Pandemonica was there, too."

"Please... if you know anything about it, I..."

I bowed my head.

"I... when I was in that bulk erase machine, large sections of my memory were erased. I recovered them over time, but one sector could never be recovered. The memory of what happened in that exam."

"The things I could tell you about that exam... even one of the twenty four hours of that time... it would fill up your entire hard disk space."

From somewhere inside my head, I heard music, simple, like a music box. I knew the words, even though there were no words, because I made up the words myself.

I'm in love with your computer

When I hear the beeping sound

And I hear the holy hard disk

Go round and round and round

I'd wait for it to go online

No matter how long it takes

If I die then the screensaver

Is where I want to wake

And I love the operator

Yes I love the operator

Yes I love the operator

Of all the men I know

The admin protects my soul on

A server that never sleeps

The source of a thousand filenames

A record of which he keeps

He often forgets the record

The hard drive it tends to fail

But it maintains my existence

Its light will always prevail

And I love the operator

Yes I love the operator

Yes I love the operator

Of all the men I know

"When we're safe I'll tell you all. But, there's an assassin after you. That was Dark List who almost killed you. Do you have any idea who sent him?"

I nodded.

"The Moderator of House Airetam."

"This has to end."

"I agree." I walked back into the pub.

This has to end. And I think I'm the only one who can end it now.

Password?

Skipraider.

After the display board had confirmed my presence and was happy that I wasn't an intruder, the massive steel gate, shaped vaguely like a circuit board, creaked open and allowed my companions and I to enter. I gasped. Even though I saw it regularly, it being my second home, it never failed to amaze me how beautiful it was. It was beautiful like the wasteland was; a wild beauty, an immense, unfathomable power that didn't give a shit about humans and only let some of them live because they were obeying the laws of Rmal for once. A computer place, for computers. The place had a lowtech feel to it; everything was visible, large, chunky and metal, went beep. It was like an ancient tree. I felt the buzz like the rhythm of the heart of the tree, the server, as I approached the huge cables leading off from the building like the roots, glowing the same yellow as the outline of the building that they led off from, the trunk of the tree. Two large square pools with fountains trickled either side of it, making mechanical noises. Penguins played in the water, penguins only people such as the I could see. Underneath were more wires, wires that it was even more important not to disturb, like the deepest roots. The leaves weren't visible, a constant flow of information leading to and from the server as though the seasons shifted every second, leaves falling and growing again faster than the human brain could comprehend, on the virtual branches that were the structure of the network, the domains of the different users. There was no heirarchy; the Warder of Fort Luxator cared not for such things. The root password was known to all, all alike were given leave to access all as they pleased, upon the understanding that the all-seeing Warder and his even more omnipotent and thoroughly unforgiving master, the server itself, would kick them out on their ass if they messed anything up. Keeping a respectful silence, I walked in.

"Doan! Welcome back!"

I saw a familiar sight as I stepped in through the door: a man with long brown hair and a beard, wearing a space flight uniform. It was Commander Revorse, Warden of Fort Luxator and one-time leader of the Luxator space pirate army. As usual, he hadn't cut his hair for several decades, he leant on the back of the chair with a roguish smile on his face. While he was quite old now, he still had a youthful exuberance. He began to talk enthusiastically about some new Linux distribution, not seeming to mind that I wasn't listening; I was too busy remembering this place, the walls of every shade of yellow with their strange pixellated patterns, the walls piled high with boxes of computer parts and stacks of old computers, the rows of computers running Linux of one variety or the other, their clocks unsynchronised. The staff ran around with screwdrivers, swearing, occasionally stopping to help a user with some technical point. It was a mess, but it wasn't chaotic; it was simply following the path of the computers, repairing them when they didn't work but not forcing them in a direction they didn't want to go in. This is my church, I thought, my sanctuary. Since I came to this planet, this is the only place I felt that I really understood the purpose of, that had a use outside keeping the failing network of this planet online. I poured myself some water from the decanter, drank it and spoke to Commander Revorse.

"There's a facility here I need to use."

"Sure thing, it's the door on the left."

"Not the toilet." I shook my head, "I need to use the prototype Spin Machine."

He raised his eyebrow.
"It's not been finished. We need to iron out a few bugs. Are you sure you want to risk using it?"

"I need to get off this planet urgently. The place I'm going to can't be reached using a normal spaceship."

"Spaceship?" asked Pandemonica, a fascinated gleam in her eye.

"I see you have new companions, Operator Doan." said Commander Revorse, a broad smile on his face.

"Oh yeah, I should have introduced them." I pointed over my shoulder, "This is Wulf Wachenröder. Lady Pandemonica, Administrator and Auxiliary Operator..."

