It was a strange world, the bright scenery disorienting and almost painful to watch; the ground shifted under him as he reached behind himself to fix open a few molecules' worth of the portal, so that the worlds would not be completely separated.
Elektra was some distance away from him already, a proud orange-suited figure making her own way across the hostile landscape. She finally saw him, and raised a hand to beckon him onwards. He walked across the shifting ground to meet her, and was shocked by the sudden appearance of a thing with teeth throwing itself up to the ground and attempting to bite through his leg. He ripped it away with a tentacle and threw it viciously into the side of the nearest hill, but it had done some visible damage to his outer covering, he noticed in irritation.
"Underminers," Elektra said. "Not that dangerous, but still nasty if there's a whole pack…"
Small holes were starting to pop up around them as though on direct cue to her words.
"Let's get out of here."
They walked from one dune to the next, and the sky's colour shifted as the landscape changed around them. The illogicality of it irritated him.
"It's in flux," Elektra said. "Like the mortal world, it was damaged during the war…"
A large reptilian shape screeched above them as it flew over the suddenly-much-higher sky.
"It's a Pendragon! Run!" Elektra grabbed his arm to pull him to cover.
Above their heads, the creature seemed to sense them, and gracefully turned in mid-air to approach them. It was bright gold in the light, with what looked like a crown on its head, smiling with long, sharp teeth as it headed for a kill.
Elektra fired at it, but none of her shots seemed to have any effect as the creature continued on its deadly flight. At the last minute, both of them ducked to one side against the hill, and the dragon went through it.
He stared, bewildered, at the large creature disappearing through the landscape; its tail flicked across his chest as it went, but he felt nothing.
Elektra looked equally shocked. "They are not normally intangible?" he asked.
"No. My parents fought these. They brought down the Golden Gate bridge. Why…" She shook her head. "Maybe we should just keep going."
"Do you know where?" The only memory this world seemed to be restoring him was a feeling of annoyance at it.
"No. But if we just move towards the centre, we should be fine. We're going to end up at the Haunted House, but we have to find amulet pieces along the way."
"And how are we supposed to recognise those?" Kilobyte queried, annoyed already by this ridiculous quest.
"They're powerful. We'll find them. I'll pray, too," Elektra said serenely.
One never seemed to get used to the changing lands, he thought as they marched along the closest equivalents to pathways they could find. The sky was an ugly shade of burned yellow-green now, with the ground a deep shade of blue that hurt your eyes if you looked at it for too long. There were howls and screams sounding somewhere in the distance, which faded and grew at different moments as they walked along. He had strangled an attacking minigator with a tentacle, though its fellows had been as intangible as the Pendragon.
Ahead of them was what seemed to be the remains of a city, a bone-white wall surrounding tattered tents and strange structures; no sounds came from it. Without discussing it between themselves they headed towards it. He was glad of the variation from the endless shifting hills.
The city's gate was painted a garish red and yellow, striped and polka-dotted and threaded with bright tinsel. It was unlocked, and he pushed it open to cautiously step through.
They walked through a juggler, silently throwing gold-and-silver balls up and down in the air, dropping one every few seconds yet still somehow keeping the same number in the air. The sky had changed to candyfloss-pink when they looked up again.
"The Circus," Elektra said in explanation. It had changed, but it was an area he recalled from his glimpses of Rebecca's game: a 'level', where the human player fought minions to get another piece of the amulet.
It was too quiet, he thought dourly; fighting minions would have at least freed him from this anticipation.
Elektra stilled beside him, and he looked to see what had startled her.
A green-skinned humanoid woman was creeping along the wall, looking around as though pursued; she did not appear to see them. Something seemed to strike her, pressing her body against the wall; she fought back, though, materialising something in her right hand and throwing it at the invisible foe, then starting to run into thin air…
"I know her," Elektra said, half to herself. "Lady Illusion."
Another character name he vaguely recalled from the game; he regretted, now, refusing to examine it further in his anger.
"I'm Mirage after her, to remember," Elektra said. "She died, before the war even began. Why is she…"
"A ghost?" Kilobyte supplied the appropriate mortal myth; with Elektra's dependence upon such things she ought to appreciate the definition.
"She can't be. That's not what happens when people go, permanently…"
It wasn't, or at any rate not to mortals, though he suspected her ideas about what followed death were no more reasonable.
"You said this dimension was in flux," he said. "And you want to change the past. Perhaps it shows random parts of what happened here."
"That makes sense," Elektra said, looking happier. Then another thought seemed to strike her. "But she was killed in this dimension, and that might have been her last…" She bit her lip. "Let's go into the Big Top."
Kilobyte walked alongside the girl, observing the design of the circus arena; it seemed larger on the inside than on the outside, with patched-together sheets making it look like a structure pinned together across space and time.
Noise suddenly started around them, and a troupe of monkeys appeared in the centre of the tent, chattering and screaming.
"They're cute," Elektra said, a smile beginning to form on her face, and then she let out a shocked cry as one of them threw a pie at her. "Ouch!" She was flung onto the ground, skidding backwards as the yellowish substance clung to her face and jumpsuit.
Kilobyte advanced forward, preparing to scatter the monkeys; they ran off as he approached, apparently intimidated by his bulk.
Elektra pried herself off the ground. She dipped a finger into the pie mixture for a taste, and then promptly spat it out. "Yuck. I think it's poisoned." With a revolted look on her face, she tried to scrape off the mixture, which seemed to be immovable.
He saw some movement in the corner of his eye; he walked off after it, leaving Elektra to catch up to him. A tented passageway led through another intangible, a circus strongman admiring his muscles in the mirror as he hefted his dumbbell. Nothing special, after all; he waited for Elektra to catch up, and followed the passage through. A spinning blue disc was apparently a powerup for Elektra; it removed the food matter from her, and seemed to put her in slightly higher spirits.
"Back in the Big Top," Elektra said as they emerged at the other end.
Another example of this place's ridiculous geography. The colouring, though, had changed yet again; it seemed darker now, a dull red light highlighting the tent.
The air shimmered for a second, and minions appeared out of thin air; more monkeys and strongmen, clowns with sad faces and sadistic laughs, strange small creatures jumping around to prepare for attack…
…and two humanoids, running through it, a blond man and a red-haired woman with lightning insignia on their clothing.
Elektra's parents. He heard her gasp beside him.
They were clearly on the run, trying to make a path through all the minions surrounding them; the man was pulling the woman through, trying to get them both out.
"You go on, Ace," he heard her call to him. "I'll take care of these freaks."
"We're in this together," he told her. "This way. Strategic retreat." He blasted ahead of them to clear a path, and the two of them ran on.
Elektra stood in place, staring desperately at the two figures. "Let's follow them!" she said, clutching on to Kilobyte's arm and pulling him towards where they were fading into the passageway they had just exited. He went along with her, but the heroes had departed, leaving them alone once again.
"My mother." She was crying again, he noticed, but smiling through it. "I never thought I was going to see her again, but she was alive, you saw her too. And my father, I don't even remember him but they were both heroes like everyone said, the two of them fighting and doing so well, saving the world and kicking butt like she always used to say…"
"Look there." He pointed to the central pillar that had appeared in the middle of the Big Top following the heroes' departure. It was blue and white, almost a relaxing combination compared to the other garish décor, and bathed in a faint golden light. And on top of it was a small gold triangle, slowly spinning in the light.
"A piece of the Amulet of Zoar," Elektra said. She cautiously approached it, reaching out a hesitant hand to touch the light with her fingertips before finally grasping the amulet itself. "One down, I guess." The light disappeared and the pillar crumbled into dust as she examined the artefact she held in her hand. "It's…prettier than I expected," she said finally. "And powerful."
