Wherever they landed was barely better than where they came from. Jet almost inhaled a lungful of whatever they landed in. The amount he did ingest tasted like tar and vinegar, causing him to gag and spit it out. Aside from the glow of their circuitry, it was almost completely dark in here.
He managed to swim over to a small ledge running parallel to the river of muck, where Mercury and Romie pulled him up. Romie slapped him on the back, careful not to touch circuitry lines. "Easy now," Romie said. "That stuff'll short you out if you ingest enough."
"It tasted awful," Jet admitted between coughs. "What is it?"
Mercury started to walk ahead, gesturing for them to follow. "Energy runoff from the applications district, memory and core dumps, waste from the circuit buses. The pipelines for these byproducts run under the city to the heat sink where they're burned off. It's not like a Program can drink that stuff."
Jet made the translation in his brain. Sewer. Got it. The more irreverent and sarcastic part of his mind wondered how many more gaming cliches he'd have to survive before this was over. He made a quick check to make sure he still had his lightcycle rod and disc. "Where are we heading?" He asked, coughing a few times to get the remaining pollutants out of his lungs.
"We need to get to the I/O Tower and reestablish contact with Ma3a or Guest," Mercury explained. "After that, we'll need to find Byte and get a transport to Ma3a's processing dock. Guest's last command was to uncouple her from the system."
"So the two of you aren't here to combat the virus?" Romie was nervous.
"No," Mercury said. "My User never explicitly commanded me to battle the corruption, only to contact Ma3a and free her from her dock. I'm not sure why."
"Guest must have realized the futility of combating such an aggressive virus," Jet said. "I'm not sure if any Program has a defense against it that will work."
"What about you?" Romie said. "I saw you take a few direct hits from the Z-Lots. You shrugged it off. Who's your User anyway?"
Jet had another coughing fit before he could answer. Mercury stepped up and did it for him. "He doesn't have one, Romie. He is one."
Romie blinked, not entirely sure he heard that right. Jet elaborated, "It's true. Ma3a zapped me in here. I think I'm supposed to fight that virus."
"You aren't kidding, are you? It would explain a few things, but I thought a User would have been...I don't know..."
"More impressive?" Jet offered.
"You've been pretty impressive so far," Romie pointed out. "I guess I never thought much about Users aside from following their commands."
"Um...thanks for that Y-amp, by the way," Jet said. "Without it, I wouldn't have been able to get out of the sector."
"Oh," Romie admitted. "You're welcome. I saved up my bit-creds and got that. Figured that would make it easier to climb archive stacks. No offense, but Users can get really impatient sometimes."
That got Jet to smile. "None taken. I've noticed that Programs don't seem to lie as much as Users do. Even the guy who uploaded me to the Kernel's office technically told the truth about how to get to the data port, even if he didn't tell me where it went."
Romie seemed to be offended by the notion. "Giving inaccurate output deliberately? That's for malware, trojans, and viruses – not legitimate operators. If you can't disclose your information or someone doesn't have permission to access it, you tell them! If we gave each other false data, then how would the system run?"
"It probably would look a lot like the other side of the screen," Jet said bitterly.
Jet nodded. "Not all the time, but frequently enough. And to put it in perspective? There are seven billion of my kind. We call ourselves 'humans,' mostly. Out of those, maybe a tenth have any kind of access to a computer and can be called 'users.' And out of that? Well, maybe a quarter of users know how to do anything more than the basics."
"That's still a hundred and seventy-five million," Romie pointed out. "Do you work together at all?"
"That's just it, Romie," Jet said with a shrug. "We don't. We don't know this world exists. We see lines of code on monitor screens. There might have been one user who ever saw this place in any detail. I think he tried to tell the world, but..."
Romie blinked incredulously. "As in the Lost User? He actually existed?"
"Romie!" Mercury scolded. "We have a job to do, not waste time on Guardian stories."
Jet held up a hand. "Mercury, it's okay. And what do you mean about 'Lost User.' Is he -"
Romie couldn't place the look on Jet's face – something like hope crossed with caution – but he answered as best he could. "I just know the legend. An administrator Program called Master Control decided that he was greater than Users, that they need us more than we needed them. He rallied thousands of Programs to his cause and began a crusade to force those who believed in Users to start lying to them or abandon them. Those who still served their Users were hunted down. Just when things looked like they couldn't get any worse, one of the greatest Users of all time codes a hero."
Mercury scowled. "'Heroes don't exist. A warrior script does their job, no matter how dirty or dangerous. Tron carried out his directive – nothing more."
"So you don't believe a User came to help him, Mercury? Not when you have one staring right at you?"
"I believe only what I can verify," she said bluntly. "Jet's right there. I can see him, hear him, touch him. The whole 'User' part? That's the only explanation I can't dismiss, fantastic as it is, but you had better believe I'm going to have a lot of questions for Ma3a."
"You and me both," Jet said. "But, Romie. This could be important. What happened to the Lost User? Do you know?"
