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Guardians in Exile

Chapter Text

“I wasn’t always like this, you know… a digital entity.” Zly Wilk said, looking out the castle window. Night had fallen and the group could hear the sounds of the mobs roaming the server below. He and his partner Lazur had decided to stay over at the castle built by the Administrator; one InfamousDoctorF by name, of the server they called home.

It was not safe to travel at night, so instead of heading for their modest dwellings a distance away in one of the many wooded areas of the biome surrounding the massive castle, they accepted the offer of a couple spare beds for the night.
Zly and Lazur had mostly kept to themselves since taking refuge on the server, but the always inquisitive Doc had wanted to know more about the two refugees xe had welcomed to hir home. When Zly and Lazur first arrived, they both had suffered trauma that resulted in glitched personality routines and various degrees of memory loss that kept large chunks of their past frustratingly out of reach.

Lazur, a master hacker in her own right, had been somewhat successful in tweaking their coding and unlocking some of those files, but holes still remained in the duo’s shared experiences. Despite this, Zly had kindly been asked tonight if he’d like to tell as much of his tale as he could. Zly had decided to dig back as far as he could remember.

He now looked around at the others gathered in the room, the golden light from his glitched eye softly illuminating the right side of his face. Some of the others looked back at him with shining eyes of their own. Some bright white, some colored. They were called Herobrines; glitched programs with fantastic powers and eyes that glowed due to a coloring error in their coding. The Minecraft server they inhabited was a sanctuary for their kind as well as their mates, and their friends.

“I was once human.” He continued. “I never gave much thought to computers at the time, of course when I was on the outside, personal computers were just in their infancy, and much of the world was still analog. So it’s kind of ironic that the first steady job I was able to keep after I got out of the military was at a computer technology corporation.” He smiled ruefully. “Being a security guard was not the most illustrious position, but it was steady work. My name then was Morgan Fillan, but my army buddies always called me Red, because of my hair. I didn’t make friends easily in civilian life. I… guess that’s why I wasn’t… missed when I vanished.

I worked in a place called Center City for a fairly popular company called Encom. They created computer hardware, software, and video games. Revenue from the popular video games, and their various government and military contracts, helped the company fund scientific pursuits. One such pursuit was hardware and software that could take organic matter and digitize it.
You may have heard of a man called Flynn that was pulled into the digital world by one of the first truly advanced AI’s? Many who have heard of Flynn and Tron and their defeat of the Master Control Program believe he was the first person to enter the digital realm by means of human built technology. But by the time Flynn was pulled inside, I had already been there for many cycles, having been one of the MCP’s early victims. It tripped a false alarm in the lab where the digitizing laser was, and when I went to investigate, it targeted me.

Once it realized it could not gain any valuable information for it’s dreams of conquest by pulling humans into the digital world, we were sent to the Games. They were brutal gladiatorial combat sessions where we fought for our survival.”
Zly looked around the room, searching the faces of his new friends for signs of judgement or scorn before taking a deep breath and continuing. “I’m ashamed now to admit it, but I became extremely good at the Games. At first I tried to form an alliance with the other humans that were trapped. I almost paid for it with my life. After that, I didn’t let on that I was human, and I didn’t care who I de-rezzed as long as it meant that I lived to see another day, or cycle, as it were. As good as I was, it was pure luck that I didn’t have to face Tron himself, or most likely I’d not be here today.

After they took down the MCP and sent Flynn back into the real world, I suppose I could have sought out Tron and found a way back out. Out there I was a nobody with an aching body scraping together a piss-poor living at a mundane job. In the digital world I had carved out a good, albeit brutal, life for myself. Even if I could have gone back, why would I have wanted to? But after the MCP and it’s minions were gone, so were the games.

I was re-purposed, as fate would have it, as a security program. When Tron disappeared one day, I knew it was only a matter of time before the server would be obsolete. I had to get out. I’d been learning more and more about the digital realm and computers in general since I’d been trapped in that world. I hopped a ‘Solar Sailer’, which was how the Encom servers transferred blocks of data to other servers at the time, and eventually found a server hooked up to an internet portal, and took my chances in the void.”

Zly looked at the group apologetically. “The time I spent in the ‘net are fuzzy. I’d been merged with an entity that I’d encountered out there, and found I had new abilities and powers because of it, and I had gone fully digital. Eventually I ended up on a personal computer mainframe. I met that system’s ‘Guardian’. They were not too different than the security programs I’d encountered on the Encom server, but were sent across the internet from a central hub to protect their assigned systems. He took me under his wing, trained me, and eventually field promoted me into their ranks. It was because of him that I met Lazur, and she eventually became my partner… but that part is her tale to tell.

Chapter Text

Zly looked to where his partner was standing. The blue skinned program stood at the opposite corner of the room, regarding everyone warily with cool blue eyes that glowed softly. He noticed that she had once again takenup a tactical position in the room; Her back squarely to the corner so that she could survey the entire area and the entrance without anyone being able to come up behind her. She stood with her arms crossed over her chest and one foot against the wall, leaning casually, but ready to push off at a moment’s notice. If he were to guess, she probably had her weapon and armor in the first slots of her inventory to be quickly equipped at the first sign of trouble.

Any time they were in a room with others, even when among friends, this was invariably her default position. He wondered if the others had ever noticed how she always positions herself so that if they are in an open space, or talking together to a group, that she has Zly’s back covered, and he can see if any threats are coming from behind her. Survival instincts die hard and they’d been betrayed more than once by those they considered their friends. Probably not a good sign of their ability to judge the character of others, he mused. He wondered how friendly the present company would be, after they told their tale. He supposed that if they could take in and reform murderous Creepy Pastas, the crimes of his past paled in comparison. But to his knowledge none of the Creepy Pastas had ever cut down a brine. Forgiveness can be less forthcoming when the transgression is closer to home.

