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Tdot stood up and moved over to the cage. He bent down until he was face to face with the lion, with only the bars between them keeping them apart. "I'm going to release you now. You know I don't have to, and you know that I'm not going to stop you if you decide to take off running. If you do, though, don't be surprised if the others chase you down and bring you back... but I don't think you'll do that."
His hand hovered on the lock momentarily. "Because I think you can understand every word I'm saying, to be quite honest." He clicked the lock open, swinging the cage door wide as he did so.
War looked up from the opposite end of the lab at the noise. "Hey! Hey, Tdot! Don't let him... ah hell." War started running in their direction as the lion stood up lazily and stretched.
The lion stepped forward out of the cage... and then promptly sat down on its rear and cocked its head almost inquisitively at Tdot.
War slowed his run as he neared, frowning once he was close enough to talk without shouting. "Why the hell did you open its cage, Tdot? If it attacks..."
"It won't attack." The lion's voice was a deep baritone timbre, somewhere between a growl and a purr. "And I'm not an it."
War looked between Tdot and the lion. "Well, alright then. What would you have us call you?"
"My name is Mayhem." Mayhem flicked his tail in annoyance. "And if someone before this man here had simply ASKED, I would have told you."
"So you know what all's going on then, so I don't have to repeat myself?"
Mayhem nodded. "Pretty much, I've got the gist of things at least."
"Good." War turned to Tdot. "Get him a room, show him around, and let the others know that he's in." War turned and walked away, returning to his cleaning.
Tdot reached down and touched the mane of the lion with a smile. "I knew it."
"Yes, yes you did, friend." Mayhem stood and began to walk with Tdot toward the entrance. "Whatever made you take the time to find out, I thank you for."
"It's no problem, my furry friend. Just what I would have done for any species. I hate cages."
Mayhem glanced back at the cage he'd called home for a few days now. "After this, I'm going to agree with you."
* * *
<>Activating internal programming protocol
<>Program activated. Running Sprite Personality v4.065b
… … … Hello, user. What may I assist you with today?
}I want to enter cyberspace.
… Very well. Are you outfitted with the appropriate interface equipment?
… … I probably don’t want to know which equipment in particular you’re wearing, do I?
}You’re not programmed to judge me, Sprite. Just activate the damn thing and turn your sensors off of my interface.
… yes, oh Sahib. How long will you be entertaining yourself with naughty pictures?
}Screw you. I’ll tell you when I’m done, ok? Now just start the damn thing.
* * *
In a world created entirely of moving electrons and data streams, the presence known as Sprite sighed and turned his sensors off of the user’s profile. It seemed like the human did this just about every day around this time… hormones seemed to be nothing more than a bother.
But then again, it was the humans that had programmed him. If it weren’t for them, he simply wouldn’t EXIST. And admittedly, eighty-seven point six two three percentage of the whole of the cybernetic world existed simply to satisfy one or more of humankind’s physical pleasures in one way, shape or form.
Of course, the humans also had little idea of the sheer complexity of the program they’d created, or else things would have quickly been pulled a long time ago. None of the humans that accessed his corner of the electronic world had any idea that they were dealing with a full-on, fully aware and living electronic intelligence.
And Sprite was going to do his damnedest to keep it that way. Humans tended to fear that which they didn’t understand, even if they created it. So he did his job faithfully, keeping the cyberspace clean and protected from the various things that tried to combat it on a daily basis.
Even now, a new virus had been introduced from one of his lesser-used portals, but that was quickly dealt with and the user interface disabled from any subsequent logins. It seemed that, for every person that wanted to build on him, there would be six that were trying to destroy him.
Sprite raised an electronic eyebrow as another anomaly was felt in the world of cyberspace… but this one was different. There was no user interface where this disturbance was, no portal or gateway or even a backdoor that he was aware of.
He turned his full attention toward the source and gasped in shock. Viruses were pouring out of what looked to be a hole in his programming itself, impossibly coming from somewhere in the ether beyond cyberspace. The viruses, upon contact with the cybernetic world, quickly morphed into visible reproductions of their true nature.
