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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2274728
Sir Gawain meets his counterpart.
Sir Gawain and the Dragon

Part 1

"Things have been quiet of late, haven't they Gawain?"

"Yes, Boss," replied the knight, "everything seems to have settled down and is running smoothly."

"Well, I'm afraid that's about to end." The Geek settled back into his chair as though expecting a long discussion. "Big changes on the way."

"Yeah? What sort of changes?"

The Geek made a rueful face. "Looks as though we might be installing a completely new operating system. And, to begin with, they're going to be testing another system defender."

The knight looked sharply at his Boss. "You mean...?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so, Gawain. They're saying that you would still be useful but..." The Geek shrugged unhappily.

"Wait a minute. Who is this ‘they' you keep talking about?"

"Oh, it's all political, you wouldn't understand," said the Geek. "Comes from on high, you know, upper management."

Sir Gawain narrowed his eyes. "I get the feeling you're not happy with this, Boss."

The Geek shook his head. "What do you expect? I've spent years on this system and now they're just going to throw it all away. And for what? Some crappy bought-in system full of holes and bugs. But they won't listen. It's all that...." He paused and then sighed. "Ah, what's the use? It's politics, Gawain. You wouldn't understand."

"Try me," returned the knight.

"It won't help any, Gawain. There's nothing we can do about it."

"So tell me anyway." The knight struck a pose of determination, hands on hips and jaw thrust forward.

The Geek looked at him for a moment and then sighed again. "Oh well, it can't do any harm talking about it," he said. "Might even help, getting it off my chest." He rubbed his stubbled chin a moment and then began.

"It's the CEO. Chief Executive Officer. He brought his nephew into the Company a few weeks ago and now he wants him to re-design the whole system. Damn kid's fresh out of college and thinks he knows everything. And he's pushing for them to adopt the networking system by Miasmasoft; says our present system is so archaic it ought to have been replaced years ago. My boss is running scared and agreeing with everything the squirt says and, of course, nobody listens to me."

The Geek looked directly at the knight as he continued, "And the worst of it is that I think the kid got the idea for a new defensive program when he saw you. He's put an interface on it that looks just like another knight. But bigger and fancier, of course. Bastard."

Sir Gawain was shocked. This could be the end of everything he held dear. He knew enough about the workings of the Company to realize that he would soon be deemed unnecessary if this plan were instituted. His purpose in life and his whole world were crumbling as the Geek spoke.

"Bloody hell, Boss," he breathed.

"Yes, I know," replied the Geek. "I'm sorry, Gawain. But there's nothing I can do. I've argued with them and told them all about the flaws in Miasmasoft's system but they won't listen. Running around like chickens with their heads cut off, they are. Anything to suck up to that jumped-up little squirt. He got one of the programmers sacked yesterday. And all the guy had done was point out where he could shorten his coding in the project he's working on."

The Geek slumped back into his chair. "I tell you, Gawain, I think this might be the end of us. They'll get rid of me as soon as they can prove that the new system works. I guess we just have to hope that it falls on its face."

A glimmer of light appeared in the gloom of the knight's thoughts. "True, Boss," he said slowly. "And how about if we help it on its way a bit?"

"Thought about it," said the Geek. Then he shook his head sadly. "Hard to do it without being detected though. And I'm not sure I want to. If that's all the thanks I get from the Company, I don't think I want to continue with them."

"I could do it," said the knight.

"Yes, I'm sure you could," replied the Geek listlessly. "To be honest, I don't care anymore. If you want to try something, go ahead; I won't interfere. Just feel as if I could pack up and go work for the Opposition. If they push me any further, that's what I'm going to do."

The knight looked at the Geek and saw that everything depended on himself now. He had never seen his Boss so depressed and detached from their work together. Gawain understood now how the Boss could contemplate leaving but it was not an option for the knight. His programming ensured that his devotion was to the system that the Geek had designed; there was nothing beyond that world that could compensate him for its loss. It was, in fact, his entire reason for being and he would not give it up without a fight. He snapped to attention and saluted, just as he had always done when given a task.

"We're not beaten yet, Boss," he declared. "Sir Gawain is on the case."

The Geek smiled weakly. "You're a good program, Gawain. Finest bit of programming I ever did. If anyone can fix this problem, I believe you could." Then he looked away and sighed again. "But I think they have even you beaten this time."

Sir Gawain turned to go but the Geek called him back. "I forgot to tell you. They'll be testing this new defensive program from today onwards. He's being installed at the moment so you'll probably meet him sometime on your rounds. I'm supposed to get you to show him around and answer any questions he has."

