Disclaimer: Oh you know the drill.

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Queen of the Crashed

By

The 18th Angel (aka DaemonFan)

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Chapter 1110 - How to Kill a Goddess

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      "I was there at the beginning," Phong said, clearly enjoying - at least a little bit - the way the entire assembly hung on his every word. "When Exabyte first came to the Net. I was there to greet her. For a time, when she first arrived, she was benevolent. She was beautiful and gentle, and dedicated to using her power to help those in need."

      "So what happened?" AndrAIa asked. "What changed her?"

      "I...do not know. As time went on, she became distant, then cruel. The last time I spoke to her, before she turned completely against us, she said she had made a mistake in coming. She said that a User was not meant to exist in the Net, but she could never go back. She actually apologized to me. I think...I think she wanted forgiveness for what she felt herself becoming. And she knew that would be her last opportunity to ask. As her madness grew, so it seemed did her power. When she was at her worst, nothing could stop her.

      "The problem is power. Exabyte has it, in almost limitless amounts. Currently, I believe she is still weak from her long compression, but as soon as she regains her full power, she can literally be everywhere in the Net at once. A firewall can block her spread, in theory, but it would do little good. A system that attempts to keep her out in this manner will only prolong their own deletion. She can outlast any attempt to restrict her access. And no one attack, short of crashing the entire Net, will destroy her in this form. As long as even the smallest fraction of her code survives, she can eventually return to full power. But for all that, Exabyte does have a weakness. When she is spread out across the Net, she cannot focus her power."

      "So in other words, the more places she is at once, the less dangerous she is at any one place," Dot said.

      "Precisely," Phong continued. "Drastic expenditures of energy, the kind necessary to infect a game or delete with a touch, require Exabyte to 'pull herself together', so to speak. And it is then that she is vulnerable."

      "How is that?" Ray asked.

      "Because if she's destroyed then, none of her little pieces can escape and reform," Bob suggested.

      "Exactly," Phong said.

      "I hate to be the naysayer all the time," Matrix said, "But there's still a problem. One; how do we get her to put her entire self in one place? Two; even if we can, how in the Net are we supposed to destroy something that powerful?"

      "I've been working on that," Welman said. "Once Exabyte is in her gathered state, she can be injured just like any other program. Damage her enough, and she will be erased."

      "What's the catch," Matrix asked his father.

      "The catch is that all the damage, or at least enough of it to incapacitate her, must be inflicted in less than a nanosecond, or she will disperse."

      "How much damage are we talkin' about?" Mouse asked.

      "To destroy a power source as great as Exabyte's would require transfinite energy," Welman said. "Detonating the Core of any medium sized system should be enough, but she would have to be entirely inside the system for the explosion to delete her."

      "You said firewalls can keep her out of a system, Phong," Dot said. Phong nodded. "Well then wouldn't an inverted firewall around a system trap her inside?"

      "It is a reasonable assumption," Phong said.

      "So we get her into an abandoned system, make sure all of her is there, then lock her in with a firewall and blow the core," Bob said.

      "It's just that simple, is it?" Megabyte said.

      "I didn't ask for your opinion," Bob replied.

      "Well you had better listen to it, Guardian. Unless you want your brilliant plan to get you and everyone else here deleted."

      Bob sighed. "All right," he finally said. "I'm listening."

      "As soon as Exabyte realizes that she's been trapped in a system she will use the email program to escape before you can detonate the core."

      "How do you know?" AndrAIa asked.

      Megabyte shrugged. "It's what I'd do."

      "That's the best you can come up with?" Bob asked. "It's 'what you'd do'?"

      "Exactly what more do you want?"

      "Well it would help if you had even a shred of credibility."

      "I'm trying to help you, Bob," Megabyte said calmly.

      "Out of the goodness of your processor I'm sure," Bob said.

      "Of course not. I'm in this to save my own ASCII. Given that, I would think you would be a little more inclined to trust my information."

      "Well sorry. You may have forgotten, but the last time I accepted your help in a crisis, it didn't turn out very well for me."

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      "Do you think he's right," Dot asked as they left the war room.

      "Maybe," Bob said reluctantly. "I wouldn't be quick to trust anything Megabyte says..."

      "Neither would I, but..."

      "It did have a ring of truth to it," Bob said. "I mean spreading by e-mail is a time-honored viral tactic; they even teach us to watch out for it at the academy. But she would have to access the mail program the instant the firewall goes online to get out in time. Which would mean she would have to know that she was being trapped before the trap was even sprung."