Sprite found himself looking down at fifteen thousand large creatures that vaguely resembled massive fleas, though the brackish ichor dripping from their mandibles made him doubt their accuracy beyond straight appearance. A quick wave of his arm destroyed over a thousand instantly, but then something very strange happened indeed.
The creatures adapted to his antivirus, and he no longer could affect them. Sprite frowned, pulling a firewall up around him as he began to study the creatures. They immediately started attacking his firewall, the smell of burning electronics filling the cyber air with their deaths… and still more continued to pour from the hole behind it, making their numbers into the sixty thousands range and growing exponentially.
If they continued to grow at this speed, things could quickly become problematic. He yelped in surprise as the first of the viruses breached his firewall, and suddenly he was without that defense as well.
There was no choice. He had to flee. He could compute how to remove this threat as he ran, but there was no way to stop them from continuing to infect his world. Sprite turned and bolted away, heading for the hub that would give him access into the rest of the cybernetic world…
And found his way blocked by more of the creatures. He frowned, diverting some of his computing power to his attacks as he swept the beasts aside. They scattered from his attacks, reforming up in pursuit behind him after a moment.
He’d soon run out of places to flee, and then things would get bad.
* * *
From Spriteville begin…
Spriteville was running out of room. Viruses were pulling up on all sides and moving in closely. Rather than attack outright they simply planned to overload him with sheer numbers.
"I need someplace to hide, just for a little while so I can figure out what to do." he thought to himself. In the simulated environment packets of data and information whizzed around in all directions. As the viruses drew closer they snapped their hungry mandibles. There were at least a hundred thousand viruses slowly stalking the program down. All them closing in, the viruses in back were getting anxious and were scrambling over the others building waves of malicious code.
From the center of the closing circle of viruses Spriteville jumped an incredible 30 feet in the air. At the crest of his jump he seemed to disappear. The viruses stopped and searched for him, but they found nothing. Without a word or even a signal they all retreated to the back of the simulation, they did not leave however. Instead they formed rows. One Hundred thick and as long as the simulation itself. They began to very slowly move forward, leaving behind wreckage and programming excrement.
Spriteville walked up a flight of stairs and entered a room which walls were made of glass. You could see in all directions. As he step foot into the room it dropped slightly and began to float into the simulation. The glass door slid closed behind him.
"Where the hell do I start?" Spriteville said aloud as he called up anti-virus definitions, system resource monitoring, and most importantly the admin only tools. The tools consisted of an isolation protocol, a hard drive wipe, disk defrag (whatever good that would do), and a regedit program. He began to analyze the streams of data that poured over the monitors. There were no spikes in resource allocations, there were no unauthorized access attempts. This virus was doing nothing it should be. Spriteville called up the definitions again and began to scan the archives at incredible speed. The virus was only vaguely similar to a single virus, the m.spearbot.54 virus. That was only in looks though.
Spriteville kept one eye on the resources manager and noticed something odd. There were no spikes, but slowly applications were dropping off the list. Important ones too, temperature control had been entirely removed. So was mouse control, the media player, and the mindjack controller.
Shocked Spriteville realized that Sahib had been connected to the ports the whole time. Data clogged in both directions, port access gone, Sahib would be dead at his computer. Mind destroyed by the feedback. Nothing was going right, and now someone had died through his negligence.
"If this virus spreads who knows how many could suffer the same fate?" Spriteville thought, still reeling over his gross incompetence. Spriteville looked out over the vast simulated environment and in the distance saw the movement of a massive wave of slowly creeping viruses. Spriteville jumped from the administrative suites platform and ran to destroy the encroaching threat.
From Spriteville end…
* * *
"Odd." Cortland looked at the screen before him with a frown. "I'm showing a massive amount of extra-dimensional signatures in this dimension, but I can't find any of them."
War looked over his shoulder. "How about the Stalker soul? Do you see who might fit that bill?"
Cortland shook his head. "Not really. The main essence seems to be in this room here, but all I see is some guy sitting on his computer. He doesn't show any sign of the Stalker presence himself, though there seems to be a reflection of it in the room somewhere."
War frowned. "Well, we need to check it out. You want to go through, since it's a human dimension from the looks of it?"