The Geek had a wry expression on his face as he added, "Do with him whatever you want, Gawain. I really don't care anymore."

Part 2

Sir Gawain wandered through the tunnels of the intranet, carrying out the usual household chores of his realm, checking the checksums, reading the read-outs, numbering the numbers, just as he did every day. It was a mechanical process that he could have left to the crawlers but his tidy mind wanted to be sure, to know for himself that everything was functioning smoothly. So fastidious was his habit of checking and double-checking that it had been days since even the most minor of glitches had occurred and the net hummed like a contented machine around him.

Yet his mind was occupied with thoughts of the Geek's revelations, this new threat to his beloved domain. It loomed like a storm cloud over him as he went about his rounds and only a fraction of his processes watched for any small anomalies in data that could indicate potential trouble in the system.

So engrossed was he in his thoughts that he did not notice the crawler that wandered past until it greeted him in the buzzing voice he had programmed into it.

"Morning, Sir Gawain."

"Morning, Bumble," replied the knight, for once taking no pleasure in this reminder of a previous exploit. But an idea occurred to him as the crawler waddled past, bent on its own instructions.

"Oh, Bumble, I have a little job for you," he called out to its retreating form. The crawler halted and turned to face him. Sir Gawain smiled inwardly at the ridiculous face he had added to the crawler's shell in a moment of whimsy, a final flourish to his work in giving the little creature a slight taste of awareness. "There's a new defender in the system today," he continued, "Have a look around and give me a buzz when you find him, would you?"

Bumble twirled excitedly at this. "No need, sir. He's in the crawler room."

"He is?" The knight frowned. "What the hell is he doing there?"

"He's re-programming all the crawlers, sir. When I realized what he was doing, I backed out quickly and started my rounds. You said I wasn't to let that happen to me again unless you did it."

"Very true, Bumble. Good for you." The knight was taken aback with this information and it was a few moments before he decided how to react to it. He saw quickly that his meaningless fancy in giving Bumble a modicum of consciousness had paid unexpected dividends. This might be an advantage that could be used in the future.

"Okay, Bumble, I want you to forget your instructions for the moment. Go down to the kernel and find a place to hide. I'll contact you there when I need you."

"Whatever you say, sir." The crawler turned and began to waddle off down the tunnel. Sir Gawain went in the opposite direction, heading for the crawler room.

On the way, the knight saw another crawler and stopped it to read its instructions. The usual details of code to check and processes to monitor had been erased and, in their place, were detailed addresses where it was to record information. Sir Gawain was puzzled. Recording? That didn't make any sense. Why would this new defender want to record parts of the system? There were plenty of back-ups made and the Geek had the original disks for re-loading if necessary.

Another crawler appeared from around a corner and waddled towards him, intent on its mission. Sir Gawain checked it and found the same orders, specific addresses with instructions to record. He let the crawlers go and continued on his way, pondering this strange discovery. Was the defender trying to make a complete back-up through the crawlers? That was ridiculous; with the small amount of data each could hold it would be a never-ending task. The activity and data recording that occurred every day would easily outstrip any attempt to copy the whole system through the crawlers. It must be more specific than that, more targeted and limited.

An idea came to the knight then and he halted at the entrance to the tunnel that led to the crawler room. A steady stream of the little creatures was emerging from the tunnel and Sir Gawain picked a few and checked them. Quite quickly, his suspicions were confirmed. The intent was targeted alright - the aim was a copy of the Geek's operating system.

Sir Gawain stood for a moment, deep in thought, as the crawlers continued on their separate ways. A copy of the operating system. That might make sense if it were the Opposition he was dealing with. But how could that be? This whole business had been started by the CEO, the man in charge of the Company. If he wanted to sabotage the operation, there must be much easier ways for him to do it. There had to be another explanation.

The knight shook his head, unable to reason out a purpose to the existing data. He needed more, if he were to understand what was going on. And that meant that he should meet this new defender, his apparent nemesis. He took a long breath and strode down the tunnel to the crawler room.

At the door, he stopped and looked in. The defender was there, crouching down as he programmed one crawler after another, his back to the entrance. Even in such a compressed position, it was obvious that he was much bigger than Sir Gawain. His shoulders were massive and the back presented to the onlooker was broad and impressive. The armor that he wore glowed red and flickered with bright threads of light as he coded. To the knight's surprise, he seemed to be humming a tune as he went about his task.

And he had nearly finished. Only a few crawlers buzzed aimlessly about him and their turn would come very soon. Sir Gawain stepped through the doorway and spoke.