Lazur met her friend’s eyes briefly. She took a moment as the others turned their attention to her, sighed slightly, then took up the tale where Zly left off…
“The Guardians existed since the very beginning of the net. Some say even before that. If you’ve never heard of them, I’m not surprised. They died off some time ago. But in their time, they were a force to be reckoned with. Their job was to ‘Mend and Defend’ their assigned system. They were protectors, sometimes the only thing standing between a system and it’s destruction. Each Guardian was assigned a Key Tool, a sentient wearable device that attached their uniform’s forearm and assisted them in their duties. The Guardians and their Key Tools shared a psychic link and functioned as a cohesive unit, almost an extension of one another.

I started out as an Advanced Guardian Key Tool Mk 4; more or less just a box with a brain and a sensor array, One of the last models created before the Guardians fell. My Guardian, Rom, was one of the few to survive the purge and keep their posts independently afterward. Rom was also a brilliant programmer, and was always pushing the limits of what our code was capable of. He upgraded me. Made it so I could learn and become self-aware; To become more of a partner and assistant than a tool of the trade.

Key Tools could also create virtually any tool or device a Guardian would need to do their job. Rom enhanced that ability to allow me to temporarily construct a physical body apart from my Key Tool casing. It took a lot of energy to maintain, and I couldn’t hold that form for long, but… it allowed me to see and experience things as other sentient beings do, and it gave me a sense of freedom.”

“One day we investigated a breach to the firewall and found Zly… although he was going by ‘Red’ at the time… Based on his unusual scans, we thought he might be a new virus or at least an infected program. I didn’t trust him, and wanted to send him back into the void, but Rom took pity on the lost program. Red claimed to have security program experience and we were run ragged policing the system without a central command for backup. Despite my objections, Rom decided to take him on as a recruit.

Red proved me wrong and became a great Guardian and a good friend to Rom…. and myself. The three of us made a good team and we kept our system safe from many would be invaders.” Lazur’s expression darkened and her eyes grew distant. She started slowly stroking the braid of dark blue hair that hung over one shoulder, seemingly unaware she was doing so.
“One day we got a tip from a trusted source that a new virus had gotten past the firewall and was trying to infect a sector. When we got there, we found it was a trap. We had been betrayed by a program that been promised a position of power once the system had been taken over.

A group of the virus’ minions set upon us immediately. We took out plenty, but we never really had a chance. There were still too many and they eventually overwhelmed us. I’m just glad I was able to stick my blade through that bastard that betrayed us before I went down.
They wanted me intact. The virus needed a key tool to allow them to open portals into any system they chose instead of sneaking in to a random system through a Trojan horse or a corrupted file. Rom… he sacrificed himself to prevent that. Red had been beaten unconscious and was dying, my power supply had nearly been depleted. He detached my Key Tool case from his arm, put it on Red, and used an emergency protocol he wrote back when he was alone on the server. It teleported the key tool and the Guardian wearing it to a safe room to heal.”

Lazur went silent, the memories of the past heavy on her mind. Zly walked over and briefly put a reassuring hand on his partner’s shoulder. She steadied herself and continued.
“I felt Rom die before our link was severed. They must have taken their frustration at losing me out on him. It was a slow, painful death. Damaged, low on power and with my Guardian dead, I followed my base programming and linked to a new partner; Red.
When we linked, something strange and unexpected happened. Whatever had been merged with Red before he came to our system made him more than human, It’s coding back fed on the link and merged to me as well. It enhanced my abilities and allowed me to keep my physical body permanently. My ability to create objects out of energy imprinted on Red’s programming.”
“By the time we were healed and able to function again, the virus had completely taken over and destroyed our system and had moved on. We swore an oath to track it down and avenge the death of our friend and those who we failed.”
Lazur gave Zly a subtle questioning look. He nodded slightly, deciding to tell the others the part of their history that they were most ashamed of.

“We left that dead server and became… Mercenaries.” Said Zly. “Hopping from system to system, taking jobs hunting down and killing viruses, malware… Glitched programs. We ran with a real bad gang of programs for a while. Brine hunters, They cut the glowing eyes from the still living Brines as trophies. It was sick, but we ignored it for the sake of the job. Some we hunted were pure evil, others…they just wanted peace. Maybe it’s cosmic penance that we ended up as brines ourselves. We worked for good Admins, tyrannical AIs, even viruses, if the reward was right. Sometimes we were the good guys, sometimes we were the bad guys. Basically, if they had a job, we could do it, didn’t care much what it was… as long as it aided us on our quest to find that monster.”

“That was a dark chapter in our lives,” Lazur said grimly. “We’re not proud of it, and they are frankly memories I wish would have stayed buried. I’m just thankful that we came to our senses. That last terrible mission that made us realize we’d become just as bad, if not worse, than the thing we swore vengeance on. We changed our names, changed our faces, and started working on becoming protectors again and try to make amends for our past. Starting with destroying the Big Brine Hunters.”
“That’s how we met Eset, a troubled soul looking for vengeance of his own. We took him in, much like Rom took me in.” Zly said. “We managed to avenge Rom and our original server, but at the cost of another, and another friend. It’s why we’re planning on going back to the server I burned, see if we can save him.”