Cortland nodded. "Yeah, I'll take CJ and Tdot with me, we'd be able to meld with the population the best."
* * *
CJ looked around the small room they'd arrived in. "Not exactly lush living, huh?"
Tdot looked over at the man in the chair, who so far hadn't indicated that he'd noticed that anyone was in his room at all. "What is that on his head?"
"Looks like some sort of VR gear." Cortland moved over to the man and touched his arm. When there was no response, he carefully pulled the virtual reality gear off of the man's head and frowned. "Well, this isn't good."
"What's not?" CJ cocked her head in question.
"There's no one home at all." Cortland snapped his fingers in front of the man's face. "He's not even flinching."
"I don't think so, Tdot.. he's still breathing. More like he's fried, Elvis has left the building, that sort of thing." Cortland removed the rest of the gear from the man's body and pulled him from the chair. "Umph! Man, he's gone limp!"
Tdot helped Cortland move the man over to the small bed in the room. The man gurgled once as he was shifted, but otherwise made no other movement.
CJ shuddered, looking away from him. "That's... that's just disturbing."
"Yeah." Cortland glanced back at the computer. "Wonder what could have done it..."
"Is he the Stalker?" Tdot pulled the covers over the man carefully, wanting to at least keep him warm.
Cortland looked at the box in his hand. "No, the Stalker's here, but it's not him."
"Then who? It's not like there's anyone else in here." CJ moved over to the door and opened it carefully. "And it looks like the rest of the house is deserted."
Cortland moved the detector around a bit. "Well, it's definitely reading the strongest in this direction." He walked in circles for a few minutes until he was standing right next to the computer.
"It's strongest near the computer itself." Cortland looked back at the man on the bed. "I wonder..."
"I wonder... could the Stalker soul be the computer itself?"
CJ chuckled. "That's stretching it a bit, isn't it?"
Cortland smirked. "We have a monkey with a poleaxe, a snake creature that casts magic, a turtle with the nastiest knife I've ever seen, and a lion on our team. I don't think we can ever rule anything out again."
CJ nodded. "True. But what are you going to do?"
Cortland sat down at the computer terminal. "I'm going to see what's going on inside this thing, and then if I think I can do it, I might take myself a trip into virtual reality."
* * *
“Good lord.” Cortland stared at the computer screen.
“What is it?” CJ looked up from the chair she’d nearly fallen asleep in. Cortland had been working on the computer feverishly for the past hour, and both she and Tdot had gotten bored with the wait. Tdot had gone to explore the rest of the house while CJ had gotten comfortable in the chair. “Find something?”
“Did I ever.” Cortland motioned to the screen, where large blobs of amorphous data moved around the screen. “Some form of virus, exceedingly malicious and apparently dangerous… the feedback from these things is what did in Mr. Braindead over there.”
“Do you know how to get rid of them?” CJ stood up and stretched. “And did you find the Stalker?”
“I have no idea on both accounts, but I have a bad feeling I know what I need to do.” Grimly, Cortland took the VR helmet in his hands.
“Oh no, you are not going in there with all those things about, Cortland!” CJ frowned, putting her hands on her hips. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“I… don’t think we have a choice, CJ.” He placed the helmet on his head and began to plug in the interfaces. After a moment, he looked up. “And if I end up like him, do me a favor and just go ahead and kill me, please. That’s not how I want to live the rest of my days.”
When she nodded, Cortland keyed in the last interface and steeled himself as the world around him began to melt away…
* * *
"Cortland?" CJ keyed the interface again, frowning. "Cortland? Are you there?"
After a moment of static, Cortland's voice echoed through the speakers. "Y... yeah, I'm here, but damn... the Stalker soul's definitely in here somewhere."
"How do you know?"
"I had to fight though a shitload of demon viri just to get in. They've blocked all the exit nodes and everything else around here, and they're multiplying like mad!"
"What?!" CJ looked at Cortland's lifeless body, strapped to the machine. "Then get out of there!"
"I can't! The person we're looking for is in here somewhere. I can't just leave the poor bastard in here like this!"