He did not need her to tell him how powerful it was; he could sense it, knowing all he could achieve with even a mere fragment of it. He craved it, but it would be more sensible for Elektra to bear it; she knew more of what they had to achieve here.
"Good. Now, shall we remove ourselves from the Circus?"
"Let's not go back where we came in," she said. She pointed to another gap in the tent. "We can try there instead."
They followed along, down another winding passageway he lost all sense of direction as it twisted and turned in some directions he knew were physically impossible.
"Roll up, roll up!" a booming voice startled them; they looked down to see that the floor had rippled and changed into a moving set of stairs. "Ready for the death-defying—well, more like death-dealing—Ride of Doom? Is that a no I hear? Guess what?—We don't care!"
The floor gave way under them, and they were flying along the so-called ride of doom, speeding past blurred walls and down quick-twisting tunnels; he heard Elektra scream as they were flung this way and that on the ride.
A wall approached them, a huge grey thing set on a collision course; he flung himself up as far as he could in the motion of the ride, throwing Elektra over it with a tentacle and only just passing it himself as his feet scraped the top of it. And then the ride continued to force them onwards, blurring their worlds and seeming to speed up time itself as they travelled along its hairpin curves and past its deadly spikes.
"How do we stop it?" Elektra called to him, her voice chopped to pieces by the wind blowing past them as their speed still increased. A spike seemed to fly dangerously close to her arm as she was flung over a black pit.
I can control this, was the first thought that sprang into his mind, from where he knew not. And he had no choice but to try; already he could feel the speed starting to wear down his body, travelling almost too fast to avoid the spikes and obstacles any more, flinging him from one out-of-control direction to the next.
Steeling himself for the pain, he threw down a tentacle into the moving ground below him. The impact was agony, but he kept it in place, feeling into the ground to get it to cease its wild movement. He threw down a second tentacle as though trying to nail it in place; his body shook, and he was no longer flying through the air. Elektra screamed as the change in motion flung her towards one of the spiked walls; he reached out a third to pull her from the air.
The floor shuddered beneath him, its intense motion continuing as though it was some mad beast whose only desire was to race until it tore itself apart. Yet his powers had some effect on it; he fell to the ground, no longer flung by the wind on a crazy voyage, Elektra landing some distance ahead of him. He set his hands and knees firmly on it, pushing down as much as he could; he had power, he told himself, power to refuse to be taken like this.
It shuddered under him, bucking like an insane bull; he kept his position, using his power to reach into it, crushing it beneath him. He did not know how long it took, his exhausted last attempts at concentration as the roller coaster kept pushing itself, but at long last it gave a final quiver and lay still, almost as defeated as he was.
"Are you okay?" Elektra, leaning over him; he shook his head to get rid of some of the tired fog of his brain, and slowly levered himself to his feet.
"I will be." He looked around, attempting to discern what sort of an environment they had discovered this time; the sky was green, and there was nothing but inky blackness on both sides of the ride.
"I vote we go right," Elektra said. "Just for the sake of the motto."
It was do right and fear not, he knew from somewhere. Trite and pathetic.
He took a step, and as he did so the remnants of the ride rippled away from beneath him, morphing into decaying greenery. Distant chimes began to sound in the air.
"Kill them all! Seven move!" someone yelled. Kilobyte looked around to see the source of that; it took him several moments to realise that the source was on the ground, about a foot high, and rapidly advancing towards him in company with a group of similar-sized beings.
"Seven go!" the chorus returned.
"They're garden gnomes!" Elektra fired into the herd, scattering them; they reformed to make a semicircle, advancing inwards towards the intruders.
Kilobyte swept a tentacle close to the ground to trip them up. There was a sharp pain as small teeth bit, hard; he dropped the gnome in surprise.
"Seven up!" Another herd came running towards them; they didn't look like only seven.
"We move," he said, running alongside Elektra over the gnomes blocking their path, fleeing further into the maze. There was no point in wasting the energy fighting such masses of small minions; after the deadly ride, they had none to waste.
The journey through the maze was hellish. It was as geographically confusing as the rest of the Sixth Dimension, each hedge looking exactly identical and invariably taking them in a direction they could not understand. The gnomes nipped at their feet whenever they attempted to slow down, and threw primitive spears at them. The small creatures were indefatigable, wearing them down bit by bit as they struggled for a way out.
"We…should have gone left," Elektra said, leaning against a hedge, catching her breath as they waited for the gnomes to catch up again. "Sorry."
"A random choice." She looked in bad condition, bleeding blue from where a spear had penetrated her arm, covered in leaves and dirt from struggling through hedges, and he wasn't sure he felt any better. "We need to continue nonetheless." He made no move, though, to follow his own suggestion; weak, he thought of himself.
"I know. I just need to…get my breath back…"
"Seven jump!" A gnome leaped from the top of the hedge behind her, followed by his fellows; it was probably a different brood, Kilobyte thought in disgust. A spear ricocheted off his body armour as he turned to leave, on the run yet again.
The fathomless hedges surrounded them as they struggled to keep going, refusing to give in and allow the gnomes to savage their fallen bodies. It felt like it had been an eternity of this helpless fleeing.
The hunt, Kilobyte remembered. He was prey this time.
"Something…over there…" he heard Elektra gasp. She pointed into the distance, where at first he could see nothing. "The blue thing…"
It was small, a mere scrap of something blue on the distant horizon in front of the now-orange sky. But it was more variation than they had seen for some time in the scenery, and they went towards it as best they could, stumbling and shuffling along confusing hedgeways, keeping it in sight.
It was a structure, Kilobyte realised as at last it was starting to seem closer, an object constructed to stand slightly above the hedge. Some sort of landmark, if they were fortunate.
"Nearly there," Elektra said with unjustified optimism as they turned yet another corner.
"Seven of sevens!"
He was losing patience; he lashed out with a tentacle as though it was a whip, stiffening it to avoid another bite. The gnomes were scattered, temporarily. No longer caring about how much energy he used, he punched through one of the hedges in the direction of the structure, pulling Elektra behind him as they struggled through the rapidly regrowing foliage. There was another hedge blocking their path; grimly, ignoring his body's signals to stop, he forced his way through there as well, desperate to find something in this landscape of bushes and gnomes.
"Up there then find a right turn," Elektra said, looking at him with some concern. "I said we were nearly there…"
"You were wrong," he told her, and punched through the next hedge. They were going to get out of here and win this game, no matter what it took.
And there it was, a blue, pristine fountain ringed by a final layer of hedge. The berries growing on it were large, was his first thought, and then he realised they were shrunken heads. Whispering to each other.
"Eww," Elektra said, and fired a blast at it. "That's wrong."
The hedge and the shrunken heads disappeared, and the air was silent and still.
"My lord," they heard a melodious female voice say, and looked to the fountain to see the green-skinned woman standing next to it, talking to a skeletal humanoid whom Kilobyte recognised as one of the game's bosses.
"Ace Lightning will arrive here soon enough," the skeleton said in a high, reedy voice. "You won't have to leave a body."
"It will be done." She inclined her head towards him as both memories faded out of existence.
"That's my father they were talking about killing," Elektra muttered, looking towards where the woman had been. "No wonder my mother didn't like her."
"It seems your father did," Kilobyte said absently. He approached the fountain cautiously; the cool running water looked an attractive balm for their various wounds.
"What ghosts demand my flow!" a blue thing shrieked as he reached up to cover his ears. A blast of cold air swept through him as it dissolved through his body; he turned to see a disturbing-looking cross between bird and woman, still screaming, horribly audible despite any attempts to block her noise. "Villains and heroes, monsters and saviours! You dare disturb my water!"
"He didn't touch your water!" Elektra yelled. "Who are you?"
"Nereida, the spirit of the fountain! My sprites and I shall punish you!"
The water in the fountain seethed, rising from it to the air to form more shapes like the spirit, blue things with sharpened teeth and barbed wings, flying to the attack.