Romie shook his head. "The story said that he sacrificed himself in the battle with Master Control, giving Tron the chance to destroy it and return freedom to the system. Programs know the story, but it's not something most of us believe is true. Until I saw you, Jet...I was kinda with Mercury. A User de-rezzing to save -"
"He didn't die." Jet said.
Romie scowled. "How would you -?"
"Whatever he did, it reversed the process and spit him back out in his world – our world. He tried to tell others. He told me. He told his son. He wrote a big book everyone assumed was some kind of metaphorical head trip. No one believed him. And one day, he ran away and never came back."
The Programs looked at one another. Jet looked at his boots. "I said too much."
Romie clasped him on the back.
Mercury crossed her arms. "This is all well and good, but it still doesn't prove that the Lost User story is true."
"There's no way he could have made all of it up. But you're right, all I have is stories and suspicions." He held up his disc. "If there is proof, I'll find it."
Mercury shrugged. "That's your decision gate, I suppose." She looked around. "We need to keep moving. Come on."
That's when they heard it – the sound of shuffling feet and voices in the corridor ahead. Mercury threw her hand up to silence them.
Jet dropped his voice to a whisper. "Sounds like chanting."
"At least a dozen, judging from their voices," Romie said. "We'll have to sneak past them somehow."
"And I don't suppose you boys have Fuzzy Signatures built into your code to dampen your signal. Okay. We handle this carefully. Follow my lead," Mercury said.
The passage led into a larger chamber, creeping along a thin ledge that had once been a mezzanine overlooking what could have been a control room. It had been taken over. The room glowed a familiar, terrifying green. Organic-looking tentacles pulsed like they had a heartbeat. Feet below them, almost twenty Z-Lots had a female-designated trapped against a wall.
"All hail Thorne. Thorne is the Master User. The Corruption is all. The Corruption is total. Only Thorne will remain. All hail Thorne. Thorne is the Master User. The Corruption is all. The Corruption is total. Only Thorne will remain. All hail Thorne..."
The trapped female tried to run, but she was trapped, overwhelmed and surrounded. "Users! Mia-R, can you hear me? Are you there?! Please!"
Jet shuddered. Mercury grabbed his arm and shook her head to try and convince him not to be a hero. Before he could pull away, however, the tentacles seemed to sense the poor woman's presence and wrap around her legs and arms while the disgusting yellow-green began to overwrite the blue of her circuitry.
"No! Help! Any - !" A tentacle around her mouth cut off her speech as more appendages snaked out of the walls and twisted around her chest, her hips, her waist, her neck. The more she struggled, the more she was swallowed whole by the appendages.
"All hail Thorne. Thorne is the Master User. The Corruption is all. The Corruption is total..."
And moments after her last scream, there was nothing left but a cocoon made of nearly organic membrane hanging from the wall.
One of the Z-lots pointed upward. "I've spotted clean ones!"
So much for stealth, Jet thought. "Merc, Romie - run!"
The three of them dashed for the closest exit, dodging the sticky green bomblets the Z-Lots were literally pulling from their bodies and throwing. Jet allowed himself to fall back, sniping at some of the Z-lots below with his disc.
Mercury pulled her disc and ran into the fray, but Jet reached out and almost pushed her down as he interposed his body between her and the incoming shots. A few glancing blows stung, and his armor was peppered with sprays of green, but he kept moving, kept attacking – Mercury and Romie couldn't take the hits, but he could. Throw, dodge, throw again, run. It didn't matter. Every hit turned into a blur – he had been afraid, and now he was just angry; angry at his attackers, angry at the Kernel and Ma3a, angry with himself.
He barely noticed that he had pulled some of the tar-like green code from his body and threw it back at his attackers. Three of them were caught in the explosion. Mercury climbed to her feet, arming the suffusion rod and picking off those she could while staying out of reach of the bomblets.
He was down to five of them when the cocoon ruptured open. The creature that emerged was nothing like the female Program that had been shoved into it. It looked like a floating black cloak over a pulsating, amorphous mass of green light. There were no hands, feet, or face visible. An indescribable shriek split the air.
His disc sailed for what should have been its head, but the arm reached up and swatted it away, causing the shot to go wild. What emerged from the sleeve was a twisted mass of writing tentacles tipped with green spheres.
"Uh oh." It was barely out of his mouth before the spheres exploded into a cluster of bomblets launched his direction. He managed to dodge the worst of it, and his disc returned to his hand. The shot struck, and green fluid leaked from the wound like blood as another ear-shattering shriek emerged from the thing. Jet dodged the next volley, but the corroded railing, weakened by too many attacks, started to flicker out and distort, creaking with the strain.
Jet feigned left and darted right, avoiding the next blast, but the catwalk he stood on was not as fortunate, the corroded synthetic metal giving way and sending Jet sliding down the makeshift ramp to roll end over end on the floor below. It was cold like stone, but its appearance was far too uniform. The impact knocked the wind out of him and left him gasping, unable to move quickly when the thing brought up its arm for a killing blow...
