Chapter 14

Ma3a's Citadel was a complex with several small administration buildings and the tall gold and ivory ziggurat of her main core in its center. It was surrounded by a park-like environment, twisting paths around holographic fractal "trees." Chittering code optimization wares grazed on ambient data, moving in slow paths as their fat, insect like bodies fed contentedly. Power pools of pure, bright silver spotted the grounds as aesthetically pleasing recreation spots. A wall of pixel-stone, double a Program's height, surrounded it as a final line of defense. Normally, it was a perfect hybrid of park and administrative center of the Encom system. Now, its gates were shuttered, a small ICP army camped around its perimeter, and Z-Lots closing in, both factions looking for any vulnerability so they could storm the system's last refuge.

The battered Recognizer popped out of the tunnel, barreling down on the courtyard. A rag-tag fleet of packet transports, frame ships, byte carriers, email shuttles, Recognizers, and land transports crowded the park like a bored child's collection of toys. The red haze of the reformat wall inched closer with every nano.

"Remember," Cally had told them. "No one will get much of anywhere without an open beam. You take care of that and we'll lead the evac. It looks like the west wall's already been breached. You'll be going in hot. "

Reversing the capture function opened the way to get Jet and Mercury to the ground. Discs were already out, and they fell into a back to back stance, alert for trouble. The section they had landed in was strangely quiet. Seeing no immediate threat, Mercury gestured for Jet to follow.

They moved quietly, not saying a word or making any unnecessary sounds, Jet silently thanking those long-ago nights of sneaking out his bedroom window and those long parkour chases across the industrial section of town trying to keep up with Sam. There was an additional edge; Mercury had let him copy a subroutine of hers called "fuzzy signature," which further dampened the sound of footfalls.

They came to a darkened door and Mercury gestured for him to flank one end of the door while she took the other. She glanced in and then turned back, nodding, gesturing "two" on her fingers.

Jet mouthed out, "Red?"

She nodded.

Jet activated his disc and held it at ready.

Mercury's shot caught the first sentry in the back, downing him instantly, but the second powered on a shield and activated a cannon, laying down suppressive fire. They ducked back behind the door frame. Jet scowled and concentrated, summoning and pitching a viral grenade. The explosion shattered the shield, and a follow-up shot from the discs finished off the guard. They crossed over a second floor balcony. The courtyard below was packed with refugees, barricaded and trapped, a last stand against ICP, viral, and reformat.

Jet felt the familiar pull of a call. Glancing up at Mercury, she nodded an acknowledgment. She got that one, too. The room they ducked into was eerily quiet for having the door half blown off, jagged and damaged pixels scattered and crunching under their feet. The I/O node was the only intact or recognizable object in the room. Mercury touched it and it flowered to life, Ma3a's image floating in nothingness.

"Mercury...Alan-2. It is good you survive, but we do not have much time. The system is losing vital function. The protocols protecting my docking structure will soon fail."

"Hang in there, Ma3a," Jet assured her. "We're on our way to free you."

From beneath her gold mask, Ma3a's face twisted with worry. "Free? I...I have never been outside my docking structure. I...I don't know if it a good idea."

"Ma3a, we have to risk it. If the corruption or ICPs don't get you, the reformat will!"

The hesitancy vanished. "You're right. Hundreds of uninfected civilians have taken refuge here. The exit port must be activated if any of us will have a chance at survival."

"My orders were to free Ma3a. I can't disobey a direct order from my User, Jet. Even if it means -" Mercury's grip curled tighter around her rods. "We won't have time to free her from the dock and get the exit port restored."

Jet picked up on the request. "Where do I have to go?"

"Exit port controls are at the level three cache. Take my permissions and a map of the Citadel. We'll rendezvous at Level Five. That's where we can reach the exit port. I'll be escorting Ma3a there, but you will be on your own."