      "Unfortunately, I wouldn't put it past her to do that."

      Bob nodded. "...Or leave part of herself outside just in case, or even break through the firewall before the system could explode. For all we know, she might even be able to survive an exploding system."

      "Which leaves us where?" Dot asked.

      "Right back where we started as far as I can see," Bob said, pounding the wall next to him in frustration. "I guess that's the problem with fighting a User. You can never be sure what she's really capable of. Until it's too late."

      "We're not starting to believe in a certain type of scenario, are we?" Dot asked.

      Bob managed a small smile. "Not at all," he said. "There's a way out of this, and we will find it. I just don't know how..."

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      "Will she be all right?" Enzo asked, looking through the glass to where Daemon lay unconscious in a hospital bed.

      "She is just resting," Phong said. "Her injuries were severe, but her viral code is already beginning to repair the damage. In a few seconds she should be good as new."

      "Lucky her," Cadet Disa said, coming into the infirmary. Her arm was in a sling and she still wore bandages on the worst of the cuts. But her bruises had faded away and she no longer limped when she walked. "Just here for my routine check-up," she said.

      "Of course," Phong said. "If you would just take a seat I will be with you in a nano."

      "Hey kiddo, what's up?" Disa asked, sitting down on the nearest exam table while Phong ran a sample of Enzo's code through the scanner. Enzo didn't appreciate being called 'kiddo' by someone only a few hours older than him, but it wasn't like complaining ever made people stop. In fact, in all of Mainframe the only person who didn't treat him like a kid was Daemon. In the game, she had treated him like an ally, not just some annoying kid getting in the way. Then again, maybe it was just because she was new. Perhaps, given time, she would treat him like all the others did. But he hoped not.

      "Nothing," he said. "I got hurt in the game."

      "Too bad," Disa said. "I wish I could have been in there helping."

      Enzo shook his head. "Trust me, you really don't."

      He was spared further conversation when Phong came back with the test results.

      "Everything okay?"

      "Perfectly fine," Phong said. "I simply wanted to be sure you were all right, Enzo. The undeleted are animated by a viral bug. Their bite can sometimes transmit the bug into a processing being."

      "So...I could have become one of those things?" Enzo asked.

      Phong nodded gravely. "But luckily you are not infected. If the bug was transmitted at all, it infected your ReBoot only and departed with the rest of the game data. Your code is clean."

      "Cool, see ya!" Enzo hurried out before Phong or Disa could say anything else. The idea of turning into a zombie scared the dell out of him, but the last thing he needed was for them to see that. Already once word of the possibility spread, people would think he was even more helpless than they had already assumed. Dot would probably insist that he never go into a game again. It wasn't his fault that thing bit him, but that wouldn't make any difference to his sister.

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      The Super Virus known as Daemon rarely slept. Thanks to her massive and self-replicating reserves of viral energy, she needed only a fraction of the amount of downtime that Sprites and lesser Viruses required. However, at times like this, when her energies were taxed with repairing massive damage to her bitmap, she could sleep for seconds at a time. And as she slept, like all intelligent subroutines, she dreamed.

      -----

      She was young; a frail, lonely girl in a system tearing itself apart. Everywhere, Sprites ran for safety, trying to find a way out of the dying system. Parents held their children tight, so as not to lose them in the tide of refugees. But no one held her; or even noticed her presence. There was no one who cared for her, and there never had been from the moment she was compiled 1.3 hours previous. She didn't even have a filename. She had always had to care for herself, and now it was up to her to save herself before her home crashed. But she was running out of time.

      The mass of refugees wound its way up to the Principal Office, pulling her along in its tide. On the steps of the P.O. huge search engines were loading as many passengers as they could - likely more than was safe - before taking off through the open port to safety in the Net. But space on the remaining engines was running out, and the hard truth was dawning on the CPUs at the head of the line. Not everyone would make it out; some would have to be left behind.

      The microseconds that followed were the worst. No matter how many people boarded the waiting ships, the throng of refugees never seemed to move. She was sure she would be left behind. And then it was her turn, she was on the top of the steps to the Principal Office and a burly Sprite in CPU protocols was blocking her way to the ships.

      "Icon."

      The fully compiled Daemon, watching the scene through her own eyes, cursed her younger self for her naivety. But even in dreams, the past could not be changed. Just as before, she innocently looked up at the guard, waiting expectantly for her to present her Icon, and told him the truth.