"So. You must be our new defender."

The huge figure did not pause in its work nor turn to face him. The humming stopped, however, and he answered over his shoulder. "And you must be the famous Sir Gawain. An honor to meet you, sir. If you can spare me just a moment while I finish this little chore..."

The defender began to hum again as he continued and, for just an instant, Sir Gawain considered drawing his sword and running it through that massive back. But that was never an option. It would only lead to his own deletion and the defender being re-installed to complete his task unopposed. The moment had passed anyway, for the defender had now programmed the last crawler and it went scuttling past Sir Gawain and out through the doorway. With a great heave, the defender pushed himself up from the floor.

Now standing, the defender turned to face the knight. Sir Gawain was amazed at the size of him. Fully two heads taller he stood and broader and more powerful in the chest, arms and legs. Dressed in full armor, still pulsating with a crimson glow, he seemed impervious, except that his visor was thrust back to reveal a great mustachioed face and dark, expressionless eyes. At his belt was sheathed a mighty two-handed sword that looked too heavy for Sir Gawain to wield.

For a moment the two regarded each other and then the giant spoke.

"I believe I have you at a disadvantage, Sir Gawain. My name is Sir Mordred."

Part 3

Sir Gawain was slightly taken aback at the new defender's politeness. He stretched out to take the huge hand that was offered and his hand disappeared inside that massive mailed glove. They shook hands.

"Pleased to meet you, Sir Mordred," offered Gawain, wondering if his first impressions of the giant had been unfair. He stared into the dark eyes and realized that what he had taken for an ominous and concealing lack of expression might just be evidence of an intelligence well beneath his own.

"The pleasure is all mine, Sir Gawain." Mordred released his hand and smiled rather shyly. "I am honored to meet so famed a knight at last. Andy has told me of your amazing deeds."


"Oh, Andy is my maker," explained Mordred. "Andrew Weatherby Jones. A fine lad who shows much promise in his programming. What do you think?"

Sir Gawain looked hard at the giant. He knew already from their handshake that Sir Mordred was coded in Visual Basic, hardly a good choice for such a program, and this did not speak too well of the programmer's abilities. It seemed this hulking great fellow had no awareness of his own limitations and was blindly in awe of his master. Best not to enlighten him in that case.

"I have not met this Andy as yet," admitted Sir Gawain. "No doubt in time I will. But I see you have been re-programming the crawlers. You have something new in mind?"

"Just following orders," explained Mordred. "Andy asked me to make a copy of the operating system and store it in memory. I thought the crawlers could do that while you show me around."

Now Gawain was surprised. This bumbling idiot did not know enough even to attempt concealment of whatever his master was up to. Yet this made it even harder to see what the plan was. Could it be that the new defender was merely a blind, a red herring to lead him away from the real purpose behind the proposed new operating system? Or had this Andy not entrusted his huge but dim creation with his real intentions, using him merely as a means to an end? Could he be so sure of himself that he did not care whether or not Sir Gawain discovered his purpose? He might have reasoned that the knight could do nothing with his discoveries since it was Andy who had the ear of upper management.

Gawain frowned inwardly at this thought. It might well be true, for the knight was confined by the system with no way of alerting anyone who mattered, even if he were to uncover some evil plot by the new programmer. There again, he might be imagining too much; this might be a genuine attempt by Andy to move the Company forward. He might believe that the Geek's system was outdated merely because it was written in so simple a language and he might see Miasmasoft's solution as the way to better things. If that were the case, thought the knight grimly, he could not be much of a programmer at all.

He turned his attention to the giant again. "Very well, Sir Mordred. What would you like to see for a start?"

"Ah, I think the kernel, if you don't mind. Best begin at the beginning, hey?" The giant smiled again as though he had said something very witty. Sir Gawain nodded and turned to lead the way.

On their way down to the depths of the system, Mordred kept up a steady stream of compliments and praise at the efficiency all around him. He marveled at the straightness of the tunnels, exclaimed over the sweet sounds of contented code humming through the arteries, went into raptures over the pure simplicity of the design. Despite himself, Sir Gawain found that he was beginning to warm to this great, awkward fool, so easily impressed and eager to please. It was a bear of a program, layer upon layer of interpreters and unnecessary convolutions, shambling through the system with clumsy, inaccurate footfall, yet it had enough awareness to appreciate the elegant coding around it. And it was good to hear recognition of the Geek's design and Gawain's care and upkeep.