"Tell us where the amulet piece is and we will not hurt you," Kilobyte demanded.
"Fight us first," Nereida hissed, and flew to him.
They were intangible, yet they had some power to affect the physical part of the Sixth Dimension, sending freezing cold through the bodies of their foes, paralysing and draining them.
Elektra's blasts did little but irritate them; she was fast enough to dodge most of their attacks, but she was slowing quickly.
He backed away from Nereida, playing for time, trying to think of a way by which to defeat them, what they were and what would harm them. He twisted as she rushed upon him, backing towards the fountain; she passed through his left arm and left it feeling as cold and immovable as the marble of the fountain at his back.
"Get away now, master-would-be, hero-never," three of the things said in chorus as they advanced upon him. "Dead-now, dead-world, go now!"
He had no other alternative for a retreat; he thrust his elbow into the fountain's wall with the idea of using it as substitute for a shield. To his surprise, the trio gasped as though in pain. He pushed at the fountain again, and they writhed in the air; it had to be their power source.
Elektra fired, a strong blast lancing through the air and into the foundations of the structure; it toppled and shattered.
"Evil-bad strong-wrong find your death!" Nereida screamed in pain as her body was called down to the earth. "Go!" She and the sprites turned to amorphous masses of blue, sucked below into what remained of the fountain's water, morphing into the dirt.
Elektra sagged, flickering. "Where is the amulet piece?" she whispered. "We…I need it…"
He was already searching the shattered fountain as the obvious hiding place, prying apart the blue marble lying on the ground. "Nothing here," he said eventually. 'We have to…"
"Die." A rider appeared in front of their eyes, mounted on a pale horse and clad in a robe of absolute darkness, bearing a sharpened scythe in his right hand and an hourglass in his left, only a fragment of white bone visible below the hood of his robe.
Elektra gave a shuddering laugh. "It's death. It's what she meant. What death looks like."
"Pathetic and ugly. I am inclined to agree."
"Do not mock I. For I am Death, 'gainst whom no lock may hold nor fasten'd portal bar. I am Death, the great leveller, the friend…"
"…And you are dead."
This creature was easy to take and drain energy from; he struggled, trying to maneuver his scythe and moving about in Kilobyte's grasp, but he could not escape the inexorable strength.
Death's last breath was like desert air over an open coffin, a dry rattle, and then the minion melted away leaving only the hourglass behind.
Elektra hastened over to take up the hourglass. "That was amazing," she said, "I didn't think you had that sort of power left…" She hastened to beat the glass on a rock, trying to smash it open.
"I hadn't, either," he muttered to himself. What had come over him? He would not bow down to fate any more, he resolved, but fight to dominate this dimension.
The girl gave a small squeal of delight as the hourglass finally shattered to reveal the second amulet piece, and brought out her first one to put them together.
"They used to be able to summon people with two of these," she said; the look on her face could almost have been described as greedy. She closed her eyes, and pressed both pieces of the amulet against her chest.
"Mother," she whispered as the golden pieces drew towards each other.
There was a flash of golden light.
"…Kicking butt and taking names!" An arm passed through Kilobyte's torso as the red-haired woman walked confidently towards her daughter, her sword raised for battle. "So who's the next freak in line?"
Elektra watched her mother open-mouthed, her eyes so wide that she looked almost piscine.
"Ha!" the Knight called, and brandished her sword in her daughter's direction. "Take that!"
She had been insubstantial; her weapon's flame was not. Elektra was flung head-over-heels by the blast, landing on top of the fountain's remnant, spread out staring to the skies as the memory blinked out and disappeared.
He could have reached out and taken the amulet instead, but he offered her a hand to raise her to her feet. She was pale, and almost as drained as she had been before piecing together the amulet.
"I was wrong," she said in a whisper. "You can't summon the dead, nobody's supposed to, and once the worlds merged they didn't go back to the game or anything, they were gone forever."
She was about to burst into tears again, he could tell. "Reset it all and she'll be there," he told her. "Just don't try doing that with any more amulet pieces."
She nodded. "I won't." She turned listlessly. "The left path is the one that isn't where we came from."
The girl had been more right than she had expected, he reflected as the ground and sky changed again and they passed into another level. This one was underground; he did not trouble to wonder how they had passed from an open-air maze into the bowels of the earth, into dark passageways glinting with barely-hidden jewels.
They marched along the tunnel; the creatures to beware here were the Underminers, small creatures that disturbed the ground beneath their feet and would release a blast of noxious gases from their hindquarters, and vampire bats, which flew down from the roof and attempt to pierce their skin with teeth. His impatience grew in dealing with these, but it was more practical to avoid and brush them away rather than to attack them wholesale; the next humanoid minions would get no such quarter, he vowed. Other creatures flowed transparently through them, smoky and insubstantial past memories, vast wyrms and old crawling things and silent lanterns, but these were easy to ignore.
To Elektra's relief and his own irritation, the tunnel eventually opened up on a brightly lit hall, where a forge beast smelted and stirred a large pot of gold amidst heapings of gemstones.
"A grain of sand on a beach," Elektra whispered to him, pointing downwards. "If the amulet piece is there we'll never be able to find it."
"I would not be so sure." He could sense power in this dimension, and craved it as mortals craved food. He managed to smile weakly at her. "Don't worry."
A fireball sent them both diving in opposite directions; the forge beast had sensed them, and was already preparing to ignite another fireball.
Elektra was running down the ramp towards the main hall, firing at the beast as she went; he used two tentacles to grasp the central light fitting, swinging on it to fling himself atop the forge beast, clinging on to its spines as though he was a limpet trying to subdue a rock.
Kilobyte reached around with a tentacle, trying to get a grip on the vulnerable pale skin of its throat; it bucked and hurtled, with its movement throwing him against its spikes.
Elektra fired another blast in the beast's direction, aiming at its face; the hard gold covering its skin, though, ensured the shot had little effect. He clung on as it flicked its tail into the pot of molten gold, sending drops spreading over the cave; he burned as several fell on him, though did not relax his hold.
The beast roared loudly, and he saw Elektra take aim again; smoke was coming from its head now, and he hoped that meant it was weakening. His tentacle tightened around it, cutting off the noise; it bucked more fiercely to escape the stranglehold, trying to throw him into the gold to destroy him.
Another roar, and a second plume of smoke was rising from it; as it flung its head back, he noticed that its eyes were burned and blackened. Elektra aimed at its throat, and it shuddered again.
It flailed, blinded, the spiked tail knocking over piles of jewels, stumbling and desperately struggling. Its hind leg tripped on the cauldron's leg, forcing it to collapse; Kilobyte watched in growing dread as the liquid gold spread slowly over the floor, burning what it touched.
Elektra leaped up on a pile of jewellery to protect herself, not yet firing and giving the beast her location, waiting for a shot at its vulnerable spots. He kept tightening the stranglehold, ignoring the sudden pain as the beast pushed itself against the cauldron's rim.
The beast shifted from foot to foot, perhaps affected by the molten gold on the floor; he kept his grip nonetheless, focusing on being able to reach out and begin to drain its energy. His tentacle gripped the skin, straining more tightly against it, sliding as the beast fought against his efforts.
There it was, that particular conjunction where he could take its dying energy; he drew into himself the beast's powers, and pulled its head back so that Elektra could fire her shot.
It shuddered a last time as Kilobyte drained the last of its powers, impacted and burned by Elektra's fire, and faded into thin air, dropping him on the floor of molten gold.
His feet were on fire as he tried to walk to the sinking pile of jewels; he could feel them dissolving, his body consumed by fire.
Elektra threw something at his feet, a large gold bar; he stood upon that as it dissolved, and then moved his blackened feet to the next item she threw, slowly making it across to safety.