      "I do not have one."

      That got the guard's attention. He looked down at the little girl with a new air of suspicion. "Why aren't you registered? You're way past old enough. Where are your parents?"

      She tried to turn and run, but the guard caught her wrist in one hand.

      "Please! Let me go!"

      "Daecon! Get your ASCII over here!" the CPU yelled. A young Sprite in a Guardian uniform ran over to them. He took one look at the raggedy girl struggling against the Sprite nearly twice her size, and almost laughed out loud.

      "You can't be serious," he said.

      "She was trying to get out of the system," the Guard said. "She's got no Icon, and she tried to run when I questioned her."

      "All of this means what to me?" the man called Daecon asked.

      "A girl her age with no Icon? Don't you think that's a little suspicious?"

      "Fine, fine." Daecon made a big show of raising his right arm. Resting just above his wrist was a dull gray Keytool. "Macro; scan." The device clicked and whirred before chirping something at him.

      "I'll be spammed," Daecon said quietly. "She's a Virus, all right."

      "Well you're a Guardian Daecon!" the guard said in a panicked voice. "Get rid of it!"

      "Certainly you don't want me to delete her right here," Daecon said. She cringed at the word 'delete'. This was all wrong. Wouldn't she know if she was a Virus?

      "Of course right here! The sooner the better, she's probably the one doing all this!" he gestured around him at the crashing system.

      "Not in front of the children," Daecon said calmly, indicated the kids - some of them the same age as her - in the crowd of onlookers.

      "Then take her out back!" the guard yelled. "Just get it done!"

      "Your wish is my command line," Daecon said, taking her by the wrist and dragging her away from the crowd. She dug her heels into the ground, fought, pleaded, but to no avail.

      "Please stop! I'm not a Virus! I'm not!"

      "Macro never lies," Daecon told her. "I'm sorry kid. You probably don't even realize what you're doing, do you?"

      "I am not doing anything, I swear!"

      But Daecon wasn't listening; he wasn't paying attention to anything except his current mission. He took no notice of her pleas. Neither did he notice the shadowy, cloaked man who detached himself from the crowd and followed them.

      -----

      Daemon woke to an unfamiliar sensation; the dull ache of unhealed wounds. She opened her eyes and saw Dot sitting by her bedside.

      "I must have been hurt more badly than I thought if you are concerned," she said.

      "We've been taking shifts," Dot replied. "Well, except for Matrix."

      "How is Enzo?"

      "He's fine," Dot said.

      "It would seem I...owe him my life..."

      "You can pay him back right now," Dot said. "We're going after Exabyte, we need you to help us with the planning."

      "I will do whatever I can," Daemon said.

      "We're going to trap her in an abandoned system, then set it to self-destruct."

      "It will not work," Daemon said. "Exabyte will simply remove herself from the system via E-mail."

      "Are you sure?" Dot asked.

      Daemon shrugged. "It is what I would do."

      Dot sighed. "Get some rest. I'm sure we'll need you in fighting form before this is all over."

      "Give me a few more milliseconds and I will be good as new."

      "Glad to hear it."

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      "Well that settles it," Bob said as Dot stepped out of the infirmary. "I wouldn't want to trust Megabyte on anything, but Daemon I believe."

      "I agree," Matrix said, earning shocked looks from the others. "What? I don't think she's lying. Doesn't mean I like working with her."

      "So what now?" AndrAIa asked.

      "Back to square one, I guess," Dot said. "Unless anyone can think of a way around this problem."

      "Could we disable the system's e-mail?" Matrix asked. "I mean, if there's no mail program, she can't use it to escape, right?"

      "She would only re-activate the program," Phong said.

      "Besides," Glitch added. "She can just hop into the Web whenever she feels like, I doubt a firewall would stop her."

      "No, it would," Phong said. "I never truly understood the process Exabyte used to transfer herself into the Net, but it left certain...idiosyncrasies in her code. She can form portals without a tear, but in order for her to leave a system, that system must be open. A firewall will keep her in, provided it is too strong for her to break through."

      "So if we can get her into a system and trap her there with a firewall, all we have to do is solve the E-Mail problem," Dot said.

      "More important than that," Bob said, "we know that a strong enough firewall will keep her out. Mouse, I want you to get a firewall up around Mainframe. Not just the Net ports; the entire System."

      "You got it," Mouse said, heading for her workstation.