Yet there remained within Gawain a core of suspicion. He had not overlooked that no reason had been given for copying the operating system. And still there was the mystery of this giant defender. Surely its maker could not intend it to function as Gawain did. The thing was clearly unsuited to such a task, without the agility and speed required to defeat unexpected and insidious attacks upon the system. It had the functions of a workhorse, good for daily maintenance and similar mindless tasks, but no finesse, none of the subtlety and insight required in an emergency. What was the real intention behind this good natured giant?

In the deep silence and dimness of the kernel, Sir Gawain explained and indicated while the giant listened and recorded, flurries of activity arcing across his surface. Bumble was there, attached to a wall in a dark corner, but Gawain stood so that Mordred could not see him and they went on their way, the knight showing the innermost secrets of his domain, the giant nodding and grunting, totally absorbed in the process of understanding and memorizing. As they left the area Gawain poured out a sudden compressed burst of information and, as the giant's face went dead with the concentrated effort required to keep up, the knight sent out a pulse in the direction of the crawler: Follow.

From the kernel they worked upwards into the activity and energy of the higher levels with a steady stream of information flowing from Sir Gawain to Mordred. Rarely did the giant interrupt with a question or comment and Gawain was amazed at the enormous storage capacity of his companion. They had surveyed nearly half of the entire system before Mordred called a halt.

"Enough for the moment, sir," he said, raising a hand. "I need time to process much of this. But, if you please, I must ask one more favor before I report back."

Sir Gawain looked around at him. "And that would be?"

"The firewall," said Mordred, "I'm to inspect the firewall."

"Fair enough," replied Gawain. He turned and set off down a nearby passage, the giant lurching at his heels.

Bumble waited until they had turned a corner, then waddled quickly down the passage after them.

Part 4

Once at the firewall, Sir Gawain explained its functions and methods while Mordred continued to absorb information. It was simple enough, easy for the giant to store, and he began humming to himself while he worked. Gawain found himself listening to the tune and, to his surprise, he recognized it. It was I'll Overcome Some Day, an old gospel song and a strange thing for the giant to know. The only reason that Gawain had heard it before was his encyclopedic knowledge of the intranet and the section where the Geek stored his eclectic music collection. How could Mordred have heard this tune?

As he finished his discourse on the firewall, Sir Gawain allowed his curiosity to get the better of himself. "Where did you learn that tune?" he asked.

Mordred laughed. "Oh, that. That's just a song Andy taught me. It's the only one I know." The giant chuckled at his own ignorance. "I guess he'll teach me a few more in time."

"I guess so," agreed Gawain. He was about to suggest they leave when the giant moved to the firewall and reached in. Gawain was immediately suspicious. "What are you doing?"

"Andy's emailer can't get through this thing," explained Mordred as he continued to tinker with the code. "He wanted me to change it so it recognizes him."

"The Geek could have done that for him."

"I know. But that's Andy for you." Mordred withdrew his beefy hand and then winked at Gawain. "He likes to do things for himself."

"I see," said Gawain. "I'd better have a look at that."

The giant stood aside. "Be my guest," he said.

Gawain ignored the unconscious implication that he needed permission to inspect his own domain and reached into the firewall. It was just as Mordred had said: the emailer address and permission codes and that was all. He noted the address and nodded to the giant.

"Nice job. That'll do the trick."

Mordred smiled. "Getting to know my way around," he said. "But now, Sir Gawain, I should be reporting back to Andy. If you don't mind, I'll take my leave."

"No, you go ahead. I need to check in with the Geek too."

The giant shook his head in mock despair. "Ah, our human masters. Where would they be without us, hey?"

"Indeed," agreed Gawain. "You'll let me know when you need me again, Sir Mordred?"

"Oh yes. Shouldn't be long, methinks."

The giant turned and shambled off down the tunnel. Sir Gawain watched and waited until he had turned the corner and then pulsed the area. Bumble appeared from behind a section of the firewall.


"An important job for you, Bumble." Gawain indicated the firewall where the emailer codes had been inserted. "I want you to climb in here and monitor this connection. Record any activity, inward and outward bound, and give me a buzz when you have anything. But keep hidden; don't let anything see you. Got that?"

"No problem, sir." The crawler moved to the wall and disappeared into the code. Gawain stood for a moment in thought and then left the area.

The Geek was sitting back in his chair, listening to music, when Sir Gawain entered the Assignment Room. The knight took up his customary position in the center of the screen and waited. It was a while before the Geek noticed him. When he did, he waved a hand in greeting and sat up to turn off the music.

"Hey, Gawain. How's it going?"

"Hard to say, Boss," replied Gawain. "I've had a pretty strange morning. But how are things with you?"