Chapter Text

It’s morning on the Brine server. As soon as the light touches her face, Lazur is awake. She sits up in her bed and stretches luxuriously before regarding the simple room in the dwelling she shares with Zly Wilk deep in one of the wooded biomes of the server. Besides her bed and a small desk and chair, the room contains a few chests and some armor stands. The walls are bare of ornamentation save for a few item frames displaying weapons.
One of the armor stands holds her usual attire: a corset colored a dark burgundy, Blue pants, black boots, plated arm armor and a forearm shield. With the exception of the shield, She had gathered the outfit from mod files for a post nuclear war FPS; a special set of Legendary level leather armor with high damage resistance. It suited her needs at the time and she had come to like the look.
She stands up and shivers pleasantly as the cold air touches her bare skin. Foregoing her armor, she grabs a few items of clothing from the nearest trunk and equipps them. She had borrowed clothes from Doc not too long ago, and had made her own copies and variations of the loose fitting garments.

She stands in the center of the room and assumes a ready stance. She closes her eyes, and concentrates on her breathing before beginning a fluid set of martial art maneuvers. After her morning ritual is compete, she slips out of her room and pads silently down the short hall toward the common area of the dwelling.
When she and Zly had first come to this server, they either stayed in Doc’s massive labyrinth of a castle, or set up a temporary camp in the woods, away from the others. Once they had decided to make this place their home, they decided to build more permanent housing. They had dug into a hillside, and had hollowed it mostly out. Then they had build rooms inside the newly dug cave out of cobblestone and stone brick, then filled the rest back in with dirt blocks. From the outside, it looked like a small hill with a natural cave opening until you noticed the steel door set into stone and the occasional glass bricks to allow light in during the day.

Lazur fixes herself a quick breakfast and grabs a cup of coffee from their ‘beverage’ trunk in the kitchen. This coffee is a health item they brought with them from another game. It’s strong, rich, silky and delicious. One of the few luxuries they allowed themselves in their long travels. She savors the beverage before deciding to look for her partner. His room is down a short hall directly opposite of hers. The door is open and the room is empty. She suddenly picks up on a sound from outside. She wanders out to investigate and recognizes the sound as whistling coming from a small stone structure opposite the house.
Zly Wilk is happily whistling to himself as he putters with a complex looking amalgamation of items cobbled together to form some sort of machinery. It’s combined elements of a furnace and a brewing stand among other items. The machine glitches and vibrates slightly as it smokes and burbles, as if the components are only joined and working together through the power of wishful thinking and good intentions. Zly dumps a load of glowing golden apples into the hopper on top of the machine, then adds some regular red apples, some wheat and some sugar. He pulls a lever and the machine groans and shudders. Eventually a cauldron on the bottom of the machine fills with a amber hued, glowing liquid.

Lazur leans against the door frame and watches her friend busy himself with his new hobby. She was still wary around their new friends, but she was glad to see Zly so happy after spending so much time trying to atone for their misdeeds. Now that they were in a place of relative safety, he could relax a little.
Zly had taken the seeds from the apple he had created, and multiplied them into a small orchard of apple trees. Since then, he had been looking for uses for the apples. They seemed to give him a fantastic boost to his powers but affected Lazur negatively when she tried it. Between the two of them and some trial and error, they had tweaked the coding of the fruit, and had stabilized it. Zly had been turning the apples into potions that restored health and boosted the powers of any brine, now he was turning his attention to something a bit more recreational.

“New batch, Zly?” asked Lazur.

Zly jumped, having not heard the other approach. “Oh, Hey! Yeah, I think maybe I’ve gotten the right combination of ingredients. If this works, I might be able to make a stronger version just for Brines using that cheese that TLOT created… without the stink of course.”

“Well…” said Lazur “First thing’s first. If you’re going to give some to Sam at the bar, you’d better make sure it not only tastes good, but isn’t going to pop the head off of one of the Steves, or any of our human guests.”
“Right… right” Zly nods absently, checking over the machine before bottling some of the contents of the cauldron. He offers a bottle to Lazur. “Care to try?”

“It’s little early for drinking, don’t you think?” she asks, eyebrow raised.

“now, now, this isn’t day drinking… this is SCIENCE!” Zly grins.

“Ok, ok…. Just a small taste. I want to make sure you didn’t screw this up like last time. If I start growing fur or something, let me know.” Lazur replies with a chuckle. She takes a very small sip of the concoction. It has a cool, crisp taste. Not too sweet, with a little bit of a bite. Even with the small amount she took, she could feel an effect. The world became more vibrant and she felt mellow, shortly the effects passed. She passes the bottle back to Zly. “I think you have it. What did you say this stuff was called again out in the real world?”

“Hard Cider” replied Zly. “With my own little twist.”

Chapter Text

Server Designation EM-191181 – Aeon City – Sector F: Then

In the perpetual night like darkness of Encom server EM-191181, a forest of smooth black towers that shimmered like glass reached to a jet-black sky. Smooth streets like polished obsidian broke up the city of spires in a large sprawling Grid. The black on black motif of the server was saved from being a scene of bleak desolation by shimmering pathways of blue-white light that ran down the streets and up along the buildings. These pathways of circuitry brought energy and light to the inhabitants of the server and turned the skyline of Aeon City into a beautiful vista of sleek and purposeful architecture.

In the outskirts of the city, the structures didn’t reach as high, and the smooth terrain started to break up and become rough, like chunks of coal strewn across rough ground. The shimmering pathways of energy grew thinner, broken and interrupted. At the edge of Sector F, a disused Transfer Station sat among the shells of other derelict structures, the pathways that ran up and across its façade sputtering intermittently. The station was used during the early days of the city to bring in files and programs until it could no longer keep up with the needs of the server, now it, and the other early structures sit all but forgotten.
From within the empty confines of the Transfer Station, a rough portal ripped itself open. A dark shape flopped through the portal with a wet, meaty, thud. As the portal closed, the figure shuddered, trying to move. It was black and oily, blending into the shadows and the dark world around it, sitting more like a rough chunk of melting wax. It concentrated on trying to make a solid form, but it was too weak. With a burbling sigh, it oozed its way toward the opening at the front of the building in search of prey.