The pile she stood on was diminishing rapidly when she grasped his forearm to pull him the last bit of the way after an enormous red stone faded into the liquid metal, but she was smiling nonetheless as they stood together on the collapsing pile.
She brought her hands together, and golden light washed from them to destroy the deadly pool and leave them standing on cold ground. Kilobyte was dazzled by the power, and felt restored once again.
"I found the amulet piece," she explained, unnecessarily. "That's three. And I just remembered something."
"How to use its powers to save us?"
"That was easy. I just thought about what we needed and had faith," she said. "We've come so far and I didn't even bother to ask your name."
"It's Kilobyte," he told her as they passed through the way out of that cave. "Apparently related to computers…"
He looked back to notice she had frozen in shock.
"Kilobyte?" she repeated. He took a step back towards her, but she waved him off. "You…you're evil! And dead!"
He cursed himself for a fool; he should have told her his name at the beginning, to find out his identity. "I'm not dead," he said slowly and with what he thought of as considerable patience. "And I am nothing like those screaming fools that have been trying to kill us."
"You killed people. The Master Programmer used you to merge the worlds. You were my father's nemesis. The evil overlord." She fiddled with the amulet, her hand clutched around it like a talisman. "Don't you remember any of that?"
He recalled the name she had used before: the Cyber Stalker. The memory of the hunt, where it was not he who had been prey. The blond man called Ace Lightning. Had he hated him so much a long time ago? No, it would have been hunted him.
He was Kilobyte, and he had been used to merge the worlds. He was Kilobyte, and he had been programmed. He was Kilobyte, and he craved power…
"Look behind you!" Elektra called, interrupting his reverie, and he turned just in time to see a horde of zombies racing up towards them, armed with pitchforks and rifles.
He could defeat them with the power he knew he possessed, now. Crush them, in a hunt that was no challenge at all.
Kilobyte stepped forward, smiling as he attacked minion after minion, draining their powers and throwing away the shells. It was too easy for him to fight such as these, and in the power he absorbed he felt like a god.
Some of them were still conscious, pathetic lumbering things nursing their wounds and blubbering; he grasped the largest of them with a tentacle.
"Tell everyone you meet," he said, "that Kilobyte has returned."
He turned back to Elektra, who was still watching him, afraid of what he had been.
"I should have seen it," she said shakily. "You fight like…like…"
"Like someone who has protected as well as killed? Like someone who plans to change a game world?"
"I know I've killed too," she said, "and minions…they're not like sentients, but how you fight is…"
"You value mortals above your own people," he told her, "and since I woke I have not fought bar to defend myself or others."
She paused before speaking. "You…you did save me, heaps of times. And you could have taken the amulet if you wanted. You could still take it from me and kill me." Her voice was still shaky, but she was obviously trying to rationalise the situation. "You…did you really forget everything you were?"
"And you…changed then. Because people can change." She sounded as though she was desperately grasping at straws. "And you're helping me save the world. Unless you don't want to. Now you know who you were."
To push the reset button, to restore both Earth and the Sixth Dimension to what they had been before war, before his forgetting. It was a cause he could get behind, he realised, still in shock at it all. He had known humans and knew what he was. "I will help you," he said.
"But what if you turn back to what you used to be?" she asked. "You're changed now…"
"And this is what the changed me desires." There were humans like Sam and Em and Teresa, who would prefer a restored world. There were sentients like himself who had been destroyed by events (not by himself; he would not admit to that yet). There was a world for beings such as himself which needed changing. He would not abandon a project he had chosen, and perhaps his will after months without past was truer than a recovery of his memories of programming.
"Then thank you," she said solemnly. She walked up to stand by his side. "I'm sorry I did not trust you."
She had no choice about continuing to trust him, he thought darkly as they walked on; she would not live either without him or if he decided to destroy her.
They passed through the mine, terrifying any minions they encountered; word about him was spreading through the Sixth Dimension, and he easily defeated any who would challenge him.
"Ace, it won't make you feel any better if you destroy him," he heard a female voice say as they passed through one of the mine's dark passageways; he looked back to see Elektra's mother helping a weakened-looking Ace Lightning along. "She betrayed him, she died, yadda yadda yadda. Get over it. We're s'posed to be saving the world, man!"
"From him. And I won't get over it. I can't."
The woman sighed. "So pull yourself together. We've got zombies on our trail and Mark on the phone, and we've gotta make it to Climbcrag before power hour."
They faded out as they made their slow way along the passageway, Elektra watching devotedly until the last moment.
He did not ask who the unnamed 'him' was in the dialogue.
The Nevershine Mine finally emerged into the bright red light of Climbcrag Castle, a leviathan of a building constructed—programmed—in the midst of red-hot lava flows, and he blinked at the sudden light of the three blazing suns.
A minion rushed past them, an armoured knight on a less-than-noble steed, its lance piercing Elektra's chest and leaving her unharmed. Three tusked boars, too, raced each other to impale some long-gone foe through a more recent rockfall.
A group of yokels approached them as they walked across the hot path, carrying makeshift weapons of hoes and sticks. Kilobyte picked up the one at the front by his neck.
"Do you know the name of Kilobyte?" he asked, putting all the power he could into his voice.
"Ki…Kilobyte," the yokel managed, struggling in the firm grip. He did not seem to remember; these stupid minions did not have long memories.
"I have the power to rule this place," Kilobyte told him. "Find the amulet piece and bring it to us, or I shall destroy you all." The knowledge of who he had been had unlocked a gate inside him; he had been the evil overlord, he could almost remember now, easily dominating this dimension while longing for greater conquests.
"Let him down!" Elektra called. "He understands, don't hurt him any more."
Was he already, now, becoming what he had been in this world? He released the yokel suddenly, letting him fall hard on the tarred road. He was going to reset the worlds, he wasn't going to conquer and dominate and abuse power…
…or had he done so already? He shook his head. He would let no foolish minions interfere with his goal. This was in the name of efficiency.
A red sword flashed around them as they walked through the castle, within the high hollowed halls, where the tapers flashed crimson in concert with the apparition. The ground shifted beneath their feet and the sky changed to lightning-struck black as tapers in the castle lit themselves. They approached the battlements, up on the highest towers to view their next goal from above, and saw what appeared to be a battle in progress below.
Kilobyte recognised the walking skeleton, and realised it was part of the timeshifts experienced in this dimension. The two Knights were there too, fighting back-to-back against a legion of minions as he saw the skeleton fall and fade, destroyed by the Death severing his bony neck. And then, as Elektra's breath caught in her throat, he saw his own ghost, fighting savagely alongside his minions against a last-minute alliance, his tentacle picking up the red-haired Knight and viciously flinging her to the ground, his laughter as a red hornet pierced the blond Knight's side with its neverending poison.
He did not turn to look at Elektra's expression as the events unfolded beneath them.
And then horizontal lines ate across his figure below, splitting it and changing it; his arms and tentacles were stretched out by some unknown agency, forcing him into a shape that looked like a spread-out octopus, screaming. His chest seemed to open up through the lines, and through it was forced pale light that dissolved the memories as his own body disappeared.
It was the last battle before the merging, he realised, hating the sight of what had been done to him and what he had done.
Elektra's knuckles were white gripping the rail. "We should move on," she said eventually, turning away so he couldn't see her face.
"Master!" A yokel ran up to them, entirely unaware of the ghost-scene that they had just viewed below. "We found it. Another piece of the amulet of Zoar!"
"Give it to her," Kilobyte commanded brusquely. He would do nothing to make himself seem yet more repulsive.
Elektra placed the new amulet piece with the others, and a giant wasp appeared from the heavens.
"What is that?" she asked, looing up at what she had unintentionally summoned, but Kilobyte was already petting it.