Mercury's disc whizzed through the air and hit it dead-on, center mass, in its back. It shrieked again and began to turn inside out. Jet could only manage to stumble, still gasping for air, behind some debris as it ripped itself open from the inside and burst in a flash of green.
The disc returned to Mercury's hand halfway down the debris pile. "Jet..." The energy through her shell felt nearly white hot, and she was breathing hard to expel the heat. She glanced down and saw that there was a patch of green creeping up her leg.
Infected. Doomed. Glitch it!
He was half-buried among the remains of the mezzanine, covered in greenish blotches that were rapidly turning gray and inert. His hands and face had jagged cuts on them, and a strange red substance leaked from them, almost but not entirely unlike energy.
"Ugh." He grumbled. "I'm okay," he said groggily, pushing away the debris. "A little banged up is all."
"That makes one of us," she said sadly, gesturing to her leg. "Jet you have to make a run for it or de-rez me. The corruption..."
"Got away." Mercury hissed with pain as her circuitry dimmed backing away. "Jet, there's not much -"
Jet's eyes fixed on her leg and he scrambled to his feet, worried. "Mercury, no."
Before she could push him away, he closed the gap, and touched her shoulders like he was steadying himself. Mercury felt a warm, wonderful rush of energy through her, enough to forget the creeping infection. Daring to crack open an eye, she saw Jet's circuitry turn green, and she dreaded that she had somehow infected them both. After a moment, Jet groaned softly and collapsed. Mercury felt a cold shudder through her shell when she saw his circuitry had completely gone out. His eyes had gone dull and stared into nothing.
"Jet...? Jet!" Oh, Users. If a Program spent all their energy like that, it was certain de-rez. Glancing down, she saw the green corruption on her leg was completely gone. She was healed – like the infection never was.
Jet still didn't move – even his chest was horribly still.
"You are not going to de-rez on me," she growled. "Ma3a did not haul you in here just so you could get yourself sent to the Void." Anger, annoyance, frustration – those were easier to process than the flutter deep in her shell. She knew that he had somehow worked whatever strange and unexplainable abilities that came with his User status to heal her, but if he did this at the cost of his own life...
Damn it! Why didn't Ma3a warn her about him? She was used to not knowing the whole plan as the AI worked her mysterious ways. Right now, she was faced with a mystery that was much bigger than Chinese spyware terror cells, data pusher gangs, and gridbug infestations. The only certainty she had with Jet was that he didn't deserve this garbage-in-garbage-out.
Sympathy isn't part of the job description, Mercury Six. Even the realization of that made the flutter inside twist into something cold.
The good news was that his shell didn't seem to be decaying like she would expect with a dying Program. Some of the strange substance got on her fingertips before realizing her hand was on his cheek. Pulling it back, she held it up to the light, looking at the dark reddish-brown that resembled nothing else in her world. It was slick and sticky all at once. Fear ran through her processor as it hit her just how alien he truly was beneath his surface appearance.
Jet coughed twice and Mercury pulled him to his side as he vomited out something green that turned gray and inert. With his airway clear, he sucked in a deep breath. Okay, airflow checked out. Her hand moved lower and felt a steady beat under her fingers when she brushed the front of his neck - fascinating. What other differences were there between his shell and hers?
Quit indulging your curiosity. You've done enough of that with him! She scolded herself.
With a gasp and another cough, he sucked in a deep breath and his circuitry rebooted, turning blue-white again. His eyes fluttered open and he looked up at her.
"What did you do?"
"It's...hard to explain. Are you okay?"
Relief quickly change to annoyance – did he have any idea how close he just came to de-rez? "Jet..."
He grumbled some indecipherable strings as he tried to sit up. Despite his weakened condition, he still stared her in the eye. "I know what you told me. User pulled an override. Deal with it. Are you okay?"
She stepped back to gather her composure, pulling herself out of arm's length, trying to snap back into "all business" mode. She wanted to thank him, ask how he worked whatever User magic he had to heal her, but there was the mission, and too much at stake to let him off the hook like that. Unless he learned what was at stake here...
"Glitch it, I'm expendable. Romie is expendable. You are the only thing that Thorne's virus can't seem to kill or convert! Ma3a did not go through the trouble of uploading you in here just to get de-rezzed. You get killed, and it's mission failed. End of Line."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before getting back on his feet. Mercury wondered if it was to cool his processor in the same way a Program would. "Could you or Romie have taken a hit from those viral bombs and not turned into part of the zombie horde – or worse?" He shuddered and got within touching distance of her again. "No way, Merc. If you're going to risk your life for me, then it's only fair that I watch your back, too."
It was a dirty trick, but two quick strikes to his circuitry and a fast sweep of her legs, and he was on the floor. She had her disc out, holding it to his neck. "This is how 'fair' the System is," she said sadly.
His face contorted into a sneer, but he made no move to touch her or fight back. "Tell me something that's not obvious!"
Whatever battle Mercury was fighting in the back of her processor, she lost. With a sigh, she pulled the disc away, and put it on her back, where it went flush with the rest of her circuits. She got to her feet, and offered Jet a hand in getting back up. He didn't take it, choosing to get up on his own - good.