Nearby, a patrol of three security programs on light cycles cruised down the rough street in front of the Transfer Station. They received an alert to a nearby breach to the server’s fire wall, and went to investigate the energy signature from the recently opened portal.
The lead program thumbed a comm link on his helmet. “Aeon-F, Patrol 10-10-95 investigating energy spike, possible breach.” He received a positive sounding beep from the comm as acknowledgement.
The three security programs exited their light cycles and allowed them to revert back into batons, which then tucked into the boot of their sleek black body suits. Much like the buildings, the clothing worn by the programs were shiny black and shot through with pathways of glowing light.

They entered the building and started searching for signs of a disturbance. As the last of the three went into the Transfer Station, they heard a low growl. Suddenly the security program closest to the entrance was knocked over by an oozing form that fell on him from the ceiling. The thing formed claws that clutched at the program’s throat, ripping it open in a spray of tiny particles and liquid energy which it drank from greedily until the program derezzed, leaving only a pile of cube-like voxels. Before the others could react, the creature leapt from the husk of its first victim and pounced upon the second Security program. It dispatched the second program even more quickly than the first; the energy absorbed allowing it to resume its solid humanoid form. It wiped some of the voxels from its broad chest with slender fingers tipped with sharp talons.

The last Security program had by now had the wherewithal to pull the Chakram-like Light Disc from the docking station on her back and activated the cutting edge to the weapon. She threw it at the creature, the blade of energy around the outer rim of the disc humming as it slices through the space. The light disc struck the creature squarely in the chest, but instead of dissolving the creature in a shower of voxels as it passed through, the light disc stuck in the creature’s chest like a frisbee stick in tar.
With a bemused expression, the creature turned its attention to the disc. It plucked it from its chest, and held it like a platter. It waved a hand over the opening in the center of the disc, pulling up a menu that floats in mid air over the disc. With a swipe, the creature brought up a core menu and proceeded to change the security program’s coding. The program stood frozen, unable to move while her very code was corrupted.

“These discs…” the creature said in a surprisingly deep and melodic voice, “they contain your programming. Everything you are, everything you see, learn, and experience is on this disc… and you THROW THEM as a weapon! What a delightfully idiotic design flaw. I think I’m going to have a lot of…. fun here.”

As the panicked security program looked on, the creature allowed a drop of tar-like substance to drip from one talon and into the track of energy that rimed the center of the disc. As the tar absorbed into the disc, the blue-white energy turned a sickly green. Across the room the security program gurgled and regained enough control over her body to clutch at her throat. She managed to bark out a single word – “Virus” - then suddenly convulsed and spewed black tar from her mouth. It kept pouring out of her mouth, then her nose, ears, and began leaking from around her eyes like tears. The tar covered the program, twisting and changing her form until a hulking monstrosity stood in her place. It looked like a roughly hewn tribute to the creature that controlled its light disc; tall, muscular and broad chested, long powerful arms, hands tipped with wicked, sharp claws. Its eyes opened like twin orbs surfacing from a dark lake, blazing bright green with black pupils. The circuit pathways warped and twisted and shot through with that same glowing sickly green.

The former security program looked at the creature. It appeared to be solid, yet the surface of its skin continually ran with oily liquid that never spilled, in an impossible infinity pool of a body. It dropped to one knee and bowed its head in a sign of fealty. In a burbling, muddy voice it croaked “Master, how may I serve?”
The creature absorbed the light disc and turns to its new minion with manic good cheer. “Come, my child…. It’s time to recruit more faithful to the cause… as I rebuild my empire anew.”

Chapter Text

Server EM-191181 – Aeon City – Sector F. – Many Cycles later

A spark appeared in the darkened interior of the file transfer station. The spark traced circles in the air until it cut a portal in the fabric of the server. A group of figures stepped through, the last closing the portal with a gesture of their hand.

The lead figure notices blue-white light reflecting off of the wall from behind an outcropping.
"You should learn to dim your circuitry if you want to stay hidden," he said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest. "You next gen Encom programs are supposed to be an improvement."

A young program stepped into view, clad in a black body suit with the trim and accents glowing a bright blueish white color. "That's not possible. We weren't designed to go skulking around in the shadows." He said glumly.

The leader of the newcomers grinned wickedly and spread his arms wide. Starting at the center of his chest, trails of red light first flickered then flared to life and traced themselves along pathways on his clothing, bathing the interior of the room with a blood red glow.

The young program hisses in shock, recognizing the energy signature used by the oppressive regime that once ran several Encom servers. He pulls a light disc from his back and readies it to throw.

The newcomer smirked and raised his hands placatingly. "Relax, kid. If we were working for Clu or a MCP, you'd be dead already. We just hopped off of a hostile server, had to blend in. Your Admin, Camarin, called for us." He concentrates and the red fades and is replaced by a darker blue glow than the program native to the server.

The young program kept his weapon at the ready. "....Show me....."

The newcomer nodded and, without any sudden movements, lifted aside the lapel of the long black coat he wore, revealing a round gold icon badge affixed to the black bodysuit underneath. The center of the badge had a diamond shape, bisected with a horizontal line, forming two triangles. One pointing down the color of the badge, the other pointing up in black.

Instantly the young program relaxed and placed his light disc on its dock between his shoulder blades. "Wow.... never thought I'd meet a Guardian in person.... I'm Faraday. Camarin sent me to bring you in. "

"Kaspersky. Call me Kas." Said the leader of the newcomers, regarding him with gold colored eyes. "This is Eset, and Safyre." He said, referring to his companions.

Eset looked at the young program with disdain from deep in the shadows of his long hooded cloak. The dark cloak was wrapped tightly around him, obscuring the older style light colored Emcon bodysuit that he wore.