He nodded shakily, taking the offered permissions and watching his sigil light up as each downloaded. The map was a little trickier. It installed on his disc, a 3-D miniature coming up as the display. Two blue dots displayed where they were, a gold room indicated Ma3a's dock, and a white room on the other side marked the exit port controls.

"The reformat will complete in less than three minutes. I'll get Ma3a, you get that exit port – or none of us make it out alive."

Jet's path took him through the courtyard. Makeshift barricades wouldn't keep anything out for long, and everyone knew it. Disc in hand, armor glowing blue, the huddled refugees thought he was little more than a stranded game script. He ran quickly past them, not allowing to be stopped for questions.

So little I can actually do for them. A look over his shoulder verified the red haze was closing in. A chance, but that's it.

Quickly checking his map and determining the fastest route down through the maintenance levels, he ducked in through a half-collapsed wall and listened closely; he heard distorted, sing-song voices up ahead – Z-Lots, several of them.

"Come and play little Programs. Come and play with us." There was the dull thwack of something being hit.

"Celebrate the end…" said another, the deep voice suggesting a corrupted ICP ended in crazy giggling.

A third voice, under no less electronic distortion, but much clearer than the Z-Lots sounded in protest. "Hey! What do you think this is? Pong?! OW!"


When Jet had been captured, Byte managed to slip away in the chaos and run back to the Citadel to alert Ma3a. After all, what could he do against a completely irrational Kernel and an entire army? He had no defenses other than speed and being hard to hit, and he didn't want to test the aim of the entire army. Even a null unit got the occasional lucky shot. Better to do what he was the best at; hide, observe, overhear, report.

He heard Ma3a had made contact with Mercury. At least that was good news. She was the top Agent for this system, and if anyone could survive, it was her. At the news that the Reco had landed, Byte ventured out of an open window too small for a Program and tried to sail past the chaos – refugees huddled behind bulkheads, ICPs trying to break down the gate, Z-lots...

Byte would have insulted their coding, their coloration, their "Master User," their lack of function. He wanted to protest that the virus must have corroded their cognitive functions to uselessness. He would have thought up dozens of varied and wonderful insults...

Except the Z-Lot had plucked him out of the air and hurled him to his green-lined and equally uncultured buddies. He bounced off the thick head of one Z-Lot, hurled to the next. It had continued like that for what seemed to be minutes before he heard his name called.

"Looks like we have a clean one!" shouted one of the Z-Lots, swatting Byte to the side so they could investigate their latest victim, firing blindly at everywhere but the pile of pixel-stone in the hall.

Byte was trying to regain control of his momentum to sneak away when three shots stopped the Z-Lots, the last of them derezzing on the floor with a hole through his head and a very shocked look on his decaying face. Served him right. Byte floated over to his rescuer, hovering over Jet's left shoulder.

"Thank goodness the Z-Lots are gone. The horror, the indignity. It is about time you showed up. Some User you turn out to be."

Jet barely acknowledged the criticism of his rescue abilities. "Byte, now isn't the time. I have to get to the exit port controls. Can you lead me to them?"

Oh, yes. That. "Follow me."

Byte glided down the halls carefully, Jet following closely, both wary for another batch of Z-Lot or ICP trouble.

Subroutines, permissions, email. Jet grabbed them all mindlessly as Byte meandered through the twisted corridors of an archive on the way to the control room. The only thing running through his mind was to try and save something, anything, as much as he could. Otherwise, the halls were eerily silent.

The control room for the exit ports and firewall controls was smaller than he expected, roughly the size of his apartment's living room. It required a three story climb, and was somewhat detached from the main ziggurat complex, surrounded by a deep-looking pool. It had once been silver like most of the others, he guessed, but it was now greenish and grimy from corruption. Through the large windows surrounding the tower, he could see the reformat closing in, the red haze devouring anything it touched and creeping in by the nano. Forcefield walls surrounded banks of controls from unauthorized access. Two doors, one on each side, provided the only entrances and exits.

"Strange there are no guards here," Jet said.