"Jet, you have to survive, and if you let yourself get carried away with your emotions, you aren't thinking. You aren't seeing the patterns, you aren't focusing on your directives, and you won't see the shot that de-rezzes you."
"What kind of garbage world is this place?" Jet fired back. "I take lives and it's no big deal, but I save one and I get a lecture?"
"Do you even see the bigger picture here? Ma3a uploaded you to fight the virus. If you sacrifice yourself to save anyone – even me – then thousands, millions more Programs will be lost."
"You're fucking welcome," he grumbled.
Mercury felt a call and checked the communicator link on her arm. "I got a signal from Romie. He left a request at an I/O node not far from here. Come on."
She started towards the closest exit and motioned Jet to follow. Concentrate on the directives and the mission. Whatever you do, don't concentrate on him any more than necessary, she reminded herself.
But every time she resisted glancing over her shoulder, her resolve eroded ever so slightly. Jet was different – and not just his User status. No one else got inside her source code like he did – forcing her to question, to explain, to trust, and to feel...
Mercury closed her eyes and curled her hand around the rod at her hip, willing herself to focus on the task at hand.
The Kernel paced his office impatiently. His forces were getting fewer, the reports weren't coming in, and he still had the issue of the Z-Lot invasion that was progressively getting worse. He had sent word to recall all ICP units from the outer sectors and rally at his tower at the core.
A lone I/O tower, Ma3a's palace, was a ziggurat in the near distance, the golden beam stretching into the sky as a last hope. The AI had been too trusting, too open to the outside. Users were too prone to making mistakes, too chaotic and unpredictable with commands. His own User, J. D. Thorne, had been giving him illegal commands for cycles, and then vanished abruptly. The Kernel knew better than to think it was a coincidence that "Master User Thorne" was invoked by every Z-Lot his men had been able to capture.
His own User had betrayed them. The Users had failed the Programs that served them. If he could, he would kill Thorne himself, and never bow before a User command again. They weren't worthy of his service or that of his men. That brought to mind the second rogue element, claiming to be the Lost User's second coming or something. Probably nothing more than a glitched script that was just as dangerous to himself as he was to the ICP units. If he wasn't so tied up with Thorne...Adding insult to it was that Mercury had also turned traitor. Wasn't she just a simple game bot? The glitched script must have corrupted her; it was the only explanation he wanted to accept.
The elevator slid open and his aide raced to the Kernel's dais as fast as he could manage, carrying a data readout. "Sir, corruption reported in sectors 1-255 Core protocol failure is imminent."
"Reroute all ICP units to the front lines and shut down all write access. This system will not go down on my watch!" He paced a few more lengths, not bothering to look at his aide. "Have the fugitives been located?"
"Uh...no. The Game Grid prisoner bin was overtaken by a riot. The male-designated managed to retrieve his disc and escape. We believe he's still traveling with Mercury and an email carrier, designation Romie."
"Incompetence! Explain to me why I shouldn't de-rez you for your failure," the Kernel barked.
Trying to redeem himself, his aide explained. "I wasn't at the tower when it happened, but the few survivors briefed me. He won't get far; permission sets have been changed, and the entire sector is locked down. Nothing is getting in or out unless it passes through our transports."
Frustrated with his lack of success, the Kernel started pacing. "Broaden the search criteria. I want those Programs found!"
His aide saluted. "Yes, sir. And the I/O tower has repaired the relays. Ma3a is requesting to speak to you."
"I don't particularly care what that overblown administrator has to say. We're at war!" He stopped and looked up at the communication platform. "I'll see what excuse she wants to give for sending the infection vector."
Climbing up to the dais, he activated his control panel. One of the walls lit up in projection with Ma3a's image.
"I apologize for the delay, Kernel. The viral attack has crippled many of the communication lines, and I have allocated as many resources as possible to their restoration."
The Kernel shook his fist. "And while you have been wasting resources on that, my men have the Z-Lot invasion and two rogue Programs running loose."
"Describe the rogue Programs."
"No matter – they'll be de-rezzed soon enough. The reformat has been initiated. This server will be eradicated in about fifteen minutes."
"Kernel, I will need packet transports sent to my citadel. Dozens of uninfected Programs have taken shelter here," She frowned with concern beneath her gold mask. "Furthermore, what they are reporting disturbs me. They claim you have ordered the termination of innocent refugees fleeing corrupted sectors."
"There's no such thing. As virulent as the Z-Lot infestation is, we can take no chances. Those packet transports are for my men and only my men so we can continue to battle the virus. Besides, I won't fall for your tricks anymore Ma3a. I know you sent the infection vector right to us in the first place."
Ma3a's scowl matched his own. "Kernel, you are out of line. Explain yourself."
The Kernel pulled up security footage from the power distribution unit. In it, Jet was fighting his way through a cluster of Z-Lots and ICP units, the scene so chaotic that one couldn't tell who was fighting who.