"He's Fred," he said. "My giant mutant wasp. Of course he survived the fused worlds after all; he was fused himself." He could feel himself smiling at the reunion; though forgotten until now, he could recall that the wasp had been his faithful steed. And Fred had remembered too, flying straight to his side ready to fly, his antennae twitching in the way that meant he was content.
"I just wanted something that flew." Elektra approached cautiously. "Emphasis on the 'thing' part. Is he…safe?"
"Yes." Kilobyte mounted easily, the motion coming back to him with no trouble, and offered Elektra a hand up. "He'll take us to the junkyard quickly." The slight connection between the worlds he had left would last for some time, too small to be detected but made with enough power to be durable, and longer if Jessica had the ability to assist it, but time was still vital to their quest.
She climbed on behind him, clutching on to his back like a python around its prey. Had it been either of her parents, they would not have been so afraid of the height and the potential fall (though they might have been afraid once, carried by Fred's pincers as a prisoner).
Catastrophe Junkyard was empty bar rogue machinery, now; the Virus had numbered among the heroes. Kilobyte briefly wondered if his great strength had come in use, or if he had been so tormented over his past deeds he had done little of note. They swept over the Carnival, looking down to see where an amulet piece would likely have been placed, Fred skilfully avoiding sweeps of machine claws and cables.
The landscape shifted constantly, a metal sea throwing up pieces of alien gadgetry at odd intervals, dark grey and clouding. The sky was a darkened orange halfway through shifting to a sickly purple, as though a sun had exploded.
"There he is!" Elektra pointed down to a figure raising a clawed hand in the air and screaming something incoherent, a red eye blazing. Whether the image was the Virus as he had been programmed or from some later event Kilobyte could not tell; Random Virus had never differed much from his usual pattern of good-going-bad-and-complaining-about-it.
Kilobyte continued to survey the area; he directed Fred down to a large metal shell, the hull of some forgotten starship, dark in its interior. The wasp skirted close to it, giving his passengers a view of the inside, dark and almost empty.
"What about the crane over…" Elektra began, cut off as Kilobyte noticed something out of the corner of his eye and did a pinpoint turn on Fred.
There was something in there, and he was going to find out what.
"Well done," a voice said from the darkness. "Come into my Fortress, as the spider said to the fly. It won't hurt. I made sure these machines were under my control before I tried taking over the worlds with them."
It took Kilobyte a moment to recognise the voice, but as soon as he did all the memories connected to it returned very quickly.
"You." He slid off Fred himself, but left Elektra mounted; there would be a trap in this.
"Were you told that I died in the fusion?" He shuffled from the dark recesses of the hull, for Kilobyte to set eyes on him for the first time in twenty years. "I'm a survivor. But maybe not enough to try to destroy you this time."
"Tell me what you want before I destroy you, programmer." He had created Kilobyte for his own purposes, set him loose on a world to complete his dirty work for him, controlled him and used him as a living gateway between worlds.
"I want…to help you. Send the Lightning brat and the wasp away for a moment. You were always my finest creation." The shell that had once been the Master Programmer shuffled forward a little further; the years had changed him for the worse. He sat in a wheelchair now, a crude thing of bent scrap metal, and was as bald as his creation, with one eye missing and a twisted scar deforming his face.
Kilobyte signalled to Fred, who flew back, taking Elektra with him; "Are you sure?" she started to say to him, but he ignored her words as she flew away.
"You woke. Have the worlds separated yet, I wonder? They will soon. I had wondered if you would ever make it here—I was genius enough to leave you in suspension between the worlds and one or two traps planned. You'll be interested to know that it's directly because of her, not her because of your help as you've probably been thinking."
He said nothing, waiting for the programmer to finish digging his own grave.
"Program balance. Lightning Knight offspring and the last evil. If she hadn't been born you might have stayed in limbo forever. But that doesn't matter."
"Get on with it."
"The amulet, Kilobyte. It's up to you to take it before the worlds get too far away to reset them. Better you than a Knight's brat." He laughed slowly. "End it while there's still time."
Kilobyte looked down at the broken thing in its chair. "You weren't the genius you thought," he said slowly. "You were destroyed by the minions you set free."
"It learns. I programmed you with some of my own intelligence." It shrugged. "The real me is dead. There goes your revenge, Kilobyte. What do you think of that now, creation?"
"Past time you followed him into oblivion."
It laughed again. "I can't die. I'm the ghost of my own machine; haven't you understood that yet? A leftover program, what personality my creator left with me, the last remainder of true humanity in this dimension. Destroy me if it will satisfy you, Kilobyte. Seize the amulet and gratify your program. It's everything I gave to you. My finest creation."
It reached out a hand towards him, taking it from the blanket draped over its lap to reveal that it was nothing but a few scraps of skin positioned over yellowing bones. Kilobyte backed away from it.
"I don't know what you want," he said warily. "I will do nothing for you."
The laugh seemed to fill the entire cavern. "You will."
Kilobyte dived forward as the metal surrounding the program's form began to liquefy around it. The laughter continued even as the thing collapsed into the metal sea below it, leaving Kilobyte with nothing but a grey smear of it on his hand and sinking ground below his feet.
He reached up with two tentacles to grasp the top of the hull and pull himself from the morphing metal; the hull itself dissolved under his touch, beginning to collapse over his head. He would be destroyed if he could not make it out in time; where were they? He half-walked, half-swam, sinking all the while, trying to make it out of the cave, seeing the falling hull dip lower and lower on his horizon. Five steps, he counted, five steps to escape this place, up to knees, to waist, to chest, to neck, reaching for a way out of there. His head went under; he did not need to breathe, but he could feel the machines around him scraping at his shape already. He kept a tentacle raised above the metal, his last hope as he sank further, pushing in what he hoped was the right direction to signal aid, waiting for Fred and Elektra to hurry. As the tentacle began sinking below the metal and his world turned to black, his last thought was to wish he had called for help while he had had the chance.
And then air surrounded him again, and he was in light; he placed a hand to his eyes to shield them from the sudden glare. It had been an easy trap to escape after all.
Elektra laughed behind him. "I think I really understand how to use the amulet pieces now. It was in one of the cranes, behind the main engine bit, with some sort of defence system that I had to blast."
"How…convenient," he said. Her tricks with the artefact did not impress him; he remembered that the completed amulet had been his property, once.
"And I'm sorry I didn't see you until Fred started heading towards your tentacle," she added quickly. "You're okay, right?"
"I survived the experience, yes."
"What did the Master Programmer want to say?" she asked curiously.
That I will never be rid of him. That I should take power from you and use it myself. That I still do not understand the world in which I have woken.
"Very little. I doubt we will hear from him a second time. What area do we have yet to visit before the Haunted House?" She would know better than he where the second last piece of the amulet would be located; nothing was springing to his mind at present.
Elektra paused in thought. "Circus, Horror Hedge, Climbcrag, Nevershine Mine before that, Catastrophe junkyard now… The House of Illusion."
Of course. He could begin to remember it, now. "Then let us go," he said, urging Fred to the sky.
It had once been a pretty place by mortal standards. Fern gardens, crystal waterfalls, fanciful pink designs, bright-coloured spiders weaving silver webs.
It had fallen into ruin. The ferns were brown and rotting, the waterfalls dry and broken, the architecture burned and smashed, and most of the spiders long gone by now.
"She was…important to my father," Elektra said.
He knew, now, just how important, but said nothing.
"I used to wonder, when I was a child, what would have happened if she'd still been around, if maybe my father wouldn't have faded away, if my mother would have minded as much as she said, if I'd still exist…"
"We're approaching," Kilobyte told her, bringing Fred down for a landing. He had no wish to hear any more of the dead woman.
They walked slowly through the old rockery, looking carefully for any signs of the amulet; a spider-maid had run through them shrieking, though aside from that and a nagging feeling that the rockery had turned out to take up far more geographical space than possible, they had been left at peace in their search.