“You’ve never met a Guardian because they don’t fucking exist anymore.” Growled Eset from deep within his hood. “They were all wiped out defending sniveling little shits like you from the big bad viruses. You’re lucky we’re here at all.”

“Eset… enough.” Said Kas. “It’s true. As far as I know I may be the last Guardian standing. I still ‘mend and defend’, but it comes at a price these days.”

Faraday swallowed hard and turned from Kas, looking to the third member of the newcomers.

Safyre was all but ignoring Faraday, having already hacked into the server and checking the situation on several floating HUDs she had pulled up around her.

Her long hair, a deep crimson that was a striking contrast against almost powder blue skin, was braided and tied up in a bun to keep it out of her way. She wore a black form fitting Encom suit similar to Kasper's, with smaller pieces of customized armor strapped down her left arm in overlapping panels like scales.

Safyre regarded the translucent HUD between her and Faraday and pursed her lips, deep in though.

Faraday realized he had been staring at her, transfixed by her cobalt colored eyes. He snapped out of it and flushed deeply when Eset walked by, shoulder checking him, and muttered "See something you like, kid?" As he passed.

Faraday coughed self continuously and turned to Kas. "We... we should go."

Kas gave an amused grunt, making eye contact with a snickering Eset. “Yes, I suppose we should. Wrap it up Safyre, we’re heading out.”

“Sir.” Safyre replied affirmatively, shutting down the HUDs and regarding Faraday with mild interest.

They stepped out into the street in front of the transfer station. Power was almost completely out in the sector, in the distance they could see sections of the main city glowing green instead of blue-white.

Faraday frowned at the scene before him “The virus has taken large chunks of the grid already. Their numbers grow larger every day. We…. We weren’t equipped to handle this.”

The four programs made their way through side alleys, and down deserted streets, sometimes narrowly avoiding roaming packs of the virus’ minion soldiers. Faraday lead them down a service tunnel and through a series of locked doors and guarded checkpoints until they came out in the sub floor of the principal office in the center of the city. There refugee programs huddled in groups and stared curiously at the newcomers, not daring to go near.

Just then, there is a chorus of shouts and a flurry of activity as another group of programs bursts in from another corridor, shouting in a panic and pulling along one of their own who had obviously been injured.

The program hunched over in pain, barely able to stand. Sweat stood out on his brow as he grimaced in pain. He held his hand over a deep puncture in his left shoulder that leaked a black viscus substance mixed with liquid energy and had started derezzing into voxels. The light running through his circuits was dim and pulsing. Around the wound a green glow pulsed and had started leeching into the circuit paths in the area. The green was creeping up his neck and across his jaw in thin veins.

“Someone help!” Yelled one of his friends. “Grep’s been hurt!” She helps hold him up and took his hand in hers. “It’ll be ok” she said to him.

Grep looks up at her and smiled weakly. “Lisa… I’m sorry…”

Lisa squeezed his hand. “Shhhh…. Don’t talk. Save your strength.”

Safyre approached the injured program and produced a small silver box with a large cog wheel from her left wrist. She removed a silver stylus from the side of the box and used it to scan the wound. Code scrolled up a display in the center of the cog wheel. She regarded it with a frown and turned to Kas. They exchanged a look and walked a short way from the others.

“How bad?” murmured Kas.

“Bad,” whispered Safyre. “Level 5 contagion. I don’t know if we can reverse it.”

“Will you try?” asked Kas.

Safyre looked over her shoulder at the suffering program. “I’ll do my best. No promises.”

Just as she started to walk toward the group, Eset steped up behind the stricken program, placed a hand on Grep’s shoulder, and ran him through with a short energy blade. Grep gasped and shuddered before collapsing into a pile of voxels that cascaded across the floor and dissolve. Lisa took a step back in horror, watching the dissolving remains of her friend fall through her fingers.

A blob of black ichor remained on the floor. It trembled and tried to form into a slug-like creature Safyre quickly encased it in a force field. Kas stepped up and projected a beam of energy into the force field, causing the viral remains to burn to ashes.

Safyre looked at Eset, clearly upset. “Why?!”

Eset stared back coldly. “Come on, Safyre. You know as well as I do that he was a lost case. Why give these programs false hope?”

Lisa jumped to her feet with her light disc in her hand. “You murdering bastard…”

She charged at Eset, slashing with her disc. Eset easily dodged her attacks, making no movements to strike back. She over extended and Eset quickly swept her leg and pushed her down. She fell flat on her back, and before she could jump up, Eset put his knee on her wrist, forcing her to drop her disc. He placed the flat of his bade to her throat with a wicked grin.

“Yeah, I’m a murderer, and a bastard. You got me there.” He spat through clenched teeth. “But I don’t kill without a reason. Your friend was beyond help the moment he got struck. You were a fool to even bring him back here. You put every program here in danger. I just saved your worthless life until you fuck up again. You’re welcome.” Eset stood up and put his weapon away.

Lisa glared up at him, wiping away tears with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. She put her light disc away and scrambled to her feet, running down a side corridor, away from the others.

Faraday looked from the retreating program to Kas. “Was he right? Was there no way to help Grep?”

Kas ran a hand through his brown hair and regarded the younger program for a moment. “Most likely, but Safyre would have tried. We’ve been chasing this particular virus for some time. It’s vicious, and it spreads fast… as you well know from the condition of your server.”

Faraday nodded grimly “I understand… I’m just not too comfortable with how easy it was for one of yours to just dispatch one of ours like he was nothing.”

Kas' expression darkened and he took a very deliberate step into the younger program’s personal space, glowering over him. “Listen, kid. While we absolutely want to help your people out, we’re here to hunt a very bad virus and put a stop to it. We’ve seen what this can do, so we can’t afford to show mercy. So, I think its time you introduce us to your boss, so we can get to work.”