"Do you deny you sent an unknown factor to this system? We have the logs and the security footage of him killing several of my men."
"Kernel, the infection source is User Thorne. We both know that. I uploaded a countermeasure to the virus –"
He wasn't going to let her finish. "Then you admit you brought a rogue element to the system."
"He is not to be harmed by your men," she ordered.
"It's too late for that. Due to your inability to control the situation, I am taking charge. By admitting responsibility for this rogue element, you have become a liability to the continued operation of this system. I am putting your tower under interdict, and ordering my men to bring you into quarantine."
"And any script that you shelter or employ will also be considered a criminal element. I'm prepared to sacrifice this server in order to save the system."
"I will not let you de-rez thousands of blameless Programs in the name of 'saving' the system. I don't want to order my agents to fight your men. Reconsider this course of action so that we can focus on the true enemy here."
"You're either with me or an enemy. End of Line." He cut transmission and turned to the room full of ICP fighters. Some whispered among themselves, others stared at him in shock or confusion. A few even had their hands on their discs, as if unsure what to do.
"You heard me and you heard her. Ma3a is to be considered a threat to this system."
"Uh...sir?" His aide was the most ambivalent of the lot, disc in one hand, but unable to look him straight in the eye.
"You might want to reconsider that, in light of what our interrogators discovered."
The door opened again, and two pike-wielding ICP units marched in the pair of weak-looking disc technicians, marching them up to face the Kernel.
"We...we talked to the techs who tried to read the fugitive's disc, sir," the aide elaborated. "You're going to want to hear this."
The Kernel glared at them both – pathetic workers. Back when he was rezzed, their kind weren't even worthy of discs. As it stood, their discs were mounted on their backs, mostly useless as they lacked the routines to make use of them, even in defense. "Out with it!" he ordered.
The female-designated squared her chin. "You won't defeat him, Kernel. He is a User. We've seen him, and what he is capable of."
The male-designated elaborated. "His disc was mostly unreadable. Even what little we could read had concepts, ideas, images we had no idea how to comprehend. He fought through your army, spared our lives, and freed your uninfected captives."
The Kernel growled – a harsh, sound like a broken fan run through low-grade MIDI processor – and pulled his disc, placing the edge against the female-designated as though he would cut her from shoulder to hip. "You tell me the truth! How is he controlling the Z-Lots?"
"He's not." The male-designated said. "Ma3a did send him. And she sent him to fight for -"
He didn't get to finish it as the Kernel sliced through the female first, and then cut his neck clean through, leaving two piles of decaying voxels on the floor.
His aide's circuitry went white, gasps and whispers filled the room.
"Enough!" The Kernel ordered. "Our job is to protect this system from any threat. By introducing a rogue element, Ma3a has become a threat. The only scripts you are to trust are your fellow ICPs. The reformat has already begun. We cut our losses here and we find this virus at the source. For that, we'll need to take the I/O tower by force."
The ICP units looked nervously amongst themselves. As terrifying as the Kernel's behavior was, directives were directives. They had no other choice.
The Kernel's aide, however, couldn't take his eyes off the fading remains of the technicians.
Jet figured that his best bet was to shut his mouth and let Mercury lead the way. He was in deep enough, no sense in pissing her off further. To that end, he tried to concentrate on tweaking a spare suffusion subroutine he somehow acquired from the contraband archive, letting the familiarity of tweaking settings and code try to slow his racing mind.
She was right in one regard – he wasn't thinking when he reached out and grabbed her. All he remembered was the blind fear that she would die like so many others he hadn't been able to save. Once he touched her, he hadn't a coherent way to describe what happened. It was like he could see into her, and saw the foreign body trying to corrupt her, then pulling it out of her and into himself. That was the last he remembered before blacking out.
The weapon configuration had changed significantly, the snub nose and wide barrel becoming elongated and smooth. Instead of firing a mass of pellets, it would now focus its energy ammo in a concentrated burst.
If he were completely honest with himself, he felt like he'd taken a ride in a washing machine, but he was recovering faster than he would have in the analog world. While it was a good thing not to be in pain, it was yet another reminder that he was in way over his head. His body responded in strange ways, he had abilities he didn't understand or explain, and most attempts to make sense of "why" went nowhere. Despite Mercury and Ma3a insisting he was critical to fighting off the virus, he had no idea how he was supposed to do that.
On top of all that, he was worried about his father; imprisoned (he wasn't going to think of the "or worse" scenarios) by parties unknown, and confronting memories of a godfather he forced himself not to think about for years. Jet desperately wanted this to all be one of those "peperoni pizza and 72 hour coding binge" dreams, but sadly knew it wasn't. And while Mercury could use some work on her delivery, she did have a point. His sense of self-preservation was shot to hell, and he wasn't going to be any help unless he survived.
The short, uncomfortable grip was next to get tweaked. Jet fiddled with the code, elongating the stock and barrel. It was starting to look like a proper rifle, at least. Patrick had insisted that his programmers and designers get real-world experience when crafting their games, to give Encom's games just a little added edge over their competitors. In the process, Jet found out that he wasn't half-bad with a sniper rifle. Maybe a virtual one could give him an edge in the survival department.