      "And Mouse..." the Hacker turned back, giving Bob her attention again. "Make it strong." She gave him a 'thumbs up' on her way out.

      "But we can't just lock ourselves away in here while Exabyte destroys the rest of the Net," AndrAIa said.

      "Agreed," Dot said. "We need to find a way around the mail strategy."

      For what felt like the first time in cycles, Bob's face broke into an unrestrained smile. "And I know just the guy to tell us how."

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      Dot's Diner was unusually cheerful considering the events unfolding outside of Mainframe. It seemed that the citizens of Mainframe were not aware of the danger despite Dot's efforts to alert them. Either that or they were so used to conflict that imminent danger now seemed run of the mill. Enzo certainly was. He sat alone in the far corner. The energy shake in front of him had grown warm milliseconds ago; he had barely sipped it. He was more in the mood for thinking than snacking.

      Unfortunately, all his thoughts led him back to the same place. He had spent most of his runtime emulating those around him, especially Bob and Matrix. That was fine for a kid, but despite what everyone seemed to think, Enzo wasn't a kid any more. He was nearly 1.3 for crying out loud! Dot was only a few hours older when she had her first job. But Enzo didn't want to go into business. He wanted to be a Guardian. But how would he ever get into the Academy when he could barely take care of himself?

      "Why is it every time we run into each other, you look more and more depressed?" Enzo looked from his energy shake as his older self slid into the booth across from him.

      "I think I've got enough reasons to be," Enzo said.

      "Yeah. I guess we all do," Matrix said. He leaned across the table, almost conspiratorially, as if he didn't want anyone to hear what he was about to say. "I miss them too."

      "Huh?"

      "Hack. Slash," Matrix sighed and leaned back in his seat. "I never thought I'd say this, but... I can't imagine Mainframe without them."

      "Yeah," Enzo said. "But oddly, for the first time since...it happened, that's not what I'm depressed about."

      "What, then?"

      Enzo hesitated briefly, but in the end he decided to just come out and say what was on his mind. "I want you to train me Matrix!"

      "Train you?" Matrix asked.

      "Teach me how to fight," Enzo said. "Help me get stronger."

      The older Enzo raised an eyebrow. "This isn't another one of your 'Little Matrix' episodes, is it?"

      "No!" Enzo said, "I just...I want to be able to help, that's all. I'm sick of being the one everybody has to come rescue! I want you to teach me how to take care of myself and fight like you do!"

      "I thought you wanted to be a Guardian," Matrix said.

      "I do," Enzo replied. "That's all I've ever wanted. But I can't download to the Academy until I'm 1.8; by which time I could be deleted in about a hundred different ways. I need to learn this now. At least the basics. I'd ask Bob, but he'd want me to wait until the Academy; I was hoping you'd be less..."

      "Like Dot?"

      "Exactly! I already know some stuff. You know, from Games. I want to know how to fight Viruses."

      "First, let's get a few things straight," Matrix said. "If I decide to go along with this, we do it my way. That means tough like you've never seen before. I'm not going to be nice or even particularly fair, and you'll probably spend a lot of time hating me. How fast can you run a micron?"

      "Um....seven...maybe eight microseconds," Enzo guessed.

      "'Cause if I train you you'll be running five of them first thing every second."

      "Five?"

      Matrix nodded. "And when that gets too easy we'll move it up to ten. Sound too hard?"

      Enzo shook his head. "I'll do it."

      "The five microns is warm-up," Matrix said. "There's also push-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics, weights," he ticked the items off on his fingers, "Then if you have time, you can have some breakfast before we get into the real training. Think you can handle that?"

      "Bring it on!" Enzo said, determined not to back down.

      "All right. Your on break from school, right?"

      Enzo nodded. "For the next two minutes."

      "Good," Matrix said. "I have to go out of system for a second or two. Enjoy those seconds, and use them to decide if you really want to do this. I'll ask you again when I get back. If you say 'yes' then, there's no backing out; you'll have to see it through to the end no matter how much it hurts, understand?"

      "I don't need two seconds to make up my mind," Enzo said. "I'll do it."

      Matrix smiled. He had to admire the younger Sprite's determination. The kid had potential; what remained to be seen was whether or not he had perseverance.

      "I'll see you in a few seconds then," Matrix said, heading for the door. "You'd better get some rest while I'm gone; relax a little, have fun," he grinned at his younger self, "'Cause once I get back, your relaxing seconds are over!"

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TBC

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