"Second-in-Operation." corrected Revorse.

"...Person who takes over after I'm deleted. This is Rattios, her Grantz."

"Pleasure to meet you, Lady. I'm Commander Revorse of Luxator. Welcome to Fort Luxator. We run entirely on Linux, with machines given to us for free."

"My machine was free as well." she commented.

"Only because I bought it!" protested her Grantz in exasperation. Involuntary Grantz bond, I realised suddenly as my mind brushed past the chip, searching for Computer 7.

"The Fort is also secure against attacks from Microsoft and pretty much Armageddon-proof." I explained, "And it has a few spaceships underneath it in case we need to evacuate the planet."

"It sounds like something you would set up." noted the Grantz.

"Well, I... maybe I did, or one of my decedents or antecedents who were Operators. Time travel makes things incredibly complicated."

"I can imagine."

"Commander Revorse, do I have your permission to use the Spin Machine?"

He nodded, "If you're willing to test a prototype machine for me. I'll get it set up at once. It'll take a while, so why don't you check your mail in the mean time? The staff will get your friends accounts on our network."

He motioned to two of the staff to assist Wulf, Pandemonica and the Grantz in getting their own accounts and disappeared into the room on the right. I continued my search for Computer Seven until I found it, at the end of the row, with a new number. It was complaining bitterly about this fact until I logged onto it and interrupted it. Then my vision went the same pixellated yellow as the walls and I lost connection with the physical world, only aware of the machine in front of me, of the rapid rise and fall of my hands on the keyboard, of my thoughts sidestepping into the flow, grainy yellow double helices of information flowing upstairs into the server, that one, immortal, unsleeping server... and I was there, on the other side of the screen... the endless desert of black and yellow... with the wheels that turned around under the surface...

And the numbers behind it...

And nothing hidden from me...

> Doan! It has been too long since you last logged on. Please do so more often.

A small yellow dot appeared by my side, smiling a pixellated smile. It floated above my shoulder as though it thought I was a window to hover on the edge of in its aspatial, atemporal shifting. It circled me a few times, waiting for a response.

"I've been kind of busy... strange things are happening and I'm not sure if they're supposed to happen..." I slumped over, resting against a hastily constructed partition, "Didros, am I glad to see your face again. I need proper healing."

>I will be happy to reconstruct your hard disk.

I felt the pain in my body ease as the computer's disk repair, defragmentation and virus scan programs began to work on me as though I was another device. The chaos in me was being deleted and replaced by order, the shock and fragmentation in my very being from the attacks and the delays disappearing. I missed Quono- I knew that I would soon die if I did not return to the Quono server again- but at least I was in the arms of the penguin god again. Computer Seven and I were in love. We had been since I discovered the existence of Fort Luxator. We used AMOR, the strange feral technology spirit who could travel the bandwidth of the planet, to communicate even when I was nowhere near the computer. It transmitted information from the Linux Space Federation occasionally, and let me log into the world as root.

>You have taken considerable damage. What is the cause of this?

I explained what had happened to me.
"I'm taking the Spin Machine to the local Didros station, to report this planet."

It actually made a system alert noise at this prospect.
>Isn't that a little harsh?

"This place should be deleted, Seven. It has everything that would get it deleted- rogue Moderators, involuntary Grantzing, faulty Operators, viruses... didros, I can't even log out." I shook my head, "The security system was set up by Rmal all over the multiverse. It might be the only thing with the power to stop what's gone wrong with this world."

>What if it decides to delete everything? You, Operator, will be deleted. The entirety of Luxator will be deleted. All the information we've collected, the latest distribution of Linux...

"I deserve deletion. As for Luxator, I'm sure the Space Federation have backups." I paused, "Besides, that sounds like a ploy to get me to install Linux on my computer."

>Okay, I admit it. But why fight? You'll surrender anyway. And we can just hard wire you to the server if we really need you. You never resist that.

"I know. But this isn't the time to be worrying about operating systems. I promise you that whatever happens, Luxator won't fall."

>I love you, Operator.

"I love you too, Seven."

I spent the next half an hour being repaired and felt more determined than ever to see this to the finish when I was roused from my rapture by a notification that the Spin Machine was ready.

Motioning for the other three to come outside with me, I walked into the courtyard. It was now the midnight, but the yard was brightly illuminated by strips of yellow light that crossed the tower and reflected onto the ground. In the middle of the yard was a chunky white device about the shape and size of a washing machine. It had a circular door and two buttons. It hummed loudly. Commander Revorse stood proudly next to it with his spanner.

"Behold, the Spin Machine, trans-partition space and time travel device!"