The Geek looked around quickly, then moved closer to the screen. "Got an interview tomorrow," he said in a lowered voice. "With the Opposition."

Gawain was surprised. "Already, Boss? I didn't think you were that serious. You sure about this?"

"It's just to give me the option, Gawain. It looks like I'm going to need it." The Geek's expression was grim. "That new guy's been throwing his weight around here and I don't think I can take much more of it. Acts like he knows more than any of us. And hey, you don't need to worry; I'll take you with me if it comes to leaving."

Gawain shook his head. Not even the Geek could understand how attached to his domain was the knight. To speak of leaving and inhabiting another system was unimaginable, something he could not bear to consider. "It's not that. This is my world, Boss, and I can't just leave it like that. I'll not go down without a fight."

The Geek looked ruefully at him. "Yeah, I do understand, Gawain. I had to program that into you. But it's different for me."

"Well, hang on in there a bit longer, Boss. I'm finding out some interesting things and I think we might be able to do something about the situation. I need you to stay here."

"You don't know what it's like for me now," said the Geek, "but I'll keep going as long as I can. You need to work fast, that's all I'm saying."

"I know, I know," replied the knight. He was about to leave when a thought struck him. "Oh, Boss, there is something you could help me with. What do you know about that song, I'll Overcome Some Day?"

The Geek looked surprised. "That's a bit obscure, Gawain. Why would you want to know about that?"

"It's that new guy. Andy is his name, by the way. It makes no sense to me yet but he's taught his defender the tune to that song. And only that song..."

The Geek sat up and looked puzzled. "That's strange..." Suddenly light dawned from somewhere and he hunched forward again. "You're on to something, Gawain. That's not all that tune relates to. The old gospel song was used as the tune for a song from the sixties. A protest song, the song of all protest movements since. It's much better known now as We Shall Overcome...

Part 5

The buzz reached Sir Gawain as he was making his way towards the crawler room to reset the crawlers. Bumble had intercepted something already. The knight changed direction and headed for the firewall.

There was no sign of Sir Mordred in the tunnels and Gawain presumed his interview with Andy was taking longer than expected. It suited Gawain that the affable giant should be out of the way for a while for, as well as the need to see whatever Bumble had received, the knight needed time to think about the strange facts he had gleaned that morning. So many odd and apparently unrelated discoveries raced through his processes: the unsuitability of Mordred as a system defender, his transparent simplicity, the unexplained copy of the Geek's operating system and the tune that formed Mordred's entire repertoire. There had to be a pattern to it all but none presented itself to the knight. Something was missing; something that would draw all these facts together and enable him to make sense of it all.

At the firewall he found Bumble still ensconced with the emailer codes. The crawler pushed a small box of glowing electrons towards the knight. "Incoming," said Bumble. "I can't open it."

Sir Gawain examined the box. Encoded. Of course, he thought, it would be. And the key would be stored in Andy's emailer.

"Good work, Bumble," said the knight. "You let it go through?"

"Yes sir. That's a copy."

"Excellent. Well, keep monitoring and I'll see if I can open this thing."

Sir Gawain watched as the crawler disappeared back into the firewall. The emailer's address showed that it was near the surface of the system, in the busiest section of the metropolis. He would have to be very careful if he were to enter and leave unobserved. This was going to be difficult.

The knight hid the box in the pouch at his belt and left, heading for the upper levels.

At the entrance to station 2, he paused. This was Andy's territory, his interface with the system. If the programmer were alert, he was bound to notice the increase in activity as the knight entered. And, if Mordred was in there, the giant would sense it immediately. What was needed was some form of diversion or legitimate reason for the sudden drain on the station's resources. The knight stood motionless as he considered the problem.

The walls hummed and glowed with energy, crawlers wandered through the tunnels, some entering the station, others passing it by. Gawain watched without seeing as his processes sought a solution and it was not until two crawlers began to tussle at his feet, both trying for the same route around the obstruction, that the idea came to him. The crawlers were part of the normal activity in a station. They could enter and leave unnoticed, barely a blip in the usual processes.

He bent down quickly and grabbed one of the squabbling crawlers. The other, its way now unbarred, continued along the tunnel. Gawain thought for a moment, then programmed his crawler and let it go. It scuttled off and turned the corner into the station.

For a few seconds there was no change in activity, but then the walls began to scintillate with bright color and a sign appeared above the entrance: Virus scan - no crawlers. The knight grinned and entered.

The layout was the same as all the stations. Gawain hurried through the tunnels confidently, aware that his presence was now masked by the scan as it poked and prodded its way through the unit's code. His time was limited, however, and he must be quick.