"I think we should go to the House itself," Elektra said with a sigh, straightening up from staring at the rocks. "Maybe it appeared in the inner sanctum."
Kilobyte took a last look around; he could not sense power nearby. They would find it soon enough, he promised himself, and then they would take the last piece and complete their quest.
The hallway leading into the House was stained a dull red; it was probably not blood, but the suggestion of it was enough in the ruined stronghold. Elektra plucked an old taper from the wall, and lit it with her powers to use as a makeshift torch.
"It's kind of creepy, but it must have been really nice once," she said. "Why don't you like it?"
"I…" He paused. Did you ask many questions about her? Pointed ones?
Dreading what he could find, he followed the girl down the long hall, through painted rooms brutally raided and past long-despoiled walls, alert for any sign of the amulet.
He looked up as something moved to his left, and saw it was only a small spider, running in fear from the large intruders to its home. This would not be long, he reminded himself. They would reach their goal soon enough.
The central sanctum was a large hall with a smashed skylight at the top, letting soft purple light in; a platform lay on the ground split almost in half by some force, and two more platforms hung dusty on the walls. In the centre of the room was a plain white pillar Elektra had rushed forward to check before stepping back in disappointment.
He reached up for the nearest platform with a tentacle, to pull it to the floor in order to make certain no amulet pieces were hidden on it.
"What are you doing?" Elektra asked.
He let her deduce the obvious as he tugged on it, the ancient wood creaking under his force.
"Don't destroy the place," she said. "It's bad enough already."
Don't destroy the place any more.
"Very well," he said, and settled for merely doing a perfunctory sweep of a tentacle on each of the raised platforms. "Not here," he said. "Perhaps it is in the foliage outside."
"Or the attics," Elektra suggested.
He sighed, giving in with poor grace. "Then let us go to the attics."
Old trunks had spilled ancient clothing and gewgaws upon the floors, and it took some time to check through the debris. Reflected in a window was the moving image of a gang of zombies raiding this place in firelight, fading away as one of them raised an axe to knock a hole that remained there. It was midnight blue outside by the time they had discovered all the upper rooms and secret attics, exploring the remnants of a programmed society.
Kilobyte stood from crouching over a half-burned oak chest filled with shells. "The foliage, then," he said, and Elektra followed him back down into the garden.
"Uncle Brett would have loved to see these when they still grew," Elektra mused as she wandered through them. "They're lovely."
"Of course." The plants were far too frilly for his tastes, but to disagree might force him to stay here for longer. It had been, what, half a demicycle since the last memory had appeared in front of them? Too long, he thought, worried.
They walked along four long circular paths through the garden; two of them might have been the same, but Elektra insisted that the ferns were a different shade. The sky's shade had lightened, blue like an ink-washed paper hanging out to dry. It was taking far too long, Kilobyte thought again.
A graffiti-decorated statue they approached replicated Lady Illusion's form; Elektra had a giggle about that particular programming choice. He looked around it, on the ground in case the amulet piece had been hidden there, as Elektra checked the statue itself to discover its secrets.
"Nothing," she said; she had finally started to sound frustrated. "What could have happened to it?"
"Only the south wall remains," he reminded her, taking the opportunity to sound reasonable. "If not there, we can go straight to the Haunted House."
They followed a path heavily bounded with tangled foliage, forcing their way through some places where vines had all but consumed the stones, eventually discovering a long walkway shielded by trees and a small door set into the side of the House.
And there she was; it had been too much to expect, after all, that everything could have been erased from here. She was running again, in her true form, breathing harshly with a look of fear in her eyes.
Next to him, Elektra was watching too.
"And what do we have here?" he heard someone else say. He did not look in that direction.
The woman turned quickly, a crystal ball ready in her hand, but it was dashed from her by force.
"A traitor. I promised you death." A laugh. "Never let anyone say I do not keep my word."
The most merciful thing about it was that it was fast; she was brave enough, meeting his eyes and refusing to bow her head until the last; he was reminded of Em's strength and pride in some odd way. She faded into the air, yet another casualty of war.
There was no question now of what he had been.
Elektra was turned away from him, carefully examining one of the trees. He hesitantly took a step towards her; she turned around, her face a mask of accusation.
"No wonder my mother told me you were evil," she yelled at him. "It's not even enough that you forgot."
"I know," he said; it was the only reply he could give. "I'm…sorry."
"Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved," Elektra muttered. "We can forgive…" She put her hand to her forehead, covering her eyes. "One amulet piece left now," she said. She pointed behind where the apparition had been, a fragment blended into the wood of the door. He did not think the price had been worth it. "Just one to go."
He moved aside for her to claim the piece; she did not attempt to produce anything by this union, simply slamming them together and waiting for the join to take effect. "Call Fred," she said tightly. "We'll go to the Haunted House now."
It was another decaying ruin. More imposing than the House of Illusion, the Haunted House stood square and black in the centre of a grey plain. The sky above it was coal-black, lit only by a full moon like a golden eye. Red rain cascaded down as they made their way to its stone door.
The dead owned it. They were met at the door by yellowed skeletons, chittering things that surrounded them, reaching out with bony hands to drag the travellers into their lair as the stone door scraped in closing. Elektra shuddered as they reached for her clothing, ripping off one of her flimsy human sleeves as they dragged her onwards.
"Stop," Kilobyte commanded; he felt as if his tongue had been stopped by the presence of the dead. "Take us to the centre."
The skeletons paused for a moment, and then a larger shape appeared in the distance; it was a monolith, a behemoth of polished bone, a creature whose gargantuan spine brushed along the top of the towering ceiling. It had a long pale trunk, slowly curling downwards to him, and black eyes that seemed to hold him in thrall…
The minions needed control, he realised suddenly. Why else had he been overlord, if not for this?
He let the power that he craved rule him. "Get away from me," he said, and in the tone of his voice the skeletons actually heard something to fear. He lashed around him with a tentacle, clearing away and breaking the bones, taking powerful, deliberate steps and clearing more ground around him. "Down, animal." For a moment the monster simply stared at him; he took a step forward, raising a hand and calling all his powers to himself. "I. Said. Down."
Something hidden deep inside him was surprised as it knelt before him, though a larger part accepted it as merely his due; he needed to be like this, to survive this world. "Let her go," he commanded, looking at Elektra, nearly on the opposite end of the hall, surrounded by the skeletons,
One by one, they released her as she got back to her feet, brushing herself down.
"Now show me to the centre of this place. Before I destroy each and every one of you."
A pale, female zombie drifted into the room, her presence dispersing the skeletons; she wore a long, white robe, as though she was disguised as a human ghost. She gave a slight nod to Kilobyte, and drifted further up the hallway, down a passageway hung with crimson tapestry. Elektra and Kilobyte trailed along behind her, waiting for the end of the quest.
They passed through a room filled with the animated skeletons of smaller creatures, perhaps bats or toads; Kilobyte stepped on them freely, crushing those who did not retreat from his path. He would control this place. He caught Elektra looking at him with what he thought was puzzlement, but he ignored her; the battle was nearly over.
In the second room, some witches and wizards attempted to block their path through; he dealt with them brutally, pushing aside any minion that dared to get in his way. Elektra did not try to correct him; to impose order upon these minions was a need she could not deny.
Minions of all sorts, yokels and zombie servants and painted clowns, bowed to him in the third room; he did not bother to make any acknowledgements. It was merely his due, for his powers.
The final long corridor took them down a long flight of steps, past chained and deceased prisoners bound to the walls, into the bowels of the dungeon. At last there was a heavy, oaken door before them, and the zombie seemed to melt away, leaving them to find the last of the way in on their own.