Faraday took a stumbling step back. “Of…. Of course… this way.”

Kas motioned to his companions to follow, and waited until Eset came up beside him. “Every time you put ‘be a dick’ on the top of your ‘To Do’ list, it causes me headaches. Think you can try to complete this mission without killing any more locals?”

Eset smirked at Kas with a grunt. “I’ll try, boss. No promises.”

Faraday led Kas and his team to the end of a long corridor and directed them all to stand on a square section of flooring with a tile pattern of white squares.

Once all were on the square, the grid of white tiles flickered to life, glowing brightly as the platform rose smoothly, ascending through a perfectly matched square shaft in the ceiling.

As they climbed, the lift passed openings leading to other floors within the building, each floor disclosing scenes of hallways choked with huddled refugees. Some of the huddled programs regarded the newcomers with distrust, awe, or curiosity as they passed.

The platform slowed as they reached the top level. Two guards, stationed behind two tripod mounted energy blasters stationed at opposite angles to the platform, peered through the gun's energy shields at the newcomers. Faraday gave a signal and both relaxed.

The room before them was massive with a large domed ceiling. Large windows ringed the room that would have given a spectacular view of the city had they not been blocked by blast shields.

The room itself was a half sphere with workstations surrounding a central hub. Kas realized that they were in the round structure at the top of the tower in the center of the city that he had seen during their trek through the back alleys from the data station.

Faraday led them past the rows of workstations with HUDs floating above them, mostly in Safe Mode, and Encom programs working frantically at them. At the center of the room was a round light table projecting an image of Aeon city with sectors of the city highlighted in red or white showing how far the virus had spread, controlling large sections of the city.

Standing at the table with her back to the newcomers was a program dressed in an all white body suit shot through with circuit paths of brilliant blue light. Her jet black hair was styled in a no-nonsense short bob. She was discussing the placement of security programs throughout the city with a grim faced older program and gesturing to the map. The older program nodded and left, casting a wary eye on the trio behind Faraday as he passed.

Faraday coughed politely to get the white clad programs attention. “Camarin, this is Kas, Eset and Safyre. The ones you sent for.” Camarin turned and regarded the newcomers with eyes almost the same color as her circuitry patterns, made all the more stunning by a near porcelain like complexion that almost made her appear to glow.

She had an ethereal beauty and moved with fluid grace not present her subordinate programs. “So this is the renegade Guardian and his companions that strike fear into the hearts of Malware across the known Netscape... I thought you'd be taller.” she said cooly.

Kas snorted in amusement and gestured to the map behind her. “Since you're doing such a great job with this Virus, I guess you don't need our help. Should we be going?”

Camarin held Kas’ stare for a moment. “Obviously not.” she said with a sneer and invited them forward. “We're in pretty bad shape, Guardian. If you can't help us we may have to resort to the ‘nuclear option’.”

Kas frowned down at the map. Except for the occasional small patch scattered around the city, the building they were in was in the center of a gradually receding island of white in the middle of a red sea. “Nuclear option? You mean burn the server?”

“We have a fail safe in place. “ Camarin said grimly. “The server is currently quarantined. With the exception of a one time access code given to you three, nothing gets in or out. If the virus takes control of the principal office, he can lift the quarantine and use this server to spread.”

She pointed to a dark green dot on the map near the edge of the city. “He's set up a base here. We've got intel that he's creating free thinking clones as well as the local minion drones. Those clones are in stasis, waiting to be packaged as Trojan horses.”

Safyre stared at Camarin. “That's bad. This virus didn't have the ability to do that before. He's evolved.”

“It's worse than you know.” said Camarin. “The User of this server is a hacktivist. Fortunately he's had to suspend his activities for now, but this server has accessed some high level real world systems. The result of a virus like this having access to such things would be disastrous.”

“A virus that delights in misery, torture and pain getting access to defense systems and nuclear launch codes… can't be a digital realm if the physical world goes boom.” said Safyre.

“Precisely why I brokered our deal and agreed to smuggle you in with assumed identities. Your real designations won't show up on the server logs and hopefully his spies haven't been able to detect that you're here yet.” said Camarin.

“Would have been easier if you'd gotten off your finely sculpted ass and gotten help here sooner.” Growled Eset as he looked over the map. “A whole platoon on Guardians controlling their own legion of security programs would be hard pressed to turn this around.”

Kas turned to Eset. “Your mouth is going off again, might want to put a stop to it before it gets you in trouble.”

Eset grinned horribly at Kas. “Fuck you, ‘Kas’. You may call the shots on this team but don't forget I'm on loan from a higher authority, and it pleases my master to allow this collaboration as it serves their purpose as well.”

“Enough with the fucking dick measuring.” said Camarin. “If we weren't so desperate, I'd ban hammer your asses into the void… except maybe you, Blue.” she winked at Safyre before turning her attention back to the map.

Safyre blushed deeply before going back to monitoring the server readings.

“I just sent Boxleitner, our head of security, to round up as many security programs as we can spare.” said Camarin. “Let's see what you fabled Guardians can do.”

Chapter Text

Across the city at the tallest tower in the sector, sickly green light pulsed through the circuit paths running down the surface of the building. The wall facing the Principal Office was completely blown out on the top 3 floors of the building. The interior of those floors had been completely gutted, creating a massive chamber with a high vaulted ceiling.

In the center of the room sat a raised dais, upon which stood a throne made of massive obsidian like slabs of the building walls. The virus, Bose, lounged on the throne, one leg hooked over the arm, watching the ‘entertainment’ before him.

A capured security program sat strapped to a narrow high backed chair. He was bound hand,foot, waist and head, forced to watch the scene before him.