Mercury's grip on her cycle baton was so tight that her knuckles would have gone completely white had she been human, her mouth in a firm, hard line.
Finding a maintenance ladder at the end of a corridor, Mercury climbed up first, opened the hatch, and then looked down to signal the all clear. Jet climbed up and saw Mercury motion to him to duck behind what appeared to be a group of crates. The crates were too smooth and uniform in size, perfect cubes about a meter on each face. He touched them, and the surfaces were somewhere between ceramic and metal. The room was stacked high with them in groups of two or three clustered on the floor, another large stack creating a makeshift staircase on the far end of the room next to a sec rezzer. Looking up, he saw the crates seemingly suspended in mid-air, passing slowly on a set route as if running along an unseen conveyer belt.
"Where are we?"
"Data block storage. It's a loading port for data packets. ICPs inspect the payload for viruses and malware. If we could get on board one of those packet transports..."
"What about the call from Romie?"
"There's probably a I/O node near the exit. We can pick up the message from there." She glanced up. "What are you looking at? Any ICPs?"
"No. I just never saw crates hovering in midair like that."
"Please don't get distracted by the sights," she said. "There's nothing good about this place."
Jet sighed. All those wonderful stories and childhood dreams – and the reality behind it turned out to be nothing more than danger and death. "Sooner I leave, the better."
"Stay alive long enough to do it," Mercury cautioned.
He followed her through the twisting corridors, moving stealthily, memories of late nights and highly illegal pranks helping his body remember the skills, despite the alterations that came with digitization.
The old Dumont Shipping factory had been shuttered by 1990, Encom selling off the subsidiaries and the new management going for cheaper labor overseas. The old behemoth that had once made shipping containers had been a steel mill before that. Now, it was just left to rot.
Two boys, armed with flashlights, were able to squeeze under the hole in the chin-link fence. Jet pulled his backpack behind him, the tools inside clanking together.
"Dude, you're going in first."
"Aw, Sam, stop being a baby." Jet had ten months on his "cousin," which made him the more grown-up of the pair...at least by an eight-year-old's logic. "We're just going to explore it."
"There's probably rats inside or something."
"So what? That's why we got the heavy flashlights. They'll be more scared of us than we are of them. Come on!"
The sun was setting over the ocean, and the eastern sky was starting to turn pink and purple. Pop wouldn't be home for hours yet, which gave them time to go and investigate. They'd talked about it for weeks, exploring the old factory not too far from Sam's house before it was demolished. Not to steal anything, but just to go in and see what was behind the closed doors. A rusted but serviceable padlock secured a back door, but the wood around the lock suffered from dry rot. A few sturdy whacks from the flashlights and prying it with a screwdriver from Jet's pack did the trick.
They opened the door and gasped – it was huge on the inside, much larger than the outside appearance made it appear. Most of the machinery and equipment had been stripped down and removed, but there were still the remains of heavy machines too big to bother with removal. Exposed cables and wires hung from the wall, and a latticework of girders and pulleys hung from the ceiling.
"Whoa – cool!" Sam had a big grin on his face. Good – it was hard to get Sam to smile these days. "Look at all this junk!" He raced over and started to climb what looked like a big engine. "Wonder what this is..."
"I'm checking out the girders. Think we could get to the roof?" Jet gestured to an open hatch that let in sunlight.
"I wanna check out the ground floor first!"
"Says the guy who's scared of rats..."
"No rats yet," Sam said. "C'mon!"
The I/O node they found was at the back end of the complex, probably used to dispatch orders to the courier scripts. Jet had to transfer power to it just to get the blasted thing online. Mercury punched in the code.
The node sputtered awake, and Romie's face floated above the display.
"Hey, Pro...er, never mind."
"Keep it short, Romie," Mercury said.
"Here's the deal. I managed to sneak on a transport. We can get to the I/O Tower in this thing no problem, but unless the mooring apps are overridden or destroyed, this packet's going nowhere. Now, here's the deal; I used to work in this place. The app controls are located on the top level. The towers themselves are crawling with ICPs, but they aren't looking at the roof. Find some way of getting up there and overriding it, and then hurry down here."
The message ended, and Mercury sighed. "Well, that's just great. How are we supposed to take on two towers worth of -"
Jet pointed upward at the blocks making their silent rounds up and down pre-set invisible pathways. "We may not have to."
Finally, it got a smile out of her. "I like the way you think."
There were a few interesting things on the bottom floor – a grody old bathroom with plenty of spider webs and no running water, break rooms and lockers (one with the rotting remains of someone's lunch, another with a set of old tools and coveralls inside). Now, it was really getting dark, the last of the light fading out under the western horizon.
Jet ran up the metal stairs to the catwalk. "C'mon, we still haven't seen the roof."
"How are we gonna get up there?" Sam asked skeptically, pushing his dirty blonde curls out of his eyes.