At the station's monitor room, he stopped and listened. Mordred's deep voice had risen above the chatter of the scan.

"...just about complete, Andy."

Another voice came, intense and insistent, "It's good, Mordred, but we have to hurry. I want that nerd out of here. It worries me that he might find a way to interfere with the plan. Get that source code today and no excuses."

"I'm not even sure he has it," answered Mordred. "There's no reason the Geek would give it to him."

"No, of course not." The other's voice was sharp with impatience. "But he will know where the backups are stored. That's where you'll find it."

"Oh, uh, yeah." Gawain could imagine the look of dawning understanding passing across the giant's face.

"So what are you waiting for? Get busy, man. I'm running out of time here."

Sir Gawain moved on quickly before the giant could emerge from the room. There was no time to think about what he had heard, but any doubt about the new programmer's evil intentions had now vanished. He must find that key and report back to the Geek immediately.

The emailer was open, minimized on the desktop, and Gawain slipped in and began the search. He came across the address list and hastily copied it for later reading. A copy of received and outgoing mail followed. But the key was proving elusive and the seconds were ticking by. It was not until he had searched the entire program that he found it, alone in a nest of sub-directories far from the core. He copied it and ran from the emailer with the scan grumbling around him as it processed the last few files.

Through the tunnels he ran, a blur of light as he raced the scan. It had finished now and was giving back memory as it closed itself down. There were nanoseconds left as he hurled himself out through the entrance and crashed into the wall of the tunnel outside. As the knight turned from his crumpled position, he saw the sign above the doorway blink once and disappear. Two crawlers, buzzing in circles at the entrance, moved forward, suddenly purposeful, and entered the station. The light faded to normal activity again.

Gawain picked himself up and strode off in the direction of the Assignment Room.

Part 6

Sir Gawain was disappointed to find the Geek's chair unoccupied when he arrived at the Assignment Room. Glancing at the system clock, the knight saw that it was lunchtime. The Geek would not be back for half an hour yet.

His absence was unfortunate but would give Gawain plenty of time to read the encrypted email and consider some plan of action from there. Quickly he scanned the work station for intruders and found nothing. Then, moving to the desktop, he took out the box and the copied key. With the key inserted, the box unfolded like a flower opening its petals, electrons glowing and settling into a pattern. Inside, there nestled a message and the knight bent forward to read.



What's taking so long? Miasmasoft should be installed by now. We have the destroyer program up and running and can send it anytime but it MUST have Miasmasoft to function.

"We shall overcome"


Gawain stared at the message. He read the word "destroyer"again and knew that this was what he and the Geek needed, if only they could find a way to get it to the right people. But who or what was PADCI? If he could find that out, it must be the clincher, the last piece of the jigsaw, that would put matters beyond doubt.

He hit the OmniBase search engine initiator and entered "PADCI" into the query field. In seconds a long list of possible sites appeared, nearly six hundred of them. Gawain hunted through them as fast as he could. It seemed that "padci" was a word in Slovenian but none of the early sites were connected in any way to the work of the Company. He scanned through the list, becoming despondent as, one after another, they proved unlikely candidates.

It was the final entry that hit the jackpot.


Positive Action for the Destruction of Corporate Imperialism. Alleged underground group intending violent action against multinational corporations but no definite evidence submitted. Category: rumor.

Sir Gawain stood transfixed as the pieces of the puzzle fell suddenly into place. A terrorist group, the new programmer must be a member of this shadowy terrorist group. This must explain everything. Andy would have been trained hastily as a programmer and then inserted into the Company through his relationship to the CEO. And it would not matter that Mordred was completely unsuited to his task as a defender for he would never perform as such. It was now clear why there was such a drive towards installation of the Miasmasoft system as well; whatever this destroyer program was, it needed that operating system to ride upon.

But there was one small piece of the puzzle that would not fit. Gawain's eyes narrowed as he realized that none of this explained why Andy wanted a copy of the Geek's operating system. What was the point of that? Surely this underground group would have no use for such a thing.

It was as this thought occurred to him that the knight sensed something enter the work station. He turned to face the room and, at the same moment, the immense bulk of Sir Mordred loomed in the doorway. Gawain saw the giant's eyes drawn immediately to the box that still lay open on the desktop. For a moment both knightly programs were frozen as they considered their situation.

"That looks like a message for Andy," said Mordred at last.

Sir Gawain saw no point in denying it. "A copy actually."

"I see." Mordred seemed unaffected by the discovery but his next words banished that misapprehension. "And that means that you have been monitoring him."