His mate stood before him with her back to him. Her circuitry patterns glowing the telltale green of the infection. Her light disc was clenched in her hand. Her face wore a ghoulish fixed grin but her eyes stared in horror, tears running down her cheeks in a steady stream.

In front of her was a table, their young offspring strapped to it. He too showed slight signs of infection.

“Shall i ask again, my lord?” asked a whip thin program with almost rodent like features. Unlike the other programs busying themselves in the tower, he was not infected at all. On his right arm he wore a green band with the insignia of the virus. Kels was one of a handful of programs that saved themselves from corruption or death by pledging their loyalty to the bose.

The virus twirled his hand in a bored “get on with it” motion, and Kels turned to the security program. “You will tell us the access code to get past the blast shields at the Principal Office.” he said almost conversationally.

The security program strained at his bonds. “You vile traitor.” he spat at Kels.

Kels looked at the program with a bored expression. “Is that a refusal, Tak?”

Tak looked at Kels then at his child. His voice gained a panicked edge. “N-no. No! Please! I don't know any code! It got erased from my memory the instant i was captured! It's one of the Admin's fail safes! Please… not again!”

Bose regarded Tak's mate. “Begin, my dear.”

Tak strained against his restraints in a mad frenzy. “FIGHT IT GEO! FIGHT IT!”

Geo turned slowly to her child, grinning the same deaths head grin. She seemed to struggle, as if her movements were involuntary. Her eyes strained as if tryingto accomplish a herculean task. She managed to croak out three strangled words. “...I'm….s-s..sorry ba...by..” her light disk blazed to life and the child whined in fear and tried to shrink away from his mother, too traumatized to even speak. Geo clamped her free hand on the child's leg, and brought the light disk toward it.

In a strangled voice, the words seemingly forced from her lips, Geo starts singing. “Hush little baby, don't say a word…” as she sang she methodically brought the blade of the light disk down on the child's leg as if slicing a ham into thick cutlets. The child screamed in pain and Tak bellowed in rage and anguish while Geo sang and cut.

“That's enough work, my dear.” said Bose. “Why don't you enjoy a snack?”

Geo put her disc down on the table where the child lay in shock, his systems overloaded, sending him offline while his processor attempted to reboot. The viral infection kept the boy and his severed limb from derezzing into a pile of voxels, ensuring he would survive. Even now the severed leg was reforming.

Geo took a slab of flesh and haltingly consumed it as instructed; retching and sobbing between bites, the horrible grin never leaving her face.

“Save some for hubby.” said the virus, grinning as Geo advanced on Tak, a piece of the leg dripping with liquid energy and black ichor clenched in her outstretched hand. “And Tak, do remember to keep it down this time. We don't want a repeat of the last time you threw up your meal…. But this time I'll make you eat his eyes instead of his tongue.” Bose chuckled darkly.

“Sire. If I may…” said Kels haltingly, averting his gaze from the grisly scene. “I believe he's telling the truth. Maybe a different line of questions would be more… productive?”

“Perhaps you'd like to be dessert?” replied Bose coldly.

“N-n-no Suh..Sir.” replied Kels.

“Then we begin again. And this time make sure the child is fully awake. I've reset his memory so I can savor his fresh terror.”

Geo stood in front of Tak, the two forgotten at the moment by Kels and his master. Straining against the viruses control. She dropped the hunk of flesh just behind Tak's head and reached back for his light disc. The two lovers locked eyes, saying their silent farewells. Geo deactivated the restraints and spun around throwing Tak's disc straight and true toward Boses neck. As she did, Tak bolted out of the chair to his son. He quickly deactivated the table restraints and scooped up the unconscious child.

The virus quickly picked up Kels with one hand and pulled him in the path of the light disc like a shield. The disc connected with Kels’ own light disc on its dock on his back, cracking Kels’ disc and causing Tak’s disc to ricochet away before boomeranging back to where it was last thrown.

Bose dropped Kels and concentrated his attention on Geo, causing her to freeze in place. The returning disc sliced cleanly through her, killing her, before dropping to the floor.

With an animalistic growl, the virus dropped to all fours, he ran and leapt to intercept Tak, knocking the program and his offspring to the ground with enough force to send the younger program sliding away on the smooth floor.

Bose picked up Tak and plunged a clawed hand into his chest. He then greedily ripped the programs throat out and devoured the energy and life force bleeding out of the body as it dissolved. As he walked by, wiping the remains off of his hands, he noticed that the child began to stir and was trying to get up on his hands and knees. Without breaking his stride, Bose reared back and delivered a powerful kick to the young program’s midsection. The small body flew up through the air in an arc, cleared the open edge of the building and plummeted to the street below, his screams echoing through the canyon like structures long after he hit.

Bose strode across the chamber to where Tak's disc lay and picked it up. He quickly downloaded all of Tak's knowledge from it then discarded the now blank disc. Kels scurried over and grabbed the disc. He would later pay a black market transfer station a considerable sum of credits to copy his own data from his now broken disc to the dead program's disc.

“Now I have what I was looking for.” said Bose.

“The codes to the Principal Office?” asked Kels.

The virus looked at Kels with contempt. “Of course not you idiot. I knew he didn't have them. But he did have access to the replicator mirrors. And now so do I.”

Bose dropped to one knee and placed his palms flat on the floor. A razor thin panel slid out of the ground in front of Kels. Kels could see his reflection in the translucent panel in striking detail. The panel slid back into the ground but the reflection remained standing opposite Kels, an exact mirror duplicate.

The duplicate immediately turned to the virus and dropped to a knee, fist to his chest.
“How may I serve, my lord?”

The virus gestured to the original Kels. “fight. The winner gets to stay in my employ.”

Bose returned to his throne and watched the two programs fight for their lives with wicked glee.

Chapter Text

“I don't want to die.”