"Simple." Jet shoved his flashlight into his pack, leaned over, and was able to pull one of the big pulleys over, grabbing the chain. "We use the girders and walk up!"
Swinging out over the rail, the heavy chain was a little harder to hold onto then he thought it would be, but after sliding down a couple feet, he got the hang of it, climbing it link by link, careful not to get his fingers caught in the loops. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Sam trying to do the same, flashlight stuffed into his belt loop.
Link by link, they climbed, finally reaching the biggest, thickest one of the girders. The fire escape ladder leading to the roof was about fifty feet away...with a two-story drop to the concrete below.
"Sam? Don't. Look. Down."
Jet counted the patterns. Three blocks going down, fourth block went up. From there, hit the second block to go over to the ledge and wait for the next block going up. He knew the y-amp boosted his jump height and length. Hopefully, this would be pretty simple.
"I'm going to try for the one on the far edge. Think you can get the one straight up?"
"You don't have to do this," she warned. "It might be better if -"
"Mercury, I've done this kind of thing before. You think it's any safer leaving me behind?"
She had to think about that. "No. I still don't like it."
"Neither do I, but it's not like the alternative is better." He saw his block. "Here goes nothing."
Stepping out, he put both feet on the block and watched as his weight didn't so much as impede its pace as it shot up into the air.
"Don't. Look. Down," Jet reminded himself.
The summer between high school and college. The August night was sultry and almost stifling, but it didn't matter. They could practically taste the sands going through the hourglass – childhood's end. That's why they had to cram as many memories as they could into the summer before Jet went to UCLA and Sam started at Caltech.
They were back in the industrial district, the air tasting of salt air, ozone and pollution. They'd finished the climb up to the roof of a squat foreman's trailer next to an abandoned construction site.
"Hey, man, remember the factory?"
Jet pointed to the condemned old building, now half-collapsed. No one ever did get around to finishing the demolition. "Yeah. How was I supposed to know you couldn't keep hold of a chain and end up with a broken arm? We got in so much trouble for that!"
Sam clasped him on the back. "Worth it, though."
"Always worth it." After a long pause, Jet asked. "Hey, are you worried at all? About y'know...college, Encom? I've heard you and Pop talking -"
"Alan can talk all he wants. Doesn't mean I have to listen, and neither should you. Just because my dad bailed and left a ton of shit in my lap doesn't mean I have to take it. I don't want to live up to all that hype. I'm just going to go in and try to have fun, maybe learn a few things."
"I'd still like to go into games. You thinking about that, too?"
"I'm doing my best not to think, Jethro. Night's young, the moon's full..." His grin was huge, and his eyes were wild. "Let's make a run for it."
"Make a run -?"
The glint in Sam's eye turned feral. "Catch me if you can."
And off he ran, speeding across the rooftop and making a leap onto a stack of girders.
Jet didn't waste a second, "Oh, it's on." He broke into a run, leaping onto the girders and scrambling over a pile of concrete to close the distance.
Across rooftops and through culverts, up fire escapes, and down the windshields of parked cargo trucks. Leapfrogging across concrete pylons and ducking fences, they ran and ran until they were out of breath and the sun started to peek over the horizon.
Mentally crossing his fingers, Jet leaped. He landed on the edge of the block and wildly swung his arms to try and regain his balance.
Damn it! After a few terrifying heartbeats, he managed to drop to his knees on the box. With the Y-amp installed, he kept running the risk of jumping too far!
The ledge that was halfway up the shaft was approaching quickly. Slowly getting to his feet, he took another jump and praised whatever entity (if any) looked out for Users that he was on stable ground for the moment. It was then that he noticed his hand aching. He must have smacked it on something during his climb.
Taking a deep breath, he counted the blocks again. One...two...three...four...five. Fifth one went up, third one went across. Fourth one went up again, and second one would get him to the top. Again, this was like something out of a twisted video game.
"I am never designing another one of these platform mazes ever again."
He sighed and jumped onto the next platform going skyward. That's when he heard the tell tale click-chirp sound – Finders.
Mercury was leaping across blocks, wide open to attack.
"Mercury," he called down. "Finders! Get on the ledge!"
Before he knew what he was doing, the rifle subroutine was in his hands and he squeezed the trigger. One Finder went up in a pulse of red light, its last shot leaving a black crater where Mercury had been standing a nano before. He missed the second shot as the Finder swiveled to take aim at him. The third's shot scorched the surface next to his before he cursed, returned fire, and blew the Finder to bits.
The conveyer ground to a halt. Lights and sirens flickered and wailed. Below, he saw Mercury leaping across the stalled blocks with ease, making her way up to his level.
"We got their attention, all right!" she said. "Hurry, jump across and blow up the encryption keys on either side of the app platform. They're brown, and about the size of your foot."
Jet didn't waste any time, jumping on one block, then a second, and onto the roof of the tower. Two quick shots blasted the keys. Holstering the rifle, he slammed his palm on the override. It lit up, and an energy bridge crossed the gap to the other side. Jet started running.
Shots coming down all around him, the bridge itself began to flicker beneath his feet. As soon as he could manage it, he jumped for it!