Kilobyte did not hesitate. He raised a hand to the doors, and when they did not budge pushed them open; it cost him power, but he refused to show any external signs of the use.
It appeared as though the room had not been used in centuries rather than mere decades. Cobwebs covered its walls and the lid of the organ that was the main piece of furniture, a vast instrument standing in front of a row of tarnished brass pipes.
"Where is it?" Elektra wondered aloud. She walked to the centre of the room, bending down to examine the floorboards.
It was in here; Kilobyte could sense its power. Where, though, remained harder to pinpoint. He examined the walls and the candles, searching for either secret panelling or some clever concealment.
Strange music sounded, and he looked over to the organ to see the skeletal figure sitting at it, his hands running through the lid as the echo of the tune played on. The music continued even as the memory faded out, an eerie soundtrack to their vital quest. Elektra walked over to examine the instrument, brushing cobwebs from it with her sleeve.
A harsh note sounded as she tapped one of the keys, air forced out of a pipe for the first time in long years.
"Ugh," she said, but tried another note anyway, experimenting with the unmelodious sounds that came out of it and driving away the past echoes.
He passed along the final wall, on the lookout for any location that could conceal an amulet within, and came to stand next to Elektra as she played.
"Nowhere I can find," he said.
She played another note combination, frowning. "It has to be somewhere," she said. "This reminds me of something I was told once…"
The organ. It was obvious.
"Stand aside," he told her tersely, and stood in front of the organ himself. He could sense the power now, so close to him; instead of bothering to try to discover the correct key, he slammed two tentacles into it, piercing through its ancient wood as a sigh came from the pipes.
A single note sounded, and green smoke rose to fill the room; the secret compartment opened, and inside was the final piece of the Amulet of Zoar.
Elektra reached for it slowly, too slowly; he could have so easily seized it first.
"We did it," she said, as though disbelieving the fact before her eyes. "Thank you for saving me," she continued formally. "I…wish the best for you in the changed worlds. And if you ever get to see Jessica or Rebecca again, give them my love…" She looked down at the pieces in her hand again. "I never really thought we'd actually get this far." She shook her head, biting her lip. "Well. Here goes nothing."
The central piece of the amulet flew towards the others to form a perfect triangle, and the world was bright for a second.
"…Well?" Kilobyte asked. He felt his own powers diminished, with the completed amulet in another's hand.
"I don't know," Elektra said in a bewildered tone. She looked down at herself as though expecting to find she had disappeared. Her tattered human clothing had morphed into a Knight's uniform, but no other change had occurred inside the room, and the ghostly music struck up another tune. "I tried to get it to work. Maybe it did. We can go see."
It was her the minions offered obeisance to as they made their way from the chamber, the bearer of the Amulet of Zoar; she had won the game, Kilobyte knew, a Knight victorious.
The Haunted House, too, was unchanged; the minions were the same as when they had arrived, and memory-patches and shifting floors remained.
"It didn't work," Elektra finally concluded, unhappily watching a memory of Lord Fear walk through a wall as the pattern on the floor dissolved and reformed beneath them. "What do I do now?" She studied the amulet, turning it over and over in her hand.
Anything you want. "Concentrate on it," Kilobyte told her. She had all the power anyone could want. "Have your faith."
"I'm trying." She screwed up her face in concentration. "I can't seem to get it, though. I'll figure it out eventually."
"My lady." An approaching minion, a vampiric-looking male, bowed to her. "There has been a gathering in the courtyard for your approval."
"I guess I'll go, then. But I'm not a lady."
The minion bowed again. "As you command."
Atop the Haunted House, it seemed as though the entire population of the Carnival of Doom had arrived to greet their new conqueror. They had not done the same for him upon his arrival here, Kilobyte reflected, and tried not to be envious.
Elektra appeared over the balcony, and they all knelt in respect of the bearer of the amulet as a vast whispering silence swept across the crowd.
"I…I'm trying to change the worlds," she said. Impromptu speech-making was clearly not one of her skills. "To restore everything here as well as Earth. Erm…I…I just want to do my best while I'm here." She stepped back, to the accompaniment of a loud cheer; such minions were foolish enough to cheer for anything.
"I don't like this," she said to Kilobyte as they walked along one of the Haunted House's passageways, after yet another servant-minion had bowed before her. "People aren't supposed to…to worship other people, it isn't right no matter how many amulets are involved."
"They are little more than what the program made them," he said. "Not intelligent enough to understand."
"You told me once I thought more of mortals than the people like myself," she replied. "I hate that I'm some sort of false god to them. And I can't even help them by doing what I need to do."
"You will." She would have to figure it out sooner or later; he could sense how to do it himself, use the amulet's powers to reach through the small hole of the portal, overturn what had been and return to before the destruction of the worlds, a simple matter of resetting. The portal would remain intact for some time still, but she would need to achieve it soon.
Yet in the days that passed she did not. She spent much of each day dealing with the minions who brought petitions to her, attempting fairness and justice in a world ripping itself apart; Kilobyte provided the practicality. She complained of tiredness, and would sleep for sizeable portions of time, returning looking as harried as before. He tried to talk of this trouble to her, but she did not like to speak of it, either ignoring or avoiding him.
It had to come to a head, he knew, and made his plans.
"What…?" she began, waking from slumber in what was complete darkness to her. She reflexively clutched her hand around the amulet, making sure it was still in her possession. "Where am I? Let me out of here!" She stared around herself, but Kilobyte had left no light for her to see in the central underground chamber.
She stumbled to her feet, freeing herself of the bedding that the minions had carried down with her, blindly feeling the air to discover this place to which she had been taken.
"You remain in the Haunted House," Kilobyte told her from the darkness, not wishing her to waste the effort of discovering it on her own. "In the central chamber. Perhaps the power of it will help you."
"Help me what?" She lurched towards his voice; he put out a tentacle to keep her in the centre of the room.
"Help you reset the worlds. You have nothing to concentrate on but the amulet here. Do it."
"I can't!" She raised her arms, trying to find some surface to touch. "Let me out of here. I'm supposed to hear a petition today at second demicycle, then go down to the Circus and…"
"I have told all concerned that your appointments have been cancelled. Nothing needs to concern you but this."
"You can't do this to me!" She sounded more like a petulant child than he had ever heard her; perhaps her new powers had not done well by her.
"Reset the worlds," he repeated. "They were both destroyed. You merely shore up a few cracks in the midst of an earthquake."
"I tried, I tried over and over, I'm still working on it, it'll happen someday…"
"Make it happen before the portal closes itself. You will remain here with the amulet until you have succeeded; nothing will occur to disturb you." The sense of the power she held was almost overpowering, but he held to his resolve to complete this quest in the manner planned.
"How long…" she began.
"As long as it takes."
She sat back down on the ground, blinking owlishly.
"What if I need anything special?" Her questions were a pitiful attempt at defiance; she could have defeated him with the powers of the amulet, but he had been counting on her obedience to his logic.
"You will not. Now concentrate. There will be no more words."
She finally did as he had asked, closing her eyes and turning the amulet over and over in her hands, frowning as she tried to think of her goal.
"I can't do it," she said after the first demicycle. "Turn on the lights. Please."
She did not obey, settling for sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest and waiting for him to relent. He did not, and eventually she began again. Tears began to run down her cheeks as the fourth demicycle began, but he said nothing as he continued to watch her progress.
An edge of the amulet cut into her hand, and data flowed; she clumsily bound the wound with a scrap from her uniform when she realised that he would not help her, though the cut continued to leak and bathed her hands in leaking data as she endlessly turned the amulet through them.
Six demicycles, and she had collapsed into sleep, the amulet still clutched in her hand. He let her rest for half a demicycle, and then woke her with a painful shock.