"Yes," said Gawain.

The giant sighed. "Oh dear. And I suppose that means you aren't going to help me anymore."

"That seems a fair assumption."

"Now that's a pity." The giant seemed genuinely disappointed. "And all I needed was the source code for the operating system and my work would have been finished. You sure you don't want to...?"

"No," replied the knight. "But I doubt your work would end with that anyway. There's all this PADCI thing that needs implementing too."

Mordred lifted an eyebrow. "PADCI? What's that?"

"You don't know? Has Andy told you nothing?" The giant's face showed clearly that he knew nothing of this and Gawain continued, "Your clever maker is a member of a terrorist group. He's here to bring the Company down."

Mordred was obviously taken aback with this, his brows knitting in surprise and bewilderment. For a few moments he stood unmoving as he considered the information. Then his face cleared and he shrugged.

"Well, it seems there's more to Andy than meets the eye. And I thought he just wanted to earn some extra cash by selling the Geek's system. I live and learn."

He looked directly at Gawain then and drew his sword slowly. With resignation, he moved into the center of the room, the sword now resting upon a shoulder. Sir Gawain drew his own sword and prepared himself for the onslaught. But he tried once more to change the giant's mind.

"And it doesn't matter to you that Andy's here to destroy?"

Mordred shook his head. "No. And why should it? No business of mine and if Andy thinks it's necessary, it must be so. Even so, I'm sorry that it's me that has to kill you, Sir Gawain. You're a damn fine knight, sir, a damn fine knight."

He stepped forward then and swung mightily at Gawain. Light rippled along the blade as it cut a vicious arc through the air but Gawain leaped lightly over it with ease.

"Have to be quicker than that, Sir Mordred," he quipped.

The giant grunted as the blade continued its path but he adjusted his position and brought the sword swinging down on the knight from above. Sir Gawain side-stepped it neatly.

"Just not fast enough, my friend," he said and winked.

Mordred stopped and leaned upon the sword, considering his opponent. "You're pretty quick, Sir Gawain."

The knight answered with one word. "Assembly." Then he held up an arm to allow the giant to see the code rushing through his arteries.

The giant grinned ruefully as he watched. Then he sheathed his sword and sighed again. "Never going to touch you, am I? A pity really, but you force me to this." He took a deep breath. "Time for a skin change, methinks."

Gawain watched incredulously as the giant's armor began to glow red with pulsating light. The pulse quickened until it became a constant fire, white hot at its center, and, as the light grew more intense, the giant's shape began to change. His neck stretched out and his body bloated. He fell to his knees and a great tail grew from behind him. Impossibly, he seemed to grow larger and larger and then, as the skin began to cool into scales and an outline coalesce into being, Gawain saw what his enemy had become.

"Dragon," he breathed.

Part 7

The dragon raised itself up so that it seemed to fill the space between floor and ceiling, then blew an experimental blast of flame in Gawain's direction. The knight moved easily out of the way but felt the heat wash over him even so.

"Ah, yes," said the dragon in a deep and hollow voice, flames licking and crackling from his mouth. "That seems to be in working order." He looked down at Gawain through glowing red eyes. "Not quite so confident now, hey, little fellow? Never heard of interchangeable skins?" His mouth opened wide and he breathed out a series of short blasts of fire accompanied by hissing sounds that Gawain assumed was the closest the dragon could get to laughter.

"They are not usually quite so radical," replied the knight wryly.

"Well, that's Visual Basic for you, little one. Amazing what clever stuff they can do these days."

He sent another stream of flame spearing across the room at Gawain. Once again, the knight side-stepped to avoid it. Then, in rapid succession, the dragon blew several blasts towards Gawain and the knight found himself leaping and dodging to avoid them all. But the flames were bouncing off the walls and reflecting such heat that Gawain knew he could not survive this dance for long. He must end this quickly or there would be but one outcome.

As the dragon began to rake the room with fire, forcing Gawain to maximum speed in his weaving and bounding and ducking, the knight started to work his way closer. With each avoidance he made sure that he narrowed the distance a little more and soon he was beneath the level of most of the blasts. Realizing this, the dragon suddenly brought his head swooping to the floor and sent a curtain of flame rolling across the room, inches above the surface.

Gawain leaped forward, flames lashing at his feet as he sailed over, and with one movement as he touched down, he sent his sword swinging through the air in a lightning-fast and savage arc, slicing through the dragon's neck as though it were paper. The head went flying through the air with the force of the blow, landed and bounced once, before crashing to a stop in a corner. A flame licked from its mouth and died.