"ICP transports have their own designated firewall port. They can leave, but everyone else is stuck here to de-rez. Figures." Byte floated over to a strangely-shaped socket and sat in it. "Activate the exit port, and it will be seen by all of what's left of the system."

Double sided disc, so to speak. The refugees could see it, but so would every surviving Z-Lot and ICP. "We haven't got a choice."

The walls dropped, Jet ran in and quickly worked the controls, burning through his hastily obtained permissions. The seconds ticked away as he tried to manipulate the controls, hastily transferring power through an interface that was straight out of a Towers of Hanoi puzzle – trying not to make the false move that might overload the system and doom them. The floor and the walls shook with power as he snapped the last parts of the sequence; left to right, center to mid, right to mid, base to right. Center to left, center to right, left to right.

A column of bright, white light shot up like a geyser from the top of the ziggurat. The port was open! Now to get out of the tower, find Mercury, and -

"Quit running!" ICPs. Figured.

And from the other side? "Surrender to the corruption! Serve your Master User!"

Damn it.

"Byte, keep that port open. I'll hold them off!"

Byte floated over and docked in a socket at the port's base while Jet pulled his disc. This was going to suck.

Ma3a's voice echoed from an unknown source. "Attention: All server applications. We are under attack by an unknown virus. The corruption has infected the operating system and multiple threads are failing. In less than a minute, it will breach my docking protocol. All uninfected Programs, board the closest transport and upload to the exit port. It is the only way to save yourselves. This is my final transmission. End of Line."

Out in the courtyard, the reformat had taken down the front wall, and the gathered Programs held their breath and waited for the end. Many cried, many screamed. Others collapsed in despair or prayed to Users who could no longer hear. A few held the line at the makeshift barricades, grimly firing back at ICP and Z-Lot, stoically brushing aside the remains of others to carry on the fight.

Z-Lot from one side, ICP from the other, the dwindling lines of defenders striking with discs and hunks of pixel stone. If one fell, another grimly stepped up. The back of the invading lines were being vaporized by the encroaching red format wall.

And when all seemed lost- a beam of pure white shot up from the top of the ziggurat. The exit port heading no one knew where, promising thin hopes of safety. The gathered Programs did not waste time. They ran for their transports – tall Recos, stout packet and email transports, small delicate frames relays. Leading them was a white and gold Recognizer that floated high in the air, clearing the way.

But they did not go unnoticed. A larger number of ICP vessels laying siege noticed and took to the skies, picking the smaller, weaker craft from the air as they hurtled to the light.

Mercury encountered little difficulty navigating through the passages and tunnels; she knew them well, after all. The Z-lots had little processing ability past "see Program, infect Program" and fell to quick strikes from discs or rods. There were much fewer Z-Lots than she expected, and that was welcome and worrisome. The ICP units were trickier. Her Fuzzy Signature and stealth programming helped in avoiding the patrols, but they also knew the corridors; in better times, the ICP patrols were normal fixtures of security.

They did not know of the exploits – little catwalks and edges too narrow for an ICP's bulky shell and armor, but she could navigate them. One of those edges, a reco's height off the ground, would be certain injury or de-rez if she fell, but she inched her way across it, half her foot hanging off the edge as she pressed herself to the wall.

And that's when she heard it – chirp-click-whirr

She remembered how Jet dealt with Finders back at the tower. Wait…observe…count the time it takes to make a circuit…Three…two…one!

The Finder fired, and Mercury jumped, landing astride it as it bucked and jerked trying to throw her off. The noise got the attention (and discs) of the ICP squad below. Forcibly jerking the firing mechanism below, she shot two of them, jerked hard to the left to avoid a disc, dive-bombed to avoid cannon shot. The Finder started to overheat, sending painful surges of energy into her legs. She gritted her teeth and hung on, discs whizzing, Finder screaming. When she could endure no more, she reached into the guts of her improvised "ride" and pulled out the circuitry. With a final shriek and busts of fire, the Finder plunged to the floor and Mercury pushed herself off just in time, rolling awkwardly and painfully out of danger as the Finder crashed into the remaining ICPs, destroying them all.

