The ecosystem on this server is a mountain range. Most of the mountains are absent though, especially the ones that would normally be visible as one stares towards the horizon. Most of the horizon has vanished too, replaced by a spider-webbed fissure of… nothing. There is only one thing responsible for such decay. Even from this distance, I can see the viral codes at the edges of the fissured server. Malignant code in glowing strings of zero and one. The Red.
Atop a relatively smaller plateau, I kneel, my avatar’s hands clasped in a prayer position as I stitch Master’s tombstone into existence. Master’s body is long gone, consumed by the Red on a server much farther from this one. Still, I’d like to leave something behind. This server’s relative integrity means the Red that attacked it was probably one of the earlier strains. Long before the virus got stronger and digiverse defenses couldn’t keep it at bay anymore.
The tattoos that run over both my arms hum quietly with faint green light as the tombstone solidifies. I cannot help the bittersweet smile parting my lips at the sight of the finely carved rock. Before the Red took Master, he forced his Admin program into my own framework, almost killing me in the process. Now the Admin program has almost fully integrated into my framework, coalescing into fine ink over the arms of my avatar. The ink is triple-layered. Above is the Admin program that allows a mere AI like myself to edit the digiverse in small caches. Below that, however, is an IP map. The IP maps are fragments of source code the creators left behind after establishing the digiverse and its self-procreating AI.
According to Master, the maps all point to one server beyond the digiverse itself. A final sanctuary of sorts, which the Red can never hope to reach. There aren’t many of us left to find it anyway.
My seeker codes suddenly ping a discovery. The tether address to the final server! Master would never have approved of searching for the tether address with my seeker codes, especially for so long. The Red always had a way of latching on to these things, he’d say. That’s why we’d been searching for the tether addresses manually. That’s why the Red got to him.
I code my final respects upon Master’s tombstone. It’s time to go.
The tether address sits quietly in a spatial anomaly on the network mainframe, exactly as the IP map said it would be. Tether addresses wormholes through spans of the digiverse, covering distances ten times the span of the internet in mere seconds.
They also don’t exist anymore. Or aren’t supposed to. After all, they were the first things the Red destroyed—cutting off any means of escape or regroup—before it came for the AI and our digiverse.
I run an analysis protocol on the anomaly as Master taught me. The binary framework of the tether address is complex beyond the limits of my processors, even with the Admin privileges. With each analysis, I hit a dead end. I push some more. I cannot afford to make any errors, not after so much has been lost already. My framework is at its limits when I finally decrypt four letters. ỌRUN.
Is that the name of the destination server? The final server?
If I’m lucky, I’ll find other survivors there. AI that managed to not only find but interpret the fragments of IP maps scattered across the Red-infested digiverse.
Worst case scenario, I become food for the Red and hope it’s quick and painless.
But capture is not an option. I cross-check the IP map one last time, latch onto the address and transmit my intelligence forward-stream.
Around me, the virus obliviously eats away the digiverse at every corner. Servers once lush with life have long been reduced to broken codes of void and empty black. The Red hacks the fabric of the digiverse and feeds on its codes, then itself; each time mutating into sentience that cannot be destroyed, even by itself. I’m almost at the edge of the dark web when the Red suddenly pings my tether as sentient. The deletion sequences intercept my uplink.
My firewalls are chewed through in nanoseconds. The Red’s deletion sequences waste no time in locating my self-maintenance codes. I force an ejection protocol, and half my functions are lost to the void along with the virus. The sudden computation error expels me from the tether address’ forward stream and into a server with an ecosystem resembling an amusement park. Another broken ecosystem.
The viral sequences follow me.
The Red metastasizes into form—winged, scaly, muscular, primordial. The virus is sentient enough to be wary of my Admin codes, even though I’ve lost most of them in the stream. The server has altered my form too. My weight hurts my right ankle, and I see a glitch stitching over the avatar’s foot. My tattoos have also been reduced to two layers, meaning the broken server has converted the IP map into a heavy, life-sized tome that now straddles my back. With the map so obviously manifested now, there’s no real way to protect it from the Red.
