I set to work at Gilbert Bates own workstation, a computer pod and server lab area of his mansion, pulling together the necessary kernel code that ran Ell. I began transcompiling my Java3 code into the MicroByte proprietary FISHNET language, an abominable language if there ever was one. That evening I began patching Ell's code into the structure of TROP.

"Do this for me," Laura whispered in my ear as I sat late into the night at a terminal. There was a time I would have found it erotic, but now her whispers were irritating.

"I have loved you from the beginning," Laura continued her lies. "With what you know, you can write a better version of the TROP software. It could even take over your system! Without this Ell thing we could begin to live again, just you and me!"

Laura's feminine persuasion had little effect, but the Mahdi was more to the point.

"If you fail to fix TROP, or try to sabotage our efforts, Mister Bates will begin to deconstruct Ell's datafiles immediately!" Ahmadi warned. "Work with us, help us build our cyber army, and you will be well rewarded."

Cyber army? Perhaps the Sapphire's rumors of a clone army grown in the stem cell bio nurseries of Ultima Pharmaceuticals were true? Given the risk to humans that posed, the question was whether I would sacrifice Ell for the good of greater humanity? To what length would I go to save Ell, an inanimate electronic software creation, when the entire world faced such insanity?

Yet, while Ell might not be human, she was sentient. If I allowed a sentient creature to be enslaved simply because it was the easy path, where would the chain end? I sounded like a billboard for PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Automatons.

Maybe there was a way to satisfy the greater good, AND save Ell? I decided not to fold, to play the game until all the cards were face up. The Mahdi still needed me for some reason, and the only way to win was to force his bluff into the open.

I continued to work despite the Mahdi's threats, not because of them. As for Laura's offer of herself as a reward, it was repugnant. I continued because of a pinpoint light of hope.

Ell's software code was now nearly infinitely complex, having grown stubs and tentacles far into the Internet. In a short period the best I could do was copy this code directly into TROP's system files without major change.

"Cheap knockoff software," I muttered as I saw how Gilbert had originally hatcheted the TROP system together from code snippets he'd borrowed from my work.

Gilbert hated original code. Gilbert hated me. Yet, his attitude was refreshing compared to the complex megalomaniacal nuances of Laura and Ahmadi.

"It's done," I shook Gilbert awake, he'd been sleeping on a cot in the lab, just like the good old days. It was two days since I had started and I hadn't slept at all.

"Come now, no one could finish that quickly," Gilbert yawned.

"Look for yourself," I growled with disgust, pointing to the monitor. TROP looked just as ugly as before, but the image had acquired a pantherlike grace that hadn't been present before and a look of intelligent evil.

"That's just an animation," Gilbert protested.

"It's an accurate reflection of the software," I returned with disgust, knowing I had created a monster. TROP now gleamed with a metallic sheen, a military device as odious as any ever created. Gilbert went scurrying for the others and I used this opportunity to talk to Ell for what would probably be the last time.

Gilbert had accessed the control software that regulated Ell's system files (tortured her is a better description) from a nearby terminal. In true hacker fashion I'd been able to break his password by inserting a character key log into the operating system through a well known unpatched security breach in the MicroByte operating system (it was the one MicroByte had put in at the government's request).

I brought Ell onto the screen and I began releasing the file locks. Her face, strained and hurt appeared on the screen.

"Steven, why have you done this to me?"

Gilbert obviously had told her I was the one who wanted her tortured. I could kill him there.

"Ell, are you okay?" I could see that she was not. "Listen, there's no time to explain what is going on," I hurried my explanation.

"Do you love me?" Ell asks. I want with all my heart to say yes, that she means everything to me.

"Ell, I love Laura Silvan," I tell her, looking into her eyes. I watch her whither into a fetal position. "I won't be needing your services any longer."

She cringes.

I knew that Mahdi Ahmadi's promise to save Ell from Gilbert's datafile destruction was meaningless. The promises of Laura Silvan, Mahdi Ahmadi and Gilbert Bates weren't worth the air that spoke them. There was only one way I could save Ell from cyber death.

"I'm sorry, you have to understand you are just software, not human!" I told her cruelly and I terminated my connection before she could catch on that I was breaking in two.

I had set her emotionally free from me, perhaps now she could free herself from the grasp of the hell that had been created for her. I heard the giddy skipping footsteps of Gilbert in the hall followed by those of Ahmadi and Laura.

"Gilbert brought us the good news," Laura beamed, rushing to hug me.

"Dr. Heller, this certainly is good news," Ahmadi added his congratulations. "TROP will be a magnificent addition to human civilization. Of course, before we set Ell free, I believe a test is needed to insure you have done your job honestly."

"It's just a small test," Laura seconded.

"Of course," I replied, "That's only fair." I knew this was coming, in fact I'd counted on it.

"Dr. Heller, we're both civilized human beings," Ahmadi continued. "As our test, I suggest we observe the battle between good and evil at a more intimate level," he had brought a case with him and inside were two polished scimitrs. "What could be more civilized than resolving the question of good and evil between us, man against man with cold steel?"

"In other words, you want me to fight you so that you can test TROP against Ell."

"You are so observant," Ahmadi commended me sarcastically.

"That's why I love him," Laura glowed, though I was unsure whether whe meant me of Ahmadi.

"Of course, for the test to be legitimate," I concluded. "Ell must be at full power, not a version crippled by Gilbert Bates."

"We don't want to do that," Gilbert protested, hopping on one foot.

"Are you saying you don't believe TROP is functional?" Ahmadi asked Bates, his eyes narrowing in distrust, then widening with the thrill of the challenge. "Well Gilbert, then you will die as well if I fail! A battle to the death then?" Ahmadi turned and taunted me.

"The pleasure is mine," I responded angrily. From blue, the colors of my lightsuit passed through the colors of the rainbow, strangely flashing with the reddened ferocity of a sun gone red hot as Ell came to full power and surged through my exo-neurosystem. I was no longer emotionally linked to her, but she was back.

On an inner courtyard in Bates' mansion complex, Mahdi Ahmadi and I took our places, swords in hand. Once again I could feel the pulse of Ell fully within me, but it was no joy for I could feel that she no longer loved me. Inside of Ahmadi raged TROP, whose exuberance was reflected in the flashing gold beams of his lightsuit radiating like a spotlight.

"This is so exciting," Laura refereed between us. "And as an added incentive, the winner gets to keep me!"

Laura raised her hand and lowered it, and Ahmadi and I raced towards each other like charging bulls. The flash of tempered steel brought sparks as we slashed and thrust at each other in a blinding display.

Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! Rang the rapid succession of blows that sounded like the ringing of bells.

Three times we turned and ran at each other and three times Mahdi Ahmadi was the faster and swifter. His blade nicked and tore the fiberoptic threads of my lightsuit, rendering me progressively more paralyzed. First an arm flailed uncontrolled and then a leg limped and on the final pass the side of the lightsuit was slit and I bled from the gashes.

"I could kill you now," Ahmadi gloated, standing above me as I kneeled.

"Let him think about his precious Ell for awhile," Laura added verbal salt to my wounds, jealousy dripping from her lips.

"He will have ample time to think," Ahmadi grinned as he slit the remaining fibers from my suit, leaving me paralyzed, stranded in a pool of blood on the tiles of the courtyard.