She coughed and groaned as she got up. The fall wasn't controlled, and she was definitely feeling the effects. Her right lower leg was flickering – the wounds weren't bad, but they would slow her down at a time when slow wasn't an option.

No more time to waste. Ma3a awaited.

The heart of the ziggurat was a complex I/O Chamber. It was all cathedral-like walls, majestic, multi-hued columns, gently sloping ceilings, mosaics of geometric shapes and sharp colors like stained glass. It was an artistic and architectural masterpiece unmatched in the digital or analog world, a place between palace and shrine. In the center of the dazzling beauty was a central blue pillar. Floating inside like a spirit caught in glass was Ma3a herself, clad in white gown with gold circuitry, thick gold mask obscuring her face.

Mercury had only been in this chamber twice; the first when she was rezzed to life and given her directives. The second time was now.

Ma3a's eyes opened, and her voice was quiet, pained. "Mercury, the system is dying. Full Data erasure in sectors 32, 64, and 96. I'm losing data. Dead ends are everywhere."

Mercury swallowed fear and concern. Ma3a had never sounded like this before, not in all her runtime. "Hold on. What has to be done to free you?"

"Destroy the docking seals." Ma3a gestured to a pair of gold, flower-like protrusions on the wall.

It did not yield to her disc strikes, requiring three blasts apiece from the suffusion rod, but the seals did break. The pillar collapsed, so did Ma3a. Mercury helped her up. Strange, she had always pictured Ma3a as taller, more regal. Out of her docking chamber, she seemed small and delicate, a half-head shorter and slight of build.

"Jet's getting the exit port open. Come on, I'll escort you."

The ICPs must have been monitoring, because the internal communications network sounded the alarm. A female ICP made the announcement. "System Warning: Emergency escape protocols triggered. leaving us."

And the Kernel answered.

"Attention: This is the Kernel. Reformat is 99 percent complete. All ICP units not assigned to the Citadel, upload to remote storage. To those assigned to Citadel, destroy all retreating vessels. Your sacrifice will not be in vain."

It became obvious to Jet very, very quickly that holding off the horde wasn't a viable option. ICP squad on one door, Z-lots on the other, both of them threatening to overwhelm him by sheer numbers. Viral grenades and disc strikes weren't thinning out the combatants quickly enough. The only thing saving him from the numerical disadvantage was the hatred they had for each other.

Unfortunately – that meant viral-infected ICPs in front of him and a reformat wall behind him. The narrow doors and small room were keeping the combatants to about three or four at any time, but for every one he cut down, another took its place.

"Byte, have you locked the port?"

"I'm working on it." Byte looked like a little quartz ball embedded in concrete. "You know," he said as he worked. "It occurs to me that we all de-rez or are reformatted eventually. The Users, in their 'ultimate wisdom' decide when we are obsolete and then -"

The red wall of doom was, from Jet's perspective, three city blocks from his feet and closing fast. He dodged out of the way of a viral grenade, which flew past his head and struck the ICP trying to tackle him from behind. "Byte, can we pleaseget philosophical later?!"

"Oh, yeah. Right." It was as though he just noticed the rapidly-approaching death on their heels. "Just another moment."

Bracing for a last stand, the forcefields re-engaged, a thick wall now between him and the oncoming horde. Discs ricocheted and viral code splattered against it uselessly.

"Shields locked. They won't be able to undo those in time with their diminished processor capacity; never impressive to start with."

"But how am I supposed to -?" Jet stopped. The window behind him had shorted out in the fight, and the only escape was the pool below, green slick over silver. "Oh, boy."