"I'm trying!" she cried, pulling herself into a seated position once again. "I really am, I'm trying, praying too, I just can't do it, stop this, please…" She kept talking to herself and muttering prayers throughout the demicycle, and then finally fell into silence. Another cut bloomed on her hand, but she seemed not to notice it.
By the tenth demicycle, she had fallen into stillness, gazing blindly at the amulet in her hands while data slowly dripped from them. She did not move at all from there, not for the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth demicycle, a child-Knight staring blankly at the darkness in front of her eyes.
The portal, he knew, would close. He had no choice, he told himself.
It was a simple matter to snatch the amulet from unresisting hands, and simpler still to carry out what he had envisioned many times over the previous days of waiting.
The worlds were connected by a single strand, one amulet to control them both; Elektra had raised her head to stare in his direction, but he paid her no heed. It had gone wrong ten, twenty years ago, worlds fused by programmer with brutal ambition, battle and death before that, a coming to the Sixth Dimension…
…and it was there, where the world had changed, where he knew what he had to do.
It was such a simple matter, to save the two worlds.
The shifting of the dimension grew more rapid, and all the past memories screamed with one voice. Elektra reached out a hand towards him, screaming too; he watched her hair grow and stream out behind her like a flag, crying out as she felt the datastream behind her. Human screams were erased, and minions' devastation passed. Light streamed past him at thousands of gigabytes per minute, washing through him as the amulet's power changed worlds.
What had happened, was now undone.
The amulet dissolved in Kilobyte's hand as he walked from the Haunted House to examine his domain.
The minion paused in front of him, out of breath as he struggled to get his message out.
"The House of Illusion," he gasped. "She's surrounded. Will you go to finish it?"
"I will," he heard himself saying, summoning Fred down from the sky.
She had betrayed him, attacking him in concert with Lord Fear and the mortal brat, and could not avoid him in this dimension for long; that was the way of the world. He could not but destroy her.
She was running along the south wall as Fred flew down from the sky, in her true form as she fled, racing to a small door set into it.
"And what do we have here?" he said, leisurely disembarking.
She materialised a crystal ball in her hand; he knocked it from her with a tentacle.
"A traitor. I promised you death," he continued. A poor hunt, this. He laughed. "Never let anyone say I do not keep my word."
He grabbed her, imprisoning her in the cold grip of a tentacle, and prepared the energy drain that would destroy her for good.
She stopped struggling, resigned, meeting his eyes with remaining strength behind her own that made him remember…
…a human? She was nothing like, this green-skinned treacherous minion, no relation to the human woman who had offered him shelter. Yet the memory had some meaning to him, after all.
He uncoiled the tentacle from her, dropping her back on the ground. "Go," he told her. "Flee to Earth, do as you will. I have more urgent matters to resolve."
She looked startled, disbelieving; once she was certain that she had not imagined it, she quickly disappeared, taking advantage of his mercy.
"Call off the pursuit," he called to the minions behind, and mounted Fred again. He would need to be fast to finish this, before plans came to fruition…
The Master Programmer was exactly where he should have been, he was glad to discover, in a cage in the centre of the Circus.
The man looked up at him and smiled, and that was his first mistake.
"What have you been planning, programmer?" Kilobyte asked, twisting a tentacle around the programmer's neck and forcing it against the cage. "To destroy me? To use me a second time in service of your schemes?"
"I'm trapped here," the mortal managed to get out, his face turning an ugly shade of purple. "How can I plan anything…"
It was his second mistake.
"You managed once," Kilobyte spat. "I won't give you the chance to manage it again."
He tightened his hold, watching dispassionately as the programmer's eyes bulged and his face darkened. It was a murder; it was all he knew to do to stop the destruction.
He let the mortal's shell fall to the bottom of the cage; the minions could deal with a human corpse. He left that prison, feeling suddenly light-headed. He had prevented a death, he had murdered the programmer; what was there left for him to complete?
His form seemed to ripple; he brought his right hand to his face and noticed the planes of its data flicker, as though he was being pulled into the datastream, piece by piece. He took a step forwards, and nearly toppled over; the power seemed gone from him now.
He whistled for Fred; it seemed an age before the wasp arrived to his side. Stumbling onto its back, he set a course for the Haunted House. He could attempt to bully some of the minions into attempting to discover a cure for what ailed him, try to force this through, live through this…
He looked down at his body atop the flying wasp; it felt insubstantial, dwindling into smoke as the amulet had.
The amulet. It sparked a memory in him. The Master Programmer had encouraged him to take it.
"The junkyard," he muttered, struggling to keep his seat and redirect the flight. "Take me to the junkyard."
It seemed another age to travel; he felt almost too weak to concentrate, as though he was a tethered balloon about to drift into the sky. Finally, the junkyard appeared before him; it was not yet the metal sea, but large dark piles of scrap metal spread over the ground.
He landed in the centre, slipping off Fred and standing to wait, trying to focus on remaining upright.
"You carried out my second master plan, Kilobyte," the voice said, coming from a speaker to his left. "Or my third. Time travel can be a little confusing."
"I defeated you," Kilobyte told him. It had not been enough; the Master Programmer of the future had become part of the Sixth Dimension itself, small fragments of his personality infused among the machines of the junkyard. And other parts of the Sixth Dimension. "It was the amulet. It always was."
"Correct. I made enough of a change to make sure you wouldn't survive the experience. You came close to winning. Trying to force the girl like that—clever. It would have taken me some time to think of that one. But my programming skill worked, and you are about to be deleted for good."
"I destroyed your body." The Programmer's plan had been so simple, to repair the damage mistakenly done to himself; allow the amulet to be put back together, put the virus on it that would destroy the agent, and be transformed with the rest of the Sixth Dimension to here, where his body would have waited…
"I can build myself a new one. Maybe one like yours, I put a lot of work into your program. Being here is so much more than being mortal." The Programmer laughed. "Game over, Kilobyte."
"No." He was weak, but he still had the powers the programmer had given him; he grasped part of the machinery surrounding him, sensing it with his abilities. The Sixth Dimension was of human machines, a network construct in its own right; he concentrated, feeling its presence in his mind.
"You can't even stand any more. I said game over."
The words were some sort of keyword for the virus; he could feel his body slipping from him. Fred whined nervously.
A large metal block from a crane hurtled downwards as he fell to the ground. He looked back in dawning horror and saw Fred's legs still wriggling beneath it.
"No," he said again.
"Go ahead, dissolve into the datastream," the Programmer said. "Let's finish this, creation."
More than your creation. He thought it rather than said it as his form finally dissolved.
"Too easy," the Programmer gloated. "Of course, I…"
You are dead. He did not bother with gloating or last-minute words, but fought to overwhelm the presence with his own.
The Master Programmer had at the last minute downloaded some of himself into the machinery of the Sixth Dimension. He had not done a good job.
Kilobyte reached to those fragments of the programmer, and pushed hard with his own mind. He had been programmed to be powerful.
The foreign presence was there, with him set into the very fabric of the Sixth Dimension; he pushed himself into it, fighting this battle between creator and created, mind against mind.
It was saving the world, after a fashion, completing what a Knight girl had died for. Almost freedom, in a way, from the need for power that had been forced in his program…
He sent himself against the dark fragments of the Master Programmer's presence. They were equally matched, in the end. There was no rest here, no bodies to tire, just the will of the creator against the creation. It was an almost inevitable last battle, the act before the curtain fell, here at the end of the journey before the beginning of the end.
Only one thing remained to do, he realised; he thought Elektra would have approved, though unlike her he would not choose this in innocence.
The traces of the virus the Programmer had used were still present in him; he pulled them from his files, altering them for a more suitable purpose. The Programmer sensed what he was doing, and bound his own fragments to Kilobyte's, forcing them together.
He was Kilobyte, and he could fight for something real…
He activated the virus, and felt nothing as he was dissolved.