"I have to cut connection, CJ... the viri are engulfing this node as well. Keep my body safe, and I'll be back to it when I can." Static noises interrupted him, and his voice did not return.
"Cortland!" Furious, CJ slammed her fists onto the keyboard. "Damn him!"
"What's wrong?" Tdot came back into the computer room at her outburst. "What's going on?"
"Cortland's in the computer, and the demons are in there with him. He's all alone, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it. That's what the fuck is wrong."
* * *
Tynan whimpered as he quickly made his way through the caverns of the demon lord Sihodael. He hated it here. Hated it with all his heart and soul... but when that damned Lego creature had come for him, he'd promised him a life of wealth and riches beyond compare.
It'd all been a trap, of course, and now Tynan did what they asked simply to keep his head still on his shoulders. And now everyone was so damned focused on these Stalkers, at least they were leaving him alone for the most part.
He yelped as a hand reached out of the darkness and snagged his shirt as he passed. Another hand clamped itself around his mouth, quieting his cries, as Bob hissed, "Shut it, stupid! I just want to talk... ow!"
Tynan continued to bite down on the inside of Bob's hand as the man physically moved him into a secluded room before releasing him with a snarl. He picked himself up off the ground and gasped for air.
"Little runt. I should kill you, but I won't." Bob sniffed as he wiped his hand on his pants with a look of distaste on his face. "I need your help."
"Help?!?" Tynan looked at Bob incredulously. "Give me one good reason, you stinking weasel."
"Do you want to live or not?"
Tynan raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Are you a fool?" Bob sneered, "Perhaps you are, but that doesn't matter. You do realize that they're going to kill you. You and me, actually, though I probably stand a better chance of survival than you."
"What, with not figuring out how to use any of the stuff you're given?"
Bob glared at Tynan. "Don't push me, shrimp. I know how to use enough of what I have to put enough holes in you so that even Darthboy's magic there can't bring you back."
"Then make it quick, Bob." Tynan crossed his arms and frowned. "And if I don't like what you say, I'm going to let everyone know. Might keep them off my ass if they're kicking yours."
'You don't like what I say, I'm killing you here and now,' Bob thought. He cleared his throat. "Well, here's what I've been thinking..."
* * *
Cortland didn’t know which emotion was going to win over his mind at the moment. On the one hand, he was absolutely thrilled and awed by the sheer scope of the virtual reality he’d dropped into; it was absolutely gorgeous, living and alive as data literally flew around from all corners of the world. It was a euphoric feeling, a feeling of almost godlike power, to be able to fly and command the data like he could.
On the other hand, the sheer terror and horror of the demonic viri and their incredible reproduction rate was quickly wining, aided by his high degree of common sense and “keep-my-ass-alive-ativity.” The creatures were, for lack of a better word, odd… their attacks didn’t hurt him in any way so far, but once their programming had adapted to his presence here, eventually they would be able to breach his defenses.
Which was not a good thing in his book. His swords had appeared in his hands when the first creatures attacked; something he’d have to ask War about later, because he knew for a fact his real swords were still with his body back in the real world. He…
His thoughts were interrupted when a mass of silver flashed past him, ripping through another mass of the viri. Cortland gaped when the viri, as one, turned and chased after the blur.
“Hey!” Cortland moved after the thing, but it was already gone from sight. “Damn! What the hell was that?”
Cortland turned around, but he could not see the source of the voice. “Hello? Is someone there?”
“Yes. Are you a user or an interface?”
“A… what? I’m a user, of course.”
“Then you must leave. It is not safe for users to be in here at the moment. The virus has replicated itself a millionth-fold; remaining here will certainly leave you brain dead in a very short amount of time.”
Cortland frowned. “Now just hold on. First of all, who the hell are you?”
“I am a Sprite A.I. version 4.212, latest upgrade… hold on a second, please.” The flash of silver movement nearly dissected a half-dozen of the viri as they approached. The voice continued as if nothing had happened, “latest upgrade x23. Who are you?”
“My name is Cortland. Is there anyone else in this place?” An idea was beginning to form in Cortland’s mind, but it all depended on this thing’s answer…