Death by combat on one end, death by reformat on the other, and uncertain fate below. No choice but a jump. The impact was like smacking into a wall, forcing the air out of his lungs as he struggled to the surface and hoped he wouldn't pass out before then. He wasn't sure how he managed to swim over to the edge, spitting out something that wasn't quite water. He felt like he had had chugged too many Red Bulls and vodka; dizzy, vaguely ill, and far too wired.

Byte floated to his shoulder. "Your circuitry -"

Jet noticed his circuits flickering between green and silver. "I can...process this." Wow, speech was tough. "Lead the way out."

Mercury's road to the exit port wasn't any smoother. Red haze almost at their heels, ICP forces intent on taking them out in a suicidal charge, Z-Lots running crazed interference. She pulled Ma3a through the corridors, dodging piles of viral residue and ICP discs, voxel remains from unfortunate sparks crunching under their feet. Ma3a shuddered, knowing what they were. Mercury's leg was starting to throb, the lines on her calf flickering in and out.

"You can't hide," an ICP taunted. "We know all the shortcuts!"

One shielded, one without. Mercury was able to kill the unshielded taunter quickly enough, but it took nanoseconds they couldn't afford for her to engage the suffusion subroutine and overwhelm the shields.

The ICP's disc strike missed Mercury by a mile, but Ma3a cried out behind her. Mercury's return fire took out their attacker, but when she looked back, she saw the administrator clutching her arm. She expected (but was sickened by) the ragged gash of injured and deadened pixels carved out of Ma3a's shoulder, but when she touched the wound...

Mercury felt something sticky-slick under her fingers. "Ma3a, you're -"

"Mercury, please."

"You're injured." She knew this wasn't the time or place to process the data.

Ma3a looked pointedly at Mercury's leg. "So are you."

"Come on, the port isn't far," she said, not sure if she was trying to assure Ma3a or herself.

The closest access to the exit port was on the fifth floor, dead center. Jet wasn't sure how he managed not to face-plant in the corridor once or twice, especially as Byte led him up a rising platform, up a stack of data blocks, through a corridor that seemed to sway as he walked. His body was trying to fight off the side effects of diving into what amounted to toxic waste.

All he had to do was get to safety.

The access room was very large, circular, and a narrow bridge of solid light crossed a vast chasm to get to the platform where the port opened – a pillar of light open to the sky. Several doors led into the room. Through one, he saw Mercury escorting Ma3a, and he ran to meet them halfway.

"She's injured," Mercury said, almost pushing Ma3a into Jet's arms. "What happened to you?"

"Took a bath in bad code. Long story. I'll…I can process this out of me once we're safe."

They were halfway across the bridge when the wet sounds of viral grenades whizzed past them and landed in splats at their feet, corroding the bridge. A small army of Z-Lots followed them, taunting them in sing-song voices with nothing sane as they charged.

Mercury pulled her rods, striking her foes, sometimes pitching them into the bottomless pit. Jet sniped longer range with his disc, getting a few good shots despite his impaired state. The reformat was closing in, the armies about to overwhelm them. They'd both been hit with viral sludge, slowing their movements.

"There's too many of them! We can't fight them all off!" He tried not to notice the blotches all over Mercury's chest and arms.

Jet felt blood-warm ceramic pushed into his hands. "Get Ma3a into the data port."

He was still fighting the brain fog as much as the zombie horde. "What?"

Mercury's reply was curt. "You took an oath, rookie. See it through." Before he could say another word, she shoved him back on the exit port's platform where Ma3a and Byte had already crossed. He fell on his back

The Z-lots were charging her one or two at a time on the narrow bridge. Patches of green were crowding out the silver on her circuits. The reformat had eaten the far wall and was closing in. Still, she fought.

Jet struggled to get to his feet, his body feeling like it was made of lead. "Mercury, the reformat -"

A nano later, he heard voxels shattering over the distorted wails of Z-lots. Jamming her rods into the light under her feet shorted out what was left of the bridge, sending her and the attackers crashing into the black.

He felt an arm grip his and pull him backward.

Everything turned white.