The injured program clutched at Kas's coat. Kas was running as hard as he could, boots pounding down the narrow back alleys in one of the outlying sectors of Aeon city, the other program cradled in his arms. It had been several deci-cycles since the Guardians had arrived, and the war with the virus Bose was not going well for the System.

Safyre and Eset ran just behind Kas, turning occasionally to blast at the Viral Minions hot on their heels. The four of them had been traveling through the sector in a pair of Light Runners, multi purpose 4 wheeled vehicles similar to the light cycles used on the game grid, when they were ambushed and their vehicles destroyed. Kas had taken down one of the three hulking Minions, the ‘leader’, but not before it had taken a chunk out of Faraday, who was traveling with them.

Safyre was channeling her energy blasts through the end of a long bladed staff weapon like shooting a rifle. The energy bolts hit the creatures, blowing thick chunks of black tarry material off of their bodies to splatter on the smooth, almost glass like, obsidian walls of the alley.

Eset welded two mock identity discs which he alternatively shot energy bolts from like pistols or slashed and threw as bladed light discs. He flug a disc ahead of him, just narrowly missing Kas on purpose. The disc ricocheted off the narrow walls and boomeranged back toward its owner. Eset ducked, letting the disc fly over his head. The disc neatly decapitated the unsuspecting Minion behind him that was being distracted by Safyre's attacks.

The creature took a half a dozen more steps before it realized it had parted ways with its head, and fell forward with a wet meaty thud.

The disc once again reversed its course and Eset quickly plucked it out of the air.

Kas kept running, his breath becoming ragged. The others caught up quickly. He rounded a corner and dove into an abandoned structure. Inside were the remains of a one popular club in the sector. They ducked behind cover just as the last Minion came pounding past at a full run. Soon it's footfalls faded in the distance. The trooper Minions were not smart by design, and it would likely keep running until it realized they were gone, then shuffle off to join the nearest loosely coordinated battalion.

Once the coast was clear, Kas looked around and headed to the bar area. Laying Faraday on the bar, he assessed his wounds.

The Minion had gotten him by the arm. From the fingertips up to the elbow the pale flesh was turning a sickly grey and was shot through with the green glow of the infection. At the elbow a golden glowing energy band was wrapped tightly around the limb.

“I…. Don't want to die….” gasped the young program.

“No one is going to die today, kid.” said Kas reassuringly.

Safyre came up beside him and ran a quick scan. “Low level. The minion gave him a glancing blow. If we hurry we have a shot.”

Kas gestured at the tourniquet and it divided into two bands. He held out a thick piece of round rubber tubing. “I'm not going to lie to you. This is going to hurt like hell. You might want to bite down on this.”

Faraday took the tubing, placed it between his teeth, and nodded. Kas and Safyre both held the program down tightly. Eset drew one of his blades and started cutting the program’s arm between the bands. He had to work slowly. As he cut, Kas focused his antivirus energy beam at the remaining traces of the virus that made it just past the first band of the tourniquet and burned them out.

The young program strained and bore down on the bit in his mouth, screaming in pain around it. Safyre had to lean into him to keep him still enough to allow Eset and Kas to do their work. The edges of the cut began to turn into voxels that cascaded over the bar.

“Shit! He's derezzing!” yelled Kas. “Stay with us, kid. Stay with us!... damnit. Eset, we're gonna have to go faster.”

Eset nodded grimly and cut faster, ignoring the panicked screaming from the program he is operating on.

Faraday started thrashing and bucking, delirious from the trauma. Safyre struggled to keep him still. “come on kid…” she grunted. “ This is just a flesh wound. Show me how brave you are.”

The program stared at her with glassy eyes, hyperventilating and straining to stay still. He howled against the bit in his mouth as the arm came off.

Kas grasped the dissolving stump with his palm over the ragged end and pulsed a burst of yellow energy, cauterizing the wound.

Eset spied a bottle of energon liquor below the bar. He grabbed it and pulled the program up to a half sitting position. He yanked the bit from Faraday's mouth and tipped the bottle to the kid's lips.

“Drink up!” he says. “Got to get your energy spiked.”

Faraday gulped the liquid and nearly retched, not being accustomed to hard energy, but managed to keep it down. He fell back on the bar panting and his circuit paths blaze bright white.

The three Guardians breathed a sigh of relief and Kas released the tourniquet. The program smiled up at them, obviously a little drunk. He gave them a thumbs up then shuttered and coughed. He looked at his stump and it had begun to break up into tiny cubes that dropped off and dissolved to a powdery substance.

“No no no no…. Come on, kid…. Fight it. Stay with us!” Kas griped the program's shoulder, shaking him a little.

 

Faraday grasped the lapels of Kas’ coat and pulled himself up. He looked at the Guardian, staring intently and straining to say something.

“Save your strength.” said Kas.

The program shook his head violently and with a gurgling retching sound collapsed back on the bar.

Kas looked down at the lifeless body as it began to derez, the voxels running through his hands like sand.

Safyre put a hand on his shoulder. “Kas… I'm so sorry…”

Kas shook her hand off and without a word grabbed the bottle of booze. He stalked silently off into a dark corner of the abandoned club.

Safyre started to go after him when Eset gently restrained her and shook his head.

“It's getting to him.” he said softly.
“We thought we were prepared to defeat this virus this time.” she replied in a hushed tone. “The way things are going it doesn't look good.”

 

Kas sat hunkered down against the far wall of a back room of the old club. The space was pitch black save for ther dim glow of the circuitry paths on his clothes. He drank from the bottle and thought bitterly about all of the lives he was failing to save, his promise to Faraday.

“...I don't want to die….”

 

“...No one is dying today, kid…”

Kas took another long pull on the bottle, hung his head, and wept silently in the dark.