The energy bridge collapsed under his feet, and he grabbed onto the ledge. Like everything here, it was smooth and didn't offer much of a handhold. Desperation and fear boosted his strength enough to scramble upward. Below, he saw Mercury jumping across the block maze. Without the blocks moving, she had more of them to jump across.
Guess it was on him. Narrowly rolling out of the way of the shot, he pulled his disc and fired – one shot. The finder was destroyed. The second shot glanced off his armor and pain shot through his leg, blinding him and making him close to passing out. His hand also throbbed in time with it.
But then, another disc shot took out the second finder, followed by two quick shots to the encryption keys and a pull of the override.
Mercury jumped onto the last ledge to see the terminal; overridden, Jet on the ground, clutching his leg, and a little blue sphere hovering inside an archive bin. There were sounds of ICP units nearby that were getting closer. With the terminal blown, they weren't getting through the door with anything short of a logic probe, but they'd probably send one up within a few seconds.
"Jet, can you stand?"
"Help me up. The pain's...bad."
"That should have shot your leg off..." Mercury helped him to his feet, his left leg buckling under him. She looked around and found an archive box. "Can you download from that?"
He nodded and touched the bin, pulling the blue subroutine ball from the bin. It turned into a thick, warm piece of what seemed to be rope. Mercury seated him near the terminal and hastily tied it around the base, then pulled him to his feet, wrapping the rope around their waists.
"You trust me?"
He seemed to be running it through his processor, before answering it with a nod.
The light-rope broke their fall a couple meters from the walkway where they came in before derezzing from the strain and dumping them ungracefully onto the floor.
"Emergency rope," Mercury explained, helping Jet up and allowing him to lean on her. "It's in case a worker goes over the edge and doesn't de-rez immediately.
"How...far to Romie?"
"Not far. Come on..." The sound of ICP units echoed through the corridor. "I'm going to need you in some shape to fight. Come on..." She half-pulled him over to a closet of some kind and yanked the handle. Inside was a red sphere the size of a basketball.
"Touch that. You'll want to download it like an archive file."
Honestly, she didn't know if a patch sphere would work on him. They were used for injured Programs, restoring health and repairing energy leaks. They weren't good for a lot, but when nanos counted...
He sucked in a breath and tested his leg, now healed and able to bear weight. "Well, that worked. Have to remember that."
"C'mon," Mercury said, gesturing to him to follow.
Scrambling around the data storage, moving from block to block, they closed in on the only way to the transports. Unfortunately, there were voices on the other side – ICP units.
"Where are you going? We're taking heavy casualties out there."
"The Kernel is ordering anyone they can spare to the front lines."
"But it's all over!" his partner argued. "I say we cut our losses and evacuate the server. Let the reformat handle it. The ICPs will be loaded onto the remaining transport tugs and uploaded to carry on the fight elsewhere."
"The Kernel will never give up, and neither will I! Drive C forever!"
"Suit yourself. I'm too new a version to get De-rezz -" A pause. "Hey, what was that?!"
One of them ran out and almost ran right into Mercury's arms – and rod weapon. The second and third were blown straight through the chest by Jet's rifle.
"Activating Security rez-in station." Spawning right in front of them was a large, heavily armored ICP with a very large version of the rod weapon, sparking at the ends.
"Oh, spawn of a virus." Mercury said, dodging out of the way of the blow.
The only thing Jet's rifle shot seemed to do was make it angrier as it continued to ignore him and close in on Mercury. Her smaller size and faster speed were holding off de-rez, but she was getting backed into a corner with fewer ways to dodge his fire. Jet holstered the rifle and tried to reach for his disc when his hand burned with pain. Shaking it, he realized there was something warm and sticky in his palm. Without thinking about it, he tossed it at the ICP that pinned Mercury into a corner.
It was a viral grenade like the Z-Lots carried. Instead of corrupting the ICP, however, it hit him square in the black and exploded, shattering him into flying limbs and a smell of ozone before fading out entirely.
"Oh, glitch." She grabbed his arm and pointed to the security feed. "If the Kernel sees that, he's definitely not going to accept that you're anything other than a Z-Lot. Let's hit that transport – now!"
They ran out to the walkway and banged on the door of a shabby-looking email transport. The door slid open and they ducked inside. Romie was already at the controls. Jet dropped into the co-pilot seat, Mercury strapped into a small seat in the back.
"Take off!" she ordered.
Romie engaged the controls and glanced out the window. A dozen ICP units were running in through the doors and alleys. "Don't have to tell me twice. Engaging transit now!"
The transport rose off the ground and hit the energy beam suspended above the dock and shot off like a cannon, riding the maze of energy transit beams crossing the system.
"They'll be following?" Jet asked.
Romie's smile was cold and twisted. "Not with the route I'm going. We'll lose them."
/Search Params ^^ rogueProg (Jet)
/Search Params ^^ rogueProg (Mercury)
/Search Params ^^ rogueProg (Romie)
→ Retrieval / Failed