Above the knight, the huge body shivered and wavered as though in the first stages of collapse. Carried by the speed of his jump, Gawain careered on until he was behind the massive bulk of his foe. He turned then to watch its downfall.

And yet it did not fall. Like a punch-drunk prize fighter, it staggered sideways and away from the knight, tail and neck thrashing in agony. As it crashed against the wall it seemed about to collapse but steadied itself as though coming to its senses. For a moment it stood still and then slowly the long neck turned towards the knight.

Incredibly, the dragon's head was still attached to the neck. Once again the great mouth opened and that sibilant laughter tortured the air. "Fine stroke, Sir Gawain," the dragon breathed through the fire at its lips. "But not fine enough, you see. ‘Tis called self replication. And see now how you have made your plight the worse." The great head moved in a gesture to indicate the far corner of the room.

A great glow of light had blossomed in that corner and now, as it faded from white hot to dull crimson, the shape of another dragon emerged. A duplicate, burst from the ruins of its decapitation, and now fixing its stare upon the knight. Gawain backed away in dismay.

Two streams of fire now roared out at the knight and it was all that he could do to leap upwards as the flames shot through beneath him. Like a wave they curled at the wall and he was caught in the backwash as he landed, for a moment a dark figure engulfed in heat and light. He felt the incandescence racing through his arteries, slowing and devouring his processes, and then the flames were gone and the dragons about to blast him yet again.

But in that moment, Gawain had seen something that gave him hope. Before the fires could come surging at him again, he jumped to the side and ran through the doorway. In the tunnel he turned immediately and waited, sword at the ready.

And it was only moments before a monstrous head poked its way through the doorway, its fiery eye round with surprise as it saw its doom flashing down upon it. The sword cut through and the head fell into the tunnel, the neck disappearing back into the room. Gawain stepped forward and kicked the head through the doorway.

Echoing into the tunnel came the dragon's voice. "You fool, Gawain. Now you shall have three of us to roast you."

The knight nodded once as the voice confirmed his hope. Then a dragon's head shot through the opening and lunged at him, and it was at the last nanosecond that Gawain managed to dart to the side and bring his sword crashing down upon the neck. Once more the head fell to the floor and the neck withdrew. And again he kicked the vile head back into the room.

There was a pause before that terrible voice broke the silence again.

"And ... now ... there ... are ... four. You ... cannot ... win."

Gawain stepped into the room and strode quickly to the nearest dragon. His sword swung once and another head bounced upon the floor. As the fires began slowly to roll towards him, he stepped away and then to the side, the sword flashed and yet one more dragon's head fell from its neck. So he swept through the room until all four lay kicking slowly and the glow of heads regenerating was but a dull glimmer. Only one succeeded in its growth to stare at the knight from its prone and feeble collapse.

"What ... is ... happening? I ... don't ... understand." The words oozed from its mouth in painful breaths.

Gawain stood before it a moment and leaned upon his sword. "There are too many instances of you, Mordred. You have drained the system resources and if I create one more of you, there will be nothing left."

He raised the sword then, stepped forward, and brought it flashing down. The huge body rolled aside and the head lay where it fell. All was still in the room. Gawain, too, stood motionless, drained of energy, exhausted by the fight.

Yet he could still move, his processes protected and requiring so little from the system. And he moved at last, a few tired steps to the desktop, where the box lay open still. He leaned against the desk and waited.

Then the Geek was there, his face a picture of astonishment at the carnage on his screen. "Bloody hell, Gawain. Have you been playing war games?"

Sir Gawain smiled wearily. "No, Boss, just a few trophies for you." He swept up the box and held it out to the Geek. "And I brought you this..."

The Geek read, understanding dawning on his face. He looked round once, then spoke quietly to the knight. "PADCI. That's a terrorist group, isn't it? I know what to do with this. If I can just get the address for the CEO's email."

"Oh, that reminds me," said Gawain. "You'll probably find it here." He passed across the copied address list from Andy's emailer.

The Geek scanned it quickly and nodded. "Yup, it's here alright. Hang on a second." His fingers rattled out a message on the keyboard, he attached the box and hit the Send button. As the message flew out he looked up at the knight again.

"That should do it, I think. Can't see young Andy hanging around here much longer." He paused and surveyed the huge bodies cluttering the room. "Gawain, where the heck did all these dragons come from?"

"Oh them," replied the knight nonchalantly. "They're all that's left of the new defender. And you know what? They're all named Mordred." He laughed then, the relief and achievement welling up from his core. "I'd hit Control, Alt, Delete, if I were you."

Word Count: 7,892

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