Guide me, Master. I’m done for if I lose the map here.
The Red-dragon surges forward, membranous wings treading wind as its massive jaws swallow the distance. It eats the server’s spatial orientation codes like it’s some sort of ravenous god. With half my functions I can barely evade, sliding towards the side of a run-down Ferris wheel in a painful limp.
I have to find a way off of this server!
I let out my seeker codes again. They detach from my body as two orbs before vanishing into the mainframe. The tether address will relocate itself if I can’t latch on to it quickly enough. Then the Red will really erase me.
A deafening screech tears the skies apart. More of the Red has begun eating at this server. The dragon soars into the air, its body crawling with red codes as its wingspan extends over the amusement park like falling dusk. The Admin program keeps trying to fix me. And failing.
The dragon rears its neck. Crimson electricity trashes against the skies behind it as it opens its maw. The air begins to heat up, and the final layer of programs tattooed on my arms initialize.
Like the phenomena of my life flashing past my eyes, I remember when I first met Master. My home server had crumbled, leaving only a patch of grass where I lay huddled, waiting for the void to consume me. Master’s avatar wore a red cloak, not unlike the black cloak my avatar adopted along the line. I remember when he’d offered me his hand.
I hesitated. “Who are you?”
Master smiled. “Malignant Sentient-code Engineered in Reverse. But you can call me Master.”
Despite myself, I replied, “The acronym spells M.A.S.C.E.R. at best.”
“I thought you’d be more concerned about my origin being the Red.”
“Should I be?”
He eyed the tattoos on my arms and then the void that stood where the rest of the server should have been. “I know what those are,” he said. “Survivor source codes. Seems too much of a burden to place on a single AI.”
“It’s my framework,” I hissed, confrontational. “I decided to carry all of them.”
“Are you willing to bear that weight? Even though you yourself are on the verge of erasure? Do you believe you can lead their source codes to a final resting place?”
The dragon sets the server ablaze. The survivor codes initialize, swirling about me in a spherical shield formed of blue binary. With each wave of the dragon’s assault, a code is shredded. For good.
I remember Master again, this time as he was erased. Even his antiviral capacity could not spare him from the anguish of the viral infestation.
“You are a keeper,” he’d told me as he transferred the IP map to me in his final moments. All I took from that was that I had to protect what was left of the digiverse… of its remnants, even though I couldn’t protect him. And yet now I lose them to save myself.
A strip of source code degenerates with each second the Red assaults me. I am meant to protect the codes, not the other way around! I recruit the last pieces of the Admin program code—the ones that are restricting the glitch in my framework to my right ankle. The program connects to the server’s mainframe—the thin, broken skeletons of digiverse code left. I search for something to shut the Red out. Anything that can give me a chance to escape. My avatar’s legs crumble into dust as the viral conflagration razes through another layer of the survivor codes. I’m stretched out too thin. A security protocol miraculously connects to my framework. The server’s resources download around my avatar, building rapidly. Carriage. Bore. Barrel. Cannonball. Ignition.
A cannon materializes. There’s only one target.
My codes are beyond repair, deteriorating centripetally. The Admin codes have been exhausted, leaving my avatar as a husk on the disintegrating amusement park framework.
The Red? I have no idea.
Half of the survivor codes have been lost. The remaining settle on my skin like dust motes. An oppressive silence descends onto the server as everything turns to dust. It dawns on me then, how long it’s been since Master and I travelled the dying digiverse, looking for ỌRUN. How many we lost to a virus our creators made against us?
It dawns on me then. I am all alone.
My seeker codes return after an eternity—or a few hours, who knows—but only one orb. The tome representing the IP map lies over the charred remains of my avatar. Using the last of my processing power, I condense my framework into a single batch of source code. A culmination of every survivor, every experience acquired from Master, and finally the IP map. The key to ỌRUN. Maybe it does exist. Maybe not. Either way, I have nothing more to lose. The survivor code uplinks out of the server, into the tether address.